Sunday, October 21, 2007

Battleship Potemkin

A new restored version of the famous Russian film Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein has been released and will be playing on Turner Classic Movies, TONIGHT for those of you who have either Star Choice of Bell Satellite TV.

If you have never seen this revolutionary movie it is not only revolutionary for it's content but for its approach to cinema. It was the first Docu-Drama ever made, covering the Russian Revolutionary uprising of 1905.

1905 was the year the 2oth Century came into being and it was the birth of modernism which would result in WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Independent filmmakers, restricted to limited exhibition outlets in a world of media conglomeration, can take heart from the fact that Battleship Potemkin, one of the most renowned films in the history of cinema and containing perhaps the best known sequence in the medium's entire history, was initially seen only by small audiences of film society aficionados and trade unionists. In this sense, it represents one of the most successful instances of niche marketing the world has ever seen.

The stories of its circulation are almost as mythical as its subject matter: it was banned as subversive in England and its circulation was highly restricted in the US, even before the implementation of the Hays Code. In the US, it was seen by small groups of filmmakers and critics, and in one enticing account of a screening in the New York apartment of Gloria Swanson, it was projected onto one of Gloria's satin sheets, when the absence of an available screen threatened to disappoint the eager but select audience.

At such a screening, David O. Selznick saw the film and wrote with great enthusiasm to his boss at MGM that a print should be obtained because it would be "very advantageous to have the organisation view it in the same way that a group of artists might study a Rubens or a Raphael". It was, he thought, "unquestionably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made" (this in 1926!) and the firm "might well consider securing the man responsible for it".

Battleship Potemkin is the film which brought Eisenstein, always a citizen of the world, to world attention. This fame both protected him - up to a point - and brought him to the constant attention of the authorities, involving him in a cat and mouse game for his entire professional life.

Although it has become an orthodoxy in the West to emphasise the repressive conditions under which artists, writers and filmmakers worked in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it is worth remembering that Eisenstein's experiences in the West were equally, if not more, frustrating creatively. Unfruitful episodes in Hollywood & Mexico left Eisenstein back in the Soviet Union with a nervous breakdown and a damaged reputation.

Battleship Potemkin overcomes its ideological constraints and uses its abstract form to produce at least one scene of unquestionable power. Sergei Eisenstein’s own comparison of his style to a "kino-fist" is an apt one; the film assaults the viewer’s sensibilities with forceful melodrama and rhythmic editing. Many scenes are calculated to elicit specific responses and, in fact, succeed, but this creates a certain feeling of manipulation because of the film’s overt polemic. Obviously, political concerns of a now defunct nation from over seventy years ago are not going to hold up well. The fact that the film remains effective on some levels is impressive and testifies to Eisenstein’s influential ideas about cinema. His principles of montage were vital to the development of film language and to cinema’s separation from other art forms into its own realm. A film based largely on these editing principles sacrifices some narrative concerns and tends to distance the viewer if not continuously providing ‘attractions’ or ‘stimuli’. Despite claims mentioned by some critics about the film’s perfect and concise example of film structure, Potemkin can be an uneven viewing experience.

Eisenstein freely admitted the influence of D.W. Griffith’s movies, particularly Intolerance, in his work and in the development of Soviet montage. It is not difficult to see the links between the rapid cutting in that film’s conclusion to the kinetic editing of Potemkin. For example, the numerous cuts in the Odessa steps sequence build the individual moments of terror into an almost unbearable emotional climax. Of course, Eisenstein expanded greatly on montage theory to not only build rhythm or suspense but to form intellectual concepts and associations. The dynamic editing of three lion statues to show the awakening of anger and rebellion is a simple but memorable instance of this metaphorical juxtaposition. Another apparent influence from Griffith would be the melodramatic elements that facilitate the film’s political goals. The tsarist forces are completely evil, and sympathy is evoked for the noble revolutionaries and their supporters; issues and characters are simplified for maximum emotional impact. The officers on the ship are given titles such as, roughly, "I’ll shoot them down like dogs!" when dealing with the disobedient sailors. All of the focused victims of the shocking violence on the Odessa steps are women or children. The idea of typage, casting often non-professional actors based on their physical resemblance to a character type, allows the film to forgo character development and individuality. The ship’s priest looks like a prophet from the pages of the Old Testament transplanted into the 20th Century. Additionally, the absence of a main character, except that of the collective Russian people, corresponds to the Marxist principles of the film; one of the only possible protagonists, Vakulinchuk, dies early in the film for the revolutionary cause. This aspect also is reminiscent of Intolerance’s undermining of audience identification through its large number of characters and shifting focus.

Historical Narrative in The Battleship Potemkin

"What are a few maggots?" asks Richard Hough in his book, The Potemkin Mutiny. He answers with the powerful story of the 1905 mutiny of the sailors of the Potemkin in their struggle against the repressive officers of the Russian Imperial Navy. In 1925, the Soviet government commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to direct a film commemorating the events of the 1905 revolution. Due to time constraints, he had to limit his film to just the Potemkin mutiny. His depiction of these events, in his film The Battleship Potemkin, has many significant differences with the historian's perspective that Hough offers in his book. Contrary to the belief of many modern critics, the actual historical events and details are impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt, but "there is no dispute on the main events, and their sequence." However, although Hough and Eisenstein differ, they both offer legitimate perspectives. Even if the events are agreed upon, "one and the same event may be incorporated in a different guises: in the form of a dispassionate statement or in that of a pathetic hymn." Eisenstein is creating a narrative film, and Hough purports to write a history, but both are stories of the event with an intended audience and an intended effect. The small differences between the two perspectives offered by Hough and Eisenstein is significant and colors what the audience thinks of the mutiny and how they identify with it.

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Sunday, October 21,2007 12:00 AM

The Battleship Potemkin
TCM is pleased to present the U.S. broadcast premiere of the 2005 restoration of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925), accompanied by a new arrangement of Edmund Meisel’s orchestral score, which Eisenstein himself authorized for the film’s Berlin premiere in 1926. This same version will be released on DVD by Kino in a 2-disc special edition.

The Battleship Potemkin was recognized from the start as a landmark work both for its innovative use of montage and for its sheer power as propaganda. In particular, the “Odessa steps” sequence is arguably the single most famous and widely quoted passage in the history of film. But in a sense The Battleship Potemkin has been the victim of its own effectiveness. Reissued over the years in various censored and reedited versions, Eisenstein’s great vision has not been seen for several decades in anything like what the director likely intended. This new version, overseen by the film archivist and historian Enno Patalas, attempts to reconstruct, as closely as possible, the film as it was presented in Moscow during its initial release.


The Soviets were inordinately fond of jubilees, so it was only fitting that for his second feature film Sergei Eisenstein would be commissioned to direct a multi-episode series marking the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution in Russia. The first episode was originally intended to focus mainly on the strike that took place in St. Petersburg in October 1905, with the June 1905 mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin to serve as a prologue. However, bad weather and logistical difficulties compelled Eisenstein and his crew to relocate to Odessa, and the Potemkin mutiny expanded into a full-fledged feature in its own right. (See Richard Taylor’s meticulously researched book The Battleship Potemkin: The Film Companion (2000) for further information on the film’s production history and critical reception.)

While Eisenstein’s debut feature Strike (1924) still dazzles through its sheer stylistic daring, in The Battleship Potemkin he consolidated his skills as a total filmmaker, demonstrating greater control over narrative structure and pacing. The film is divided into five acts--“Men and Worms,” “Drama on the Quarterdeck” “An Appeal from the Dead,” “The Odessa Steps” and “Meeting the Squadron”--its structure deliberately recalling classical tragedy.

While Eisenstein was always interested more in creating an effective and well-constructed film than in being literally faithful to the historical record, many of the key images in the script were in fact inspired by actual events associated with the Potemkin mutiny: the sailors’ refusal to eat borsch made from maggot-infested meat; the revolutionary activists Matyshenko and Vakulenchuk (spelled Vakulinchuk in the film) using that incident as a pretext to incite the other sailors to mutiny; the arrival of the battleship into the Odessa port with a red flag; the throngs of townspeople lining up to view Vakulenchuk’s corpse; and the Potemkin being greeted by cheering sailors on another ship. There was even a massacre of civilians by police on the famed steps leading down to Odessa’s port, though that was just one part of the civil strikes that occurred throughout the city and the resulting crackdown by the police and Cossacks. It should be noted that Eisenstein didn’t include at least one very significant event: the massive fire that devastated the Odessa port during the strike and claimed many lives. Neal Bascomb provides a compelling and detailed account of the mutiny in his recently published book Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin (2007).

In addition to its innovative and much-analyzed photography and editing, the film was noteworthy for its unusual mix of professional and non-professional actors, based on the principle of typage or casting primarily according to physical types. Eisenstein’s assistant Grigori Aleksandrov played Gilyarovsky. The role of Vakulenchuk was filled by Aleksandr Antonov, a member of the Proletkult theater troupe in which Eisenstein had worked before moving into cinema. The film director Vladimir Barsky, an important figure in early Soviet cinema, played the role of Captain Golikov. Eisenstein also challenged the norms of commercial cinema by not relying on a single protagonist or romantic coupling to shape the narrative, emphasizing the notion of a “mass protagonist” instead.

The Battleship Potemkin premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in December 1925 and was released in Moscow in January 1926. Barely completed in time for the premiere, it was initially more of a rough cut, as Richard Taylor has pointed out. The orchestral accompaniment, as was common practice at the time, was culled from pre-existing works in the classical repertoire. At its two main Moscow engagements, the theater exteriors were decorated to resemble battleships, and the staff were dressed in sailors’ outfits. Posters touted it as “the pride of Soviet cinema,” boasting of 300,000 admissions in the first three weeks alone.


What really sealed the film’s success, however, was the sensational reception at its April 1926 Berlin premiere. The Soviet authorities actually sold the original negative to the Germans--a move that seems inconceivable today--but they retained the right to request new prints from it. Fearing a threat to “the public order,” the German censors initially banned the film outright but later demanded a number of cuts, mainly due to violent imagery. These included some of the shots depicting the body of young boy trampled on the Odessa steps. The film director Piel Jutzi was brought in to adapt the film for German audiences; among other things, he divided it into six parts instead of five.

Naum Kleiman, the foremost Eisenstein scholar, has speculated that Eisenstein’s trip to Germany before the premiere was in fact to oversee the film’s reediting, so he may well have had some input into the German distribution version. The director also guided Edmund Meisel’s work on the score, encouraging him to emphasize rhythm over melody. For instance, the music accompanying the battleship’s climactic meeting with the squadron has a mechanical quality that underscores the film’s ties with the Soviet artistic movement known as Constructivism.

Ultimately, cultural impact of The Battleship Potemkin in Germany cannot be overstated. Besides becoming a great popular success, it influenced artistic figures as ranging from Fritz Lang to Bertolt Brecht and the theater directors Erwin Piscator and Max Reinhardt. Not only did the film’s reputation in Germany help raise awareness of it in countries such as England and the United States, it even resulted in a second release of the film in the Soviet Union during the summer of 1926. However, the Soviet authorities’ decision to sell the negative to the Germans meant it would not survive in its original version.


The pressures of censorship and the vagaries of distribution over the years have resulted in the situation that The Battleship Potemkin survives in several different versions, each with their own set of limitations. For many years the Museum of Modern Art circulated an English language version based on an authoritative print donated by the Eisenstein scholar Jay Leyda and supposedly provided by Eisenstein himself, but they altered the original intertitles, among other things making them longer and thus slowing the pace of the film. Another version with English titles was prepared by the British leftist filmmaker Ivor Montagu.

In 1950, the film was reissued in the Soviet Union in a version supervised by Grigori Aleksandrov and accompanied by a serviceable, if pedestrian, score by Nikolai Kryukov. According to Enno Patalas, this version was missing some seventy shots, suffered from substantially reworked intertitles, and even reordered some of the footage following earlier, similarly corrupted versions. For example, the visceral impact of the opening of the Odessa steps massacre--in which the title “And suddenly…” is followed by a series of jump cuts of a woman’s head jerking back--was blunted by preceding it with shots of the soldiers’ boots and rifles to provide more of a conventional cause-and-effect structure. This version also used step-printing (the repetition of individual frames) to slow the movement down for projection at sound speed.

In 1976, the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Yutkevitch, in collaboration with Naum Kleiman, created a new version that was the most complete and authentic to date, but its pacing was again compromised by the use of stretch printing, and it was still missing fifteen shots compared to the current reconstruction. Thus, while it contained fewer shots, at 74 minutes it still ran significantly longer than the 2005 reconstruction. Also, one could argue that the excerpts from the Shostakovich symphonies chosen to accompany the print added to its lugubrious atmosphere.

The 2005 reconstruction relies heavily on the Jay Leyda print and written recollections for its shot list, but whenever possible uses early generation prints held at the British Film Institute because of their superior photographic quality. (The original negative still exists at Gosfilmofond of Russia, though it bears the traces of German censorship and according to the archive is too fragile to use for printing, as Patalas related in a 2005 article in the Journal of Film Preservation.) The intertitles recreate the original text as closely as possible, including the restoration of a Trotsky quotation as the epigraph; predictably, it had been replaced by a Lenin quote when Trotsky fell out of favor. The length of the individual title cards is also now more in keeping with the film’s rhythm as a whole, which is no small point since Eisenstein viewed them as a crucial component of his montage aesthetic. Lastly, as Eisenstein intended from the start, this version uses hand-coloring to tint the Potemkin’s flag red during certain sequences.

In the documentary that accompanies Kino’s forthcoming DVD edition, Naum Kleiman sums up the difficult choices faced in reconstructing the film: “There being no absolutely exact film record from 1926, we cannot claim to have all the scenes in their full length. Often, what Patalas did was an extension of an already existing version, that is, of the censored version. Due to the disintegration of the film, or splices that have come apart, some parts had to be spliced together again. Some frames were lost in the process. Today it’s difficult to assess whether all that was added to the very last version changed the meaning of the film, or its rhythm, or whether it reinforced its visual quality. At any rate, we felt that we managed to approximate the original up to 99%, or even 99.5%.” Viewers already familiar with The Battleship Potemkin are likely to be struck with how much better the reconstruction flows as a film compared to previous versions. Combined with the superior detail and contrast of the new video transfer and the excitement of Meisel’s orchestral score, the reconstruction enables us to appreciate one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces in a fresh light.


Producer: Yakov Bliokh
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Script: Eisenstein, based on an idea by Nina Agadzhanova-Shutko
Assistant Director: Grigori Aleksandrov
Director of Photography: Eduard Tisse
Editing: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Aleksande Antonov (Vakulinchuk), Mikhail Gomorov (Matyushenko), Vladimir Barsky (Captain Golikov), Grigori Aleksandrov (Chief Officer Gilyarovsky), Aleksandr Levshin (Petty Officer), Beatrice Vitoldi (Woman on the Odessa Steps), N. Poltavtseva (Woman with the pince-nez), also Members of the Proletkult Theater, Sailors of the Black Sea Fleet, the Sebastopol Fisherman’s Union, and the Inhabitants of Odesssa.


Supervised by Enno Patalas in collaboration with Anna Bohn.
Produced by the Deutsche Kinemathek with the support of Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, the British Film Institute, the Munich Filmmuseum, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.
Colorization by Gerhard Ullmann.
Musical score by Edmund Meisel (1926); adaptation and instrumentation by Helmut Imig.
Music performed by the Deutsches Filmorchestra Babelsberg, conducted by Helmut Imig.

by James Steffen

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The Pet Shop Boys will unveil their latest project - a soundtrack to the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin - at a free show in London's Trafalgar Square.

The irony is that this propaganda film for the Bolshevik Revolution was made four years after the
Kronstadt rebellion occurred against the Bolshevik hegemonic state, by the same sailors.

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The naval base of Kronstadt lies on Kotlin Island near the head of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great captured the island from the Swedes in 1703 and built it into a naval fortress to protect his new capital. The concentration of heavy armory and sailors on the small island made it a bulwark against foreign invasion, but also a tinderbox in times of internal unrest. During the stormy years 1905-1906 several mutinies broke out on Kronstadt. The sailors were important allies to the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution (1917), when the Kronstadt Soviet opposed the provisional government, declared a "Kronstadt Republic," and took part in the July 1917 mutiny. The famous cruiser Aurora, which had bombarded the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917 with its famous shot heard round the world, belonged to the Baltic Fleet based in Kronstadt.

It was a rude shock to the Bolsheviks when the red sailors of Kronstadt went into open rebellion in March 1921. The sailors saw themselves as loyal to the Soviet cause, if not to the Communist rulers. That bitter winter saw Kronstadt, like most other cities in Russia, hungry and discontented. Anger at material deprivations was compounded by the authoritarian regime the Bolsheviks were building, which seemed to violate the spirit of the revolution that the sailors had helped win. Popular unrest finally grew into strikes, which led to riots, lockouts, arrests. Finally on February 26, local Communist authorities declared martial law. A pattern of sharp protest and response escalated rapidly from here to a state of mutiny.

It is the source of the greatest political division on the left, between anarchists and Trotskyists, even to this day.

Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt By Leon Trotsky

SHAGYA BLOG: Kronstadt Izvestiia - " Four Legs Good "

The complete edition of
"Izvestiia of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee of Sailors, Soldiers and Workers of the town of Kronstadt"

Demands of the Kronstadt Insurgents, Expressed in the Resolution of the General Meeting of the Crews of the Ships of the Line

Kronstadt, 28 February I92I

Having heard the report of the representatives of the crews despatched by the General Meeting of the crews from the ships to Petrograd in order to learn the state of affairs in Petrograd, we decided:

  1. In view of the fact that the present soviets do not represent the will of the workers and peasants, to re-elect the soviets immediately by secret voting, with free canvassing among all workers and peasants before the elections.
  2. Freedom of speech and press for workers, peasants, Anarchists and Left Socialist Parties.
  3. Freedom of meetings, trade unions and peasant associations.
  4. To convene, not later than 1 March I92I, a non-party conference of workers, soldiers and sailors of Petrograd City, Kronstadt and Petrograd Province.
  5. To liberate all political prisoners of Socialist Parties, and also all workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors who have been imprisoned in connection with working-class and peasant movements.
  6. To elect a commission to review the cases of those who are imprisoned in jails and concentration camps.
  7. To abolish all Political Departments, because no single party may enjoy privileges in the propagation of its ideas and receive funds from the state for this purpose. Instead of these Departments, locally elected cultural-educational commissions must be established and supported by the state.
  8. To abolish all Communist fighting detachments in all military units, and also the various Communist guards at factories. If such detachments and guards are needed they may be chosen from the companies in military units and in the factories according to the judgment of the workers.
  9. To grant the peasant full right to do what he sees fit with his land and also to possess cattle, which he must maintain and manage with his own strength, but without employing hired labour.
  10. To ask all military units and also our comrades, the military cadets, to associate themselves with our resolutions.
  11. We demand that all resolutions be widely published in the press.
  12. To permit free artisan production with individual labour.

The resolutions were adopted by the meeting unanimously, with two abstentions.

 President of the Meeting, PETRICHENKO.

Secretary, PEREPELKIN.


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1 comment:

Swany said...

it's = it is