Battleship Potemkin is a silent film that was produced in the year 1925 and which was directed by Sergei Eisenstein and produced by Mosfilm. It is a dramatization of a mutiny that took place in 1905 against the officers of the tsarist regime in a Russian battleship known as Potemkin.
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The film is perceived to be the most influential propaganda movie of all times by many analysts and movie critics. The film Battleship Potemkin was voted as the greatest film of all times 33 years after production (Sinclair 6). With a total of five episodes, Eisenstein used this film to test his theories of montage.
Battleship Potemkin: An Overview
Critics note that the film failed to attract mass viewing as envisaged by the producers and as a result several editions were produced and released in numerous international venues. Generally the film was regarded as revolutionary propaganda orchestrated by political and social factors in the society. Due to its revolutionary and potentially inflammatory content it was banned in some western countries such as the USA, Britain and partly in its home Soviet Union.
It is noted that Nazi troops were prohibited from viewing it in Germany. The author of this paper will look at some of the aspects of this film such as the use of music in the background, use of sound, use of melodrama and invisible editing among others. In effect the author will be analyzing cinematic tradition and some of its aspects.
Traits of the cinematic movement and themes such as revolution and violence which were evident in the film will also be looked at. As already indicated, the aim is to identify the significant contributions of this film to the world of cinema.
The film as already indicated is based on a true story of the failed uprising or mutiny in the Russian battleship named Potemkin in the year 1905. The film opens with a mutiny against the callous tsarist officer. The mutineers were incensed by the oppression and squalid conditions in the ship such as eating rotten meat among others.
The soldiers could not take it anymore (Bordwell 62). The soldiers end up killing their fellow officers and in the process their leader Vakulinchuk is murdered. He is buried in the island of Odessa where civil unrest erupts as citizens demand justice for the dead ‘hero’. This is especially vivid in the third episode. As a result, Odessa becomes a revolutionary centre where citizens and sailors take arms against the oppressors and czarists. Odessa can be viewed as the epicenter of this uprising.
In the fourth episode of the film, the tsarist troops attack the citizens from the Odessa staircase near the harbor. The troops execute all of them including children and women. At last they occupy the city. Those manning the battleship respond to this altercation. They open fire at the tsarist headquarters situated near the shoreline. In the fifth episode the mutinying soldiers shell the city and decide to return to the sea and back to the battleship Potemkin.
This is in order to face off with the fleet of ships that were sent to suppress the mutiny. As a result of making their solidarity evident, the crew of the squadron ships allow the sailors to pass through them unimpeded. The mutineers end up cheering on seeing that they have safely made it through the squadron.
Battleship Potemkin and Contributions to World Cinema: Major Themes
The world of cinema is replete with revolutions in production, content and such other attributes. Battleship Potemkin has made significant contributions to this revolutionary aspect of the world of cinema. This is through the revolution theme which is evident in the film. The theme is clearly evident from the beginning especially considering the fact that the film starts by quoting some of Lenin’s most popular words “revolution is war” (Eisenstein 14).
In addition to this there is a successful mutiny against the tsarist generals in the battleship and this result to the deaths of the commander of the ship and that of Valulinchuk. This revolutionary theme is further made evident when the citizens come together to give tribute to Vakulinchuk. The citizens view him as a hero and a revolutionary.
The citizens of Odessa and the sailors turn against the tsarist rulers in the sea- port city which turns out to be more politically aggravated by social- economic factors such as the exploitation by the czar’s regime. The citizens of the island also supply the sailors with food and other utilities and as such they are seen as helping them fight the oppressors.
The film’s mordant and acerbic revolutionary spirit made it to be banned in many countries including the Soviet Union when Vladimir saw signs of revolution within the union. The leaders feared that the film may stoke revolutionary ideas among the citizens putting the leadership at risk. This was to be avoided at all costs.
In an effort to bring out this theme, Eisenstein uses several strategies such as rich choreography and imagery. For example he shows maggots crawling on the meat and at the same time the doctors saying that the meat is healthy and safe for consumption by the soldiers.
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Another theme that is evident in the film is that of class struggle. This is clearly shown in the film when Eisenstein focuses on the cramped room that the sailors sleep in and compares it to that of their captain in the same ship. In an act of revulsion, the citizens decide to supply the sailors with food and other necessary items.
Eisenstein’s focus here depicts the revolting spirit of the soldiers in the ship. The producer captures the scene from different angles and positions and as a result conveying his inaudible message to the audience without tampering with the visibility of the scene. This is also evident when he captures the scenes with the inaudible chatting between the citizens and the sailors.
This is another theme that is central to this film. The theme surfaces in the entire film in almost all the episodes. It is to be noted that the main reason for the mutiny was because the tsarists’ sense of superiority made them force the sailors to eat meat that is rotten and which is infested by maggots.
Failure to eat the meat would have put the sailor at the risk of either being hanged or shot at. This grave injustice sparked mutiny against their officers. When the sailors highlighted their grievances to the citizens of Odessa, the latter gladly took up arms and rebelled against the tsarists who always mistreated them.
Through the support and solidarity between the sailors and citizens, another form of injustice is made evident by the producer. The white Russian troops open fire on the citizens at the steps of Odessa killing everyone in sight including children, women and the old.
Use of Violence and Brutality
The use of violence is evident in this film. The senior officers of the Potemkin ship use violence in order to suppress any form of uprising from the sailors.
They end up failing in their mission as violence is more evident during the mutiny. The sailors’ leader is killed and buried whereas the senior officers who were killed are thrown into the ocean without any dignified form of sendoff. The climax of the film in the fourth episode shows violence at its worst. The killing of the citizens at the fictional steps of Odessa is accompanied by change in tone and pace of the film as chaos increase.
This is one of the reasons why this film is considered as an important contribution to the world of cinema. Violence is part and parcel of human life in the society especially between groups who hold different powers. The film brings this aspect to the fore effectively by depicting the violence meted out on the citizens and sailors by the tsar officers.
The brutality of the soldiers surpasses the expectations of the viewers as they have little regard for life (even that of small children). This is evident in a scene involving a woman, her child and a soldier. As she falls from the impact of the guard’s fire, fear is generated among the audience. This scene shows the level of violence used in the massacre and little regard to human life.
By making violence take the centre stage in the entire film, the producers are trying to show its broad impacts in the society (“Havoc in the Town” 5). Mass destruction of property took place in the battle ship in the course of the mutiny. This is characterized by the breaking of plates by the sailor who finds encrypted words in these plates. The soldier is angered by the fact that the plates they used to eat from have been used to convey secret messages.
Interestingly this scene can viewed from two dimensions; one the sailor is breaking the plate from the right while in the other he is breaking the same plate from the left. The death toll was very high especially during the massacre in Odessa Island. Einstein uses this theme to show the effects of violence in the world. The adoption of this theme in the cinema world has seen many films winning awards. This is one of the reasons why this author considers this film as having made significant contributions in the cinema in the world.
Battleship Potemkin and Contributions to World Cinema: Theories and Techniques
Theory of Montage
Eisenstein effectively applies the theory of montage in this film. Using the provisions of the theory the producer is able to juxtapose the images of innocence with violence thus evoking emotional reaction on the audience. This elicits sympathy from the audience who are able to identify with the rebellious sailors in the battleship.
Hatred is directed towards the cruel seniors. Eisenstein skillfully managed to create the unending steps of the Odessa and dramatically shows the evil and cruel side of czar and the imperial regime.
There are other scenes which evoke strong emotions from the audience. This is for example the scene such as the one with the mother carrying her wounded son up the steps to meet the soldiers. There is also the scene where the baby cries as the carriage hurtles down the steps, the wailing woman who was shot in the eye and bodies scattered all over the steps.
Melodrama was effectively used to create some of the most interesting aspects of the film. For example melodrama is applied in the Odessa steps sequence where various jump cuts help in conveying chaotic terror in the film. It is noted that there was rapid editing in the entire sequence.
This technique is used when the militia advances towards the citizens matching down the stairs in a straight line putting emphasis on their impersonal and oppressive nature (Fabe 24). The film also shows most of the destruction from the citizens’ point of view. This is for example the reaction of the horrified mother after her child was trampled on.
Use of Cinematic Expressions
Being a silent film, many cinematic expressions are applied. Music is used in various occasions and especially during the massacre. The crying and wailing of the citizens during the massacre is accompanied by soundtracks. There are various scenes where dramatic acting is used. This is for example when the senior officer orders the officers to shoot at Vakulinchuk and his group.
Vakulinchuk compassionately cries, “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” The firing squad dramatically lowers their guns leading to a full- blown mutiny in the ship. Drama is also evident when the woman tries to protect her baby but the baby slips away and slithers down the steps (Sinclair 12). She dramatically stretches out her hand in an attempt to catch her baby. This action also depicts the human nature of love that the masked soldiers lack.
Even though there was no czarist massacre on the steps of Odessa, Eisenstein’s ideology of the massacre is commonly linked with the large number of deaths caused by the czarist. The cruelty with which they handled the rebels is the same as that in the Odessa scene. Ironically, the film became popular as a result of the massacre. It is noted that today the ‘bloodshed in Odessa’ is often cited and mentioned as if it actually did take place. To acknowledge this phenomenal film, a statue was erected in the city of Odessa (Taylor 51).
In conclusion, it is important to note that Eisenstein developed a film that clearly defines the montage theory. This theory has made significant contributions in the world of cinema by creating cinematic traditions and movements. Having won various awards and still being referred to as “a must watch film”, Battleship Potemkin remains as the most sensational film of all times. It clearly defines themes such as that of revolution, the theme of violence and that of love through its rich choreography.
The theme of revolution has not only been used in the film industry but has also inspired several revolutions. This film clearly brings out the theme of violence especially through the use of cinematic techniques such as jump- cut and depth focus. Though at times it might lack the right audience, it is necessary for anyone interested in film history to watch it.
“Havoc in the Town and Harbour”. The Times 30 June 1905: 5. Print.
Bordwell, David. The Cinema of Eisenstein. Cambridge MA & London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Constanta Whither: The Battleship Potemkin. London: Free Press, 1926. Print.
Fabe, Marilyn. Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique. California: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Sinclair, Andrew. History in Eisenstein: The Battleship Potemkin. London: Free Press, 2008. Print.
Taylor, Richard. The Battleship Potemkin. New York: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd., 2000. Print.