Few films have made an impact on the history of cinema like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin). In 2016 it was ranked the eleventh best film of all time in a Sight and Sound magazine critics poll, one of only a handful of silent-era films to make the list.
Commissioned in 1925 by the Soviet government to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the thwarted 1905 revolution, the film accomplished that and much more. Chosen to direct was Eisenstein, whose first film, Strike (1925), marked him as a leading Soviet filmmaker at the age of twenty-seven. Both an artistic and a political ideologue, Eisenstein had theories about filmmaking, not just talent and revolutionary views, and had already experimented with innovative techniques in Strike.
In Battleship, Eisenstein creates a dramatized version of true events, the mutiny of the crew of the Potemkin, led by sailors Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) and Matyushenko (Mikhail Gomarov), in a gesture of solidarity with the revolution breaking out all over Russia. The sailors are faced with deplorable conditions onboard. When they realize they are about to be fed meat infested with maggots, they refuse to eat, provoking a showdown with the officers.
Senior officer Golikov (Vladimir Barksy) threatens to execute the mutinous sailors. But when the ship’s marines are called on to fire, they refuse to shoot their comrades. Nonetheless, several sailors are killed in the takeover of the ship, Vakulinchuk among them. The rifles are then turned on Golikov, and the rebels exact their justice.
The ship heads for Odessa, a city in Ukraine that has already taken up arms against the tsar’s forces. From the Odessa Steps, a huge crowd greets the Potemkin as the crew raises a red flag. The sailors receive a massive heroes’ welcome, and Vakulinchuk is hailed as a martyr. However, government soldiers have been dispatched to quell the crowd. They march inexorably down the steps, shooting, bayoneting, and trampling those not quick enough to get out of the way, resulting in a bloody massacre of men, women, and children.
An admiral’s squadron heads for Odessa to retake Potemkin, and the rebelling sailors decide to confront them. However, the admiral’s crew also refuse to fire on their comrades. The Potemkin sails on, we know not where.
The 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War was nearly the Romanovs’ undoing. Japan crushed Tsar Nicholas II’s attempts at expansion in Manchuria and Korea. As a result, Russia’s already failing economy went into further decline. Peasants and workers rose in massive numbers, forming councils (soviets) that threatened to put an end to the hated tsarist regime once and for all. But the revolutionary forces were not yet strong enough to finish the job. The Romanovs defeated them with a combination of repression and concessions.
The Bolsheviks took the lessons of the 1905 revolution to heart. The suppressed uprising validated Marx’s view that a decaying capitalist society would be drawn into wars that would further its demise. Workers and peasants would overthrow the regime and become the new rulers. Lenin later called 1905 the “dress rehearsal” for 1917.
The intended audiences for Battleship Potemkin were the millions of victorious workers and peasants in 1925, decimated by the recent civil war, in need of the inspired example of their revolutionary predecessors. There was hardly a person in Russia who would not have been deeply moved by the scenes of sailors being forced to bear terrible conditions and yet refusing to shoot their comrades. The use of bold imagery and sparse intertitles ensured that even an illiterate peasant could understand what the film was about. Battleship was a revolution unto itself.
The film’s reputation spread quickly. There were efforts to show it throughout the world, starting with Germany, which, in 1926, was in the throes of its own deep and bitter class struggle. Fearful of the film’s incendiary potential, German authorities severely censored it. They found the breach of military discipline depicted in the film especially disturbing. The distributor was forced to eliminate nearly one hundred feet of film, crippling the film’s message, in order for it to be shown. Censored German versions are what most people outside the USSR saw.
Coincidentally on a European tour at the time, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford attended the Berlin premiere, after which Fairbanks declared, “The Battleship Potemkin was the most profound emotional experience of my life.” Realizing that profound emotional experiences could be very profitable, Hollywood rushed to see if its studios could capture some of Eisenstein’s lightning in a bottle. After seeing it himself, producer David O. Selznick raved to MGM’s Harry Rapf that the film was “gripping beyond words” and “unquestionably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made … It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen.”
Selznick was a savvy enough observer to be able to pinpoint what was at the heart of the film’s effectiveness: Eisenstein’s brilliant and innovative use of film techniques to elicit an emotional response from an audience. His bag of tricks centered around shot composition, casting for types, and montage, used in a way never before seen.
Instead of editing to create a smooth or seamless narrative, Eisenstein threw disparate images against each other to elicit an emotional response or to stimulate an intellectual association. To explain his approach, Eisenstein often used the example of Japanese characters, which he had thoroughly studied. For example, when writing in Japanese, the character for “water” could be combined with the character for “eye” to produce the concept of “tears.” In this same way, Eisenstein combined two seemingly unrelated shots in his films in order to create something new. This technique is used throughout the onboard rebellion sequence to create suspense, dread, and revulsion.
His approach to casting, which he called “typage,” was to hire people, not necessarily professionals, who instantly conveyed who they were: a student, a grandmother, a sailor. “Instead of looking for creative revelations of talent,” Eisenstein wrote, “[I] sought the correct physical appearances.” He was known to go into the field and study dozens of persons who have a particular role in life, for example, street cleaners. After synthesizing an idea in his mind of what a street cleaner looks like, he would find someone who fit the bill, even if the individual wasn’t actually a street cleaner.
Refining these methods in what was only his second film, Eisenstein reinvented cinema. The iconic Odessa Steps sequence has been quoted throughout film history, for example, in the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho and in the final bloody gunfight in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, with the camera cutting from stabbing and shooting to bloodshed, rather than showing both in the same frame. The world would not see another brash wunderkind like Eisenstein until Orson Welles made Citizen Kane.
After a long history of the gutting and rearranging of Potemkin, including by latter-day Soviet censors, Eisenstein scholar Naum Kleiman began in 1976 trying to piece together Eisenstein’s intended sequence of the film. In 1986, Enno Patalas, working at the Munich Filmmuseum, also began reassembling the film, a process that culminated with a new restoration by the Deutsche Kinemathek, which debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. This new version with 1,374 total shots includes all the material that had been cut by the German censors in the 1920s and had been missing ever since.
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble