Battleship Potemkin (1925)

directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Plot Summary
The film celebrates the limited 1905 Revoultion against tsarism in Russia. Sailors on the battleship Potemkin begin to rebel when they are given maggot-infested food to eat. The ship's captain orders those who protest to be shot on deck, but sailor Vakulinchuk asks, "Brothers! Do you realize who you are shooting?" The shooting squad lowers their rifles, and mutiny on the ship begins. The sailors attack the officers and gain control of the ship, although Vakulinchuk is killed by a senior officer. The sailors take him to the port city of Odessa, where his body serves as a symbol of those who would give their lives for the revolution. Citizens come out to pay respect and offer their support for the Potemkin. Many are gathered on the steps of Odessa when, suddenly, a tsarist militia arrives and begins firing into the crowd. The battleship responds by firing at the headquarters of the tsarist generals located nearby onshore. A squadron has been sent out against the Potemkin, and the sailors decide to sail out and face it. Two battleships approach, and the Potemkin readies its cannons but sends up a signal, "Don't fight—join us." On the verge of a battle, a title reads, "Brothers!", and sailors on all of the ships begin celebrating. The Potemkin and its jubilant crew pass without being attacked and with added support.


Battleship Potemkin overcomes its ideological constraints and uses its abstract form to produce at least one scene of unquestionable power. Sergei Eisenstein’s own comparison of his style to a "kino-fist" is an apt one; the film assaults the viewer’s sensibilities with forceful melodrama and rhythmic editing. Many scenes are calculated to elicit specific responses and, in fact, succeed, but this creates a certain feeling of manipulation because of the film’s overt polemic. Obviously, political concerns of a now defunct nation from over seventy years ago are not going to hold up well. The fact that the film remains effective on some levels is impressive and testifies to Eisenstein’s influential ideas about cinema. His principles of montage were vital to the development of film language and to cinema’s separation from other art forms into its own realm. A film based largely on these editing principles sacrifices some narrative concerns and tends to distance the viewer if not continuously providing ‘attractions’ or ‘stimuli’. Despite claims mentioned by some critics about the film’s perfect and concise example of film structure, Potemkin can be an uneven viewing experience.

Eisenstein freely admitted the influence of D.W. Griffith’s movies, particularly Intolerance, in his work and in the development of Soviet montage. It is not difficult to see the links between the rapid cutting in that film’s conclusion to the kinetic editing of Potemkin. For example, the numerous cuts in the Odessa steps sequence build the individual moments of terror into an almost unbearable emotional climax. Of course, Eisenstein expanded greatly on montage theory to not only build rhythm or suspense but to form intellectual concepts and associations. The dynamic editing of three lion statues to show the awakening of anger and rebellion is a simple but memorable instance of this metaphorical juxtaposition. Another apparent influence from Griffith would be the melodramatic elements that facilitate the film’s political goals. The tsarist forces are completely evil, and sympathy is evoked for the noble revolutionaries and their supporters; issues and characters are simplified for maximum emotional impact. The officers on the ship are given titles such as, roughly, "I’ll shoot them down like dogs!" when dealing with the disobedient sailors. All of the focused victims of the shocking violence on the Odessa steps are women or children. The idea of typage, casting often non-professional actors based on their physical resemblance to a character type, allows the film to forgo character development and individuality. The ship’s priest looks like a prophet from the pages of the Old Testament transplanted into the 20th Century. Additionally, the absence of a main character, except that of the collective Russian people, corresponds to the Marxist principles of the film; one of the only possible protagonists, Vakulinchuk, dies early in the film for the revolutionary cause. This aspect also is reminiscent of Intolerance’s undermining of audience identification through its large number of characters and shifting focus.

Although some of the film’s themes and melodramatic techniques inevitably seem dated, its revolutionary editing is justifiably the most famous and interesting aspect. Nowhere does this montage have greater effect than in the incredible Odessa steps sequence. The various disconcerting jump cuts convey the chaotic terror of the situation, as does the rapid editing of the entire sequence. The attacking militia is often shown by only a line of marching boots advancing upon the citizens to emphasize their impersonal and oppressive nature. Only at the end of the sequence is one of the Cossacks shown in close up as he brutally slashes a supplicating old woman. Evil has been given an identity and will not listen to reason—the only choice is to fight back. The film shows most of the destruction through the citizen’s eyes such as the shot of a child being trampled and the reaction close-up of the horrified mother. Interestingly, as this woman carries her child up the steps to meet the soldiers, she seems to be looking at and speaking to the camera, as if entreating both the militia and the audience to stop the massacre. As mere viewers unable to change the outcome of events, the audience becomes enraged at the guards as they gun down the helpless woman and child. This is potent agitprop as the filmmakers intended, and it is still affecting today. The scene goes further, however, as a woman with a baby carriage is shot by the guards. As she begins to fall, there are cuts to her carriage perched dangerously close to the edge of a step. The fear generated by this editing is confirmed as she collapses and sends the carriage hurtling out of control down the steps. Interspersed with these individual scenes of cruelty are shots, mostly static but a couple tracking, of the fleeing crowd and the approaching line of guards occasionally firing into them. The average length of each shot in this sequence is about two seconds, giving the viewer barely a chance to breathe amongst the chaos. The sequence is so emotionally draining, one gains a new perspective on how powerful, and perhaps controlling, cinema can be.

Since this high intensity cannot be maintained, other scenes are somewhat less effective. The montage sequences in the film’s final act suffer not only from following one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history; there are aesthetic questions as well. The rapid jumping between shots of various points on the Potemkin as it sails out to meet the opposing forces yield little suspense or meaning. Perhaps if the shots were held a bit longer, one could get a better grasp of things. As it is, one of the only images that stands out appears to be a poetic long shot showing smoke from the ship’s funnels dissolving into the oceanic horizon as the craft sails forward into conflict. When one sees still frames from the scenes, the interesting compositional elements and graphic relations between shots become evident. But a film is projected over time with many frames each second so that it becomes more difficult to notice these aspects. Because the film was shot on location, there is an interesting documentary or newsreel quality to the visuals. However, the absence of controlled lighting also adds to the lack of clarity in a few shots and obscures the purpose of some of the montage. Any visual confusion must also be partially blamed on the copy of the film which, judging from at least one missing intertitle, is not perfect. Unfortunately, almost no completely accurate print is apparently available which seems strange for such an important work in film history.

The symbolic elements of different scenes work in varying degrees. The sequence linking the ship’s surgeon being cast overboard and the maggot-infested meat, accompanied by a title card to further the comparison, is heavy-handed. More effective is the fragmented, overlapping action of a sailor seemingly breaking a single plate twice that interestingly portrays his violent rage and ignores logical spatial and temporal relations. The level of appreciation for the film depends on one’s tolerance for this cinematic abstraction of reality that can explicitly shape events for maximum agitational effect. Andre Bazin’s criticism of montage as being too manipulative may have some worth; later filmmakers would recognize the importance of the longer take and of a viewer’s personal interpretations. Of course, to criticize Potemkin in this way is to take it completely out of its important context. But then again, that is undoubtedly how the film is seen today: 70 years later and in a very different political climate. Nevertheless, the associative editing present in Potemkin opened up new nonnarrative avenues in filmmaking and gave powerful examples of this montage that would outlive and eclipse its propagandistic message.

5 of 10

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© 1999

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Director Sergei Eisenstein (who could speak English) made a trip to the U.S. in the early 1930s to study American film production and the relatively new techniques of recording sound. While there he was asked to meet with famous Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, known for his ambitious projects and his unique phraseology (e.g. "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on"). During their meeting Goldwyn turned to one of Eisenstein's colleagues, mistakenly thinking he was an interpreter, and said, "Please tell Mr. Eisenstein that I have seen his film Potemkin and admire it very much. What we should like would be for him to do something of the same kind, but cheaper, for Ronald Colman."