Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
After this week’s discussion of influential classic films prompted by TCM’s list of the fifteen most – I figured we might as well spotlight one of the movies on that list. And if we’re going to check out one of the most influential films of all time, we might as well start at the beginning.
I’ll be blunt here. Potemkin is a film that everyone should see that isn’t for everybody. It’s a silent, black and white foreign film, so it’s got a lot of strikes against it for casual movie fans – but any serious lover of movies should at least see it. Feel free to read those words in the pretentious film school voice that it deserves, but I take the statement seriously. As someone who doesn’t buy into the automatic list of Classics out there, I still wholeheartedly agree that Potemkin is a fantastic film that deserves to be seen by every generation.
Why do I feel that way? Because everyone has already seen The Battleship Potemkin even if they didn’t realize it. The film has informed so many other films that it’s impossible to escape. In fact, Roger Ebert accurately points out that another strike against the film is that when new audiences see it – they may view some of its scenes as a copy of scenes they’ve already seen time and time again – the source material has become overused to its own detriment.
Obviously, the main element of the film that everyone who writes about it has to mention is the epically famous Odessa Steps Sequence. Since I realize you’d rather see it than hear me blow smoke about it, you should check it out for yourself:
Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Not only that, but the scene has been borrowed and homaged to and parodied by films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, The Godfather, Woody Allen’s Bananas and Love and Death, Brazil, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Naked Gun 33 1/3 (which famously upped the ante to include two baby carriages, O.J. Simpson, and the Pope), and, of course, The Untouchables. Not only is the massacre on the stairs given love – the bullet shot through the eyeglasses is also directly referenced in several of those works.
So you can see how the film has influenced popular culture, informed a group of movie fans without them even realizing it.
But there’s a lot more to the film. At its core, it’s an agit-prop piece looking at the uprising of the Potemkin and the events leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. I know – a historical-based fiction from another country, yet a fourth strike against it. However, despite some elements that don’t stand the test of time, the movie as a whole is an incredible spectacle of violence, character depth, and music.
First, the movie doesn’t shy away from showing violence – both implied and displayed – covering up the entire rebellious crew that refuses to eat maggot-infested gruel with a sheet sail before setting the guns to them, gunning down civilians on the stairs, and bloodied close-ups of an old woman who gets shot. It’s honestly a bit disturbing. For some gore fans, it won’t impress, but the gruesome nature of the subject isn’t shied away from in any way by director Sergei Eisenstein.
I mention the character depth because, if you can get through the cheese of mustache-twirling villains, Eisenstein does more to create vivid characters with silence and quick shots than most directors can with a library of brilliant dialog. An innovator, Eisenstein delves into montage sequences before The Montage really existed. You’ll notice that you’re drawn to the characters, but you may not realize until after the film’s over that some of the most powerful moments are done through montages – a feature of film so familiar to us, yet used in such an alien way that it’s startling. Instead of boringly portraying a sequence of time or progression, he uses montage to build a scene, an entire culture of people, to create small moments where the story can be seen buried in every wrinkle on his subject’s faces. Literally, he’s telling a story in snapshots, and the result is amazing.
Also, there isn’t much to say about the original score to the film (although several others have been created) beyond that it’s devastatingly awesome. I mean that word in the classic sense. Awe-inspiring. It’s strong, compelling and beautiful enough to listen to on its own.
Obviously, it’s still hard to sell a film like this to most because it really is inaccessible in many ways. It’s not without its faults (and certainly technological limitations), but perhaps the best feature of Battleship Potemkin is that it displays that artists knew the potential of a young medium and could harness that potential to create something enduring. It may be the case that the movie is influential only because it was one of the early ones to the party, but more than that, it’s influential because a talented creative mind had the foresight to see what could be done with moving pictures and did it.