Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein; Cinematographers: Eduard Tisse, Vladimir Popov)
Life is destroyed in its infancy by tyrannous Russian tsarists in Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin. When a mother is shot, and her baby plummets down a flight of steps, past piles of corpses, a trigger-happy militia, and the agonizing howls of trampled townspeople, the propaganda is front and center, blunt as a blackjack. Here are the good guys. Here are the bad guys. Battleship Potemkin was Eisenstein’s call to arms for the placated Russian public, urging them to organize under the banner of revolution, but the revolution was years past, and the solidarity of the Red Army – a convoluted wash of opposing factions.
This famous Odessa Staircase sequence, referenced everywhere from DePalma’s The Untouchables to a recent piece attributed to Banksy, is a classic bit of rhythm editing, building to a furious apex in which the carriage tips mid-motion, a tsarist soldier brings his weapon down on an unseen victim, and a peasant woman screams, her eye shot out, streaming blood. The blood, unlike the hand-colored red flag on the titular ship, remains an oily void on the black and white celluloid canvas. If Eisenstein’s brutal Odessa montage force-feeds viewers a nasty bit of interpretive realism, his shots of the waving, bright red, revolutionary banner only perpetuated the fiction that the united, heroic compatriotism of 1905, the year in which the film takes place, was still alive and well two decades later, following the August Uprising and the death of V. I. Lenin.
Esenstein’s film remains a stunning cinematic achievement, and the Odessa Staircase scene one of the finest action set-pieces to emerge from the pre-sound era, but as a political text, Battleship Potemkin can’t help but be swallowed up by the short-sighted folds of its own agitprop nostalgia. There was, Esenstein suggests, a glorious moment for Russia and its people, when the revolution was young, powerful, and pure. By 1925, that time had passed, and the patriotism of Battleship Potemkin was but a fleeting triumph for the divided Communist party, as it wrung out its oily flags, and prepared again for war, speeding blindly toward the bottom of the steps.