The Battleship Potemkin

My wife and I caught Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin last night at the Castro. This was my fourth time viewing of what many consider amongst the greatest films ever made. It was my second time seeing it theatrically, and my first since Kino’s new restoration. In fact, it was my first viewing in this century.

And it was my first viewing on a really huge screen. The last time I saw it theatrically, it was at the old Richelieu Theater in the late 1970s. That screen was puny compared to the Castro’s.

I liked it a lot better this time around. Yes, it’s simplistic propaganda (more on that below), but its effective propaganda. The story of mutiny, celebration, attack, and escape stirs your blood. And it does this primarily through editing techniques that were revolutionary in 1925 and still very impressive today.

Eisenstein wasn’t the first filmmaker to use editing for emotional effect. Griffith was doing it a decade earlier. But Eisenstein took it do a different level. He even uses multiple shots to show an angry sailor smashing a plate. That may seem excessive, but it emphasizes the sailor’s emotional state.

The editing really comes alive in what today we’d call the action scenes, most famously the massacre on the Odessa Steps. So much has been written about this sequence that I hesitate to discuss if further–it’s like deconstructing Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy. But I will add one thing that caught my notice last night: It’s the only character-driven scene in the movie. Within the space of those few minutes, Eisenstein lets us get close to and identify with several of the victims. There’s the young, scholarly-looking man, the elderly woman and her daughter, and most heart-breaking of all, the woman who sees her child shot down and trampled upon.

If you haven’t seen the sequence (which stands on its own and contains no spoilers), check out this Youtube version. But it can’t hold a candle to the 35mm print, newly minted by Kino, screening this weekend at the Casto.

Make no mistake: Potemkin is Communist propaganda. The workers and sailors are all good comrades working together for a better world. The officers, aristocrats, and Cossacks are vile filth who deserve to die. A couple of them are so evil they actually twirl their mustaches.

We know now that in the real world, Communism would turn out to be every bit as horrible as Fascism. So why is Battleship Potemkin more acceptable than, say, Triumph of the Will? Of course, Eisenstein couldn’t have known how badly Communism would turn out in 1925, but you can say the same thing about Leni Riefenstahl and Nazism in 1935.

But there’s another reason: Karl Marx recognized a very real problem–the exploitation of working people. Any decent human being would want to liberate the oppressed, take down the ruling class, and create a just society.

It’s only with historical perspective that we realize that Marx’s cure was worse than the disease.

Fascism, with its doctrines of military might, blind obedience, and racial superiority, celebrates the disease.

It’s worth noting that the USSR eventually banned Battleship Potemkin. A totalitarian state isn’t comfortable celebrating a mutiny or vilifying soldiers who gun down unarmed civilians.

The 35mm print screening at the Castro has the original Edmund Meisel musical score. The score was impressive, so much so that at times it felt like a modern movie, with the editing and composing happening simultaneously (it wasn’t). There were some well-synced, very realistic sound effects. My wife, a musician, assured me that they could all be done by an orchestra–even the gun shots. But I still would have preferred live accompaniment.

The Battleship Potemkin plays at the Castro through the weekend. Check it out.

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