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Battleship Potemkin: review

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925, 71 minutes, cert PG

As the Black Sea foams and crashes into the shore, an intertitle describes the waves of revolutionary feeling sweeping Russia in 1905, and the 55-piece orchestra swells into action. Sergei Eisenstein opens his classic film Battleship Potemkin (1925) with an adroit combination of image, word and music – which we can now experience here in Britain for the first time.

So much is fresh to UK audiences about this 86-year-old film resident on countless Greatest Ever lists and pored over by generations of film students. First, there’s the original orchestral score written by Edmund Meisel and a handful of reinstated shots, some of which were excised from the unforgettably tense Odessa Steps sequence. Not only this, but the film has been beautifully restored, and the title cards recreated according to the director’s wishes. The language is stronger and more socialist than before. It’s bolshier.

Eisenstein’s second feature film is all about solidarity, as it tells the story of a mutiny aboard the eponymous battleship. A group of sailors refuse to eat soup made with rotten meat, and face a firing squad of their peers, but the spirit of comradeship intervenes as the crew rise up against the senior officers – and proudly hoist a bold red flag as they sail into Odessa harbour. On shore, the locals also support the sailors, with terrible consequences. The question is, will the rest of the fleet welcome the revolutionaries home, or follow the command to fire?

Because Battleship Potemkin is an appeal to fellow-feeling and collective action, it is only right that the restoration work creates a more immersive film, one that places no barriers between a 21st-century audience and its monumentally powerful imagery.

In this print, the maggots in the sailors’ dinner squirm in all their greasy glory and the splatters of blood on the Odessa Steps glisten, wetter than before and more gruesome. But it’s not all about horror. The sunlight glints sharply off the calm waters, or is diffused gently through the early morning mists. The scenes of small boats with white sails bringing supplies to the Potemkin are particularly gorgeous. That red flag is vividly, almost luridly hand-tinted red – as aggressively bright as the senior officers’ white trousers, in cruel contrast to the lower orders’ dingy uniforms.

The gloomy scenes below deck are free of murk, too, and we can pick out individuals in the massive crowd scenes. It’s perfect for tracing each extra’s individual path down those infamous steps, some trampling on bodies, and some stumbling over them as they fall.

Then there’s the score. Motoring through the film’s brisk 71-minute running time with a booming bass drum, the music is at its best mostly when it is bombastic. I liked the sustained woodwind sound before that first, fatal thrown plate, and the crashing percussion that announced the arrival of the cossacks. I wasn’t so convinced by the cracking sounds that synchronised with the gunshots, but soon these musical sound effects won me over. Occasionally the score tends towards jaunty, when perhaps it could have been tense, such as when the sailors dive off the Potemkin in an attempt to rescue a fallen comrade. But my qualms were swept away by the film’s final sequence: the music pulses faster and faster as the ship gains speed and prepares for battle, ratcheting up the tension superbly.

Battleship Potemkin, restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, is on theatrical release from 29 April, screening in London at the BFI Southbank and the Curzon Renoir among other venues.