The Battleship Potemkin (also Bronenosets Potyomkin)
This film is first and foremost an object of communist propaganda. It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925, and it glorifies the mutiny on the ship against the officers of the czar in 1905. The film is silent, and it is more noted today for its use of montage than for its message. Eisenstein's direction is far ahead of its day, foretelling many of our modern techniques.
The story is that the men on board the ship are routinely flogged, fed rotted meat, and treated as subhuman scum by the officers. At the point where they rebel, a dozen or so men are going to be shot for not eating their soup. (Yes, really - not eating their soup was correctly viewed as insubordination.) The enlisted crew convince the armed guards to come over to the side of rebellion, and they take over the ship. All of the officers disappear, and we never learn their fate.
One sailor is killed by an officer, though, and his body is taken into the port of Odessa where it lies in state. The thousands of citizens of Odessa file by his bier (where there is a sign "Killed for a plate of soup") and weep. I found this completely lacking in credibility, but it was necessary for the uprising for the towns people to join in brotherhood with the ship's men. Hundreds of citizens hop in their boats and sail out to the Potemkin with hundreds of eggs, countless geese, pigs, loaves of bread, and more food than could possibly be eaten.
Crowds gather on the steps to watch and cheer. A variety of people show up - the lame, the poor, and the rich. The rich especially seem thrilled at the sight of all helping the crew of the Potemkin, foreshadowing how much happier their lives were to be under the communists rather than under the czar.
The famous scene where the czar's police march down the steps shooting people occurs, the crew of the Potemkin launches a broadside against the opera house, symbol of the czar, then turn to face the approaching squadron of czarist ships. The Potemkin sails out to meet the squadron and do battle if necessary. The rebelling sailors ask the squadron to join them in their rebellion against czarism, the squadron does, and they all live happily ever after under the red flag of communism.
The issue is why is "The Battleship Potemkin" seen as a great film, while Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" is seen as nothing but propaganda, dragging her name down in villainy for ever after?
I'll propose that "Triumph of the Will" glorified one man, and that its groundbreaking uses of tracking shots, cranes, and the like were broken under the weight of its intolerable burden: Hitler.
Eisenstein's film, on the other hand, pioneered the use of new editing techniques to tell the story of plain men who rebelled against their oppression. No one monster is singled out for glory in "The Battleship Potemkin," so after the years have passed, we can look at it more objectively.
Eisenstein's use of montage was to juxtapose several shots in quick sequence, pumping drama and meaning into a scene where one static shot would have remained empty. With his quick cuts of individual sailors cheering and showing exultation, we get a more personal feeling of their excitement than showing ranks of more or less faceless sailors waving their caps. Eisenstein showed us not a crew but individuals.
The famous scene on the steps of Odessa is actually long and contains a large number of stories, not just the pram rolling down the steps with the armed police marching down after it. Eisenstein shows up rich and poor, lame and healthy, joined together to happily embrace the rebellion of the ship's crew. He shows a series of shots of individuals gleefully cheering and talking to each other, saying All for one and one for all. We get to know each person in the happiest moment of their lives.
Then the czar's police show up with bayonets fixed to their long rifles as they march in step down the long stone staircase, shooting people as they move, stepping over the bodies in step. And it's not just people - it's the humans we saw and exulted with minutes ago.
What Eisenstein does in the shooting scene is to show, for example, a woman on the steps looking up, shouting in fear. He shows her again from a closer view. He shows her yet again as the camera dollies in to a close up, then he cuts to a close up showing blood running down her face, her glasses broken over her eye. Without a zoom lens, this is the same technique used by Hitchcock in "Vertigo" and Steven Spielberg in "Jaws" when they pull the camera back and zoom in, forcing the eye to focus on Roy Scheider's face as he realizes the shark has attacked. Eisenstein forces us to see that woman's face and the horror of her murder is forced upon us. These shots probably also qualify as jump cuts, and they certainly violate the rule of continuity, as we see the same person repeatedly from different positions as the camera is moved in on her as quickly and relentlessly as the approach of her killers.
I would compare the scene on the Odessa stairs to the video of the lone individual standing in front of a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square - we see the human act of bravery, and in "The Battleship Potemkin" we see the human cost of bravery on an individual level rather than a crowd, which would make the scene have less impact. This was a great insight on Eisenstein's part: the cinematic impact is in the person, not in the mob.
Eisenstein's goal in his use of montage was to show sequences of shots and have the viewer associate the images in a way not foreseen. Throughout the film, he shows us views of the ship and men in unusual compositions, making us look at the ship between the barrels of two of its cannon or at the men between through their hammocks at night.
He's mostly successful at drawing our attention to the abysmal life they lead as subhuman parts of a well-run machine, then at their excitement and freedom after they mutiny. The problem is that Eisenstein was promiscuous - we get the same exciting montoge of scenes of the men raising the boarding stairs and stowing them as we get of them hauling up the cannon shells and gun powder and stowing it in the turrets as they prepare for battle.
Although the propaganda aspect is a little ham handed in the scenes concerning the dead sailor and the townspeople, overall the film works for me as an example of the Soviet view of montage. Eisenstein's photographic compositions were excellent, and his use of the ship to frame the action kept my interest piqued during some of the longer, uninteresting speeches.
As an item of counterpropaganda, English propagandists took scenes from "Triumph of the Will" and scored them with "Doing the Lambeth Walk," one of the most popular musicals of its day. It's available on YouTube at
English movie audiences howled with laughter as the Nazis danced.