I can still remember the first time I ever heard about the film Battleship Potemkin. It was in first year university when a couple of my friends, who were film majors, asked me if I wanted to sit in on their class screening of the film. The idea of a 1925 silent film about a boat called “Potemkin” just did not sound appealing when I could have been writing essays or drinking alcoholic beverages with my fellow floor mates at the dormitory. Little did I know at the time that the “weird sounding” film I dismissed, which had my friends repeating the word “Potemkin” for a week, was actually considered one of the greatest films in cinema history.
After watching Battleship Potemkin for the first time recently, I am convinced that I would not have truly appreciated the film had I originally viewed it when I was younger. I just do not think it would have had the same social impact on me as it does now. Of the various films that I have crossed off the blind spot list in this series, Battleship Potemkin it is one that still feels the most relevant today. Frankly, I was stunned by how engrossed I was watching the film. While many modern films try to throw in themes about the ruling class to lazily appeal to the socially conscious viewer, Battleship Potemkin feels authentic in its rallying cry. It can be argued that this is the original, and possibly best, film about the evils of the 1%.
Sergei M. Eisenstein’s film dramatizes the events surrounding the 1905 uprising on a ship that changed a nation. After routinely working under harsh conditions, including being served maggot infested meat, the crew of the Battleship Potemkin reach their breaking point when pressured to drink soup made from rotten meat. Led by Grigory Vakulinchuk’s (Aleksandr Antonov) sobering call for clarity and action, the crew eventually turns against the ship’s commanding officers and doctor who represent the oppressive tactics of the Tsarist regime. Though the crew is victorious in their uprising, it does not come without its casualties as Vakulinchuk is killed in battle. When word of Vakulinchuk’s death over a bowl of soup spreads to the shore of Odessa, a movement begins which will see the residents of Odessa clashing with the army of the ruling regime.
Battleship Potemkin is essentially a glorified piece of propaganda, but in the best possible way. Despite the fact that you are aware you are being manipulated into a certain view, you cannot help but be swept up in it. Eisenstein uses imagery that will pull at heartstrings of even the most hardened individual. The centrepiece of the film, the massacre on the steps of Odessa, is a perfect example of this. The sequence features scenes of innocent children being shot and trampled in the chaos, a runaway baby carriage, and a lone mother standing up to an entire army pleading for them to reconsider their actions. The latter of which will recall memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.
Though the massacre at Odessa sequence is easily the most iconic section of the film, what actually stood out for me were the subtle aspects that Eisenstein incorporated into the film. Through a simple line like “kill the Jews”, Eisenstein shows how quickly the message of any particular movement can get diluted when too many people blindly hop on the bandwagon. I also loved the way Eisenstein uses glasses imagery in the film. The doctor uses his glasses to both magnify the maggots on the meat and subsequently dismiss that the meat is bad. Yet when the uprising occurs Eisenstein has a lingering shot of his glasses hanging to signify what the doctor’s blind corruption has brought. Later on Eisenstein has a villager remove his glasses to view Vakulinkchuk’s dead body and a woman gets shot in the eye during the uprising. All of these moments effectively highlight the film’s recurring theme of seeing events clearly for yourself as opposed to using the skewed lenses that others try to force upon you.
Considering the civil unrest that permeates around the globe, Battleship Potemkin’s call to action feels just as powerful today as it did in 1925. Even as a piece of propaganda it is still one stunning film.