The photos are easy to find but awful to behold. In one of them, a man in flames is standing between two other men who reach out helplessly. In another, the burning man is on all fours on the pavement, holding himself up, still engulfed in accelerant and fire. This is an act of protest. He is charred nearly to death, and soon he will die, but he remains rigid, determined. I’ve never been an adherent to the cult of martyrdom, in fact I find it repellant. But I can’t look away.
One frigid night this past January, I left work in mid-Manhattan and braved the cold to attend a screening of Battleship Potemkin at the Film Forum. I had seen Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s silent epic of revolution and reaction before, but a meticulously restored print was on view downtown. Besides, world events seemed to recommend a fresh look. By coincidence, mass uprisings were sweeping the Middle East and North Africa just as Eisenstein’s 86-year-old agit-prop masterwork commenced a multi-city US tour.
Battleship Potemkin had begun its theatrical run in New York on the same day Tunisia’s entrenched ruler resigned following a month of street protests. When I saw the film about a week later, pro-democracy demonstrations were erupting in Egypt. Images of rebellion were everywhere in the media by then, from grainy cell phone pictures to live broadcast coverage. They told a perennial story of human beings who had roused themselves from submission to demand their rights and dignity against the odds. As I watched Eisenstein’s ode to a 1905 revolt in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, I realized this was the very story, in broad strokes, that I had been following in the news.
As the film begins, the hulking Russian battleship is returning to port in defeat at the end of the Russo-Japanese war. Led by the Bolshevik seaman Vakulinchuk, the already demoralized crew mutinies when the ship’s officers insist that they eat borscht made from maggot-infested meat. The crew prevails, but Vakulinchuk is killed. His shipmates take him ashore, where a general strike is under way. The Odessans turn out in force to view his body, strengthening their resolve to fight on.
Flash forward to Tunisia in December 2010, when a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, immolates himself to protest official corruption and indifference. Like the fictional Vakulinchuk, he is mourned by his countrymen as a martyr. They rise up in his name, leading to the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.
For the masses portrayed in Battleship Potemkin, things don’t turn out so well. Their uprising is brutally suppressed in the “Odessa Steps” sequence – one of the most widely celebrated scenes in film history and the apogee of Eisenstein’s quick-cutting montage style. A squad of the Tsar’s Cossacks marches against the assembled crowd on a great stone staircase leading up from the Black Sea. Firing methodically and indiscriminately, they advance without remorse over the bodies of slaughtered men, women and children. Eisenstein captures the random brutality of the attack with a riveting series of split-second shots that have become iconic: a runaway baby carriage, a woman’s glasses shattered by a bullet in the eye, the jackboots of the advancing soldiers.
When thousands of pro-democracy Egyptians encamped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 days during January and February, the army stood down. But Egypt’s paramilitary state-security forces, ominously reminiscent of the Cossacks, were notorious for their brutality and loyalty to the autocratic regime. In the end, with some blood spilled but no Potemkin-style massacre, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step aside.
The video clip is pixilated, impressionistic. It suggests a window into the past: a hundred years ago, or a thousand. Dozens of thugs on horses and camels burst into Tahrir Square. Clubs swinging, they charge the dense crowd, which disperses in panic. It’s hard to see exactly what’s happening from this distant angle, but soon the battle seems to have turned. The protestors regroup. They close in on the attackers. A riderless horse gallops out of the frame. A camel rider zig-zags back through the square in full retreat. The crowd roars.
The movement that brought Mubarak down has been described as spontaneous and essentially leaderless. It was organized in large part through social media and the internet, rather than coalescing around charismatic or inspiring figures. Eisenstein’s decision to eschew the use of “stars” in Battleship Potemkin – instead placing the broader story in the foreground – creates a comparable impression of the events in Odessa. The proletariat as a whole is heroic enough, the film implies, so why focus too tightly on individuals?
For many of us watching from afar, the Egyptian protestors were similarly heroic. And for those of us who had even a passing familiarity with Battleship Potemkin, some variation on the Odessa Steps bloodbath was the most nightmarish imaginable outcome as those 18 days in the square wore on. In effect, Eisenstein’s furiously edited sequence has become a generic signifier of raw political repression.
This may explain why so many governments have been wary of Battleship Potemkin over the years. The film was banned in much of Western Europe for decades, and for a short time in the Soviet Union itself. Even when it was screened, the authorities excised scenes that they considered inflammatory or subversive. Film preservationists Enno Palatas and Anna Bohn took years to complete the newly restored version specifically because the original had been so badly butchered by the censors. It had to be pieced back together, frame by frame, from prints scattered around the globe.
In fact, Battleship Potemkin has always been in the thick of the political fray. It started out as a Soviet propaganda vehicle commemorating the 20th anniversary of the failed revolution that unfolds onscreen. The film transcends its propagandistic origins by capturing the sheer humanity of a people pushed beyond their limits.
Right now, as millions of people in the Arab world are being pushed – and are pushing back – the long-term prospects for democracy and human rights in their region remain unclear. Tunisia and Egypt, at least, have made some strides forward. Elsewhere, the darkest Odessa fears of democracy supporters have become all too grotesquely real. The circumstances are especially ominous in Libya, where non-violent mass mobilization has degenerated into full-scale civil war and international military engagement in the wake of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s violent crackdown.
Yet despite the similarities between Qaddafi’s tactics and the cruelty of the Cossacks, Battleship Potemkin may not be the ideal cinematic prism through which to view the Libyan conflict. In Battleship Potemkin, the narrative amounts to a prequel to armed struggle, not a depiction of it. In Libya, on the other hand, a bloody clash is already, tragically, in progress. So a true filmic doppelgänger for the current crisis would have to address the moral complexities of resisting an oppressor by force of arms.
Those complexities are at the heart of The Battle of Algiers. The 1966 classic by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo dramatizes, at ground level, the Algerian war for independence against the French in the ‘50s and early-‘60s. Having last seen the film about a decade ago, I caught up with it recently online and was jolted by its echoes of ongoing events.
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