Film: Free radical

Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin so alarmed a British government worried about naval mutiny that the film was banned. Now, 100 years after the director's birth, we can appreciate Eisenstein's genius afresh, writes Richard Gott

o where are the Odessa Steps?" asked one of the film-buffs on our tour through the flat streets of St Petersburg to the banks of the River Neva. The Russian guide looked puzzled, being unfamiliar with Sergei Eisenstein's famous film Battleship Potemkin and its unforgettable image of the baby carriage bouncing down the Odessa Steps as the serried ranks of Cossacks confront the angry crowd. "They must, I suppose," he said slowly, "be in Odessa."

He was right to be puzzled, for the film-buff had confused the two great Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. It's a mistake that is easy to make, for many people now see Russia's revolutionary history almost entirely through Eisenstein's eyes. Both revolutions involved mutinies on naval ships, though they took place in different waters: the Potemkin, which mutinied in 1905, was stationed on the Black Sea, while the Aurora, which fired on the Winter Palace in 1917, was based in the Baltic.

Eisenstein, the greatest film-maker of the Soviet era and one of the artistic geniuses of the 20th century, was responsible for most of the images of revolution that now survive in the popular imagination. He recreated those two mutinous episodes in two great film epics, Potemkin and October, films that relied much on his innovatory skill at montage. He also produced spectacular crowd scenes that predate the wildest imaginings of Cecil B De Mille.

Eisenstein transformed Russia's historical experience with the same degree of artistic licence that permitted Shakespeare to re-invent the history of England, evoking the significant moments of the Russian past in order to help transform the present. In the process, the details of his cinematic treatments are often easily elided. The sequence of the Cossacks cutting down the civilians in 1905 as they descended the Odessa Steps - which are indeed at the harbour of Odessa on the Black Sea - can be confused with the scenes of the crowd storming the Winter Palace in St Petersburg twelve years later.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Eisenstein's birth. It is also just 50 years since he died. This month, these anniversaries are being celebrated by the showing of all his films at the National Film Theatre in London. Judging by the sell-out audience for a recent screening of his historical epic Alexander Nevsky, at the Festival Hall last November, Eisenstein continues to have a pulling power that has survived the collapse of the revolutionary era that originally inspired and gave meaning to his work.

In the late Twenties and early Thirties, when Eisenstein's early films were first shown privately in Britain, they had not yet become part of art-house folklore or heritage culture. Successive British governments believed them to be so politically dangerous that they could not be shown in public.

Charles Cooper, a British film distributor now in his eighties, is one of the survivors of that period. When I went to see him at his house in Highgate, from which his company still promotes and distributes films, he reminded me that Battleship Potemkin had already been banned for some years when he first tried to show it in England in 1932.

Bernard Shaw had managed to see the film privately when Eisenstein came on a brief visit to England in 1929. According to Ronald Bergan's new biography, Eisenstein: a life in conflict, Shaw, along with H G Wells, was enlisted in the campaign to permit the film to be shown. "It is, artistically," Shaw wrote to the Labour MP Fenner Brockway, "one of the very best films in existence. Its suppression is an undisguised stroke of class censorship, utterly indefensible and inexplicable on any other ground. Simply an incident in the class war, as waged by our governing classes. Remind them of it when they next wax indignant against Soviet censorship."

The story of Potemkin concerned an episode in the revolution of 1905 when the crew of an armed cruiser in the Black Sea fleet mutinied after being served up rotten food. The mutineers were supported by the civilian population on shore, and eventually by other ships in the Russian fleet. In the Thirties, when Charles Cooper first tried to show the film, the British authorities were peculiarly sensitive to the threat of naval mutiny. In September 1931, for the first time since the mutiny at the Nore in 1797, British sailors of the Atlantic Fleet refused to put to sea. The "Invergordon Mutiny", as it was called, was caused by a Labour prime minister's attempt to spend less money. Instead of attacking single mothers, Ramsay MacDonald's National Government took on a tougher target, forcing the Navy to accept a reduction in pay. The sailors mutinied and sang "the Red Flag" - because of the inequality of the reductions. An admiral's daily pay went down from five pounds, ten shillings, to five pounds. A seaman was correspondingly worse off, his pay being reduced from five shillings to four.

Faced with the Gandhian non-violent tactics of the sailors, the British government quickly performed a U-turn, and suspended the pay cuts. The sailors dutifully abandoned their protest. But much damage had been done. The mutiny was followed by a run on the pound, and many foreign observers believed that the break-up of the British Empire was just round the corner. In Russia, the late Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, "it was assumed that a mutiny in the Atlantic Fleet must herald the outbreak of a proletarian revolution in England". So when Charles Cooper, then running Kino Films, wanted to exhibit Battleship Potemkin the following year, he found the authorities more than usually nervous about showing what was perceived to be a propaganda film about mutinous and revolutionary sailors.

The American film industry had no such worries. David Selznick of MGM had already seen it in 1926. "It was my privilege," he wrote at the time, "to be present at two private screenings of what is unquestionably one of the greatest of motion pictures ever made ... it is gripping beyond words - its vivid and realistic reproduction of a bit of history being far more interesting than any film of fiction." Selznick saw it as an art film from which MGM had much to learn. "It might be very advantageous to have the organisation view it in the same way that a group of artists might view or study a Rubens or a Raphael." Charles Cooper eventually got round the banning order (which only applied to 35 millimetre film) by showing a 16 millimetre print. For many years, Potemkin was distributed through private film societies. The authorities did not allow its release for general cinema viewing until 1954 and even then it was given an X certificate (today, it only requires "parental guidance").

Cooper did not just show the works of Eisenstein. The British generation that acquired knowledge of European film culture in the 1960s owes its education almost entirely to his single-handed efforts. After his pioneering work with Kino Films in the 1930s, he went to America in the war years, organising the cultural section of the International Workers Order. Driven back to England during the McCarthy era, he established Contemporary Films in 1952, a company that still exists and still has the rights to many of the masterpieces of the old Soviet film industry. At the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, and at the Paris Pullman in Drayton Gardens that he purchased, young filmgoers in their countless thousands first saw the pioneering and influential films that were coming out of the state-funded studios of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Cooper's company fed the radical hunger of the Sixties by promoting and distributing the work of left-wing filmmakers such as Felix Greene, who made famous documentaries in China and Vietnam. But Cooper also widened the scope of his operations to take in great world directors like Bertolucci and Bunuel, Alain Resnais and Satyajit Ray, as well as Eisenstein. The old catalogue of Contemporary Films is a magnificent guide to the great radical (mostly non-English) films of the twentieth century.

Today it seems to wrap up an era that has almost entirely disappeared. The world of the local film society (declining from more than 700 to fewer than 200) has given way before multiplex and IMAX, the advent of video has put paid to 16 millimetre, and the political films of the socialist era have disappeared beneath the technologically sophisticated inventions of the American industry that often seem designed primarily for a teenage market.

Cooper himself remains an eternal optimist. With a new print of Potemkin, and a musical soundtrack by Shostakovich, he believes that a new generation is being prepared for the Eisenstein experience. Certainly, at the Festival Hall in November, when Alexander Nevsky came with full orchestral accompaniment and two enormous choirs (with music by Prokofiev), a large bourgeois gathering watched this epic anti-German film from the heart of the Stalin era with every sign of enjoyment.

There is a new audience for Potemkin too, though one interested more in gender politics than in revolution. According to Ronald Bergan's new book, Eisenstein's film enjoys cult status among gays. The Cuban film- maker Nestor Almendros perceived it as homo-erotic: "From its very beginning, with the sailors in the dormitory prologue, we see an `all-male' cast resting shirtless in their hammocks. The camera lingers on the rough, splendidly-built men, in a series of shots that anticipate the sensuality of Mapplethorpe. Then appears the leader of the revolt, Vakulinchuk, who is also, for no apparent reason, naked to the waist, flashing his broad torso while he demands the beginning of action ... At the great moment when the cannons are raised to fire, a sort of visual ballet of multiple slow and pulsating erections can easily be discerned."

Maybe, perceiving the half-naked sailors polishing the pistons, that is what the British censor was worried about in 1932

"Eisenstein: Immortal Films that Shook the World", is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 3232), throughout January. "Eisenstein: a Life in Conflict", by Ronald Bergan, is published by Little, Brown, price pounds 22.50. Contemporary Films can be contacted at 0181-340 5715.

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