Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at – Battleship Potemkin (1925)
If there was a Mount Rushmore of Very Famous Films–and we’re talking insanely famous films that have been discussed for many decades–one spot would obviously be occupied by Citizen Kane, and other spots would be battled over by, say, Vertigo, Tokyo Story, City Lights or The Godfather. But another spot would bear a sign reading “RESERVED FOR BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.”
Roger Ebert once wrote that Potemkin “has been famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye.” Indeed, at least among cinema lovers and historians, its famous “Odessa steps” sequence and pioneering use of montage are almost as familiar as the “Happy Birthday” song. So you might say it’s worth looking into the background of this famous Soviet propaganda epic if only to see it in a clearer light.
With his large forehead and a wild shock of hair, Sergei Eisenstein strongly resembled a mad scientist, but somehow the title “film director” seems equally fitting. A former engineering student, he served in the Red Army during the Bolshevik Revolution and later helped provide propaganda for the 1917 October Revolution (let’s just say he was enthusiastic about “collectivism”). Turning to work in the theater in the early 1920s, he became increasingly drawn to realism. In 1923 he insisted on having a play called Gas Masks (set in a gas factory) in an actual gas factory. Where else could Eisenstein go from there, but to motion pictures, where he could use all the real-life settings he wanted?
His first feature-length film was Strike (1925), showcasing his structural approach to cinema. He strongly believed in using montages to create emotional responses–Strike, for instance, paired images of strikers being gunned down with shots of cattle being slaughtered. Battleship Potemkin would represent the finest example of these theories of montage (which Eisenstein would write about extensively).
Eisenstein didn’t work in an independent bubble–all Soviet films were made under the government’s watchful eye, and were expected to do their part to help spread communist propaganda. Battleship Potemkin was actually commissioned by the government to celebrate the 1905 revolution and was originally meant to be a series of eight episodes focusing on different pro-Bolshevik events. Eisenstein ended up scrapping most of the script and just focused on the account of a sailors’ uprising on the battleship Potemkin.
The film was shot in Odessa in present-day Ukraine, with its grand marble steps leading down to its harbor. Eisenstein actually located the real Potemkin’s sister ship Twelve Apostles, which was transformed into the famed battleship for the film. Wanting to keep the theme as operatically collectivist as possible, he steered clear of regular actors and had crewmembers and locals play the roles. Assistant directors played the ship officers, a furnace man played the ship’s doctor and a gardener from Sevastopol had the role of the priest. The emphasis wasn’t on individual characters, but general “types,” all illustrating the theme of rebellion against unjust authority.
Battleship Potemkin shows sailors (who are returning from the Russo-Japanese war) growing increasingly disgruntled when their superiors tell them they must eat maggot-ridden meat. When some of the sailors rebel, officers order the rebels to be covered in a tarpaulin and shot, which incites a full-blown mutiny on board. The sailor who leads the mutiny is killed, and his death is mourned by the indignant civilians in Odessa. When the civilians peacefully demonstrate against the unjust events, a Cossack squadron fires on them, and the terrified crowd flees for their lives down the seemingly endless Odessa steps. Apparently, as soon as he saw the steps Eisenstein knew they were an ideal setting for tragedy:
The anecdote about the idea for this scene being born as I watched the bouncing from step to step of the cherry pits I spat out while standing at the top, beneath the Duc de Richelieu’s monument, is, of course, a myth–very colorful, but a downright myth. It was the very movement of the steps that gave birth to the idea of the scene…And it would seem that the panicky rush of the crowd, “flying” down the steps, is no more than a materialization of those first feelings on seeing this staircase.
The whole sequence wasn’t easy to film back in 1925. A special trolley for the camera was built that ran the whole length of the steps, and assistants also had cameras to capture other angles of the action (one ran through the din with a camera strapped to his waist). In the editing room, the hectic series of long shots, medium shots, and closeups combined to create the shocking sequence that still packs a wallop today.
In fact, the sequence–indeed, the whole film–was so influential that even today some people believe a massacre did happen on the Odessa steps (there were demonstrators killed by Cossacks elsewhere in Odessa during the 1905 revolution, but not in that exact area) and that the mutiny on the Potemkin happened pretty much how it was dramatized. Eisenstein said he once received a letter from one of the actual mutineers, who described himself as “one of those under the tarpaulin”–never mind that that detail was invented by Eisenstein for the film.
The release of Battleship Potemkin was a hectic one. A grand showing was held on December 21, 1925, at the Bolshoi Opera Theatre. Eisenstein and his assistants had been working on editing the film for weeks, and on the day of its premiere, it still wasn’t quite ready. Just as the screening was starting one of the cameramen left for the theater with the first few reels, to play while Eisenstein was bringing over another freshly-completed reel. Assistant director Grigori Alexandrov raced to the theater with the final reel–one can imagine the panic they were all in.
All that last-minute work paid off, however, and the showing was a success. Arguably, Battleship Potemkin’s status as a masterpiece has been unshakeable ever since. It manages to remain timelessly powerful–even in spite of its original function as government-approved propaganda.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.