Geeky Brummie was offered complementary tickets to see Battleship Potemkin at the MAC
Inspiring many filmmakers throughout their careers, its message still remains powerful today. Showing as part of the MAC’s controversial film season and banned in Britain for many years due to its strong revolutionary themes. The film seems tame in comparison to such other controversial works released since, though it’s easy to see why the ban happened.
The film focuses on the mutiny of Russian sailors in the port of Odessa, modern day Ukraine. In 1905 Russia was on the tail end of a catastrophic war with Japan, one which she lost later that year. There had been political stirrings in the mainland across 1905 culminating in a general strike, peasant revolts, and the formation of Soviets (Russian trade unions). This forced the Tsar to create a limited form of democracy in the “October Manifesto”.
Battleship Potemkin must be viewed in the context of this revolutionary year. Lenin later called 1905 the “dress rehearsal” for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The mutinies in 1917 were integral to the Bolshevik securing power in the capital. The refusal of the sailors to eat rotten meat given to them by officers and the resulting mutiny made them heroes in Russia. It became symbolic of the huge inequalities across the empire.
After the 1917 revolutions, the story of the mutiny was moulded by the Soviet Government into a story of class warfare.
Eisenstein was hired by the USSR as part of the Proletkult (Proletarian Culture) campaign to create a narrative of the Bolshevik ascendancy. In reality the Boksheviks were a minor party in 1905 and did not shape the worker movement with no influence on the sailors of the Potemkin. This theme is highlighted when we see the only bit of colour in the black and white film, a red flag raised above the battleship.
Considering this is a black and white silent film made in the 1920s, the production values are high. It’s obvious that Eisenstein took a lot effort in ensuring that the film would impressive almost 100 years on. From aerial shots of mutiny taking place on the ship, to the remarkable and famous scenes of panic on the Odessa Steps, the film looks incredible. It’s obvious why it’s influence still remains today. Scattered full of iconic imagery such as the baby carriage falling down the stairs and the old woman shot in the eye. To see this on the big scene is a fantastic experience.
Potemkin never had a score. As such orchestras would play “library music” to with the the images on screen. This imbues Potemkin with a quality allowing different interpretations, due it’s ever changing score. Today’s event at the Mac plays homage to this tradition with pianist Jonny Best present during the screening, improvising a score as the film plays. The piano playing is superb and Best hits the right dramatic notes as the images unfold on screen. This experience is the best way to feel the film, it is remarkable that Jonny Best created our version of the score as we went along with the unique screening.
Battleship Potemkin is a film that will not appeal to everyone. The historical anachronisms and the thought of a black and white silent movie will likely cause some groans. Yet, any true lover of cinema should experience Eisenstein’s work to understand the origins of cinema as we know it today. Seeing a film with an accompanying live score is an experience rarely had today and this opportunity should be taken if presented.
A film that will always stand the test of time… Battleship Potemkin is a fascinating and important watch.
By Dr Laura Sumner & Guy Halford
Find Guy Halford’s occasional music mix at Curiosity Crate.