Battleship Potemkin, released at the end of 1925 as only Sergei Eisenstein’s second full-length film, was an elaboration on the real-life mutiny which took place on the battleship Potemkin in June 1905. The ship had been built for the Imperial Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet; and at the time, many of its senior officers were away, engaged in the ongoing Russo-Japanese War. From the beginning of the year, social unrest had swept throughout the Russian Empire, in what became known as the Revolution of 1905, and resulted in a series of political reforms including the establishment of the State Duma.
Born in Riga in 1898, Eisenstein served in the Red Army, and began his career in the theatre before turning to film. Though his works have been variously interpreted – and his final film, the second part of Ivan the Terrible, so incensed Stalin that it would not be released until 1958, ten years after Eisenstein’s death – he remains most associated with his early propaganda efforts, and with his influential theories of montage. Eisenstein was not unique in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s in developing montage – the technique was also utilised by Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, and Boris Barnet – but along with Lev Kuleshov, who he briefly studied under, he was its foremost theorist.
Drawing crucially from the theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Eisenstein believed that the rapid and jolting juxtaposition of images was the best way to manipulate the emotional response of an audience. Soviet filmmakers of the period became obsessed with the power of editing; and their films tended to feature many more shots than those of their Hollywood counterparts. Eisenstein’s early career was also marked by a focus on decisive crowd sequences; and by the use of untrained actors.
Battleship Potemkin is split into five parts, each clearly stated with its own title card. Part one is ‘The Men and the Maggots’. Eisenstein opens his film moving between shots of violently breaking waves; then cuts to a title showing a quote from Lenin attributed to the year 1905: ‘Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and truly great war…in Russia this war has been declared and begun’. Lenin wrote these sentences at the end of January 1905, in an article ‘The Plan of the St. Petersburg Battle’.
Though the film is often stated to eschew the individual in favour of the mass, still the collected sailors on the Potemkin have a figurehead: Vakulinchuk, who takes one of his comrades aside up above the deck, and asserts that the sailors must support the workers, acting in the vanguard of the revolution. Now Eisenstein takes us below deck, to the sailors sleeping in their bunks. The influence of Battleship Potemkin on the art of Francis Bacon is often cited: Bacon apparently first saw the film in 1935, and the image of the screaming nurse from the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence was a prominent influence upon the variations of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X which he undertook through the 1950s and early 1960s. But here too, the angled hammocks and overlapping bodies of the sailors resemble Bacon’s paintings of hanging meat.
An officer prowls the sailors’ quarters, and when he stumbles, in irritation he lashes one of the sailors on the back. Eisenstein’s title cards don’t only provide dialogue or narrative exposition: they also serve an overt didactic purpose, and a title here suggests ‘easy to vent one’s rage on a recruit’. Vakulinchuk gives a rousing speech, asking ‘What are we waiting for? All of Russia has risen’.
The next day, when the sailors argue that the rotten meat which they are to be served is covered in worms, their complaints are dismissed by the ship’s doctor. However, they refuse to eat the borscht prepared with the meat. As several sailors do the washing up, their physical labour and repetitive motion is juxtaposed with the still, shimmering silver of the cutlery. The same soldier who was lashed the night before notices a line on one of the plates he is washing: it is from the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. In anger and frustration he smashes the plate.
In part two, ‘Drama on the Deck’, the men who refused the borscht are charged with insubordination. Informed that they ought to be strung from the ship’s yard, one elderly sailor looks up and envisions the hanging corpses. The offending sailors are covered with a tarpaulin, and the firing squad is brought out – as the ship’s priest looks on approvingly, proclaiming ‘Bring the unruly to reason, O Lord!’. But Vakulinchuk cries out in protest and causes the firing squad to hesitate, and the sailors take the opportunity to mutiny. They triumph over the officers – while the priest feigns unconsciousness, the doctor is thrown overboard – but Vakulinchuk is shot and killed.
In ‘A Dead Man Calls for Justice’, the sailors reach the port of Odessa as free men. Vakulinchuk’s body is placed in a tent, with a sign stating ‘Dead for a spoonful of soup’, as crowds from the city flock past in support. When one aristocrat attempts to turn the people of Odessa towards other ends, encouraging amidst the rally ‘Kill the Jews!’, he is rounded on by furious onlookers.
‘The Odessa Steps’ is the best-known sequence of Eisenstein’s career, and the epitome of the montage technique. Odessa joyously sees the sailors off, with baskets of fruit, much waving, the fluttering of eyelashes, and the twirling of umbrellas. Amidst the throng, Eisenstein highlight a young man, happily cheering, who has lost both legs. Then ‘Suddenly…’, there is the first close-up of a shrieking woman’s face; the legless youth scurries down the vast stairway; and everyone is on the move. A mass of marching gunmen emerge over one of the stairway’s landings, and bodies begin to drop.
This stairway – extending 142 metres, constructed by 1841, and today known as the Potemkin Stairs – stands as the main entrance from the port into the city of Odessa. It was built so that one looking down the stairway sees only the landings, and none of the steps. Eisenstein uses this aspect in his film: from below, we see the people scuttling down the many stairs in panic; but shot from above, beyond the corner of a statue, we see the Imperial soldiers moving against a blank surface, steady and austere.
A child is shot in the back and his mother grieves in slow-motion; people are trampled underfoot; and as the soldiers steadily descend from above, mounted Cossacks arrive with guns at the bottom of the stairway to continue the assault. Finally an infant’s pram teeters down the stairs and, as it is about to tumble, the sequence ends with the famous shot of the nurse, open-mouthed, bloody, and with broken glasses. These images have been echoed and parodied across all of cinema; but perhaps most notably in the round of assassinations which mark the climax of The Godfather.
The Potemkin‘s guns fire off in response to the massacre, but meanwhile the sailors receive news that a squadron sent from the Tsar is on its way to take care of their revolt. The sailors determine to meet this squadron, and the fifth and final act of Battleship Potemkin – variously rendered ‘The Meeting with the Squadron’ and ‘One Against All’ – concerns the nature of this meeting.
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‘Voted the greatest film of all time by an international panel of critics in Brussels in 1958, as it had been in 1950, POTEMKIN (Russians and purists pronounce it Po-tyom-kin) has achieved such an unholy eminence that few people any longer dispute its merits. Great as it undoubtedly is, it’s not really a likable film; it’s amazing, though – it keeps its freshness and its excitement, even if you resist its cartoon message. Perhaps no other movie has ever had such graphic strength in its images, and the young director Sergei Eisenstein opened up a new technique of psychological stimulation by means of rhythmic editing–“montage.”‘ – Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Holt Paperback, 1991)
‘The film once had such power that it was banned in many nations, including its native Soviet Union. Governments actually believed it could incite audiences to action. If today it seems more like a technically brilliant but simplistic “cartoon” (Pauline Kael’s description in a favorable review), that may be because it has worn out its element of surprise – that, like the 23rd Psalm or Beethoven’s Fifth, it has become so familiar we cannot perceive it for what it is. Having said that, let me say that “Potemkin,” which I have seen many times and taught using a shot-by-shot approach, did come alive for me the other night, in an unexpected time and place […] Under the stars on a balmy summer night, far from film festivals and cinematheques, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 revolutionary call generated some of its legendary rabble-rousing power.’ – ‘Great Movies’ review by Roger Ebert
‘[…] the dynamic of Sergei Eisenstein’s cinema – of drastic composition and editing fusion – had been displaced (thanks to Murnau, Renoir, Welles, Mizoguchi, Ophuls, and so many others) by fluidity, movement, and duration […] But Eisenstein and his colleagues were working in Russia in 1925, with the horror of tsarism recent enough to demand remedy. And Eisenstein was an illustrator of astonishing power. Moreover, in seeing cinema as a matter of so many angled compositions or “shock shots,” he was locking himself into an editing style that was always cutting away and would never appreciate real time or space’ – David Thomson, ‘Have You Seen…?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Penguin, 2010)
‘In 1920s Soviet films, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin, October, and Strike, no individual serves as protagonist. In films by Eisenstein and Yasujiro Ozu, many events are seen as cause not by characters but by larger forces (social dynamics in the former, an over-arching rhythm of life in the latter).’ – David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (McGraw-Hill, 2013) 10th edition
‘[Eisenstein] also used montage to extend time and increase the tension – as in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), in the famous massacre scene on the steps of Odessa in which the action is slowed down by the intercutting of close-ups of faces in the crowd with repeated images of the soldiers’ descent down the stairs. The scene, by the way, was entirely fictional: there was no massacre on the Odessa steps in 1905 – although it often appears in the history books.’ – Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Metropolitan Books, 2002)