Introduction of Sergei Eisenstein’s "Battleship Potemkin"

IU Cinema

Monday, August 26, 2019


Thank you, Jon (Vickers).

It is a great pleasure, as always, to be here at the IU Cinema, and a particular pleasure to be here on the first day of classes of IU's Bicentennial Year.

I want to extend a special welcome to any new members of the Indiana University community who are with us. As you will soon learn, the IU Cinema is one of the great cultural gems of the Bloomington campus. The staff of the Cinema, led by Jon Vickers, has done an outstanding job of bringing highly innovative programming to the Cinema, and of making this a warm and welcoming place where members of the Bloomington community can engage more deeply with film. I want to commend all of them for their superb work.

During this entire academic year, the IU Cinema will be a wonderful place to celebrate IU's 200th anniversary. Some of you may have been here on Saturday, when the Cinema hosted rare digital screenings of the original Star Wars trilogy to help kick off IU's Bicentennial celebration. The back-to-back screenings were curated and programmed by the Cinema’s associate director, Brittany Friesner.

In October, the Cinema will host a visit by the Alloy Orchestra, a musical ensemble that writes new music and performs live accompaniment to classic silent films. Among other screenings and events, they will perform the world premiere of their score for the 1924 film, Gallery of Monsters, a score commissioned by the IU Cinema for IU’s Bicentennial.

IU's Office of the Bicentennial is also helping to support a program that will bring the world’s leading international silent-film festival to IU in October and November.

IU will serve as host of an inaugural U.S. satellite festival for Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, which will feature U.S. premieres of films that will be shown at the October 2019 festival in Pordenone, Italy.

These are only a few highlights of the many special screenings and programs—as well as visits from distinguished filmmakers—that the Cinema will host in the coming year in conjunction with IU's Bicentennial.

So, on this first night of what promises to be an eventful and memorable year, I am delighted to be here to say a few words about the films I have selected as part of this semester’s President's Choice Series, which features four films that span the four creative decades of the legendary Soviet film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, and to introduce the first film in the series—Battleship Potemkin.

The President's Choice Series: Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein is widely regarded as one of the most important pioneers of early cinema. In his films, he developed the first major poetics of cinema—the principles that govern filmmakers' creative choices and viewers’ responses. He was also a prolific writer, whose published works laid the foundation for the discipline of film theory.

Film scholar David Bordwell writes that, for nearly a century, Eisenstein's "works have been dissected and explicated, taught and banned, celebrated and condemned. Most of his films achieved renown immediately, and many of his essays became central to film aesthetics. Around the world,” Bordwell continues, “when aspiring filmmakers learn their craft, they study Eisenstein."1

Eisenstein was born Latvia in 1898. He studied at Institute of Civil Engineering in St. Petersburg, intending to follow in the footsteps of his father, a prominent architect and civil engineer, but Eisenstein’s passion for drama and the visual arts would soon conquer his enthusiasm for engineering.

While serving in the Red Army as an Engineering Corps technician, he became involved in theatrical productions in cities where he was stationed. He began his career in theatre in Moscow in 1920, where he worked with the eminent Russian director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was later brutally tortured and then executed during Stalin’s Great Terror. Eisenstein made the transition into filmmaking as an extension of his work with the Proletcult Theatre.

Eisenstein was the leading proponent and practitioner of Soviet montage theory, an approach to understanding and creating cinema that relies heavily on editing. Battleship Potemkin was Eisenstein’s second feature-length film, and as you will see tonight, it masterfully employs various principles of montage to evoke an emotional response, build suspense, or set the pace of a scene.

In November, the Cinema will screen the two-part historical epic film, Ivan the Terrible, which charts the rise to power and descent into terror of the 16th century tsar who brutally united Russia. These two films were part of what Eisenstein intended to be a trilogy, but the third film was never completed. Part I was released in 1944. Part II was not released until 1958, as it was banned by Stalin, who became angered over its depiction of the Ivan the Terrible. This was because he was, simply put, Stalin’s hero and role model. He referred to Ivan the Terrible as "teacher." The filming of Part III was stopped, and after Eisenstein’s death in 1948, nearly all the footage of Part III that had been shot was destroyed.

And in December, the Cinema will screen Eisenstein’s 1927 film, October: Ten Days that Shook the World, which was commissioned in Stalin's Soviet Russia for the 10th anniversary of the 1917 October revolution. Eisenstein was given nearly unlimited resources to make the film, including access to the Winter Palace in Leningrad for several months.

"Battleship Potemkin"

The film you are about to see tonight, Battleship Potemkin, is one of the most renowned films in the history of cinema. It was ranked in the top ten of Sight & Sound’s best films poll each decade until 2012, when it came in at number 11.

The late film critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema."2

It was commissioned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1905, during which a wave of political and social unrest swept the Russian Empire. Though the Tsar remained in power, the 1905 revolution is thought by many to have set the stage for the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Eisenstein's first biographer, Marie Seton, writes: "At its most obvious level, Potemkin was regarded as propaganda for the Revolution; at a deeper level it was a highly complex work of art which Eisenstein thought would affect every man who beheld it, from the humblest to the most learned."3

The film's most famous scene, the massacre on the Odessa steps, has been parodied and emulated so frequently that viewers are more likely to have seen a tribute to the scene before they ever view the original. And while Eisenstein professed his intention to strive for authenticity, the massacre on the steps is fictional, though there were widespread demonstrations in other parts of the city when the Potemkin arrived in port, and the tsar's troops did respond with violence.

The film was banned at various times in France, the United States, Great Britain, and even in Stalin’s Russia, out of fear that in might incite revolution or mutiny.

Roger Ebert wrote that the film came alive for him in a new way in the late 1990s, when he saw an outdoor screening at the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan—the theatre formerly owned and operated by IU Cinema director Jon Vickers and his wife, Jennifer. That screening featured simultaneous musical accompaniment by the southwestern Michigan band, Concrete, whose “aggressive, insistent approach, played loud"4 as he put it, reminded Ebert of why the film had long been considered dangerous. He was so impressed that he programmed Battleship Potemkin with the band Concrete as part of the very first Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, which recently celebrated its 20th year as Ebertfest.

Tonight's screening of Battleship Potemkin features its original score by Edmund Meisel, one of the pioneers in the composition of music for film.

For those who have seen the film previously, I trust that tonight’s screening will bring new insight. For those who are seeing Eisenstein’s work for the first time, I know you will be as intrigued as audiences, historians, and filmmakers have been for 90 years.

Please enjoy Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin.

Source Notes

1. David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein, (Harvard University Press, 1993), xi.

2. Roger Ebert, "The Battleship Potemkin," July 19, 1998, Web, Accessed August 19, 2019, URL:

3. Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Biography, (A. A. Wyn, Inc., 1952), 78.

4. Roger Ebert, "The Battleship Potemkin," July 19, 1998, Web, Accessed August 19, 2019, URL: