Connor McIlveen and Hisham Temmar
A cinematic masterpiece or simply Russian propaganda?
- Who: Sergei Eisenstein (Director)
- What: Battleship Potemkin / Броненосец Потёмкин (Film)
- When: 1925
- Where: Russia and other parts of the world
- Why: Possible Russian propaganda
Heralded as the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, yet simultaneously serving as one of the most censored films in history, Battleship Potemkin tells the dramatic story of a mutiny on the high seas and the rise of the common man against the elite. Through Sergei Eisenstein’s unique style of cinematography, a style that would, in turn, influence major blockbuster hits such as George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, the film revolutionized the way movies are made today. But its communist message would pose a real barrier, causing it to be censored and re-edited in many countries.
Released in 1925, Battleship Potemkin is a Soviet film released in 1925, directed by Sergei Eisenstein and produced by Jacob Bliokh. Filmed entirely in Soviet Russia, the piece dramatizes the story of the 1905 mutiny of the Battleship Potemkin, a tsarist warship, by the crewmen of the ship. The movie glorifies the communist ideology and the concept of a proletariat revolution, serving as an extremely effective piece of pro-Bolshevik propaganda. In an interview with Daniel Biltereyst, Professor in Media and Communication Studies at Ghent University, Belgium, Biltereyst praised the film for its “inherent aesthetic, technical, and propagandistic qualities.” By directing Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein revolutionized cinema, and his emphasis on montage would forever change how films are made. Governments became fearful, wary of the influence that such a film could have on their people, and in an effort to prevent the spread of Communist ideals, Battleship Potemkin was censored in many countries around the globe, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United States, and Germany.
The film uses a five-act structure to recount the mutiny of the Potemkin. The first act, “Men and Maggots,” introduces the crew of the ship. Their class can easily be denoted by their uniform, with the officers and elites in black and lesser crewmen in white. In this act, the crewmen are served soup made from maggot-ridden meat. A heated argument with some of the upper officers ensues, caused by many refusing to eat the soup, and results in a small outburst on deck that riles the crew. The officers respond to the situation in “Drama on the Deck.” One of the higher officers separates those who ate their soup from those that did not, and he assembles a firing squad. The dissenting crew members are covered in a tarp, and the firing squad takes aim, but when given the command, Vakulinchuk, one of the lesser sailors sitting behind the firing squad, stands up and exclaims “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?!” Conflicted, the firing squad then backs down and thus the uprising begins. The end of the second act and the entirety of the third, titled “A Dead Man Calls for Justice,” recount the battle that ensues and as well as its aftermath. Vakulinchuk quickly becomes the leader of the uprising but is ultimately killed during the skirmish. His body is then left on display in a tent in the port city of Odessa, with a sign laid across him that reads, “Killed for a plate of soup.” The people of Odessa begin to take notice, and Vakulinchuk becomes the inspiration for the people to take action. The fourth act, “The Odessa Steps,” considered by many, such as Professor Biltereyst, as the most important act of film, displays a graphic portrayal of the slaughter of the unarmed people of Odessa by the military. The battleship responds by firing on a military base. The fifth act, “Meeting the Squadron,” pits the single battleship against an armada of tsarist ships. The battle appears to be one sided as the Potemkin is completely outnumbered and outgunned, but as it approaches the fleet of ships, none open fire, all having laid down their arms in support of the anti-tsarist cause.
While this dramatic tale of patriotic valor and love for one’s country is presently thought of as a game-changing film, Battleship Potemkin spent many years on the chopping block of many nations’ censors. While Eisenstein originally envisioned the film as a celebratory piece on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, some believed that film was “pro-Revolutionary” and intended to be “Bolshevist Propaganda” (BBFC), and as such, it was a threat to the democratic societies of the West. The film was so terrifying to censors because it glorified the concept of a Proletariat Revolution, and displayed the Russian political system as something to be admired, a product of a proud people. This positive view of both Russia and Marxist concepts could easily be taken as propaganda. In some instances, the film even sparked the creation of stricter censorship boards and amended laws, as protection against political controversy was not something that censorship boards had dealt with in the past.
Because Battleship Potemkin was censored in a multitude of countries, the film has undergone multiple re-releases and re-edits, causing the status of the film to be a complex one. Some of these re-releases have reinforced censored versions of the film, and others have attempted to show it in its most complete form. The 1976 reconstruction, for example, “contained fewer shots” (James Steffen), but ran longer than versions like the 2005 reconstruction, which had more shots, but was still shorter. There has even been a German “‘talkie’ version” (Biltereyst). These various reconstructions and re-edits of the movie have each re-adapted the movie and changed the way the viewer experiences the film. Thus, the film has become a story to be re-lived in a variety of different ways.
The film’s creator, Sergei Eisenstein, became infamous in the eyes of the censors, both in-house and abroad. Throughout his career as a filmmaker, several of his major films were censored in some form. Battleship Potemkin, along with four of his subsequent films, Oktiabr’ (October/Ten Days That Shook the World), Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New), Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow) and Ivan Gronznyi 2: Boyarskii zagovor (Ivan the Terrible, part 2: The Boyars’ Plot) all flopped, mainly due to the will of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Stalin was pivotal in the success or failure of Eisenstein’s work in Soviet Russia, and had a tendency to look down upon materials that did not specifically attest to his glory. Stalin and Eisenstein would continue to have an odd relationship in the years to come. Eisenstein would go on to win several awards from the dictator and be handpicked for Stalin’s personal film projects (Ivan Groznyi; Aleksandr Nevskii), but his other works were often criticized, rewritten, and condemned (Roberts 730).
The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to censor the movie. As early as 1926, it was censored “on the grounds that films should not address issues of ‘political controversy’” (BBFC). When resubmitted for local screenings, it was again censored “officially because of its violence,” (BBFC) but in fact censored because of political motives. In 1954, the movie was again reviewed by the British Board of Film Classifications, and due to Stalin’s death in 1954 and the fact that it was a silent film, it was believed that the influential effect it may have had in 1925 might not be as powerful in a new age. However, the uncut version of the film was still classified as X until 1987, when it was rated PG for a “limited cinema re-release… and [was] now acknowledged as a classic” (BBFC). At this point, the fear of communist influence had been reduced to a low-priority issue, and only four years later, in 1991, the world would witness the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Some countries did not initially censor Battleship Potemkin but later caved to pressure emanating from more conservative local constituents. In the Netherlands, for example, the film was initially released. Soon, however, there was severe pushback from “several powerful exhibitors and local administrations,” and they could not keep the film from “becoming a public event in cities such as Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam” (Biltereyst 7). However, many smaller cities boycotted or simply banned screenings of the film altogether. While the work was never completely censored in the Netherlands, it caused the Dutch government to create a “central film censoring committee” (Biltereyst 7), that eventually age restricted the movie to 18+.
In regard to media laws, Belgium has been, and remains, very liberal; indeed, censorship is constitutionally forbidden. However, Battleship Potemkin has been considered “a special case,” (Biltereyst) due to the threats that cinemas received from right-wing organizations. These groups threatened to destroy cinemas that screened the film and had “already attacked art exhibitions of Soviet art in Brussels,” so many mayors from cities like Brussels and Antwerp forbid the film from being screened in their cities due to the “threat of public disorder” (Biltereyst). While many Belgians still appreciated the film for its production quality, even groups like the socialist party of Belgium would only analyze the film from an artistic standpoint, and only those on the far-left supported the themes promoted by the piece.
Battleship Potemkin first premiered in France (where it is known as Le Cuirassé Potemkine) on November 13, 1926 at Léon Moussinac’s Parisian Ciné-Club de France. However, much like in England, French censors descended upon the movie very soon after its release. In Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, Graham Roberts even goes so far as to state that “the French customs authorities burned every copy upon arrival” (729) in reaction to the strict protocol against the importation of Soviet film’s into the country. The reasoning behind this act of censorship was expressed by the French central censorship commission, which stated that it banned the film simply because it “endangers the ideas of the Nation” (Douin). Moreover, the head of the national security police saw all Soviet films as dangerous propaganda and many subsequent films were banned over the years. It was not until 1953 that Battleship Potemkin was taken off of France’s banned films list.
According to film historian Bruce Bennett whose liner notes accompanied the film’s re-release in 2010, the film of Battleship Potemkin was brought to the United States personally by renowned actor Douglas Fairbanks to be screened in private venues across the country (Andrew O’Hehir). The majority of the country found no issue in screening the movie. However, author Tom Dewe Mathews recounts a unique case in his book Censored, in which the state of Pennsylvania banned the film because it gave “American sailors a blueprint as to how to conduct mutiny,” a very unusual reason for banning the film.
The film’s largest success may have been in Germany, but even there it did not escape the censors unscathed. After a brief delay, the film opened in April 29, 1926 and quickly became a crowd favorite. It spread like wildfire throughout the country, with Berlin spearheading the movement. In fact, Germany would play a key role in the further distribution of the film. Berlin-based film distributor, Prometheus, was pivotal in getting the film across neighboring countries borders. However, not all Germans shared the same sentiments toward Battleship Potemkin. A letter from the Ambassador of Berlin, Robert Everts, addressed to the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emile Vandervelde, mentioned that several states had placed restrictions on the film because it could be “an instrument of Bolshevik propaganda, which could put into danger public order” (Biltereyst 9).
The reasons for which Battleship Potemkin was censored and its path to “enter[ing] the cinephile canon” (Biltereyst) is complex. While it is fairly easy to find out why the film was officially censored, any underlying ideological reasons for censorship can be harder to find, and are often extrapolated from other information. For example, the censorship of Battleship Potemkin is reflective of a much larger issue that spanned much of the 20th century. In the U.S., anti-Soviet sentiments went under many names throughout the 1900’s, culminating in the Red Scare and the Cold War. The fear of Soviet influence on the populace was enough for even the most democratic of nations to censor any work that might be considered Soviet propaganda, no matter how formally revolutionary the cinematic material may have been. Films and other creative works such as Battleship Potemkin were the victims of this war of ideologies.
Yet because of the film’s particular cinematic achievements, it has been remembered. Indeed, Battleship Potemkin has had a significant impact on the film industry. Sergei Eisenstein is often praised for his works in film editing and his truly revolutionary method of the use of montage to elicit specific emotions from the audiences. Several films pay homage to his talents, and today, the film is almost universally critically acclaimed. Major film review site, Rotten Tomatoes, appropriately sums up the film in its critic consensus. It states “A technical masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin is Soviet cinema at its finest, and its montage editing techniques remain influential to this day.” It is one of the few films that maintain the 100% rating on the website.
Though his film’s true motives are the subject of much discussion and may merit questioning, what cannot be questioned is Sergei Eisenstein’s withstanding pride for his country. In a 1947 letter sent to a friend after a harsh meeting with Stalin regarding further changes to his film Ivan, Eisenstein still stated “I cannot make such a picture without taking into account the great Russian tradition, the tradition of one’s conscience” (Roberts 730). As his films have stood the test of time, they have also served as a tribute to the country so deeply ingrained into his conscience.
Keywords: Russian, Battleship Potemkin, Censorship, Film, Cinema, Cinematography, Propaganda, Soviet, Communism, Proletariat, Sergei Eisenstein, Daniel Biltereyst
Translated by Daniel Biltereyst in ‘Will We See Potemkin?’: The Historical Reception and Censorship of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in Belgium (1926–32).