One of the most famous silent films ever made, one that gets shown time and again in art history classes. Yet, most of us have never seen it in its original form. Decades of censorship, re-editing and other tinkering have resulted in a slow, disjointed motion picture. Now that it has been restored, prepare yourself for a revelation.
A Film Revolution
There are four particularly obnoxious words that seem to always be cropping up on the internet today: “You’re doing it wrong.” It might be a recipe. It might be a household chore. It might be a hobby. Whatever it is, there is some smug know-it-all online ready to explain why your method is just awful and should be replaced with theirs.
Of course, these articles are often worthless; the advice turns out to be weird, impractical or a matter of personal taste. That being said, I am going to take the plunge. Watching Battleship Potemkin: You’re doing it wrong.
Not just you. The whole world. Since just after its initial release, in fact. Battleship Potemkin was a film created in tumultuous times, subject to cuts and general tinkering. Fortunately for us, a restoration has finally been released and it is now possible to see a version of the film very close to what was shown at its premiere in 1925. More on that in a bit.
The perils of a Russophile
Francophiles and Anglophiles are pretty common in the U.S. Me? I am a longtime Russophile. Russian music, books and films provide collections of intriguing contradictions. The music is loud, robust, delicate, lilting. The books are dour, deep, hilarious and quirky. And the film is romantic, cynical, light and heavy. Every emotion is touched. If you think that all Russian stuff is dark and heavy, think again.
One of the perils of Russophilia: Dealing with darn fool statements like, “Why would you watch that? Weren’t they our enemies?” I truly believe that art is an international language and the key to understanding other cultures.
That being said, your enjoyment of the film will heavily depend on how you feel about Russia and the Cold War. My father grew up at the height of the Red Scare and this movie is not his cup of tea. (Though he still talks about the Odessa Steps sequence.) That’s all well and good but leave Potemkin alone. Let’s find a more worthy “artistic” target for our ire. How about Shepard Fairey’s naive regurgitation of Soviet propaganda for mass market t-shirts? (Want to get laughed out of a graphic design lab? Name him as your favorite artist. We will ruthlessly heckle you. And you will deserve it.)
No Russian film is more famous than Battleship Potemkin. Few silent films enjoy as much acclaim. However, the film is an intense experience, one that must be approached gingerly. I first saw it in its truncated/slowed-down form and was less than impressed, to be honest. When I heard about the new restoration, I was interested but didn’t exactly beat feet to see it.
Earlier this year, I was doing some research on director. Sergei Eisenstein and needed to compare a scene from Potemkin. I reached for the restored version.
The rest is history.
A Tale of Two Revolutions
Battleship Potemkin was commissioned to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, an event that proved to be the root of the subsequent Russian Revolution in 1917-18.
The formula was as follows: A weak and incompetent czar (who had perfected the art of stabbing his enemies in the back whilst shooting himself in the foot), a recent humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese navy, low morale among soldiers and civilians. The Czar ordered attacks on peaceful demonstrations and this led to further demonstrations and mutiny on naval vessels. The most famous vessel involved in the mutiny was Potemkin.
Cut off from supplies, the battleship was eventually forced to surrender. Some of the mutineers were executed but some managed to escape. The last survivor of the mutiny passed away in 1987 at the age of 102. (What does a former mutineer do for a living? Open a fish and chips shop in Ireland, of course!)
The revolution was put down and Nicholas somehow managed to keep power for another decade but the wheels were already set in motion. And that is why the 1925 anniversary of the mutiny was seen as significant. Of course, since it was a celebration, the underwhelming end to the mutiny was not mentioned. Instead, the film ended at a high point as the spirit of revolution spread throughout the Russian naval vessels.
The plot of the film is not much. The sailors mutiny over rations, the citizens of Odessa (now in Ukraine) rallied around them and the army was sent in to quell the rebellion. On the Odessa Steps– the most famous scene in the film– civilians are indiscriminately killed by the Czar’s troops. The battleship uses its guns to avenge the slaughter and then sails to face the Czar’s fleet.
Potemkin has no central love story, no major stars, none of the elements usually associated with popular films of the period. Why is it so esteemed and beloved?
And it’s famous because…
If the story is simple, the direction is incredibly complicated. Director Sergei Eisenstein’s rapid editing quickly earned praise for its bold and dramatic results. To this day, Potemkin’s influence is summed up with the aggressive editing style.
I should point out that this was not the first movie to feature rapid cuts for dramatic purposes (French and Russian filmmakers in Paris had been doing it for years, for example) but it is the movie that brought the style to worldwide attention.
Editing is an under-appreciated craft; one that most viewers only notice when it is handled badly. Part of Potemkin’s magic is that the editing does not just call attention to itself, it is the heart and soul of the film.
Put simply, Potemkin is pure movement. The entire movie pulsates to an underlying rhythm that was carefully plotted out by Eisenstein. While sound films are married to the voice, silent films are married to music and no film is more musical (even without accompaniment) than Battleship Potemkin.
Now, if you have seen the various releases of the film put out before 2005, you may be shaking your head. Rhythm? Movement? Where? Everything seems to move in a slow motion haze.
And you would be right. Simply put, the releases of the film that were available before the 2005 restoration were dull as dishwater. How could such a brilliant motion picture become so boring? This is where censorship and revisionism enter the picture.
I mentioned before that Battleship Potemkin was tinkered with. That’s actually an understatement. The film has been cut and pasted and stretched and shrunk and sliced and blurred and generally meddled with. But why was that the case? It’s a long story but here is a simplified rundown of the whos and whys of the cuts to Potemkin:
Battleship Potemkin debuted in Russia in 1925. It was clearly a hit and a work of immense power and artistry. However, Russia lacked the infrastructure and clout to distribute it internationally on a large scale. The clear choice was to hand the film over to the Germans for release in their country and allow them to negotiate international rights.
In Germany, the film was initially banned and then censored in 1926 and then censored again in 1928 and again in 1930 for a sound release. Scenes of mutiny and the famous Odessa Steps sequence were particularly targeted due to their graphic content.
The original 1926 cuts were made to the negative of the film, which had been brought by Eisenstein to Berlin. The negative was returned to Moscow sometime after 1933. Theories differ as to how and exactly when this occurred (the Russians fluttered their eyelids and said they had no idea) but the main point is that the negative that returned to Russian possession was one with at least three sessions of German cuts.
At some point, likely just after the negative was returned to Russia, the original introduction by Leon Trotsky was replaced with one by Vladimir Lenin. Trotsky, you will recall, ran afoul of Josef Stalin, was deported from Russia in 1929 and finally murdered in 1940 by a Stalinist agent.
The Soviets reissued the film in 1950 to mark its anniversary and new prints were almost certainly struck from the censored German negative. The film was once again tinkered with and new intertitles were written. (One of the titles to be eliminated was a condemnation of antisemitism.)
The Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) kept an impressive archive of stills from the production of Potemkin and they possessed a reel of film from the unedited print, the sequence on the Odessa Steps. The other reels were, apparently, lost during the Second World War. This lone reel was used as a source for additional footage inserted into the re-release, sans much of the blood and guts.
The film continued to receive footage from various sources but kept the sound film rerelease editing and shot sequence. In 1976, the film was released again with one of the most significant changes yet. The score for the film had been composed by Edmund Meisel in Germany under the guidance and direction of Eisenstein but it was deemed proper that a Russian composer should accompany a Russian film.
Symphonies from Dmitri Shostakovich were selected as the ideal score for Potemkin. The problem? The Shostakovich music was slow moving and dreary (not a fan of dear Dmitri), which did not fit Eisenstein’s nimble editing. Rather than rearrange Shostakovich, the film was stretched out to accommodate the music. The frame rate was slowed, the intertitles were lengthened. The old print had decay and some of the splices were giving out. (Remember, films used to be physically sliced and cemented together.) The damage to the frames and splices meant cutting away even more frames and further altering Eisenstein’s precise editing. Image quality was also lost due to an imperfect transition to sound film.
All these may seem to be picayune complaints but remember that Battleship Potemkin is renowned for its editing. A frame or two may not sound like much but it can make all the difference between a cut being too rapid or too slow. Keep in mind, Eisenstein’s vision was one of constant rhythm. Removing frames or slowing the film disrupts that rhythm.
Lest we forget, Eisenstein’s style relied of micromanaging of every single visual element of his films. Nothing appears on screen without a purpose. Heavy layers of symbolism cloak his work. Thank goodness many of his personal notes survive for his more complicated films (like Ivan the Terrible) or we would be arguing about their meaning till doomsday.
So, we know for a fact that every cut, every frame of film was there for a reason and losing even a few of these precious frames would unbalance the movie. And this, of all silent films, was the one with its timing stretched out?
Most home video releases of Potemkin were taken from this 1976 release and they featured the Shostakovich score. It is the version that you probably had to watch in class.
This is where the 2005 restoration (the one released in the States by Kino Lober) comes into the tale. Thanks to prints in German and English holdings (including an uncensored German print), archivists were able to restore the film as closely as possible to Eisenstein’s original 1925 cut.
Whew! Got all that? If you wish to know more, I recommend Tracing Battleship Potemkin, a 42-minute documentary included on the Kino disc. In addition to telling the story of the restoration, it has some rather amusing and highly civilized arguments and sniping between the German and Russian restoration teams. Good stuff! I would love to have those gentlemen over to dinner and then sit back and watch the nerdy fireworks that would surely result.
I mentioned Shostakovich not being a good fit for Potemkin. While he was in Berlin, Sergei Eisenstein oversaw the work of Edmund Meisel, who was writing the score for the film. It should come as no surprise that Eisenstein was very specific in his instructions. He understood the importance of a movie score, not just to accompany the action but to magnify the emotion and atmosphere.
(Eisenstein’s collaboration with Sergei Prokofiev for Alexander Nevsky resulted in one of the greatest film scores ever written and one of the building blocks of modern movie soundtracks.)
Meisel’s written score survives but only had enough music to work with the censored German print. Further, the score had to be arranged for the 55-piece Deutches Filmorchestra. Conductor Helmut Imig was given the task of making the music last, keeping the limited score interesting and making it accessible to modern listeners.
Imig succeeded splendidly. While the music is old, the arrangement is very modern. Older film scores are generally higher and rely more heavily on strings. (Check out some of the original Vitaphone or Movietone scores to hear what I mean.) Modern film scores are generally deeper, more horn/brass-centric and will make heavier use of percussion and industrial sounds. This industrial sound fits very well with a film that has a battleship as its main character.
Does it live up to its reputation?
Battleship Potemkin is an amazing work of art but you have to know what you are in for. As I said, the main character is not human, it is the battleship. While individuals (especially in the first two parts) will take center stage, they are not the real focus of the story. At the risk of sinking into cliché, the crew of the ship and the citizens of Odessa are collective characters.
The crew of the ship, that is, the enlisted men and the few officers who side with them, move together in rhythmic unison. However, it an organic (as opposed to mechanical) rhythm. Immediately, we see that the Captain and other officers are not in step with the people at their command. The rhythm of the crew is interrupted by the commanders, the tempo is spoiled.
The citizens of Odessa have their own stylized movements. At first, they are graceful and mournful, birdlike in their motions. Then their emotions build up to anger and then joy and finally terror when they are attacked by the Czar’s troops.
The soldiers who slaughter the people on the Odessa Steps, however, are truly mechanical. (Eisenstein would reuse this metal man idea more extensively in Alexander Nevsky.) While both the mutinous sailors and the people of Odessa change their movements in reaction to external events, the soldiers advance and shoot regardless of who is in front of them.
This is barely scratching the surface of this remarkable motion picture. It is a movie that rewards re-watching and careful dissection. In short, it was made for movie nerds.
It’s also a powerful use of the visual medium. This is one reason why I personally rate it so highly. It is one film that truly understands how silent movies convey information and inspire emotion. The editing is justly famous but the scene composition, the lighting, all the little visual details add up to create a film that is the very epitome of the silent drama.
Battleship Potemkin is a renowned classic that loves up to its reputation. If you have only seen the censored and slowed-down version, I strongly encourage you to give the restoration a try. If you didn’t care for the film before, this may change your mind. If you were able to appreciate its brilliance in the old format (and if you did, I salute your viewing skills) then you will be blown away by the improvement of the 2005 version.
Trust me. It’s famous for a reason.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★★
Where can I see it?
The restored version has been released on DVD, Blu-ray and via streaming by Kino. If you want to see the difference by comparing a public domain edition, there are plenty of cheap discs on the market.