Often I just don’t know what is happening. A title card says “the commisars”, now people are marching with guns, groups are handing scraps of paper to a man who’s collecting them on his bayonet, then a title says “To the telephone office!” What did all those things mean?

It was all very important at the time, a film portrayal of recent political upset and revolution, but with my lack of background in Russian history, most of the movie seems a blur of dates and places and crowds, the significance of most scenes lost, and very few of the alarmingly great compositions of other Eisenstein films. There’s some of the dramatic editing of course – when the crowd is fired upon it seems like single-frame edits, unreal. I don’t think Trotsky comes off well in the end. At least I managed to get used to the unnecessary sound effects all over the DVD.

Funny how I’ve never watched this until now, and everyone else has. Even Katy has seen it more than once. So, moments that seem fresh to me are probably way over-discussed to everyone else. I mentioned the movie to Steve and he says “that sailor sure smashed the hell out of that plate, eh,” referring to one of my favorite bits, a decisive moment of minor rebellion which Eisenstein shows repeatedly, from multiple angles, like an explosion in a Die Hard movie.

Due to unrest over spoiled food, the ship’s captain decides to hang a bunch of crew members – a bad move, since the others have been simmering rage againt their superiors, and choose this moment to mutiny, their leader Vakulinchuk shouting “brothers!” as a rally cry – a shout that will be repeated at the end, when the other battleships descending on Potemkin, presumably to quash the rebellion, choose to join it instead. Before that, the State is shown as brutally repressive, mowing down innocent civilians (children! mothers!) pitilessly on the steps of Odessa, where the ship lands and becomes a heroic symbol to the locals.

An imagined, phantom hanging:

Such an impressive piece of filmmaking and propaganda for the working man, it was banned in Britain and France for fear of sparking revolution. I watched the restored high-def version and was glad to discover that it’s a vibrant, brilliant movie, not the dusty old piece of film history I feared it might be. The movement and editing are rightly acclaimed, but the photography of individual shots is spectacular as well – compares very favorably to those gorgeously-lit Sternberg films I’ve been watching, only this was shot on location.

I dig the the hand-painted red flag hoisted over the ship. The ship’s crazy-haired priest was portrayed as a villain with a cross he wielded as a weapon, on the side of the power elite against the people. A guy in Odessa tries to use the crowd’s fervor for his own purposes, yells out “smash the Jews” and ends up getting smashed himself, the first casualty on the shores.

This will sound awfully disrespectful, but you’d think the renowned master of montage Eisenstein, he who reinvented movie editing, could pick up the pace a little. This movie drags. Each shot has a wonderful composition, and each shot is held for a second or two too long. And to be more disrespectful still, I beg to differ with E. Von Mueller calling Prokofiev’s score the best in history. But maybe he’s kicking back at home with an LP of the full orchestral arrangement, not the weak bits on the film itself (Criterion essay on the director/composer collaboration calls the soundtrack on the film “like a chamber ensemble recorded over a telephone”). I’ve still got to hear the re-recorded score sometime. And I intended to… but after the movie and the DVD commentary, I didn’t feel like going through it a third time.

The bloodless battle on the ice wasn’t exactly choreographed by Sammo Hung… buncha overarmored guys clumsily smacking into each other with weapons. But I’ve made fun of the acclaimed classic film enough now. Composition-wise it is beyond reproach… some of the most amazing-looking shots of the 30’s. A beautiful movie and a swell piece of anti-German propaganda (which is why it was celebrated, then banned, then celebrated).

How you know the Germans are Bad Men: they toss naked babies into fire:

Russia is under Mongol rule, but this is mostly ignored. Nevsky kicked the asses of the Swedes or some other country previously, so he’s called on to protect Russia from the invading Germans, who have already conquered one major town and killed everyone in it, including babies. Meanwhile in another town, two tough guys are competing for the only pretty girl. She says she’ll marry whichever fights the most bravely. So off they go with Nevsky, the town armorer (who dies from being too generous, giving away his best armor and saving the leftovers for himself) and a hot warrior woman. Battle on the ice lasts some 30 minutes. Crowd scenes outdo most of your Braveheart / Lord of the Rings epic battles with lovely, artistic shots of actual masses of people (outdone later in Ivan The Terrible), but close-ups of battle are a little lame. After, one guy is dying, other guy generously tosses the pretty girl at him and goes after the hot warrior chick. The glory of Russia is restored (well, they’re still under Mongol rule) and Nevsky goes back to his humble fishing life, after issuing a stern warning to the Germans which is screamed across the screen in giant bold text!

Mr. Nevsky: