The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov
My Rating: 10/10.
In Short: A Spectacular Experience
Where do I start with what is undeniably one of the absolute, top of the list, best films of all time? A film I thought was better than Citizen Kane or The Seven Samurai? A film that, just after a recent rewatch, I’ve fallen in love with again. The best silent movie ever made.
In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein made The Battleship Potemkin, and changed cinema. His revolutionary use of jump cuts and montages was shocking at the time, but unequivocally influential. The camera work is stunning for a film of its era, and the tools and techniques which Eisenstein recruited to help him make his masterpiece were well chosen.
As if that weren’t enough, the film also has one of the most riveting, original and well-written plots of all time, based on a true story. It tells of a group of sailors (though one could easily mistake them for slaves) who are sick of their mistreatment. Officers whip them and spit on them, and most importantly, the meat they are given to eat is infested with maggots. The sailors are almost at tipping point. Finally, when they speak up, the ship’s captain throws a tarpaulin over them and tells his officers to shoot them “like dogs.” One man steps forward and tells his fellow sailors to rise up against the officers. He is killed. But by now a full scale riot has begun.
I’ve seen a fair few silent films, and some of them I’ve found annoyingly difficult to follow. This however, has a fairly simple plot, and the title cards between shots make the storyline clear. Of the hundreds of pages originally scripted, only one was used, and Eisenstein expanded it into this 75 minute film.
The most famous sequence in the movie was improvised by Eisenstein, and is also one of the greatest sequences in all of movies, in my opinion. It is the Odessa Steps massacre. When the soldiers have steered their ship toward the harbour of Odessa and began their march on the Odessa Staircase, troops appear out of nowhere and brutally and mercilessly begin to shoot down everyone in sight. In a scene that might today seem melodramatic, but for its time was incredibly affected, a mother is distraught when her child is shot by the men, and she rushes up the steps toward them, holding him motionless in her arms. In one of the most startling images, a young boy is crushed when people run over him; the camera shows his arm being squashed by a boot. The sequence concludes when a mother is shot and the carriage containing her baby topples off the edge of the staircase and goes tumbling down it for miles. The sequence concludes with a brilliant usage of jump cuts as the inert statue of a lion seems to come to life.
The way Eisenstein aims and shoots his camera in this famous scene is just incredible. He heightens the suspense by making the cuts increasingly faster and more desperate as the people run around in a confusion. It is truly effective and almost nightmarish. For a film without sound to achieve such a thing is even more impressive.
The Battleship Potemkin has to be one of the best movies ever made. It’s certainly one of my favourites. I own three copies of it, one on VHS (which I bought many years ago) and two DVDs. I remember seeing it about seven months ago on my friend Stephen’s giant screen in his theatre room. The effect was haunting. I had never felt the way The Battleship Potemkin made me feel ever before in a film. It is truly spectacular.