Battleship Potemkin (Rus., Броненосец « Потёмкин », Bronyenosyets "Potyomkin") is a 1925 Soviet silent film, perhaps the most famous one directed by Sergei Eisenstein, who later directed Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. It was also his experiment to test the emotional power of montages, and history went on to prove its effectiveness.
In essence, it is a propaganda film that dramatizes the 1905 mutiny on the eponymous ship at the time of Tsarist Russia. Our brave heroes, tired of eating rotten meat, revolt against their superiors. The people of Odessa join them in launching a peaceful protest, which quickly turns violent.
Its best known sequence is one where a Baby Carriage rolls down the Odessa steps. It has been homaged and parodied numerous times since then.
Although most of the events in the movie are Based on a Great Big Lie, the film itself is considered a masterpiece of direction and cinematography, and is often ranked among the greatest films of all time. The "Odessa Steps" sequence has become one of the most famous Stock Shout Outs of all time.
This film provides examples of:
- As You Know: Vakulinchuk makes sure to say "We, the sailors of the battleship Potemkin" while trying to talk his sailor buddy into joining the revolution.
- Baby Carriage: The most famous use of one in cinema, and thus the Trope Maker. (Not the Ur-Example, though, as a baby carriage is used for comedy in slapstick film The Curtain Pole in 1909.)
- Based on a Great Big Lie:
- That massacre? Never happened. It was just made up so that the revolution would look more justified, though it still might have had some basis in facts — there were reports of demostrations being put down by troops on that day, so while the massacre as shown in the film most probably indeed never happened, this scene might be an exaggeration of some real event.note
- In the movie, when the Potemkin fired on Odessa, they destroy the Czarist headquarters. In reality, the two shells they fired both missed.
- The scene where some of the rebellious sailors are rounded up to be shot and a tarp is pulled over them did happen—but there was no tarp. Interestingly, one of the sailors who was in that group saw the film and, in praising it, said "I was under that tarp!" (even though there never was one). Chalk it up to the hypnotic effect of this film.
- Black-and-White Morality: Ordinary sailors and the rest of the oppressed masses are good; officers, Cossacks, priests, and the rest of the ruling class are evil. In the Potemkin mutiny, the white uniforms of the sailors are contrasted against the very dark uniforms of the officers. The ship's guardsmen also wear dark uniforms, but their sailors' caps symbolize their revolutionary potential, which they fulfill when they join the mutiny.
- Blade-of-Grass Cut: The film makes constant use of what Eisenstein called Associational Montage. Examples: A shot of an officer tapping the hilt of his sword is followed by a shot of a priest tapping his crucifix, to imply the connection between the Church and the oppressive tsarist government; an officer is dumped overboard and a shot of the water churning after he falls is compared to an earlier close-up of the maggot-ridden meat that let to the revolt; and the famous three successive shots of lion statues in progressive stages of standing up, symbolizing the people standing up against oppression.
- Blatant Lies: Smirnov, the ship's doctor, who inspects a hunk of meat full of crawling maggots and proclaims the maggots "dead fly larvae."
- Call-Back: Smirnov the doctor, who pronounced the maggoty meat acceptable, is chucked overboard. There's another shot of the worm-ridden slab of beef, and then a title that says "Feed the worms at the bottom!"
- Crapsack World: Odessa, and by extension all of Tsarist Russia, is depicted as a repressive state where the military are fed rotting meat, the regular people are starving, and anybody who complains is brutally murdered.
- Dastardly Whiplash: The officers of the Potemkin. The XO is literally twirling his mustache as he orders the sailors put under the tarp for execution.
- Disc-One Final Boss: At first the film focuses on the mutiny against the Potemkin's officers, lead by Captain Golikov. After they're all thrown overboard to drown a third of the way in, the Odessa police become the bigger threat.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Almost the entire crew was about to get executed for not liking the soup the ship served (or the meat being full of maggots). Or "killed for a plate of soup", as the rallying cry later in the film put it. The discipline on Imperial Navy ships was notoriously strict, and the ship's XO Ippolit Giliarovsky was well known as a Neidermeyer. The complaining crew would've most probably be court-martialed for insubordination at the very least. Ironically, the Red Navy carried on most of the old Czarist discipline methods.
- Due to the Dead: Vakulinchuk's body is laid out on the pier with a sign saying "For a spoonful of borscht." This is key to the second half of the movie as the wake triggers the protests in the city which in turn draw the soldiers' assault.
- Easy Evangelism: The protagonists manage to instantly turn legions of people to their side as soon as they begin to speak.
- Epic Movie: Despite being only 75 minutes long, it IS.
- Even The Rats Won't Touch It: The Russian sailors revolt over being served maggot-infested meat and declare, "Even a dog won't eat this!"
- Eye Scream: That screaming woman with broken glasses and blood running down her face. There's an eye, a scream and an eye scream altogether.
- Gorn: By 1925 standards, anyway. The Odessa Steps part of the film is very violent.
- Gross-Up Close-Up: The sailors' point about the nasty meat is proven with a close-up of a giant slab of beef, which reveals it's crawling with maggots.
- Kick the Dog: All of the tsarist massacre, but especially shooting an unarmed mother holding her dead son.
- Montages: Made Eisenstein famous. The most distinctive one shows quick shots of three stone lions in different poses (sleeping, raising its head, sitting up), making it seem like the lion statue has come awake.
- Mood Whiplash: The iconic Odessa Steps sequence starts with this. The people of the town are cheering and waving at the sailors on the boat and everyone's happy. Then a title card says "SUDDENLY" and everyone starts fleeing in terror. The next shot shows the soldiers in formation approaching the top of the steps.
- Mook–Face Turn: The mutineers manage to convince the government's battleships not only to not fire on them, but to join them in escaping Russia. Earlier, Vakulinchuk convinces the guardsmen to join the sailors in the mutiny rather than shoot them.
- The Mutiny: The sailors of the Potemkin rise up and take their ship.
- Nameless Narrative: Zig-zagged. The first half of the film has names, but only in passing, and all the named characters die in the uprising. The second half of the film is told entirely without names of any kind.
- The Neidermeyer: Ship's XO, Lieutenant Ippolit Giliarovsky, and particularly cocky and bullyish one. One of the aspects in this film where film corresponds well to reality.
- No Ending: Eisenstein doesn't tell us what eventually happened to the ship; it simply sails through the other ships of the Black Sea fleet as the sailors on those ships cheer (the tone is so triumphalist that it makes it look as though the Potemkin overthrew the government in Odessa and then triggered the Russian Revolution twelve years early). In Real Life the mutineers sailed to Romania and handed the ship over to the Romanian government.
- Obviously Evil: One of the characters even twirls his mustache.
- Odessa Steps: The original. A squadron of soldiers appear at the top of the steps firing on the people, marching down the steps in unison as the crowd flees in panic.
- Popcultural Osmosis: The baby carriage scene.
- Rage-Breaking Point: One of the sailors, having been given rotten food for the umpteenth time on a plate with the Lord's Prayer line "Give us this day our daily bread", throws the food and plate to the floor. This signals the start of the revolt.
- Repeat Cut: The Ur-Example and Trope Maker. Used several times, as when the sailors are being huddled up on the deck for execution, or when the mother on the Odessa steps reacts to being shot. In the scene where the sailors are being mustered on deck, the Repeat Cut highlights the seething tension that will soon erupt into mutiny.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: Duh.
- Sinister Minister: That Moses-looking guy on the ship is an exaggerated version of an Russian Orthodox priest and is meant to show how religion is used to support the status quo and reinforce authority. While the film didn't focus on it, an obligatory anti-religion comment would be unavoidable.
- Splash of Color: The Potemkin flew a red flag that was colored in frame by frame.
- Vehicle Title: It's a boat!
- Would Hurt a Child: One part of the Odessa Steps sequence shows a little boy shot in the back. His mother dashes on for a little bit before realizing he is not with her, then turning and looking in horror as the boy is trampled. The next shot is a closeup of a soldier's boot coming down on the boy's wrist.
- World Half Full: The film ends far more optimistically than its Real Life counterpart.