As with all art forms, the cinema offers a wide and far-reaching platform of expression, one that may be used to provoke many contrasting ideas and opinions. The moving image can be used for good or evil, hate or love, war or peace. Cinema can be more powerful than a bomb when used tactfully and strategically. Using narrative as a shield and style as a sword, films can create passion for historical revolutions on and off the screen, be it by discreet whispers or monstrous explosions.
Two of cinema’s most striking examples of revolution on-screen are Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) One acts as a heroic battle cry, the other as a subtle nightmare. The films are extremely powerful in representing the struggles of revolutions on-screen. They are driving forces in their depiction of Marxist ideology, the freedom of humanity and the power of violent and revolutionary protest.
The films share an overall love of freedom in society, making arguments both for and against violence in their own rights, but often contain contrasting ideas and philosophies when depicting the struggle for freedom. They create these ideas through both narrative and style, but also by means of real life historical content. The Battle of Algiers is a truly devastating film. It creates a world of little love, no freedom and chaotic rage, with substantial and sad consequences. Its conscience stands firm as depicting war as evil, but necessary. There are no clear victories in its imagery, nor any clear heroes or villains. “Pontecorvo is aware that innocent civilians die and are tortured on both sides, that bombs cannot choose their victims, that both armies have heroes and that everyone fighting a war can supply rational arguments to prove he is on the side of morality.” (Ebert, 2004)
One main source of crushing power in the film comes in the form of its reconstructions of actual events that took place in Algiers between 1954 and 1955. This was the “Algerian War of Independence” against the French government and colonialism. The film closely follows the National Liberation Front (FLN) in their attempt to win freedom for the Algerian people. They carry this out by means of secret organization and acts of terrorism. The film was a surprise hit when released around the world, despite being banned in France. The ways in which the film uses this historical backdrop to create sympathy for both sides was a revolution in itself. “Probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people – perhaps because Pontecorvo made it a tragic necessity” (Kael, 1973)
The general tone of The Battle of Algiers is one of slow-burning chaos that results in death and disaster. The film communicates to its audience the maximum amount of pain in all its violent acts and disastrous situations. Battleship Potemkin harbors similar intellectual and emotional responses through contrasting means of audience communication. Watching Battleship Potemkin is like witnessing an exploding bomb, full of humanity’s natural need for an existence of freedom and brotherhood. Battleship Potemkin is a powerful force of revolution, existing with both strong heroic command and truly horrific consequences. The film mainly portrays the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin as they rebelled against their commanding officers while at sea. The Potemkin itself in the film stands as a symbol of revolutionary strength and power. “Eisenstein took the Potemkin mutiny as the central metaphor for the Revolution.” (Kuhn, 2007: 246-247)
The Potemkin is a weapon for freedom, united by its passionate crew, bound as a fighting collective. It is this united characterisation of protest that makes Battleship Potemkin so powerful. Revolution is never portrayed in just one character, but as a brick wall of men standing together, arms locked, ready to fight. Not only is victory accomplished as a group in Battleship Potemkin, so too is death and loss. During the famous “Odessa steps” sequence, a massacre of innocent people brings the film to a nightmarish clash of violent and disturbing imagery. The people are killed for supporting the revolution in which Potemkin has taken part. Their murderers are a faceless pack of soldiers, who storm in like a steamroller, finding the people of Odessa at the top of the steps, and leaving them dead at the bottom. “The immediate function certainly is to prove the brutality of the Tsar’s soldiers, who appear as an inhuman line of boots, rifles and shadows as they massacre hundreds of civilians.” (Neupert, 2007: 536)
The scene is designed in such a way to leave the audience siding completely with the people of Odessa, but it is easy to forget a key point. If these civilians did have guns, and were able to fight back, as the FLN in The Battle of Algiers. Would they commit acts of terror? Might they become a faceless pack of murderers? These questions are what makes The Battle of Algiers feel equally sided, and leaves Battleship Potemkin feeling as propaganda. The FLN are not a strong brick wall of intimidating men, rather a field of scattered land mines, hiding beneath the surface, out of sight, ready to explode. They are organised in small tactical groups with contrasting opinions and personalities. These men are given individual needs and three-dimensional characteristics. This is how the film also depicts their struggles in revolution, as individual and personal, with each small part adding up to a wider sociological frustration.
Unlike Battleship Potemkin, The Battle of Algiers is not structured in such a way of back and forth protest and resistance. It feels more messy and jumbled-up in tone. Until its final scenes, the film is itself unsure that either side will ever stand triumphant. The upper hand travels between the two sides discreetly, until we see in the film’s conclusion, Algerian people in celebration at their victory. In these moments it becomes clear that The Battle of Algiers secretly stands by the people of Algeria. The final shot of a woman waving the Algerian flag is a haunting image, but one that examines sympathetically and heroically. Battleship Potemkin feels sure that it is rooting for the winning team all along. “It is lucid and dispassionate in its examination of the tactics of both sides.” (Ebert, 2004) The structure of the film’s narrative treats all men as equals, it analyses them objectively, and casts a dark hazy shadow over its devastatingly necessary subject.
Revolutionary struggle in The Battle of Algiers is also emphasized greatly by the film’s style. As a global audience, we are most accustomed to witnessing events on a mass scale such as political revolutions on the news and as newsreel footage. Watching the film, we feel as though we are watching the news, like seeing historical events unfold. It creates this feeling by means of grainy, low-quality celluloid footage, and hand-held shaky camera angles that more often than not place its audience in the centre of all chaos and hysteria. This is extremely effective when used on scenes of mass, violent protest. At times it becomes hard for audiences to remember that in fact, they are watching a carefully constructed reconstruction. In its aesthetic, the film feels very close to the work of Rossellini and other Italian neorealism directors of the 1940s. Films such as Rossellini’s Rome, Open City hold strong influence over The Battle of Algiers.
The film deploys other specific techniques such as freeze frames, and frequent use of extreme close-ups. These techniques force the audience to see characters as individual lives, men, women and children surviving in a battleground of political misconduct and sociological depression.
The film’s music also plays a key role in emphasizing the harshness of its depression. Morricone’s score is a mixed anthem of wary battle-pipes and marching drums. It communicates to the audience that this is in fact a battle, with two sides, equally passionate. After hearing the battleground anthems in The Battle of Algiers, it is easy to see that the music used in Battleship Potemkin bears a stark contrast compared. The music saddens over the deaths of the people in Odessa, and calls triumphant praise over the sailors that take command of the Potemkin. The music clashes and collides like thunder in a rainstorm, much like the conflicting imagery in the film.
Eisenstein uses every tool in the box of soviet montage editing, to create a film full of conflicting ideas and opinions. He uses a great deal of violent imagery to smash the ideas of the revolutionists and the ruling authorities together, to create a battleground on-screen. “Eisenstein based his metaphoric montage on the concept that the shot or image represents an idea, and that when two are juxtaposed they take on a completely new significance.” (Barna, 1966: 108) This way of building the film is especially effective during the sequence on the Odessa steps. After a touching scene of supporting pride from the people of Odessa, an alarming title card reading “SUDDENLY` jumps to the screen like a detonator to an explosion. From then on, the imagery becomes a war of quickly edited segments, which both slow down and speed up time and space. Using this to gain support, and develop hate for the two opposing sides in the sequence is extraordinarily effective. The depiction of a revolution in cinema has never since been as powerful. “The entire sequence layers discontinuous shots onto one another according to precise rhythmic and graphic conflicts, until time and space become subjective and discursive” (Neupert, 2007: 536)
Symbolic characterisation is a key element in understanding the revolutionary motives of Battleship Potemkin. Take for instance the first segment of the film, titled “Men and Maggots.” At the centre of the segment is a piece of raw meat, infested with Maggots. Protest breaks out amongst the crew of the Potemkin. They refuse to eat this meat, thus capturing frustrations and anger from Potemkin’s commanding officers. During this scene, it is strongly suggested through meaning that these men have been reduced to animals, owned by their commanding officers. The crew becomes a collective symbol of depression in Russia, with no freedom under its strict government. The officers on the ship become stern, heartless machines. They are the symbol of Russian government within the film. They are seen beating men while asleep, and forcing their crew to eat rotten meat or be killed. “Eisenstein works with figures that represent their social class, acting in the manner they do in order to highlight a certain behavioral type associated with their class.” (Amm, 2005)
The concept of bad meat is especially effective in portraying revolutionary struggles since food is a human necessity, a right that all humans deserve. To remove or disturb this right provokes a globalised understanding of tragedy. It is this simple, global understanding that allows us to relate so strongly to the situation in hand.
The Battle of Algiers also uses a dire situation of tragedy, communicating to global audiences, not by means of hunger, but by terrorism. In the films most chilling sequence, three women of different ages carry bombs to public places, with intent to kill and destroy. We have just witnessed innocent Algerians lose their lives’ at the hands of the French. So when presented with the notion of three women planting bombs in places of strong community on French territory, it is hard for audiences to refuse vengeance, but equally difficult to accept such disgraceful acts of violence.
The film places its audience in difficult situations, communicating more effectively that revolution is at times hard to accept for outsiders. When we are placed with these characters, embedded in desperate crowds of people fighting for their freedom, we understand more as an audience that situations such as terrorism may be far more complicated than we once thought. The film presents this idea to glorious effect.
Battleship Potemkin and The Battle of Algiers share a general idea of revolutionary struggle, but at points, present their ideas with very conflicting mannerisms. For Battleship Potemkin, revolution is a swing, made of two opposing sides. Each take turns striking and retreating, until justice is done to the more worthy cause. For The Battle of Algiers, revolution is a roundabout, continuing to spin in chaos with no end in sight, until one side gets off or ceases to remain. Present in both films is a sense that, when placed in a situation of desperate need, anyone is capable of anything, no matter how terrible. If the FLN were given as much power as the crew of the Potemkin, they may cause more deaths in their fight for freedom. Without revolutionary struggle, blurred lines appear between right and wrong. So perhaps in the end, struggle is a necessity for successful revolution. Without these confinements, revolution becomes a war of two opposing evils.
Darrell Ron Tuffs
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Amm, A. (2005) Revolution On The Screen. (online) Available at: http://www.socialismtoday.org/92/potemkin.html Access date: 11 February 2014
Barna, Y. (1966) Eisenstein, London: Secker & Warburg.
Ebert, R. (2004) The Battle Of Algiers. (online review) Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-battle-of-algiers-1967 Access date: 12 February 2014
Kael, P. (1973) The Battle Of Algiers. (section of review from “The New Yorker”) Available at: http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/film/4ce2b6f24787d Access date: 12 February 2014
Kuhn, A. (2007) “Battleship Potemkin”, in Cook, P (ed.) The Cinema Book, 3rd edition. London: British Film Institute.
Neupert, R. (2007) “Battleship Potemkin”, in Cook, P (ed.) The Cinema Book, 3rd edition. London: British Film Institute.