The Odessa Steps 1905, 1925, 2022

The best film you've probably never seen comes from 1925 and has never been more relevant than today. In 1905, Russian sailors mutinied on a battleship because of their deplorable living conditions under the officers of Czar Nicholas II. After being forced to eat rotten meat they took over the ship and threw the Russian Czar's officers overboard.


An image of a battleship from Revolutions in Russia
The opening image of Revolution in Russia

In that same year, filmmakers created a reenactment of the events that took place on the battleship Potemkin. The 1905 film Revolution in Russia looks to us like a filmed stage play. Replete with miniatures and painted sets the filmmakers essentially made a narrative newsreel to tell the tale. It is a fateful story which I'm sure was gripping to audiences of the nascent movie houses of its day. If we flash-forward 19 years we would find a new film maker expressing a completely new film language retelling this story. Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by Stalin to reinforce the Soviet vision and remind Russians of the tyrannical days under the Czar. Eisenstein started planning a multi-episode film of at least 8 vignettes of the Communist Revolution. But, with a shrinking schedule and small budget he settled on telling one story in five chapters. His 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin has been considered one of the finest films ever created. And while the whole film is a technical marvel of its time, one chapter of the story in particular shows a whole new film language that still speaks to us until the present day.


In my introduction to media studies classes I screen this segment and explain the theoretical basis of, so-called, “Soviet montage”. With this technique, viewers make some pretty big assumptions about the actions they are seeing on screen. The sequence of cuts gives meaning to the actions and intentions in the viewers mind. Often in this montage approach, students, when asked, say they saw an action they did not. Many actions are inferred but not shown. This ‘suturing’ phenomenon is the core of the technique. Meaning is created within the viewer's brain from the juxtaposition of visuals.

A still from George Méliès' A Trip to the Moon
George Méliès' A Trip to the Moon

Before running this film, I always start with the 1905 version. Students in the class are familiar with George Méliès’ fantastical short films like Trip to the Moon and the Lumière Brothers' actualities. So when they watch Revolution in Russia, I think they are mildly amused by the film's archaic special effects, gratuitous use of forced perspective and obvious ‘dummies’ being thrown overboard.


But something radical, electrifying, and even- terrible hits the screen when the 1925 version of the story flickers to life. The immediate difference between the films is the use of locations. This highly influential scene takes place on the steps of the port in Odessa, Ukraine. It is a historically inaccurate location, but it serves as an iconic backdrop for this remarkable piece of cinema history.


The chapter opens with the citizens of Odessa eagerly greeting the mutinous ship with supplies. Interestingly, there is no single “star” in this film. In keeping with the Communist ideology, the characters come from all backgrounds and essentially share the spotlight to move the story forward. Eisenstein would cast actors based on their appearances and did not usually hire stars for his films.


This being a silent film, the festive mood is broken by an inter-title with the bold text quote “Suddenly!” And so begins Eisenstein’s cinematic tour de force.

With the repeated snap of a woman's head the violence begins for the people gathered at the steps. This peculiar technique breaks cinematic time and pushes the film in a completely new expressionistic direction. The film is no longer representing reality- it represents the feeling of reality.


Men and women sprint down the stairs in Battleship Potemkin
The infamous stair sequence from Battleship Potemkin

Eisenstein was tasked to create a film that reminded Russians in 1925 of the horrors of living under the Czar. So, as bad as it was to be in Russia in 1925 under Stalin, the point of the film was to show that it was once much worse.


The music for this film was written specifically for it and that synchronization lends even more power to the narrative. The film has been called the first music video for good reason. Its montage technique and pounding and thrilling music has been referenced in films like The Untouchables and even an episode of The Simpsons.

A woman holding an injured child confronts the soldiers
Still from Battleship Potemkin

Reactions to this film from the students have ranged from sorrow and horror, to rage. They may not initially know what Cossacks are, but by the end of this segment of the film they do hate them.


Presidents, by my estimation, are elected and accountable to their people. Playing out in our reality today, near those same steps, Russian forces of the new “Czar”, the unaccountable and tyrannical Vladimir Putin, threaten and mow down civilians in 2022.


The Communist ideologies of unity and egalitarianism long abandoned, the new reign of terror that comes marching down on the Ukrainian people is all too familiar callback to Russia's imperialist and cinematic past. The latest remake of this continuing story is like a cinema vérité montage broken into hundreds of news clips and vertical actualities we now call tiktoks. I’m hoping for a happy ending with the dummies again being thrown overboard and peace returning to the Ukrainian people.

 

Clinical instructor Gregory Golda has been teaching at Sacred heart University since 1999. His master's degree in art education from Penn State and another in broadcast journalism from Sacred heart University. He teaches history theory classes as well as production. He is the owner and designer of Construkt Media Studios, a multimedia production company specializing in audio and video production as well as graphic web and theater design. He is also a husband, dad, musician, producer, sculptor and dog lover.

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