not in our stars, but in ourselves
Let’s stick with the Russians for another day, shall we, comrades? And let’s bring out the big guns – get it?! Because it’s Battleship Potemkin (1925)! Ha! Folks, I’m here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.
Or maybe I shouldn’t encourage you to do such bourgeois things. Anyway. This is one of those movies that you know even if you don’t know it. Sergei Eisenstein made it to celebrate the “success” of the Russian Revolution, but it’s about an earlier series of mutinies in 1905. The sailors on board the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their commanding officers, who were trying to force the men to eat maggot-infested meat. Gross. News of the rebellion spread to the nearest port city, Odessa, and the citizens cheerfully supported the sailors’ revolutionary spirit. Imperial troops cracked down on rebel supporters, but Potemkin tried to lead other ships to rebellion…in the Black Sea. Kinda closed in there, comrades. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.
The film dramatizes these events considerably, and makes it seem like it was more or less a successful gambit. If it had been really successful, the Revolution would have taken place in 1905 instead of 1917 – but don’t let’s quibble. In the film, the commanding officers are cartoonishly cruel. At their command, a small group of sailors is covered with a tarpaulin. The officers order the ship’s guards to execute the covered sailors. One of the uncovered sailors cries out to the guards, “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” Something like that, anyway; I think I’ve seen different intertitle translations every time I watch this film. The point is that the guards and the sailors all turn on the commanding officers, and a big brawl breaks out. Odessans send out supplies to the sailors, and wave happily from the shore.
Things take a bit of a turn from there.
The Imperial Troops, finally on the scene after what seems like days of anti-czarist tomfoolery (it’s only supposed to be a night and a day, I believe, but still – time’s a-wastin’), viciously open fire on men, women, children, and cripples whose worst crime is supporting a group of sailors who don’t want to eat rotten beef. It’s intense.
And it’s pure propaganda. Not to say that the czars and their guards couldn’t be complete dicks – they were, incredibly often – but Eisenstein is deliberately tugging at your heartstrings here. He doesn’t usually bother to highlight individuals, but in the Odessa steps sequence, he makes sure you see every horrified, innocent face. You see old women with their spectacles smashed and bloodied. You see Cossacks smashing bystanders in the face with the butts of their rifles. You see a beautiful young mother in widows weeds, shot in the abdomen, and collapsing in a heap – thus sending her baby’s pram toppling down the staircase. Eisenstein more usually relies on comrades-this-and-brothers-that for his propaganda, but in the most effective piece of propaganda ever caught on film (top five, at least; we’ll get to Leni Riefenstahl in a bit), he knows to focus on the women and children.
After that, the film is a bore. He had to end with something positive from a revolutionary perspective, so he ends with the Potemkin – waving its red flag – successfully calling other ships in a squadron to join its cause, whatever that might have been. No more maggoty meat? Fighting the Japanese from somewhere that wasn’t a landlocked sea, thousands of miles from Japan? More moustache wax? No more moustache wax? I don’t know. Again: it’s the thought that counts. But anyway, there are lots of shots of the ship’s equipment, and of sailors looking intently at the other approaching ships to see if they’ll open fire, and then everything is okay and yay hooray.
I’m sure I sound downright counterrevolutionary, and so I suppose I am. The Revolution was just so ghastly, and it reduced so many people to the level of peasants – rather than raise anyone up – and I admit that, other than the magnificent Odessa steps sequence, I don’t much care for this film. Don’t tell anyone – they’ll make me hand in my cinephile badge. To be fair, I don’t often like any overt propaganda films. Work it into the story. Let it seep into my unconscious. Give me a bit of subliminal messaging. That’s the kind of propaganda I like. Just don’t be so bloody obvious.