Eisenstein’s 1925 communist propaganda film tells the story of a mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin in 1905. The mutiny aboard the Potemkin was part of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1905 and set the stage for the revolution that came in 1917. Eisenstein’s film highlights the inequity between the working class sailors and the elite officers aboard the ship and the harsh retaliation of the military’s response.
Battleship Potemkin is comprised of five designated acts. Each act focuses on an emotional reaction to the oppressive establishment. Eisenstein did an excellent job of framing the Bolshevik fight in a sympathizing manner that made it easy for an audience to rally around. Battleship Potemkin is not only an example of a successful propaganda film, but also a display of expertly executed film techniques and sequences by Eisenstein that made this film legendary.
The five acts throughout Battleship Potemkin are broken up in ways that are very succinct and focused in both the content as well as in the emotional tone. They are carefully crafted and mainly, consistent. Eisenstein did a great job in crafting the narrative and telling the story in a way that left no doubt as to who to root for and in a compelling way.
Act 1: Men and Maggots
The first act focuses on the mistreatment of the sailors by the officers & petty officers of the ship. From acts of physical abuse (opening scene) to complete disregard for the well being and safety of the crew (via the maggot ridden meat that is deemed fine for consumption. The anger and frustration highlights more than just the woes of life on a Russian military vessel at the turn of the century. It shows the struggle and conditions of people in the Russian Empire and how they must band together in order to get their voice heard among the minority ruling class.
As an act of defiance the crew refuses to eat the meat that is deemed sanitary. The meat is shown as crawling with maggots with close up shots. The irrefutable evidence. The ships doctor inspects the maggot ridden carcass that is hanging on the boats deck and deems it safe and fine to eat. As expected, the crew refuses to eat the Borscht that is made from the rotting meat.
Act 2: Drama on the Deck
The second act displays the fierce retribution by the Captain and the officers onto the sailors that refused to eat the Borscht. Failing to do as they were told and fall in line resulted in a death penalty and the captain commanded that they die by firing squad. Artillery Quartermaster, Grigory Vakulinchuk, calls out to the men about to gun down the sailors and asks them:
BROTHERS! WHO ARE YOU SHOOTING AT?!
This call causes the firing squad to lower their guns and initiates the mutiny of the crew against the officers. Many officers are thrown over board and Vakulinchuk is killed.
This sequence shows the masterful way the Eisenstein shot and choreographed this film. Each shot is very purposeful and thought through. We see quick shots of the sailors and officers. The shots of the sailors are portraying uneasiness, disorder, fear, desperation, and defeat. The officers are shown at attention, carrying out orders, and gleeful anticipation. We even see the holy man as above everyone else and with a backdrop of dark black smoke, condemning those that are disobedient. The way that the quick shots are edited together make the pacing draw out. Thus, building the anticipation. All of this is deemed required by the captain for the simple reason of not eating the soup.
Act 3: A Dead man Calls Out
At the heart of the third act is the grieving of Vakulinchuk. People come from all over to pay respects in what appears to be an endless line. The revolution is growing beyond just the crew of the Potemkin. Something that stood out was how Eisenstein is able to capture the emotion of the scene. The same guerrilla style, short focused cuts of film, that captured the mutiny is flipped and longer more drawn out shots of grieving spectators. This change in pacing and focus highlights how dynamic the filming style is in Battleship Potemkin.
Eisenstein’s style here feels more personal and emotional than other films of the time. Battleship Potemkin feels less stage-like and more like Eisenstein is capturing an event instead of recording a play.
Act 4: The Odessa Steps
The Odessa Steps are one of early films most iconic sequences. Not only does it have some unusually graphic violence from the Russian military against the citizens of Odessa (something more graphic than I have seen in other films of the time), but it has a frequently referenced scene of a baby carriage careening down a flight of stairs.
Much like in the other acts in Battleship Potemkin, the shots and the edits meet the tone of the action it is capturing. The frenzied and stunned crowd running, as the Cossack regiment marches and guns them down, are captured in an equally frenzied manner with tracking shots following crowds and close ups/quick shots of people getting gunned down. At the same time, the edits slow down as the focus narrows in on specific targets in the crowd, like a mother watching her son get trampled, or a woman trying to rally the fearful to talk sense into the marching soldiers.
The most shocking aspect of the sequence has to be the young boy getting shot and trampled. The mother begs for mercy, holding the child in her arms, and gets gunned down, point blank, by the troop. The callous way that the military attacks the unarmed citizens is certainly the main point of the entire act. The mercilessness and unwavering loyalty against the people is what Eisenstein is trying to highlight.
There are two aspects of this sequence that get parodied and paid tribute to often. The first is the baby carriage rolling down the stairs, and the second is showing someone get shot in the eye mixed with people getting killed or attacked on stairs. Both of these aspects of the Odessa Steps sequence are highlighted by Eisenstein’s editing. The quick montage and variety of shots, ranging from close up to long shots, adds an emotional depth to the scene in a way that brilliantly accents the content.
Act 5: One Against All
As the Battleship Potemkin works its way out of Odessa and into the open water it comes up against an armada. The tension builds around whether the rest of the boats will rally behind the Potemkin or if they will open fire. Shots of the ship and of the men awaiting their fate help build the tension in the same way that films will for years to come. Quick shots bouncing back and forth between ammunition, cannons taking aim, the ship, men anxiously waiting, and repeat. This cycle continues and builds until the tension finally breaks and the Potemkin is allowed safe passage.
The film editing and thoughtfulness of the pacing and content of the film really stands out among contemporary films. It is no surprise that this film holds up after almost 100 years and influenced so many films.
Directed by: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Edited by: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barskiy, Grigoriy Aleksandrov
Runtime: 1h 6m
Genre: Drama, History, Thriller, Propaganda
Distributed by: Goskino