Ranking: #30/111

Director: Sergei Eisenstein (Russia)

Genre: Political Drama

For a number of reasons, Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin is a milestone in cinematic history. Firstly, it contains what many cinephiles, myself included, regard as the greatest sequence of film in the history of motion pictures, namely the massacre by Tsarist troops of protestors on the steps of Odessa. It was montage editing at its most brilliant, with rapid cuts and juxtapositions of images conveying the mass panic, the ruthless use of force against unarmed citizens and the resulting pain and destruction among the crowds being mowed down in cold blood. The sheer scale of the coverage of the action, and the variation of the pace, conveyed in the newsreel-like images, just leave the audience breathless. The camera angles and the editorial fluidity are amazing. This highly kinetic sequence proves once and for all that the essence of cinema is movement and imagery. Secondly, Battleship Potemkin was one of the best films to come out of the Russian school of cinema during the silent movie era. It contributed hugely to the creative growth of Soviet cinema. Thirdly, it exemplified the best of the new genre of politico-historical dramas. And, fourthly, it took the techniques of the new film art, that was only just emerging, to a whole new level of excellence. In short, the film was a masterpiece of innovation at a vital time in the early phase of cinema.

US film theoretician, James Monaco, describes well what was happening at the time Battleship Potemkin was made: “During the 1920s, the period immediately following the Russian Revolution, the Soviet cinema was among the most exciting in the world, not only practically but theoretically. There is no doubt that the Soviet film-maker theorists wanted not only to capture reality but also to change it.” (Monaco, J, 2009 (1977). How to Read a Film – Movies, Media and Beyond, p. 448). Lenin had nationalised the film and photographic industry in 1919 and Soviet cinema was fortunate enough to acquire the irrepressible talents of Eisenstein when it was in its infancy. Coming to film from theatre, he believed that cinema was nothing less than the synthesis of all the arts (Nowell-Smith, G (ed), 1997. The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 168). The film positively exudes confidence emanating from Eisenstein’s unshakeable conviction about cinema’s potential power of expression. The next director to have such an exuberant sense of confidence in the technical capacity of the motion picture camera was, of course, Orson Welles, in Citizen Kane. Since Russian film has been one of the undisputed stars of world cinema, along with American, Japanese, European and British movies, the influence of Eisenstein has been enormous for the progress of the industry as well as for the establishment of film as a major twentieth century art form.

Battleship Potemkin was commissioned to commemorate the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution but Eisenstein decided to go well beyond his mandate and give a masterclass in making feature films, including political dramas. It opens with a metaphorical image of waves breaking against a breakwater. And it is through images that Eisenstein tells his story of revolution.

The visual dynamism of Battleship Potemkin captures the spirit of the revolution of 1905 as it swept across the country. Huge narrative tension is generated throughout.

Eisenstein not only portrayed the rising power of the masses (“all for one, one for all”) but humanises the struggle of the proletariat through ferquent close-ups of faces. The revolution starts with a mutiny by the crew of the battleship Potemkin, triggered by their refusal to eat maggot-infested meat. The ship becomes a microcosm of the society at large.

After the leader of the uprising, Vakulinchuk, is shot dead by a senior officer, the rebellion gains momentum. The sailors in the firing squad convened by the ship’s captain refuse to obey orders. Then order breaks down on the ship. The mutineers take over and when the warship docks in the port city of Odessa, the rebellion spreads from sea to land. The dead leader is laid in state there and the people of the city flock to pay their respects. He was “killed for a plate of soup”. Now seen as a martyr, he becomes the rallying point for a growing uprising. Crowds gather to see the Potemkin and all the boats which have sailed into port to see it docked. People bring food for the sailors. This act is deliberately contrasted with the earlier callousness of the ship’s captain in allowing his men to eat rotten meat.

The masses start to gather on the steps of Odessa. Then the massacre happens and everything escalates. The protest is ruthlessly suppressed in what has become probably the most famous sequence in cinema history.

The revolutionary sailors of the Potemkin use their battleship’s guns to fire on the Odessa opera house, where the military leaders of the Tsar are meeting. A squadron of warships is commanded to quell the revolt. The Potemkin sails out of port to face the oncoming squadron. The sailors onboard the ships of the squadron refuse to open fire on their fellow countrymen. The battleship is allowed to pass between the Russian ships.

Not many political dramas become timeless works of art like Battleship Potemkin. This is because they so often fall into the trap of becoming propagandistic. Although Eisenstein is clearly on the side of the revolution and doesn’t do enough to humanise the Tsarist forces until the ending when mutual respect is achieved on both sides of the conflict, he does portray the sailors, protestors and citizens caught up in the uprising in a richly nuanced human gallery of ordinary people. In addition, the film’s artistry is so overwhelming that the audience tends to overlook the director’s political bias. It is the artistry in such films that enables them to transcend the toughest tests of time.