Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)
In 1905, the sailors of the Battleship Potemkin refuse to eat maggot-ridden food and mutiny against their abusive officers. The citzens of Odessa, the ship's home port, support the sailors - and the Tsar's armies violently disrupt peaceful demonstrations. The Potemkin is surrouned by other ships, but it turns out their crews have risen too.
Before Citizen Kane nabbed the position, this Soviet silent classic was regularly voted Best Film Ever Made. While Kane remains endlessly rewatchable because it's as entertaining as it is enjoyable, Potemkin is slightly more of an antique, as much for its outmoded propaganda as for techniques that have long since ceased to be the cutting edge of cinema. The story nugget (sailors mutiny, Tsarist forces repress the masses, the revolution spreads) is not so much dramatised as illustrated, as director Sergei Eisenstein uses then-revolutionary editing and pictorial techniques to convey the rising tide of insurrection and the oppressive iron boot of reaction interfacing in violence. Seen now, the moustache-twirling officers and robotic soldiers who represent the old regime are as cartoony as the villains of silent American melodrama, with especial boos and hisses for the mad-looking ship's priest who tries to dispel the revolution by waving a crucifix at starving sailors. The noble, suffering crewmen and trampled-on civilians are less caricatured, but are strong faces picked out of the crowd rather than characters in the usual sense.
It's famous for the Odessa Steps massacre, which features the unforgettable
image of a baby in a pram bumping down a long stairway after its mother
has been shot, but the big climax is a naval engagement which culminates
not in the expected shoot-out but on the refusal of one lot of sailors
to fire on their comrades in the rebellion. The inter-title cry of 'brothers!'
is still stirring.
First published in this form here.
All text on this page © Kim Newman