Sergei Eisenstein

The Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

  • Born: 1898
  • Died: 1948
  • Rank: 26
  • Score: 660.10
  • Feature Films: 7
  • Best: The Battleship Potemkin
  • Least: The General Line

Feature Films (in rank order):

  1. The Battleship Potemkin – 1925
  2. Ivan the Terrible Part I – 1945
  3. Ivan the Terrible Part II – 1958
  4. October – 1927
  5. Alexander Nevsky – 1938
  6. The Strike – 1924
  7. The General Line – 1930

Top 10 Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • pre-1926 – 1st – The Battleship Potemkin
  • 1928-1929 – 2nd – October
  • 1929-1930 – 5th – The General Line
  • 1939 – 6th – Alexander Nevsky
  • 1947 – 4th – Ivan the Terrible Part I
  • 1959 – 7th – Ivan the Terrible Part II

He remains the only great early director to stay in Europe. While such directors as von Stroheim, Murnau and Sjostrom went to Hollywood for more money and others like Lang, Wilder and Renoir fled the Nazis during the war, Eisenstein remained in Russia making films that were distinctly Russian in style and content.  But like von Stroheim and Murnau we lost years of great art when Eisenstein died at the age of 50.  The second part of his Ivan the Terrible was pretty much complete (though it would not get released for another decade), but the third part would never make it to film and it is the tragedy of the film world that such things never come to be.  For Eisenstein was the greatest of those early directors, one who understood the political power of film before the Nazis came to power and made such dreadful use of it.  His Battleship Potemkin was once voted the greatest film ever made and it’s too bad we have only seven finished films to appreciate such an amazing director.

The Battleship Potemkin – #1 film before 1927

This is a film of pure political power.  The politics were in place before the film – Eisenstein had been asked to make the film to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution.  But the power was in Eisenstein’s hands.

There is no film until Citizen Kane that so well demonstrates the power of the editing room.  Eisenstein understood that the power of editing, the power of montage, is the juxtaposition of images and that theory played into what became the most famous scene in film and still stands as one of those most famous, even as it has been copied, honored and parodied: the Odessa steps sequence.

The Odessa steps are an amazing work of architecture – from the sea they look like a long series of steps with no breaks, whereas from the city they look like a series of platforms with no steps.  In 1905, the soldiers of the Czar went down the steps firing at the citizens of Odessa who were in support of the mutinous troops on the Battleship Potemkin docked in the harbor – a crew who had mutinied do to horrible inhumane conditions and the soldiers brutally put down the uprising.  What Eisenstein did was humanize this entire scene and in 1925, at a time before the world knew what Stalin was capable of, when socialism was on the rise around the world this was a powerful image as the soldiers slaughter men, women, cripples, children, everyone who steps in their path.  It is the defining moment of the film, the incredible power of editing and film.

It is almost impossible to look at the sequence on its own thanks to films like The Untouchables, but this is the most human version.  It is here where we understand man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and that makes it all the more powerful.  There is a greater power of suspense to De Palma’s film, but this is not about suspense, it is about pure human emotion and there are few moments in film history with the power to stand beside it.