No one who has taken a film class has avoided seeing Battleship Potemkin. The word "seminal" appears next to it on a regular basis. The film is now 85 years old. Why is it still so highly venerated and so frequently discussed? Let's put the parking brake on the baby carriage and investigate.
The praise: There were no Oscars to win yet when it was released, but at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time. It continues to rank high in lists of the "best," "greatest," and "most important" movies.
The context: Russia went through two revolutions in 1917. The one in February booted the Tsar-led aristocracy and put in a provisional government; eight months later, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik party took it a step further, leading a Marxist revolution that created the Soviet Union.
The new system of government changed many things about Russian society, including the film industry. Lenin recognized the potential of cinema as a means of expressing ideas and influencing people's beliefs and actions -- its potential as propaganda, in other words, though that term has a negative connotation. We take it for granted now that film has this power, but it wasn't so obvious then. Film was still a new and developing medium in the early 1920s, many of its uses still undiscovered. Nothing was in 3-D yet, for example, which we now realize is the very greatest thing that a movie can be.
The USSR's film industry was not entirely controlled by the government, but it was regulated by a government body: the People's Commissariat of Education (which should give you an idea of how Lenin viewed cinema). The commissar, Anatoli Lunacharsky, was a movie fan who'd dabbled in screenwriting himself, and he gave Russian filmmakers a lot of leeway.
One of these filmmakers was Sergei Eisenstein, a former engineering student who, in 1918, had left college to fight on Lenin's side in the Russian Civil War. (This was the fight, supported by Great Britain and the United States, to prevent Lenin's new Marxist government from staying in power. It didn't work.) Eisenstein, who'd had some success as a propagandist during the war, became a theater director and gradually moved into film. His first feature, Strike (1925), is about a labor uprising in 1903, before the Revolution. His next feature, released a few months later, was Battleship Potemkin, which also drew from real-life events.
In 1905, the crew of Russia's Potemkin had indeed revolted against the revolting conditions, not least of which was maggot-infested food and apathetic superior officers. Several officers ("the bad guys") were killed in the mutiny, as was one sailor ("the good guys"). A funeral for the sailor in the port city of Odessa turned into an anti-Tsarist demonstration, which turned into a fracas, even a brouhaha, when the Tsar's troops got violent.
All of this was part of what came to be known as the Russian Revolution of 1905. This mini-revolution yielded some changes, and it was seen by Lenin as a first step toward the larger revolutions of 1917. Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin coincided with the 20th anniversary of the real Potemkin uprising.
Eisenstein didn't set out to tell a story full of nuance and balance. He was making propaganda. (Remember, "propaganda" isn't inherently bad. It just means that the message is persuasive and one-sided. Commercials that warn young people of the dangers of smoking are "propaganda"; they're just seen as good propaganda.) Eisenstein wanted to remind Russians of the early triumphs that led to their recent successful revolution. He also wanted to establish, lest anyone forget, that the Tsarist regime was a corrupt one that needed to be overthrown.
And so Battleship Potemkin doesn't give most of its characters names, doesn't emphasize many individuals. Mostly it is one group (the sailors, the workers, the peasants) against another group (the officers, the elite). Historically, you could make a case for the revolutionaries being misguided and short-sighted, and the government being unfairly blamed. But you couldn't use anything in Battleship Potemkin to support that point of view. You can't watch this film and come away with any interpretation other than the one Eisenstein intended.
The movie: The movie, which is only about 70 minutes long, is divided into five simple chapters: the sailors protest, the mutiny takes place, the dead sailor is mourned in Odessa, the troops open fire on the demonstrators, and the government seeks reprisal against the mutinous Potemkin.
For all the talk of the movie's function as propaganda, it's interesting to note that it wasn't particularly effective in its homeland: Russian audiences didn't care for it. The average Russian probably wouldn't have found its story very inspiring, since conditions under the Soviets were worse than they'd been under the Tsar. But the film made money overseas, where audiences were curious about the new Soviet regime's beginnings.
While it wasn't much of a hit in Russia, the film was nonetheless recognized everywhere for its powerful potential. Its depiction of violence was far more graphic than was customary at the time. (One of the victims on the steps is a young boy, who gets shot and then trampled by soldiers. Even in 2010 you don't see something like that very often in movies.) It was banned in many countries, including England and France, because of the feelings of outrage and revolution that it inspired. You could go into Battleship Potemkin perfectly content and come out of it itching to fight The Man, whoever your local The Man might be. Or at least that was the fear. In 1933, no less an authority than Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, declared it "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema. Anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film." He apparently meant what he said, too: Battleship Potemkin was banned in Nazi Germany. It was even banned in the Soviet Union, after the rulers decided mutiny and rebellion were no longer positive things.
Rather than simply telling a story in a straightforward manner -- which, after all, could be done on a theater stage -- Eisenstein used editing to do things that only movies could do. For example, in one of the scenes where the crowd is being worked up into a frenzy, he frequently cuts to a shot of a man's hand clenching into a fist. We have no idea whose hand it is. We don't even know for certain that it belongs to one of the nameless people in the crowd. But we understand that this anonymous hand represents the mood of the crowd.
That style of editing, innovative at the time, is now commonplace. Look at The Godfather, where the scene of a baby's baptism is intercut with scenes of Mafia killings, symbolizing that Michael Corleone is being inducted into the family business. Or Apocalypse Now, where Col. Kurtz is slaughtered against images of a water buffalo being killed. In a lighter vein, there's The Music Man, where the small-town ladies are standing around gossiping, and we cut to a random shot of a bunch of clucking barnyard hens. Or think of that rat crossing the frame at the end of The Departed. That can all be traced back to the Soviet Montage theory and Eisenstein.
I like to think of film as a language. In the 1920s, the language was fairly new. Much of the vocabulary was still being invented. Even some of the grammar was still being codified. This innovative use of editing to produce a particular emotional response might be the movie equivalent of a "figure of speech." When you use a figure of speech, you're not being literal, but the audience understands what you mean. Moreover, the audience feels your meaning more deeply than they would have if you'd simply laid it out in literal terms. "I could eat a horse" conveys a more powerful message than "I'm very hungry." By the same token, Eisenstein's use of the clenching fist and other such symbols has more impact than merely telling us, "These people are angry now."
What to look for: Put aside any feelings you might have about Bolsheviks, Marxists, Lenin, or the Tsar. Pretend you're a blank slate, watching the movie with no preconceived notions. Do you not find it extremely effective as a blood-pumping, rabble-rousing, rah-rah piece of machinery? Are you not outraged by the government's appalling actions, even though you recognize how oversimplified the movie is? The specifics of the story don't mean much to an audience in 2010, but the method of storytelling is still remarkably effective.
What's the big deal: As propaganda goes, Battleship Potemkin wasn't particularly dangerous, at least not in its specifics. The political statement it makes -- that the Bolsheviks were right to overthrow the Tsar -- wasn't exactly controversial; besides, it had already happened. What's notable is that Eisenstein had a particular idea that he wanted to express. He sought to produce a certain kind of emotion in the audience (in this case outrage over past injustices and patriotism for the recent revolution). Is that any different from what most modern directors do? No, it is not. Popular filmmaking is all about evoking a response. You want the audience to feel excited, scared, puzzled, sad, or amused. As a viewer, you consider a movie to be "good" if it successfully produces the intended reaction. The better movies do it subtly, without being obvious about it, but all good movies do it. Eisenstein helped change the way movies are edited, and in the process helped change the way cinema is used to affect people.
Further reading: Roger Ebert's essay on the film does an excellent job of summarizing its strengths. In fact, you could probably skip this long thing I wrote and just read Ebert's thing.
Eric D. Snider (website) does not condone rebellion, except when it is popular.