Sergey Eisenstein’s legendary 1925 film Battleship Potemkin was declared a masterpiece from the moment it premiered, and it has placed near the top of greatest-film polls for as long as such polls have existed. According to legend, Douglas Fairbanks imported his own copy and showed it to the Hollywood elite in private screening rooms; no one was converted by its politics, but everyone was euphoric over its pure technical prowess. Apparently, the film’s potential rabble-rousing capacity frightened only authority figures, who banned Battleship Potemkin in countries all over the world.
It’s easy to see why Battleship Potemkin still feels so revolutionary. It shatters any kind of traditional character identification: it has no single protagonist, no constant common face to gaze on. It’s not exactly what you’d call a tone poem (Eisenstein’s countryman Alexander Dovzhenko staked out that category), and it’s not particularly experimental or nonlinear. Moreover, it’s a poor example of cinematic storytelling, especially when compared with works by contemporaries such as D.W. Griffith, Eric von Stroheim, and Louis Feuillade. Rather, Battleship Potemkin is a collective experience in which the film’s raging mob becomes its main character. (Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is certainly a modern successor.) The resulting emotions beginning with the mutiny aboard the battleship ripple like a wave from ship to shore, across hordes of people, and, finally, down the Odessa steps.
Any film student could explain that Eisenstein’s energetic montage injects the film with its dynamic, pumping rhythms. Another look at the film, however, reveals that cinematographer Eduard Tisse deserves half the credit. Each individual shot, regardless of what comes before or after it, makes a striking photograph in itself. In the early moments before the mutiny, the sailors hang listlessly in a bizarre maze of hammocks, arranged like cocoons. Slatted, slanted beams of light slash through the artfully cluttered shots. The film undeniably has erotic and homoerotic images as well, most obviously the giant, greased pokers that slide into waiting cannon barrels. When the moment of mutiny occurs, the action turns more streamlined, with sailors racing around the ship like blood cells shooting through veins.
Eisenstein stressed speed, coordination, and clarity over the shaky jumbles that pass for action today. The celebrated editing doesn’t function like normal cutting, merely changing viewpoints it’s rhythmic, driving one shot forward by using the momentum of the previous one. Like a song reaching a bridge, the film gives us a break during the midsection, when the murdered inciting sailor is laid to rest in a tent on the Odessa waterfront. The people assemble to pay him homage, first glimpsed in large masses of moving bodies, then in close-ups of faces (some of which recur and some of which do not). In showing these faces, Eisenstein gives his mob a soul and a personality.
If Battleship Potemkin has any failing, it’s that Eisenstein’s soapbox message is stampeded by the sheer potent velocity of the film itself. When a group of officers prepares to gun down the mutineers, one sailor speaks up: "Brothers! Who are you shooting at?" It’s a great question, but not one posed by a revolutionary. It’s one asked by a visionary.
With live score composed by Dmitry Shostakovich, conducted by Alasdair Neale, and performed by the Marin Symphony
Sun/7 and Tues/9, 7:30 p.m. (also Tues/9, 6:30 p.m. conversation); $27$65
Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium
Marin Center, 10 Ave. of the Flags, San Rafael