Battleship Potemkin at 90, Part III (Behind the scenes)

Note: As in the previous two posts, this post will also use the authentic Ukrainian spelling Odesa instead of the Russified Odessa. It’s just common courtesy to use proper Ukrainian spellings when the country has been independent for over 20 years, and especially in light of certain factions trying to Russify the country all over again.

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As amazing as Battleship Potemkin is, this isn’t the type of film the average person watches for fun, lighthearted entertainment on a snowy day. Even someone interested enough in film history to take a class like film appreciation, film history, or Russian film might not immediately warm to it. To use a potentially infelicitous metaphor, some films are like making one’s sexual début in that most people have two first times. The first time you just watch the film, and eventually, the second time or later, is the first time you really understand, love, and appreciate it.

It’s not a very plot-centric film, not so much because it’s partly intended as political propaganda, but because it’s just not a typical movie story with a three-act structure, specific protagonists, and a sense of resolution. It’s a more episodic story that’s easily summed up by the five Acts—conditions on the battleship are horrible, the sailors revolt and seize control, rebel leader Vakulinchuk’s funeral inspires the people of Odesa to rise up themselves, thuggish soldiers and Cossacks murder the peaceful crowd on the Boulevard Staircase, and finally the sailors rendezvous with an Imperial squadron.

The Red Flag - Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Instead of using big-name actors like Vera Vsevolodovna Baranovskaya, Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, Igor Vladimirovich Ilyinskiy, and Yuliya Ippolitovna Solntseva, Eisenstein instead chose mostly no-name normal folks and bit players. Accordingly, there are no real standout, memorable performances. Among the few trained actors are Aleksandr Pavlovich Antonov (Vakulinchuk) and Grigoriy Vasilyevich Aleksandrov (Gilyarovskiy). At least one of the bit players, Beatrice Vitoldi (the woman whose baby careens down the stairs), is known to have been murdered during the Great Terror. Keep in mind, this film was made in 1925, before Stalin was in total control.

This isn’t a film remembered for its acting performances, but its ideas and images. That’s because of the use of Eisenstein’s particular theory of montage, a method of using editing to create and understand cinema. In normal terms, this means using a series of connected but not preceding/succeeding images assembled together to impart ideological and intellectual power. It’s all about how the shots are edited, not what’s specifically in them.

In Eisenstein’s early period, to which this film belongs, montage was used to show how the masses are capable of rising up against their oppressors. These films are about the people as a whole, not focused on individual narratives. We’re riveted by the scene on the stairs not because we know and care about the people involved, but rather because of lighting, images, arrangement, Edmund Meisel’s brilliant soundtrack, and the overall mood.

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Over the ensuing years, the film was subject to censorship in various countries, including eventually the USSR itself. Most of the initial censorship was because of the violence in Act Four, but there was also censorship regarding the sailors’ revolutionary rhetoric. Maybe I’m just naïve or biased by my own political views, but I honestly don’t understand why so many people are so scared of the mere idea of Socialism or Communism. They’re just political philosophies, no different from being a Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian.

After Trotskiy fell from favor and was chased out of the USSR, the opening intertitle had to be cut. Some versions of the film replace it with a Lenin quote from 1905. The photography gallery in the awesome 2004 Kino edition reveals there were deleted scenes including a printers’ strike and an undertakers’ strike. The film was banned in a number of countries, not just censored. It was only in 2004, with the Kino DVD release, that audiences were finally able to see the film at near to its original length once more.

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Like many other films which have become acclaimed in the modern era, such as Duck Soup and Freaks, Battleship Potemkin too wasn’t such a critical box office hit during its original theatrical run. Let’s be honest, this wasn’t the kind of film the Soviet hoi polloi wanted to see. This is an intellectual’s film, not typical entertainment for the working masses, just as my older relatives wouldn’t be the target audience for a showing of Conceptual Art like Yoko Ono’s. Most Russians during this time period preferred imported American films full of action and romance, not their native films trying to make some kind of political point and use highbrow techniques like montage. I know I’m kind of uncommon for being a working-class intellectual.

The film routinely ranks among the greatest of all time in those incessant “best of” lists, which is truly an accomplishment, given what short schrift is routinely given to the silent era in these rankings. In the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, it was even rated the greatest film of all time. Ninety years later, it’s still fresh and riveting.

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