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Introduction: 1905 GOD (BRONENOSEZ POTEMKIN)
  1. Historical Background
  2. Montage, mass und individual
  3. Effects

1. Historical Background

In the year 1905 the ”First Russian Revolution” broke out. The initial point for it was the Russian-Japanese war, in which Russia incurred losses. Sustained hunger and the wish to end the war provoked people to protest. On 9th January 1905, at the so-called “Bloody Sunday”, the tsar issued the command to shoot at peaceful demonstrators. Thereupon a vast strike movement started in the country. For the first time workers’ councils were constituted. The establishment of a parliament proved to be a tactical manoeuvre of the tsar. In autumn uprisings started in the whole country, culminating in the “December Revolt”. After its suppression the tsar ruled extremely brutal and reactionary (Schlegel 1973: 13f).

On 17th March 1925 the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to produce a film to celebrate the events of the year 1905. The scenario for the film was written by Nina Agadshanova. Her script concept based on authentic archive recordings and eyewitness reports of former participants of the 1905 revolution (Jutkewitsch 1965: 363; Kosmols´kaja Pravda, 5.8.1925). Sergej Eistenstein was engaged to write the final script with Agadshanova and to direct the film. Originally eight parts were planned, the first part showing the climax of the strike movements in October 1905.

Actually only one episode of the projected work was realised – the mutiny on the battleship “Potemkin” (Deisen/Grüter 1992: 67). Eisenstein gave several explanations for this alteration. So, for example, he had only 3 months for shooting the film and it was absolutely impossible to finish this great project in such a short time. Furthermore the shooting did not go according to, intensifying the necessity of concentrating on one single event. He also referred to natural circumstances: The shooting should take place in autumn, when suitable sunlight for shooting films can only be found in Odessa and Sebastopol.
Eisenstein also pointed out that the incidents around the battleship Potemkin were nearly forgotten by the people, although this episode is outstanding and includes all characteristic elements of the year 1905 (Eisenstein 1975: 65f).

The battleship ”Prince Potemkin” was part of the Black Sea fleet. Its crew suffered a fairly long time from poor payment and from harassments by the officers. On 14th June 1905, 30 sailors of the “Battleship Potemkin” refused to eat spoiled meat. The officers wanted to make an example and ordered to shoot the sailors. Thereupon a revolt broke out: Three officers and one sailor died. The mutineers docked at the harbour of Odessa where a rebellion was in progress as well: Workers struck and numerous companies were closed. The revolting townsfolk of Odessa expressed solidarity with the sailors. The following night the working district of Odessa was on fire. The tsar´s troups, the Cossacks, massacred the strikers. The sailors of the “Potemkin” decided to escape to Romania. On their way they crossed an admiral squadron, which finally allowed the Battleship to pass (Schlegel 1973: 14f; Deisen/Grüter 1992: 67f).

Up to this point the film version corresponds to the historical events. But it was not mentioned that in Romania the sailors were detained and finally surrendered to the Russian authorities. Also the famous and impressively composed scene on the harbor stairs of Odessa does not comply with the real historic events. Eisenstein himself was not so much interested in a pure historical and detailed reproduction of the incidents. He wanted primarily to mirror the revolutionary pathos and to convince the audience of the necessity of collective social class struggle. In order to perform this task, he systematically used montage and mass. (Schlegel 1973: 14ff; Deisen/Grüter 1992: 68)

2. Montage, mass und individual

The montage technique was already used in American films between 1910 and 1920 to enhance expressivity. In Soviet cinema this technique acquired a new, philosophic value. Lev Kuleshov and Dziga Vertov started to put together several different film scenes in a completely new order. In doing so, they created a new socialist reality – new persons, new landscapes, new coherences (Engel 1999: 27). The group “Kinoki”, which was founded by Kuleshov, experimented with this method in documentary film and newsreels. The group wanted to catch the spontaneity of life and refused to work with feature films.

Eisenstein was quite interested in these new Soviet documentary films and newsreels, but in contrast to the “Kinoki”group he also used the montage technique in feature films (Jutkewitsch 1965: 370f). In Eisenstein´s opinion montage endows film with spirit and life. With this technique he created a chain of associations in order to cause pictures and emotions in the audience’s minds - the montage of emotional attractions (Richter 1972: 64f). Doing this he preferred elements of shock. He systematically controlled rhythm and speed of all the details displayed, controlling the emotions of the audience according to tempo and order of the presented pictures (Schlegel 1973: 192).

In BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN montage was used by dramatic considerations. Sergej Jutkevic, a friend and colleague of Eisenstein, assumed that montage only worked well when the technique does not contrast with the rest of the film. He felt that in POTEMKIN this demand was perfectly realised. Close-ups were always used specifically and without any exaggeration, as for example the monocle of the doctor, writing “Give us this day our daily bread” on the plate, the cross in the bottom, the slip of paper with the letters “For a spoonful of soup”, the portraits of the speakers on the pier, the people on the stairs of Odessa (Jutkewitsch 1965: 378-381).

The most impressive scene of the film on the stairs of Odessa demonstrates how precise and effective Eisenstein used the montage technique in POTEMKIN. One setting shows the soldiers’ boots go down the stairs in lockstep. The next sequence shows defenceless, injured and dying people. The cuts become shorter and shorter, the tempo increases, the dramaturgy peaks out.

In this scene it is also possible to detect how Eisenstein worked with mass and individuals. By using the montage technique Eisenstein presented single shots of individuals and details, lifting special characters and actions out of the mass (Linhart 1960: 178). The revolutionary mass was regarded to be the ideal of the collective. The single human being should completely, outright and voluntarily merge in the new collective (Engel 1999: 31-33).

The central subject in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is the action of the mass: the revolt of the sailors and the solidarity of the townsfolk of Odessa. Nevertheless a lot of different types and characters can be found: the mother with the hurt child, the intellectual (sometimes mentioned as the woman teacher), the man without legs... (Linhart 1960: 186f). Eisenstein himself pointed out that he cast the performers not because of their artistic abilities, but rather because of their physical look. He did not want actors, he wanted to show real, authentic persons. These performers thought of their work for this film as their social duty and they believed, as well as Eisenstein, in the revolutionary power (Eisenstein 1975: 65; Juktewitsch 1965: 369, 374). This might be one of the reasons, why this film gives, in such a creditable way, the impression of proletarian unity and solidarity. The creditability and fascination of the film is furthermore supported by the involvement of nature in the whole events (as for example the sea). Especially because the consonance of social development and changes in nature gives the impression that the social revolution is a law of nature.

3. Effects

In the Soviet Union, POTEMKIN did not have an immediate, significant widespread impact, mainly because the film was released only with a few copies. In Odessa for example, the film was not shown before 1927. Moreover, many Soviet film-makers, like the ”Kinoki”-Group, were not enthused about its ”confusing effect” on Soviet cinematography at first (Schlegel 1985: 32). In Germany, where POTEMKIN was shown shortly after the Moscow premiere, the film was a huge success. The film was not only popular among socialists and communists; it was also appreciated by bourgeois theatre and film critics. For Germany, 67 copies had to be made, whereas Russian films were normally distributed on only five copies ( Probably the intense debate about the film and its ideological implications, reflected in highly controversial and frequent censorship decisions, stimulated public awareness. Its appreciation – and its rejection – in Germany was the prelude to widespread international success.

POTEMKIN was distributed in 36 countries (Engel 1999: 39f) and paved the way for a broader international reception of Soviet cinema. Conversely, it is assumed that the success of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN abroad in turn changed its reception within the Soviet Union.

Even political opponents as for example the German minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, were enthused about the film. He even projected a “National Socialist Potemkin”. Sergej Eisenstein refused to accept this kind of praise and disassociated himself from the National Socialist system and cinema (Literaturnaja gazeta, 22.3. 1934).

At numerous screenings of the film abroad, people spontaneously jubilated and applauded. But it might also have had effects beyond the cinemas. According to Schlegel (1973: 199f), the film even motivated Indonesian sailors to revolt against their Dutch officers in 1933.

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN mobilised many new party supporters. At the World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958 the film was chosen all-time best by international reviewers. According to Soviet reviewers “the film made history in the course of revolutionary struggle”. The film is said to be not only an aesthetic, but above all a “social phenomenon” (Juktewitsch 1965: 360).

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is without any doubt one of the most important Soviet revolutionary films and had significant impact not only on Soviet cinematography. The film overcame the traditional composition of feature films, focused on a rhythmic, dynamic plot and directed the emotions of the audience by consequently using the montage technique.

by Karin Moser


Source Edition urrogat Production Introduction Censorship Regulations Battleship Potemkin Horror Films Conclusion Bibliography Local vs. central film assessment Potemkin abroad Russian films