Battleship Potemkin and Beyond: Film and Revolutionary Politics

Published in Dissent Magazine (Summer 2011).

For decades after it came out in 1925, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, portraying an episode in the first Russian Revolution of 1905, was commonly described as the greatest film of all time. Even at the height of the Cold War, spectators would still be captured by its recreation of a spontaneous mutiny on one of the czar’s naval vessels. It provided not only a thrilling account of a collective uprising but a virtual textbook in how film editing could excite sympathy, fear, and revolutionary anger. The film’s purpose was no less propagandistic than Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi productions of the 1930s, especially Triumph of the Will, but its themes were humane: not exalting the irrational cult of a supreme leader but dramatizing the oppressive violence of Russia’s old regime; the basic, universal longing for human dignity; and a bright but brief springtime of freedom and solidarity. For Eisenstein, working at the dawn of the Stalinist era, that liberation seemed to have been realized, although we came to know how soon it would be cut off. In the light of history, we cannot look at Potemkin with innocent eyes, yet its hopes and illusions seem as timely as the latest uprisings in the Arab world.

The release of a new version by Kino Lorber, with the sequence of shots, the Russian intertitles, and the original score all restored, offers an occasion to reconsider not only the movie itself but the issue of politics and film, especially revolutionary politics. Eisenstein was essentially a formalist, but he believed that film, as a revolutionary medium, could forward political revolution as well, for its techniques could incite popular feeling and bring it to a high pitch. No one could have agreed with him more than, say, Joseph Goebbels. For most of us, on the other hand, film and revolution make for an incendiary mix. It seems axiomatic that a political film ought to be complex and thoughtful, not simply rousing. But the avant-garde of the 1920s, especially in France, Germany, and Russia, set out to smash the conventions of depth in traditional narrative. For the new art cinema, stories with realistic settings, unfolding moral themes, and highly individualized characters belonged to the bourgeois world of the nineteenth century. To Eisenstein it was collective action that counted, not personal heroism or individual responsibility. Casting nonprofessional actors for Potemkin, he was drawn to physical types whose appearance expressed their social role, not performers who could give full play to complex motives.

Eisenstein was a painterly director; later in his career he sketched out every shot in advance. No one who ever saw Potemkin is likely to forget its stark images, beginning with the geometrical patterns of the hammocks in which the sailors sleep; the maggoty meat that provokes them to rise up; the weasel-faced ship doctor who examines it with pince-nez and pronounces it fit to eat; the tarpaulin thrown over the rebellious men, dehumanizing them into a rustling mass to be gunned down. Above all there were the graphic shots cunningly edited to give maximum impact to the massacre of civilians on the Odessa Steps, images of helplessness, panic, or outrage so piercing they have become shorthand for cinema itself.

The dynamic rhythm of the Odessa sequence became justly famous. In the crowd along the shore celebrating the insurrection, peaceably enjoying their own taste of freedom, we see the faces that will serve as leitmotifs of the carnage: elderly middle-class women, a mother with her son, another with a baby pram, a legless man propelled on his arms. Charging into this mass of humanity come the marching troops of the czar, a phalanx of faceless men inexorably descending the stairs, firing as they move. As their victims flee down the steps, others turn upward in shock and disbelief, pleading with soldiers not to fire; each of them, in separate strokes, is blasted in turn. Most haunting is the rolling baby carriage as it begins its interminable descent, with a hair-raising suspense that Alfred Hitchcock must have envied. Eisenstein took liberties with history—there was no massacre on the Odessa Steps—and an even greater liberty with time and space. The stairway was actually not very long, but in the subjective time created by hypnotic editing the massacre seems to go on forever. No film ever did more to pillory the repressions of a despotic regime.

Here matters grow complicated. Was Eisenstein using his genius to attack one tyranny by putting this gift at the service of another? In his short life—he died at fifty in 1948—he himself would periodically run afoul of the Stalinist regime, which suppressed his last film, the sumptuous second part of Ivan the Terrible. In its own time Potemkin was considered so dangerous it was butchered or banned in many countries, one reason it needed to be restored. Thanks to Eisenstein’s daring experiments in montage, the film was more effective in bringing about a revolution in the formal syntax of cinema than in inciting political upheaval, yet even that technical legacy was strongly challenged. By the late 1930s, directors like Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and William Wyler, abetted by gifted cinematographers working with faster film stock, were substituting long takes and deep-focus photography for Eisenstein’s reliance on editing, freeing up the action within the frame. Potemkin’s most enduring influence was less on film technique or politics than on political cinema, especially films made in the turbulence of the 1960s. Those were the films I wanted to see again after revisiting Potemkin.

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The film most often compared to Potemkin is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), which reenacts the first phase of an uprising led by the National Liberation Front (FLN) against French colonial dominance in the years between 1954 and 1957. Even more than Potemkin, which sometimes feels staged, it has the historical immediacy of a newsreel, complete with nonprofessional actors, documentary titles, and voiceovers intoning the proclamations of both sides. Like Eisenstein, Pontecorvo is superb at handling the mass movement of crowds. The Battle of Algiers is more about the shifting tides of collective feeling than about the characters’ own lives. But we come to recognize each of the FLN leaders as they plot strategy, execute heinous acts of terrorism against both soldiers and civilians, and gradually get picked off by the French, who respond by using torture to interrogate suspects, enabling them to decapitate the movement.

Political films are often so topical they date rapidly, but this investigation of terrorism, especially as the tactic of an Islamic insurgency, feels as if it were made yesterday. It was famously screened at the Pentagon in 2003 at the outset of the Iraq War as a primer in urban guerrilla warfare. Conversely, the Black Panthers had used it as a training film. Though the film has a reputation of cheerleading the uprising and was made with the support of the Algerian government, it gives a full airing to the dilemmas of the French and the rationale for their brutal counterinsurgency. In the most piercing sequence, we see three Muslim women westernizing their appearance, smuggling bombs through French checkpoints, and planting them among French civilians in cafés and at an Air France ticket office. Observing the scene through their eyes, we see close-ups of carefree young people, traveling businessmen, and a baby licking an ice cream cone, just seconds before they are blown up. Inevitably, this reminds us of the fearsome cost of terrorism in innocent lives. It transforms The Battle of Algiers from a gutwrenching documentary-style film to a masterpiece, astonishing in its immediacy yet surprisingly thoughtful and measured.

The film’s complications are enhanced by the arrival of the French Army as personified by Colonel Mathieu, based on General Jacques Massu, a decorated soldier who later led a military revolt against the Fourth Republic, which brought Charles de Gaulle to power. (The first volume of his memoirs was called The True Battle of Algiers.) Cold and calculating, the very epitome of the professional warrior, Mathieu brilliantly articulates a noholds-barred strategy that actually defeats the Muslim rebellion. The story ends as it began, with the last FLN leader cornered in his secret hideout, which the French have discovered through gruesome acts of torture. As a prologue we see their tortured informant, gaunt and terrified, looking like a hollowedout survivor of a concentration camp.

The French engage in retaliatory acts of terrorism against civilians, blowing up homes under cover of night. They smash a general strike and use it as an opportunity to clamp down violently on the Muslim quarter. When these methods, especially the torture, come to light, they shift public opinion in France, eroding the political will to continue the war. We learn at the end that the insurgency would flare again spontaneously after two years of calm, just as the FLN leaders had predicted. Two years afterward, de Gaulle would grant the Algerians independence, enraging many who brought him to power. Like the Vietnamese with their Tet Offensive a decade later, the Algerians had lost the battle but won the war.

The near-balance of sympathy in Pontecorvo’s film is all the more unexpected because, like Potemkin, it is essentially an official production, sponsored by the Algerian government, reenacted in the streets with hundreds of Algerians as extras, and based on a story by a surviving FLN leader who more or less plays himself. Another FLN figure, who dies under mysterious circumstances in a French prison, even says that it’s only after the revolution that the problems begin, a shrewd comment on revolutionary struggles that comes across as inspired hindsight yet also a cautionary reminder.

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Most political films are essentially histories of the present, focused on the recent past as it inflames the politics of the moment. Alain Resnais’s La guerre est finie (1966) takes place in 1965, but its arc reaches back almost thirty years to the outset of the Spanish Civil War. Yves Montand plays an exiled Spanish communist in France who also works underground to overthrow the Franco regime at home. As he is returning to France, the party leaders in exile have called a general strike, putting the Spanish authorities on high alert. Montand knows that militants are being rounded up, that the strike will prove futile and self-destructive. He remains a committed revolutionary but has grown tired, middleaged, for he has been confronting everyday realities, as the leadership has not. Dwelling in abstractions, they see Franco’s Spain as a country on the brink of revolution. For him, on the ground, life has become more complicated. “No one would like what I have to say about Spain,” he says.

Alain Resnais was not really a political filmmaker. He was concerned above all about memory and fantasy, as in his masterpiece Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour (1963). But in 1966, as it turned out, France itself, not Spain, was only two years away from a huge uprising by students and workers, including a general strike. This might seem like an unfortunate juncture to make a movie about a worn-out revolutionary, depleted or disillusioned, a movie developing the theme that “the war is over.” But here Resnais and his screenwriter, Jorge Semprún—who based the story on his own experience in exile and in the Spanish underground—add a brilliant stroke that anticipates the coming conflict. In a scene more sharply focused, more politically savvy than anything in Godardian talkfests like La Chinoise, Montand stumbles on a cell of young radicals, impatient with old-line chieftains and their methods, who are bent on planting bombs rather than organizing strikes. To the aging exiles of the party’s Central Committee, Montand’s misgivings about ordering a general strike are “completely subjective”; he has “lost all political perspective.” For the young firebrands, caught up in their Leninist or Maoist rhetoric, the party’s “peaceful methods” are “objectively” bourgeois and reformist. Only acts of terror can ignite the coming upheaval. They are as disconnected from reality as the party’s leadership. He must remind them that quoting Lenin is not the same as acting politically: “Lenin is not a prayer wheel.”

La guerre est finie has touches of a thriller plot. There is little suspense or melodrama, but Montand’s whole life is a fabric of lies and inventions. Constantly on the alert against exposure, he makes himself up as he goes along. His Swedish mistress in Paris rarely sees him though she longs to join him, and when he is at risk she finally does. But La guerre est finie is far more reflective and, frankly, more intelligent than most political films. As a portrait of a professional revolutionary it evokes the contradictions between his protean calling and his reduced private life, his assumed identities and the “real” identity he barely preserves, his idealistic goals and his hard-earned skepticism.

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Some of this mixture of courage and experience carries over into Montand’s role as a liberal parliamentary figure who is assassinated in Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), the last major political film of the 1960s, set in an unnamed country but dealing with the events leading up to the Greek military takeover in 1967. The script, again by Jorge Semprún, based on a novel by a Greek exile, centers on the murder of deputy Gregorios Lambrakis a few years earlier and the elaborate cover-up by the authorities, all haphazardly brought to light by a prying photojournalist on the trail of a story and a determined magistrate trusted by the authorities. The film could not be made in Greece thanks to the 1967 coup, so it was shot in Algeria in French, with government support, and a script linked to both The Battle of Algiers and La guerre est finie. Costa-Gavras, like Semprún, had long lived in France, and Z was the first of his gripping thrillers on contemporary political hot spots, from Greece and Czechoslovakia to Pinochet’s Chile and the Uruguay of the Tupamaro guerrillas.

Like many on the left in the 1960s, I was caught up with protests against the brutal Greek junta and even published a letter in the Times criticizing the imprisonment (and threatened execution) of Andreas Papandreou, an economist and heir to a political dynasty, who went into exile and later became Greece’s first socialist prime minister. When Z came out it seemed a miraculous combination of political art and popular entertainment, a trip for the mind as well as a blow to the gut. I was surprised to discover on seeing it again that, unlike The Battle of Algiers and La Guerre est finie, it has not aged well. Costa-Gavras is a deft, kinetic director with a gift for grabbing the audience by the throat, but his films, which go off like fireworks, are closer to agitprop than to art. Like his American disciple Oliver Stone, he relies too heavily on turning headlines into melodrama, which comes through clearly in later films like Missing and State of Siege, dealing with vicious regimes and CIA machinations in Latin America.

Much of the action in Z simply defies belief, even when closely based on events that actually occurred. Montand’s role is little more than a cameo, for he dies early and his assassination is staged so awkwardly that it looks, well, staged. His personality, his politics, and his troubled relations with his wife are barely sketched in; their marriage feels like a thin replay of Montand’s affair with Ingrid Thulin in La guerre est finie. The planning and the coverup, clumsily devised to make the killing look accidental, are probably the most effective features of the movie. But the officials implicated at every level, and even the assassins themselves, are like comically malevolent opera buffa figures, not so much evil as ridiculous.

The film improves in the second half as suspense gives way to clumsy comedy. The journalist, sneaking around with his camera, and the investigating magistrate, hiding behind his dark glasses, expose the plot almost inadvertently, out of an ornery persistence, as if stumbling into heroism. One of the witnesses, also targeted for elimination, is a stubborn simpleton who holds court in his hospital bed. When the plotters are interrogated they stand on their dignity with a ludicrous pomposity familiar from the mocking pages of Latin American fiction. In the end we realize that Z’s real kinship is not with meditative thrillers like La guerre est finie but with the absurdist political spectacles of the early 1960s like The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove. Perhaps the Greek colonels’ regime was as outlandish as the far-fetched plots of those movies, so that only black humor could do justice to it. In any case, we had come a long way from the autocracy of the czar and the burning grievances that set off the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, which turned Eisenstein into the first serious political filmmaker.

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Potemkin showed that political films can be exceptionally effective on the attack, deploying stories and images as a critical weapon. But its powerful celebration of a popular uprising pointed toward the dangerous simplifications of committed filmmaking. The Battle of Algiers, though its sympathies were clear, paid heed to the limits of sheer propaganda by insisting on the complexity of the Algerian War and the predicaments and motives of both sides. La guerre est finie took this further by allowing us more distance from the action, playing off the rhetoric of radical activism against the actual conditions of political action, including the fatigue of revolutionaries themselves, to say nothing of the masses they hope to arouse. Z, like La guerre, reveals the drawbacks of the standard documentary approach to politics, which prizes immediacy over subtlety, collective thinking over misgivings and doubts. These films also remind us of the pitfalls of historical reenactment, which can lead to the fatuities of the History Channel and the simplifications of pseudo-biography. These recreations offer nothing that genuine documentaries cannot do better.

Filmmakers will always be drawn to politics because of its inherent drama but also because the stakes are so high: the fate of whole societies, to say nothing of the most fundamental values, often hangs in the balance. But to make sense of this they need to resist the alluring conventions of thrillers, documentary imitations, and you-are-there newsreels, which offer a sure-fire channel to a popular audience. They would be wise to treat political issues not solely as advocates and agitators, exploiting the sensational, but as thoughtful witnesses, exciting or inciting the audience while also expanding its horizons.