Wednesday 30 January 2013

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

This is one of three very different Russian Revolution films I'd like to cover during this 100-films experiment - and the only one in Russian.  The trio are 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971) which I like very much indeed, 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965) which I don't like at all, though I concede that it has great artistic merit; and this, 'Броненосец «Потёмкин»'which I admire as a piece of work, but can't claim to have a great preference on either way.  We don't watch propaganda films because they make us happy, but because they're well-wrought, interesting and historically significant.  One doesn't watch 'Triumph of the Will' (1934) through a joy at seeing Hitler's little face.  By no means!  It's a major piece of history in itself, and has brass bands and rich oratory (however objectionable) to keep the attention.

So it is with 'Battleship Potemkin'.  The propaganda films that last long enough to be counted as classics tend to be worth watching for their artistry and innovative techniques.  Most striking here are the montages, the tensest moments juxtaposing images - the mutinous sailors quailing beneath a tarpaulin, a firing squad of their fellows tensing to fire, the fire-and-brimstone priest thumping his hand with a golden cross, all cut together to produce the most emotive reaction in the spectator.  To make us angry at the unfairness, to see the suffering of fellow workers and the cruelty of oppressive officers.

It makes a compelling case.  I admire these sailors and pity the people of Odessa, gunned down by the Tsarist troopers for supporting the mutinous cause.  It's a revolution easy to support, but history has left it seeming bitter.  I don't know much about Soviet Russia, but I know I wouldn't want to live there.  The revolution, as in the microcosm of the Battleship, got rid of the most visible villains, but in the long-term life got no better.  If I didn't know this, such a film might have incited me to action.

It's constructed with an amazing clarity of vision based on political conviction.  Such fervour in the hands of an artist can produce incredible works, and the whole thing is about as striking and sure of itself as one could hope for in a ninety-year-old movie.

One of the delights of silent films is the choice of musical scores that tend to accrue.  I've watched several recently which gave me a selection of different musical styles to choose from, and director Sergei Eisenstein was well aware that this was how the future would be.  He said that 'Battleship Potemkin' would always be relevant so long as a new soundtrack was created for it every 20 years.  On this occasion, I watched it with the 2004 score by the Pet Shop Boys - a combination currently available only on Youtube, though film and music are both purchasable separately.  The new(ish) soundtrack is something one could dance to, or at least gyrate rhythmically to, and certainly gives the film a boost and an immediacy, but has the effect of making the flickering pictures seem ancient, as well as timeless.  Perhaps Youtube's diabolical picture quality played a part here - I know twenties films are capable of scrubbing up rather better than this, and I'm sure the film is available in a more beautiful state on shiny disc.  So yes, as I like the Pet Shop Boys' style, so I shall watch out for any future release marrying this soundtrack to a cleaned up print on blu-ray.  It's got to happen eventually.

Why not watch a far better quality copy than I did? Or listen to the music - it's quite something.

1 comment:

  1. My friend Luke, of the Minute Doctor Who Podcast, informs me that 'Броненосец', as well as meaning Battleship, as in this title, also translates as 'Armadillo'. That would be quite a different adventure.