Sunday, 5 February 2012

Battleship Potemkin

Released in 1925 as Communist Propaganda, Battleship Potemkin went on to become one of the most famous and most loved films of the silent era. The film is ranked at Number three on Empire’s ‘100 Best films of world cinema’ and was named ‘The greatest film of all time’ at the 1958 World Fair.

The film is an account of a mutiny which occurred in 1905 aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin. We find the crew to be poorly treated by their Tsarist officers and are about ready to snap when all they are offered to eat is rotten meat. The crew, upon hearing of workers rising up on land commit the act of mutiny and set sail for Odessa. When they reach the port they are supported by the people who are then brutally murdered by the Tsarist authorities. Back out to sea the Potemkin is set upon by a number of Tsarist ships who seem ready to engage the mutineers. The question is, will they join with the mutineers or fight?

As a piece of propaganda, the film is unmatched. The Tsarist’s are seen as cruel, unjust and bloodthirsty. Even Joseph Goebbels claimed anyone without firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after watching it.  The most famous scene is still shocking today. The army is bought in to quell the rebellion and we watch as children are stamped to death by a fearful crowd, a mother is shot while holding up her dying son to the soldiers and the most famous image of all, a baby in a pram, falling down the Odessa steps. This scene in particular has become iconic and has been copied by numerous artists and film makers. Nearly 90 years on, it is still a shocking scene to witness.

The Odessa Steps sequence
The film seems ahead of its time with its use of close ups and quick cutting. Though common today, the editing seen in Potemkin was revolutionary in its day. Multiple cross cuts were also used to show the hustle and bustle of ship life.

Shocking even today
While I believe the film is a masterpiece of silent cinema and propaganda, I couldn’t help feeling bored at times, especially during the first third of the film. The boredom paled in comparison however to the frenetic pace and shock of the Odessa steps scene. At only 72 minutes long, Battleship Potemkin is a must see for fans of early cinema or political propaganda but even for those without an interest I would still recommend seeking out the Odessa Steps scene online.


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