|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Revolution on the screen
The Battleship Potemkin
55th Berlin Film Festival
Reviewed by Aron Amm
ONE HIGHLIGHT of this year’s Berlin Film Festival was the re-screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. For the first time since its world premiere in 1925, the film was shown in a largely restored original version. A double anniversary: The Battleship Potemkin was filmed 80 years ago to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian revolution of 1905.
After the premiere in Moscow, the left-wing distributor Prometheus bought the rights to the film in Germany. The Berlin premiere in 1926 was a sensational success. From there, The Battleship Potemkin began its triumphant progress around the world. However, only a censored version of the film reached German cinemas. German sailors were not to be given any wrong ideas. The film was further cut as it continued to be received with increasing enthusiasm in the Weimar republic.
Later, sections of the film also fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s editing. Despite all this, the shortened and altered version of Eisenstein’s work became a milestone in the history of cinema, still unsurpassed as a representation of a revolutionary movement.
The film is divided into five acts, each corresponding to the length of one roll of film:
1. Men and maggots: On the battleship, lying off Odessa, the crew refuse to eat meat which is infested by maggots. The sailors ask: "All Russia is rising – do we want to be the last to do so?"
2. Drama on the quarterdeck: An execution squad is ordered to shoot anyone who still refuses to eat the food. At the last minute, they refuse the order to shoot. The mutiny begins.
3. An appeal from the dead: Vakulinchuk, the first to rebel, had been killed and his body lies in state in the harbour: "All for a spoonful of soup". He becomes the focal point of an unending procession.
4. The Odessa steps: Cossacks clear the steps of the harbour, one step at a time, from top to bottom. Soldiers shoot into the panic-stricken crowd – until the shot from one of the Potemkin’s cannons puts an end to the bloodshed.
5. Meeting the squadron: Everything is prepared for battle as the crews of other ships prepare to go into action against the battleship in a climactic finale.
Originally, Eisenstein wanted to make a cycle of six films entitled, The Year 1905. The battleship episode was only intended to consist of 44 of the 820 frames. However, during the filming Eisenstein decided to concentrate the whole historical importance of the revolution into the example of one event.
This single event shows how, "the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way and the masses no longer want to live in the old way" (Vladimir Lenin). Starting with the mutiny against the unbearable conditions on the ship, the rebellion spreads to more and more people with every act: first the crew, then the population of the city, finally the admiral’s fleet.
The mutiny in Odessa in the summer of 1905 was a key event. On the one hand, the rebellion by the sailors remained an exception, the apparatus of the state was not completely paralysed, the rising by workers and peasants was not met with unlimited solidarity by the soldiers. On the other hand, the battleship represents hope – it was the dress rehearsal which was followed by fulfilment in the Russian revolution of 1917.
The film shows a lot: the power of the revolution; the enthusiasm it caused among large sections of the petit bourgeoisie (which is torn between the working class and the ruling elite); the active role of women in the rebellion; the attempts of the church to prop up the old order.
The mutiny on board the Potemkin occurred before the formation of the workers’ councils – soviets, the great ‘invention’ of 1905 with which the working people of Russia created their own organs for struggle, to seize power and organise the new society. At the same time, the film in many ways brings across the vitality and the hunger for debate and ideas, whether among the sailors on the Potemkin before the beginning of the mutiny or among the repressed masses at the port in Odessa.
The Battleship Potemkin is incredibly forceful – not just thanks to its subject, but also because of the way it is presented. The strong use of symbols is unique – the waves crashing on a pier in the opening sequence represent the stirring masses.
Eisenstein also broke new ground with his use of montage, as Enno Patalas, film critic responsible for the restoration of the film, points out: "A famous example is that of the three lions: one is asleep, the other lies awake, the other is sitting upright: shown in quick succession, they become a lion rising up: the stone is crying out". Rhythmic and chaotic movement is counterpoised, as are close-ups and long shots: first the wide open eyes of a middle-class woman as the Cossacks approach; then the child’s pram falling down the steps of the harbour; finally the mother carrying her dead child towards the soldiers. She turns to the side, speaking directly to the camera: lamenting, accusing and appealing all at the same time. In his 1924 film, Strike, Eisenstein worked with a ‘montage of attractions’: from a capitalist squeezing a lemon, he cuts to the violent dissolution of a strike meeting.
The way the film displays the interplay between the collective and individuals is unforgettable: whether it is the sailor Vakulinchuk taking the initiative to mutiny or the rousing speech by a revolutionary as the body lies in state in the harbour – it is a matter of individuals who dare to take the first step. Still, history is made by the repressed masses, not by individual ‘heroes’. On this basis, Eisenstein works with figures that represent their social class, acting in the manner they do in order to highlight a certain behavioural type associated with their class. An example is the ship’s doctor denying that there are maggots in the meat, symbolising the cowardly section of the middle class.
The restored version begins, just as it did 80 years ago, with a quote from Leon Trotsky, which had been cut by Stalin and replaced by quotes from Lenin: "The spirit of mutiny swept the land. A tremendous, mysterious process was taking place in countless hearts: bonds of fear were being broken, the individual personality, having hardly had time to become conscious of itself, became dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary élan".
Besides this, some frames had been cut from the film. In part, the censorship was down to the bourgeois censors of the Weimar republic and Stalinist Russia. The original version shown at the Volksbuehne at the Berlin International Film Festival at Rosa Luxemburg Platz was accompanied by orchestral music which had been written by Edmund Meisel in consultation with Eisenstein for the German premiere in 1926.
The Battleship Potemkin is still a gripping experience, even today. It is still possible to understand how Albert Einstein, for example, reacted when he saw it in 1930: "He acclaimed it enthusiastically and filled the cinema with loud cheers – it’s a pity you weren’t there", was how a friend of Eisenstein’s described Einstein’s reaction to the film.