Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

Years ago, when I was a child, Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin) was shown on television. I must have been about 10, perhaps 11—but no more than that. Five minutes into the film and I got bored of the grainy, jerky picture (this was an unrestored version) and the lack of dialogue. A silent film? And that too about a mutiny? Um, no.
For some 25 odd years, that remained my only memory of Bronenosets Potyomkin, even long after I’d discovered that it’s regarded as a sort of cult classic.
An omission, I realised, that needed correction. It was time to dust off Sergei Eisenstein’s magnum opus and see what it was really about.

The story of Bronenosets Potyomkin is very simple, almost ludicrously so. It’s set in 1905, aboard the Battleship Potemkin, where mutiny is brewing among the disgruntled sailors. Frequent thrashings from the officers, combined with inhuman working conditions, have worn morale to tatters, and some of the younger sailors are beginning to crack. The last straw is the rotten meat that is hung up on deck outside the kitchen, ready to be converted into soup. The sailors crowd around it, peering at the meat and complaining that it’s so crawling with maggots, it could walk overboard on its own.

The ship’s doctor, when called to check the meat, is dismissive: it’s not worms. All they need do is wash it with brine and it’ll be fine.
So the meat is used to make soup, but the sailors—to a man—refuse to touch it. The captain of the Potemkin, Commander Golikov (Vladimir Barsky) flies into a rage and summons all hands on deck. When the sailors stand by their decision to not eat the soup, Golikov has a bunch of sailors separated from the rest. A tarpaulin’s thrown over them, and a hurriedly-assembled firing squad is ordered to shoot them down.

At this point, one of the sailors, the firebrand Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) decides enough’s enough. Vakulinchuk has been on the verge of rebellion all these days, and it now boils over into outright mutiny. He yells to the other sailors to rise up against their tyrannical officers, and soon the Potemkin is the scene of much fighting. The officers are heavily outnumbered, so it’s hardly a surprise that the sailors are soon able to gain control of the ship.

In the process, though, Vakulinchuk himself is killed.
His comrades, who’ve managed to bring the Potemkin into the harbour at Odessa, put Vakulinchuk’s body on a gun boat and bring him ashore. On the shore at Odessa, they erect a small tent to house Vakulinchuk’s body, lying peacefully on its back, clutching a burning candle…

…and that becomes an icon for the people of Odessa. It begins with a few passersby who come to the tent, curious to see what this is all about. But as the hours pass, the number of people coming becomes a crowd. They come to light more candles, to leave money, to sing the praises of this brave martyr who has given up his life for the poor and downtrodden. The steps of Odessa are crowded with the workers of the city, all of them thronging towards Vakulinchuk’s corpse as it lies in the tent. Gradually, too, Vakulinchuk becomes an inspiration for the workers of Odessa, with people urging each other on to use his example and rise against the tyranny of the ruling classes.

Happily for Vakulinchuk’s still-living colleagues, some of Vakulinchuk’s status as idol rubs off on them too. While they’re mourning for the martyr, the people of Odessa also find time to show their solidarity with the sailors. They go out in a small flotilla to the Potemkin, carrying with them provisions for the sailors aboard the battleship: suckling pigs, geese, chickens, eggs… the men never had it so good.

Suddenly, it’s all a big, joyful regatta. The sailors on the Potemkin wave to the crowds bringing them food. The people in the boats, handing up baskets of eggs or live chickens, are excited and happy; and the crowds on the steps of Odessa are close to delirious, waving madly and trying to get a better view of the Potemkin and its heroic sailors. Everybody is here: a legless veteran, women in bustles and carrying lacy parasols, workers, babies, children… Odessa has turned out in full force in support of the mutineers of the Potemkin.

And that is when the most horrifying sequence of this story takes place. Because Czarist Russia will not allow this (at least not for the next 12 years); because Cossacks, both mounted and on foot, heavily armed and ruthless, are waiting at the top of the steps to quash all rebellion. The Cossacks open fire on the crowd, and what ensues is terrible. The crowd tries to flee, rushing frantically down the steps, pursued by the soldiers; but there are more waiting below, mounted and with drawn swords. Carnage follows. People fall and are trampled upon by their panicking comrades, women try desperately to save their children, and the steps of Odessa run red (black?) with blood.

Not very much happens after this: the Potemkin escapes the Czarist forces at Odessa by leaving the harbour in a hurry. It then runs into a naval squadron that’s in the vicinity and seems to be coming straight at them… but could it be that the squadron too has changed sides and is no longer loyal to the Czar? Or will the men of the Potemkin have to fight their final battle against an enemy too big to be conquered?

Not much, see? A very simple, short story that could well have been compressed into perhaps half an hour (as it is, Bronenosets Potyomkin is only about 75 minutes long). Commendably, though, Eisenstein doesn’t let the film drag: he uses the time to build it up, in small details that add to the atmosphere. Shortly after the sailors realise that the meat on board is tainted, for instance, there’s a shot of two sailors washing dishes. It’s interspersed with shots of the soup being cooked, bubbling as it’s stirred… and somewhere nearby, the two men scrub plates, rinse plates, wipe plates—until one of them, the younger of the two, notices the letters painted on the rim of the plate: Give us this day our daily bread.

And that is what throws the sailor over the brink: that sudden realisation that in this skewed world of haves and have-nots, he and his colleagues are the ones who can’t even hope for bread. He smashes the plate in a mad fit of anger and Eisenstein gives his audience another glimpse of the desperation that prompted the revolution.

Or another detail: when Commander Gokilov assembles the firing squad, the men line up, guns at the ready—but one man looks down for a moment, indecision written all across his face. As if he’s wondering whether he’s doing right by obeying Gokilov.

Or in that memorable scene of the massacre on the Odessa steps: a woman (Prokopenko) and child, standing happily on the steps and watching the gaiety aboard the Potemkin, find themselves caught in the stampede. They run down the steps, hand in hand—but the jostling crowd separates mother from son, and the child is gunned down. What follows is a series of quick back-and-forth frames: the mother realising her child’s missing; the child, blood flowing, falling on the steps; the frantic mother rushing about looking for him; people stampeding, stepping on the child as they run by… and finally, the mother, gone mad with grief, lifting her dead child in her arms and approaching the Cossacks, as if asking them to give back her child to them.

And another haunting scene from the same sequence: a young mother (Beatrice Vitoldi, later to be the USSR’s ambassador to Italy), with her baby in a pram. This mother manages to find what seems like a safe spot near the edge of the steps, but to make sure that her baby remains safe, she positions herself in front of the pram—and is hit by a bullet. We see her clutching her waist (there’s a long, lingering shot of the ornate buckle on her belt, as blood starts flowing over it), and then she keels over backward, hitting the pram and sending it hurtling helplessly down the steps, baby and all.

This is what Bronenosets Potyomkin is for me: details. Eisenstein zooms in and out, going from the larger, panoramic view (the battleship, the Odessa steps) to sudden extreme close-ups (the sailor, the mother, the child). The overall effect is unforgettable.

Bronenosets Potyomkin is considered pathbreaking as far as technical aspects go: the quick editing, for instance, was an innovation that Eisenstein introduced to the world of cinema with this film. I am unlikely to know technical brilliance if it hit me on the head: but I can see the effect of that brilliance, and I can appreciate it.

All said and done, though, I doubt if I’ll see the entire film again. For someone who’s studying cinema, or learning film-making, it would almost certainly merit multiple viewings. For someone like me, who simply likes to see good films, this may not come up on the agenda again. Except for the sequence on the Odessa steps—that is in a class by itself.

What I liked about this film:

The sequence on the steps of Odessa. Several film critics have called this among the best scenes in cinema, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s stupendous.

What I didn’t like:

The propaganda. It doesn’t pervade the film, but there are a couple of instances where it’s painfully obvious. For example, in the (mercifully brief) appearance of the Potemkin’s chaplain, a priest who comes nodding his head approvingly when the mutinying sailors are facing the firing squad. Later, when Vakulinchuk and his men have taken over the ship and killed the officers, the camera dwells lovingly (and gloatingly) on the corpse of the priest, his ornate crucifix partly buried in the floorboards. A little cheesy.

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23 thoughts on “Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

  1. I saw it just like you on TV, although I was bored, I sat through it and remember the movie only for its stairs and the pram scene. I’ve always wanted to see it again and as usual …
    At the local Film Festival, I watched a silent movie called The Pandora’s box based on Wedekind’s novel. It was a treat to watch the camera angles and movements. The lack of dialogues usually substituted by very expressive gestures were compensated here by the language of the photography. Wonderful!
    I also watched a War-propaganda film by Alfred Hitchcock, where the flight of a scottish soldier is shown first in his version and then that of clarified version of the French resistance. Very much of a propaganda film but the story with its cat and mouse treatment was a revelation!

  2. I think I’m now a little more mature when it comes to appreciating silent films! I haven’t seen very many – in fact, the only other silent film I’ve seen recently was the swashbuckling The Black Pirate, starring Douglas Fairbanks. All right, but not that great – if you’ve seen swashbucklers like Scaramouche or The Black Swan, it fails on the swashbuckling front; and if you’ve seen The Battleship Potemkin, then it fails on the camera work and ‘making silences speak’ angle.

    The Pandora’s Box sounds good – what language is it? And what was the Hitchcock film called? I’d like to see it, propaganda notwithstanding!

  3. The Pandora’s Box had originally the subtitles in German (since a silent film), the signboard in London warning the people in London of Jack the Ripper is in German. The copy which was shown here had Italian subtitles and the organisers had provided us with a live translator, who translated it into German!

    The Hitchcock movie is Bon Voyage, lasts just for half an hour!

  4. This is a fantastic film, glad you watched it. Nothing to add to what you have noted about the little details that tell so much.
    I wouldn’t have wanted this to be a talkie, it is so much more effective as silent. Dialogue would have been a distraction.
    The stairs scene is just amazing. How did he manage to shoot that one? The baby in the pram/ the mother/child…they are scenes where your heart is in your mouth.
    Incidentally, Brian de Palma paid homage to this-baby in pram- in his movie The Untouchables, using the stairs at the Chicago train station, I believe (if it was another location please correct).

    It also is a reminder of why revolutions took place, and how easily we take for granted rights that were denied to the vast majority until recently. And how we should take greater responsibility for taking good care of our democracies…after all, there are always going to be far more people in the “working-class”!! so no excuses for putting idiots into power anywhere.
    You might find this an interesting read:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8474611.stm

  5. Bravo Bawa! Well said!
    “how easily we take for granted rights that were denied to the vast majority until recently”

    I try to put this in the heads of the schoolchildren and grown-ups during my workshops with them. It is so hard!

  6. The scene you’ve linked to looks very distressing – kind of reminds me of the descriptions of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre.

    I havent been much into silent films, because the dialogues are what I love most about films. But there was one film on TCM which I casually watched and got hooked to. It wasnt a particularly good movie (I dont even remember the name or the story now!) but I was amazed at how much wit could be conveyed in the few “subtitles” it had, and how well emotions were conveyed. I am not sure I want to watch this one, though. It looks way too touching and distressing…

  7. bollyviewer, having recently (re) watched City Lights (Chaplin), The General (Buster Keaton)- totally recommend them- and the newly found complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis -yes! it in Argentina somewhere. The only version that was available all this time was a liberally chopped-up version related to getting it passed by US censors- ¿the original Shemaroos & Friends co.?- that left you wondering whether the film made any head or tail, and this new one certainly gets to you. Some amazing scenes and effects.

    Silent films can be as good or bad as any talkie, but although some of the acting might be OTT, the best directors found wonderful ways of conveying a lot with so little.

  8. Dustedoff, thank you for this very interesting review. The Battleship Potemkin (as I’m used to calling it :) is a brilliant film. But I saw it at a cinema studies course in college, which was also, I must admit, more than a quarter of a century ago, so I definitely need to see it again!

    Ukraine itself was a special hotbed of revolution, for Bolsheviks and then for the anarchists who rebelled against the Bolsheviks a few years before this film was made. (And I have also heard that I had a pretty active revolutionary in my family back in Odessa – I have to look into that sometime.)

    Bawa, of course I like what you said. The article is good too, making some valid points about people acting/voting against their own class interests. Right now I’m reading stuff by a guy who does a lot of psychological analysis about this displaced class struggle; his name is Slavoj Zizek…

    But it’s questionable whether opposition to the healthcare bill is simply a case of that, considering that this bill further entrenches insurance companies (mandating the purchase of insurance, with no other option) and will result in cuts in Medicare, etc. It’s a shame that the U.S. government couldn’t even consider the “single-payer” kind of plan that has existed for so long in Canada, Western Europe, etc. If the only opposition seems to come from the right, maybe it’s because the U.S. does not have a (unified) political left that can stand up to the powers right now. (Sorry about long tangent – but the issue was raised. :)

  9. Like Richard, I saw ‘Battleship Potemkin’ at film school. 15 years ago. So yes, definitely time for a re-visit. But I remember the steps sequence so vividly with the mother and child, and the mother with the baby in the pram. And the evocative close-ups. I don’t remember the name of the film, but am certain that I’ve seen the baby in the pram scene in an Anil Kapoor film. :)

  10. harvey, thank you! I’ll look out for Bon Voyage – and The Pandora’s Box, if I can find a version with subtitles in English.

    bawa: That BBC article makes for interesting reading. I remember, way back in pre-glasnost and perestroika days, when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union, I learnt – in history class – quite a bit about the Russian Revolution, both 1905 and 1917. More, in fact, than many of my classmates, since my sister was studying history and had very leftist leanings. I’m thinking a screening of this film would have been an effective way of giving students some idea of what it was in places like Odessa… on a slightly different note, I was watching Yentl the other day, where the Barbra Streisand character disguises herself as a man simply in order to be able to study the Talmud, which she, as a woman, is not allowed to study. A different sort of ‘right’, but connected – and now taken so much for granted!

    bollyviewer: I’m so frivolous, I probably wouldn’t pull The Battleship Potemkin out of my bunch of DVDs to watch it again (I’d much rather watch something starring Granger or Power!), but it is a very powerful film. Definitely worth at least one watch, even though that steps scene is very distressing.

    Richard: An active revolutionary in the family way back in Odessa? That sounds interesting and needs more exploring of the family tree! Our family tree doesn’t have any revolutionaries as far as I remember, though there was a somewhat incendiary poet who hit back at a pompous maharaja who dared insinuate that he (the maharaja) was endowed with divine powers!

    Banno: Yes, that pram sequence does look very familiar, doesn’t it? And bawa also mentions a possible repeat in The Untouchables. I don’t remember any of these, but when I saw it in The Battleship Potemkin, I thought, “I’ve seen this before!” With the amount of inspiration Hindi cinema or Hollywood seems to draw from everywhere else, I’m not surprised – and that scene is so impactful.

  11. I haven’t seen any silent movies yet, but going by this review and the comments, I would definitely give it a try.
    This sounds so well made with such minute details…but then the distressing steps scene scares me.
    I had goose flesh just reading the review :
    - and that becomes an icon for the people of Odessa. It begins with a few passersby who come to the tent, curious to see what this is all about. But as the hours pass, the number of people coming becomes a crowd. They come to light more candles, to leave money, to sing the praises of this brave martyr who has given up his life for the poor and downtrodden. The steps of Odessa are crowded with the workers of the city, all of them thronging towards Vakulinchuk’s corpse as it lies in the tent.
    - the mother-child scene : in both the cases – child being gunned and the pram scene as well.

  12. I’d definitely recommend this for at least one viewing – it’s a classic. And the Odessa steps sequence is very, very good. For me, though, this wasn’t as distressing as the scenes from the concentration camps in Judgement at Nuremberg (for me, that was terrible, probably because I knew that these were real people whose deaths – and humiliation – I was witnessing, not actors).

    Hey, you must have seen some silent films – a lot of Charlie Chaplin’s films were silent. And if you grew up in the 80′s and were subjected to Doordarshan, you probably saw some of them! I know I did, but I guess I never thought of them as silent – Chaplin managed to convey so much without dialogue.

  13. The scene from the The Untouchables by Brian de Palma was a deliberate homage to Eisenstein. You cannot miss it, if you have seen the film.
    What I was doubting was the location: I believe it is the Chicago main train station.

  14. Oh, okay. I saw the film only once, shortly after it was released, so I don’t remember very much of it (in fact, just about nothing).

    I wonder how many other scenes there are that have become so iconic that they’ve spawned multiple inspirations or tributes…

  15. Dustedoff, I think an incendiary poet talking back to a maharaja is pretty interesting. :)

    And btw, it’s very interesting to see that you gained this expertise on the Russian Revolutions. Did your sister’s “very leftist” leanings stop?

    Strangely, I didn’t get to be “very leftist” and read a lot of history until the mid-late ’90s, when I was already well into my 30s. (In my youth, I’d just been a cultural rebel – punk/goth type, and also very into writing, but not much political knowledge back then.)

    The Spanish Revolution of ’36 was the first one that really caught my imagination (by the way, ever see Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom?), then I learned more about some other revolutions – including those Russian ones – a little later on. (I think I learned most about the 1905 one from reading Rosa Luxemburg.)

    But anyway, I probably shouldn’t go on too much about that stuff…

    Silent films… Always liked them. Though of couse I prefer Indian films with lots of music and dance!

  16. I guess my sister’s leftist leanings were probably a result of her doing her MA from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University – JNU has always been very leftwing as a university, and it rubs off on a lot of the students, even if you aren’t really involved in student politics. I remember her telling me all about Rosa Luxembourg and how Trotsky was killed (wasn’t he the one who was brained with an ice pick?) – I even ended up reading Ten Days That Shook The World when I was still a teenager. She is (and even I am, for that matter) still pretty much left wing in a lot of things. Not radically so, but basically socialist.

    But yes, when it comes to films, I’m very happy with song and dance and pure escapism! :-)

  17. What a Cinephile you are, Absolutely loved your write up of this, I don’t see myself watching this at all, but your review just about covers all i need to know and has helped my knowledge of this event

  18. I did grow up in the 80′s but was in Bhutan then, till early 90′s. And TV transmission was introduced pretty late in Bhutan (almost by the end of 90′s). So didn’t get to watch TV much as a kid, unless on a vacation to India or Nepal.
    And by the time I actually started watching Doordarshan, they had almost stopped airing such movies.
    I saw a couple of Charlie Chaplin’s films last year but like you, never thought of them as silent.

  19. Okay – yes, if you didn’t see much Doordarshan till the 90′s, then you’d not have had a childhood of obscure films! :-) DD certainly showed some very unusual films, and of course, some great classics. Not that I remember too many silent films other than the Chaplin ones…

  20. @ banno and dustedoff, the Anil Kapoor film was Tezaab, where a similar sequence takes place during a bank robbery.
    @ Dustedofff and Sunhari Yaadain, I agree with you about Chaplin films. I saw Great Dictator hardly a month back, but am not sure if it was a silent or a talkie.

  21. Thanks, Pawan!

    I must see Chaplin’s films again… it’s been very long since I saw any, and they deserve more frequent viewing than once every decade or so.

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