Battleship Potemkin is a 1925 Soviet silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein which presents a dramatised version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against its officers and the public protests that followed in the city of Odessa in Ukraine. It was long considered the masterwork of silent cinema. In 1958 an international critics’ poll voted it the greatest film of all time. In the film, Eisenstein made full use of his idea about the “montage of attractions” or “dialectical montage”. He believed that montage should proceed from rhythm, not from the story. Shots should be cut to lead up to a certain point and not to linger and focus on individual characters. The film was the ultimate expression of his ideas, which culminated in the last scene, the Odessa Steps sequence. The sequence incarnates Eisenstein’s theory of dialectical montage by which the meaning is generated by the collision of opposing shots.
The Odessa Steps sequence is one of the most celebrated and influential scenes in the history of cinema and pictures the massacre of civilians on the Odessa Steps or Stairs (aka Potemkin Steps or Stairs). In the scene, the Tsar’s soldiers in their white uniforms march down a flight of steps in a rhythmic, machine-like fashion, firing at the crowd. A separate group of Cossacks fires at the crowd at the bottom of the stairs. The victims include an older woman, a young boy with his mother, a student in uniform and a teenage schoolgirl. The moment, when a mother pushing a baby carriage falls to the ground dying and the carriage rolls down the steps amid the running crowd, is one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. Although the incident never happened and it was based on the fact that there were widespread demonstrations in other parts of the city, the scene is so powerful that it is often referred to as if it really happened.
The actual Odessa Steps is a giant stairway in Odessa, which is considered the formal entrance into the city from the direction of the sea, and its most famous symbol. Odessa, perched on a high plateau, needed direct access to its harbor. The stairs were originally known as the Boulevard steps or the Richelieu steps. The first staircase consisted of 200 stairs and was designed in 1825 by the Swiss-Italian architect Francesco Boffo and the Russian architect Avraam Melnikov. In 1837, the decision was made to build an enormous staircase, which was constructed between 1837 and 1841. On the left side of the stairway, a funicular railway was built in 1906 to transport people instead of walking. At the top of the stairs is the Duke de Richelieu Monument. The Roman-like statue was designed by the Russian sculptor Ivan Petrovich Martos. Richelieu, although French, served in the Russian Imperial Army and was appointed the first governor of Odessa by Tsar Alexander I. In the eleven years of his administration, Odessa grew in size, prospered and became the third largest city in the Russian Empire by population.
The Odessa Steps sequence apart from being an important moment in the history of cinema also has a strong influence on filmmakers to this today. There are references to the scene in many movies by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola. The two most celebrated direct references to the scene could be seen in The Untouchables (1987) by Brian De Palma and Revenge of the Sith (2005) by George Lucas. It is therefore not surprising that during the 6th International Film Festival of Odessa in 2015, the European Film Academy placed a commemorative plate on the stairs and put the Odessa Steps in the list of “Treasures of European Film Culture by the European Film Academy”.
If you love cinema you should put the unique Odessa Steps on your bucket list.
The following two videos present the complete Odessa Steps sequence and the references to the scene in popular movies :