Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Often rated as one of the best films of all time, and certainly among the best propaganda films ever made - a title not to be taken lightly when you consider the access to resources it implies - Battleship Potemkin remains a highly watchable piece of cinematic history. In accordance with Eistenstein's wishes, the restored version now hitting UK cinemas has a new soundtrack, by last.fm DIY music enthusiasts from the Apskaft group. This may be a little different from what older fans of the film are used to, but it fits with the filmmaker's wishes to keep it contemporary and in places it adds a fresh sense of intrigue and expectancy to the longer montage scenes.

In political terms, of course, Battleship Potemkin is as relevant as ever. It fulfilled its propaganda credentials with the famous Odessa Steps sequence alone, prompting generations to remember a massacre that never actually took place, yet that imaginary massacre was standing in for any number of smaller scale skirmishes in which protestors were reported to have been slain by state troops, and today it retains symbolic value in reference to similar hidden actions all around the world.

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With revolutionary fervour sweeping the Middle East, this film is both a rallying point and a cautionary tale. Its deliberate and highly skilled manipulation of the emotions (no less effective on account of our greater familiarity with its tricks) can easily sway the unguarded viewer to its cause, but there's no pretence here that revolutions always go smoothly or that idealism easily gets results.

It's 1905, Odessa, and the crew of the eponymous battleship are sitting down to eat. In contrast to the expansive vistas Eisenstein will present us with later, these are deliberately claustrophobic spaces; shadows, narrow aisles, reminding us of the constrained nature of these men's existence. When the meat they are eating is discovered to be rotten - through images which, though black and white, trigger revulsion as easily as any giallo gore shot - it's the final straw. Time to protest. Time to demand something better. At first their demands are small, but these things can run away with you. Each challenge to injustice reveals more. It doesn't take long before fury erupts at the whole chain of it, all the way to the tsars, and the battleship itself is not adequate to contain that fury. Over it spills, into the city. Out of a real incident and into fiction, memorialised as one of the triggers of the revolution, enduringly emblematic of the simmering tensions that presaged disaster for the regime.

Even if you don't share the politics of its heroes, it's impossible not to be moved by their plight, and to resist is folly; the only way to fully appreciate Eisenstein is to give yourself wholly to his vision, for to focus only on his technical achievements would be like reading the lyrics of an anthem without listening to the music. There is masterly filmmaking to admire here and the film's many imitators have never equalled it. Stunning cinematography is matched by deft editing and this restored version recaptures the lucid quality of Eisenstein's images. It's an iconic work at its best on a big screen, and one of the few films of the period that has truly stood the test of time. The ideas, and the characters, may be simple, but the story is so powerfully delivered that Battleship Potemkin remains a triumph.

Reviewed on: 28 Apr 2011
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Disillusioned with their treatment, a battleship crew mutiny in port and try to spark revolution.
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Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Writer: Nina Agadzhanova

Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov

Year: 1925

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Russia

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