Watching Battleship Potemkin confronted me with the raw power of a political film with no three dimensional characters. Each individual possesses individuality only inasmuch as they represent a certain aspect of a cause or argument. The child shot by the czarist soldiers and crushed by the stampeding crowd careening down the steps facing the Odessa harbor matters because of the innocence he comes to embody in the face of czarist barbarity. The same goes for the film’s protagonist, the sailor and revolutionary Vakulinchuk, whose life, death, and words all act to symbolize the fundamental goodness of the communist cause, the heroism of its leaders, so unwilling to submit to fear in the face of their totalitarian enemy that their martyrdom suffices to drive crowds into a revolutionary frenzy.
The men and women move as crowds, but we do not for a second imagine that they lack individuality; it simply does not matter. Here I find myself reminded of Prince Lvov’s declaration of March 1917, on the subject of the Russian people’s role in the European democratic movement, cited by Mark Mazower in the first chapter of Dark Continent. “The soul of the Russian people,” he proclaims, “turned out by its very nature to be a universal democratic soul…prepared not only to merge with the democracy of the whole world, but to stand at the head of it and lead it along the path of human progress…” While the rebellious citizens and sailors of Battelship Potemkin do not stand for the Social Liberalism advocated by Levov, their bristling mass of clenched fists represents something similar: the helm of a movement in the name of human liberation.
The attack of the Cossacks left the strongest impression on me of all the scenes. It reminded me of Mazower’s section on the failure of Russian liberalism. Unlike the liberals, Russia’s rural peasants and urban working class wanted peace and a higher standard of living, neither of which the liberals offered. “In the factories, in the countryside, social order was collapsing, and the middle ground in Russian politics disappeared”. Nothing indicates this state of affairs better than the facelessness of the Cossacks in Battleship Potemkin. As the shock troops of czarism, they stand for nothing, save the brutality of power. Nothing denotes impotence better than repression.