Production year: 1925
Countries: Rest of the world, Russia
Cert (UK): PG
Runtime: 75 mins
Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, Sergei M Eisenstein
Cast: Aleksandr Antono, Alexandr Antonov, Grigori Aleksandrov, Grigori Alexandrov, Midhail Gomorov, Vladimir Barsky
A revolutionary film in form, in political purpose and in subject matter, Eisenstein's 1925 Soviet classic focuses on a naval mutiny in the Black Sea during the abortive 1905 revolution. This great 20th-century icon is up there with Guernica, the work of another communist maverick who put his art at the service of the revolution, though unlike Eisenstein Picasso was never disciplined by anyone resembling Stalin and his philistine cultural commissars.
The film's 75 minute duration is composed of 1,400 takes and is the precise model of its innovatory director's theory of montage. Potemkin is a vital viewing experience that transcends its landmark/milestone status. Its virtuoso technique remains dazzling and is at the service of a revolutionary fervour we can still experience.
The Odessa Steps massacre, invented by Eisenstein and his collaborators, is one of cinema's greatest single sequences, and although the revolutionaries are the collective heroes, the key victims of the tsarist killers are all established as individuals before the shooting starts. It clearly influenced Sam Peckinpah; Francis Bacon drew on it for key paintings; Brian De Palma and others have alluded to it.
Battleship Potemkin: No 18 best arthouse film of all time
Still hurtling down the steps of movie history like an abandoned pram, Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 propaganda continues to be debated, analysed, appropriated and parodied. Its straightforward propaganda now seems quaint, and the shock of the new has long evaporated. Now it's referenced in everything from The Godfather to Inglourious Basterds to Naked Gun 33 1/3, and rescored by Pet Shop Boys. But it remains the essence of revolutionary cinema: a film about a revolution, made as part of the revolution, in a revolutionary way.
The revolution in question was the Potemkin uprising of 1905, a key moment in the Russian revolution, when the crew of the battleship turned on their aristocratic officers, then united with the working classes of Odessa in facing the tsarist troops. The film, commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the revolution, was violent for its time, with mass shootings and close-ups of bloodstained faces. But, as with so many films since, Battleship Potemkin's violence is more implied than shown, and takes place mostly in the mind of the viewer (no babies were harmed in the making of the famous Odessa Steps sequence). Eisenstein knew this full well. The film was confirmation of the theories on montage he had been developing with Lev Kuleshov at the Moscow Film School.
Today those theories are Film School 101, and Battleship Potemkin's technique is talked about more than its political portent. It's easy to forget this film was once considered powerful enough to actually incite revolution. Its power has been appreciated not just by cinematic provocateurs, from Chaplin to Buñuel to Roger Corman, but also political ones, such as Joseph Goebbels. At various times it has been banned in the US, France, Germany, in Russia itself, and in the UK until 1954, and it was X-rated till the 70s. It is still a potentially incendiary work of art, very much concerned with the tipping point between mass obedience and unstoppable uprising.