Film is, in a sense, a repetitive medium; it is somewhat reliant upon remixing and rehashing old tropes, established conventions, and techniques that have been tested and perfected over time. This recycling is by no means a bad thing. Directors are inspired by those that came before them and pay homage to their creations. And even in the cinema’s earliest days, traditions were pulled from other art forms such as theater, literature, and photography. Yet, many of the things that make some of today’s movies so great started somewhere else entirely, somewhere deep in the creative recesses of a director’s mind, or formed by cultural climates and societal concerns of the time in which the film was made, or even a perfect combination of the two. This can be true for films from as recent as a few years ago, or as long ago as 1925, which is when a little movie called Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, began to write film history and film theory forever.
“Forever” has just been these last ninety years, and it’s sometimes easy to forget how new film as a medium is. But even with advances in film technology and with new generations of inventive auteurs cropping up and helping cinema to keep evolving, the world owes much to Sergei Eisenstein and Battleship Potemkin. The Soviet silent film tells the tale of a mutiny that had occurred in 1905, when the crew of a Russian ship rebelled against their officers, incited by poor conditions on the ship as well as the revolution already taking place in Russia at the time.
The film is, in a word, powerful. It was powerful then as an emotional piece of propaganda. It’s still powerful today, though, as both an emotional piece of propaganda and as a profound illustration of film techniques that, cinephile or not, are recognizable and crucial still today. Most notably, Eisenstein was instrumental in putting forth Soviet montage theory, which emphasizes editing as the most crucial aspect of filmmaking for eliciting emotional responses from the audience and for conveying the intellectual and ideological meaning of a film. Ninety years later, and with plenty of filmmakers that have clearly adopted the theory for their own work, there’s still no better example than Battleship Potemkin, whose power is derived precisely from the juxtaposition of images taken in sequence with one another. Even ignoring the intertitles of the film to help fill narrative gaps, the story is not only understood but also deeply felt.
Take the iconic “Odessa Steps” sequence, one which has been lovingly and respectfully mimicked throughout cinematic history, and which will no doubt continue to inspire future scenes of suspense. This sequence comes in Act IV of the film after the ship arrives in the city of Odessa, where the citizens are welcoming to the sailors, whose mutiny was successful. But the police are significantly less sympathetic to the recent revolt. The sequence follows unarmed citizens as they are shot at mercilessly by the police officers along the Odessa steps, and makes effective use of cross-cutting between various victims of the violence, the most harrowing of which to witness is a baby in a stroller rolling dangerously down the steps, cut between other chaotic images of people running, falling, and being wounded in the onslaught of gunfire. The image of a woman who has been shot in the face punctuates the entire sequence, literally putting a human aspect on the violence of revolution.
The suspense of watching the stroller roll ominously down the steps is effective not in despite of but rather because of the other individual shots that we see within the same sequence; feeling is created not by one single image itself but in the way images are woven together. Battleship Potemkin might be most famous for this Odessa steps sequence, and for the way that sequence alone illustrates this point and has influenced so many other films to follow. People who haven’t seen Battleship Potemkin are probably still familiar with the Odessa steps sequence entirely from other movies that have used the same exact editing techniques and even the easily recognizable setting of a staircase.
However, Battleship Potemkin should not be considered solely as some kind of textbook, no matter how many film techniques and theories it would implement that would eventually be seen as fundamental. It should not be remembered merely on the basis of its legacy. Silent cinema in general, with the exceptions perhaps of icons like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is often seen merely for the way it has spawned movies as we know them today. Silent films like Battleship Potemkin should be seen for their profound influence as well as on their own merits, in order for us to consider not just how far we’ve come but also to experience how affecting these films can be in and of themselves. Watching Battleship Potemkin now is to be transported into the story itself and to a time when those very techniques and tropes were in fact new.
Everything about Battleship Potemkin defies any stereotype that silent films are boring or antiquated. From the very first act of the film, titled “Men and Maggots,” in which the spirit of revolution begins to brew simply from tainted meat, the film is riveting and feels vital even now. Perhaps that is a testament to its propagandistic potential, but it’s also just good, gripping filmmaking that makes its then-timely subject matter feel somehow timeless. It remains both an entertaining, emotional experience as well as one that is clearly meant to be important, even though audiences today might be less concerned with or aware of the ideological principles of Communist Russia in the 1920s, and which also helped inform much of the film’s style and content, of course.
Even if the film didn’t hold up, and even if the viewing experience was in fact meant to be a history lesson on the Russian revolution or a film theory textbook, or indeed some combination of the two, there would still be cause for celebration on the film’s ninetieth anniversary. Because Battleship Potemkin, if nothing else, is a testament to film’s power and potential as a medium for storytelling, for entertainment, and for revolution.