Monday, March 11, 2013

SILENT CINEMA: The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Battleship Potemkin is most certainly a film that is known more than it's seen.  The name itself transcends anything the film is or has ever been.  It is arguably more famous for a scene in a film sixty-two years later, but I am getting ahead of myself.  This early, raw film still manages to pack a punch as a piece of propaganda which must have seemed dangerous to those in power back in 1925.  Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin got him in some hot water upon its release and was banned in certain countries - even the U.S. - for quite some time.  As antiquated and sometimes stilted as it may seem to modern viewers, the picture carries with it the revolutionary overtones found in any number of films these days.

The film itself is just over an hour and it involves a mutiny and a demonstration.  First is the mutiny, where a swarm of Russian naval officers overthrow the tyrannical ship captains after refusing to accept old rotten meat.  The slabs of beef hang there with maggots crawling across them, but the ship's doctor - a part of the "system" of rulers as separated by their dark coats, insists these maggots are merely "fly larvae that can be brushed away."  The strong-willed seamen do not agree and revolt against those in charge in extended and well-choreographed scenes aboard the ships decks.  The names of these actors playing the seamen or the captains are not important and are not played up as important from one another; these men are the faceless masses, representing two sides of a revolt.  Eisenstein is sending a message through the angst of his sailors.

The mutiny makes its way back to the shores through the use of a red flag raised aboard the battleship.  This red flag is the only color in the film, and is a crude stained-frame flag;  nevertheless, the technology is bold for 1925.  The members of the seamen's homeland in Odessa spot the red flag and carry their own demonstration into the streets.  This revolt is not as effective as many are massacred at the steps of Odessa.  While welcoming their sailors back from the ocean a line of troops with bayonets open fire on the masses and here we are privy to a few more defined faces.  This massacre leads us to what has become the most famous scene thanks to a little creativity from Brian DePalma.

In 1987, Brian DePalma's The Untouchables had a now famous scene where a mother's baby carriage is clipped and rolls slowly down the stairs amid a hail of gunfire and stray bullets between cops and crooks.  This scene is a direct nod to Battleship Potemkin, where a slain mother's carriage rolls wildly down the steps in Odessa.  The sailors arriving in the train station in The Untouchables is yet another wink to Eisenstein's film.

As I mentioned in the beginning, The Battleship Potemkin is less a structured film in the way modern audiences recognize films today (although, what does that really mean?) and more of an experimental piece of propaganda meant to incite revolution where it was needed.  It is less about structure and plot and character than, well, than your typical newsreel.  But the controversy behind the film and certain striking imagery have made it a legend.  In the way Eisrenstein could explore themes through imagery seems obvious today, but in 1925 the idea was a new form of art.  He may note have been a revolutionary in the world itself, but he changed the way we see films for the rest of time.