When it launched fifteen years ago, the movie podcast Battleship Pretension took its name from two well-known sources: an attitude popularly associated with cinephiles, and a 1925 motion picture by Sergei Eisenstein. To some, merely referencing a silent film made by a Soviet auteur in 1925 constitutes sufficient evidence of pretension in and of itself. But most, even those who’ve never seen a frame of Eisenstein’s work, do recognize that Battleship Potemkin has an important place in cinema history — and if they actually watch the movie, which is embedded just above, they’ll find that it looks and feels more familiar than they’d expected.
Like any work of wide and deep influence, Battleship Potemkin has often been parodied over its nearly 100 years of existence. But none of its scenes has been paid as much homage, tongue in cheek or elsewhere, than the massacre on the Odessa Steps, the symbolic entryway to that city in what’s now Ukraine.
“Czarist troops march down a long flight of steps, firing on the citizens who flee before them in a terrified tide,” as Roger Ebert describes it. “Countless innocents are killed, and the massacre is summed up in the image of a woman shot dead trying to protect her baby in a carriage — which then bounces down the steps, out of control.”
The content of this sequence is as harrowing as its form is revolutionary. That’s true in the propagandistic sense, but even more so in the artistic one: the Odessa Steps massacre, like the whole of Battleship Potemkin, functions as a proof-of-concept for Eisenstein’s theories of montage. Today we take for granted — and in some cases have even come to resent — that movies so expertly juxtapose their images so as to provoke the most intense emotional response possible within us. That wasn’t so much the case a century ago, when most examples of the still-novel art form of cinema used their visuals simply to make their narratives legible.
Eisenstein, however, understood cinema’s true potential. He explored it in a range of pictures that also included Ten Days That Shook the World, a dramatization of the 1917 October Revolution; Alexander Nevsky, on the repulsion of invaders by the eponymous thirteenth-century prince; and the epic historical drama Ivan the Terrible, the story of the first tsar of all Russia (and idol of Stalin, who commissioned the project).
You can watch these films, as well as Eisenstein’s unfinished tribute to the Mexican Revolution ¡Que viva México!, free on the Youtube channel of Mosfilm, the preeminent studio in the Soviet era. That Eisenstein’s techniques have survived not just him but the Soviet Union itself underscores a truth he might have suspected, but never admitted: cinema is more powerful than politics.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.