#266 Battleship Potemkin

(1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
Броненосец «Потёмкин»

With all eyes recently on Russia because of the Sochi Winter Olympics and the much-less positive anti-gay laws, and even less positive actions in Ukraine, it seems somewhat fitting that today we will be taking a look at one of the most successful Russian propaganda movies ever made, Battleship Potemkin.

Battleship Potemkin is a dramatic re-enactment of the 1905 mutiny on the real Potemkin, where sailors disobeyed their officers over their working conditions, and these actions ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The movie, which celebrates the rebellion and the rise of communism, starts with sailors living in squalor and forced to eat maggot-infested meat, ultimately culminating in a battle, and gaining the sympathy of the people of Odessa.

The first thing that’s notable about Potemkin is how basic the whole thing is. Characterisation is minimal, the plot is rather sparse and it’s rather blatant in its message, ie. Mother Russia needs you to stand up to the tyranny of the tsar! You know, the tsar who hadn’t been in power for almost ten years by the time the film came out, so the message was a tad late. But hey, propaganda never had to make sense!

Because of its nature as propaganda, its sparse plot and the mere fact it was a silent movie, everything is incredibly overblown and exaggerated. The meat is served when it’s clearly unfit for human consumption, the sailors rally together as a coordinated unit alarmingly quickly, the head officer has a fetish for moustache twirling (because he’s EVIL, see!) and we randomly get Super Old Jesus watching the revolution and doing…something…I don’t know what. It was weird.

But then I suppose that’s what you get when your movie is all allegory. This isn’t a movie trying to present a realistic story, it’s a movie that’s trying to convince the Soviets that yes, communism is the bestest thing evah and you should be proud of MOTHER RUSSIA! The problem with this is that the movie doesn’t particularly hold up all that well today. It feels like a relic from a bygone era more than a genuinely entertaining piece of cinema.

Well, except for the Odessa Steps sequence, which is one of the most famous movie scenes of all time. In this, Russians sympathetic to the sailors on the Potemkin decide to start their own rebellion in the town of Odessa. Sadly, it doesn’t go well and eventually everyone starts getting gunned down by a relentless wall of marching soldiers.

This scene is genuinely impressive. The violence is shocking for a 1925 production, and the cinematography here is absolutely excellent. The wall of soldiers is genuinely terrifying, as is the sight of people dying, including innocents. In fact, this is pretty much the scene that makes it work so well as propaganda. I hated the tsar after this, and I don’t even know much about the Russian royal family outside of how weird Rasputin was.

But sadly, one scene alone does not support an entire movie. The broad characterisation and moments of sheer silliness (e.g. a lion statue is shown in three positions, as if it’s slowly waking up shocked before being blasted with a missile, plus the aforementioned moustache twirling) prevent this from being a truly great movie.

That said, it’s a great cultural relic that should be viewed if you have an interest in film history or even the Russian Revolution. And also for the Odessa Steps.

Starring Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky & Grigori Aleksandrov
Written by Nina Agadzhanova, Nikolai Aseyev, Sergei Eisenstein & Sergei Tretyakov
Produced by Jacob Bliokh
Cinematography by Eduard Tisse

Favourite Scene: The Odessa Steps, obviously.
Scene That Bugged Me: Stop twirling your moustache!

Watch it if: You’re interested in Russian propaganda
Avoid it if: You’re interested in a deep storyline

Posted on March 18, 2014, in 1920s, Historical, Political, Russia / Soviet Union and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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