How a Russian classic influenced the British documentary movement.
On the 30th September 1926, less than a year after its Soviet premiere, Battleship Potemkin was banned by the BBFC. “The cinema is no place for politics” was the view of the censor at the time and in 1936 the BBFC’s President Edward Tyrell proudly stated during a speech to the Cinema Exhibitor’s Association that the “burning issues of the day” had not made their way into British theatres. This period between the wars was a strange time, one in which the censor sought to appease the cinema owners and the politicians fearful of stirring up audiences. Thus pro-revolutionary and anti-Soviet works received a blanket ban, as did those both for and against the Nazi Party, a situation that wouldn’t change until the outbreak of war. Such an indiscriminate attitude meant that art stood for nothing – other casualties alongside Battleship Potemkin included Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother and The End of St. Petersburg. Interestingly the Home Office was fully complicit in such acts despite the BBFC’s supposed independence. Their examiner for Battleship Potemkin was J.C. Hanna, later to become their chief censor, and he consulted directly with the Home Secretary before a decision on Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece was made.
At the time John Grierson was living in New York. The Scottish-born future filmmaker had won a scholarship to the US where he studied immigration problems. During this period (he left England in October 1924, returning in January 1927) he also gained employment as the New York Sun’s arts correspondent, which is how Battleship Potemkin first gained his attention. The film had recently played the Berlin Film Festival to an audience including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were keen to bring it to the US. Grierson and his Sun colleague Jack Cohen (the newspaper’s film critic) were given the task of preparing an American release print and creating new English-language intertitles. Whilst his fellow Brits were denied a viewing by the powers-that-be, the young Scot was able to acquaint himself fully with Eisenstein’s still-astonishing montage technique. As he later put it himself, he got to know the film “foot by foot and cut by cut”.
Fast-forward to 1929 and Grierson had just completed his first effort behind the camera. Drifters was an account of Scottish herring fleets operating off the east coast. The film follows them as they head out to sea, lay their nets, sleep, gather in those nets and then head to East Anglia to sell their catch at market. It received its premiere on the 10th of November 1929 as part of a very special – and now very famous – double-bill. Sharing the bill was another film gaining its first proper British screening, namely Battleship Potemkin itself. Not that the BBFC had reversed their decision (that wouldn’t come until 1954). Rather this was a screening at Ivor Montagu’s London Film Society and therefore outside of usual distribution rules. They still met with problems (a screening of The End of St. Petersburg was met with discussion in the House of Commons, whilst intervention from the police and even the Home Secretary was not unknown), but then these were not normal screenings. Indeed, a 25 shilling membership fee kept the common man away from such potentially inflammatory material. A more typical audience was made up from the likes of George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, with Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell among the filmmakers in occasional attendance.
This new Blu-ray from the BFI seeks to recreate that double-bill and in doing so places an interesting emphasis on the films at hand. Whilst the arrival of one cinema’s most famous silent movies onto the HD format is cause for great celebration (especially as it appears here in its original 18fps and with Edmund Meisel score), here we are asked to view it in a certain light. Typically, a Blu-ray edition would position Battleship Potemkin as one of the greatest films of all time – which is exactly what Kino have done in the US – but in this case it has been repositioned as one of the major influences on British documentary filmmaking. Of course, we are still witnessing undeniably spectacular cinema, yet at the same time we are also detecting where its influence lies and how that influence had an impact. Not only in the case of Drifters, but also subsequent non-fiction efforts as demonstrated by the trio of additional shorts (all made under the auspices of the GPO Film Unit, of which Grierson was Film Officer between 1934 and 1937) which also put in an appearance on this set.
Battleship Potemkin should require no introduction. Eisenstein’s 1925 film was a mainstay on each and every one of Sight & Sound’s decennial polls until this year (where it earned the number 11 spot), perfectly encapsulating its enduring reputation. Dramatizing the events of 1905 in which the crew of the titular battleship mutinied and overcome their Tsarist superiors – a cinematic microcosm for that year’s revolutionary fervour – its editing techniques and set pieces, particularly the Odessa Steps sequence, are justly well-known, even to the more casual cinephile. They continue to dazzle to this day, Eisenstein’s control of his material as commanding as it was 87 years ago. His use of rhythm and repetition, of visual emphasis and dramatic counterpoint create a wonderfully intense, emotive and often overwhelming experience. Goebbels, who declared the film “marvellous”, famously stated that “anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film”.
Drifters was made without any kind of propagandist aims, but instead sought to utilise some of Eisenstein’s visual intensity. The brief running time – just 41 minutes in length – may suggest something a touch slight, yet Grierson seeks a similar level of control as his Soviet influence and endeavours to make his every moment count. Arguably it’s the slender narrative thread which gives him his freedom to experiment. The men-at-work structure, following the fishermen from the point of their setting out to the selling of their goods, is so simple and streamlined that Grierson can focus his attentions elsewhere. Framework in place, he can build up his montage sequences and succession of images. Also serving as editor, there is a terseness to his rhythms, rarely holding a shot unless it contains its own momentum (as when the men gather in the fishing nets – an astonishing eight-hour process!). Instead he cuts from fishermen to gulls to machinery to waves and so forth. Each serves to provide additional detail or sense of place; collectively they ensure that Drifters fully captures the very essence of the drama of its subjects (if not their psychology, as Patrick Russell notes in his booklet essay).
In an interesting move, the BFI have commissioned beatboxer and vocal sculptor Jason Singh to compose Drifters’ new score. Though such a label perhaps suggests something a little abrasive, the reality is surprisingly meditative. Singh manipulates his sounds with samplers, effects pedals and enhancers, in doing so arriving at a happy medium between the organic and the electronic. It makes for a fitting accompaniment as Drifters too flits somewhere between the natural world and the machine age: a hymn to all those fish and all that heavy graft but also, according to its opening title, “an epic of steam and steel”. Its fascination with the mechanical processes of cinema and their possibilities, as seen in the Eisenstein-influenced edits, also looms large.
Granton Trawler, one of three additional shorts supporting the main programme on this disc, saw Grierson return to the sea five years later. Running just 11 minutes it necessarily feels more abstract (and consequently poetic) than Drifters, though this may also be in part down to the impressionistic sound editing by Alberto Cavalcanti. Once again, Grierson constructs his film with an emphasis on the visual, but here it is matched by the clicking and thumping rhythms of the ship’s engine plus snatched moments of harmonica and barely discernible dialogue in thick Scots accents. Such abstraction was taken further by Len Lye when he made Trade Tattoo in 1937. Here footage of men at work (including shots taken from Drifters) was printed in negative or in extreme contrasts and then superimposed over colour animated patterns, all to a jaunty Cuban soundtrack.
North Sea, directed by Harry Watt in 1938, completes the circle. Two years previous the GPO Film Unit had produced The Saving of Bill Blewitt (also directed by Watt), the first of the ‘dramatized documentaries’. Borrowing ideas from both non-fiction and conventional narrative forms, these films sought to recreate events after the fact – much like Battleship Potemkin – albeit under a documentary guise. The story in North Sea’s case is that of a trawler from Aberdeen which encounters troubles (rough sea, choked engines, damaged aerial) only to be rescued via the GPO’s ship-to-shore radio set-ups. (This was, after all, a promotional film much like the majority of the Unit’s output; Trade Tattoo, for all its flash and innovation, essentially advertised postal hours.) To tell this tale Watt employed non-professional actors and made do without a voice-over. He also borrowed a few visual tricks from his former boss (Grierson having produced The Saving of Bill Blewitt, not to mention Watts’ most enduring work, Night Mail) such was the on-going influence of Drifters. Indeed, just as Battleship Potemkin begat Drifters, so too Drifters begat so much of British cinema’s 1930s documentary output. As Henry K. Miller notes in the accompanying booklet, North Sea would “cause a split in movement” – eventually leading into the war-era ‘drama-documentaries’ of Watts’ own Target for Tonight, Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started and Pat Jackson’s Western Approaches (all works of fiction despite the label) – though trace elements would remain.
It’s the emphasis on this connective tissue that makes these Soviet Influence volumes from the BFI (their first, pairing Victor A. Turin’s Turksib with Night Mail, was released in 2011) so fascinating. Needless to say, the quality of the individual films is very high, but it’s a wonderful experience to be asked to look this particular area of British cinema in a very particular way. The total running time of this latest set is just over two and a half hours making it easily digestible in a single sitting. And such close proximity forces us to make connections, to compare and contrast, and to trace developments. It could also be said, to a degree, that it renders the films afresh. Whereas Battleship Potemkin should be familiar to many, Drifters has been readily available on disc for a number of years and all three of the shorts appeared as part of the BFI’s three-volume overview of the GPO Film Unit, we perhaps haven’t looked at them in quite this way or even considered them as part of the same story.
The BFI’s second Soviet Influence disc is being released as a dual-format edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD formats encoded for Region B/2. All five films are presented on a single disc (total running time: approximately 159 minutes) accompanied by a hefty 30-page booklet. A Blu-ray was provided for review purposes so it is this disc which will be discussed below.
Battleship Potemkin is presented in its original aspect ratio (the curvature of the frame is apparent on all corners confirming that we are seeing all of the information) at a rate of 18 frames per second (see Michael Brooke’s explanation on the BFI website here) and accompanied by Edmund Meisel’s 1926 score, here present in both LPCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 form. The intertitles are in their original Russian, with optional English subtitles, and, for the most part, the film looks very good in HD. Contrast levels are excellent and the amount of detail a revelation to someone who first saw the film thanks to Castle Hendering’s ancient VHS! Of course there is a certain amount of damage to contend with in the form of scratches and other signs of age, though never to a detrimental degree. This edition also includes the hand-painted red flag – and looking suitably vivid, too.
Drifters has been sourced from a 35mm tinted print held in the BFI National Archives. In comparison to Battleship Potemkin the image is a tad softer, though by no means underwhelming. Damage can be quite prominent at times, but the clarity of the image remains unaffected and there’s nothing here that proves especially distracting. The colour tints, especially, come across well. Once again the film is presented in its original aspect ratio and at its original frame rate (24fps) with accompaniment from Jason Singh. The soundtrack is as crisp and clean as you would hope from such a new recording and is presented here as either LPCM stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.
The remaining three shorts were all prepared by the BFI in 2008 for their earlier GPO Film Unit volumes. Their age shines through from time to time in terms of damage both to the image and the soundtrack, but that is generally outweighed by getting to see these films in HD. Indeed, whilst Battleship Potemkin and Drifters both have the reputation and the place in film history to justify a Blu-ray edition, it’s fair to say that these shorter efforts, without a regard for their quality, probably wouldn’t have figured high on most people’s lists. And they really do shine in this instance, especially the Len Lye given its Technicolor and movement. As with the other inclusions the films appear in their original aspect ratios and with their original mono soundtracks intact.
As for the booklet, this proves to be an essential addition especially given the specific approach of these Soviet Influence releases. Henry K. Miller provides the main essay, teasing out the connections between Battleship Potemkin and Drifters whilst also detailing their histories. The background on Ivor Montagu’s efforts to get Potemkin screened is particularly welcome. Elsewhere each of the films gets its own individual essay (Drifters’ piece previously appeared in Patrick Russell’s BFI Screen Guide 100 British Documentaries) and full credits. There are also notes from Jason Singh on his composition for Drifters plus notes on the transfers and a healthy quota of illustrations.
Please note that the video and audio ratings below represent an average of the five films’ respective presentations.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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