The Battleship Potemkin Comes Out of the Closet

Sexual and political mutiny emerges in cinema restoration of the silent masterpiece

The famous Odessa Steps sequenceThe famous Odessa Steps sequence

Sergei Eisenstein's 'The Battleship Potemkin': The famous Odessa Steps sequence is a defining moment in cinema history

When Sergei Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potemkin was first shown in Moscow in December 1925, just in time to commemorate the 1905 Revolution, the film played to half-empty theatres, because audiences, then as now, preferred the products from Hollywood. Box-office figures were exaggerated by the authorities to demonstrate to the rest of the world that there was a large Soviet audience for Soviet films.

The Battleship Potemkin's depiction of a (partially) successful rebellion against political authority disturbed the world's censors. The French, banning it for general showing, burned every copy they could find. It was shown only in film clubs in London, where it had been banned. Initially in the USA it was forbidden on the grounds that it "gives American sailors a blueprint as to how to conduct a mutiny". In Germany the War Ministry forbade members of the armed forces to see the film. A few years later, after Stalin came to power in the USSR, a written introduction by Leon Trotsky was removed by the Soviets and replaced by a quotation from Lenin.

However, the one aspect of The Battleship Potemkin that has never aroused any censorship is Eisenstein's mischievous homoeroticism, which is evident to modern audiences more than ever. Many critics (not all of them gay) have cited the homoerotic images in his films. The gay American film writer Parker Tyler wrote, "Eisenstein has a great personal eye for human beauty, and more especially for male beauty." Predictably The Battleship Potemkin, with its sailors (regular figures in gay iconography), has provided much material for proof of Eisenstein's homosexuality.

In the 1980s, Nestor Almendros, the exiled Cuban cinematographer, wrote: "Potemkin has been considered a revolutionary film not only because of its subject, but also for its treatment and because it departed in its structure from conventional bourgeois drama – the eternal love affair between a man and a woman.

"Its absence from Potemkin was attributed solely to Eisenstein's pristine concentration on the social forces governing society according to Marx. Yet there is evidence to support another hypothesis. The absence of a conventional love affair (as in all Eisenstein's work) could result from the fact that there was very little space for women in his world. Sexuality as an added theme would only cloud the main issues. The trouble is that Potemkin is not asexual but very sexual – homoerotic. From its very beginning, with the sailors' dormitory prologue, we see an 'all-male cast' resting shirtless in their hammocks. The camera lingers on the rough, splendidly built men, in a series of shots that anticipate the sensuality of Mapplethorpe, and at the great moment when the cannons are raised to fire, a sort of visual ballet of multiple slow and pulsating erections can easily be discerned."

Although subjective, Almendros and other gay commentators cannot be accused of special pleading. Eisenstein was a self-confessed phallic obsessive. Knowing this, it is not unlikely that he was slyly playing with the slowly rising guns as well as the scenes with sailors polishing pistons in a masturbatory manner. There are also the fleeting shots of two sailors obviously kissing as the cannons rise.

There is a particular homoerotic image that appealed to Eisenstein. After the killing of the leader of the mutiny, "a young lad tears his shirt in a paroxysm of fury" revealing his bare chest. (Actually it could also be read as the ancient Jewish tradition of tearing one's clothes in mourning.) This derived from Eisenstein's reading of reports about a young man who, during the 1917 revolution in St Petersburg, had his shirt torn off his back before being executed – "His perforated body lay on the granite steps, half-submerged in the Neva... the two halves of the boy's shirt lying on the granite steps near the Sphinxes of the Egyptian Bridge."

Revealingly, Eisenstein admits that he was more interested in the section with the boy tearing his shirt than the hoisting of the red flag at the film's finale. The motif reoccurs in Ivan the Terrible, when the Tsar's would-be assassin, a young monk, has his shirt torn off him.

It was in the sketches that Eisenstein drew in Mexico in 1931 that his often regressive phallophilia reached its peak. During the shooting of the unfinished Que viva México!, Eisenstein found time to make many of his finest erotic drawings. The drawings as well as photos of nude males were found in the trunks and boxes Eisenstein sent to Hollywood from Mexico and were seized by US Customs agents, causing a scandal. It was also from Mexico that he sent his English friend Ivan Montague the well-known photograph of himself perched on a gigantic bulbous cactus plant, which seemingly protrudes from between his legs, with the words, "Speaks for itself and makes people jealous."

The one aspect of The Battleship Potemkin that has never aroused any censorship is Eisenstein's mischievous homoeroticism

Andrei Koncholovsky remembers being told by his mother, who was a friend of Eisenstein's, that he had shown her drawings he had made of a number of penises, in different postures, with faces drawn on them – a giant, a fat bourgeois, a sportsman, a dwarf – happy and erect or sad and drooping, small or large, in fact many of the characters from his films were all there in synecdochic form.

Then there is the phallic and ejaculatory exclamation mark that appears at the tail of many of his sentences and inter-titles. Given Eisenstein's explosive, revolutionary nature, he could have been one of the few people to put an exclamation mark after his name. This is not as fanciful a notion as it sounds. Eisenstein never missed an opportunity to make such analogies no matter how bizarre. During a lecture on the shape of the screen, given to the Technicians Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood in 1930, Eisenstein declared, "It is my desire to intone the hymn of the male, the strong, the virile, active, vertical composition! I am not anxious to enter the dark phallic and sexual ancestry of the vertical shape as a symbol of growth, strength or power. It would be too easy and possibly too offensive for many a sensitive listener! But I do want to point out that the movement towards the vertical perception launched our hirsute ancestors on their way to a higher level."

Was Eisenstein really planting a clandestine gay time bomb under a perilously homophobic society? 

In Esquire magazine, Dwight Macdonald was disturbed by Ivan the Terrible, the director's final masterpiece. "Eisenstein's homosexuality now has free play... There are an extraordinary number of young, febrile and – there's no other word – pretty males,

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