Review by Michael Jacobson
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: Documentary, Photo Gallery
Length: 71 Minutes
Release Date: April 20, 2010
It is the time of the Leninist revolution in Russia. A group of Navy sailors have mutinied against their Tsarist commanders and taken over a battleship. Throngs of citizens in the seaport city of Odessa come to the steps to cheer the men on.
Terror ensues. Soldiers for the Tsar march mercilessly down the steps, firing into the innocent crowd. People run, scatter, and fall as the bullets rain down upon them. A mother sees her son collapse, and the panicked crowd tramples his little body unwittingly. Another mother falls dead, only to have her baby carriage roll down the steps, completely out of control, to a horrible end. There is death all around.
It's an absolutely incredible vision of history, and modern people can be forgiven if they aren't aware that it's an event that never took place...in fact, there is no such staircase at Odessa. But Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, under the watchful eye of his new Communist masters, crafted this sequence and many others for Battleship Potemkin, perhaps history's all-time most notorious propaganda films, as well as one of cinema's truest and most purest landmarks. The message may have been tightly controlled, but the vision and the talent all belonged to Eisenstein, and what he created reverberates with a passion and an influence that has been felt generation after generation by filmmakers and audiences all around the world.
One might have thought that this 1926 release might not have seen much light out of day outside the new Soviet Union, but Eisenstein unleashed a fury that was too big for borders either real or ideological. Even though some of the more brutal scenes were initially trimmed, his vision maintained an unapologetic power that may have been designed in support of all things Communist, but ended up as a testament to the potency of the still blossoming art form known as the motion picture.
Kino has brought a meticulously restored version to modern audiences, with many censored scenes returned and a powerful new rendition of a classic music score (more on that further down). I've been watching this movie for twenty years, and this seems to be the most complete and best translated versions I've yet come across.
I was introduced to this film in college by my humanities professor, the late great Dr. Robert Waxman. When I often cite him as a major influence in my appreciation of cinema and even my love for film criticism, it really comes back to the first time the images of this movie flickered across the television screen in our classroom. It was a bold revelation to my young, eager mind, and perhaps my first glimpse at the notion that movies could be so much more than entertainment for the masses.
It was not just about the story, the cinematography or the acting...all of those were rooted in classic and established art forms; cinematography is basically photography, acting is theater, and writing is...well, writing. What cinema offered to the art world was editing. You can look at paintings in a gallery or a performance on stage, and all you get is a single image that can change only based on your position or perspective.
But with editing, a director could put together images in new and powerful ways that a viewer couldn't see otherwise. An example: as the battleship reigns revenge on Odessa for the massacre of her citizens, we see the opera house. There is a statue of a sleeping lion. The next cut: the lion awake. Final cut: the lion awake, upright and roaring in either anger or terror. Three still images cut together to create something that could never be captured in an exhibit or single photograph. Even with three photographs, you could at best only see the images side by side...here, they are in rapid cut fashion and unleash something entirely new.
The entire staircase sequence is a testament to the power of editing. Angles juxtapose against angles for maximum conflict in imagery. Horizontal steps are cut by the downward, mechanical march of soldiers in black pants and white coats. The chaos of throes scattering for their very lives are contrasted by the methodical step, step, step of the aggressors. A close-up of a soldier slashing angrily at the camera cut with a close-up of a woman with a slashed face...both looking at the camera. A live performance could never give you two faces in conflict directly at the same time...movies could.
It's easy with Eisenstein, as it was with D. W. Griffith, to give more credit than is due for actual cinematic inventions...what both artists did were to take established parts, such as a close-up, a tracking shot or others, and find ways to use them that turned them from tools into a new vocabulary. If Eisenstein didn't invent the montage style of editing, he certainly came up with a way to use it that both successfully told his story and demonstrated how, as an art form, it could open up a new world of life and potency and make images that were moving kinetically also moving emotionally.
Sergei Eisenstein was that wonderful, rare artist that found a true creative voice under the tight fist of the Communist regime, and though words were often put in his mouth, the vision was singularly his, and as such, Battleship Potemkin remains fresh, startling and powerful more than 80 years after its premiere, and its influence can still be felt in the new millennium.
Kino actually did better than I would have either hoped or thought possible with this silent Soviet classic on Blu-ray. As mentioned, I've seen this film many times over the years, and in just about every possible medium, but there really is something to be said about this high definition restoration. There is a brightness, cleanness and crispness to the film that I'd never experienced before...almost a little startling, because I used to count the dinginess I'd seen previously as part of the dark atmosphere. No, Eisenstein crafted something a little brighter visually, and let the darkness of his images speak for itself. Yes, there are unavoidable signs of aging here and there, but really, the sharpness and clarity are quite a revelation. Even the intertitle screens are new, and I like the fact that you can choose English or original Russian with subtitles...the subtitles and English screens are the same, so there's really no logical point in using the Russian ones, but for me, it's more authentic with the Russian...their words look much more menacing on screen than ours.
This is by far the best audio track I've yet heard for a silent film offering. There have been some remarkable scores presented with this title over the years, but Kino offers the original music composed by Edmund Meisel in 1926 with a new orchestral recording in DTS HD sound that is beautiful, powerful and terrifying all at once. The music matches the imagery perfectly, and the intensity of the final confrontation between the lone battleship and the squadron is more potent than ever, thanks to the score slowly increasing in pitch and tempo as tensions reach their fevered pitch. This is the perfect example of how the right music can make a great film even better.
There are really only two extras, but the German documentary on the history and restoration of the film is a remarkable treat for cinema students. It's 42 minutes long and divided into chapters, and really offers an appreciation for how the film came to be a worldwide phenomenon. There is also a gallery of photos.
Blu-ray brings out the best even in silent films...more so than I ever would have hoped. Battleship Potemkin is an influential landmark that brings new revelation to the revolution thanks to a restored print and remarkable new life for a classic score. Sergei Eisenstein's masterpiece has never looked nor sounded better.