An absurdist homage to Battleship Potemkin
A ROMANIAN FILMMAKER who usually deflates Romanian myths of nationwide greatness, Radu Jude lately graced the New York Movie Pageant with a compact, farcical essay on the fabric foundation of historic reminiscence, or, to make use of Trotsky’s time period, “the dustbin of historical past.”
The Potemkinists takes the type of a dialog between a would-be public artist and a potential state patron. These accustomed to Jude’s tricksy, appalling account of a staged historic pageant, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in Historical past as Barbarians (2018), will recall appreciable display time dedicated to an analogous debate. Certainly, Alexandru Dabija, the affably sly ministry official in I Do Not Care, seems right here within the guise of a garrulous sculptor promoting a proposal to rehabilitate a wonderful second from Romania’s previous. His doable benefactor is a typically unimpressed cultural bureaucrat (Cristina Drăghici, who delivered an impressed rant as a consumer in Jude’s 2021 Dangerous Luck Banging or Loony Porn).
Largely shot on a scenic bluff overlooking the pressured labor–produced Danube–Black Sea Canal within the shadow of grandiose, derelict Ceaușescu-era monument devoted to the Union of Communist Youth, their dialogue additionally considerations Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 cinematic monument Battleship Potemkin, sampled all through. The primary excerpt, Potemkin’s nonetheless thrilling conclusion, hits the historic pause button on a second of ecstatic revolutionary solidarity—which is strictly what Jude’s sculptor needs to get past by memorializing what occurred subsequent.
Because it seems, Eisenstein was himself requested that what adopted. In a 1926 essay cryptically titled “Constanța,” he notes being repeatedly pestered by viewers wishing to know the Potemkin’s subsequent destiny. Somewhat than reply, nevertheless, he explains that that historical past is irrelevant. “The film ends at exactly the purpose at which it’s maximized as an ‘asset’ to the Revolution”—a one-sentence idea of historic montage!
The prudently unpublished “Constanța” goes on to characterize Battleship Potemkin as a canny instance of “NEP ways” in artwork—a strategic use of bourgeois sights (“doubt, tears, sentiment, lyricism, psychologism, maternal emotions, and so on.”). Potemkinists acknowledges this with a deadpan parody of essentially the most thrilling montage sequence in cinema historical past, Eisenstein’s drama of the Potemkin Steps. An excellent demonstration of editing-table legerdemain, not least for its outrageous use of parallel motion within the service of temporal growth, the traditional sequence is burlesqued by the real-time efforts of the sculptor and bureaucrat to wheeze their manner, at occasions on all fours, up a flight of stairs towards an enormous stainless-steel whatzit.
This towering construction suggests a twisted accordion, or an airplane cargo-hold spilling baggage from the sky. Its creator, Pavel Bucur, has described it as an summary flame meant to suggest the physique of a fallen angel. Evidently, the unique design included a pair of wings, however the idea was by no means absolutely realized, supposedly for worry of compromising the statue’s structural integrity.
Nonetheless, Bacur exulted in his creation: “After the Statue of Liberty, it’s the tallest monument on the planet. It value as a lot as a bridge!” It additionally concerned the dislocation of a complete village. Now embellished with graffiti, the statue’s concrete base as soon as held bronze plates and bas-reliefs depicting the development of the Danube–Black Sea Canal in addition to Romania’s ruling Ceaușescu couple who had revived the undertaking, accomplished in 1984. An ambiguous inscription utilized to all: “Let future generations know of our sacrifice for our nation.”
After the 1989 Romanian Revolution, the plates (which weighed many tons) have been pried unfastened, carted off, and stolen for scrap. (“Gypsies?” the bureaucrat asks.) As a 2012 article on the Romanian web site Adverol (Fact) mourned, “stripped of the bronze bas-reliefs, blackened by rain and wind, tough to achieve due to the highway and the positioning, a murals that would have been admired by a complete world stays solely an indicator for the convoys on the Danube–Black Sea Channel that it’s approaching the Port of Constanța.”
Constanța is vital. The sculptor proposes to recuperate this unwieldly tribute to Communist Youth by reconsecrating it to the revolutionary sailors of the battleship Potemkin in acknowledgement of the little-known reality (no less than exterior of Romania) that, essay title apart, Eisenstein coyly declined to disclose. After threatening to bombard and presumably obliterate Romania’s largest Black Sea port, Constanța, these Soviet heroes—the strapping younger Potemkinists—have been granted political asylum by the Romanian king Carol I.
Particularly, the sculptor’s plan is to place the film’s martyr, Grigory Vakulinchuk, atop the monument, making it the tallest (and presumably most ridiculous) sculpture in Europe, with Vakulinchuk posed as he dies per Eisenstein, a proletarian fallen angel caught by and suspended within the ship’s rigging.
Rather than the stolen bas-reliefs, the sculptor proposes to honor comrade artist Eisenstein with a montage of the Odessa Steps on one aspect and, on the opposite, celebrating Romanian world-historic generosity in a illustration of Constanța’s citizenry welcoming the heroic mutineers. When the bureaucrat cautions him that “we don’t wish to be seen as eulogists for Communism,” the sculptor shortly appeals to her patriotism. By harboring the Potemkinists, he explains, “Romania fucked Russia within the mouth!”
Arms folded, the bureaucrat is uncertain that the monument even deserves to be preserved: In any case, “Individuals had their houses destroyed for this piece of crap.” The sculptor turns into ever extra manic, pivoting to recommend a brand new frieze on the pedestal to honor the political prisoners and acknowledge the dispossessed villagers with a “slideshow of grief.” The end result, not in contrast to The Potemkinists, shall be a “postmodern collage” commemorating a disastrous century. A timeless statue collapses within the muck of historical past. The bureaucrat permits that she may be capable of promote that.
When irony fails, absurdism could suffice. However, The Potemkinists ends on a sober notice. Jude evokes historic reminiscence with a number of excoriating strains from a 1922 Osip Mandelstam poem—You brute of a century, who may stare / into the vacuum of your eyes—and some historic photos, postcards displaying the Potemkin in Constanța.