Battleship Potemkin (1925). 75 minutes. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Starring Alexsandr Antonov (as Grigory Vakulinchuk), Vladimir Barsky (as Commander Golikov), Grigori Alexsandrov (as Chief Officer Giliarovsky), Mikhail Gomorov (as militant sailor), Alexsandr Levshin (as petty officer), N. Poltavseva (as woman with pince-nez), Beatrice Vitoldi (as woman with baby carriage), Konstantin Feldman (as student agitator), and Lyrkean Makeon (as masked man).
Battleship Potemkin is a landmark Soviet propaganda film directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Orson Welles numbered it among their top favorites for its artistry, and it consistently places on Sight and Sound’s polls of the greatest movies ever made. Yet it may be difficult for some to accept Battleship Potemkin as one of the great films, or at least as an unhindered work of art, given the brutal realities of the regime that it was designed to serve as a mouthpiece for. Battleship Potemkin’s mission is, after all, to express Soviet political rhetoric as a work of unfiltered agitprop. But if we can see past its immediate cultural context, we can experience it as an immensely effective action film, one that is both electrifying and thrillingly constructed. It serves as a kind of textbook for modern filmmakers on the art of the action montage and the creation of tension through powerful editing techniques.
The movie is based on a mutiny that took place on board the real battleship Potemkin in 1905, an event that Vladimir Lenin called a “dress rehearsal”for the 1917 Communist Revolution. Although the film exaggerates the communist rhetoric involved in the historical mutiny, Battleship Potemkin is nevertheless fairly accurate in many of its details. The plot is kept fairly simple: the sailors on board the battleship complain that the meat they are being fed is rancid and maggot-laden. The officers insist that the meat is edible and order that it be used in a soup, but the men refuse to eat it. On deck the officers summon the crew and order that the men who did not eat the soup be executed, but the crew mutinies instead and successfully seizes control of the ship; the rebellion is framed as a revolt of the people against their oppressors and a symbol of the wider communist revolution. On the shore, the sailors enshrine the corpse of Vakulinchuk, one of the martyred men, so that people on the mainland know of their struggle. Meanwhile, word of the Potemkin mutiny spreads to Odessa, whose residents send lavish gifts to the ship in encouragement. But the Tsar’s soldiers attack the Odessans on the city steps, massacring hundreds of them. The Potemkin crew is confronted at sea by other battleships, which it prepares to defend itself against, but the ships approach in peace as supporters, and the Potemkin crew triumphs. (The ending omits to note that the real battleship Potemkin was recaptured by the Tsar’s navy a month after the mutiny began.)
The title of this film may give you the impression that the story emphasizes sea conflict or battle. For the most part, however, Battleship Potemkin focuses more broadly on how a revolution is engendered and spread. The ship scenes give us our first glimpses into the cruelty practiced by the Potemkin’s oppressors: the shots of meat crawling with maggots, or the image of the mutineers on the ship deck draped with a tarp to degrade and disable them as they are readied for execution. But some of the film’s most impressive events actually occur on the shore in scenes detached from the maritime action. This includes the footage of the line of people who wait to file by Vakulinchuk’s corpse out of curiosity and respect, or the scenes of Odessans who load their boats with livestock and food for the Potemkin crew, or the montage of the massacre on the Odessa steps. In this way, the battleship becomes a symbol of a greater struggle, one that originates at sea but translates into more universal, non-military spheres.
The Odessa steps sequence is probably what the film is best known for, and it is not hard to see why. The civilian supporters of the Potemkin in Odessa are gathered in a crowd along a public staircase, and the Tsar’s armed soldiers appear and begin to march down the stairs in a line towards them. As the soldiers proceed, the steps seem to multiply in an endless and improbable number, and the soldiers inflict broadly scoped, generalized violence on the Odessans running, hiding, and pausing to react along the staircase. The violence is explicit at times, most famously in the form of a woman wearing a pince-nez who is shot through the eye and an infant boy who is also wounded and emits a stream of blood.
Battleship Potemkin is particularly skilled at manipulating our emotions through these characters in the throes of death. Perhaps the most famous emotional appeal in the Odessa steps montage is the extended sequence involving a mother and a baby carriage. The mother is shot and loses control of the carriage, which at first jostles tentatively on a step and subsequently careens down the staircase out of control. As we watch the carriage tremble and teeter, it is easy to anticipate what will happen, to feel anxious as the footage cuts from the ominous marching legs of the soldiers, so steadily approaching, to the uncertainty of the carriage whose fate nevertheless seems so determined. The musical score certainly can help with this, but simply watching the shots as they cut frenetically from one image to another, even with the sound off, is enough to compel the average viewer (Soviet or otherwise) to perceive a phenomenal amount of stress and tension. The hope of such a film is that the experience of that stress and tension will be enough to persuade the viewer to appreciate the struggle of the Potemkin sympathizers and side with them, and that these emotions will do the job sufficiently without necessitating a more elaborate or intellectual argument. The appeal of such a sequence is thus not rational, but it is potentially very powerful.
Part of what works so well about the Odessa steps montage is the way that the victims stand out as real, captivating people whereas the faces of the Tsar’s soldiers are barely shown (one primarily sees their marching legs and bayonets). The soldiers are also made to appear almost supernatural in their unending capacity to descend the stairs like an armed, impersonal machine. The lack of individuation among the gun-toting figures effectively makes them seem inhuman, unfeeling, and unworthy of our sympathy, which works as a storytelling technique. But it is simplistic and unfair, as it suggests that the Tsar’s soldiers are not people in the way that their victims are, not worthy of their own stories.
The lack of individuation becomes a problem for other parts of the movie, which largely anonymize the participants of the Potemkin revolt at sea, for example. Among the mutineers, only Vakulinchuk is identified by name, and even then we barely know anything about him. He and his fellow shipmates function as opportunities for the film to tell the story of broad-strokes class conflict and the uprising of the masses, not for a historical story about what real people suffered on their own terms, in their own terms. Battleship Potemkin thus places an emphasis more on the movement that the Potemkin sailors initiate and its wider cultural resonance than on specific, clearly visible people. That, it must be said, is one of the film’s limitations.
Yet weirdly, during the final sequence when the Potemkin sails into the midst of a convoy of other battleships, this same reluctance to attribute specific characteristics to any one person on board the ship actually plays out well and helps the audience to feel sympathy for the men on board whom we largely do not see. As the ship prepares for battle, we mainly observe footage of the ship’s bow, the waves breaking in its path, its gun turrets being raised and lowered, and other battleships approaching. The film cuts among these shots repeatedly, and although we do not see many human faces at all, the tension and heightened drama of the sequence is palpable. The score by Shostakovich in the print I saw, while not original to the film, nevertheless was an excellent complement, creating an exceptional emotional intensity. This final montage shows how Eisenstein could potentially construct an entire film out of footage of physical things such as ships, mounted guns, and waves and still cause us to feel potent emotions even when we are not offered any real people to connect with.
Battleship Potemkin is unable to conceal some of the more nefarious tendencies of the regime that produced it. The print I viewed replaced the quote by Leon Trotsky that originally opened the film with a quote from Lenin instead; under Stalin, Trotsky fell out of favor (to put it mildly). The omission of the Trotsky quote might seem like a minor point, but when coupled with the movie’s simplifications and reliance on emotional appeals, it makes for a brutal undertone that may be hard for some to overcome.
To me, however, the power of Eisenstein’s direction and editing frequently succeeds over the rhetoric of his particular political moment. Battleship Potemkin’s potential for cultural transendence can be seen in its effects on the Hollywood film industry, where the Odessa steps montage would be quoted repeatedly over the intervening decades but would be divorced from its Soviet context. I happen to think that Eisenstein’s later efforts, such as Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944), showcase his ability to tell meaningful, tense stories laden with potent symbolism even better, with characters who are individuated and storylines that are more critical of the society they stem from. But Battleship Potemkin’s importance to those later works is probably immeasurable, and in terms of the sheer ability to create suspense it remains a benchmark film, worthy of imitation by anyone directing a modern action movie.