A pram resting precariously on the top of a flight of steps, a desperate mother is trying to escape the riflemen marching towards her as hundreds of others flee. The soldiers raise their rifles towards the crowd and fire a volley of silent shots, dark black blood flows down the greys of the mothers outfit and the baby in its pram begins to plunge down the seemingly endless steps.
This is one of the most famous scenes in the history of cinema, The Steps of Odessa, and is so well known that despite it being entirely fictional it is talked about in such a matter of fact manner that it is almost treated as history. It has been almost entirely copied in films such as The Untouchables, inspired the painting of Sir Francis Bacon, revolutionised film editing and introduced the concept of montage to cinema. It is the seminal scene of Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, which was shown for the first time in America on December 5th 1926.
The film, which depicts the mutiny of the crew of the Battleship Potemkin against their Tsarist officers, was actually shown for the first time in Russia almost a year earlier on December 24th 1925, but it’s global release and impact is perhaps even more warranting of commemoration than its original premiere. Despite worldwide critical acclaim in regards to the quality of film making, Battleship Potemkin was dealt with incredibly carefully by foreign governments for fear that it would inspire Bolshevick sentiments, with the film being banned in Britain until 1954. This communist paranoia was particularly strong in Germany, where the delicate political climate meant that Potemkin was significantly edited before it could be shown. Ironically, one person who was heavily influenced and inspired by the film was Josef Goebbels, who would use the work of Eisenstein as a model for much of the Nazi propaganda machine he turned German cinema into.
Despite Potemkin’s success, Eisenstein was to run afoul of the Soviet regime after his next film, October, focused too much on camera angles and montage rather than the doctrines of socialist realism. The film was a success in the West however and with the Soviet film making community turning against him, he took the opportunity to travel through Europe and even take up a contract with Paramount to direct pictures in America. However these journeys were moderately successful at best and he eventually returned to Russia to direct Alexander Nevsky, which won him the Order of Lenin, and Ivan the Terrible Part I, another propaganda film that gained Stalin’s approval. However he would never see Part II released after it was criticised by authorities and not shown until 1958, eight years after Eisenstein died of a heart attack during the making of Part III, which was then confiscated with most of the footage destroyed.
As well as pioneering methods of film making, Eisenstein was one of the first to make governments realise how dangerous film could be. He was also a curious figure, considered dangerous by his home nation and never quite fitting in on his travels; one of the original greats of cinema who perhaps was never allowed the freedom to fulfil his true vision. So if you’re looking something to procrastinate on today, you might want to consider Battleship Potemkin.