Combustible Celluloid
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With: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov, Mikhail Gomorov, Aleksandr Levshin, N. Poltavseva, Konstantin Feldman, Prokopenko, A. Glauberman, Beatrice Vitoldi
Written by: Nina Agadzhanova, Nikolai Aseyev, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Sergei Tretyakov
Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 69
Date: 24/12/1925

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Some Kind of Montage

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sergei Eisenstein's legendary silent-era film was declared a masterpiece from the moment it premiered and has placed near the top of film polls for as long as such polls have existed. According to legend, Douglas Fairbanks imported his own copy and showed it to the Hollywood elite in private screening rooms; no one was converted by its politics, but everyone was euphoric over its pure technical prowess. Apparently, the film's potential rabble-rousing capacity frightened only authority figures, who banned the film the world over. Movie distributors, on the other hand, were concerned over the movie's lack of a romantic subplot.

Decades later, movie buffs could find public domain copies of Battleship Potemkin on the shelves of the local K-Mart for a few dollars, muddy, blurry and slathered with horrendous, droning musical scores. Surely an entire generation must have wondered what the fuss was about. But in the 1990s, the film started turning up at actual screenings, accompanied by live, orchestral scores, and it began creeping back into favor. It's easy to see why it feels so revolutionary. It shatters any kind of character identification; it has no single protagonist, no constant, common face to gaze upon. It's not exactly what you'd call a "tone poem" (Eistenstein's fellow countryman Alexander Dovzhenko occupied that category), and it's not particularly experimental or non-linear. Moreover it's a poor example of storytelling, especially compared to contemporaries like Griffith, Stroheim and Feuillade. Rather, it's a collective experience, in which the mob itself becomes the character. (Paul Greengrass' United 93 is certainly a modern successor.) The film's emotions -- beginning with the mutiny on board the battleship -- ripple like a wave from ship to shore, across hoards of people and, finally, down the Odessa Steps.

Any film student could explain that Eisenstein's energetic montage injects the film with its dynamic, pumping rhythms. Another look at the film, however, reveals that cinematographer Eduard Tisse deserves half the credit. Each individual shot, regardless of what comes before or after it, makes a striking photograph in itself. In the early moments before the mutiny, the sailors hang listlessly in a bizarre maze of hammocks, arranged like cocoons. Slatted, slanted beams of light slash through the artfully cluttered shots. The film has its undeniably erotic and homoerotic images as well, most obviously in the giant, greased pokers that slide down the waiting cannon barrels. When the moment of the mutiny happens, the action turns more streamlined, with sailors racing around the ship like blood cells shooting through veins.

Eisenstein stressed speed, coordination and clarity over the shaky jumble that passes for action today. The celebrated editing doesn't serve the movie like normal cutting, simply to change viewpoints; it acts more like the beat of a drum. It serves to drive the next shot forward using the momentum of the previous shot. Like the bridge of a song, the film gives us a break during the midsection in which the murdered inciting sailor is laid to rest in a tent on the Odessa waterfront. The people assemble to pay him homage, first in large masses of moving bodies, then in close-ups of faces (some of which recur and some that do not). In showing us the faces, Eisenstein gives his mob a soul and a personality. If Battleship Potemkin has a failing, it's that Eisenstein's soapbox message gets run right over by the sheer, potent velocity of the film itself. When a group of officers prepares to gun down the mutineers, one sailor speaks up: "Brothers! Who are you shooting at?" It's a great question, but not one asked by a revolutionary. It's one asked by a visionary.

DVD Details: In 2007, Kino Video released the definitive DVD edition of this classic, long available in poor, public domain prints. Restored over many years, this new transfer includes missing shots and refurbished title cards, done according to Eisenstein's notes. It also includes the original score, composed in 1926. Viewers can access the film with its original Russian intertitles (with English subtitles) or translated into English. The second disc comes with a making-of featurette, interviewing the dedicated restorers.

Blu-Ray Details: Kino has now released a new, 2010 Blu-Ray edition of the movie that contains all the extras from the DVD. The quality is so astonishing, it's as if you're watching the movie on an actual film print. Essential.

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