Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein. 1925)

"A marvelous film without equal in the cinema ... anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film."

I have a feeling that silent films will be the death of me. I would never say that a silent film cannot be entertaining because that would be far from the truth. It’s just the thought of watching over 200 silent films that seems a bit taxing. When starting the 1077 Films to See Before You Die, is important to mix the harder to watch silents in with the more modern pieces. With that being said, I am yet to have come across a taxing silent film. The Battleship Potemkin, a Russian film from 1925, was an incredibly easy viewing.

It is easy to tell why several film scholars call it the most important foreign film ever made. It was also the next film I watched from the 1077 Films to See Before You Die.

Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin is not only a grand showing of film editing, but it also the first ever propaganda film. The film follows the story of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the Russian battleship,Potemkin, rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime. Eisenstein shows that Tsarists as barbaric and uncivil killing machines in what is no doubt an extremely powerful pro-communist ethos. The film is split into five chapters, I would like to focus on the first and fourth chapters and how they laid the framework for one of history’s most controversial masterpieces.

Chapter one: Men and Maggots.....

The opening chapter of The Battleship Potemkin is important because it sets off the entire story. It starts with Russian soldiers refusing to eat the rotten and maggot infested meat that the Tsarists have chosen to feed them. When presented with the rotten food, the Tsarists simply tell them to “wash it off with brine.”

Storyline aside, this is when I really started to notice the masterful editing skills being displayed. In the 1920’s, most films were being shot in a single scene-by-scene style. But The Battleship Potemkin was years ahead of its time. You see the beginning of modern film editing as several characters and settings flash across the screen. It is difficult to not wonder how Eisenstein made this happen, as the technology was very limited at the time.

Chapter four: The Odessa Staircase.....

Simply put, this section of the film is amazing. It features the Tsarists walking down a seemingly endless staircase as they mercilessly pick-off the innocent civilians of Odessa. The victims include a small boy, an elderly man and even the retreating mother of an infant child. As the mother falls to her death, she bumps the babies’ stroller and it starts to venture down the many steps. This is one of the most iconic scenes in the all of early film. To this day, filmmakers wonder how Eisenstein was able to get this shot. The camera follows the stroller all the way down to the bottom of the steps were the child is met and killed by a Tsarist soldier, remember this is a propaganda film so nothing is off limits.

The staircase scene is another prime example of editing masterwork. There are so many things being captured on screen at once that it is almost impossible for a viewer to not sit back and wonder, how the hell did he do that?! The Odessa Staircase is one of the most impressive, brutal and innovative things I have ever seen in film. If you aren’t going to watch the entire film, at least make an effort to seek out its fourth chapter.

So yes, maybe the controversies and propaganda that surrounded the film upon release has faded away. But The Battleship Potemkin should not be remembered strictly as a pro-communist film. It is one of the finest examples of early editing and a pioneer of effective storytelling.

The film was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World Fair in 1958, and though it may have lost its grasp on that title, it still remains one of the most mind-blowingly impressive works in the history of foreign cinema. At some point I WILL find a film on the 1077 Films to See Before You Die that I do not like. Until then, I advise you all to search for and find The Battleship Potemkin. It will blow your mind. 6 films down with 1071 to go.

The Battleship Potemkin: B+

My next film….The Hangover (Phillips. 2009)

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