What more can be said about Battleship Potemkin? Other than Citizen Kane, Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece of dialectical montage is surely the most analyzed, discussed, debated, and yes, praised film in history, if mostly in relation to its infamous Odessa Steps sequence. Such diverse filmmakers as Charlie Chaplin, David O. Selznick, Roger Corman, and Joel Schumacher have called it the greatest film ever made. Douglas Fairbanks famously declared, “ Battleship Potemkin was the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Luis Buñuel claimed that, after he saw it, he and his comrades immediately pulled up paving stones from the street to build barricades. Potemkin even earned the admiration of Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, who praised it as “a marvelous film without equal in the cinema…anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film.”
Potemkin’s towering stature in world cinema, however, has made it difficult to approach from a fresh perspective and turned it into a museum piece. In the last 50 years, tastemakers have often turned against Potemkin, decrying its politics, labeling it technically accomplished but simple-minded propaganda, or as Pauline Kael would say, “a cartoon.” Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from Andrew Sarris: “The totalitarians of the Left embraced Eisenstein and montage as the first step toward brainwashing humanity, but the cinema quickly lent its manipulative social powers to television. The cinema returned to formal excellence, abandoning the salvation of mankind as the criterion of cinema.” Potemkin wasn’t even being praised for its “formal excellence” anymore. It became a relic, an artifact quoted in The Untouchables, parodied in The Naked Gun 33 1/3, shanghaied by the Pet Shop Boys, who wrote a new score for it. It’s become cinema’s equivalent to the Tocatta and Fugue in D-minor, the Mona Lisa, Romeo and Juliet, works the public knows are famous without quite understanding why.
Maybe it’s because Eisenstein’s style is so hard for today’s narrative-obsessed audience to grasp that it’s become little more than a staple of undergraduate film courses. Sure, there is a story: The sailors of the titular battleship, upset with the rotten meat their unfeeling aristocratic officers place before them, successfully mutiny, earn support from the working-classes of Odessa, rally to support them when the Czar’s troops massacre a crowd of Odessa’s civilians, and finally face a Czarist fleet meant to stop them. However, our typical conception of narrative is that characters are necessary components of any story. Here, there are none, save for Vakulinchuk, a revolutionary-agitator and sailor on the battleship who first incites his comrades to mutiny. He speaks mostly in broad declarations like “We, the sailors of Potemkin must stand with our comrades the workers.” He’s mostly a symbol, however, and Eisenstein casts him with an actor (Aleksandr Antonov) who clearly looks like the proletarian ideal: strong, muscular (yes, we see him without his shirt), and sporting a Stalin-esque mustache.
Though he experimented with it in his debut film, Strike, here Eisenstein fully embraces the notion of typage, of casting actors based on symbolic connotations their physical appearances conjure up. For instance, the actor who plays Potemkin’s first officer has thin, angular, aristocratic cheekbones and jawline, instantly appealing to the audience’s preconceptions of aristocratic appearance, but also of that class’s perceived coldness and indifference, framed as he is from a low, imposing angle and always possessing a sneer on his lips. Another officer who we know is a sadist because he wants to shoot the men who don’t like their soup, twirls his moustache, which anyone acquainted with Saturday-morning cartoons knows is the hallmark of villainy.
Potemkin is best viewed as an experiment in tone that appeals to people’s preexisting notions of revolution and justice, using easily identifiable symbols and types to trigger an emotional response—hardly an antiquated notion, since Avatar relies on the same principle. Eisenstein understood Hitchcock’s notion of using film to manipulate the audience’s emotions as if they were attached to electrodes decades before the Master of Suspense deployed similar techniques (and offered up a compatible but subtler class critique).
But if we step back from Eisenstein’s defects as a conventional storyteller (or his merits as a propagandist) and approach him as an abstract artist, it’s much easier to appreciate his gift for slashing, dynamic images. He doesn’t just hammer home a pro-Bolshevik message with every frame, but rather, structuring his film like a symphony with distinct movements of varying tempos, allows for haunting lulls, like the dreamlike sequence of Vakulinchuk’s body, martyred as he was in the mutiny, laid out on Odessa’s docks. An ethereal intertitle, “Mist rolled in from the sea…,” prepares us for a slow succession of images of tall ships casting large shadows across the frame as the fog hovers over the charged crowd below. Eisenstein revisits one shot of sunlight reflected on the water twice. Much has been made of his dialectical approach to montage, that the meaning created from two shots spliced together is greater than or different from the meaning of the two shots individually—an almost perfect cinematic metaphor for Hegel’s (and later Marx and Engel’s) view of history as synthesis. But every bit as important is Eisenstein’s ordering of his shots for poetic effect. Potemkin opens with seven shots of ocean waves thunderously crashing over two separate quays—utilizing only two different camera placements. The shot of the first quay is repeated four times; the second quay, three. Like beats in a poem, he places his shots in a metrical order, intuitively understanding that audience anticipation for a particular repeated image will enhance its effect when it finally appears again on screen. He does this to great effect when, as a metaphor for the simmering-bordering-on-mutinous resentment the sailors feel for their officers, he cuts intermittently to a shot of boiling soup.
This metrical presentation of the images marks Eisenstein’s greatest contribution to film’s developing formal language in the 1920s, not the rhythmic montage of the Odessa Steps sequence. That scene, famous above all in cinema except for perhaps that of Marion Crane taking a shower in Psycho, actually has its roots in Griffith, who also experimented with gradually decreasing and increasing shot lengths to compress and intensify the audience’s emotional reaction during battle scenes in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Orphans of the Storm.
What makes the Odessa Steps still so startling is not its rhythmic editing, but its profound subjectivity. In a Hollywood battle scene, even in Griffith, the filmmaker encourages you to identify with an individual (or two, or three) in the conflict. Eisenstein doesn’t ever give us any one individual, though he returns to a few intermittently like the mother carrying her dead son in anguish up to the Czar’s soldiers. He’s mostly concerned with the crowd as a whole. Far from being distancing, as if an objective historical account, it’s immediate, in your face, because Eisenstein places the camera in and along the staircase itself, tracking along with fleeing crowds. It’s as if every time Eisenstein cuts from one shot to another, the camera is adopting the point of view of one of those fleeing for their lives, or, like Lot’s wife, turning around to face doom head-on. It’s the ultimate in you-are-there filmmaking, and watching it even today it produces a kinesthetic reaction—not the kind you might feel in a typical action film when you instinctively move your body, in the confines of your seat, when the hero lands a punishing blow on his enemy, but instead that you yourself are receiving the blow. The fact that Eisenstein carefully preserves the spatial integrity of this scene at all times heightens its reality, even though historians agree there never really was any sort of massacre of the kind he depicts.
This is what Eisenstein (and Griffith before him) discovered: Unreality can be easily accepted as reality if presented comprehensibly enough that spatial relationships are recognized and preserved. That’s why so many today think that a massacre on the Odessa Steps actually happened. Many of our contemporary filmmakers—I’m looking at you Paul Greengrass, Christopher Nolan, and Tony Scott—still haven’t grasped this simple principle, which is perhaps why suspending disbelief is more difficult today. This means there is no better time than the present to release Potemkin from its prison in the university classroom, in MoMA’s repertory film series, in the 85 years of hype and condescension that have impeded what should be our visceral reaction to it, and regard it anew as the vital, alive piece of cinema—of modern art—that it is.
This is the most complete version of Battleship Potemkin you are likely ever to see. Most public domain copies of the film have been based on the endlessly reedited 1926 German release print, itself initially reedited to meet Weimar film censors’ restrictions. Enno Patalas’s restoration adds back 100 feet of film missing for 80 years from that German print and restores all of Eisenstein’s 146 shots of text, which are also crucial to creating and maintaining the director’s sense of rhythm. The print itself appears scrubbed clean, and it’s hard to imagine any theatrical presentation of it that looks better than it does on Blu-ray. This restoration also includes Edmund Meisel’s original score that Eisenstein contracted for the German premiere, but expanded with new material since Meisel repeated several motifs over and over because he had only 12 days to compose it. Eisenstein said, "I told Meisel I wanted the score to be rhythm, rhythm, and, above all, pure rhythm," and he seems to have succeeded. The score dovetails nicely with the images, adding a percussive underlining to key moments, foreshadowing the complete integration of music and image Eisenstein would achieve even more successfully with Sergei Prokofiev on Alexander Nevsky. The film can be viewed with either the original Russian intertitles with optional English subtitles or with newly translated English intertitles.
Kino has not added any new special features to its Blu-ray version of Potemkin than already appeared on its DVD version in 2007. The most notable extra here is "Tracing the Battleship Potemkin," a 42-minute documentary on the making of the film, its reception, and subsequently convoluted distribution (and censorship) history. It goes into a great level of detail about the restoration undertaken by Enno Patalas starting in the 1980s that resulted in this, the most complete version of the film and most faithful to Eisenstein’s original vision.
Too long stifled by its own masterpiece status, it’s time to take Potemkin out of the lecture hall, out of the museum, and recognize it for the vital, alive piece of cinema it is.