Battleship Potemkin (1925) dir. Sergei Eisenstein
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Prokopenko
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
I feel sorry for Leni Riefenstahl – that dazzling filmmaking genius who directed “Triumph of the Will” – a film that continues to send shivers down one’s spine with its staggering artistic virtuosity and the creepy realization of what its intent actually was. Frau Riefenstahl was and still is hated for making a film that extolled the values of a butcher (Hitler) and a regime of utter evil (Nazism). That Riefenstahl made “Triumph of the Will” is undeniable. That, in its thrilling depiction of the Nuremburg rally, it played a considerable role in convincing the German people to march behind Adolph Hitler is also undeniable. However, that it is also a stunning, groundbreaking piece of cinema is also undeniable.
Why then, is Riefenstahl’s Soviet brother in crime Sergei Eisenstein not equally reviled? He too extolled the virtues of a butcher (Joseph Stalin) and an evil regime (communism), he too was good at pretending he was unaware of his complicity in a regime of evil and most notably, he too was a genius that produced a stunning, groundbreaking piece of cinema – the great “Battleship Potemkin”.
Riefenstahl and Eisenstein walk as one, yet one is hated, the other is not.
“The Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” are reviled, yet “Battleship Potemkin” and “Alexander Nevsky” are not.
Is one form of propaganda any worse than another?
Are the goals of Rambo (presented, within its own context as artfully, yet as ham-fistedly by Sylvester Stallone) any different from the goals of Riefenstahl and Eisenstein?
At the end of the day, the answer must clearly be – NO!
These thoughts occurred to me as I noodled over the notion of reviewing “Battleship Potemkin” (restored and recently released by Kino in a dazzling two-disc DVD special edition) and I wondered if it was possible to review such a milestone of cinema and still find something new and/or interesting to say?
Probably not, was my initial thought.
However, it is certainly not without merit to look at “Battleship Potemkin” from the perspective of what it ultimately is as a finished product – propaganda, pure and simple.
No mere entertainment (though chock-full of considerable entertainment value), Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” exploded upon the world of cinema in 1925 with its stunning use of montage, so powerful a piece of pro-revolutionary propaganda that many countries banned it outright (for fear of inciting violence against the respective governments). Even Jolly Joe Stalin eventually pulled it from circulation in the Soviet Union, as he feared the film might incite violence against his own delightful regime of butchery.
Watching it now - outside the context of the world in the first quarter to the middle half of the twentieth century – it is safe to note that “Battleship Potemkin” won’t be inspiring any revolutions, riots or violence against despots.
(The only despots it might frighten are those who hold various financing purse strings in the motion picture industry – especially in countries where the motion picture product thrives almost solely with the assistance of government subsidization. I think about the potential of what might happen in Canada right now if a certain bill before the Senate passes which forces filmmakers to censor themselves lest they be censored by bureaucrats. Perhaps a mutiny of a similar kind will occur wherein David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin and other proletarian stalwarts of Canadian cinema lead a march onto the steps of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. However, since this is Canada, they will not be gunned down, but gummed down by endless droning speeches coming from the flapping jaws of Canadian politicians and bureaucrats. But, I digress)
In other words, “Battleship Potemkin” still exudes the power to inspire, though much of that inspiration has (and continues to be) inspiration of another kind – namely, the inspiration that artists thrive on from the work of other artists to make their own work move forward in new and exciting ways.
“Battleship Potemkin” is nothing if not influential upon ALL cinema.
I always find it both interesting and amusing to note that young film students, upon seeing Eisenstein’s masterpiece for the first time, are shocked to see a silent movie “ripping off” Brian DePalma’s gangster epic “The Untouchables” - until a few of them figure out that it was “conceivably” the other way around. Almost needless to say, I’m referring to “Battleship Potemkin’s” rendering of the famous Odessa massacre sequence and the teetering baby carriage that eventually careens perilously down the steps of the famed Ukrainian seaport.
And this key set piece in the picture – the Odessa steps massacre – replete as it is with its staggering editing and evocative images is bracketed by the simplest of plots.
This, of course, comes as no surprise since it was the drama of politics that mattered most to Eisenstein. Plot was there to serve the political will – nothing more and nothing less. And not only is it obvious that Eisenstein didn’t much care about plot, but that he most certainly had no use for character. His job was to present a thrilling and exciting depiction of working class solidarity. He also wished to experiment with his own notions of film editing since he and many other Soviet filmmakers of the time were not only pioneers in the area of cinema, but were eggheads of the highest order – writing endless tomes of film theory that film students to this day must wade through. (Though in fairness, this early Soviet film theory actually made practical sense in contrast to the knot head academics that rule most academic studies of cinema these days. Cinema as a post-modernist and highly organic process of light and motion, anyone?) Eisenstein, at least with “Battleship Potemkin”, wanted to achieve maximum emotional impact from his cutting style and his goal was to rile up the audience to favour the mutinous actions of the proletariat.
Therefore, the simple plot, served for a lovely backbone to work this propagandistic magic.
In a nutshell, this then, is the “plot”:
The working class crew of the title vessel has just about had it with the poor conditions imposed upon them by the evil Czarist overlords. Rotting meat, floggings, hangings and an impending mass firing squad, inspire our grubby proletarians to mutiny. The good folk of Odessa happily get wind of this nose thumbing in the Czar’s general direction and they congregate by the pier to wish the seamen well. The noble Cossacks make a surprise appearance and slaughter the good folk on the majestic steps of Odessa. Nobody is spared. Old coots. Women. Children. All of them are rendered to bloodied heaps of meat under the blazing sun. The Czar, then sends a whole passel of warships to hightail after the Potemkin and just when we figure the grubby mutineering prolies are about to be blitzed, all the other grubby proles on all the other warships mutiny also and refuse to fight against their working class brethren.
Yee-fucking-haa! Commie-style, of course.
The above “plot” was also supposedly based upon fact and presented as such. That the massacre on the steps of the sunny seaside port of Odessa was a figment of Eisenstein’s imagination mattered little to the communist butchers who ruled the Soviet Union. All that mattered was the propagation of the lie of proletarian solidarity.
And so it should be.
That is the goal of propaganda (and entertainment, for that matter) – to lie. And if Eisenstein were Pinocchio when he made Battleship Potemkin, his proboscis would, no doubt be elongated to swaggeringly astounding proportions. (It has been whispered that one of Eisenstein’s other appendages would engorge to astounding proportions as well, so perhaps he was Pinocchio after all. But, I digress.)
It is also of interest to note that Josef Goebbels, Mr. Nazi Propaganda himself, was a great admirer of “Battleship Potemkin”. He wished such a film could be made for National Socialism and, he further opined, that such a film would prove to not only be a tremendous hit in Germany, but a most useful instrument in rallying the troops (so to speak). Eisenstein himself was appalled with this notion and attempted to distance himself from Goebbels’ adoration by issuing a letter of rebuff.
But of course, one can never extricate oneself from those who love or loathe one’s work and Eisenstein’s pathetic attempt at extrication certainly didn’t stop Goebbels and cannot even begin to deny the impact Eisenstein and specifically, his “Battleship Potemkin” had upon Nazism. Goebbels also admired Dziga Vertov and his “documentary” approach in such works as “Man with a Movie Camera”. Blend this “Kino eye” with social realism (plus dollops of Teutonic superiority, as it were) and you eventually get something resembling Leni Riefenstahl.
With this in mind, then, let us redress the injustice foisted upon Frau Leni Riefenstahl. Her spirit and spinning corpse need to rest. She was no better and certainly no worse than Sergei Eisenstein. (Or, for that matter, Sylvester Stallone.)
Eisenstein, like all great propagandists, was happy to wear extra-comfortable kneepads when supplicating his butchering leaders.
Nothing was sacred,
He needed to keep make films.
And for this, we should all be thankful.
With “Battleship Potemkin”, Eisenstein ultimately did what ALL filmmakers should do.
He put on one hell of a good show.