Directed by innovative Soviet Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, who pioneered ideas about montage in film, many of which are still used today, Battleship Potemkin utilizes some of the most invigorating cinematography (by DP Eduard Tisse) of any silent film of that era, and has arguably the best crowd scenes of any movie I’ve ever seen, period (not to mention, one of the rare appearances of a vertical frame). This are the type of classic film where we rediscover that “storytelling” goes far beyond plot and narrative. In cinema, stories are told with the camera first and foremost.
In the decades that followed, of course, there would be directors like Alfred Hitchcock who would perfect these techniques, incorporating cinematic storytelling into the narrative itself, but in 1925 this kind of moviemaking was novel. The ostensible lack of choreography brings about an intentional sense of unbridled chaos during the melee scenes, and then during the larger crowd gatherings later on, the director finds unique ways—both big and small—to amplify that disorder with the swarming fishlike movement of entire crowds or a simple cluster of a group of nine men perched meticulously atop the ship’s hull.
Perhaps unintentionally so, Eisenstein highlights the potential sameness in idealism through this herd-like imagery, and thus the absence of free thought is never more apparent than by the very existence of these impressive crowd sequences. As a retrospective piece of socialist propaganda, Battleship Potemkin is not very effective as such, simply because its composition inherently showcases the unavoidable fallacies of that mindset.
In the dramatized tale about the real-life 1905 mutiny by the oppressed crew on the Russian battleship Potemkin, there’s not much in terms of specific characters to follow, but still emotions are present—and they all rise or fall based on what the camera is doing. As the plot carries onto mainland Russia, we see how the support of the rebels leads to even more violence by the Cossack army as they gun down innocent civilians who are merely cheering on the sailors.
On one hand a masterfully crafted piece of cinema, but on the other a propagandized advocate for Leninist idealism, Battleship Potemkin shows the dissonance between socialism and religion, and how if one exists, the other cannot. Eisenstein’s characters reject the solace of religion and Heavenly rewards in favor of earthly comforts, even rejecting a priest’s words as if to say that they’d rather have happiness here on Earth instead.
The Russian Revolution, of course, gave way to state atheism by the Marxist-Leninist Soviet Union beginning in the 1920s, which makes such a deliberate rejection of Christianity in this film all the more odd, since it should have already been well-instated by 1925, so why the need to push it any further? Nonetheless, Battleship Potemkin not only advocates atheism but shows it as a way to band together (unless you’re a Jew-hater?), or worse, to gain some sort of meretricious advantage. These ideas may seem distant, especially through the nearly-100-year-old package that is a silent film, but in fact have haunting parallels to modern times.
The characters are also unabashedly black and white. “You’re either for us or against us,” they seem to say as nobody on any one side seems to have any conflict with one another; as long as you’re on the same side, no one will have any problems. This societal sameness is a good enough justification for why the film’s protagonists aren’t the characters, but rather the sides as a whole. Alas, Battleship Potemkin is more concerned with dividing people into different sides than it is coming to a morally sound conclusion. Likewise, the “savior” figure, Vakulinchuk, who dies in the 2nd act (of five) is merely a chess piece used to push forward the revolt—not a character to be analyzed. The fallen Bolshevik merely represents the revolution itself.
You don’t necessarily have to agree with the politics and philosophies of the film to enjoy its form. In fact, the idealist socialism is pretty exposed here as both errant and impractical, if not intrinsically unethical, so the propaganda piece just might be the ammo any anti-socialist is looking for. However, as a work of art, Eisenstein has put together one of the most groundbreaking visual displays of the silent era. Who says bad propaganda can’t still be useful?