Movie Review: The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
My introduction to The Battleship Potemkin was in film school. As an undergrad, learning about director Sergei Eisenstein and his association with the Kuleshov School of film theory was imperative, elementary knowledge. The Kuleshov effect, or a montage, is a form of editing believed by proponents to be the most powerful aspect of filmmaking. The idea is that by merely assembling two images in correlation with one another, a passionate reaction of sympathy or empathy can arise from audience members.
Utilizing this theory, Eisenstein went on to make The Battleship Potemkin, a harrowing, powerful film that tells the story of mutiny on a Russian naval ship in 1905. Eisenstein created a film meant to act as propaganda; one that would stir emotions deep within audience members causing them to become riled up with anger. Although made in 1925, Eisenstein’s intent still rings clear as a bell. After finally watching The Battleship Potemkin for the first time, I was ready to rise up against tyranny and defeat whoever stood in my way.
The use of montage makes The Battleship Potemkin potent with energy, although Eisenstein’s picturesque framing of images are significantly complimentary. The depth of the world in which The Battleship Potemkin exists is stunning to watch unfold. The people of Russia soon hear of a shipmate’s death and of the uprising on the ship, causing hundreds of emotionally distraught citizens to feel the plight of their fellow man. They band together in spirit against oppression, but suffer a brutal consequence at the hands of the Tsar’s soldiers.
The massive crowd that pours into the streets paying their respects to the fallen soldier is captured through overheard long shots. Although the shot makes the citizens appear almost as tiny as ants, the emphasis on their sheer numbers is beyond staggering, thus, making the infamous “Odessa Steps Sequence” all the more powerful. Eisenstein captures most of the film in staunch close-ups, underscoring the swift, evocative shifts in time and place. A dissolving fade has been commonplace in cinema since George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon two decades prior, yet in The Battleship Potemkin, the novelty editing transition is done with a cultivated poise that still makes the effect appear fresh and unique, even by today’s standards.
My love for silent cinema goes to a deep place of historical appreciation and admiration for its technical and contextual dexterity, but also because there was a spark, and sense of importance within filmmaking at the time that is nearly extinct these days. The Battleship Potemkin sent my heart racing and left my mouth agape. The way it chose to capture action and emotion through simple association of images is phenomenal.
Sure, by today’s standards the editing is a bit choppy and at times the cohesiveness of a bullet hitting someone and that someone falling is a tad campy, as extensive editing was just getting its wings back then. And some moments that straddle time and linger in the air to create tension go on a bit too long. However, it still doesn’t detract from the power of the images. The Battleship Potemkin is a gem that’s slightly rough around the edges, but shines on no less. It’s raw and powerful and an eye opening experience to naval life and what can bring a man to mutiny.
A Gallery of Images from The Battleship Potemkin