that a silent Soviet propaganda movie created film as we know it. Sergei Eisenstien believed that film’s true power as a medium was the director’s ability to place unrelated images side by side in what we now commonly call montage. Working under the restrictions of Soviet film, Eisenstein used the censor-approved story of the Potemkin revolt to put his theories to the test, creating the first real artistic standard in filmmaking. While the political nature of the film prevented a wider release at the time, the film is now pretty much the day one viewing in every intro film course that most students skip.
Which is a shame. Movies before Battleship Potemkin were basically just theater filmed on sets or locations. Even the most cinematic silent films such as the (racist) spectacles of D.W. Griffith or the fantasies of the German expressionists relied mainly on the ability to portray narratives on a larger scale and with more dramatic lighting and art direction. Eisenstein’s film was the first to demonstrate the medium’s power of montage: the juxtaposition of unconnected images within a scene or sequence by editing. This device is now so commonplace that it’s more frequently a target of parody than reverence, but Eisenstein’s ideas on the subject changed the course of film history. The effect of montage scenes such as the famous Odessa steps massacre showed how cutting to different actors and images in a scene could heighten the emotional impact. Today, it’s difficult to imagine a film that doesn’t employ montage in some sense. Eisenstein was one of the first filmmakers to consider how film’s unique abilities could enhance the narrative. Battleship Potemkin essentially created the first theory of film as a true art form instead of just escapist entertainment.
The Odessa steps massacre is perhaps the most famous scene in the history of film. It’s been referenced, imitated or parodied by countless others, including The Godfather, The Untouchables and even The Naked Gun 33 1/3. Eisenstein designed this scene to illustrate the full impact of montage editing. Rather than focusing on one individual’s dilemma, the film cuts to dozens of dramatic moments within the scene. In the scene’s most notable image, a baby carriage careens down the stairs completely out of control. The power of the image within the context of the massacre makes it irrelevant that the audience doesn’t know much about the baby’s mother or the baby itself.
Eisenstein’s direction and editing also showed how close shots in sequence could convey a larger scope of drama. By cutting back and forth between the tsar’s soldiers at the top of the steps and the rampaging Cossacks at the bottom, the film creates a mounting sense of tension for the plight of the peasants in revolt. As Roger Ebert said, it hardly mattered that this depiction of tsarist atrocity never actually occurred after Eisenstein immortalized it on film.
A large part of the legacy of Battleship Potemkin rests with its role as propaganda, one of the most effective pieces of politicized filmmaking ever. The story of the sailors’ revolt and peasant protest being crushed by the tsar’s forces serves as a narrative that explains the underlying causes that led to communism. On the one hand, the film has historical value as a document of the Russian Revolution period. On the other, the film also manages to express the human sense of outrage that sparked the rebellion against the tsar. Eisenstein’s powerful images such as maggots infesting rotten meat or that damn baby carriage showed the ability of film to express a strong message with simple emotional appeal. It’s also worth considering that everything Eisenstein shot had to be approved by a censorship board. How does this apply to filmmakers working today? It proves that artists working under constraints can still create an impactful work. Whether the limitations come from an oppressive censorship board, studio executives or a simple lack of funding, clever directors find a way to convey what’s important about their narrative. Battleship Potemkin is a living testament to this.
Sergei Eisenstein, Circa 1910. Author unknown. Public Domain.
Stills from Battleship Potemkin. 1925. Public Domain.
Battleship Potemkin Film Poster. 1927. Public Domain.
Vintage Potemkin Poster. Public Domain.