Battleship Potemkin at 90, Part I (General overview)

(FYI: In keeping with my consistent style, all posts about this film will use the Ukrainian spelling Odesa instead of the Russified Odessa, with the exception of the title of the famous Act Four. The two-S spelling is how it appears in the actual intertitle, even if it’s not the city’s authentic Ukrainian name.)

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Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin), released 21 December 1925, is widely held as one of the greatest films of all time, one of the best Soviet films, one of the best silent films, one of the best Russian films, and the masterpiece of director Sergey Mikhaylovich Eisenstein. Due to censorship in multiple countries, including eventually the Soviet Union itself, however, the film has only in recent years finally been able to be seen at near to its original full length, the way Eisenstein intended it.

The film is divided into five acts:

“Men and Maggots” (alternately, “People and Worms”)

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The film opens in June 1905, and tells the real-life story of the mutiny on Prince Potyomkin Tavricheskiy during the disastrous Russo–Japanese War. An uproar starts when the sailors discover what they believe to be maggots in their meat. The ship’s doctor, Smirnov, has a look and declares them to be fly larvae which can easily be washed off with brine. The sailors nevertheless refuse to eat the meat when it’s used in borshcht. This first reel ends when a sailor smashes a dish he’s washing, with the inscription, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

“Drama on Deck”

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The entire crew is bade to gather on deck, and Chief Officer Gilyarovskiy asks everyone who liked the borshcht to take two steps forward. Only the petty officers obey, while all the rest continue in their righteous grudge against the higher-ups. In anger, orders are given for canvas to be thrown over everyone else, and a firing squad is brought out. However, they falter, and ultimately decide not to murder their brothers-in-arms. The mutiny then begins, and culminates in Gilyarovskiy’s cowardly murder of rebel leader Vakulinchuk.

“A Dead Man Calls for Justice” (literally, “The Dead Calls”)

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Vakulinchuk is honorably brought to nearby Odesa and laid in state in a tent. Slowly, rumors about the mutiny and Vakulinchuk’s murder drift in to the locals, who come en masse to pay their respects. A lit candle is in his clasped hands, and a sign on his chest says, “Killed for a spoonful of borshcht.” By the funeral, a note from the crew is read, urging revenge for what happened. The people vow a spirit of one for all, and one revolutionary demand after another is cheered by the crowd. However, they rightly turn on a man who makes an anti-Semitic “call to action.” A delegate from shore is sent to the ship, and Act Three ends with the raising of a hand-colored red flag over the ship.

“The Odessa Staircase”

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At first, the citizens of Odesa live peacefully with the sailors, and many boats go out to meet and help the sailors with food and supplies. A whole motley crew of people are gathered on a giant staircase, the city’s grand landmark and formal entrance from the harbor. All are inspired with revolutionary idealism and unity, until the foreboding intertitle, “And suddenly.”

The most famous scene in the film is when the thuggish soldiers come marching down the staircase and massacre the fleeing, panicked crowd. The massacre intensifies when Cossacks at the bottom of the steps join in. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve seen the baby in the pram careening down those steps during the massacre. Other iconic images include an older woman with a broken pince-nez and a little boy who gets trampled. In revenge, the sailors destroy the Odesa Theatre, the generals’ headquarters.

“Rendezvous with the Squadron”

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Our heroic sailors passionately discuss coming ashore to liberate the people from the ongoing tyranny, but one sailor points out landing isn’t possible because the Admiral’s squadron is on its way. Our heroes decide to meet Destroyer No. 267 head-on, and the lead-up to the confrontation is thick with tension. If the Imperial ship lets them pass and recognizes them as brothers-in-arms, all will be well, but if they act as ruthlessly as the butchers on the stairs, all could be lost. Whatever happens, the Potemkin sailors refuse to go down without a fight.

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2 comments on “Battleship Potemkin at 90, Part I (General overview)

  1. Those are intense film scenes. I never thought about Russian cinematography before. I’d still like to explore silent films since I have yet to watch one from beginning to end.

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  2. Ed Hoornaert says:

    This is the quintessential Soviet film in that there is no protagonist who moves the film. The hero is The People, not individuals … and even Eisenstein found that a difficult task to duplicate in following films. In his talkies of the Stalin era (e.g. Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky) Eisenstein switched to movies about an heroic individual (like Stalin) bravely leading his people to victory.

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