USSR 1925. Black and white, silent with musical accompaniment, 1337 metres / 71 minutes.
The British Film Institute is providing a welcome release at the end of April, the recent restoration of Sergei Eisenstein’s political classic. Perhaps some enterprising exhibitor will programme the film for May Day: not the British Spring Bank but International Workers Day. Unfortunately I rather suspect that is still true that more people have seen one sequence from the film, The Odessa Steps, than have seen the entire drama. Yet even now, as well as being a moving and inspiring spectacle, the film remains immensely influential. One can discern its impact on filmmaker as diverse as Oliver Stone, Ousmane Sembène and Mani Ratnam; i.e. among many others.
The film premiered in the then Soviet Union in December 1925. Essentially the film’s plot dramatises a famous episode of the earlier 1905 Revolution. A mutiny on a Tsarist battleship leads to a ferment and upsurge of democratic sentiment in the southern city of Odessa. The autocratic regime responds with brutal suppression. The parallel to present events is clear.
However, what made the film such a seminal work was the approach to form and style by the radical team of artists. In the 1920s Soviet filmmakers pioneered an unconventional approach to films. The mainstream movie represented by Hollywood developed a story through continuity and engaged spectators emotionally in the dramas built around their stars. The Soviet model tended more to types, representing the class relations of the time. They utilised radical discontinuities in technique, especially in the editing of shot to shot. Eisenstein developed the most complex ideas around montage and Potemkin is a coherent presentation of these.
The film caused a sensation both among advanced elements in the USSR and among workers and intellectuals abroad. My favourite reminiscence of the time is Luis Buñuel who recalls building a barricade outside the cinemas after a screening: [an example followed by radical students after a screening of the Argentinean documentary La hora de los hornos / The hour of the furnaces, 1968].
However, Eisenstein’s film suffered at the hands of authorities. In Germany the censors cuts sequences from the film. In Britain it was banned completely: though the intellectually safe bourgeois London Film Society was able to screen the film. With the rise of conservative forces and ‘socialist realism’ the Soviet authorities joined the act. Among pieces excised was a title card bearing a quotation by Trotsky. And when a sound version was produced in 1949 The Odessa Steps sequence included re-editing that fitted more comfortably with continuity conventions. There was also a Hollywood World War II version, Seeds of Freedom (1943), in which the events surrounding the Potemkin are presented in a flashback by a partisan fighting the German invaders. All sorts of mishaps and elisions can happen to films over the years: I saw one 16mm version in which there were only two stone lions instead of the three following the Steps sequence. And the original Russian title cards were often poorly translated.
Part of the resurgence around silent film has involved the restoration of lost or mutilated classics. This involves careful research in film archives and through contemporary published sources: careful study of surviving film footage: and sophisticated technical processes applied to actual film stock. The film may require reconstruction and new translations. There have been several restoration works on Eisenstein’s film. The current release is the most recent. Enno Patalas with the Deutsche Kinemathek carried out the restoration, and it has been the most painstaking. The resultant print is the closest yet to that screened originally in 1925.
Of particular interest for UK film buffs is that the main constituents for this restoration are surviving copies in prints held by the British Film Institute. One is the version shown at the London Film Society in 1929. Eisenstein and his team had bought this from Moscow to London, though fresh English title cards were inserted.
The London screening also featured an accompanying score by Edmund Meisel. He was a German composer experienced in theatrical accompaniment and commissioned to compose a score for the German release. In many ways the score is as vital and complex as the film. On one occasion the German authorities banned the music but allowed the film to be screened. The British Film Institute is circulating this version of the restoration in a High Definition digital package, which includes a recording of the score synchronised with the film. There is a drawback to this format, as the HD projector runs at 24 frames per second. When the film was screened at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in a 35mm print it ran at 18 fps. It would seem that this digital version has been processed through computer software to adjust for the different in film speed. Even so what we will have is the best approximation to Eisenstein’s masterpiece in it original form.
Enno Patalas has described the restoration in an article in the Journal of Film Preservation, 2005.
Still courtesy of the bfi and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.