The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

D: Sergei Eisenstein
S: Sailors of the Black Sea Fleet of the Red Navy, the citizens of Odessa

Never before and rarely since Sergei Eisenstein's second feature length film has form been matched to content with such a strong sense of purpose. A revolutionary work celebrating revolution, the film nominally charts the events which transpired aboard the Tsarist Battleship Prince Potemkin during the abortive 1905 Russian rebellion.

On a cinematic level, the film radically challenges the dominant narrative form established following the critical and commercial success of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915. An admirer of Griffith, Eisenstein wished to use the cinema to communicate not merely an inspiring and patriotic story, but the idea of revolution which underpins everything which occurs on screen.

The film is divided into six distinct and self-contained sections, but successfully threads narrational, thematic and visual strands throughout which allow Eisenstein to spread his montage effects across the entire feature rather than confine them to individual moments. Though still concerned with the shock value of the juxtaposition of two images to create third meanings, Eisenstein had already evolved his "montage of attractions" into a sophisticated alternative cinematic form.

Clashes and oppositions between individual scenes and images are present, but he also makes use of the repetition of motion (especially circular) and certain specific physical objects (eyes, glasses) to develop a strong sense of aesthetic coherence often lacking in his energetic but scattershot first feature Strike (1925).

This shifts the focus from the machinations of the plot and onto the visual systems employed to portray it. The audience is expected to actively involve themselves in understanding the associations between images and actions. Only then can they know their purpose, and engage with the film's complex and frenetic technique.

It works on an intellectual as well as emotional level, taking everything that was previously known about cinema and turning it on its head, just as the Soviet Union had done on a political and social level in 1917. It evinces many of the civil, historical and aesthetic concerns of its era, including its defiant lack of a star (preferring the anonymous but powerful mass as a hero), its angry assault on the exploitations of the Tsarist regime and the constructivist fascination with the movement and operation of machinery. On every level, Battleship Potemkin encourages its audience to respond with revolutionary fervour and join with the Communist party politically, artistically and emotionally.

Eisenstein was not alone in this enterprise. Assisted in direction by Grigory Alexandrov and in writing by Nina Agazhanova-Shutko, he worked with a group of like-minded Soviet artists and ordinary citizens to bring the project to the screen. Important contributions were also made by Swiss cinematographer Edward Tissé and German composer Edmund Meisel. Tissé's crisp lensing frequently allows Eisenstein to emphasise detail and draw correlations between shapes and patterns of movement that weaker photography would have made impossible. Meisel was brought in to score the film after its December 1925 première and his rousing music accompanied it on its successful and controversial world tour in 1926.

Though not universally liked on its initial release even in its home country, the film was distributed abroad as an exemplar of Soviet artistic achievement. Following its huge success abroad, it received more favourable notices from Soviet critics, even those opposed to what they saw as Eisenstein's excess and self-indulgence.

The film was banned in some countries, re-cut and re-scored in others (it was not shown in the Republic of Ireland until 1936, and then only at a film society screening), but its reputation steadily grew until in 1958 it was voted the greatest film ever made by an international panel of cinema historians. It remains a mainstay of many such lists, and its aesthetic and political radicalism is still affecting today. Though the work on the whole may often seem quite cerebral to an audience predisposed to decoding and studying it, (especially a Film Studies class) the legendary Odessa Steps sequence remains among the most terrifying and powerful moments ever put on film.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.