This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
The Battleship Potemkin could be subtitled "A Story of the Sea." For while the men who scurry about its frame - those anonymous and amorphous masses - instigate the action, it is the ambiguously gleaming waters around the ship, and the ship itself, that most reflect the narrative arc. When the film begins, the sea is forbidding, isolating, intimidating: a mass of impenetrable emptiness encircling the starving and discontented battleship. Its shimmering presence heightens our impression of the sailors as imprisoned by their circumstances, and zeroes our focus in on the ship that holds them; after all, there's nothing else to look at, for them or for us.
Yet the film concludes with another shot of these waters and suddenly our interpretation is quite different. At this point the battleship Potemkin steams toward the squadron sent to shoot it down, only to discover that the other ships have been overtaken by sympathetic sailors, more interested in saluting than shooting the mutinous barge. And suddenly the sea is an open field, a liberating space upon which anything is possible. Its shimmers seem friendly winks, its little waves infinite possibilities, its wide-open landscape a heroic horizon. Eisenstein's title tells us that the ship is waving the flag of freedom and it's as if this banner is clearing the air, swatting away the mosquitoes of reaction and the haze of oppression, parting the waves as crisply and cleanly as the ship's bow itself.
Early in the movie, we get an amusing caricature of a Rasputin-like priest, waving his crucifix and condescendingly asking mercy for the souls of those who dare to take Biblical platitudes (in this case "Give us this day our daily bread") literally. Yet now we are witnessing a real miracle of sorts, as the Potemkin sailors soar across the hostile waves like Jesus walking on water, striding where once they feared to drown. This makes a stark contrast with our initial view, perceiving the ship as inert or immobile upon the calm waters. There's a fantastic sense of intense restraint in these early scenes, often overlooked in the celebrations of Potemkin's propulsive editing and dynamic mise en scene, but crucial in setting the movie's tone and mood.
Only at the climax do we see the battleship fully functioning, storming into a bloodless battle with every hand on deck contributing to its operation. And just as the sea has switched identities from beginning to end, so the ship itself has too. At first the entire battleship is a massive tool of ruling class oppression, its every gun turret seeming like a firing squad, its mast with imaginary mutineers hanging from it, its deck a model panoptican from which the officers can survey and squash potential trouble. But by the end, it is a weapon in new hands and as such all of its facets have different implications. Those guns thrust out like phallic symbols of virility, the mast stands proud as a proclamation of upright working-class resistance, that deck transforms itself into a meeting-place for a makeshift community.
In addition to being an attractive aesthetic and thematic approach, this approach complements the early Marxist view of technology and industry as ambiguous tools, not inherently evil, but rather weapons that could be used for good or bad. And the same could be said of the cinema itself: Eisenstein and his backers do not shirk from using techniques or methods they would decry in a fascist film - The Battleship Potemkin is proudly propagandistic, not coy at all about its tricks and manipulation, confident that its message justifies its methods, that a film is just as much a weapon as a battleship.
As many commentators have noted, the film shifts back and forth in its relevance and power, depending on the condition of the crowd watching and the situation of the world at a given moment. Watching the movie in 2011, I of course had thoughts about these surging crowds being the original "99%" and noticed for the first time just how bourgeois the group gathered on the Odessa steps is (spectacles, umbrellas, dress whites, all the usual Eisensteinian signifiers). They are observing, with enthusiasm, a revolution without directly participating (although some of the visitors to the ship itself seem to be quite well-off too), and then suddenly the Cossacks (introduced brilliantly only after they've shot down a grieving mother) emerge, guns blazing.
One woman proclaims, "We'll ask them to stop!" or something equally naive and steps forward only to be shot through the eye - ironically, blinded by an act which will make her, at least momentarily before her brain stops functioning, less truly blind than ever before. It's probably the film's most iconic and remembered image: not a sailor holding his gun aloft or a faceless Cossack butchering the innocent, but an older myopic woman, suggestively bourgeois, awakened in violent shock. That bullet tells her she's one of the masses too, whether she realizes it or not.
Although it can seem more stirring and powerful in today's world, the movie still has a number of elements which can strike one as absurd or over-the-top. These are of course often intentional as Eisenstein loved comedia dell'arte and grotesque cartoons; still the comical anti-Semite and the mad priest may go a bit too far in puncturing the righteous tone of the film; we laugh not so much at them personally, as at the conceit that they are supposed to be real people. Additionally, while the film may be humanitarian it isn't at all humanist - there are no characters and when we relate to what we see it is in broad, suggestive tones; we're moved as we would be by a pamphlet or poster, not a truly penetrating work of art.
Yet the film is a work of art, if not so much for its human elements as for its overall form and ingenuity, and its diamondlike concentrated complexity: it is exciting and intelligent, bold yet sophisticated, focused but with very broad implications. Eisenstein did a lot of other interesting work, but few of his silents hold up as well as this does, and I think it's because of that ship and that sea I mentioned earlier. They give the movie a home base to return to, a foundation upon which to build, a nexus for the film's disparate ideas and emotions.
I saw the movie around the same time I saw a lot of the films in this series (Jules and Jim, Persona, The Bicycle Thief - as it used to be called). I was fifteen or so, had not seen too many silent films, but was riveted by this one because of its dynamic pent-up energy: not just its infamous rapid-fire montage, but also the way it holds it all in before releasing. Plus, I've always been attracted to the image of sea with its suggestions of infinity and freedom, but also restlessness and uncertainty.
That was what drew me in this time, and what stayed with me after the film concluded. The movie may have didactic purposes, but it is also a movie, and ultimately romantic as all movies (and at this time, the revolutionary spirit was very romantic anyway). And there's a thrilling sense of both exuberance and uncertainty in that last image (the 1905 revolution would, after all, fail). No turning back. So as I reflect on that closing image, I think of Lord Byron's words:
"Once more upon the waters! yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider. Welcome to their roar!
Swift be their guidance, wheresoe'er it lead!
Though the strained mast should quiver as a reed,
And the rent canvas fluttering strew the gale,
Still must I on; for I am as a weed,
Flung from the rock, on Ocean's foam, to sail
Where'er the surge may sweep, the tempest's breath prevail."
The Battleship Potemkin appears at 4:35 in "Dance of the Silents," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."
Tomorrow: Bicycle Thieves