For a Spoonful of Borscht
Charlie Chaplin’s all-time favorite film and up there on every cine qua non ranking, The Battleship Potemkin/Bronenosets Potyomkin is as wonderful as ever. This second of three 1925 agitprop films from engineering student-turned-theater man Sergei Eisenstein packs so much eye-and-heart power that its abrupt ending seems to come hard on the opening rather than an hour-and-a-third later. “The one film we knew would have to be shown” -- to live piano accompaniment, twice including opening weekend, in Lincoln Center and Seagull Films’ expansive “Envisioning Russia: A Century of Filmmaking” focus on Concern Mosfilm, Russia’s then-and-now preeminent studio -- was acclaimed in Weimar Berlin after mixed success (and backbiting) at home and went on to serve as an introduction to the world of the new Soviet cinematic and cultural aspirations.
An unusual classic that retains life in the seeing, as opposed to post-mortem critical dissection, its script co-authored by the director fictionalizes in documentary style an incident better remembered from the screen than its historical part in the 1905 unrest that, exacerbated by Rasputin and the Great War, would coalesce into Revolution within a dozen years. Reportedly the most written-about film in history, reverenced in Love and Death with shattered eyeglasses and a reversal of stone lions awakening, its Odessa Steps massacre perhaps the most famous film minutes ever and openly homaged in The Untouchables, the film takes its stirring heavy-handedly flag-waving cue from a mutiny at Black Sea Odessa, not the incorrectly cited Gulf of Finland Kronshtadt, aboard a ship ironically named for Catherine II’s favorite field marshal.
Expanded from a half-page of hundreds intended for a Central Party-envisioned eight-part tenth year October Revolution celebration, Potemkin came in just under the wire after feverish editing. J.M.W. Turnesque in its seascapes, symmetrical in its compositions, strict in its color-codes of proletariat in black (or red?) and bourgeois and upper classes white-clad, the film is notable for enthusiasm, spontaneity, and an insistence on brief scenes juxtaposed for emotional effect.
The latter is called montage -- photo-montage in still work -- a practice used as well to compress action and convey the passage of time. Inspired by the techniques of D.W. Griffith and the lab work of contemporary countryman Lev Kuleshov, Eisenstein edited this film and would later identify five types of montage in teaching and writing during his official “rehabilitation” by Moscow after disasters in the United States and Mexico.
In short shots, the film marches like a symphony of interconnected dialectical movement on sea and land, ending in triumph after suspense as “Brothers” on fleet units ordered to intercept the rebels lower their cannons. Realized afterwards, the exception is the several times recurred-to Odessa Steps scene, which did not actually occur and, pale lockstepping Cossacks brilliantly imaged faceless from side-boot level or above-behind, goes on longer than it would have, terror in the parallel phalanx of bayoneted rifles and stunned grieving face of observer-victims.
This amazing sequence is prefigured by the throngs of workers and students who descend mirrored arched stairways from an overpass, to queue past the Mantegna-foreshortened center-screen corpse of Grigory Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov). His remains deposited in a makeshift wharfside shrine before sunrise by komrades, this seaman had been vociferous in protesting mess rations of bad borscht and maggoty meat -- “Russian prisoners in Japan eat better!” -- and paid as the sole Bolshevik fatality when crew and guards rise as one against Commander Golikov’s (Vlidimir Barsky) summary execution order of a dozen and more who reject the grub. Officers are tossed into the harbor, while a sanctimonious “Give us this day our daily bread” Orthodox priest feigns unconsciousness and his crucifix bites the deckplanks.
With minor exceptions, sailors and shoremen are nameless, played by non-actors. Memorable staccato images one following another as immediate as in a newsreel, this reconstruction of a historical confrontation features, in fact, no individuals as such: the mutinous crew body is the hero, balanced and seconded in the solidarity masses on the quays who echo the Musketeer “all for one” and in sailboats bring live animal and dairy foodstuffs to the rebels.
Christened “shock attraction” by Eisenstein, the film’s exciting visual language “lost most of its meaning,” noted Roberto Rossellini, when sound obviated the need for a sight substitute for the spoken word. But such is the energy of Potemkin that, with also Russian Dziga Vertov, it “enter[s] the arena of life itself,” and affects as only the best can.
(Released by Kino International; not rated by MPAA.)