Friday, April 13, 2012

Short Take: The Battleship Potemkin

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is invariably included in lists of the best films ever made. Viewing it today, it more than justifies its stature. The story is about the 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian warship and the uprising in Odessa that followed. Eisenstein goes beyond setting the standard for “technical brilliance.” He tells the story with a cinematic fluency that would inspire envy in the best contemporary action directors. (Steven Spielberg, to pick one example, is clearly one of Eisenstein's most devoted students.) The individual shots are boldly composed, and Eisenstein has a dazzling sense of choreography: his understanding of how to orchestrate action in the frame so that it heightens or relaxes the pace is just about incomparable. And if this virtuosity wasn't enough, he takes things further with his bravura ordering of shots into a larger, more effective whole. (In film parlance, this rhythmic style of editing--an Eisenstein innovation--is called montage, and the picture’s use of it is still unsurpassed.) All five of the film’s sections are beautifully shaped. The Odessa Steps sequence, in which government troops massacre the rebellious city residents, is the most famous. But the most accomplished may be the section in which a martyred sailor is mourned on the Odessa docks. Eisenstein starts slowly, with somber views of the harbor before dawn. The sailor’s body is laid out for viewing, and an occasional passerby stops to pay respect. Lines of those grieving begin to form, and they grow into a procession in which the entire city takes part. The sailor is eulogized: the mutiny is identified with the budding revolution against the tsar, and the crowds are entreated to honor his memory by joining it. The sequence climaxes with the raising of a flag that signifies the solidarity between the townspeople, the ship’s crew, and the greater revolution. The tempo is masterful, and the progression from sorrow to triumph is astonishing. The other sections may not reach quite the same heights, but they’re breathtaking nonetheless. Eisenstein stages, shoots, and edits the film with the craft and dynamism that Beethoven brought to his symphonies. It’s a silent classic that needs no special pleading.

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