Films: Think the unthinkable about the unsinkable

Vitaly Yerenkov
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:36

Why is Eisenstein's film `Battleship Potemkin' considered such a masterpiece? Having re-watched the film after many years, Vitaly Yerenkov felt it did not live up to his expectations. He also found the propaganda underlining it a powerful deterrent for an ex-Soviet citizen.

Hollywood is full of films set in an evil society ruled by robotic humans where horrific oppression leads to revolt and liberation. The baddies are disgustingly (or wonderfully) bad and the goodies wonderfully (or disgustingly) good.

That most famous of all Russian films, Battleship Potemkin, can boast all these features but why do most Hollywood movies made to the same dramatic formula vanish without trace like the baddies at the end of them, and why are they hardly ever included in the list of best films, while the unsinkable Battleship is almost invariably in pride of place.

The fact that Eisenstein, the centenary of whose birth is celebrated this year with a number of retrospectives, used the revolutionary method of montage is not answer enough. We may say that the first plane by the Wright brothers was a revolutionary event, but was it one of the best planes ever made?

Is its unsinkability down to its political content? The portrayal of Russian society in Battleship Potemkin was, certainly, an example of powerful Communist propaganda. The history of its release in the West is trailed with constant attempts by the censors to ban the film. In Britain the ban was only lifted in 1954.

But even now with the death of Russian Communism, Battleship Potemkin sails on. The two-dimensional veneer of propaganda has rotted and revealed another layer of this movie which appeals to the eternal need for protest against any form of oppression.

In 1925, when the movie was shot, the actual Battleship Potemkin no longer existed. The Twelve Apostles cruiser was used instead. The vessel was covered by a veneer superstructure to make it look like Potemkin. Because the cruiser served as a storage for mines, smoking and abrupt movement on board were prohibited.

None the less, its impact was immediate. Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, had an unlikely love-hate relationship with it.

From the first night on 1 May, 1926 and until 1933 when the film was banned, there were no free seats in German cinemas at its screenings. Even in Munich, where Hitler was getting more and more powerful, crowds were queueing to see Battleship Potemkin.

Goebbels called on German film-makers to follow the example of Eisenstein. "I am convinced that if some cinema showed a film which portrayed our epoch in a true way, and if it was a true national socialist Potemkin, in such a cinema all the tickets would be sold off long in advance."

Eisenstein's answer in an open letter to Goebbels was: "Great art, true portrayal of life and life itself are only possible in the Soviet land."

In this belief he was quite a typical representative of the Russian intelligentsia of that time. He thought that the world could be totally re-made and transformed. Trained originally as an engineer and architect, he deified machines and believed in the necessity of the world revolution.

With all the terrors and horrors of the Russian revolution, it could be credited with encouraging the development and creation of new forms of art. Russian avant-garde artists, marginalised under the old system, welcomed the political changes and dived into the murky revolutionary waters. The romance lasted no longer than a decade. As the artists' disillusionment with the methods of changing the world grew, the Bolsheviks soon lost their taste for experimentation and established the sterile, yet safe and predictable socialist realism as the only acceptable art form.

The short period of flirtation with the avant-garde, never the less, resulted in a wealth of masterpieces, be it in painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre, literature and, of course, cinema - the most important of all arts for socialist Russia, according to Lenin.

Most of those artists were so radical that even Picasso was perceived as a representative of the old, academic school of art. "Picasso is not new art. He is the end of the old art," wrote philosopher Nikolai Berdiayev. It was in this fertile atmosphere of ecstatic experimentation that Eisenstein's genius evolved.

It might seem unnecessary, even blasphemous, to question his genius. But some questions are quite justifiable. Why is the film permanently included in the lists of the best films? Who includes it?If it is mostly critics and film-makers, do they just pay tribute to Eisenstein's innovations, or do they believe his films are still relevant and watchable? What if the lay audience were asked to name, say, their best thousand films. Would Battleship Potemkin feature there at all?

Having rewatched the film recently, after many years, I felt it did not live up to my expectations. The technique of montage has now become commonplace and totally demystified, most notably by advertisements and MTV. What was left was a black and white film. No, the disturbing feature was not the lack of colour but of shading. It was like watching one of those Hollywood blockbusters, only without protagonists and linear narrative.

It seemed to be a simplified, generalised story of real events, acted by flat, two-dimensional mannequins. (The director actually did not like actors and called them "life models.") Those officers on the vessel! What a disgusting bunch of perverts! Making sailors eat rotten meat, beating them up, hanging and shooting. And the Orthodox priest - the incarnation of Satan!

This underlining of propaganda is a powerful deterrent for an ex-Soviet citizen. Russian critics and film-makers will hardly include Eisenstein's film in any of the lists. Andrei Tarkovsky publicly denounced montage as inartistic, because it "buttonholes", manipulates the viewer and does not result in profound experience.

Anyone who grew up on post-Stalin Soviet cinema and television is much more used to a three-dimensional portrayal of the pre-Revolutionary ruling classes whose representatives could be shown as decadent, romantic, confused and therefore rather attractive characters. Their weaknesses, the tragedy of their lives, often made them more human than some monumental, uncompromising, straightforward revolutionaries.

Chekhov plays and short stories were staged, filmed and televised hundreds of times in the USSR. Bondarchuk's adaptation of War and Peace in 1964 portrayed a nobility whose courage, patriotism, faithfulness could be a moral example to any member of the Communist Party. Mikhail Bulgakov's novel White Guards was made into a television series, where the Whites were shown as intelligent, loveable folk, notwithstanding how ideologically mistaken and historically doomed they were. Not only the Whites (after all, they were just unlucky compatriots), even some Nazis were portrayed as rather charming, refined individuals.

It is neither the way Eisenstein interprets the real events, nor his montage technique which make the film so poignant for me, but the eternal need to disobey any form of inhuman authority that it expresses.

Striving for freedom is at least dormant in most human beings. Have not most of us experienced oppression of some sort? From the government or the schoolmaster, from one's parents or the boss. Have not most of us dreamed of crushing that oppression and establishing justice?

The message that still works in Potemkin is more anarchist than Communist - more akin to early Christianity than the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. The film actually does not explain the reasons for the revolution, it only shows what sparked the mutiny on the ship - the rotten meat.

Some of the shots on the steps of Odessa do, in fact, conjure up images from Orthodox icons, with the innocent civilians as modern martyrs. That woman with the murdered child - is she the reincarnation of Mary, the mother of Jesus? And the battleship rising its mighty cannons and firing at the oppressors of the innocent is perhaps the image of God punishing the evil-doers.

Nearly a century after the events of the aborted revolution of 1905-1907 portrayed in Battleship Potemkin, Russia is once again going through a turbulent time. Political chaos, cuts in the military budget and widespread corruption amongst the top ranks of the army and navy have led to the situation where undernourished and exploited soldiers and sailors often live in conditions not dissimilar to those we see in Eisenstein's film.

If these soldiers and sailors, who are more likely to be familiar with Hollywood blockbusters than Battleship Potemkin, were shown the film, what would they say? What would they do? But to answer these questions, we should first ask - would their officers let them see it?

`Battleship Potemkin' opens at the Curzon Phoenix, London WC1, (0171- 369 1721) and at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 3232) on Friday 16 January for one week

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