29. Bronenosets Potyomkin

Battleship Potemkin

January 18, 1926
Goskino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Stachka demonstrated the power of revolutionary cinema by showing the effect workers can have when they organize. Yes, the strike itself ended in annihilation, but it was punctuated by a final command, addressed directly to the audience: Remember, proletarians!

Sergei Eisenstein and his comrades gave them little time to forget. Within a year’s time Bronenosets Potyomkin brought the cinema into its next dialectical stage, demonstrating what can happen when proletarian power is joined by military power. We saw in the German Revolution how the military, which normally operates as the repressive apparatus of state power, has within its organization its own version of proletarian industrial workers, namely sailors. In 1905, when the Russians were being obliterated by the Japanese, a non-Western industrial upstart, the sailors of the ship Potemkin decided to join the revolution their were hearing rumors about and stage a mutiny. The events of this mutiny, largely fictionalized to suit the needs of cinematic narrative, were depicted here as part of a 20-year celebration of the Revolution of 1905.

The film wasn’t a big hit in the Soviet Union, but news spread, and it scared the shit out of foreign governments. Industrial nations were experiencing worker unrest of their own, and it was a very real possibility that they would see their own Bolshevik moment in the months ahead. To those in power, this movie was a manual of how to stage a real revolution. Britain and France banned all public showings. The German censorship office made substantial cuts, including the entirety of the most-famous pram sequence, but ultimately approved the censored version (military personnel were still prohibited from seeing it).

The movie premiered in Berlin two days before Mayday and was an overwhelming critical success. Douglas Fairbanks declared it “the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Bertolt Brecht composed a poem about it. Potyomkin was a bold display of the power of revolutionary political art and an example of the potential for superior cinema in a socialist economy.

The power of a movie that presented all filmmaking under the capitalist mode of production with an artistic challenge presents modern viewers with a different challenge. Potyomkin is almost exclusively watched as a technical exercise. The emotional centerpiece, the famous Odessa Steps sequence, which exploded onto the Berlin screen as a consummate vision of war-as-chaos, has been so institutionalized and academized by countless shot by shot analyses that it can be hard to feel anything when watching it. John Waters, that master of screen chaos, recalls a screening of the Odessa Steps as the moment he decided film school was unnecessary bullshit.

Is it possible to see in this movie with its original revolutionary thrill? Possible for it to excite us with its picture of a new way to live, showing us what is greatest and most important in life, and filling us with solidarity and the courage to defend our brothers and sisters against the dread force of Capital?

Sound may be the key that unlocks this silent film.

Eisenstein himself saw his masterpiece as a sound film. All of his montage tricks, gross or subtle, were to be matched in unison or counterpoint by similar moves in the soundtrack. But the versions I’ve seen on video use those standard orchestra or piano scores that tend to make silent movies a dull, academic experience. A Film 101 class to fall asleep in. A great silent movie is timeless, but the soundtrack is usually not. Many composers and ensembles have re-scored Potemkin, and you should never pass up the opportunity to see it this way. For those playing the home game, I can personally recommend the Pet Shop Boys version, which as of this writing is available here in what is apparently a fan edit. Chris and Neil’s synthesizer melodies soar in solidarity as the skiffs meeting the battleship and sing an understated dirge during the great Steps scene. As the tension of the final showdown mounts, they go into full Hi-NRG. We are your brothers! As we move into our own version of 1926, prospects for World Revolution are once again starting to look up.

22. The Navigator

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October 13, 1924
Metro-Goldwyn
Directed by Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp

Having proved himself in the mountains, against the waterfall, as well as in the relations of society, and even within his own psyche, the Navigator strands Keaton in the sea. That immortal adversary of man. But now he is set with a woman, who this time plays an actual partner. In Sherlock, Jr., the woman may have solved the mystery and closed the narrative, but in this movie she is right there at his side in the struggle, as the Kid was for Chaplin. And it’s a perfect parody of the explicitly socialist Kid, because this time it’s two rich individuals, male and female, who find themselves with a ship equipped with provisions meant to provide for the many. In a reverse fish-and-loaves scenario, the two individuals must somehow find a way to make use of the the food and shelter of the masses. How will they do it? Turns out it’s comically easy. When you’re rich, things fall into place for you. The deus ex machina is your lived experience.

The ship itself, the USAT Buford, has an interesting history. It was used for transport during the Spanish-American War and the Great War, and then after that it was used during the Red Scare to deport anarchists, communists, and other subversives. Among these esteemed passengers was American citizen Emma Goldman, who was handed over to the Soviet Union in 1920. She immediately began agitating there, fleeing west after the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921, publishing her story under the title “My Disillusionment in Russia.” Fred Gabourie, Keaton’s technical director, meaning he helped cinematically realize Keaton’s gags and stunts, was offered the ship for $2500, a deal he immediately took, and the entire movie was then built around this singular prop.

It’s not as immediately hilarious as the previous two features, but the gags are still fantastic, and one deserves special attention. The first night after our hero and the woman have boarded the ship and found themselves alone with each other, drifting aimless and clueless through the sea, they set off to their cabins for the night. After donning sailor uniforms as pajamas, the woman discovers that she shares her cabin with a frightening portrait of the captain that interferes with her ability to sleep. The only thing to do is throw it overboard, where it gets caught and dangles in front of Buster’s porthole. The portrait swings into and out of view and casts a menacing aspect through the dark at Keaton. The captain in the portrait is none other than Donald Crisp, who played Battlin’ Burrows in Broken Blossoms and is co-director of this film. It’s a marvelous moment of enunciation, where the co-director literally invades the space between Keaton and the woman he desires, frightens both of them, and provokes them into a higher pitch of comic tension.