The Battleship Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstien's film The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is pretty infamous. It's the film class standard - if you took a film class and managed to not see this movie, I'm shocked! It's one of those films that is so important to film history that it's inescapable. Many people have seen parodies of the most famous and unforgettable scene, the massacre on the Odessa Steps (probably without even knowing what it's a parody of, myself included). It's been in The Simpsons and, as my boyfriend informed me as I tried to explain the silent film to him, in The Untouchables. I'm sure there are more.




It's an important film because it was the first movie test out Eisenstien's theory of montage. It seems weird to talk about montage as a "theory" but it was not done in early motion pictures. It was a very new concept, and there were a lot of various screenings and experiments to find out what montage meant and could do. The idea of montage is that people can see a bunch of unrelated images and come to a conclusion about the action that took place. Montage is so common in cinema that it's hard to even comprehend the definition. It's so inherent and understood without explanation. When I see a closeups of shoes going on feet, jacket going over arms, and keys in hand, I understand that someone is getting ready to leave their house. However, the idea of editing in a way that was more jarring and less seamless was really new, and this film is important because of it's use.

The cinematography is beautiful, of course. The Odessa Steps sequence is famous for a reason - it is stunning. The soldiers boots marching down the steps like they are machines. The symmetrical shots on the battleship. It's quite lovely. Ebert writes about this sequence, saying, "That there was, in fact, no czarist massacre on the Odessa Steps scarcely diminishes the power of the scene. The czar's troops shot innocent civilians elsewhere in Odessa, and Eisenstein, in concentrating those killings and finding the perfect setting for them, was doing his job as a director. It is ironic that he did it so well that today, the bloodshed on the Odessa Steps is often referred to as if it really happened" (The Great Movies, 50)

If all of this is sounding dry, it's because it is. Film history can be pretty boring. Silent, 1920's propaganda films are, well, boring. I'll be blunt - I understand The Battleship Potemkin. I appreciate it. I understand how much it influenced later filmmakers and film editing. I am glad for it. But I don't love it. It's all politics so it is really a dry, bland story. It's very dated. Ebert even mentions this in his essay on it, writing that "it suffers when it is seen apart from its context"(The Great Movies, 52). This describes every time I've seen this film, even this time. In classrooms of bored, sleeping students, or by myself. I don't feel any of the passion and power of it, sitting at my desk, watching it on my computer. Ebert, in his essay, is writing after he had seen this film again in a powerful way - with a live band playing along, in a small town, outside, with people gasping along with the movie. He writes that, "the other night in that small-town parking lot I got a sense, a stirring, of the buried power it still contains, awaiting a call" (The Great Movies, 52). I haven't had a powerful experience viewing this film yet. Maybe I will. Truthfully, it is probably rare to have an experience like Ebert had with this film. So, as much as I understand it and appreciate everything that The Battleship Potemkin did for filmmaking, I'm not in love with it. I didn't look forward to watching it today.

I am happy for the existence of this movie, but I'm not going to rush out and share it with my family and friends. It's very worth watching this film if you are really into film history, or want to understand some of the parodies of this. It is satisfying to be in on the joke, so to speak, when you see the many times Potemkin is referenced in films. You can understand other directors and what influenced them, and you can learn a lot from watching this film. For anyone who is obsessed with film, this movie is a must-watch. But I'd be lying if I said I love and adore this film, and I don't want to lie to you. :)

Links:
Ebert's Great Movie Essay
Wikipedia page on Soviet Montage
A clip showing the Odessa Steps sequences and the many scenes it inspired (this is very worth watching!)
Crunchy Nut Cornflakes Ad (which is sort of a parody)

Beauty and the Beast

The Apu Trilogy