At the Movies

Michael Wood

I’m not much given to feeling that images make words look poor – often they make them look rich and friendly – but that was certainly my response to two recent viewings of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), to be screened again at the BFI Southbank from 29 April. Of course the words that look poor here are quite particular: the weakly loaded phrases of the screenplay; the large abstractions of propaganda; the miniature conceptual monuments Eisenstein seems to want to create through visual sequences that become de facto propositions. We get the angry sea of the future revolution, the sleeping proletariat, a social sneer in the form of an officer’s moustache, solidarity in the shape of an immense ribbon of landlocked supporters of a ship’s mutiny stretching out along a jetty, stone lions waking into the promise of tomorrow, and so on. Allegory galore.

It’s not that the images don’t say these things. They say them and more, and they do something that isn’t really saying at all. Let’s look at the opening of the film. Or let’s ‘look’. The sea swirls and crashes on a jetty and along the rocks beside it, foam flies high, the water flows back, hits the jetty again. The screenplay (in the 1968 translation by Gillon Aitken) uses the words ‘violently’ and ‘turbulently’ twice each and tells us that ‘the raging sea boils.’ You could say that, and you could also say, as Richard Taylor does in his book on the film, that Eisenstein is showing us what moving pictures alone can do by way of representing reality, is remembering all the shifting, unfaked water in the work of the Lumière Brothers, for example. Or you could just watch the water, and think about movement, about the delicate white spray and the sheer weight of the tide. You could even, if you wanted to bend the allegory another way, think the sea was a pretty poor model for revolution, since it just keeps doing what it does, and doesn’t care about injustice. It might rage, but it rages twice a day.

But the real test and ruin of words is the marvellous scene that soon follows, below decks on the battleship. The men are sleeping in a tangle of hammocks, shot to look like a sort of visual puzzle, a labyrinth in the air. There are close-ups, low angles, some of the hammocks sway slightly. I wish I could describe this without analogy, but no literal terms get anywhere near the effect. The screenplay has them ‘packed like sardines in a tin’, which certainly gestures towards the idea of crowding, but the crowding seems less important than the tangle, the hanging cocoons interlocking in the confined space, the sense that we are looking at something inextricable in the men’s situation. But what can’t they be extricated from? Sleep, torpor? Their own humility? The oppression of their superiors? Memories of the lousy food that is about to spark the revolt? The nosy suspicion of the boatswain who prowls among them, hitting one of the men with a chain until he cries? A speech from one of the sailors, Vakulinchuk, who will die in the mutiny, settles these questions for the moment. The sailors are entangled in their lateness, their failure to answer to the time. Title cards record Vakulinchuk’s words: ‘Comrades, the time has come when we must speak out. What are we waiting for? All Russia has risen. Are we to be the last?’ This is an eloquent response to the web the men are in, but the authority of the image is such that it’s hard to imagine they won’t take the web with them into their revolt, or that other webs will not form around them, as indeed they did with the failure of the 1905 Revolution in Russia. Or we could refuse to moralise or politicise the picture at all, even against the grain. It will continue to show us its complicated contents, whether we supply words for them or not.

One more image, this time from later in the film, the ribbon of supporters I have mentioned already. This is an extraordinary shot, with the jetty forming an arc running from the bottom left of the screen vertically to the centre then bending away to disappear from the frame at the top right. It looks thin, even though it is packed with people; there are a few fishing boats in the frame, and a hint of a distant island, but otherwise the screen is full of water. Of course the image admirably does what it is supposed to do. It shows us how moved the locals of Odessa are by the mutiny on the battleship – or more precisely, by the sight of the body of Vakulinchuk, placed at the harbour front after he has been shot by an officer on the ship. But again, the image seems loaded with many more possibilities than the immediate narrative needs, and is at the same time readable as virtually without significance at all, as a composition of sheer abstract beauty. I don’t want to refuse the meanings here, but I like their proliferation, and the way they slip away from dogma, even when the dogma is our own.

The film proceeds from this show of support to the Cossacks’ celebrated (if fictional) massacre of the supporters on the Odessa Steps, and from there to the confrontation of the rebellious battleship with the rest of the naval squadron. Or rather to the confrontation that doesn’t take place. After intense preparations for a fight (with shots of pistons pumping in the engine room, pressure gauges working overtime, guns and shells being readied), the men of the battleship invite their comrades on the many other ships – the word ‘brothers’ recurs here – to join them rather than attack them. They don’t do this, but they lower their guns and they cheer, allowing the battleship to pass between them and out to sea.

Indeed it is striking that this revolutionary film, with its motto from Lenin clearly displayed near the beginning (‘Revolution means war – this is the one lawful, reasonable and just, truly great war of all the wars that history has known’), centres its moral point on the avoidance of fighting and killing. A few officers, it’s true, get thrown overboard during the mutiny, but the key moment is the ship’s guards’ refusal to fire as they are instructed to on the rebellious men cowering under a tarpaulin. That is the mutiny, and the shipboard fight is what follows. The crucial shooting we do see is that of Vakulinchuk, gratuitously killed by an officer out of random, belated cruelty; and in this context what the Cossacks do that is so terrible – apart from seeming to be infinite in number and possessing a magical ability to make the Odessa Steps appear to go on for ever – is to continue shooting and slashing, even when they are faced with a mother carrying her dead child, or a woman with a pram, or an unarmed old lady in pince-nez.

On Vakulinchuk’s body, when it is displayed at the harbour, is a sign saying ‘Killed for a plate of soup’, an elliptical summary of the revolt itself, which started with an almost Surrealist argument about whether the worms in the rotting meat on the ship were really worms. But the overwhelming message of the film, even within the narrower meanings of the images, is that the refusal to kill is heroic, and that although readiness for battle is essential, lowering one’s arms, whether they are the rifles of the execution squad or the vast, rearing guns of the battleship and its counterparts, is better still.

The injustice of the old world is of course the injustice of a whole social order, but its most dramatic and infallible representation in this film is a violence that is not only brutal and remorseless, but unnecessary, a sort of despotic self-indulgence. We could also read it more optimistically, as an expression not of strength but of panic, a sign that in Russia in 1905 as in many other places at later and still current times, authorities dreamed of force not as a pragmatic instrument of control but as a magical solution to everything they refused to contemplate, the erasure of the very question they would not answer.