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
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 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 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. As part of the celebrations, it was suggested that 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
Eisenstein hired many non-professional actors for the film; he sought people of specific types instead of famous stars.
Shooting began on 31 March 1925. Eisenstein began 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. Eisenstein decided to give up the original script consisting of eight episodes, to focus on just one, the uprising on the battleship Potemkin
, which involved just a few pages (41 frames) from Agadzhanova 's script. Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov
essentially recycled and extended the script.
In addition, during the progress of making the film, some episodes were added that had existed neither in Agadzhanova's script nor in Eisenstein's scenic sketches, such as the storm scene with which the film begins. As a result, the content of the film was far removed from Agadzhanova's original script.
The film was shot in Odessa
, at that time a center of film production where it was possible to find a suitable warship for shooting.
The first screening of the film took place on 21 December 1925 at a ceremonial meeting dedicated to the anniversary of the 1905 revolution at the Bolshoi Theatre
The premiere was held in Moscow on 18 January 1926, in the 1st Goskinoteatre (now called the Khudozhestvenny
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, including the music by Edmund Meisel
The battleship Kniaz Potemkin Tarritcheski
, later renamed Panteleimon
and then Boretz Za Svobodu
, was derelict and in the process of 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 that of 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 water until 1930. Interior scenes were filmed on the cruiser Komintern
. Stock footage of Potemkin
-class ships was used to show her at sea, and stock footage of the French fleet depicted the waiting Russian Black Sea fleet. Anachronistic footage of triple-gun-turret Russian dreadnoughts
was also included.
In the film, the rebels raise a red flag on the battleship, but the orthochromatic
black-and-white film stock of the period made the color red look black, so a white flag was used instead. Eisenstein hand-tinted the flag in red in 108 frames 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 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 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 the United States and France for a time, as well as in its native Soviet Union. The film was banned in the United Kingdom longer than was 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."
"Odessa Steps" sequence
The boots of the soldiers shown marching down the Odessa Steps.
A baby in a carriage falling down the Odessa Steps.
A wide shot of the massacre on the Odessa Steps.
Treatment in other works of art
British painter Francis Bacon
called this Battleship Potemkin
image a "catalyst" for his work.
Russian-born American photographer Alexey Titarenko
paid tribute to the Odessa Steps shot in his series City Of Shadows
(St. Petersburg, 1991)
The scene is perhaps the best example of Eisenstein's theory on montage, and many films pay homage to the scene, including
Several films spoof it, including
Non-film shows that parody the scene include
- a 1996 episode of the American adult animated sitcom, Duckman, entitled The Longest Weekend;
- and a 2014 episode of "Rake (Australian TV series)" (see, Season 3, Episode 5, 37 minutes in).
Artists and others influenced by the work include
- The Irish-born painter Francis Bacon (1909–1992). Eisenstein's images profoundly influenced Bacon, particularly the Odessa Steps shot of the nurse's broken glasses and open-mouthed scream. The open mouth image appeared first in Bacon's 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.
- The 2011 October Revolution parade in Moscow featured a homage to the film.
Distribution, censorship and restoration
Another poster of Battleship Potemkin
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 [ru]
. 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.
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.
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
, 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
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.
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
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."
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- Bryher (1922). Film Problems Of Soviet Russia. Riant Chateau TERRITET Switzerland.
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