Battleship Potemkin: a classic of drama, passion and the power of people to overturn injustice and oppression

Sergei Eisenstein, “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

Although this film was made over 90 years ago and is a silent black-and-white work, it still stands up well against current films thanks to its crisp action and a plot that will still resonate with many people, especially those living in countries experiencing political repression in their daily lives. The film’s emphasis on the people as the grassroots foundation for political and social movements that can overthrow governments and implement new and better ways of living is a refreshing contrast and rebuttal to Hollywood stereotypes about the power of individuals to drive and achieve change.

The action takes place over five episodes that form a narrative arc set during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Sailors on the warship Potemkin sympathise with workers rebelling in St Petersburg over their inhumane treatment by bourgeois employers and an autocratic government. The seamen get a taste (literally) of that treatment themselves when their officers try to force them to eat meat tainted with maggots. The captain forces the sailors to assemble on deck, separates those who refused to eat the borscht made with the meat and orders a firing squad to shoot the rebels. Ordinary seaman Grigory Vakulinchuk appeals to the firing squad not to shoot. The shooters put down their weapons and a brawl between the officers and the crew breaks out. In the melee, which the sailors win, Vakulinchuk is shot dead by two officers.

The grieving sailors lay Vakulinchuk ashore at the port of Odessa. Local citizens view his body, see the message attached to it that explains his actions and death, and are moved to rebel against the local government and military authorities. The tsarist government cracks down hard on the citizenry in memorable scenes that take place on the boulevard steps: a boy and then his mother are shot dead in a horrific sequence that underlines the inhuman, machine nature of the advancing troops upon the panicked crowds; a young woman is killed and the pram with her baby runs down the steps, the baby’s ultimate fate remaining unknown; and a woman doctor, appealing to the troops’ humanity and brotherhood with their fellow Russians and Slavs, is mown down along with other innocents.

The Potemkin gets a call for help from the Odessans and the sailors rally by firing on the headquarters of the military authorities, destroying the building. A fleet of warships is soon on the Potemkin’s trail. The sailors know their firepower is as nothing against the might of the Russian navy: how will they and their cause, and the Odessans as well, fare when the battleships catch up with them?

Although the film has probably been over-analysed, not necessarily for the right reasons, and its use of montage, clever and imaginative though it is, has also been over-emphasised, Eisenstein’s work remains compelling in its brisk, no-nonsense way of putting together otherwise unrelated shots so as to suggest not just a story, but a story with a message about revolution, and how revolution and mass movement can only succeed if the people believe in equality and brotherhood, and are not simply out for personal liberty. (And clever montage cannot work without good camera-work that has a feel for drama, emotion and visual artistry, framing each and every scene like a diorama in itself, and equally clever and brisk editing that brings pacing to suggest increasing tension leading towards a climax.) In this film, personal sacrifice is a significant part of achieving a freer and more equal society. Vakulinchuk acts as a catalyst but his role as leader cannot be over-stressed as it would be in a Hollywood film.

Also significant to the film’s enduring success is its cinematography which stresses crowd scenes, often shot in panorama and in imaginative ways to boot, and the clever use of black-and-white imagery that approaches German Expressionism’s use of black and white and all the shades of grey in-between. Violence in the film is not explicit yet the discreet ways in which it is filmed make a deeper impression on viewers than all the cartoon hyper-violence of much current film-making which tends to numb the senses and prevent a proper and appropriate emotional reaction to visual brutality.

The actual plot might be thin and heavy-handed, the acting (all by non-professionals) overdone and the characters very stereotyped, but what Eisenstein brings out of his material is a film of great drama, power and passion.

Ironically, at this time of writing, the people of Odessa (in Ukraine) continue to struggle for freedom, equality, brotherhood and justice for their fellow citizens who were tortured and butchered by neo-Nazis in the trade union building in early May 2014, and whose suffering continues to be denied in the West.

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