Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Sergei Eisenstein's propaganda classic Battleship Potemkin has been absorbed so thoroughly into both film history and pop culture that its real revolutionary power is easy to underestimate or overlook — it's all too easy to deem it a museum relic, but even now, it's much too potent, too emotionally raw and technically vital, for that sedately respectful fate. Eisenstein's dramatic recreation of a 1905 pre-Bolshevik mutiny on a tsarist battleship was deliberately calibrated as a piece of propaganda to be as affecting and as provocative as possible, and it succeeds in that respect even now, even with its impact dulled by years of distance and the countless references to this film that have been integrated into other works.
The film is a love letter to ordinary sailors, representatives of the working class, and there's real tenderness and even sensuality in the depictions of the sailors at work, before their revolt. They lounge, shirtless and muscular, in hammocks that sway with the rocking of the ship. They work with a near-mechanical precision, their faces serene with the knowledge of a job well done, whether they're oiling and washing the ship's big, jutting guns or performing kitchen duties with regimented choreography. When the first officer appears, he's immediately distinguished from the other men by his slightly effete manner, his remoteness and smugness; Eisenstein's closeup of this man immediately marks him as a villain, particularly as contrasted against the earthy, sweaty romanticism of the images of the working men. The immediate cause for the rebellion is the sailors' insistence that they should have better food, a demand that the officers summarily reject despite the maggots crawling on the meat, shown in squirmy closeups that leave no doubt about the contempt that these upper-class representatives have for those beneath them.
There follows a tense confrontation between officers and sailors that ends with the ship guards refusing to fire on their comrades, and the sailors overthrowing their superiors to take over the ship themselves. Eisenstein's famous command of fast-paced montage builds tension brilliantly, cutting from the faces of the guardsmen to the officers ordering them to fire to the sailors urging them to rebel, with shots from around the ship spliced into this frantic montage as a way of drawing out the suspense even more. Eisenstein also edits in closeups of a caricatured chaplain who provides an outrageously unflattering view of religion. Somewhat comically, the priest is depicted as a wild-haired mystic lunatic who, during the tense showdown between the officers and the sailors, beats his cross threateningly against the palm of his hand and prays for the sailors to change their ways. Religion, this suggests, is just a tool of the upper-class, the cross as much a weapon to beat down the sailors as the guns of the officers. The priest is made to look like a combination of a bible epic Moses and a frizzy-haired hobo, the wind shuffling his hair and thick beard into a disheveled mess, very disreputable-looking indeed. Of course, as imposingly crazy as he looks, his cross is no protection once the working class rebels.
The film's most famous sequence is the massacre on the Odessa Steps, an incident that was invented for the film by Eisenstein, drawing on the fact that there were riots in Odessa in support of the rebel sailors, and that tsarist troops did reportedly fire into the crowds. The scene is a dazzling showcase for Eisenstein's theories of montage, methodically cycling between long views in which crowds of bodies go tumbling frantically down the steps, fleeing the advancing lines of tsarist troops, and fragmented closeups in which various individual citizens scream in terror before being gunned down or trampled underfoot. The fragmentation enhances the suspense, too, especially in the now-iconic shot of a baby carriage's wheel teetering on the edge of a step. Eisenstein draws out the moment by repeatedly cutting away from it, so that without using actual slow motion he makes it seem as though the scene is playing out at half-speed, each second ticking by perceptibly, each little detail emphasized.
Despite its violence and its polemical message, Battleship Potemkin is also a strikingly beautiful film. Eisenstein lovingly photographs the faces of the sailors and the working class people who celebrate them in the streets of Odessa. The closeups are direct but somewhat romanticized. Even if few of the characters stand out — typical of Soviet cinema, this is a film about a class as a whole rather than about individuals — distinctive individual faces are often highlighted in the crowd. Eisenstein applies a similar romanticism to the ship itself, admiring its glossy hard surfaces, its sweeping curves, the way it looks silhouetted against the choppy ocean. The nighttime images of the ship gliding across the water, moonlight rippling on the water, everything cloaked in shadow or mist, are particularly sensuous and gorgeous, with a sharp photographic sensibility that only contributes to the feeling that the film is a documentary snapshot rather than a fictionalized propaganda piece. And that's why it remains so effective: its realism, its formal and cinematic beauty, only make the abuses it depicts seem even more vile. The film is as much about glorifying labor and rhapsodizing on the nobility of the working class as it is about vilifying the ruling classes.