Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Battleship Potemkin

(Бронено́сец Потёмкин, USSR, 1925)

Every once in a while a movie come along that basically changes everything, or at least marks a turning point between the old and the new. In 1915 it was The Birth of a Nation. In 1941 it was Citizen Kane. In 1968 it was 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1994 it was Pulp Fiction. In 1925 it was Battleship Potemkin.

In the same way, from time to time there is a director who changes world cinema. In Sweden it was Ingmar Bergman. In Italy it was Federico Fellini. In Japan it was Akira Kurosawa. In England and America it was Alfred Hitchcock. In America it was Stanley Kubrick. In the USSR it was Sergei Eisenstein.

I know some people find this hard to watch because so much of it is quite outdated. All existing prints that I’ve seen are pretty poor, though I understand there is a restoration. The model work is atrocious. The acting is often over the top, but that’s a common complaint from people who aren’t used to silent film. But where it works, it still works stunningly well.

The two most referenced scenes are the maggots and the steps. The film tells the story of a mutiny that happened in 1905 and foreshadowed the later Russian Revolution. Aboard the Czarist battleship, the crew is forced to eat spoiled meat. The ship’s doctor examines a side of beef and proclaims that those little white spots aren’t worms, they are just maggots, and can be brushed off. It’s perfectly edible. Of course, the officers have different chow. The crew eventually mutinies, led by Vakulinchuk, who is later killed. His body is taken ashore and lies in state as the citizens of Odessa file by.

Not long after a line of Czarist Cossacks appear at the top of a long, wide outdoor staircase crowded with people. They begin marching down, pausing to fire into the crowd, then marching down again. It is a superb and horrifying sequence of montage, because though the steps are long, these soldiers march down at least five or six times the actual length. The remorseless, inexorable nature of the State against the People could not be more evident, and you can easily see the roots of the Russian Revolution. There is fast cutting between the boots of the Cossacks and various people in the crowd, including a very nimble legless man, a woman shot in the face, and the iconic baby carriage careening down the steps before finally being slashed by a soldier’s saber. It remains one of the most effective scenes of all time, and moves me every time I see it.