This film needs no introduction, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 propaganda film Battleship Potemkin, is one of the most influential and celebrated works in history. It’s influenced generations of filmmakers, including Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, and even George Lucas. I also firmly believe it’s a film that set the standard for editing and montage technique.
In the first half of the 20th century, film came into its own as a tool for propaganda. With several monarchies falling, and new forms of government assuming power, many regimes relied on this new medium to reach out to the masses. This film is no exception, within its running time of just over an hour, much of Soviet ideology is touched upon in one form or another.
The bulk of the story takes place on the ship Potemkin itself. To illustrate the struggle of the proletariat and bourgeoisie, Eisenstein uses a struggle between sailors and their oppressive commanding officers. The ship both these parties are forced to co-exist on is Russia, the isolated mass adrift in the ocean becomes the motherland. The sailors, who obviously represent the workers of imperial Russia, unite to overthrow the regime. They are led by a charismatic sailor named Vakulinchuk, who although succeeds in leading them in revolt is killed during the revolution. He essentially becomes the martyr, the Christ like symbol who is deified for his self sacrifice.
Eisenstein implies that the new Gods are the revolutionaries and party leaders, taking the place of the old Orthodox church. The ship docks in a seaport called odessa, where his body is placed on display and viewed by hundreds, if not thousands of mourners. This whole sequence of the film is breathtaking, it shows the epic scale this film has, as well as Eisenstein’s use of wide shots to capture the endless procession.
The films most recognizable and memorable sequence, which is often referred to as the “Odessa steps” , is nothing short of genius. This is a series of scenes that show a massacre of several peasants by troops loyal to the Tsar. In some ways it’s an homage to Goya’s painting The Fifth Of May, the soldiers move in solid unison and their faces are never shown. To simulate death on such a colossal scale, Eisenstein implores the use of editing and montage, as well as music that ‘stands in’ for sound. The true purpose of this chain of events, is to illustrate the cruel oppression brought on by during the imperial reign. The sight of old women and children being shot down would stir the emotions of any audience.
The film concludes with other ships joining the side of Potemkin, and waving the red flag. (The one scene of color within the film itself, a red communist flag waiving over Potemkin) This technique of a single image with color in a black and white film would be recreated years later, in Schindler’s List.
I have stated once before that the silent era was the most influential for film. This film is the proof.