Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin. Mosfilm 1925.

Before watching the movie:

While this is Soviet propaganda, it’s also considered a highly influential piece of cinematography. It got mentioned in my film studies class and we saw a clip of some metaphor-driven editing, but the main thing I remember is that it was briefly mentioned that this movie doesn’t have a traditional protagonist, but is focused on the collective actions of the crew, and because of how steeped I am in individualist Western hero narratives, and especially American big damn hero narratives, I have a hard time imagining how such storytelling can work. But after a lot of “one man in the wrong place at the right time” action movies lately, I’ve developed an interest in seeing what a movie that refuses to put any one person in the spotlight looks like.

After watching the movie:

Ashore in Russia, a revolution is happening. But on the Imperial Russian naval vessel Potemkin, order is maintained. There seems to be only one Bolshevik serving among the crew, Vakulinchuk, who advocates for the men to rise up like the rest of Russia. The crew is more concerned with the quality of the meat they’re being served, which looks rotten and worm-eaten. The ship’s doctor inspects the meat and declares that they’re only maggots and the meat can still be served after being washed with brine. Despite the cook’s reservations, he prepares borscht with the meat, but many of the crew refuse to eat it, choosing bread and water instead. The captain rules all who refused the prepared food guilty of insubordination and orders their immediate execution, but Vakulinchuk calls for the firing squad to recognize this injustice, and they lower their weapons, beginning a mutiny battle which ends with the ship’s officers thrown overboard, but also with Vakulinchuk’s death. Bringing Vakulinchuk’s body to shore in the town of Odessa, the crew gain the support of the townspeople as the revolution grows.

Hardly anyone even has a name in this movie, and aside from the martyr Vakulinchuk (who I assume is a Lenin analogue), no character who seems individual is a good guy. This really is a story of a crew, a town, a fleet, and a people, not about any singular persons. While I can see the progression of the story without a viewpoint character, it doesn’t really follow a plot that engaged me. After the people of Odessa rally, it just began to feel like bigger fight after bigger fight without much rest or reversal.

I didn’t expect to notice the editing and direction very much because this movie is a pioneer of techniques that are established now, but there were definitely times where I could see strong artistic vision. Obviously the most attention went into the massacre on the steps of Odessa. The runaway baby carriage is an even stronger visual than the maggot shot from earlier getting intercut with the doctor’s death.

It’s unfortunate that silent films rarely have a definitive score. The version I saw just had some Shostakovich symphonies tossed on as appropriate, but multiple original scores have been written, which could have helped make the movie more engaging if I’d seen a version with one of those.

While, along with The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will, this may not be very in tune with ideals worth championing today (though in this case it is perhaps more the methods, as this is not explicitly Stalinist), this is definitely an artistic feat worth recognizing and studying. The writing may seem a little flat, but the direction goes a long way to make up for that. There’s more creative flair on screen here than in most modern films.

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