This week’s film is a Sergei Eisenstein film. Battleship Potemkin is a 1925 silent film that presents a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime.
An artistic genius, Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898-1948) is a one of the pioneers that set the way we watch cinema nowadays. His greatest contribution is the use of montage, a specific use of film editing. Believing that the new soviet cinema should be revolutionary in terms of both form and content, he experimented on the expressive potentials of film setting the foundation of cinematographic language, emphasizing on scenes editing. In 30 years (1924-1954) he directed only 8 films, two of them being left unfinished. He is noted in particular for his silent films Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927), as well as the historical epics Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958).
He was only 28 years old when he shot Battleship Potemkin, his best known creation and the greatest achievement of the time in silent films, with masterly crowd scenes, as well as the infamous scene Odessa steps sequence, that are considered cinema classics.
A few years later and while having filmed “October: Ten Days That Shook the World”, his most experimental film, Eisenstein went to the West where he had the chance to encounter iconic cinematic personas, such as James Joyce, H. G. Wells, event Charlie Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht. In Hollywood, he experienced nothing but disappointment though, with the greatest being “Que Viva Mexico!”, a movie that despite the 70.000m length of film that was shot in Mexico, was never finished.
Returning in Russia in 1932, he faced a new order of things, the maximization of centralized power that was imposing with all means politics in the Art. While he remained active in cinema theoretically, by writing and teaching, as a director he remained silent, facing lots of problems with the country’s regime. His scripts were not approved and he was prohibited to finish his film “Bezhin Meadow”, because the film was about the very current topic at the time, collectivized economy. This is why he later on chose themes from the Russian History (Alexander Nevsky, Ivan The Terrible), that helped him continue his experimenting with cinema - this time, in terms of sound and image. Even so though, his issues with censorship were severe: while Joseph Stalin approved the first part of Ivan The Terrible, he banned the second part, where Eisenstein was portraying political conspiracies to conquer power (the third part was never shot).
He died in 1948, from a heart attack.
Let’s be clear about it: this film is a propaganda film. All the messages aim to promote certain aspects and ideas, leaving no choice to the viewer but accept without question what the film promotes. Regardless from that though, Battleship Potemkin is one of the most influential and pioneer films of all time.
It is remarkable to imagine that this film was shot in 1925, in just the beginning of cinema and features such revolutionary techniques and iconic scenes!
The most iconic scene of the film is the Odessa steps sequence, where we witness the magnitude of the director while portraying the massacre of civilians in the Odessa steps, introducing new techniques of film editing and montage.
In this dramatic scene, the soldiers march down the endless steps in a rhythmic, machine-like fashion, firing at the crowd. Another detachment of mounted Cossacks charges the crowd at the bottom of the stairs. The victims include an old woman, a young boy with his mother and a mother pushing an infant in a baby carriage that falls to the ground dying and the carriage rolls down the steps to the fleeing crowd.
The massacre on the steps, which never actually took place, was presumably inserted by Eisenstein for dramatic effect and to demonize the Imperial regime. It is, however, based on the fact that there were widespread demonstrations in the area, sparked off by the arrival of the Potemkin in Odessa Harbor.
The scene is perhaps the best example of Eisenstein's theory on montage, and many films pay homage to the scene, such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables.
My Film Club
Week #2 featured a truly iconic film that set the ground for many other great films and creators. Week #3 will be.. Italiana!
Next week’s film: Federico Felini’s La Strada
Ever since I first set foot on a cinema theatre, I knew that something magical was happening there....