Cinema and Media Studies The Battleship Potemkin
by
Dušan Radunović
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0332

Introduction

The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potёmkin) is Sergei Eisenstein’s second feature film. Produced in 1925 and premiered in January 1926, the film was a watershed moment in the history of Russian and Soviet cinema. In addition, in its home context, Potemkin has asserted that experimental montage is the dominant mode of cinematic storytelling in the Soviet 1920s. Likewise, Potemkin asserted, more vociferously than any other early Soviet film, a specific type of relationship between film/art and state ideology. In the international arena, the worldwide success of the film put the Russian and Soviet cinema on a map for the first time. The triumph of Potemkin announced the advent of the short-lived golden age of early Soviet filmmaking style, hallmarked by the aesthetics of short cuts and fast editing that aimed to challenge the viewers’ perception of the world and posit a revolutionary message. Thematically, the film is set around a historical event, the mutiny on the Imperial Navy armored cruiser Prince Potemkin of Tauris, which took place in June 1905. The events are dramaturgically organized in five parts, emulating, as Eisenstein later recalled, the structure of a classical tragedy (see Eisenstein 2010, cited under Typage Acting). These parts were titled as follows: “Men and Maggots” (Liudi i chervi); “Drama on the Quarter-Deck” (Drama na Tendre); “Appeal from the Dead” (Mertvyi vzyvaet); “Odessa Steps” (Odesskaia lestnitsa); and “Meeting the Squadron” (Vstrecha s eskadroi). Each of the parts is endowed with dramatic function and facilitates a transition to a different mood. The events in Part 1 gradually build narrative tension toward a culmination point in Part 2, and, similarly, the events in Part 3 set the scene for the culmination in Part 4, with Part 5 functioning as an epilogue. A believer in traditional aesthetics and concepts such as organicist whole or golden ratio, Eisenstein argued that dramaturgy of the moving image, facilitated through conflicting montage sequences, can deliver the task of revolutionary art, bringing the viewer into a desired psycho-emotional state that would make one susceptible to the right ideological messages. For all these reasons, the apprehension of Potemkin requires the researcher to acknowledge a number of aspects of the film. Given that Potemkin is a historical film par excellence, the relationship between the fictional narrative, historical period under consideration, and historical time of the making of the film ought to be given due attention. In addition, the production history of Potemkin also matters, as it tells much about the position of the film in the nascent Soviet cinematic “dispositive.” Last, but certainly not least, Potemkin is an artistic tour de force that deploys complex cinematic devices, the understanding of which will be a demanding task as well.

Versions of The Battleship Potemkin

The status of The Battleship Potemkin as a film-text is everything but stable and fixed, and, as rightly pointed out in Taylor 2000, there is hardly an unquestionably authentic copy of the film in existence today. There are a couple of things that should be taken into consideration in this regard. First of all, Eisenstein himself either supervised or approved not one but two cuts of the film. Then, as early as 1926, the only existing negative of Potemkin was sold to the film’s German distributor, after which neither Eisenstein nor the Soviet state film monopoly Goskino had any control over the dissemination of the film. Posthumously, the film was officially re-edited twice in the Soviet Union, to be finally restored and brought back to its initial, or “original,” December 1925 condition, in 2005 in Germany. While most of these amendments were unquestionably made to meet ideological or censorial agendas, the all too easy and neglectful treatment of one of the world’s cinematic masterpieces should be viewed against the background of a different status of the moving image and film authorship at and around the time of the making of Eisenstein’s film. As Radunović 2017 argues, in the 1920s, cinema was only gaining recognition as a proper art form, and the concept of authorship was also only beginning to take root, which, together with the mechanical reproducibility of the moving image and its potentially endless openness to interventions through editing, contributed to an understanding of cinema that is different from ours today.

  • Radunović, Dušan. “The Shifting Protocols of the Visible: The Becoming of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin.” Film History: An International Journal 29.2 (Summer 2017): 66–90.

    DOI: 10.2979/filmhistory.29.2.03E-mail Citation »

    The article problematizes the open-ended history of editing and re-editing of the film by drawing on the work of film archivist Paulo Cherchi Usai to propose that film as an art form exists as a “multiple object,” a medium without stable authorship, which is mediated by numerous aspects of the film process, editing, re-editing, or even projection.

  • Taylor, Richard. The Battleship Potemkin. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780755699032E-mail Citation »

    Relying on original sources, which range from Eisenstein’s archive held in The Russian State Archive of Arts and Humanities (RGALI), to Kleiman and Levina 1969 (cited under Production History), Rostovtsev 1962 (cited under Potemkin and History), and Iurenev 1985 (under Montage/Montage of Attractions), Taylor’s account of the production of the film (on pages 1–13) is succinct yet reliable. Taylor’s reconstructing of the history of the making of Potemkin contains some lacunae, but is unquestionably a scholar’s first port of call.

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