Battleship Potemkin, which has been deemed objectionable and banned in various countries such as France, United Kingdom, USA as well as its homeland Soviet Russia, is the second film by director Sergej Eisenstein. The story of Potemkin mutiny which took place during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 was made into a movie in its twentieth anniversary. This silent, black and white movie still holds its own as one of the best movies of all time.
In order to better understand this mutiny, which is one of the important events in Russian Revolution, it is useful to take a look at the conditions of year 1905. The strikes and riots against the bad living and working standards that began towards the end of 19th century did not succeed to bring down the Tsarist Russia, but it is possible to say that they had an attritional effect. One of the movements that eventually contributed to the revolution of 1917 is the mutiny on the Potemkin battleship. It is good to keep in mind that even though it deals with a historical event, the movie is not a documentary, but a propaganda material. Battleship Potemkin, that does not shy away from choosing sides and drawing thick lines between good and bad, was an inspiration even for Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda of Nazi Germany.
The movie opens with the crew discussing the idea of revolution amongst themselves. The spark of revolt for the sailors, who do not want to turn a blind eye to the events in their country, happens to be a borscht soup made of meat crawling with maggots. The sailors who refuse to drink the soup overthrow their superiors and take over the ship. The people of Odessa siding with the sailors and protesting, leads up to a dreadful massacre. The revolt is a historical event, but the massacre did not happen in real life. However, some similarity can be found between that scene and “Bloody Sunday” that took place in Petersburg in 1905 and resulted with the death of over a thousand protesters.
Battleship Potemkin is a movie that does not have a specific protagonist. Most scenes, such as the mutiny on the ship and “Odessa Steps” sequence, involve wide angle shots of groups of people that move altogether. This helps the viewer grasp the size and intensity of the events. In addition to that, Eisenstein often goes back and forth between many anonymous faces in the crowd and tells a collective story through the feelings of individuals. The actors, who use their facial expressions effectively and adequately, make up for the lack of dialogues in terms of conveying their emotions.
The element of violence has a rather significant role in this movie. Battleship Potemkin does something that is uncommon in its contemporaries and does not hesitate to include graphic scenes containing blood, scuffle, and death. This is praiseworthy, as the movie does not whitewash the revolt and depict it as more innocent and clean than it is. However, during the massacre scene, this distinctive use of violence becomes a tad theatrical and enhances the propaganda side of the movie.
Even though it’s been eighty-something years since its release, Battleship Potemkin deals with issues that are still relevant today, such as state violence, protests, and mass disobedience. In the hundredth anniversary of Russian Revolution, it is a movie that everyone, not just those who have a passion for black and white cinema, must give a chance.