Have We All Boiled Battleship Potemkin’s Greatness Down to One Scene?

By  · Published on February 18th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they try to understand why Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin has slipped in popularity. Is it because it’s hard for Western audiences to get behind? Is it because countless homages have reduced it to its Odessa Steps sequence? Or does Peter Berg’s latest blockbusting disappointment have something to do with it?

Probably not that last one, huh?

Landon: So, a lot has changed since we last talked about the Sight and Sound list. You have a different name, the world did not end, the Harlem Shake is a thing. Luckily, I think change could be a good place to start with Battleship Potemkin, which was in the Top 10 until 2012. Why might it have been bumped up to 11?

Scott: Natural selection. It won’t be surprising if it continues to fall in future Sight & Sound polls.

Landon: Why Potemkin in particular though? Is its star falling down the Odessa Steps?

Scott: It’s a matter of the watchability. The movies ahead of it are culturally and historically significant, and they have the added benefit of being entertaining even if they’re firmly products of their own time.

You have to be a … different … sort of personality to toss Potemkin into the DVD player after popping up some popcorn. I’ve done the chore or crossing it off the list of shame, but I’d wager that its legacy is in living on through imitation and homage.

Landon: That’s a good point: that its aesthetic contribution and historical significance can only get it so far. It’s not a timeless film, and it stays relevant only by assertions within filmmaking of Eisenstein’s relevance.

Scott: Such that, even among cinephiles, it’s losing ground to films that are more complete packages.

Landon: Also, Man With the Movie Camera, which is less overtly political, seems to have stolen its thunder a bit.

Scott: A situation that I cannot rationally explain. Man with a Movie Camera makes Battleship Potemkin look like Battleship when it comes to a digestible entertaining level.

I don’t know if that’s good or not.

Landon: I’m trying to figure out where Rihanna is in that analogy.

Scott: She plays the young sailor who gets beaten for sleeping and looking too thuggish.

Landon: That makes sense. She seemed very prole to me.

Scott: Exactly.

Landon: One of the problems with Potemkin’s reception seems to be the fact that the film as a whole is reduced to only the Odessa Steps sequence (which is still pretty amazing). But what are we missing when we reduce the movie to that?

Scott: Undoubtedly a larger picture about what the movie really represented as an artistic and political message. The Steps sequence certainly illustrates that, but it isn’t the complete painting.

Landon: Definitely, it’s a bit strange that such a politically polemic film has been etched down to the way one sequence looks. But I think there are a few reasons why that scene is more palatable to American critics.

Scott: Hit me.

Landon: One is that it has the film’s closest semblance of a singular protagonist with the woman who carries her child up to the Tsar’s soliders, close-ups and all. Throughout the rest of the film, there are clear protagonists and antagonists, but you don’t follow the development of characters.

Scott: Right. They’re all hidden under, let’s say, a giant white sail of vagueness.

Landon: And because if you’re a Communist filmmaker, you probably don’t want to make movies about the exceptional individual.

Scott: Ah, yes. That too.

Landon: This is what a “Superman: Red Son” movie would look like, Scott, with Superman occasionally placed somewhere in the background.

Scott: If only Potemkin were made in the United States. It would have been Guns of Navarone 36 years before Guns of Navarone.

Or it would have been the same because we value the triumph of the community in America too.

Landon: Good point. I wonder if Eisenstein liked the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Scott: Haha. No matter what, Potemkin would have lost to Robin Hood at the box office.

Landon: And another reason for the positive American response to the Odessa Steps sequence is that it’s hardly the most radical example of Eisenstein’s idea of montage. There’s definitely an energy to it from this collision form of montage, but there’s still basic continuity: the arc of an event occurs.

Scott: But there’s something to your theory that the visuals themselves overshadow the rest of the movie. Even if the one outstanding sequence hadn’t made the other segments fade a bit, the impact it had on filmmakers definitely drove them further into the background.

In fact, not to be unfair to Potemkin, but I wonder if we’d remember this movie half so well (or celebrate it so much) if it weren’t for Scorsese, De Palma and even artists like Francis Bacon keeping its ghost alive.

Landon: Or if it’d be dismissed as propaganda. It’s a film that’s hard to access for American audiences not only because of its editing style, but because of the history it depicts. So I agree, its aesthetic contribution to cinema is what keeps it relevant in critical circles. Few film sequences have a clear lineage with later filmmakers.

Scott: And what an aesthetic contribution it is. Nothing wrong with filming something ingenius and letting that earn the praise for the rest of the film.

Landon: True, but it also feels a bit selective to me, which is why I think Potemkin keeps coming up as the representative Eisenstein film. The ending sequence in a movie like Strike, where images of slaughtered cattle are juxtaposed with dying soldiers, is a clearer example of what Eisenstein was trying to do at this time. But this sequence breaks spatial and temporal continuity. I can’t see where something like that would fit in The Untouchables.

Scott: Probably in a sequence where bullets are mowing people and livestock down with equal intensity. Still, what you’re talking about is exactly why it’s so encouraging that so many filmmakers have paid tribute to (and spoofed) the Odessa Steps. We should be thankful that those cinematic signposts will point back toward Potemkin. Every year, people discover Eisenstein after discovering The Untouchables because of Naked Gun 33 1/3.

Landon: So you’re saying we failed our cinematic duty by not going to see the Peter Berg version.

Scott: There’s a lot to love about it (even if the whole movie is not particularly re-watchable), and we only have to start screaming like snobs when a future generation inevitably starts recognizing a new crop of homages as “referencing the Steps Sequence in The Untouchables.”

Plus, I saw the Berg version. He’s no Eisenstein.

Landon: Nobody is.

Scott: Well, let me ask you this then: what would be the best possible legacy for Potemkin? What should it’s legacy be in an ideal world?

Landon: I’m as glad as you that these references keep pointing back to this film. But I’d like to see the S&S list shake things up a little bit by challenging the value of Potemkin against Eisenstein’s other montage films, like October (which is really out there) or his very, very different sound films, like Ivan the Terrible. That could revamp a discussion of his politics in tandem with his aesthetics, and would show that Eisenstein was hardly a one-trick montage pony.

The Odessa Steps should stay relevant as long as they are. But if that were to go away, I don’t think Eisenstein’s (maybe less direct) influence elsewhere should as well.

Scott: Agreed. We should start a meme or a White House petition or something.

Landon: And it all starts with this image.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.