“There’s a limit to what a man can take.”
We owe quite a bit to Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. His collection of work is primarily composed of propaganda pieces commissioned by the Soviet government following the Bolshevik Revolution. However, apart from this political agenda, Eisenstein was one of the most revolutionary (ha) filmmakers of the early days of film. He is most well known for his use of montage, which he perfected into a style that is used pretty identically today. Battleship Potemkin is his most famous work, and many consider it to be his masterpiece.
My first impression of the film wasn’t a great one. The start of the film didn’t capture me in the same way a silent film like Caligari managed to do. It all seemed pretty standard for a while, and I figured the political factors behind the film were the only thing made it significant. The overthrow on the battleship towards the beginning was a cool scene, but it was nothing spectacular. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear why Eisenstein has become such a big name in film. The way he creates drama in the second half of the film is pretty spectacular, and it made the film much more enjoyable when you really got to see some fantastic action sequences.
The Odessa Steps is the sequence everyone points to in this film, and for good reason. The rest of the film really doesn’t compare. The Tsarist forces brutally murder the civilian population for their support of the Potemkin uprising, and it’s a political issue that still rings true today. A timeless theme in film is the civilian cost of political upheaval, and the massacre scene of Battleship Potemkin is one of the most memorable indications of this theme in the history of film. The innocent woman getting shot in the face, the dying civilians being stepped on by the indifferent troops, and the baby carriage flying down the steps of Odessa – Eisenstein uses such fantastic imagery in this sequence, and it’s powerful stuff. I’m sure his Communist commissioners were pretty happy with him for making the Tsarists look like heartless monsters. It’s fantastic propaganda.
The rest of the film is alright. There are some really cool shots such as the battleship colliding into the camera for the final shot of the film, but a lot of the film tends to drag around at the beginning and the end. Without much focused plot aside from the general depiction of the uprising and its effects, Eisenstein will often hold scenes a bit longer than necessary. I’m sure this is a factor that wouldn’t have bothered early audiences as film itself was such a spectacle, but it doesn’t hold up too well for my tastes.
There was a time between the release of Potemkin and the mid 20th century where the film was often hailed as the greatest of all time. Nobody really makes this claim anymore as film has developed into such a different medium that a 1925 silent film is far less comparable to contemporary works. It is clear that Eisenstein was a talented filmmaker, particularly in the area of cinematography, but there are parts of the film that just don’t hold up. I think this is a film that deserves to be studied and admired, particularly for the Odessa Steps sequence, but it drags on in a manner that I found boring. You never get a good focus on any of the characters, so it winds up feeling more like a historical re-enactment than a complex film.
Battleship Potemkin isn’t going to stick with me as much as some other films, but I can’t deny its importance. Eisenstein brings impressive camerawork and a passionate story, solidifying himself as a standout among early silent film directors. I’m glad I saw it, but it’s not something I’ll come back to any time soon.
Films Left to Watch: 977