The year is 1905. Stretching before us are the great steps of Odessa, where townspeople have gathered to support the mutineers who have rebelled against their Tsarist officers and taken over a battleship. The atmosphere is joyous, all smiles and waves. Suddenly, the crowd starts running. At first we don’t see why, but then a line of Cossack soldiers comes into view, guns at the ready. They fire at the crowd. A woman is shot at point-blank range, a child is trampled on. Thus unfolds The Battleship Potemkin’s most famous sequence; manipulative, vivid, controversial till this day.
Released in 1925, The Battleship Potemkin was Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatisation of the unsuccessful anti-Tsarist Revolution of 1905. Sailors aboard a battleship refuse to eat maggot-infested meat and revolt. They take control of the battleship and later use it to blow up the enemy stronghold. The theory of Soviet montage is used to great effect here, with contrasting images of innocence and brutality presented in a series of rapid cuts. Predictably, it was labelled propagandist in the West and banned. There may have been more than an element of jealousy involved - the Americans and the British would make their own “war films” in years to come, none as stirring as this.
Sacred cow status aside, is there a good reason to see Potemkin today? Its methods of audience manipulation (personalise protagonist, dehumanise antagonist is always handy) have long since become part of cinema’s DNA. Montage was radical then, now it’s a Nike commercial. The Odessa steps sequence has been parodied and imitated in films ranging from Woody Allen’s Bananas to De Palma’s The Untouchables. 85 years after its release, there’s little that Battleship Potemkin can still teach us. Neither was this a film made to entertain. One might end up watching it for the same reason one visits monuments of old - to seek out the foundation of everything that came up after it.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.
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