For decades after it came out in 1925, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, portraying an episode in the first Russian Revolution of 1905, was commonly described as the greatest film of all time. Even at the height of the Cold War, spectators would still be captured by its recreation of a spontaneous mutiny on one of the czar’s naval vessels. It provided not only a thrilling account of a collective uprising but a virtual textbook in how film editing could excite sympathy, fear, and revolutionary anger. The film’s purpose was no less propagandistic than Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi productions of the 1930s, especially Triumph of the Will, but its themes were humane: not exalting the irrational cult of a supreme leader but dramatizing the oppressive violence of Russia’s old regime; the basic, universal longing for human dignity; and a bright but brief springtime of freedom and solidarity. For Eisenstein, working at the dawn of the Stalinist era, that liberation seemed to have been realized, although we came to know how soon it would be cut off. In the light of history, we cannot look at Potemkin with innocent eyes, yet its hopes and illusions seem as timely as the latest uprisings in the Arab world.
The release of a new version by Kino Lorber, with the sequence of shots, the Russian intertitles, and the original score all restored, offers an occasion to reconsider not only the movie itself but the issue of politics and film, especially revolutionary politics. Eisenstein was essentially a formalist, but he believed that film, as a revolutionary medium, could forward political revolution as well, for its techniques could incite popular feeling and bring it to a high pitch. No one could have agreed with him more than, say, Joseph Goebbels. For most of us, on the other hand, film and revolution make for an incendiary mix. It seems axiomatic that a political film ought to be complex and thoughtful, not simply rousing. But the avant-garde of the 1920s, especially in France, Germany, and Russia, set out to smash the conventions of depth in traditional narrative. For the new art cinema, stories with realistic settings, unfolding moral themes, and highly individualized characters belonged to the bourgeois world of the nineteenth century. To Eisenstein it was collective action that counted, not personal heroism or individual responsibility. Casting nonprofessional actors for Potemkin, he was drawn to physical types whose appearance expressed their social role, not performers who could give full play to complex motives.
Eisenstein was a painterly director; later in his career he sketched out every shot in advance. No one who ever saw Potemkin is likely to forget its stark images, beginning with the geometrical patterns of the hammocks in which the sailors sleep; the maggoty meat that provokes them to rise up; the weasel-faced ship doctor who examines it with pince-nez and pronounces it fit to eat;...
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