Early & Silent Film

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The Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin

Posted by keith1942 on February 28, 2011

USSR 1925. Black and white, silent with musical accompaniment, 1337 metres / 70 minutes.

 

UK film fans have a fresh chance to enjoy one of the key films of cinema history. Moreover it comes in a new restoration which is the closest yet to that seen at the premiere in Moscow in December 1925. This may seem odd for a film that is widely screened, studied and debated. However, even in an industry that often shows a scant regard for the intentions of the filmmakers, Potemkin has had a very erratic history. Ennio Patalas of the Filmmuseum Berlin [Deutsche Kinemathek), the lead archivist in this restoration had detailed many of the cuts, changes and worse in his The Odyssey of the Battleship. (Journal of Film Preservation, 2005).

The Soviet Production Company Goskino sold the original negative to the German left-wing distributor Prometheus in 1926. The film was then censored by the German authorities, cuts included a justifiably famous shot, ‘Close-up of the child covered in blood and his feet, with people running over them and then his head, with a woman stepping on it …’. When the negative was returned to the Soviet Union, possibly before, possibly after the war, the cuts remained. Soviet censors did more damage in the 1930s, removing [amongst other frames] the opening quotation, originally from the now disgraced Leon Trotsky. Hollywood did worse in the 1940s producing a bowdlerised version, Seeds of Freedom (1943) in which the shortened original film was a flashback by an ex-sailor / partisan fighting the German invaders. Then demonstrating Godard’s apt comment about the ‘Hollywood – Mosfilm axis’, in 1949 the Soviet authorities produced a sound version, partly re-edited, including changing the order of the images in the famous Odessa Steps sequence. Other versions step-printed the original and altered the aspect ratio of the frames. Clearly it remained a powerful and political viewing. But Eisenstein’s very specific treatment of image and montage was frequently diluted.

Patalas and his colleagues have meticulously researched surviving prints, contemporary material on the film and records of the different versions in different archives. They have inserted accurate titles, replaced missing frames and sequences, and carefully combined the best prints to produce this version. It is though still slightly shorter than the original version.

A key element in this process is a copy of the version that was shown at the London Film Society in 1927. This print had come directly from Moscow. It had some cuts but was relatively complete: though the English title cards were not always accurate in their translation. Life was complicated for the restorers because another version arrived in the UK in 1927, but from Berlin thus having suffered the scissors of the German censors. Both have been used in the Restoration.

The restorer have also taken into account the famous score produced for the German release by Edmund Meisel.  Apparently the Moscow premiere was accompanied by a medley of music, and performed by an orchestra unfamiliar with the film. Meisel’s score was a serious engagement with the film and its political drama. In fact, the music was so successful that on one occasion the German authorities allowed the film to be screened but banned the music.

There have now been a number of performances with a live orchestra accompanying the film. I was fortunate to see and hear this at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, with the accompaniment by Günther Buchwald. Now the British Film Institute is distributing this version of the film in a High Definition digital print. This enables them to provide the Meisel score in a recorded accompaniment. I would expect that Eisenstein’s film would look good in this format, as there are few of the special effects that are over-emphasised by the sharper edges of digital. However, it does create a further problem, the film’s running speed.

The screening at the Giornate was 18 frames per second [fps] and ran for seventy minutes. The BFI release also runs for 70m minutes but will be on digital projectors running at 24 fps.  I assume that the version has been adapted on a computer, which is rather similar to the now disused step-printing. This can produce a slight ghosting effect on the image. I think this is quite likely for the Potemkin print given that there are a number of shots in the film that are only a few frames and run for only part of a second. I am inclined to think that Eisenstein would not be completely happy with this. Patalas records that in 1929 in London, Meisel had it [the film] projected at a slower speed [to fit his music] a reason for the cooling of relations between himself and Eisenstein.’ Given what an experience the film is, this is not a reason to miss seeing the film [or seeing it again].

Apart from any other reasons it has been my experience in teaching that more people have seen the famous Odessa Steps sequence than have seen the whole film. As impressive and powerful as this sequence is, it makes far sense dramatic and political sense as part of the whole film. And the Patalas restoration means that effectively we are seeing the film in a new form and possibly in a new way. I have actually seen quite few of the different versions – memorably one print where only two of the three lions at the end of the Odessa Steps were to be seen. Here we have the radical cinematic form, the emotional resonance of the revolution, and the complexities of the film’s propaganda.  

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Watching the restoration in the digital release was a real pleasure. Eighty years on Eisenstein’s film stands the test of time, and of a radically changed social and political context. In this fuller version the film displays a dynamic drive coupled with a coherent but fairly complex narrative. Even after numerous previous viewing new aspects struck me. One particular sequence is near the start of Act V. There are shots of low rolling waves near a coastline. This appears to refer us back to the opening stormy sea, now presented in its original form. A new phase of the struggle is signalled.

The digital version looked very good, though the sharper edges of the format seemed to make the grain of the film more obvious. The visual aspect confirms how important was the contribution of Eduard Tissé to this [and other films by Eisenstein]. In particular, whilst one is struck by the editing and tempo of the Odessa Steps sequence, it is also full of stunning camera shots. There are several wide shots of the steps with the civilian crowd in full flight from the murderous soldiers. Even after eighty years I can think of few films with such dramatic images.

The accompanying score was excellent. It had to be rearranged as Meisel original score was to composed to accompany the censored and therefore somewhat shorter version. The rearrangement was extremely well done and the music makes a major contribution to the impact of the film.

There were slight weaknesses. The digital version runs at 24 fps, whereas the original probably ran at 18 fps. It appears that the method used to adjust the difference in speeds was a form of computerised ‘step-printing’, – inserting extra frames every so often. Step printing usually inserted an extra frame every three – this electronic system apparently inserts every seven or eight frames. The slight drawback is that the film has a number of camera shots that are less than this. I did think at one or two places that the image ran rather fast. There were several points where I felt this, in the Odessa Steps sequence, and also with the appearance of the three lions that follows that sequence.

But it was still a great film to see again – looking and sounding great. I did check David Thomson’s book shortly before the screening. He does not like it at all. Perversely, that is probably unintended praise.

Stills provided by Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, courtesy of the British Film Institute

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