Review: 1905 Russian Revolution on the screen

Restored version of ‘Battleship Potemkin’ at 55th Berlin Film Festival

One highlight of this year’s 55th Berlin Film Festival (February 10-20) was the re-screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’. For the first time since its world premiere in 1925, the film was shown largely in its original version. This marks a double anniversary: ‘Battleship’ was filmed 80 years ago to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1905 – the centenary of which occurs this year.

After the premiere in Moscow, the left-wing distributor, ‘Prometheus’, bought the rights to the film in Germany. The Berlin premiere in 1926 was a sensational success. From there, the Battleship began its triumphant progress around the world. However, only a censored version of the film reached German cinemas. German sailors were not to be given any wrong ideas. The film was further cut by censors as it continued to be received with increasing enthusiasm in the Weimar Republic.

Later, sections of the film also fell victim to Stalin’s editing. Despite all this, the shortened and altered version of Eisenstein’s work became a milestone in the history of cinema, remaining still unsurpassed as a representation of a revolutionary movement.

The mutiny represents the revolution

The film is divided into five acts, each corresponding to the length of one roll of film:

1. Men and Maggots: On the battleship, lying off Odessa, the crew refuse to eat meat which is infested by maggots. The sailors ask: “All Russia is rising – do we want to be the last to do so?”

2. Drama on the quarterdeck: An execution squad is ordered to shoot anyone who still refuses to eat the food. At the last minute, they refuse the order to shoot. The mutiny begins.

3. An Appeal from the dead: Vakulinchuk, the first to rebel, was killed and his body lay in state in the harbour: “All for a spoonful of soup.” He becomes the focal point of an unending procession.

4. The Odessa Steps: Cossacks clear the steps of the harbour, one step at a time, from top to bottom. Soldiers shoot into the panic-stricken crowd – until a shot from one of the Potemkin’s cannons puts an end to the bloodshed.

5. Meeting the squadron: Everything is prepared for a battle. But the crews of the other ships refuse to go into action against the Battleship Potemkin.

Originally, Eisenstein wanted to make a cycle of six films entitled, ‘The year 1905’. The Battleship episode was actually only intended to consist of 44 out of the 820 frames. However, during the filming, Eisenstein decided to concentrate the whole historical importance of the revolution into one event.

This single episode shows the truth of Lenin’s comment: “The ruling class can no longer rule in the old way and the masses no longer want to live in the old way.” Starting with the mutiny against the unbearable conditions on the ship, the rebellion spreads to more people with every act: first the crew, then the population of the city, and finally the Admiral’s fleet.

The mutiny in Odessa, in summer 1905, was a key event. On the one hand, the rebellion by the sailors remained an exception, the apparatus of the state was not completely paralysed, and the rising by workers and peasants was not met with unlimited solidarity by the soldiers. On the other hand, the Battleship represents hope. It was the “dress rehearsal” that was successfully completed by 1917 Russian Revolution.

The film shows a great deal about revolution, including the power of revolution, the enthusiasm it caused among large sections of the middle classes in society (which is torn between the working class and the ruling elite), the active role of women in the revolution and the attempts of church to prop up the old order.

The Potemkin mutiny occurred before the formation of soviets (worker’s councils) – the great “invention” of 1905 – with which the working people of Russia created their own organs for struggle, to seize power and to organise the new society. At the same time, the film, in many ways, brings across the vitality and the hunger for debate and ideas, whether among the sailors on the Potemkin before the beginning of the mutiny or among the repressed masses at the Odessa port.

Revolutionary in style and technique

The film is incredibly forceful – not just thanks to its subject, but also because of the way it is presented. The strong use of symbols is unique. For example, the waves crashing on a pier in the opening sequence represent the stirring masses.

Sergei Eisenstein also broke new ground with his use of montage. The film critic responsible for the restoration of Battleship Potemkin, Enno Patalas, commented: “A famous example is that of the three lions: one is asleep, the other lies awake, the other is sitting upright: shown in quick succession, they become a lion rising up: the stone is crying out”

Rhythmic and chaotic movement is counter-posed, as are close ups and long shots. First the wide open eyes of a middle class woman as the Cossacks approach, then the child’s pram falling down the steps of the harbour, finally, the mother carries her dead child towards the soldiers. She turns to the side, thereby speaking directly to the camera: lamenting, accusing and appealing, all at the same time. In his 1924 film, ‘Strike’, Eisenstein worked with a “Montage of attractions”: from a capitalist squeezing a lemon, he cuts to the violent dissolution of a strike meeting.

The way the film displays the interplay between the collective and individuals is unforgettable: whether it is the sailor Vakulinchuk taking the initiative to mutiny or the rousing speech by a revolutionary as the body lies in state in the harbour – its a matter of individuals who dare to take the first step. Still, history is made by the repressed masses, not by individual “Heroes”. On this basis, Eisenstein works with figures that represent their social class, acting in the manner they do to highlight a certain behavioural type associated with their class. An example would be the ship’s doctor denying that there are maggots in the meat, symbolising the cowardly section of the middle class.

Restoration of the original

The restored version begins, just as it did eighty years ago, with a quote from Trotsky, which was later cut by Stalin and replaced by quotes from Lenin: “The spirit of mutiny swept the land. A tremendous, mysterious process was taking place in countless hearts: bonds of fear were being broken, the individual personality, having hardly had time to become conscious of itself, became dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary élan.”

Besides this, some frames were cut from the film. In part, the censorship was down to the pro-capitalist censors of the Weimar Republic and to Stalinist Russia.

This year’s original version, shown at the Volksbuehne Theatre at the Berlin International Film Festival, at Rosa Luxemburg Platz, was accompanied by orchestra music written by Edmund Meisel, in consultation with Eisenstein, for the German premiere in 1926.

Battleship Potemkin is still a gripping experience. Even today, it is still possible to understand how Albert Einstein reacted when he saw the film in the cinema in 1930: “He acclaimed it enthusiastically and filling the cinema with loud cheers – it’s a pity you weren’t there”, was how a friend of Eisenstein’s described Einstein’s response to the film.

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March 2005