Circle Cinema screened Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film for their “Graveyard Shift” series.
Every second Saturday of the month, Circle Cinema shows a classic silent film accompanied by live organ music from an authentic 1928 fully-acoustic organ. This month, they screened Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin.” Robert Donaldson, a local expert on Russian history, gave a brief introduction. He explained that the film was originally meant to contain many episodes of the events that led to the 1917 revolution, but it ended up being only a single episode concerning the battleship.
“Battleship Potemkin” details a mutiny aboard the titular battleship. Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov), one of the sailors, laments on the horrible conditions he and the other sailors must face. They sleep in crowded cabins, eat rotten meat and are treated brutally by the officers. Pushed to the edge, he fuels a rebellion against the officers and overthrows their leadership. The people of Odessa are rallied when they hear the news, and sentiment against the Tsar’s rule grows.
The film’s brilliance is often associated with the superb “Odessa Steps” scene, where protesters of the Tsar’s rule are massacred on a large staircase. The Cossacks slowly advance, always from the left side of the screen to the right. Their placement at the top of the stairs emphasizes their power over the panicking masses. Close-ups of the catastrophe emphasize its impact on individuals, while long shots show the massive scale of the tragedy. This scene’s depiction of injustice is powerful enough to evoke a real sense of anger in the viewer.
Brutal violence is also depicted in this scene, and this violence was often censored in later releases of the film. Censorship also faced the film in England and France, where it was banned for its revolutionary themes. The film was even censored in the U.S.S.R.: a quote from Trotsky at the beginning was removed after he became Stalin’s political enemy.
This film is actually based on a real mutiny that occurred in 1905. The rebellion is now seen as one of the events which eventually led to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. However, the famous Odessa Steps scene didn’t occur exactly as depicted. No massacre occurred in broad daylight at that specific location. There were, however, instances of troops firing on rioters, and historians estimate the deaths to be in the hundreds.
Despite this, many still falsely believe the Odessa Steps massacre occurred precisely as it does in the film. This realism is what makes “Potemkin” so great; it invests the viewer so deeply into the plight of the Russian victims. People want to believe the massacre is real because it lets them further sympathize with the struggle.
“Battleship Potemkin” is also frequently cited as incredibly influential in the advancement of filmmaking, pioneering several cornerstone techniques of the artform. Unlike many movies of its day, “Potemkin” uses many shots and quick cuts to emphasize the urgency of the action. This technique is now a staple of action films, and even non-action movies will use many quick cuts to create a sense of speed.
It’s easy to see why “Potemkin” is one of the most legendary films of all time. The movie is still shown to film students year after year, and not without good reason. Its historical importance, cultural impact and influence on filmmaking are all difficult to understate.
Next month’s silent film will be “A Romance of the Redwoods” and will be shown on Saturday, Nov 9.