The Battleship Potemkin directed by the Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein in 1925, at age 27, portraying the mutiny that occurred in the first defeated Russian revolution of 1905, when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers. This great silent film that has been voted the best film of all time by many international filmmakers and critics many times from its inception to this day, and influenced many other films in part or in whole, needs an introduction with his creator. Sergei Eisenstein, born in 1898, before filmmaking studied architecture and engineering, then served the red army in the Bolshevik revolution, before starting his career in theatre, creating quite a few plays, then a theatre designer, an art theorist and finally a filmmaker. Two years before making the Battleship Potemkin, in 1923 Eisenstein attempted his first trial in filmmaking with a short film. “Glumov’s diary”, then in the same year of 1925, he made his first feature film of “Strike”. Eisenstein’s filmography continued with other masterpieces such as “October: Ten days that shook the world” in 1927, “Alexander Nevsky” in 1938, “Ivan the terrible” part I and II in 1944 and 1945, and quite a few others in the between years. Eisenstein has written extensively on film theory and editing, such as “Film form: essays in film theory”, “The film sense”, and “Towards a theory of montage” among others.
Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” after 13 years from “The Battleship Potemkin” and after his extensive travels to Europe and Mexico, proved to the world that he could create great work in the sound films as well, so that the great Russian composer of the time, Sergie Provofiev would write the music for his film, that Eisenstein reciprocated him by designing sets for an operatic rendition of “War and Peace” that Prokofiev was developing. Like the Battleship Potemkin that for years to come, provoked mutinies around the world, in or out of the water, in or out of the film industries, with many copies of mutiny films even in the west, “Alexander Nevsky” warned the world against the German Nazis expansive worldwide infiltrations, a year before the inception of the world war II. Unfortunately Eisenstein died prematurely from a heart attack, even before finishing the third part of the trilogy, “Ivan the terrible” in 1948 at age 50, otherwise the world would witness more masterpieces from this unique filmmaker of all time. This unparalleled life of not only a filmmaker, but a theorist, theatre and stage designer and producer, engineer and architect, could only make such great films such as “The Battleship Potemkin” that after years of censorships around the world by different governments, still is heralded a “the greatest film of all time” and still released and shown on screen, studied piece by piece in the schools of cinema and above all is still heart beating for the new audience who would be mesmerized by the possibility of such production more than 90 years ago!
The Film Plot:
To understand the greatness of “The Battleship of Potemkin” as it has been depicted elsewhere and taught in the film classes, the film needs to be discussed in some detail, though briefly here, not like so many books written on it. The film is set in June 1905; the protagonists of the film are the members of the crew of the Potemkin, a battleship of the Imperial Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet. Eisenstein divided the plot into five acts, each with its own title:
Act I: Men and Maggots
The scene begins with two sailors, discussing the need for the crew of the Potemkin to support the revolution taking place within Russia. While the Potemkin is anchored off the island of Tendra, off-duty sailors are sleeping in their bunks. As an officer inspects the quarters, he stumbles and takes out his aggression on a sleeping sailor. The ruckus causes one of the two above-mentioned sailors to deliver a provoking speech to the other men to start the mutiny and they as well join the 1905 revolution. The scene cuts to morning above deck, where sailors are remarking on the poor quality of the meat for the crew, that horrifically shown on the screen to be rotten and covered in worms. The ship’s doctor is called over to inspect the mea, who claims the worms are maggots, that could be washed off prior to cooking. The senior officer forces the cook of the rotten and infested meat, but the crew refuses to eat the borscht, instead choosing bread and water, and canned goods. While cleaning dishes, one of the sailors sees an inscription on a plate, which reads “give us this day our daily bread.” After considering the meaning of this phrase, the sailor smashes the plate and the scene ends.
Act II: Drama on the Deck
All those who refuse the meat are judged guilty of insubordination and are brought to the fore-deck where they receive religious last rites. The sailors are obliged to kneel and a canvas cover is thrown over them as a firing squad marches onto the deck. The first officer gives the order to fire, but the sailors in the firing squad lower their rifles and the uprising begins. The sailors overwhelm the outnumbered officers and take control of the ship. The officers are killed, the ship’s priest is dragged out of hiding and the doctor is thrown into the ocean.
Act III: A Dead Man Calls for Justice
The mutiny is successful but the charismatic leader of the rebels, is killed. The Potemkin arrives at the port of Odessa. The body of the mutiny’s leader is taken ashore and displayed publicly by his companions in a tent with a sign on his chest that says “For a spoonful of soup”. The sailors gather to make a final farewell and praise their dead leader as a hero. The people of Odessa welcome the sailors, but they attract the police.
Act IV: The Odessa Steps
The best known sequence of the film is set on the Odessa steps, connecting the waterfront with the central city. A detachment of dismounted Cossacks forms a line at the top of the steps and march towards a crowd of unarmed civilians including women and children. The soldiers halt to fire a volley into the crowd and then continue their impersonal, machine-like advance. Brief sequences show individuals amongst the people fleeing or falling, a baby’s stroller running down the steps, a woman shot in the face, broken spectacles and the high boots of the soldiers moving in unison. In retaliation, the sailors of the Potemkin decide to fire on a military headquarters with the guns of the battleship. Meanwhile, there is news that a squadron of loyal warships is coming to quell the revolt of Potemkin.
Act V: One against all
The sailors of the Potemkin decide to go all the way and lead the battleship from the port of Odessa to face the fleet of the Tsar. Just when the battle seems inevitable, the sailors of the formerly loyal ships incredibly refuse to open fire on their comrades, externalizing with songs and shouts of joy their solidarity with the mutineers and allowing them to pass unmolested through the fleet, waving the red flag.
When The Battleship Potemkin was first shown in Moscow in December 1925, finished just in time to commemorate the partially successful 1905 Revolution, it had an uninspired musical accompaniment played on an organ. The film played to half-empty theatres, because audiences, then as now, preferred the products from Hollywood. A short while later, The Battleship Potemkin was shown in Berlin where it became an enormous hit, moving from a small cinema on the Friederichstrasse to 12 cinemas around Berlin. Encouraged by the film’s success, its German distributor decided to commission the Austrian-born Edmund Meisel to write a score for the theatre orchestra. By the time of Eisenstein’s arrival in Berlin, Meisel had reached the last reel in which the battleship, with the mutinous sailors on board, goes out to confront the Tsar’s navy, tension mounting as the ships approach one another. Eisenstein’s advice to the composer was ‘the music for this reel should be rhythm, rhythm and, before all else, rhythm.’
During the Odessa Steps sequence, against which the whole of cinema can be defined, the music reflects what Eisenstein called ‘dialectical montage’. Eisenstein’s method is one of collision, conflict and contrast, with the emphasis on a dynamic juxtaposition of individual shots that forces the audience consciously to come to conclusions about the interplay of images while they are also emotionally and psychologically affected. The 80-minute The Battleship Potemkin contains 1,346 shots, whereas the average film around 1926 ran 90 minutes and had around 600 shots.
The World reaction to the film:
The Battleship Potemkin did not only influence the filmmakers of the time all around the world, mostly in the west, that until then could not even imagine the possibility of such work, but the governments around the world who banned and censored the film. The Battleship Potemkin’s depiction of a successful rebellion against political authority disturbed the world’s censors. The French, banning it for general showing, burned every copy they could find. It was only shown in film clubs in London, where it had been banned, with the longest history of censor than any other film in British history. Initially, in the USA, it was forbidden on the grounds that it ‘gives American sailors a blueprint as to how to conduct a mutiny’. Likewise, in Germany, the War Ministry forbade members of the armed forces to see the film. The German censors cut a scene when an officer is thrown into the water and a close-up of a brutal Cossack.
The film’s potential to influence political thought through emotional response surprisingly was noted by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbles, who called Potemkin “a marvelous film without equal in the cinema … anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film”. Therefore the film was not banned in Nazi Germany, although Himmler issued a directive prohibiting SS members from attending screenings, as he deemed the movie inappropriate for the troops. Similarly the film shocked audiences, not so much for its political statements as for its use of violence, which was considered graphic by the standards of the time.
The Odessa Steps sequence
Since the Odessa Steps sequence in one of the most celebrated scenes in the filmmaking, and has been adapted many times all around the world by other film directors, it deserves a more elaboration here. The massacre of the civilians on the Odessa Steps, also known as the Primorsky or Potemkin stairs, as one of the most influential in the history of cinema, introduced the concepts of film editing and montage to cinema. In this scene, the Tsar’s soldiers in their white summer tunics march down a seemingly endless flight of steps in a rhythmic, machine-like fashion, firing volleys into a crowd. A separate detachment of mounted Cossacks charges the crowd at the bottom of the stairs. The victims include an older woman wearing since-nez, a young boy with his mother, a student in uniform and a teenage schoolgirl. A mother pushing an infant in a baby carriage falls to the ground dying and the carriage rolls down the steps amidst the fleeing crowd. The massacre on the steps, which never took place, was presumably inserted by Eisenstein for dramatic effect and to demonise the Imperial government.
The scene is perhaps the best example of Eisenstein’s theory on montage, and many films pay homage to the scene, including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Brian De Palma’s The untouchables, George Lucas’ Star Wars:Episode III-Revenge of the Sith, Tibor Takacs’ Deadline, Laurel and Hardy’s The music box. Several films spoof it, including Woody Allen’s Bananas and Love and death, and Naked Gun 33 1/3, Soviet-Polish comedy Deja Vu, Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky and the Italian comedy Il second tragic Fantozzi. The 2011 November 7 Parade in Moscow also features a homage to the film.
The painter Francis Bacon (1909–1992) was profoundly influenced by Eisenstein’s images, particularly the Odessa Steps shot of the nurse’s broken glasses and open mouthed scream. The open mouth image appeared first in his Abstraction from the Human Form, in Fragment of a crucifixion, and other works including his famous Head series. The Russian-born photographer and artist Alexey Titarenko paid tribute to the Odessa Steps shot in his series “City Of Shadows” (1991–1993) by using a crowd of desperate people on the stairs near the subway station in Saint Petersburgh to demonize the Soviet government and as a symbol of human tragedy.
(Homages to Odessa steps)
The soundtrack of the Film
To retain its relevance as a propaganda film for each new generation, Eisenstein hoped the score would be rewritten every 20 years. The original score was composed by the Austrian composer, Edmund Meisel with a salon orchestra performed the Berlin premiere in 1926. Composer/conductor Mark-Andreas Schlingensiepen has reorchestrated the original piano score to fit the version of the film available today.
Nikolai Kryukov composed a new score in 1950 for the 25th anniversary. In 1985, Chris Jarrett composed a solo piano accompaniment for the movie. In 1986 Eric Allaman wrote an electronic score for a showing that took place at the 1986 Berlin International Film Festival, commissioned by the organizers, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the film’s German premiere. Allaman also wrote an opera about Battleship Potemkin, which is musically separate from the film score.
In its commercial format, on DVD for example, the film is usually accompanied by classical music added for the 50th anniversary edition re-released in 1975. Three symphonies from Dmitri Shostakovich have been used, with No. 5 beginning and ending the film, being the most prominent. In 2007, Del Rey & The Sun Kings also recorded this soundtrack. In an attempt to make the film relevant to the 21st century, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (of the Pet Shop Boys) composed a soundtrack in 2004 with the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra. Their soundtrack, released in 2005 as Battleship Potemkin, premiered in September 2004 at an open-air concert in Trafalgar Square, London. There were four further live performances of the work with the Dresdner Sinfoniker in Germany in September 2005 and one at the Swan Hunter ship yard in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2006.
The avant-garde jazz ensemble Club Foot Orchestra has also re-scored the film, and performed live accompanying the film. For the 2005 restoration of the film, under the direction of Enno Patalas in collaboration with Anna Bohn, released on DVD and Blu-ray, the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum fur Film und Fernsehen, commissioned a re-recording of the original Edmund Meisel score, performed by the Babelsberg Orchestra, conducted by Helmut Imig. In 2011 the most recent restoration was completed with an entirely new soundtrack by members of the Apskaft group. Contributing members were AER20-200, awaycaboose, Ditzky, Drn Drn, Foucault V, fydhws, Hox Vox, Lurholm, mexicanvader, Quendus, Res Band, -Soundso- and speculativism. The entire film was digitally restored to a sharper image by Gianluca Missero (who records under the name Hox Vox). The new version is available at the Internet Archive.
The Battleship Potemkin has received universal acclaim from critics. On review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an overall 100% “Certified Fresh” approval rating based on 44 reviews, with a rating average of 9.1 out of 10. The site’s consensus reads, “A technical masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin is Soviet cinema at its finest, and its montage editing techniques remain influential to this day.” Since its release, Battleship Potemkin has often been cited as one of the finest propaganda films ever made and considered amongst the greatest films of all time. The film was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, with 100 votes among 117 votes of international filmmaker, film historians and critics, ahead of Chaplin’s “Gold rush”, Vittoria de sica’s “The bicycle thieves” and Orson Welles “Citizen Kane”.
In April 2011, Battleship Potemkin was re-released in UK cinemas, distributed by the British Film Institute. On its re-release, Total Film magazine gave the film a five-star review, stating: “…nearly 90 years on, Eisenstein’s masterpiece is still guaranteed to get the pulse racing.”
In closing remarks on “The Battleship Potemkin”, a great and unique film, made heroically and by simple techniques, for example editing by simple cutting and pasting, more than 90 years ago, almost at the start of the birth of Cinema, this great work one more time, will be redefined based on the following criteria:
- Originality: The Battleship Potemkin is as original as one film can get, with many adaptions over years in the past and perhaps to the future, not only in films but performing arts, paintings, photography and has provoked well so many music scores to accompany its great image on screen.
- Technicality: The technicality of The Battleship Potemkin, while mostly lay in its art of editing per Eisenstein’s theory of filmmaking, it is also in its story, acting by non-actors and its musical companion and more.
- Impact Factor: Perhaps no film in the history of Cinema has had such impact not only on the film industry, but other forms of art that has been detailed above in this article. One simple example of the impact of this film on others, is the long list of mutiny films made later on, such as two “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1935 & 1962, “The Caine mutiny” in 1954, to the “Mutiny on the buses” in 1972 and “Space mutiny” in 1988, all only for the copy of the content of the story. In addition to the impact on other artists and creators, the film over years has had such impact, positive and negative among audiences and governments that has not yet been surpassed by any other work in Cinema.
- Survival: The Battleship Potemkin has obviously not only survived the test of time, being re-released and out of censor, and being re-scored with different soundtracks, etc., but still is thrilling and heart beating the audiences to this day.