Saturday, May 29, 2010

THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925, Russia)

A mutiny in five parts, the proletariat revolt against their oppressors who condemn the fate of men to maggots. Sergei Eisenstein directs one of the great propaganda films of all time, utilizing his montage theory of spectator manipulation. The film is technically brilliant though narratively flawed.

Eisenstein’s application of montage creates an extraordinary pace while employing mostly static shots, giving the illusion of motion through lightening quick editing patterns. The camera remains immobile though the compositions are exacting, close-ups are tightly framed and long shots capture the march of hundreds of protestors along the shoreline (a slight pan upwards and sideways reveals the crowd, intercut with the dead sailor). Another exception is the classic Odessa Staircase sequence, where the camera tracks slowly backwards as a mother holds her dying child and the left side of the frame reveals a line of soldiers, their rifles soon answering her silent scream. Also, the baby carriage scene utilizes close-ups and tracks down the staircase with the child, thrusting the tension forward towards certain death; Eisenstein then cuts away at the last moment, just as the carriage is about to tip, to a soldier slashing with a saber and a bloody victim cries in impotent rage. This whole sequence is wonderfully conceived, a powerful diatribe against the Cossacks. The film discards character development and emotional complexity and paints the two sides with broad strokes: the sailors are good and the officers are bad. Eisenstein allows cliché such as the evil officer twisting his mustache like a dastardly villain, or the diminutive doctor who belittle the men when they complain. Even the priest is depicted as a barbarian, with a shock of white hair and a cross sharp enough to stick in the floor like a knife!

This is propaganda at its highest conception, as Eisenstein leads the viewer’s sympathies towards a foregone conclusion leaving no room for doubt or ambiguity: the audience is told what to believe. It is no wonder that Joseph Goebbels admired this film which became the template for Hitler’s cinematic purgatory. THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is one of the great achievements of cinema in that it exposes the reductive power of the moving picture as polemic. The sailor’s will finally triumphs; Riefenstahl would have been proud. Final Grade: (A)


Chris, a librarian said...

A great film. Hope to be revisiting the version on Criterion soon.

Alex DeLarge said...

I recommend the Kino blu-ray; the image and sound are spectacular.