Original Soviet release poster
|Directed by||Sergei Eisenstein|
|Produced by||Jacob Bliokh|
Battleship Potemkin (Russian: Бронено́сец «Потёмкин», Bronenosets Potyomkin), sometimes rendered as Battleship Potyomkin, is a 1925 Soviet silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein and produced by Mosfilm. It presents a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against its officers.
The film is set in June 1905; the protagonists of the film are the members of the crew of the Potemkin, a battleship of the Imperial Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet. Eisenstein divided the plot into five acts, each with its own title:
Act I: Men and Maggots
The scene begins with two sailors, Matyushenko and Vakulinchuk, discussing the need for the crew of the Potemkin to support the revolution taking place within Russia. While the Potemkin is anchored off the island of Tendra, off-duty sailors are sleeping in their bunks. As an officer inspects the quarters, he stumbles and takes out his aggression on a sleeping sailor. The ruckus causes Vakulinchuk to awake, and he gives a speech to the men as they come to. Vakulinchuk says, "Comrades! The time has come when we too must speak out. Why wait? All of Russia has risen! Are we to be the last?" The scene cuts to morning above deck, where sailors are remarking on the poor quality of the meat for the crew. The meat appears to be rotten and covered in worms, and the sailors say that "even a dog wouldn't eat this!" The ship's doctor, Smirnov, is called over to inspect the meat by the captain. Rather than worms, the doctor says that the insects are maggots, and they can be washed off before cooking. The sailors further complain about the poor quality of the rations, but the doctor declares the meat edible and ends the discussion. Senior officer Giliarovsky forces the sailors still looking over the rotten meat to leave the area, and the cook begins to prepare borscht although he too questions the quality of the meat. The crew refuses to eat the borscht, instead choosing bread and water, and canned goods. While cleaning dishes, one of the sailors sees an inscription on a plate which reads "give us this day our daily bread". After considering the meaning of this phrase, the sailor smashes the plate and the scene ends.
Act II: Drama on the Deck
All those who refuse the meat are judged guilty of insubordination and are brought to the fore-deck where they receive religious last rites. The sailors are obliged to kneel and a canvas cover is thrown over them as a firing squad marches onto the deck. The First Officer gives the order to fire, but in response to Vakulinchuk's pleas the sailors in the firing squad lower their rifles and the uprising begins. The sailors overwhelm the outnumbered officers and take control of the ship. The officers are thrown overboard, the ship's priest is dragged out of hiding, and finally the doctor is thrown into the ocean as 'food for the worms'. The mutiny is successful but Vakulinchuk, the charismatic leader of the rebels, is killed.
Act III: A Dead Man Calls Out
The Potemkin arrives at the port of Odessa. Vakulinchuk's body is taken ashore and displayed publicly by his companions in a tent with a sign on his chest that says "For a spoonful of borscht" (Изъ-за ложки борща). The citizens of Odessa, saddened yet empowered by Vakulinchuk's sacrifice, are soon whipped into a frenzy against the Tsar and his government by sympathizers. A man allied with the government tries to turn the citizens' fury against the Jews, but he is quickly shouted down and beaten by the people. The sailors gather to make a final farewell and praise Vakulinchuk as a hero. The people of Odessa welcome the sailors, but they attract the police as they mobilize against the government.
Act IV: The Odessa Steps
The best-known sequence of the film is set on the Odessa steps, connecting the waterfront with the central city. The citizenry of Odessa take to their ships and boats, sailing out to the Potemkin to show their support to the sailors and donate supplies, while a crowd of others gather at the Odessa steps to witness the happenings and cheer on the rebels. Suddenly a detachment of dismounted Cossacks form battle lines at the top of the steps and march toward a crowd of unarmed civilians including women and children, and begin firing and advancing with fixed bayonets. Every now and again, the soldiers halt to fire a volley into the crowd before continuing their impersonal, machine-like assault down the stairs, ignoring the people's pleas for humanity and understanding. Meanwhile, government cavalry attack the fleeing crowd at the bottom of the steps as well, cutting down many of those who survived the dismounted assault. Brief sequences show individuals among the people fleeing or falling, a baby carriage rolling down the steps, a woman shot in the face, broken glasses, and the high boots of the soldiers moving in unison.
In retaliation the sailors of the Potemkin decide to use the guns of the battleship to fire on the city opera house, where Tsarist military leaders are convening a meeting. Meanwhile, there is news that a squadron of loyal warships is coming to quell the revolt of the Potemkin.
Act V: One Against All
The sailors of the Potemkin decide to take the battleship out from the port of Odessa to face the fleet of the Tsar. Just when battle seems inevitable, the sailors of the Tsarist squadron refuse to open fire, cheering and shouting to show solidarity with the mutineers and allowing the Potemkin, flying the red flag, to pass between their ships.
- Aleksandr Antonov as Grigory Vakulinchuk (Bolshevik sailor)
- Vladimir Barsky as Commander Golikov
- Grigori Aleksandrov as Chief Officer Giliarovsky
- I. Bobrov as Young sailor flogged while sleeping
- Mikhail Gomorov as Militant sailor
- Aleksandr Levshin as Petty Officer
- N. Poltavseva as Woman with pince-nez
- Lyrkean Makeon as the Masked Man
- Konstantin Feldman as Student agitator
- Beatrice Vitoldi as Woman with the baby carriage
On the 20th anniversary of the first Russian revolution, the commemorative Commission of the Central Executive Committee decided to stage a number of performances dedicated to the revolutionary events of 1905. In addition, as part of the celebrations was suggested a "grand film shown in a special program, with an oratory introduction, musical (solo and orchestral) and a dramatic accompaniment based on a specially written text". Nina Agadzhanova was asked to write the script and direction of the picture was assigned to 27-year-old Sergei Eisenstein.
In the original script the film was to highlight a number of episodes of the 1905 revolution: Russo-Japanese War, the Tatar and Armenian massacres, revolutionary events in St. Petersburg, Moscow uprising. Filming was supposed to be conducted in a number of cities of the USSR.
Shooting began on 31 March 1925. Eisenstein began with filming in Leningrad and had time to shoot the railway strike episode, horsecar, city at night and the strike crackdown on Sadovaya Street. Further shooting was prevented by deteriorating weather, with fog setting in. At the same time the director faced tight time constraints: the film needed to be finished by the end of the year, although the script was approved only on 4 June. Objectively assessing the situation, Eisenstein decided to give up the original script, consisting of eight episodes, to focus only on one. This was the uprising on the battleship Potemkin, which in the all-encompassing scenario of Agadzhanova took up only a few pages (41 frames). Sergei Eisenstein together with Grigori Aleksandrov essentially recycled and extended the script. In addition, during the progress of making the film, some episodes were added which were not provided for in Agadzhanova's scenario or Eisenstein's scenic sketches, such as the storm scene with which the film begins. As a result, the content of the film was very far from the original script by Agadzhanova.
The film was shot in Odessa, which at that time was one of the centers of film production and where it was possible to find a suitable warship for shooting.
The silent film received a voice dubbing in 1930, was restored in 1950 (composer Nikolai Kryukov) and reissued in 1976 (composer Dmitri Shostakovich) at Mosfilm with the participation of the USSR State Film Fund and the Museum of S.M. Eisenstein under the artistic direction of Sergei Yutkevich.
In 1925, after sale of the film's negatives to Germany and reediting by director Phil Jutzi, Battleship Potemkin was released internationally in a different version from that originally intended. The attempted execution of sailors was moved from the beginning to the end of the film. Later it was subjected to censorship and in the USSR some frames and intermediate titles were removed. The words of Leon Trotsky in the prologue were replaced with a quote from Lenin. In 2005, under the overall guidance of the Foundation Deutsche Kinemathek, with the participation of the State Film Fund and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, the author's version of the film was restored with the music by Edmund Meisel.
The battleship Kniaz Potemkin Tarritcheski, later renamed Panteleimon then Boretz Za Svobodu, was derelict and being scrapped at the time of the film shoot. It is usually stated that the battleship Twelve Apostles was used instead, but she was a very different design of vessel from the Potemkin, and the film footage matches the Battleship Rostislav more closely. The Rostislav had been scuttled in 1920, but her superstructure remained completely above the water until 1930. Interior scenes were filmed on the cruiser Komintern. Stock footage of Potemkin-class ships were used to show her at sea, and stock footage of the French fleet depicted the waiting Russian Black Sea fleet, as was anachronistic footage of triple-gun-turret Russian Dreadnoughts
In the film the rebels raise the red flag on the battleship, but the orthochromatic black-and-white film stock of that period made a red flag look black, so a white flag was used instead. This was handtinted red for 108 frames by Eisenstein himself for the premiere at the Grand Theatre, which was greeted with thunderous applause by the Bolshevik audience.
Film style and content
The film is composed of five episodes:
- "Men and Maggots" (Люди и черви), in which the sailors protest at having to eat rotten meat;
- "Drama on the Deck" (Драма на тендре), in which the sailors mutiny and their leader, Vakulinchuk, is killed;
- "A Dead Man Calls for Justice" (Мёртвый взывает) in which Vakulinchuk's body is mourned over by the people of Odessa;
- "The Odessa Steps" (Одесская лестница), in which imperial soldiers massacre the Odessans.
- "One against all" (Встреча с эскадрой), in which the squadron tasked with intercepting the Potemkin instead declines to engage; lowering their guns, its sailors cheer on the rebellious battleship and join the mutiny.
Eisenstein wrote the film as revolutionary propaganda, but also used it to test his theories of montage. The revolutionary Soviet filmmakers of the Kuleshov school of filmmaking were experimenting with the effect of film editing on audiences, and Eisenstein attempted to edit the film in such a way as to produce the greatest emotional response, so that the viewer would feel sympathy for the rebellious sailors of the Battleship Potemkin and hatred for their overlords. In the manner of most propaganda, the characterization is simple, so that the audience could clearly see with whom they should sympathize.
Eisenstein's experiment was a mixed success; he "was disappointed when Potemkin failed to attract masses of viewers", but the film was also released in a number of international venues, where audiences responded positively. In both the Soviet Union and overseas, the film shocked audiences, but not so much for its political statements as for its use of violence, which was considered graphic by the standards of the time. The film's potential to influence political thought through emotional response was noted by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who called Potemkin "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema ... anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film". He was even interested in getting Germans to make a similar film. Eisenstein did not like the idea and wrote an indignant letter to Goebbels in which he stated that National Socialistic realism did not have either truth or realism. The film was not banned in Nazi Germany, although Heinrich Himmler issued a directive prohibiting SS members from attending screenings, as he deemed the movie inappropriate for the troops. The film was eventually banned in some countries, including being banned at various times in both the United States and France, as well as in its native Soviet Union. The film was banned in the United Kingdom longer than any other film in British history.
The Odessa Steps sequence
One of the most celebrated scenes in the film is the massacre of civilians on the Odessa Steps (also known as the Primorsky or Potemkin Stairs). This sequence has been assessed as a "classic" and one of the most influential in the history of cinema. In the scene, the Tsar's soldiers in their white summer tunics march down a seemingly endless flight of steps in a rhythmic, machine-like fashion, firing volleys into a crowd. A separate detachment of mounted Cossacks charges the crowd at the bottom of the stairs. The victims include an older woman wearing pince-nez, a young boy with his mother, a student in uniform and a teenage schoolgirl. A mother pushing an infant in a baby carriage falls to the ground dying and the carriage rolls down the steps amid the fleeing crowd.
The massacre on the steps, although it did not take place in daylight or as portrayed, was based on the fact that there were widespread demonstrations in other parts of the city, sparked off by the arrival of the Potemkin in Odessa Harbour. Both The Times and the resident British Consul reported that troops fired on the crowds; deaths were reportedly in the hundreds. Roger Ebert writes, "That there was, in fact, no tsarist massacre on the Odessa Steps scarcely diminishes the power of the scene ... It is ironic that [Eisenstein] did it so well that today, the bloodshed on the Odessa steps is often referred to as if it really happened."
Treatment in other works of art
The scene is perhaps the best example of Eisenstein's theory on montage, and many films pay homage to the scene, including
- Terry Gilliam's Brazil,
- Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather,
- Brian De Palma's The Untouchables,
- George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,
- Tibor Takacs's Deathline,
- Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box,
- Chandrashekhar Narvekar's Hindi film Tezaab,
- Shukō Murase's anime Ergo Proxy,
- The Magic Christian,
- and Johnnie To's Three.
Several films spoof it, including
- Woody Allen's Bananas and Love and Death;
- Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker's Naked Gun 33 1⁄3: The Final Insult (though also a parody of The Untouchables);
- the Soviet-Polish comedy Deja Vu;
- Jacob Tierney's The Trotsky;
- and the Italian Fantozzi comedy Film Il secondo tragico Fantozzi (see #La corazzata Kotiomkin), which brought the film to general knowledge in Italy.
The 2011 October Revolution parade in Moscow featured a homage to the film.
The scene is parodied in an episode of the television series Duckman, titled "The Longest Weekend".
The Irish-born painter Francis Bacon (1909–1992) was profoundly influenced by Eisenstein's images, particularly the Odessa Steps shot of the nurse's broken glasses and open-mouthed scream. The open mouth image appeared first in his Abstraction from the Human Form, in Fragment of a Crucifixion, and other works including his famous Head series.
The Russian-born photographer and artist Alexey Titarenko was inspired by and paid tribute to the Odessa Steps sequence in his series "City Of Shadows" (1991–1993), shot near the subway station in Saint Petersburg.
Distribution, censorship and restoration
After its first screening the film was not distributed in the Soviet Union and there was a danger that it would be lost among other productions. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky intervened because his good friend, poet Nikolai Aseev, had participated in the making of the film's intertitles. Mayakovsky's opposing party was Sovkino's president Konstantin Shvedchikov. He was a politician and friend of Vladimir Lenin who once hid Lenin in his home before the Revolution. Mayakovsky presented Shvedchikov with a hard demand that the film would be distributed abroad, and intimidated Shvedchikov with the fate of becoming a villain in history books. Mayakovsky's closing sentence was "Shvedchikovs come and go, but art remains. Remember that!" Besides Mayakovsky many others also persuaded Shvedchikov to spread the film around the world and after constant pressure from Sovkino he eventually sent the film to Berlin. There Battleship Potemkin became a huge success, and the film was again screened in Moscow.
When Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford visited Moscow in July 1926, they were full of praise for Battleship Potemkin; Fairbanks helped distribute the film in the U.S., and even asked Eisenstein to go to Hollywood. In the U.S. the film premiered in New York on 5 December 1926, at the Biltmore Theatre.
It was shown in an edited form in Germany, with some scenes of extreme violence edited out by German distributors. A written introduction by Trotsky was cut from Soviet prints after he ran afoul of Stalin. The film was banned in the United Kingdom (until 1954; it was then X-rated until 1987), France, and other countries for its revolutionary zeal.
Today the film is widely available in various DVD editions. In 2004, a three-year restoration of the film was completed. Many excised scenes of violence were restored, as well as the original written introduction by Trotsky. The previous titles, which had toned down the mutinous sailors' revolutionary rhetoric, were corrected so that they would now be an accurate translation of the original Russian titles.
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In order to retain its relevance as a propaganda film for each new generation, Eisenstein hoped the score would be rewritten every 20 years. The original score was composed by Edmund Meisel. A salon orchestra performed the Berlin premiere in 1926. The instruments were flute/piccolo, trumpet, trombone, harmonium, percussion and strings without viola. Meisel wrote the score in twelve days because of the late approval of film censors. As time was so short Meisel repeated sections of the score. Composer/conductor Mark-Andreas Schlingensiepen has reorchestrated the original piano score to fit the version of the film available today.
Nikolai Kryukov composed a new score in 1950 for the 25th anniversary. In 1985, Chris Jarrett composed a solo piano accompaniment for the movie. In 1986 Eric Allaman wrote an electronic score for a showing that took place at the 1986 Berlin International Film Festival. The music was commissioned by the organizers, who wanted to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the film's German premiere. The score was played only at this premiere and has not been released on CD or DVD. Contemporary reviews were largely positive apart from negative comment because the music was electronic. Allaman also wrote an opera about Battleship Potemkin, which is musically separate from the film score.
In commercial format, on DVD for example, the film is usually accompanied by classical music added for the "50th anniversary edition" released in 1975. Three symphonies from Dmitri Shostakovich have been used, with No. 5, beginning and ending the film, being the most prominent. A version of the film offered by the Internet Archive has a soundtrack that also makes heavy use of the symphonies of Shostakovich, including his Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh.
In 2007, Del Rey & The Sun Kings also recorded this soundtrack. In an attempt to make the film relevant to the 21st century, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (of the Pet Shop Boys) composed a soundtrack in 2004 with the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra. Their soundtrack, released in 2005 as Battleship Potemkin, premiered in September 2004 at an open-air concert in Trafalgar Square, London. There were four further live performances of the work with the Dresdner Sinfoniker in Germany in September 2005, and one at the Swan Hunter shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2006.
The avant-garde jazz ensemble Club Foot Orchestra has also re-scored the film, and performed live accompanying the film with a score by Richard Marriott, conducted by Deirdre McClure. For the 2005 restoration of the film, under the direction of Enno Patalas in collaboration with Anna Bohn, released on DVD and Blu-ray, the Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum fur Film und Fernsehen, commissioned a re-recording of the original Edmund Meisel score, performed by the Babelsberg Orchestra, conducted by Helmut Imig. In 2011 the most recent restoration was completed with an entirely new soundtrack by members of the Apskaft group. Contributing members were AER20-200, awaycaboose, Ditzky, Drn Drn, Foucault V, fydhws, Hox Vox, Lurholm, mexicanvader, Quendus, Res Band, -Soundso- and speculativism. The entire film was digitally restored to a sharper image by Gianluca Missero (who records under the name Hox Vox). The new version is available at the Internet Archive.
A new score for Battleship Potemkin was composed in 2011 by Michael Nyman, and is regularly performed by the Michael Nyman Band. The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra also composed a new score for the film in 2011, and performed it live to picture at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C. A new electroacoustic score by the composers collective Edison Studio was first performed live in Naples at Cinema Astra for Scarlatti Contemporanea Festival on 25 October 2017  and published on DVD  in 5.1 surround sound by Cineteca di Bologna in the "L'Immagine Ritrovata" series, along with a second audio track with a recording of the Meisel's score conducted by Helmut Imig.
Battleship Potemkin has received universal acclaim from modern critics. On review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an overall 100% "Certified Fresh" approval rating based on 48 reviews, with a rating average of 9.17/10. The site's consensus reads, "A technical masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin is Soviet cinema at its finest, and its montage editing techniques remain influential to this day." Since its release Battleship Potemkin has often been cited as one of the finest propaganda films ever made, and is considered one of the greatest films of all time. The film was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. Similarly, in 1952, Sight & Sound magazine cited Battleship Potemkin as the fourth-greatest film of all time; it was voted within the top ten in the magazine's five subsequent decennial polls, dropping to number 11 in the 2012 poll.
In 2007, a two-disc, restored version of the film was released on DVD. Time magazine's Richard Corliss named it one of the Top 10 DVDs of the year, ranking it at #5. It ranked #3 in Empire's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010. In April 2011, Battleship Potemkin was re-released in UK cinemas, distributed by the British Film Institute. On its re-release, Total Film magazine gave the film a five-star review, stating: "...nearly 90 years on, Eisenstein’s masterpiece is still guaranteed to get the pulse racing."
La corazzata Kotiomkin
In Italy, Potemkin is very famously parodied in the comedy film Il secondo tragico Fantozzi as La corazzata Kotiomkin ("The dreadnought Kotiomkin"), a very boring and endless (18-reels-long) film that Ugo Fantozzi, the main character of the movie, and his colleagues are forced to watch many times as their superior, Professor Guidobaldo Maria Riccardelli, is an enthusiast of this film. The few scenes of the film that we can see in Il secondo tragico Fantozzi are a replica filmed with the steps of Odessa "portrayed" by the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome, and "the mother's eye" being Alba Maiolini's. When Fantozzi leads his colleagues to rebellion against Riccardelli and burns the film, the Professor forces them to reenact the movie's climatic moments every Saturday afternoon, and Fantozzi is forced to portray the baby in the carriage, and his scene comedically goes continuously wrong, and he is constantly forced to do it again. Fantozzi leads a rebellion that is the remake of the original film: Fantozzi is Vakulenčuk the first rioter, the cineforum is the battleship, the spectators are the other sailors, Riccardelli represents all the officials, the occupied building is Odessa and the police have the role of the cossacks.
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Media related to The Battleship Potemkin at Wikimedia Commons
- Battleship Potemkin on IMDb
- Battleship Potemkin is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- Battleship Potemkin at official Mosfilm site with English subtitles
- "Battleship Potemkin". Senses of Cinema.com. Archived from the original on 3 January 2006. Retrieved 22 January 2006.
- "Potemkin sailor monument". 2odessa.com. Retrieved 22 August 2006. Monument in Odessa, explanation of the mutiny
- 2011 version with new soundtrack Battleship Potemkin is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- Russo-Japanese War Connections> Rebellion or Mutiny on the Potemkin had connection to Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 - Russian Navy morale was severely damaged.