The Battleship Potemkin

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The Battleship Potemkin
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein
Produced by Jacob Bliokh
Written by Nina Agadzhanova
Nikolai Aseyev
Sergei M. Eisenstein
Sergei Tretyakov
Cinematography Eduard Tisse
Distributed by Goskino
Release date(s)  Soviet Union December 21 1925
Flag of the United States December 5, 1926 (NYC only)
Running time 75 min.
Country  Soviet Union
Language Silent film
Russian intertitles

The Battleship Potemkin (Russian: Броненосец «Потёмкин», Bronyenosyets Potyomkin), sometimes rendered as The Battleship Potyomkin, is a 1925 silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein and produced by Mosfilm. It presents a dramatised version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their oppressive officers of the Tsarist regime.

The Battleship Potemkin has been called one of the most influential propaganda films of all time, and was named the greatest film of all time at the World's Fair at Brussels, Belgium, in 1958.


[edit] Film style and content

The film is composed of five episodes:

  • "Men and Maggots" (Люди и черви), in which the sailors protest at having to eat rotten meat;
  • "Drama at the Harbour" (Драма на тендре), in which the sailors mutiny and their leader, Vakulynchuk, is killed;
  • "A Dead Man Calls for Justice" (Мёртвый взывает) in which Vakulinchuk's body is mourned over by the people of Odessa;
  • "The Odessa Staircase" (Одесская лестница), in which Tsarist soldiers massacre the Odessans; and
  • "The Rendez-Vous with a Squadron" (Встреча с эскадрой), in which the squadron ends up joining the sailors' side.

Eisenstein wrote the film as a revolutionary propaganda film, but also used it to test his theories of "montage". The revolutionary Soviet filmmakers of the Kuleshov school of filmmaking were experimenting with the effect of film editing on audiences, and Eisenstein attempted to edit the film in such a way as to produce the greatest emotional response, so that the viewer would feel sympathy for the rebellious sailors of the Battleship Potemkin and hatred for their cruel overlords. In the manner of most propaganda, the characterization is simple, so that the audience could clearly see with whom they should sympathize.

Poster of Battleship Potemkin

Eisenstein's experiment was a mixed success; he "was disappointed when Potemkin failed to attract masses of viewers"[1], but the film was also released in a number of international venues, where audiences responded more positively. In both the Soviet Union and overseas, the film shocked audiences, but not so much for its political statements as for its use of violence, which was considered graphic by the standards of the time.[citation needed] The film's potential to influence political thought through emotional response was noted by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who called Potemkin "a marvellous film without equal in the cinema ... anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film."[2]

[edit] Cast

  • Aleksandr AntonovGrigory Vakulinchuk - Bolshevik Sailor
  • Vladimir Barsky — Commander Golikov
  • Grigori Aleksandrov — Chief Officer Giliarovsky
  • Ivan Bobrov — Young Sailor Flogged While Sleeping (as I. Bobrov)
  • Mikhail Gomorov — Militant Sailor
  • Aleksandr Levshin — Petty Officer
  • N. Poltavseva — Woman With Pince-nez
  • Konstantin Feldman — Student Agitator

[edit] The Odessa Steps sequence

The boots of the Tsarist soldiers shown marching down the "Odessa Steps".

The most famous scene in the film is the massacre of civilians on the Odessa Steps (also known as the Primorsky or Potemkin Stairs). In this scene, the Tsar's Cossacks in their white summer tunics march down a seemingly endless flight of steps in a rhythmic, machine-like fashion firing volleys into a crowd. The victims include a young boy and a mother who is pushing a baby in a baby carriage. As she falls to the ground, dying, she leans against the carriage, nudging it away; it rolls down the steps amidst the fleeing crowd.

A baby in a carriage falling down the "Odessa Steps"
A wide shot of the massacre on the "Odessa Steps".

The massacre on the steps is fictional, presumably created by Eisenstein for its dramatic venue and effect, as well as for propaganda and to demonise the Tsar and the Imperial regime.[3] It is, however, based on the fact that there were widespread demonstrations in the area, sparked off by the arrival of the Potemkin in Odessa Harbour, and both The Times of London and the resident British Consul reported that troops fired on the crowds with accompanying loss of life (the actual number of casualties is unrecorded). Film critic Roger Ebert writes, "That there was, in fact, no czarist massacre on the Odessa Steps scarcely diminishes the power of the scene ... It is ironic that [Eisenstein] did it so well that today the bloodshed on the Odessa steps is often referred to as if it really happened."[4]

[edit] Treatment in other films

The scene is perhaps the best example of Eisenstein's theory on montage, and many films pay homage to the scene, including Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, Tibor Takacs' Deathline, and George Lucas's Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Chandrashekhar Narvekar's Hindi film Tezaab. Several films spoof it, including Woody Allen's Bananas and Love and Death, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker's Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult, Soviet-Polish comedy Deja Vu and the Italian comedy "il secondo tragico Fantozzi" (in English, "The Second Tragic Fantozzi Movie"). Peter Sellers presented an homage to the sequence in his film "The Magic Christian;" during the "Free money" scene near the end, a line of businessmen descend the bank steps wielding their umbrellas like rifles.

[edit] Distribution, censorship and restoration

Another poster of The Battleship Potemkin

After its premiere in Soviet Union, Potemkin was shown in the United States. It was shown in an edited form in Germany, with some scenes of extreme violence edited out by its German distributors. A written introduction by Leon Trotsky was cut from Soviet prints after he ran afoul of Joseph Stalin. The film was banned in Nazi Germany, Britain (until 1954 and X-rated until 1978), Spain (though not during the Second Republic), France, and other countries for its revolutionary zeal. It was even banned in the Soviet Union for a short period when the Comintern, under Stalin's Socialism in One Country policy, ceased to promote world revolution and mutiny among the navies of capitalist countries.

Today, the film is widely available in various DVD editions. However, in 2004, a three-year restoration of the film was completed. Many excised scenes of violence were restored, as well as the original written introduction by Trotsky. The previous titles, which had toned down the mutinous sailors' revolutionary rhetoric, were corrected so that they would now be an accurate translation of the original Russian titles in the film.

[edit] Soundtracks

As a propaganda film, Eisenstein declared his wish that the score should be rewritten every 20 years, in order to retain its relevance to each new generation.

The original score was composed by Edmund Meisel. A salon orchestra performed the Berlin premiere in 1926; its instrumentation was flute/piccolo, trumpet, trombone, harmonium, percussion and strings without viola. Meisel wrote the score in twelve days and nights due to the late approval from the censorship board. Due to this problem, Meisel would repeat large sections of the score, unchanged, in an effort to complete the project. Composer/conductor Mark-Andreas Schlingensiepen has reorchestrated and improved the score based on the original piano score and has adjusted it to fit the reconstructed version of the film available today.

In 1986, Eric Allaman wrote an original electronic score for a showing that took place during the Berlin Film Festival of that year. The music was commissioned by the organizers who wanted to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the picture's German premiere (which at that time was attended by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks). The score was only featured at this premiere and hasn't been released either on CD or DVD. Contemporary reviews very largely positive with only a couple of negative remarks that were based on the fact that the music was electronic and not symphonic. Allaman wrote an opera about Battleship Potemkin in the mid-90s, but this venture is musically separate from the film score.

In its commercial format (on DVD, for example) the film is usually accompanied by pieces of classical music that have been subsequently added; Dmitri Shostakovich and Nikolai Kriukov are two composers whose works have been used. In an attempt to make the film relevant for the 21st century, the Pet Shop Boys composed a new soundtrack in 2004, accompanied by the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra. Their soundtrack, released as Battleship Potemkin in 2005, was premiered in September 2004 at an open-air concert in Trafalgar Square, London. There were four further live performances of the work with the Dresdner Sinfoniker in Germany in September 2005 and one at the Swan Hunter ship yard in Newcastle upon Tyne on May 1, 2006. The only other live performance of this piece took place on January 11, 2008, at the Barbican Center in London.

The avant-garde jazz ensemble Club Foot Orchestra has also re-scored the film, and performed live in accompaniment to the film.

[edit] Critical reaction

In 2007, a two-disc, restored version of the film was released on DVD. Time magazine's Richard Corliss named it one of the Top 10 DVDs of the year, ranking it at #5.[5]

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Neuberger, Joan (2003). Ivan the Terrible. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. .
  2. ^ "Triumph of the Will". Retrieved on 2006-07-30. 
  3. ^ Fabe, Marilyn (Aug 1, 2004). Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23862-1.  p. 24
  4. ^ :: :: Great Movies :: The Battleship Potemkin (xhtml)
  5. ^ Corliss, Richard; Top 10 DVDs;

[edit] External links

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