“The Battleship Potemkin” Continues to Thrill, Despite the Loss of its Political Vigor

I review Sergei Eisenstein's landmark silent propaganda film, "The Battleship Potemkin."

In these politically correct times, when films like The Campaign are released only to be decried for their lack of actual political satire, is there a place for movies like Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, perhaps the greatest and most famous propaganda film of all time? Sight & Sound recently ranked it as the 11th best movie of all time, and from an artistic standpoint, I can see why: Eisenstein employs powerful images in shocking juxtaposition with one another, to the point where the film has been endlessly imitated. But its original goal was to rouse rebellion in the hearts of its viewers; I’m not sure that it retains its ability to do so anymore.

            That said, I watched this movie by myself on the relatively tiny screen of my laptop, using earbuds as my audio source. Needless to say, Eisenstein would not have been impressed by the small scale with which I viewed his masterwork. This is the sort of movie that deserves to be taken in on a massive screen, preferably with a live band providing the accompanying soundtrack in order to deliver the full impact of the images. Eisenstein was a proponent for the power of the moving image to motivate individuals to change the way they viewed the world. He wrote voluminously about the importance of “montage” to film, and he demonstrates its power in Battleship Potemkin. Given the relative obscurity into which the film has since disappeared, it is unlikely that it is shown frequently the way that it was meant to be seen. As such, film hunters like me are stuck using their iThings to see it.

            The film recounts the mutiny aboard the Russian Potemkin, a battleship that had recently returned from fighting in Japan. What began as an outcry against the rotten rations allotted to the soldiers eventually led to a large-scale rebellion onshore, which Eisenstein depicts using the infamous “Odessa steps” sequence, in which dozens of innocent civilians are murdered in cold blood by faceless military troops. But since this is a propaganda movie, ultimately the revolutionary spirit wins out, and the crew of the Potemkin convinces their fellow countrymen not to fire on them, and they all celebrate their newfound kinship. Hoo hah!

            Since Eisenstein draws on actual historical events as inspiration for this movie, the movie ought to be taken as an allegory, not a portrayal of facts. For example, the massacre on the Odessa steps did not happen in real life; the uprising was much more spread out than is shown, and no baby carriages rolled out of control down any staircases. As such, there are no characters with which to sympathize. Instead, we are given a Christ figure in the form of a mutinous sailor named Vakulinchuk, who dies while leading the uprising aboard the Potemkin. When the focus shifts to the citizens of Russia, Eisenstein quickly shows us starkly glimpsed faces but we do not know anything about the people. The method is unabashedly sentimental: Eisenstein paints with very broad emotional strokes. So rather than attach ourselves to any particular individual—which would be antithetical to Vladimir Lenin’s philosophy, anyway—we are meant to feel for the whole of the Russian people. It’s a bit of an on-the-nose approach to filmmaking, but this is propaganda, after all.

            While watching this for the first time, I noticed quite a lot of phallic imagery. The oft-photographed cannons aboard the Potemkin stretch from the bottom of the frame as though they are erections of the viewers. When the crew cleans the ship, they thrust gooey sticks into the openings of the cannons in an image of aggressive penetration. They furiously rub down parts of the ship’s machinery as if they are masturbating. Later on in the film, when the soldiers marc on the Odessa steps, they hold their rifles at crotch level and fire at civilians from the hip. Interestingly, most of the people who are shot in this sequence are women, sustaining fire either in the face or in the groin area. Finally, as the film builds inexorably towards its conclusion, we see many shots of the turrets being raised and crewmembers grasping massive bullets at waist-level just before they thrust them into the cannon opening. When the sequence finally climaxes, the guns lower almost disappointedly, as if their sexual arousal by the prospect of battle has been rendered flaccid.

            Eisenstein’s reliance on symbols and brilliance as a director indicate to me that this profusion of phalli could not have been accidental. In that subtle way that propaganda tends to utilize, was the director attempting to associate revolution with sexual arousal? Was he attempting to get a Pavlovian association between the two in order to make his viewers all the more virulent? It’s difficult to tell. From my point of view, I can say with complete honesty that, although I was indeed affected by Battleship Potemkin, the thought of violent rebellion does not make me sport wood.

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