A Gentle Reminder: Battleship Potemkin

Foreword: I feel like a new column requires a foreword – just some kind of an explanation or justification for its existence. First of all, I cannot call myself a cinephile. I’ve seen a few films in my life (or a few dozens), but that’s about it. And after I’d watched those films, I realised how many average movies are out there – so now I find myself a careful viewer. Life is so short – and there is so much revision to do!

In this column, I’m going to talk about films that are more of an experience than your everyday film; something powerful that we viewers are unlikely to forget. These films may be famous and blatantly obvious, or may be somewhat obscure, but they have all been verified by time. Or maybe I’ll end up with no rules!

Battleship Potemkin: Silent Revolution and Blood in Black and White

In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein, a young and promising film director, was kindly asked to make a film for the 20-year anniversary of the 1905 revolution. Initially, the film was supposed to be incredibly long and ambitious, covering all the abundant revolutionary chronicles of 1905, but the final outcome was relatively modest – a 75 minute homage to the riot on a battleship that took place in Odessa.

At least twice in history the film was named one of the best films of all times. If you don’t trust me, trust the opinions of Orson Welles and Luis Bunuel, who believed it to be among the best. Why is it so good? First of all, Potemkin is filled with innovative approaches non-existent before, and professional film directors are more than capable of appreciating the artful ways of film-making. But is it just an educational monument that a normal viewer cannot value?

This film is silent. However we can almost hear the screaming, crying, begging, artillery charges and announcements of death sentences. This film is in black and white and from a long time ago; but we can almost see the redness of blood, feel the suffocating conditions of the battleship and the whole sense of suppression and reaction in the air. For me this is the power of black and white films – they don’t give you the whole colourful picture, just monochromatic scenes with lots of shadows and undertones – that is when it gets interesting. Your mind starts working on decoding this layout that’s so different to our colourful lives. That makes those films somewhat more engaging but it also requires an input for the viewer.

If you’re still not convinced, let’s think about the fable. Forget about communists, especially if you don’t like them. This film is not about communism, socialism or any other –ism. This plot is basically the precursor of the notorious ‘you gotta fight for your right…’ and it’s a universal message. It depicts people who didn’t agree to act as an obedient crowd. It depicts how changes in society are initiated – if you start shooting at peaceful civilians, then something’s not right. But beware, the film says – this fight is a messy and dangerous business and you may end up thrown overboard, dead. The story may be a jubilee of redemption, but a shadow of ramification is always there.

Admittedly, this film is a statement, a work of art, a canvas you would put on a wall (if you could) and admire but not incorporate into your life by watching it regularly (unless you watched it in your first date and now have your sentimental reasons). It’s not the easiest film to watch, let me remind you:

The film is in silent, and black and white. Imagine yourself inviting friends, buying pizza and beer… and watching Battleship Potemkin? I’d salute that, but I’m not very hopeful.

And speaking about canvas, the film indeed inspired a number of art works of various qualities. So if you ever wondered where those great film techniques come from, check, they well may be originating for the Battleship. Forget all that Soviet revolutionary joy that was the initial force behind the film. This input is questionable for many people these days resulted in a production of a powerful cultural catalyst that influenced both cinematic and non-cinematic outputs, not to mention the trigger of citations and parodies. And the process is still going on. This grandpa of a film is 89 years old but it is more alive than many of today’s cinematic craft. It is definitely still breathing and ready to fight.

ALINA GUKOVA

 

Editor’s note: Alina’s column ‘A Gentle Reminder’ will run every other Thursday. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out her next review on 6th November.

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