Battleship Potemkin- a critical review

SMRITHI.S

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Battleship Potemkin, is a 1925 silent film, which is considered to be a classic in the history of the World Cinema with its attempt to become a propagandist film acting as a banner for revolution. The film, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, is based on the mutiny of the Russian soldiers against the tyrannical superiors abroad the battleship ‘Potemkin’ during the Revolution of 1905. The story about the unsuccessful revolution of 1905 still has a spontaneous effect in Russia. The film is known for its mise-cen-scene and elegance of form which deals with the philosophical issues of social justice and revolution.

Eisenstein has divided the plot into five acts: “Men and Maggots”, “Drama on the Quarterdeck”, “Appeal from the Dead”, “The Odessa Steps” and “Meeting the Squadron”. The film begins with the portrayal of the ill-treatment of the sailors in the battleship by the officers. It then grows with the actual defiance that is slowly arising amidst the sailors and the ship’s arrival at the Odessa. The citizens of the Odessa declare solidarity with the mutineers which results in the brutal massacre of the citizens. Towards the end of the film we see the Tsar warships arriving in order to supress the upraising. But the sailors of the Tsar ships however refuse to fire at their comrades. They then express their solidarity with the mutineers and allow them to pass unarmed.

Sergei Eisenstein, considered to be one of the remarkable directors of Russia, is known for his concept of “montage”. In place of the static reflection of an event, expressed by a logical unfolding of the action, he proposed a new form: the “montage of attractions”—in which arbitrarily chosen images, independent of the action, would be presented not in chronological sequence but in whatever way would create the maximum psychological impact. Thus, the filmmaker should aim to establish in the consciousness of the spectators the elements that would lead them to the idea he wants to communicate; he should attempt to place them in the spiritual state or the psychological situation that would give birth to that idea.

According to the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R, the prime intention was to re-create the events that took place in the Revolution of 1905. Eisenstein however took this film to test his theories on ‘montage’. He moulded the movie as a propagandist film and edited it in such a way as to evoke sympathy towards the suffering sailors by simple use of ‘montage’ and juxtaposition of images. Throughout the film we can see interplay of mise-en-scene, narrative interconnecting and montage. More than just touching the emotions of the viewer, Eisenstein also wanted to strike them down to novel ideas.

Following the paths of many of the Soviet artists of that time, Eisenstein has also used the dialectic in this film. The movie is structured on a plan of conflict, resolution and the contradiction amongst the mutineers and the oppressors. It begins with a long shot of the waves at the Odessa harbour setting the backdrop of the film. The sense of urgency depicted by the intense movement within the frame shows the sense of visual arrangement of the director.

As the film progresses, the first one, Vakoulintchouk, who had risen against the oppressors, gets killed. Eisenstein has given an ambience of calmness to that morning when the fellow sailors were mourning the death of their leader, thereby proving his directorial skills. The endless group of Odessa citizens flows in to pay their homage to the deceased sailor. The over-head shots of the citizens were ideally juxtaposed by the shots of the Odessa staircase. The shots capture the intense emotions of the mob, where both the men and women crying for their deceased hero. The close-ups of their face only add intensity of their emotions which would transcends to the viewers. The scene also shows how the people who had come from different classes stood together for a better cause. These minute messages are shown flawlessly in each frame.

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Then comes the most famous and the most celebrated scene which is known for its impeccable use of ‘montage’- “The Odessa Steps”. The rare moment of calmness is distinctly contrasted with the violent arrival of the Tsarist troops. This scene is a notable benchmark in the life of Sergei Eisenstein as a director. The violent commotion which is evoked by the robotic troops of the Tsar, heavily descending the steps scatters the crowd creating chaos. The scene progresses with frantically edited sequences of individual images in a fusillade in order to give more impact to the horror induced by the slaughter of these citizens. The scene also has a symbolic representation where the wounded are singled out to inflict more pain to the viewers. Rapid movement is used in order to increase the mounting of the emotional intensity. Finally we see an infant’s pram falling down the stairs. The sequence ends with the shot of a shot a woman shot on her face standing open mouthed.

Eisenstein splits a rather long sequence into a series of single shots which could then be used in various places if needed. For example, “the medium shot of the marching soldiers is cut into two shots. The beginning is spliced in before the shot of the firing at the mother with the carriage, and its continuation fourteen shots later.”

There are many other examples within the film where he uses the visual contrast and cutting between the images- Act II, the mutiny and Act V, the final meeting with the Tsar ship. Background music also plays an important role in creating the mood of the film. The low and the high tempos along with occasional silence give more feel to the sequences shown on the screen.

However the acting of the cast is quite over-emotional but it is easier to discard as a flaw because of its genre, silent film. The only objection towards the film is its political slant. The film is constantly referred for the propaganda it has used. After watching the film the viewers feel empathy towards the sailors and on the contrary anguish towards the oppressors. The oppressors are portrayed as the evil without glorifying even a single element in their character. This reaches us right from the first few sequences where the officials discard the worms seen in the meat which they give to the sailors as not maggots.

The film also has changed the history a bit. There was no actual massacre took place on the Odessa steps, which was told to have occurred elsewhere. The mutiny was also a failure unlike its shown in the film. But Eisenstein has used his dramatic license to make the film more appealing to the audience.

The film had a great political impact on the people of USSR. The British Board of Film Censors banned the film in 1926 but in 1954, passed it with an X certificate.

Sergei Eisenstein has proved to be one of the remarkable film makers of all times through the film, Battleship Potemkin. His revolutionary ‘montage’ techniques has perfectly moulded into the themes of the film. The film is still a striking one after all these years.

 

 

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