“Battleship Potemkin” - Sergei Eisenstein (1925)

Even though it is not shown very often these days, Sergei M. Eisenstein’s silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925) has long been regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.  It was ranked 11th on the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of international film critics [1] and ranked 75th on the BFI’s 2012 poll of international film directors [2].  Its fame rose quickly despite the fact that is was not a big hit at the box-office when it was released in Eisenstein’s native Russia, and its distribution elsewhere was often restricted due to the film’s propagandistic message promoting communist revolution. 

Eisenstein was only twenty-seven when he made Battleship Potemkin, which was his second feature film, following his similarly politically-intoned first feature, Strike (1925).  He went on to make a number of films over his varied directing career (see for example his Alexander Nevsky, 1938), but his lasting fame rests largely on Battleship Potemkin and on his subsequent film-theoretical writings [3,4].  Indeed Battleship Potemkin came to be seen as the exemplary showcase of Eisenstein’s ideas about film aesthetics and production. Thus the film soon achieved iconic status.

Eisenstein was particularly concerned with formulating a theoretical foundation for the relatively new medium of film expression, for which the crafted temporal arrangement of sequenced images was a process he referred to as “montage”.  Like his young contemporary film theoretician Lev Kuleshov, who taught at the Soviet National Film School, Eisenstein was aware of and concerned with the fact that a viewer’s perception and understanding of an individual film image (i.e. a shot) is very much influenced by the immediately preceding images, which provide a narrative context for the interpretation of that shot.  The synergistic effects of successive contrasting images on the viewer were what Eisenstein referred to as “collisions” [5,6].  By injecting and manipulating these collisions, a filmmaker could expressively convey his or her thematic message and heighten its dramatic impact.

The story of Battleship Potemkin concerns a real event that took place in 1905 during the Russian revolution of that year.  Sailors onboard the said battleship mutinied against the officers on the ship in June of that year, and the event was later hailed by Lenin as dramatic evidence concerning how the military could rise up and support a people’s revolution.  Eisenstein was commissioned by the Russian Communist government to make a film for the 20th anniversary of that historic event that would celebrate its revolutionary important.  The highly fictionalized account that Eisenstein went on to make of those events was thus intended to be an instrument of government propaganda and not so much concerned with historical accuracy.  In this respect Eisenstein visualized these events as a clash of general social forces rather than as a more customary  narrative depicting the conflict between key individual agents.

So when students of film look at Battleship Potemkin now, they are often interested in seeing how Eisenstein’s filmmaking ideas were manifested in his politicized account.  The film’s story is divided into five distinct acts, each of which has its own emotional message.

1.  Men and Maggots
The first act is devoted to a presentation of the unsatisfactory conditions of the sailors onboard the battleship.  It is clear early on that the sailors, who are symbolic of the Russian working class, are treated like dogs.  One sailor, Vakulinchuk, is seen urging his fellow abused shipmates to join with the popular revolution that was taking place at the time.  Finally the sailors erupt in complaints about the worm-infested meat they are being fed.  In response to their complaints, the stuffy ship’s doctor  assures them that the crawly creatures they see on the meat are only maggots, not worms, and that they should go ahead and eat the borscht that is made from the meat.  But the sailors refuse to eat it.

The message for this act is suffering injustice on the part of the upper classes towards the lower class in a corrupted system. Throughout this act, the sailors are not shown as individuals but as members of a suppressed class.  The officers shown are uniformly haughty and disdainful of the sailors, whom they see as beneath them.  Thus the oppressors are individualized, while the oppressed are more abstractly presented.

This is the weakest act in the film, because the elements in this section are not effectively organized as a narrative.

2.  Drama on the Quarterdeck
When the ship Commander Golikov learns about the insubordination of the borscht-spurning sailors, he orders everyone up on deck and summarily commands that about twenty randomly selected sailors be executed by firing squad.  To symbolize the generic aspect of these chosen victims, Eisenstein has the officers cover them with a tarpaulin as the armed men line up in front of them to shoot them. 

Just as they are about to shoot, Vakulinchuk shouts out to the firing squad members, “Brothers!  Who are you shooting at?”  The armed men lower their guns in disobedience of their orders, and a full-scale insurrection quickly ensues.  The sailors soon succeed in taking over control of the ship, and they kill all the ship’s officers by throwing them overboard.  During the melee, however, the heroic Vakulinchuk is shot and becomes a martyr.

One wonders how this mutiny could have been executed without some planning, but no such scenes are presented.   

The overall message for this act is righteous revenge and murderous hatred towards the oppressors.

3.  The Dead Man Calls Out
The pace of the film now slows and becomes mournful.  When the Potemkin arrives in the Odessa harbor, Vakulinchuk’s corpse is loaded onto the pier, and it quickly becomes a shrine symbolizing his martyrdom.  Crowds of sympathetic people paying mournful homage to the corpse are soon whipped into a frenzy of anger and hatred towards their czarist oppressors. 

The increased use of closeups on individual faces in this act moves the focus more to the human level.  The overall message and tone in this act is still primarily that of righteous hatred – but towards a class, rather than towards individuals.

4.  The Odessa Steps
The memorable Odessa Steps act begins with the people now joyfully coming to greet the Potemkin, many traveling out to the ship in the water on a flotilla of small boats.  A large crowd of well-wishers also streams continuously down an open concrete staircase that extends down to the water's edge.  But suddenly a group of armed guards from the Czar’s army appears at the top of the staircase and begins systematically shooting at the crowd, which includes many women and children.  The ensuing slaughter is graphically filmed and edited, with rapid cuts between the merciless soldiers and the suffering women and children.  An iconic image is that of an unguided baby carriage careening wildly down the staircase after the baby’s mother has been shot dead. 

The emphasis here is on the contrast (the “collision”) between the inhuman mechanization of the soldiers and the pathos of the vulnerable women and children being massacred.  Thus the message is that of agonized suffering cruelty at the hands of inhuman perpetrators.  Some critics have gone so far as suggesting that the cruel and machine-like soldiers are embodiments of the masculine principle, while the suffering victims, who draw our sympathies, are embodiments of the feminine [7].  (Note, though, that the film as a whole seems to appeal more to male viewers than female viewers [8].) 

In retaliation for this slaughter on the Odessa Steps, the Potemkin battleship in the harbor fires its cannons on the Czar’s government headquarters building.

5.  Rendezvous with the Squadron
The final act is all tense expectation and, like the previous act, is tightly edited.  The Potemkin’s rebellious sailors, knowing the Czar’s military will send a punitive squadron out to attack them, get ready for a deadly confrontation.  They make grim and careful preparations through the night to get ready for the battle.  When dawn arrives, they see a squadron of government destroyers, and the Potemkin presents to them a semaphore signal to “Join Us”.  At the last minute, just as hostile shots are about to be fired, the ships draw close enough for the Potemkin crew to see the sailors on the government ships cheering them.  They, too, are apparently ready to join the revolution.

So the message here is that of solidarity and the triumphant joining of forces to wage a common battle.

As the film proceeds through its five acts, the pace quickens and the momentum builds.  So the second half of the film is better than the first.  One element that deserves special mention is the cinematography of Eduard Tisse.  Even though the editing pace means that most camera shots are of short duration, they all seem carefully composed, many of them from high and low angles, for maximum atmospheric effect [7]. 

However, I feel that the film’s overall narrative suffers from a lack of individual focalization.  By focalization, I mean seeing things from the perspective of an individual participant in the story.  Most films have this kind of focalization over the course of the story presentation, and this goes beyond just point-of-view shots – we see what is happening from the perspective of an unseen witness (the camera) that is, to a certain extent, a silent partner of the character being focalized.  Thus we share that character’s field of view and only know what that character knows during that period of focalization.  Some films only focalize on one character throughout the course of the story, but most films will individually focalize on several characters before the story concludes.  In Battleship Potemkin there is almost no individual focalization, except briefly on the sailor Vakulinchuk and on a mother carrying her gunshot child.  Instead, the viewer’s narrative perspective is from a more scattered, global perspective that represents a “God’s eye view” of what is going on.  The overall effect is to reduce the viewer’s empathetic engagement and, in its stead, increase resentful alienation.

This avoidance of individual human sub-narratives is what makes Battleship Potemkin more of a visual disquisition than what we usually characterize as a story. Eisenstein’s intent was to evoke our support for the people collectively, rather than for any individual character in the narrative.  And the top-down message of this emotional disquisition is one celebrating hatred, revenge, and violent repudiation – essentially a basic pro-war message. In keeping with Marxist historical materialism, there are no spiritual or religious message invoked here.  In fact during the Potemkin mutiny, a prophet-like ship’s priest appears on deck; but he is dismissed by the rebellious sailors as a sham sorcerer.  Any notions of compassion, forgiveness, and love are nowhere to be seen in this work. The focus is on more primitive aggressive feelings. Thus the individual primitive emotive messages of the five acts:
  • suffering injustice, 
  • revenge, 
  • hatred, 
  • suffering cruelty, and 
  • joining a common war effort
 – all contribute to the film’s basic pro-conflict theme (it is no wonder that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels admired this film [9]). 

So Battleship Potemkin stands as an excellent demonstration of how to use cinematic tools to fashion a work invoking and supporting our most violent passions.  But what has perhaps most fascinated people over the years since its release is Eisenstein’s underlying theory of cinematic “collisions” that can be used to evoke those strong passions.

  1. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  2. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  3. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1942). 
  4. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, Jay Leyda, (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949).
  5. Sergei Eisenstein, “Collision of Ideas”, (selection from "The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram”, Film Form, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949/1957), pp. 37-40.), Film, A Montage of Theories, Richard Dyer MacCann (ed.), E. P. Dutton, (1966), pp. 34-37.
  6. Evelyn Gerstein, “Russia’s Film Wizard”, Theater Guild Magazine (February 1930), included in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, (ed.), (1960), pp. 134-139.
  7. Helen Grace, “1925: Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein)”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 85, (November 2017).   
  8. “Battleship Potemkin (1925) User Ratings”, IMDb, (28 February 2018).    
  9. “Battleship Potemkin”, Wikipedia, (26 February 2018).

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