DESPITE ITS AGING (and admitted dating), ‘Battleship Potemkin’ still seethes with a startling vitality. And although its narrative picks up quite abruptly at the breaking point of revolution, the earnest zeal of its actors quickly pull us into their ranks and legitimize (or at least excuse) the constantly exclamatory intertitles. The film is a simple story essentially comprised of three long scenes—the mutiny, the Odessa steps, and the encounter with the squadron at sea—but each is so completely rendered that ‘Potemkin’ retains the form and fullness of a feature-length film. Its template can also be seen in a legion of subsequent films, with ‘Star Wars’ being the first that comes to mind. In the first installment, a small band of rebels strike a blow for freedom against a great and corrupt oppressor; in the second, after their retreat to friendlier territories, the mighty, machinated empire marches upon them and lays waste, prompting a retreat and preparation for a final encounter; in the third (somewhat abbreviated, yes), an outgunned and outmanned ship sets out to confront an overpowering foe, but at the last moment the power of fraternity overcomes that of hierarchy, and the rebels are victorious. (And this all to say nothing of the baby carriage on the steps and ‘The Untouchables’.)
Naturally, the correlations are not overwhelming, but are still emblematic of how deeply ‘Potemkin’ has penetrated our consciousness. As Roger Ebert has noted, the massacre on the steps of Odessa never happened, but its apocryphal influence is so profound that even those who have never seen the film can sometimes mistake this chronicle for historical fact. And although the film’s propaganda lacks for all nuance by our standards (i.e. democratic, American, 21st-century), the sheer weight of its presence—and the awareness that it is perfectly in earnest—is enough to leave a lasting impression.
Of particular note is director Sergei Eisenstein’s grasp of dynamics and paralleled momentum, as seen in the scenes where the Odessa legions flock to the ‘Potemkin’ in ever greater numbers, bringing food and provisions to their war heroes. As the sailors burnish engines, turbines churn, and cannon are primed, the city streets come alive with a like-minded proletariat that supplies the muscle to match its leaders’ hearts. The final 10% of the film—virtually the entire closing sequence—is built around a climactic, chromatically ascending music theme, led by the strings, that ratchets up the tension to a nearly unbearable level and provides Eisenstein with plenty of time for firing the revolutionary engine. Even judged by contemporary effects science, wherein Homer’s rhetorical 10,000 ships can be visually rendered in convincing CGI, the array of naval might seen in ‘Potemkin’ is formidable.
In America, Busby Berkeley is celebrated as the grand master of grand-scale coordination, but Eisenstein’s work with sailors, ships, and soldiers manages to do more with less. The mutiny of the soldiers is a masterful interplay between individual strife—the ringleader versus his lieutenant, the craven priest hiding behind his crucifix—and a tide of bodies seen from the forecastle, as a commander whose control of the ship is being wrest away. In cutting between these close and distant objectives, we sense how the rising momentum propels us ever faster towards a crystal clear objective, and the raising of that red flag.
And although Russia’s Tsars have fallen, and, too, the Republic that followed it, the clarion call of ‘Potemkin’ still resonates. Especially now, viewed as Russia descends once again into Putin’s puppeteering hands, the agitation of the everyman—with their clutched hands and quivering moustaches—may hear the waxing sirens call.