The Odessa Steps - Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925, USSR, 75 mins)

Dir: Sergei Eisenstein; Writer: Sergei Eisenstein and Nina Agadzhanova Shutko; Cinematography: Eduard Tisse; Original music: Edmund Meisel and Dmitri Shostakovich; Editor: Sergei Eisenstein; Art Director: Vasili Rakhals

Cast: Ivan Bobrov (Sailor), Beatrice Vitoldi (Woman with Baby Carriage), Nina Poltavseva (Woman with Pince-nez), Julia Eisenstein (Odessa Citizen), Grigori Aleksandrov (Chief Officer Giliarovsky), Aleksandr Antonov (Vakulinchuk), Vladimir Barsky (The Captain), Sergei Eisenstein (Ship Chaplain), Aleksandr Levshin (Petty Officer), Mikhail Gomarov (Sailor)

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Independent filmmakers, restricted to limited exhibition outlets in a world of media conglomeration, can take heart from the fact that Battleship Potemkin, one of the most renowned films in the history of cinema and containing perhaps the best known sequence in the medium’s entire history, was initially seen only by small audiences of film society aficionados and trade unionists. In this sense, it represents one of the most successful instances of niche marketing the world has ever seen.

The stories of its circulation are almost as mythical as its subject matter: it was banned as subversive in England and its circulation was highly restricted in the US, even before the implementation of the Hays Code. In the US, it was seen by small groups of filmmakers and critics, and in one enticing account of a screening in the New York apartment of Gloria Swanson, it was projected onto one of Gloria’s satin sheets, when the absence of an available screen threatened to disappoint the eager but select audience.

At such a screening, David O. Selznick saw the film and wrote with great enthusiasm to his boss at MGM that a print should be obtained because it would be “very advantageous to have the organisation view it in the same way that a group of artists might study a Rubens or a Raphael”. It was, he thought, “unquestionably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made” (this in 1926!) and the firm “might well consider securing the man responsible for it”.

Battleship Potemkin is the film which brought Eisenstein, always a citizen of the world, to world attention. This fame both protected him – up to a point – and brought him to the constant attention of the authorities, involving him in a cat and mouse game for his entire professional life.

Although it has become an orthodoxy in the West to emphasise the repressive conditions under which artists, writers and filmmakers worked in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it is worth remembering that Eisenstein’s experiences in the West were equally, if not more, frustrating creatively. Unfruitful episodes in Hollywood & Mexico left Eisenstein back in the Soviet Union with a nervous breakdown and a damaged reputation.

Selznick, his original Hollywood promoter, found his screenplay, based on Dreiser’s American Tragedy, “the most moving script I have ever read”, but nonetheless rejected production support on the grounds that it would be too expensive to make and besides, would offer nothing but “a most miserable two hours to millions of happy-minded young Americans”.

Back in the Soviet Union, the needs of the masses were being catered for in similar fashion, though it was not so much the absolutism of the economic imperative which determined decisions but an imperative more contestable: sotsialnye zakaz (the social command). This policy delivered a series of (still) popular Stalinist or socialist-realist musical comedies, adapted by Grigorii Aleksandrov, Eisenstein’s former co-worker, from Hollywood slapstick with elements of (Soviet) jazz and Russian popular culture thrown in.

Eisenstein himself moved on from the enthusiasm and dynamic energy of the early films to further achievements on grander themes, and devoted a large part of his life to teaching and writing. He left behind not only a body of extraordinary films, but also a body of writing on cinema and art which is unsurpassed.

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Battleship Potemkin was conceived as part of a cycle of myth-making films intended to tell the story of the Revolution. Although that cycle was not completed, it is possible in retrospect, to view Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1928) and possibly The Old and The New (1929) as episodes, more successful perhaps than Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg (1927). The latter instead combines several of the moments of this historical narrative into one film with brief flashes of Bely’s Petersburg for good measure.

Battleship Potemkin commemorates the failed 1905 uprising, though technical constraints meant that only one aspect of the revolt – the Potemkin mutiny – was finally dealt with. Considerable debate about the historical veracity of the treatment has taken place, and although this contestation of the myth has sought to deny that the film bears much relation to what really happened, serious examination of the historical incident has only been able to establish that there is confusion about what occurred. In general, however, there is more similarity than difference between what has been accepted as the historical story and Eisenstein’s treatment of it.

Eisenstein’s film is structured around five episodes, introduced by intertitles: (1) Men and Maggots; (2) Drama on the Quarterdeck; (3) An Appeal from the Dead; (4) The Odessa Steps; (5) Meeting the Squadron. These episodes coincide, in large part with historical memory of the event, and Eisenstein used one of the actual participants of the mutiny as an actor and historical advisor on the project.

The mutiny certainly did begin when rotten meat was taken on board and the sailors refused to eat the soup which was subsequently made from it. The drama on the quarterdeck occurred; Vakulinchuk was killed in the ensuing struggle with officers, his body was laid in state on the shore at Odessa and the people of the city, where insurrectionist activity was also occurring, came to see it. This incident stirred up further unrest which was violently suppressed by the military in the city. The Potemkin fired shots and the rest of the Russian fleet was brought in to subdue the ship, but no return shots were fired. One other ship joined the Potemkin in mutiny, but later ran aground. The Potemkin left Odessa and the sailors eventually sought asylum in Romania. Eisenstein’s narrative ends on the relative victory of the fleet’s passing the ship without firing, rather than the less heroic story of the Potemkin’s subsequent tribulations and isolation.

This decision serves to identify the symbolic significance of the mutiny in the later historical mythmaking which both led to the Revolution and also led in turn to the Revolution’s being reconstituted itself in more heroic terms. The Odessa steps massacre in the film condenses the suppression, which actually occurred in the city into one dramatised incident, and this remains one of the most powerful images of political violence ever realised.

This power is achieved by the principle of conflict in montage: the juxtaposition of images of innocence against images of violence (the child trampled, the mother’s appeal to the soldiers, the mother with the pram [all individualised, or at least rendered as distinct types] against the mass of the soldiers, rendered not as separate bodies but as graphic patterns of lines and shadows in inexorable movement), the contrasts between long, depersonalising shots of soldiers and close-ups of citizens, contrasts between shots from below (the perspective of the citizens – that of panic) and above (the perspective of the soldiers – control and overview). It is maternal feeling which represents humanity in the scene and masculine military discipline which represents inhumanity.

The Odessa Steps sequence has been much copied (Woody Allen, Brian de Palma, the odd Australian indie film). Seventy-five years on, it is advertising rather than cinema which most regularly resorts to these techniques. However much the speech of the movies has since changed, it is still a pleasure to view again a film which, without fully knowing it, wrote the grammar of cinema.

About The Author

Helen Grace is a Sydney-based writer, photographer and new media producer; she is Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, UTS.

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