A landmark masterpiece, and one of the most influential films ever made
When movies were in their infancy, filmmakers were exploring how to use the new medium as a means of expression. Unwittingly, they invented the language of film we still use today. On very rare occasions came a film that was so fresh that its innovation forever altered the course of cinema, and this week’s film from director Sergei Eisenstein, “Battleship Potemkin”, sits high among those few. Its revolutionary approach to editing and storytelling have been used in movies around the globe ever since, making this film required viewing for anyone interested in cinema (I was first enlightened and mesmerized by it decades ago in film school). This exciting film religiously scores a spot on greatest film lists and polls, including as the #1 Best Film of All-Time on the prestigious Brussels 12 list at the 1958 World Expo, the 11th Greatest Film of All-Time by Sight and Sound, and the 37th Top Film ever made according to Cahiers du Cinéma. And it remains jaw-dropping entertainment.
A silent film from the Soviet Union, “Battleship Potemkin” (which I’ll simply refer to as “Potemkin”) was commissioned by Soviet political leader Joseph Stalin to help celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Russian Revolution. It loosely reenacts a 1905 mutiny by the crew of the battleship Potemkin against their officers, part of a wave of mass political and social unrest against the Tsar and ruling class at the time. The film takes place on the battleship, and in and around the Black Sea and port of Odessa, where the townspeople show their support and unity with the mutineers.
“Potemkin” unfolds in five parts: Part One - “Men and Maggots”; Part Two - “Drama on Deck”; Part Three - “The Dead Man Calls Out”; Part Four - “The Odessa Staircase”; and Part Five - “Meeting the Squadron” (or some variation, depending on which translated version you watch). “Potemkin” makes the case that people united en masse are stronger than the individual, and a striking feature about the film is how the hero of the film becomes the masses and not one specific person. Though the film can be looked at as crude communist propaganda, it has more than enough visual power and strength to completely bedazzle any viewer regardless of political convictions. Fast-paced with stunning visuals and strong juxtapositions, “Potemkin” becomes a moving, and at times shocking high-voltage adventure and artistic triumph.
“Potemkin” is best known for its radical use of editing. Unlike anything done before, Eisenstein combined his extraordinary visual compositions with swift, dynamic, non-linear editing. Rather than merely edit from one sequence to the next (as was the norm), he used hundreds of quick shots within a sequence, unleashing an explosive and exciting way to show narrative. Eisenstein studied film with Russian filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov who believed that a shot in a film only had meaning in relation to the shots before and after it. This theory was the foundation of a highly influential style of filmmaking from the 1920’s through the 1930’s that became known as Soviet montage, which exploded internationally with “Potemkin”.
Soviet montage can be clearly seen all throughout “Potemkin”, including its most famous sequence (one of the most legendary and influential in cinema history), as Tsarist soldiers begin firing at a crowd of panicked people on the Odessa steps. Rather than showing the action in one or two shots, Eisenstein shows the event through a multitude of contrasting shots (the staircase, people running, people falling, boots marching, guns firing, closeups of faces, a baby carriage, and more), which together create a riveting and poignant mix of chaos and horror. A shot of people running down a staircase on its own doesn’t have much emotional pull or meaning, but place it after a shot of guns firing and it takes on a gripping significance. The sequence is so famous it’s been paid homage in many films, most notably in Brian De Palma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables” and Peter Segal’s 1994 film “Naked Gun 33 ½: The Final Insult”.
Eisenstein also used editing to expand time and emphasize thought and emotion. An example of this is when a sailor, infuriated by the rotten meat served on the ship, throws a plate that reads “Give us this day our daily bread”, shattering it to pieces. Again, rather than showing the sailor throwing the plate in one shot, Eisenstein rapidly edits together nine very quick shots from different angles (a sort of cubist approach to filmmaking) to underscore the depth of the sailor’s angry and frustrated state of mind. Some shots in the sequence are so brief they are barely visible, but their combined effect is clearly felt.
With his intellectual approach to filmmaking, Eisenstein mapped out and constructed shots that would build on one another. An important film theorist, he believed editing (montage) should generate from a mathematical progression and rhythm often leading to a climax, rather than evolve from the story. He often used a metronome while filming, to help actors keep his intended pace. In his book, “Notes of a Film Director”, Eisenstein describes “The Odessa Staircase” sequence in detail as a “rhythmical arrangement”, and indeed, all of "Potemkin" moves along at a quick and riveting pace.
Because his style and approach to editing in “Potemkin” has become part of the fabric of making movies, it’s easy to take for granted just how shocking it was when the film was first released. Eisenstein’s juxtaposition of nonlinear, contrasting shots (such as time of day, locales, subjects, long shots, closeups, and so on) in rapid succession was so unconventional and innovate that it awakened a reevaluation of film's possibilities, causing a giant leap forward in the evolution of cinema, and birthing an entirely new approach to moviemaking that became a fundamental cornerstone of the medium.
Eisenstein’s overwhelming genius wasn’t solely regulated to editing. He also excelled at composition, and every frame of “Potemkin” is worthy of adorning an art gallery wall. And there's a consistency among his images – it always feels like one film. His visuals are flooded with crisscrossing lines, diagonals, and geometric forms such as in the dazzlingly constructed shots of sailors hanging in hammocks, ships sailing in the sea, and crowds walking over, under, and around staircases. And the high contrast lighting emphasizes and deemphasizes where he wants our attention placed.
Another of Eisenstein's signatures is showing hundreds of people at once occupying the fore, middle, and background of a frame, usually moving in a line or formation, such as the massive crowd in "Potemkin" making their way to pay respects to a dead sailor. In one magnificent shot, we see some of the crowd relatively close in the frame coming up the stairs in the foreground, with the rest reaching back in the distance as far as the eye can see. The crowd is transformed into one mass that becomes a breathtaking geometric shape and powerful force in motion (it’s almost as if Eisenstein is the Busby Berkeley of drama!). His unique and unmistakable talent with crowds can be seen all throughout his films. With all his artistry and inventiveness, it’s no wonder “Potemkin” skyrocketed Eisenstein to international fame as a cinematic genius, forever establishing him as one of film’s greatest masters.
Latvia-born (then part of the Russian Empire) Sergei Eisenstein was the only child in a privileged family. Wanting to be a painter but was told by a teacher he had no talent, Eisenstein originally followed in his father's footsteps studying architecture and engineering. He also began developing a deep passion for theater. While serving in the Red Army, he was sent to Moscow to study Japanese and was exposed to Kabuki theatre which influenced him for the rest of his life. After serving in the army, he worked as a set and costume designer and then a theater director. Working in the experimental Proletcult Theatre, he directed a production of “The Wise Man”, which included a short film incorporated into the play titled “Glumov’s Diary”, which served as Eisenstein’s first film. Evolving as a theorist, he wrote "The Montage of Attractions" in 1923 for the Russian journal "Left Front of the Arts”, and continued to write important essays on film theory throughout his life (and teach film as well). The Proletcult recruited Eisenstein to direct his first feature film, "Strike", a historical film about the working class in pre-revolutionary Russia. His directing style and editing in “Strike" were already unconventional, and as a result the film confused many audiences, though it was critically praised.
“Potemkin” was the twenty-seven year old Eisenstein’s second feature film, and it made him the most important Soviet director in his own country and in the world. It was also the standout in what became considered the greatest period in Soviet film, known as the Golden Age of Soviet Cinema (generally considered to have begun around 1924). Eisenstein's international fame made him the Soviet government's choice to direct 1927's "October: Ten Days That Shook the World” (released in 1928), which was a dramatization of the 1917 October Revolution, marking the tenth anniversary of the event. With this film, Eisenstein created what he called "intellectual montage", combining seemingly unrelated images to create metaphors and provoke thought.
After he co-directed 1929's "Old and New" (or "The General Line") with Grigori Aleksandrov, Hollywood beckoned. With Stalin's permission, Eisenstein left the Soviet Union with Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse. They toured Berlin, Zürich, London, Paris, and Switzerland with the excuse of learning about sound (new to motion pictures at the time) before heading to Hollywood in 1930. Paramount Pictures offered Eisenstein a one-film contract, but they couldn't agree on a project or script. As anticommunist sentiments arose against Eisenstein in Hollywood, back in the USSR his reputation was also tarnishing as the country's film industry was finding its way through the invention of sound without him and his film theories and techniques were now being criticized.
Eisenstein befriended Charlie Chaplin, who introduced him to American author Upton Sinclair, and Eisenstein and Sinclair hit it off. Sinclair was able to get permission from the Soviet government for Eisenstein, Aleksandrov, and Tisse to go to Mexico, where Eisenstein longed to make a film. Sinclair and a few other investors financed him to make a nonpolitical film of his own artistic choice over the next three to four months in Mexico, giving all film rights and ownership to Sinclair. Captivated by Mexican society and history, Eisenstein set out on making a six-part film to be titled "¡Que viva México!". Fourteen months later, after illnesses, pressure from Stalin (who was beginning to fear Eisenstein had become a deserter), and not being able to raise additional funds for the film, Sinclair shut down production. Eisenstein had shot somewhere between 170,000 and 250,000 feet of film and Sinclair hired producer Sol Lesser to distribute any films made from the footage. Without Eisenstein’s involvement, three short films emerged, "Thunder Over Mexico", "Eisenstein in Mexico", and "Death Day", released between 1933 and 1934, none of which were ever seen by Eisenstein. Also without the aid of Eisenstein, his friend and biographer Marie Seton used his Mexican footage to reconstruct "¡Que viva México!” as the 1939 film "Time in the Sun", thought to be the closest depiction of what Eisenstein originally envisioned.
Though he never made his Mexican film, Eisenstein's time in Mexico was life changing, and his post-Mexico films shifted from having an intellectual montage slant to containing more of a sensory exploration, along with a move away from the masses and more towards the individual. After a brief stay in the United States, he returned to the Soviet Union only to find the country changed and more oppressed. He suffered from depression and briefly entered a mental hospital.
In 1935, Eisenstein was assigned to direct another propaganda film, "Bezhin Meadow”. Whereas Eisenstein shared the ideals of the Russian Revolution, he was never a member of the Communist Party and had free rein while making his earlier films. Now the government was overseeing film productions, and his extended time in the West put him on shaky ground with the Stalinist regime. With “Bezhin Meadow”, he went over budget and over schedule and the government had issues with its content. The film was halted during production by the head of the Soviet film industry and was somehow lost (believed to have been destroyed) before Eisenstein completed it.
Stalin gave Eisenstein another chance with a biopic about 13th century Prince Alexander Nevsky, this time assigning him an assistant director, screenwriter, cast, and a due date. Eisenstein had no choice but to accept. The 1938 film became "Alexander Nevsky”, Eisenstein’s first sound film. Even though Stalin censored it, the film was a popular and critical hit, earned the 1941 Stalin Prize, the Order of Lenin, and found international success. It was Eisenstein’s comeback. Always a thinker and theorist, with “Alexander Nevsky”, Eisenstein developed what he called “vertical montage”, referring to how aspects of a film's visuals work in combination with its sound.
In 1944 Eisenstein made the first of a three-part historical biopic "Ivan the Terrible, Part I”, based on Russia’s merciless 16th century first Tsar, who united the country. The film was commissioned by Stalin, who identified and admired the brutal “Ivan”. It depicted the rise of “Ivan” as a hero and visionary leader and Stalin loved it. “Part I” was a huge success, winning awards, and putting Eisenstein back on top (and because of it he became the artistic director of the country’s biggest studio, Mosfilm). Finished in 1945, “Part II” was Eisenstein’s first foray into color. This film was critical of “Ivan”, showing his corruption, ruthlessness, and bloodshed, and as a result, Stalin hated it. “Part II” was not released (it was later released in 1958) and Eisenstein was now banned from directing. He had already begun filming "Part III", which was halted with the banning of "Part II”. After his death all footage from “Part III” was destroyed, with only a few surviving frames.
No longer allowed to direct films, he retreated to his apartment in Moscow, evidently living the remainder of his life alone as a recluse. As with so many people who were not clearly heterosexual, Eisenstein’s sexuality is still debated by some. Although he denied his homosexuality, his friends say that he was gay, and others feel he was celibate. There is evidence he had an intimate relationship with a man during his time in Mexico (the subject of the 2015 Peter Greenaway film "Eisenstein in Guanajuato"), and there is talk Eisenstein had a relationship with film director Grigori Aleksandrov. When anti-homosexual laws were introduced to the USSR in 1934, both Eisenstein and Aleksandrov married women within the year. Eisenstein married his close friend, filmmaker and screenwriter Pera Atasheva. They had no children.
Along with being a director, theorist, teacher, and author, Eisenstein was also an artist from an early age and created over 5,000 drawings in the course of his lifetime, including those related to his films, portraits, places, and images of his thoughts. Many of his drawings during and after his stay in Mexico featured sex of some sort, and many between men. After his death, his wife gave the bulk of his drawings to the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), hiding about 500 that contained sexual content, which she gave to “Ivan the Terrible, Part II” cameraman Andrei Moskvin for safe keeping. They have since been shown in galleries all over the world. Sergei Eisenstein died of a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 50. Along with being thought of as the father of montage, his rich films overflow with inventiveness, imagination, and beauty. Though he only completed six feature films, his colossal artistry made him one of the most important figures and greatest minds in all of cinema. Ever since I first saw “Potemkin”, he immediately became one of my favorite directors and I am always awed by his films, no matter how many times I watch them.
"Potemkin" was shot by cinematographer Eduard Tisse. Tisse, who also photographed Eisenstein's first film "Strike", remained Eisenstein's cameraman of choice for the next twenty years, working on all of Eisenstein's completed films as well as working with him in Mexico on the unfinished "¡Que viva México!". Together, he and Eisenstein created some of the most striking images in all of cinema. The Russian-born Tisse began as a newsreel photographer, branching out into documentaries, and then features. Though best known for his work with Eisenstein, other notable films from the nearly forty he photographed include the Russian films "Vladimir Ilich Lenin" in 1949, and "The Immortal Garrison" in 1956. Eduard Tisse died in 1961 at the age of 64.
Another element of Eisenstein’s films, also seen in “Potemkin”, is his use of expressive faces. Eisenstein sought faces that impressed him with a look he wanted and he went to great lengths to find just the right people, searching streets, train stations, and even asylums. In his silent films he used mostly non-actors, and in “Potemkin” he also featured actors from the Proletkult Theater and actual sailors from the Black Sea Fleet. There are not many characters in “Potemkin”, but one that is certainly memorable is the Bolshevik sailor "Grigory Vakulinchuk", played by Aleksandr Antonov, one of the few actual actors hired for the film.
Russian-born Aleksandr Antonov was a member of the Moscow Proletarian Culture Theater, where he met Eisenstein. His first film appearance was in Eisenstein's short film, "Glumov's Diary" in 1923, followed by a role in Eisenstein's first feature, "Strike" in 1924, and then "Potemkin". That began a steady Russian film career for Antonov, who appeared in a total of 49 films through 1957. He was named Merited Artist of the Russian Federation in 1950. His other notable films include "The Country Bride" in 1938, "Suvorov" in 1941, "Dream of a Cossack" in 1950, and "Twelfth Night" in 1955. Aleksandr Antonov died in 1962 at the age of 64.
This week’s classic is one of the most watched, written about, studied, and enjoyed films in history. Visually arresting, breathtaking in style and execution, and also surprisingly moving, this is one glorious film. A true masterpiece, enjoy “Battleship Potemkin”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
In case you are curious, the red flag that waves on the ship "Potemkin" was hand colored, frame by frame.