Battleship Potemkin Review

Along with Citizen Kane, La grande illusion, Ugetsu monogatari and Bicycle Thieves, Sergei Eisenstein's second feature Battleship Potemkin has achieved such unholy pre-eminence as a towering masterpiece of not just its era but its entire medium that it seems almost sacrilegious to even dare criticise it.

A permanent fixture on Best Films of All Time lists (it's one of only two films - the other being Renoir's La règle du jeu - that have appeared on every one of Sight & Sound's decennial critics' top ten polls from 1952 to 2002), it's impossible to ignore its cultural and historical impact, even though in retrospect it represents something of a dead end both in style and content.

More damagingly, its revolutionary fervour, while undoubtedly incendiary at the time (the BBFC refused it a certificate for nearly 30 years, not so much for its violence as for its politics, and private screenings in London in the late 1920s were monitored by Special Branch), now looks almost parodic - with the result that you have to make numerous allowances when watching it in the way that you notably don't with the other films I've cited above, and indeed Eisenstein's earlier, lesser-known Strike.

To be fair, this isn't entirely the film's fault - much like Laurence Olivier's Richard III or Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, it's been referenced and lampooned so many times (Bananas, Love and Death, Brazil and especially The Untouchables contain direct quotations, while Francis Bacon's breakthrough paintings of the late 1940s were inspired by it) that it's hard to return to the original with completely fresh eyes. It's also hardly Eisenstein's fault that the politics have dated - the Marxist dialectics certainly found their audience at the time, but come across as embarrassingly simplistic today: later revolutionary masterpieces like Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers offer far more sophisticated political analysis while losing nothing in terms of throat-grabbing immediacy.

Originally conceived as just one episode of a colossal project given the self-explanatory title The Year 1905, Battleship Potemkin tells the story of the mutiny of the sailors on the battleship Potemkin (correctly pronounced 'potyomkin') after their resentment at their appalling living conditions and maggot-ridden food boils over into full-blown rebellion. This threatens to spread to the mainland, and the army attempts a crackdown on the Odessa Steps, but the ensuing massacre is entirely counterproductive, emphasising just how brutal the Tsarist regime is and sparking off similar mutinies on other battleships.

That's pretty much it in narrative terms - and had Eisenstein left it at that, the film would doubtless have been quickly forgotten. But the film's impact came not so much for its content as its presentation - Eisenstein's eye for bold, geometric compositions is as sharp as before, while his montage techniques and theories are simultaneously more sophisticated in execution while simpler in content. While Strike tossed out conceptual, visual and technical ideas with gleeful abandon, regardless of whether they necessarily fit the central argument, Potemkin is much more focused, with every frame of film specifically geared towards delivering a single message: solidarity and brotherhood in the face of brutal repression.

The film's final exultant title reads 'BROTHERS!', but the theme of brotherhood runs right through the film, from the opening images of the men in hammocks, criss-crossing each other in precise angular arrangements (Eisenstein films the sailors' semi-nude bodies in decidedly homoerotic fashion). As in Strike, Eisenstein prefers crowds to individuals, though this time we are given an emotional focus that the earlier film lacks, most notably through Vakulinchuk, the revolutionary turned martyr. The middle section of the film contains a lengthy funeral procession past his corpse, seemingly attended by the entire civilian population of Odessa (Eisenstein stresses the widest range of ages, races and social classes).

The subsequent scene on the Odessa Steps, where many of these people are mown down by the advancing army is one of the most celebrated sequences in film history, and it's easy to see why - Eisenstein's rapid-fire editing is impressive enough even by contemporary standards (those who think high-speed cutting was invented by MTV are in for a revelation), but back in 1926 it must have had the impact of a piledriver. Despite the passage of time, it still has a thrilling remorselessness: the visual equivalent of the primeval rhythms of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, premiered only thirteen years earlier. However dated the rest of the film, these images will last for as long as there are screens to show them on.

To be brutally honest, this DVD is a severe disappointment after the pleasant surprise that was Eureka's Strike. The source print varies widely in quality, making it hard to arrive at a meaningful overall grade. At its worst, it's atrocious - riddled with damage (spots, scratches, blotches and even splices) and very contrasty indeed, but individual sequences are markedly better.

But the overall contrast level is just a bit too high for comfort: shadow detail in particular tends to get swallowed. The image is decidedly soft, and occasionally even somewhat unsteady, very occasionally even slipping out of focus in a way that suggests the print has seen better days some considerable time ago - and there are dirt marks in the same place throughout the entire film, suggesting the transfer was done on less than beautifully maintained equipment.

To be fair, it's never unwatchable, but it's clearly overshadowed by the other DVDs in Eureka's Eisenstein collection, and I have to say it's not noticeably better in terms of definition than my old Hendring VHS copy, which I've had for well over a decade. Happily, though, the transfer is perfectly adequate given the shortcomings of the source material - I noted no digital glitches worth mentioning.

Two soundtracks are on offer, both consisting of a mono score remixed to plain stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1. Frankly, there's not a great deal to choose between them, though the 5.1 sounds slightly fuller-bodied, as one would expect - but the shortcomings of the original recording are obvious throughout: it was clearly recorded several decades ago and is soft and poorly-defined throughout.

It should also be noted that this is not the 'official' score by Edmond Meisel and neither was it specifically composed for the film (like the Alloy Orchestra's score for Eureka's Strike) - much of it (if not all of it: I'm going from what I recognised) is taken from old recordings of Shostakovich symphonies, and while the extracts have been reasonably intelligently chosen, there are also some jarring edits.

For instance, I thought the use of the slow movement of Shostakovich's 11th Symphony (written, appropriately enough, to commemorate the 1905 Revolution) to underscore Vakulinchuk's funeral procession in part three worked very well, but when that ends there's a cut to a piece that's completely different in tone, even though there's no corresponding visual shift.

I also had issues with the intertitles - the opening titles are solely in English and in a jarringly modern sans-serif drop-shadowed typeface, suggesting they were added some considerable time after 1925. Once the film proper starts, though, they revert to the original Russian with English subtitles, though the latter are sourced from the cinema print and consequently can be quite hard to read at times - for instance when they're superimposed over the Russian.

Where there was too much text in the original to subtitle effectively, instead of shrinking but still including the original Russian title (as on the Strike DVD), a wholly English intertitle has been substituted. In other words, while it's always perfectly clear what's going on, the titles are not true to Eisenstein's original conception - and the way they jump around in typeface, layout and even language is needlessly distracting.

The only extra is a relatively brief synopsis-cum-history of the film, which consists of scrolling text whose speed was just a tad slow for my taste.

It's worth noting that the Russian Cinema Council will be doing their own version of Battleship Potemkin later this year, and I'll be intrigued to see how it measures up - at the very least, the extras should be vastly superior, and there's every possibility the source materials and transfer will be a distinct improvement too. So unless you have to see the film now, or you've bought Eureka's Russia in Revolt box set (which also includes Strike, October and The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty) I'd recommend waiting: there's huge scope for improvement on what's on offer here.

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