Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

While I am mildly curious about propaganda films, I confess I never really went out of my way to watch them – the exceptions being some animations produced during WWII, particularly the “Private Snafu” cartoons and Disney’s superb “Education for Death”. If they are done properly, as the latter is, they become powerful tools, but they can still hold on their own merits. I have shown it to several people, who, slightly expecting something Disney-esque were truly surprised and shocked. On the other hand, if they are badly done, and often they are, they become clunky - independently if you agree or disagree with its politics.
Fortunately for me, Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” fell in the first category. And of course, not just for me. It is one of the most influential films of all time – not only the incredible amount of homages and parodies of prams going down long magestic stairs, but also the editing style of the whole sequence of the Odessa steps, the film’s most powerful and celebrated sequence: the faceless soldiers, the horror of the faces, the cuts, the masses, all used incredibly effective to recreate, in the most emotional possible way, the panic and oppression of tsarist Russia. And by the way, that is a fictional event, although I have no doubt inspired by many other real ones.

The film recalls the events of the mutiny of the crew of the Potemkin, ignited by the poor conditions on board and the brutality of the officers, while stationed nearby the port of Odessa. At only 70 minutes, the film commands your attention from the start. There aren’t many superfluous moments – it’s not just because of the Odessa steps sequence this is considered one of the great examples of the art of film editing. The build-up to the ending is a good example too – especially if, as I, you have (had) absolutely no knowledge how the whole episode ended.

Contrary to what I was expecting, the cast isn’t full of demonic looking actors to play the antagonists. Most officers look either the same or more human than some of the sailors – or the people in the steps, for that matter. This makes them harder to hate them at first, but then the hate becomes almost rational – you can justify it: it’s purely their actions that condemn them. (There is one exception, the ship’s priest, who clearly looks insanely evil). Thus, whether you believe in communism or not, you side with the sailors, as our empathy will automatic go to those unfairly oppressed and in the most communist element of the whole film – while you don’t care for a particular character, as they are very much anonymous (with one or two exceptions), you do care for them as whole.

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