In 1906, the tsarist battleship Potemkin lies off the port city of Odessa in the Black Sea after its return from Russia's disastrous defeat at the hands of Japan. The sailors, inflamed by intolerable and squalid conditions on board and led by the sailors Vakulinchuk and Matiushenko, rise up in mutiny against their callous officers. Once they dock to bury the murdered Vakulinchuk, the sailors’ outrage spreads to Odessa's citizens, who, themselves chafing under tsarist oppression and moved by the self-sacrifice of this sailor, join the mutineers in protest against their oppressors. The enraged citizens march through Odessa, and await the call to arms from the mutineers aboard the battleship. Odessa becomes a Revolutionary commune, citizens and sailors standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Without warning, tsarist troops attack the citizens on the steps of Odessa harbour, bloodily massacring men, women and children. The sailors briefly shell the city, but they decide to return to sea on the Potemkin to face the squadron of ships sent to suppress their mutiny. On receiving signals from the sailors aboard the Potemkin, however, the crews of these ships show their solidarity by allowing the battleship to pass through the squadron unimpeded.
This film was an integral part of a broad process of Revolutionary mythologization underway in Soviet Russia during the 1920s, having been commissioned for the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution. Unlike Eisenstein's later October, which portrayed the successful dénouement of Russia’s revolutions in 1917, Battleship Potemkin was a paean to revolution defeated in 1905. Significantly, though, the film ends with the promise of revolution fulfilled, the sailors escaping a blockade of tsarist ships, thanks to the ‘revolutionary’ acquiescence of their fellow sailors. The narrative is not driven by the ‘impersonal forces’ of history, but rather by identifiable characters, each clearly responsible and conscious of their own actions (some identified by name by intertitles): the sailor Vakulinchuk, who stirs up the men’s anger over the maggot-infested meat; the ship’s doctor, Smirnov, who examines it and declares it fit for consumption; Giliarovskii, the officer, who enforces the declaration, eventually by the threat of a firing squad; the Orthodox priest, who calls on the condemned men to see reason, all the while brandishing his crucifix like a weapon.
Eisenstein’s story is about the inevitability of revolution by increments. The ship is a microcosm of the world order, its hierarchies mirrored. Sailors are engaged in the petty and meaningless indignities of life: cleaning the guns, polishing the ship’s fittings, washing the dishes. Officers seek merely to reinforce those indignities. Power begets violence: an officer’s rough awakening of a sleeping sailor becomes a senior officer’s physical manhandling of recalcitrant sailors and the captain’s threat of lethal violence before a firing squad. Violence begets resistance: Vakulinchuk and Matiushenko voice the sailors’ outrage; sailors refuse to eat the borscht; the members of the firing squad refuse to shoot on their comrades. Resistance begets yet more violence, best exemplified in the film’s two climactic scenes. The mutineers’ righteous vengeance visited upon the officers on board the Potemkin and the tsarist soldiers’ perfunctory – and far more bloody – slaughter of the citizens on the Odessa steps foreshadow the violence to come in the inevitable Revolution. The victory of the sailors over their masters and the defeat of the citizens by the soldiers are temporary respites in history's grand narrative. Revolution, Eisenstein says in this film, is immanent if not yet imminent.
Like many of Eisenstein’s films, key images linger, at least in the modern viewer’s memory: the tarpaulin covering the sailors who await execution by firing squad; the wide-eyed, wild-haired priest; phantom bodies hanging from the yardarms; and on the Odessa steps, the anguished mother bearing her dying child towards the advancing soldiers; a child’s wrist under a soldier’s boot; the bloodied eye of a screaming woman; the drawn-out descent of the baby-carriage and its baby. Whether these images struck the contemporary viewer in Russia at the time in a similar manner is debatable. Still, the film’s narrative is well paced and self-evident, it does not contain the ubiquitous and heavily aestheticized symbolism of Eisenstein’s later October, and it surely contains some of the most graphic violence ever exhibited on screen at that time.