Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 278 - Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin (1925) directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein

At one point in time Battleship Potemkin was considered the greatest film ever made. Time has not been kind to the 87 year old film as it is more of a curiosity now than a movie. Today the film's call for revolution feels outdated, speaking to an audience that no longer exists. It is a glimpse into such a specific moment in time, we can only observe from a distance as if reading from a history book. I can see the film's importance, I can understand its message, but I cannot feel the power and emotion of a film considered so incendiary that it was banned by entire countries.

The plot is pretty basic. The sailors of the battleship Potemkin refuse to eat rotten meat and revolt Mutiny on the Bounty style. Citizens from the city of Odessa hear about the revolt and sympathize with the sailors much to the ire of the authorities who send in troops to crush the revolt leading to the film's climax and one of cinema's most famous scenes, the massacre on the Odessa Stairs. And that is pretty much the extent of the film. It is pure propaganda meant to stir up revolution, which seems sort of silly viewed by today's eyes, but back then it was quite the fire starter.

I will give credit where credit is due though and say Battleship Potemkin is a fine piece of film making. It is one of the first films to explore the idea of montage theory, the idea of cutting images together and juxtaposing them to create a greater response. This is very pronounced in the film's key scene on the Odessa stairs. There is a shot of the citizens' frightened faces followed by a cut to the faceless soldiers advancing upon them. There is a close-up of a soldiers' boots literally stepping on a child. Shots are fired, then we see a close-up of a woman's bloodied hands. A woman wearing glasses in one scene suddenly has a bullet through one eye in the next. A baby in stroller goes down the steps out of control surrounded by dead bodies. It is a very jarring scene that is effectively edited piecing together some powerful images. It is one of those rare scenes that actually lives up to its enormous hype. In the film's finale when the two ships are about to fire upon each other, the film is once again edited and shot superbly. We see cuts between the frantic sailors and the close-ups of the massive cannons building enormous tension. Say what you want about the film's story or content but you cannot deny the technical brilliance of it.

Grade: B+

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