The mutiny on the Potemkin is dramatized for the screen nearly two decades before the famous Eisenstein picture. The production is French and what it lacks in authentic detail, it more than makes up for with enthusiasm.
It didn’t take long for early filmmakers to realize that motion pictures could not just capture real events on film, they could recreate them for dynamic effect. Name the major event of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and there’s a decent chance that there was a short film reenactment of it. Even Georges Méliès, noted for his fantasies, got in on the act with his coverage of the Dreyfus Affair and he wasn’t the only French filmmaker to do so.
The mutiny aboard the Potemkin was the subject of a rather famous film you might have already heard of but this French production beat it to the punch by two decades. This is a fascinating opportunity to see the events through foreign eyes almost as they were happening.
Revolution in Russia (La révolution en Russie) was produced by Pathé Frères and was directed by Lucien Nonguet. All but forgotten, Nonguet was an early director for Pathé, sometimes sharing credit with fellow pioneer Ferdinand Zecca. In addition to working on Max Linder comedies, Nonguet made fairy tales, religious pictures, historical reenactments and a long series of films covering the Russo-Japanese War, as well as the general political instability in the Russian Empire. (It should be noted that while most experts attribute the film’s direction to Nonguet, some do credit Zecca. Further, the release date for the film is listed as 1906 in some texts. The joys of early film research!)
(If you want to see a Nonguet fairy tale film AND check out that hand-color, Cineteca MNC has you covered with a gorgeous print of his Sleeping Beauty, which was co-directed by Albert Cappellani. The hand-color is not as sophisticated as that displayed in the Méliès pictures of the same era but it is fun to see nonetheless. The intro titles list the picture as a work of Segundo de Chomón but the video notes and most sources list it as Nonguet and Cappallani. Early film wouldn’t be early film without some controversial credits!)
The Russian audience was seen as a prize plum for many early film studios but Pathé was the company with the most consistent presence in the Russian Empire in the years leading up to the revolution. French films were imported for Russian consumption and while they were in the country, French film crews would take footage of Russia and its satellite states for French audiences back home.
While the Russian government maintained strict control over what was permitted to be filmed, the Pathé company still had an impressive catalog of actuality footage and this was likely their source for the shot of the real battleship that opens the film. We then immediately shift over to the painted sets that anyone familiar with early French cinema will recognize at once. I find them charming.
What follows is a more or less authentic tale of mutiny against the backdrop of the 1905 revolution: The crew of the Potemkin are offered rotten meat as their rations and after the officers attempt to quell the murmuring and shoot one of the leaders of the uprising, they are enthusiastically tossed overboard and the crew take over the ship.
This leads to a violent military crackdown of the citizens in the port city of Odessa and it doesn’t happen on the famous steps (that sequence in Battleship Potemkin was possibly inspired by Potemkin cinematographer Eduard Tisse shooting a scene on the steps for the film Jewish Luck around the same time) but, again, the French film crew makes up in gusto what it lacks in spectacle.
Probably the most famous element of this picture, aside from its topic, is the point of view shot as Odessa is shelled. There is also a charming use of miniatures and forced perspective to convey the destruction; little puffs of smoke stream from tiny buildings and it’s all a nice little showcase of 1900s special effects technology.
This film is sometimes described as confusing but it was never intended to be viewed in isolation by an audience unfamiliar with then-current news. In the first place, it’s likely that a narrator would have been on hand to explain the images as they moved across the screen. (Georges Méliès went so far as to include narration scripts as part of the package when a theater purchased a print.) In the second place, it is quite probable that the film would have featured some amount of applied color in order to make the busy compositions pop.
And in the third place, the uprisings in Russia would have made international news and the audience would have had some level of familiarity with the events portrayed. The Potemkin mutiny would have been especially appealing because its causes were easy to convey without wading into the weeds of political ideology.
The pricing and purity of food and drink have long been a popular way to convey oppression. Such a primal need instantly elicits strong emotions. There’s a reason why the price of tea has remained a popular symbol of the American Revolution and there’s a reason why the almost certainly erroneous quote “Let them eat cake!” has stuck to Marie Antoinette like glue. Forcing sailors to eat maggot-infested meat creates a visceral reaction and even the staunchest tsarist would be hard pressed to explain away the sailors’ frustration and the overreaction of the officers.
Further, the mutiny is easy to understand without diving into the context of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War (well, disastrous for the Russians), the growing power of the revolutionaries (Vladimir Lenin described 1905 as a dress rehearsal for the successful 1917 revolution) and the reforms that resulted (and upon which the tsar attempted to take-backsies once he felt safe again). Not everyone may understand Russian politics of the 1900s but they do understand maggots and brutality.
Naturally, the comparatively simple and easy-to-understand chain of events also made the mutiny ideal for carrying a political message, as Eisenstein’s picture proves, but the French production does well for itself when judged against other films made around the same time.
By the way, the level of violence shown would have been par for the course at the time. Sure, you could be tasteful if that was what you wanted but a great many filmmakers went the blood and guts route with dramatized shootings, riots and even beheadings. The public has a right to know, yes?
This version of the Potemkin mutiny should be appreciated for what it is: a time capsule that showcases how the events were portrayed internationally and an interesting demonstration of the way films were used both portray and sculpt news events for a rapt audience.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of The Movies Begin box set. The box is a bit spendy but look out for sales because it’s still the best crash course in early cinema you can find on home video.