Here we are in 2017, just a short eight years away from the 100-year mark since Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was released. Credited with revolutionizing the art and craft of filmmaking through its utilization of montage and special effects, this movie also forms an essential foundation for the use of film for propaganda.
The film indeed remains influential today, not only for its innovative techniques, but also for its model as a clear example of persuasive methods. In fact, Battleship Potemkin was banned in several countries, including the UK, out of concern that it would motivate potential rebellion.
Hollywood pays homage to Eisenstein’s work
Unfortunately, for all his brilliance in filmmaking, Eisenstein has only eight complete films to show for it. However, Battleship Potemkin is an enduring legacy, having influenced Hollywood and its directors who have continued to pay homage over the years. In 1926, David O Selznick, then an MGM associate producer, wrote to one of his executives:
It was my privilege a few months ago to be present at two private screenings of what is unquestionably one of the greatest of motion pictures ever made, The Armoured Cruiser Potemkin . . . the film is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen. . . . The film has no characters in an individual sense; it has not one studio set; yet it is gripping beyond words – its vivid and realistic reproduction of a bit of history being far more interesting than any film of fiction. . . . Notable, incidentally, are its types and their lack of make-up, and the exquisite pieces of photography.
The following examples show Eisenstein’s influence in Hollywood movies:
- Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) – a small girl is singled out in red as she tries to escape the Nazis. This is a nod to Eisensten’s hand tinting frame-by-frame on the Battleship Potemkin flag, a revolutionary red.
- Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) – This movie copies the famous “Odessa Steps Sequence.”
- Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) – This movie pays homage to Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock.
- Peter Segal’s Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994) – This is a parody of The Untouchables.
- George Lucas’s Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith (2005).
- George Ratcliff’s Joshua (2007) – another imitation of the Odessa Steps.
The Odessa Steps Sequence is one of the most famous sequences in movie history. By watching only a couple of minutes of the following video, entitled The Odessa Steps and its descendants Redux, you can see how others have extended the sequence to various contexts (Barthesian, 2011).
Eisenstein’s early history
Sergei Eisenstein was born into a well-educated family in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. His formative years were influenced by contrasting forces—his tyrannical father and the swirling roar of revolution. However, Eisenstein said that without his rebellion against his father, he would have simply molded himself after him and become a civil engineer (Chen, 1998).
The reason why I came to support the social protest had little to do with the real miseries of social injustice, or material privations, or the zigzag of the struggle for life, but directly and completely from what is surely the prototype of every social tyranny—the father’s despotism in a family, which is also a survival of the basic despotism of the head of the ‘tribe’ in every primitive society.
The revolution gave me the most precious thing in life—it made an artist of me. If it had not been for the revolution, I would never have broken the tradition handed down from father to son of becoming an engineer . . . The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution.
The Russian Revolution thus provided Eisenstein an outlet for escaping the confines of tradition and acting upon the desire to make his own path. Eisenstein’s mother had enriched her son’s childhood with books, excursions to theater, a camera, and a trip to Paris when he was 9 or 10 years old. This nurturing love and encouragement combined with healthy exposure to the arts set him up with the confidence to develop his own creativity.
Eisenstein was driven as an artist
As a result of his mother’s touch, Eisenstein was driven as an artist. He was well read, and drew inspiration from a wide variety of sources of creative genius, from Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Goethe, and even Haiku poetry. Yet, his father’s engineering background also left a mark on the boy who grew up believing that science had a place in advancing the arts. Eisenstein is responsible for creating cinematic art with the eye of a painter and the mind of an engineer. (His own engineering training was limited to a short time as a student in the Russian Institution of Civil Engineering, which was interrupted by the 1917 Rebellion.)
Eisenstein’s young adulthood involved working in various jobs: in the Petrograd militia, as an engineer in the Red Army dining car, and as a decorator for the train leaving the front for Siberia. Aware that he was in the midst of an important and historic movement, he also earned his livelihood as a cartoonist for the Petersburgskaya Gazette, which gave him crucial experience as a propagandist.
Battleship Potemkin documents the event that rocked Tsar Nicholas II’s regime and instigated the 1905 Russian revolution (Hough, 1960). In the movie, the ship itself is a microcosm of Russian society; the officers, doctors, and priest represent the ruling class of Russia, while the sailors are the Bolsheviks who rose out of the working class. The throng of townspeople who came out to mourn Vakulenchuk are seen pulling down an obviously upper-class man who yells, “Death to the Jews.” That scene intends to show audiences that without exception the Bolsheviks want everybody to respond to their cause, but without considering that once they gain power, Jews will not have the freedom to practice their religion.
Though Eisenstein’s movie making was well-admired by Charlie Chaplin and other Hollywood notables of the early 20th century, Stalin proved to be his one big and sharp thorn. Multiple attempts to make movies in America concluded with a mandatory return to Russia to assuage Stalin’s fear of his eventual defection. Back in his homeland, he found conditions under the Communists incompatible with creativity. With individual ideas and unique expression of art suppressed by Stalin, in 1946 Eisenstein suffered a nervous breakdown and a subsequent heart attack. The “Father of Cinema Theory” died a lonely death in 1948 in a country that did not recognize his brilliance. It is up to us to carry his torch.
Barthesian. (2011, Jul 3). The Odessa steps and its descendants redux. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-HSntXuGYI
Baseline Encyclopedia of Film. (1998, Jul). Sergei Eisenstein Biography. Retrieved from Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, https://www.carleton.edu/curricular/MEDA/classes/media110/Severson/bio.htm
Chen, A. (1998, Jul). In Perspective: Sergei Eisenstein: A Review of the special centenary edition of the Eisenstein Collection. International Socialism, 79 (Summer 1998). Retrieved from https://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj79/chen.htm
Coppola, F. (Director). (1972). The Godfather [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount.
De Palma, B. (Director). (1987). The Untouchables [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount.
Eisenstein, S. (Director). (1925). Battleship Potemkin [Motion Picture]. Soviet Union: Goskino.
Hough, R. (1960). The Potemkin Mutiny. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd.
Lucas, G. (Director). (2005). Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith [Motion Picture]. USA: Lucasfilm.
Ratcliff, G. (Director). (2007). Joshua [Motion Picture]. USA: ATO Pictures.
Segal, P. (Director). (1994). Naked Gun 33 1/3 [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount.
Spielberg, S. (Director). (1993). Schindler’s List [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal.