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Battleship Potemkin: Injustice, Lower Social Status, and Religious Rhetoric

Battleship Potemkin is a Russian silent propaganda film directed by Sergei Eisenstein that dramatized the conflicts between the proletariats and their commanding officers.  Through the symbolisms of food, the proletariats take over the battleship and fights the injustice faced by the poor sailors.  Eisenstein is able to sway his audience more to the extreme left with food by pointing out the injustice the poor sailors experienced, the higher social status among the Japanese, and the religious rhetoric.

The doctor examines the maggot infested meat, but disregard the contamination and deems the meat good to eat.

In the silent propaganda movie, food is used as the catalyst that starts the revolutionary reaction.  The men of the ship were given low-quality, spoiled, and maggot-ridden meat to eat.  The men complain about the food and ask the superiors if they can have better quality food.  The doctor looks at the meat, acknowledges the maggots, but disregards the potentially health threatening consequences the maggots might have.  The doctor tells the sailors that the meat is safe and good to eat, which really escalated the tension between the common sailor and his commanding officers.  Interestingly, a Russian sailor aboard the Russian ship noticed and expressively exclaimed that the food the Russian prisoners of war aboard Japanese ships were fed considerably better.  Also, while washing the dishes, the sailors come across a plate with the words, “Give us this day our daily bread”, which absolutely outrages the sailor even more.

The higher ranking officials’ plates are inscribed with “Give us this day our daily bread”

The movie’s main goal is to sway the audience to rise against the rich, and support the poor, goals of the communist faction.  Eisenstein used the maggot infested meat in order to illustrate the high social gap between the rich and the poor.  While the rich and powerful are able to eat fresh and healthy foods, the poor have to eat whatever is left over even if it is rotten or spoiled.  The maggots and the doctor’s disregard represent the rich’s disdain towards the poor, never really considering the welfare of the proletariats.

The sailor’s remark about the Russian POWs in Japan demonstrates the social standing of the poor among the rich.  Basically, the sailor, knowingly or unknowingly, says that the Japanese hold their Russian POWs in higher regards than the Russian officers do to their own sailors.  Eisenstein tries to outrage the audience, by suggesting that even the enemies of the Russians, hold the poor people in higher status than the Russians themselves.

Lastly, the quote on the dish alludes to religion.  The movie not only uses the images of injustice and the ideas of higher social status in enemy territories, but it also included religious rhetoric.  The quote alludes to the symbolism in the Christian faith.   Bread symbolizes life as it is the nourishment that sustains life.  The biggest irony and injustice is that the officers eat off these morally sound plates, agree with the quote, but do not share the same benefits to their sailors.  Those, in the audience who are heavily religious, would be appalled and consequently outraged at this scenario, and would therefore sympathize with the proletariats.

Although food may seem to play a small role in the movie, food is actually abundantly used as a propaganda tool.  Eisenstein uses food to illustrate the images of injustice, higher social status in enemy territories, and religious disapproval.  Using food in these three critical ways, Eisenstein would successful anger his audience and sway them to the more socialist side.

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A Maggoty Mess

Battleship Potemkin is a film depicting a run-down mistreated crew aboard a Russian battleship during the Russo-Japanese war. The squalid conditions under which the crew works is revealed to the audience and the sailors through the quality of their food. In the first sequence of the film “Men and Maggots” the men are given a rotting maggot-ridden piece of meat.

The men receive maggot-ridden meat

“The meat could crawl overboard on it’s own!” the men shout in outrage. After inspection the captain instructs them to eat the meat anyway. The image of the meat crawling with maggots is a very powerful image. The maggots swarm and wriggle through the meat much as the men move about the ship. There are many of them in tight quarters and so they are skilled at maneuvering about packed areas. The contrast of texture between the captain’s smooth clean skin and the raw ragged meat emphasizes the difference in life styles between the commanders and the crew. The captain’s hand is iridescent and plump with perfectly shaped fingernails, not a callous in sight. This is the hand of a healthy man who has not labored a day in his life. Whereas the maggots are lean and pale, the color of sickly skin, crawling along the scraggly surface of the meat. The men are underfed, overworked and live in squalor compared to their commanders.

Through the captain’s eyeglass we can see how he perceives his crew: beneath him, inhuman, undistinguishable. He doesn’t know the crewmembers personally or even know their names. He doesn’t even see the crew as a group of individuals, instead they are one mass that he must direct: one mass of indistinguishable bodies at his bidding.  This condescending perception allows him to mistreat the crew without it affecting his conscience.

The men are singled out for execution

Ironically, the captain’s perception of the crewmembers as one mass also brings them together in solidarity. When the men refuse to eat the meat the captain summons them all to the deck and singles out a small group for execution. He does not handpick the individuals, he merely condemns the slowest moving of the crew. He seeks to cripple the uncooperative organism that is the crew by killing part of it and reasserting his dominance.  The men realize the absurdity of the punishment and shout “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” This is the turning point of the crew’s identity. They realized that they are all in the same situation and have joined in solidarity, a crew with a single consciousness. Much as the maggots took over the crew’s raw meat, the crew swarms the ship and claims control. With their white caps the crew even resembles a swarm of maggots from an aerial view. The imagery of maggots throughout this film plays a crucial role in emphasizing the dehumanization and solidarity of the Potemkin crew.

Battleship Potemkin: View two Revolutions through Montage Technique

The film Battleship Potemkin directed by Eisenstein is about the conflict between proletarians and inhuman domination of the higher authority. The sailor is not satisfied with the food because they are crawling with maggots, thus they complain that even Russian POWs in Japan is fed with better food. However, their officers ignore the problem and results a riot which sailors push all the officers into the ocean. However, the leading sailor gets shot during the riot. As his body is presented in front of the people, it provokes people and causes a bigger conflict between people and officers. Eisenstein’s use of Montage technique on the two revolutions portrayed the brutality of authority and expressed the suffrage of people under this domination.

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The message “Give us this day our daily bread” on the plate 

The first revolution, which is between sailors and their superiors due to the food contamination, is connected to the theme of this class, food. As a crucial necessity in sustain lives, food leads to the beginning of the revolution. Moreover, as a silent, black and white film, the red flag scene added a shocking element into the film. It not only represents the nationalism of proletarian, but also represents the people’s solid faith of victory. In addition, the Montage technique was used on the soldier when washing the plate and saw the message on the plate, “Give us this day our daily bread”. There are many separated shots used as this soldier complete his plate smashing sequence in order to emphasize soldier’s rage and dissatisfaction towards contamination of food.

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The woman walking towards soldiers while holding her injured child 

The second revolution, which is between people and authority, is caused by the presentation of sailor’s body which provokes the crowd to fight against the governmental authority. The Montage usage in the second revolution is highly emphasized in the stairs when the soldiers are shooting at the crowd. One of the Montage scenes is displayed as the mother lost her children while she is running away from gun fires. Then the child gets shot and is being stepped by people who are escaping. The repeated shots switch between mother’s face and child seems extremely realistic and makes a strong impact to audience. Furthermore, the woman in black dress who is pushing the baby stroller is frightened and paralyzed on the stairs, where she gets shot at the belly and the baby stroller falls down the stair while other people still trying to escaping from gun fires. The solemn and stirring orchestra and countless Montage usage in this stair scene created a historical impression regarding domination of the government and the oppression of people.

Eisenstein’s usage of Montage on the two revolutions significantly demonstrated the theme of this film, rebellions is created through inequality and oppression, and the brutality of extreme government. However, the importance and influence of this film is not only presented in the extraordinary use of Montage, but also through music, shooting angle, and most importantly, the theme that Eisenstein is trying to reflect. In conclusion, the film Battleship Potemkin is the best example of Montage, rise of proletarians, and claim of freedom in the history of cinema. 

Battleship Potemkin: Propaganda, Meat, and Men

Battleship Potemkin is a proletarian propaganda film that reveals the cruel Tsarist regime, which gathers support for the revolutionists. The rotten meat in the first part of the film is the initial instigator of the revolution. The meat is a symbol of the sailor’s commodification and is a key device in the propaganda tactic that elicits empathy in the viewers of the film.

            Today, meat is a commodity that many people use as their main protein source, or source of energy. Aboard the battleship Potemkin, meat serves the same purpose—to feed the mass of sailors. However, the disregard of cleanliness of the meat reveals that the Tsarist leaders regard the sailors as merely objects in their regime, not as people. This can be seen in the scene in which Dr. Smirnov tells the sailors that the meat is edible when it clearly isn’t. 

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The sailors are subordinate to the ship’s doctor

Dr. Smirnov’s complete ignorance to the maggots in the meat reveals the power structure of the Tsarist regime and further supports the idea that the sailors are merely commodities to the bourgeoisie. In the screen shot, the sailors immediately line up in his presence, revealing their subordination to him. He has complete dominance over them; thus, his comments about the meat cannot be disputed. The fact that he declares the meat edible reveals he has no concern for the health of the sailors—he is treating them like objects of no importance. This is ironic because one would think that he wants the sailors to be healthy to run the ship; however because they are thought of as owned objects, in the mind of the Tsarist bourgeoisie, they can “buy” and replace ill sailors with new ones who will gladly accept the job offer. Thus, the inspection of the meat functions as a means of revealing the harsh commodification of the sailors on the battleship Potemkin.

            As mentioned earlier, the rotten meat in the film is the initial reason why people begin to revolt. It highlights the fact that the Russian government should be overthrown and that the meat is a key element in the propaganda that supports the Russian revolution against the Tsar. In Odessa, the citizens surround the martyr, Vakulinchuk, who is “killed for a bowl of soup.” 

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A mass of people flock to see the man who was “killed for a bowl of soup.”

This spurs the citizens of Odessa to sympathize with the sailors, which indirectly causes the audience to sympathize, as well. Because citizens of Odessa are greatly disturbed by the inhumane treatment, this reveals that not only are the sailors fed up with the cruel regime of the Tsar, but also the citizens on land are unhappy. The citizens of Odessa just needed a push (which in this case is the meat) to make them realize that they live under a corrupt government. This furthers the propaganda tactics of the film. Since the citizens of Odessa become so upset, which can be seen by the masses that flock to see the dead body, this spurs the audience to realize that there are bigger problems than rotten meat that affect their lives. The unification of the masses also supports the idea that people can come together to combat a single force. Therefore, the audience will be more likely to support a revolution.

            In Battleship Potemkin, the rotten meat not only shows how the sailors as a whole are a commodification in the eyes of the Tsarist leaders, but also, helps ignite the revolution in Odessa, which helps the propaganda techniques of the film.

Battleship Potemkin: The Rebellion for Food

The Russian Revolution, the rise of the Proletariats, may have started from something truly trivial. In Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, the start of the Russian revolution and the red fever was over a simple piece of meat. The crew on the battleship Potemkin were getting tired of eating rotten meat everyday and decided to do something about it. The crew decided rebel against the terrible rations and not eat the meat soup. The officers of the ship were furious and decided to execute those who had rebelled against them, triggering the whole crew to rebel.

The rotten meat that started the rebellion

Disobeying the orders of a superior and refusing to eat highlights the important role that food takes on. While eating rotten meat may not kill the men, good food is something worth fighting for. The crew’s resentment stems from unfair treatment by the officers. If everyone were eating the same type of food, there would be no reason to complain. However, the doctor and the officers are getting better treatment than the rest of the crew. The crew simply wants to eat the same food as everyone else. Beyond the notion of equality of food is the notion of equality of status. By rebelling on the pretense of fighting against eating rotten meat, the crew inherently wants the same status as everyone else.

The jump from equality of food to equality of status is not too hard to make. Food is something that relieves the body, a comfort essential to everyday life. It is something very personal. The officers have no right to deprive the crew of their precious everyday comfort; the crew is essentially what runs the ship and the crew believes that they deserve good treatment. The first mention of status is when someone mentions that even the prisoners of war get better food than what they are serving on the ship.  Why should the crew, fighting for their country, eat worse food than prisoners? While the members of the crew had put up with the unfair treatment for so long, their patience snaps when the officers expect the crew to eat maggot infected meat. The officers expected the crew to eat the same meat that the maggots eat. In effect, the officers are telling the crew that they are on the same level as maggots. The crew is enraged at the blatant superiority shown by the officers and rebels for the sake of equality.

Uneaten Soup Pots shows the Crew’s Indignation

The actions of the crew on the battleship are not so surprising when considering the meaning behind the men behind the food. The rotten meat symbolizes blatant maltreatment that places the crew on the same level as squirming maggots. Rebellion against injustice is only natural once the men realized that they truly held the power. The rebellion for the sake of better food and the rebellion for the sake of equality are one and the same.

Battleship Potemkin: Men and Maggots

Sergei Eisenstein’s propaganda film Battleship Potemkin sends the message of communism to the people of Russia. It dramatizes the story of the mutiny that occurred on the battleship Potemkin between the crew and the Tsarist officers and what effects it lead to. This conflict was sparked by a dispute over food. The crew was being fed maggot infested meat and was fed up with it, but the officers refused to recognize any problem. This furthered the beginning tension between the officers and the crew members. The crew can be seen to represents the working class in the movie and the officers the Tsarist regime. The fact that they are so badly mistreated and told to eat the bugs shows how the regime views them; lower than insects. This agrees with the message the film is trying to portray of ridding the current corrupt government in place of communism once again, where everyone is equal. The differences between how the crew and officers view the maggots on the meat shows further gaps between the “working class” and rulers. When the doctor comes in to examine the meat he claims there is “nothing” wrong with the meat and “wrongly” identifies the maggots claiming the meat is safe to eat. The rotting meat serves as a metaphor to the rotting ruling class and the fact that the doctor, an authority figure, wrongly diagnosis the maggots further suggest the corruptness in the authority figures.

Men cramped together sleeping

The maggots also play a parallel role to the working men. Maggots are these embryonic things and this can be sees in the men at the beginning of the film as they slumber in their hammocks close together awaiting “life.” Both are unconsciously able to transform; the maggots in to flies and the men in to these self aware revolutionary beings. Eisenstein plays with cinematography to characterize in simple the crew as a whole instead of individually, which is an aspect of communism. In the beginning and throughout the movie you see the crew always shot in masses together representing uniformity. Eisenstein, however, when shooting the officers films them as individuals who stand alone. The obvious contrast between not only the shots but in their looks show these are two completely different groups. The officers are well groomed, in dark uniforms while the crew members are in all white, sweating from all their labor. The food in this film also in a symbolic way, narrates the revolution. In the beginning of the film the meat is repulsive and rotting and then when the “revolution” or uprising from he crew members begin you see people “joining” them by running down the steps to give the crew members chicken where they are brutally murdered.

Officer observing the crew below

Battleship Potemkin is a propaganda film that represents the inescapable fate of conflict and sends it’s message of accepting the revolutionary ways if it serves to better the people. It encourages to get the message of communism out to the people of Russia and to stand up for change against the Tsarist regime.