The Odessa Steps – Battleship Potemkin
In my four years studying film at a university, no scene was presented in class as often as the climactic Odessa Steps sequence from the 1925 Russian film Battleship Potemkin. There is a good reason for that: it provided a framework and benchmark to how to craft an exciting action-packed sequence. Any serious director probably had to study the remarkable onscreen massacre. Brian De Palma famously paid homage to this brilliant sequence in his 1988 thriller The Untouchables.
Many do not realize that Battleship Potemkin is a historical drama – or, more accurately, dramatic propaganda – and not an action movie. The sequence focuses on Russians fleeing the Cossacks, who were firing on unarmed men, women and children. The sheer height of the steps allows this running to be elongated and create thicker suspense. (Hitchcock used staircases the same way in his thrillers.)
Even though we cannot hear gunshots, we see the civilians fall. We watch the Czarist enemies as a common group, marching in order and firing at the same time, while the rest of the people flee in their own direction. Here, some of the more scattered sections correspond to the disarrayed state of mind of the Russians trying to evade the Cossacks. The editing, which was fast and radical for its time, comes from the school of great Soviet filmmakers, who used the fast cutting as a stylistic weapon to create feeling and furor among the audience.
When writing about the sequence in 1998, Roger Ebert summed up how the Odessa Steps sequences even altered how audiences look at Russian history.
That there was, in fact, no czarist massacre on the Odessa Steps scarcely diminishes the power of the scene. The czar’s troops shot innocent civilians elsewhere in Odessa, and Eisenstein, in concentrating those killings and finding the perfect setting for them, was doing his job as a director. It is ironic that he did it so well that today, the bloodshed on the Odessa Steps is often referred to as if it really happened.