From email@example.com Tue Dec 13 17:00:40 2005
From: Le Monde diplomatique <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <email@example.com>
Subject: Eisenstein's masterpiece at 80
Date: Tue, 13 Dec 2005 17:29:43 +0100 (CET)
On 21 December 1925 Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre hosted the premiere of Battleship Potemkin, the second feature film from Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein. It was a state-commissioned film, intended to commemorate the 1905 uprising, precursor to the 1917 revolution. The film revolutionised the aesthetics of cinema.
TWENTY years after the attempted revolution of 1905, the Soviet Union's commission for commemorations decided to have a film made to mark the anniversary. It approached a young Russian director who had made a name for himself the previous year with a film called Strike: Sergei Eisenstein. The new film had to be written, shot and edited in just four months. It soon became clear that the full “chronicle of an era” that the director had originally written (in collaboration with Nina Agadjanova) could not be achieved in such a short time. So Eisenstein slashed his scenario down to focus on a single, emblematic episode: a mutiny on a warship in the Black Sea that took place on 27 June 1905.
By the time Battleship Potemkin was filmed, the actual battleship had been destroyed and Eisenstein had to use the gutted hulk of its sister ship, The Twelve Apostles, permanently anchored and chained to the shore in a remote cove in Sevastopol Bay. The ship could not be moved, so it could only appear to be on the open sea when filmed from the front. Broadside and overhead shots were done with models (1). Yet the illusion of the rebellion was so perfect, the director recalled in 1945, that it brought about a “revolution at the very core of cinema aesthetics, terrifying censors, police forces and security services in a host of countries”.
The better film critics in the West (such as Germany's Siegfried Kracauer, and France's Léon Moussinac, Georges Charensol and Georges Altmann) were quick to recognise Battleship Potemkin as a stroke of artistic genius. For Altmann, Soviet cinema had found “its true face”, which was “the expression of the power of the group, the crowd, the mass movement”. But outside these circles Battleship Potemkin's reception abroad showed the depth of anti-Soviet feeling. It was either banned or shown in drastically cut versions.
First prize for making a fuss went to Weimar Germany, whose censorship commission took eight months to decide whether or not to ban the picture. After the film premiered in Berlin in April 1926, the commission was asked to reconsider its authorisation. It did so over three full sittings, finally restricting the film to adults-only viewing on the grounds that its content was “apt to exercise a pernicious influence on the intellectual development of young people”. The commission also demanded a number of cuts.
In France Battleship Potemkin was first shown in November 1926 by the Ciné-club de France, which rented the Artistic cinema. It then circulated via the Friends of Spartacus association, which organised screenings by invitation only. In October 1928 the French authorities asked the association to disband. After that the film was rarely shown—certainly not within the main cinema network, where it was officially banned. Successive French governments held stubbornly to this position, and the ban was not lifted until 1953. Japan maintained its ban until 1959, and Italy until 1960.
Nevertheless, wherever the film was shown it was a success. Even the severely truncated versions that reached most western viewers won lavish praise. At the Universal Exhibition in Brussels in 1958, about a hundred film historians called it “the greatest film of all time”. Of course, the accolade was not intended to approve the film's version of the events that took place in 1905 in Odessa.
So what exactly did happen in Russia in 1905? It all began a long way from Odessa, in St Petersburg. On Sunday 9 January, a silent crowd marched towards the city centre carrying religious images and portraits of Tsar Nicolas II. The factories had been on strike for a month, in solidarity with two sacked workers. The strikers were bringing a petition to the “little father” (as the tsar was known), asking him to take their living conditions into consideration. But as soon as the procession arrived in front of the Winter Palace, the Cossacks of the Imperial Guard opened fire. By the end of the day, more than a thousand people had been killed and 2,000 wounded.
In ordering this bloodbath, the tsar and his entourage made a big mistake. The workers' movement had been gaining in intensity for some time, but most still believed that society could be improved through reform. However, with this merciless display of repression, they cast their illusions aside.
Since the beginning of 1904 Russia had been at war with Japan, and was not doing well. The Black Sea fleet did not participate in the war, but was strongly affected by calamities such as the battle of Tsushima strait in May 1905. Naval commanders were unpopular and widely perceived as incompetent. The Potemkin's crew rebelled when the ship was at anchor some way from Sevastopol. After a torpedo boat brought them some rotten meat, the sailors, encouraged by the revolutionaries among them, rebelled. The crew killed or arrested their officers and those of the torpedo boat, and headed for Odessa, whose workers were in revolt.
January 1905's “bloody Sunday” had opened the floodgates across Russia to a wave of strikes in factories, riots in the countryside and rebellions in the armed forces. For the first two weeks in February, a railwaymen's committee managed to paralyse all the major railways in southern Russia. The government tried to defuse the tension and restore the tsar's prestige by creating commissions of workers' representatives. But the 400 chosen delegates refused to enter into any negotiations until freedoms of expression and congregation were established. When the government refused, the scheme collapsed and tensions rose.
In October the railwaymen of Moscow and St Petersburg went on strike. Postal workers and other public sector employees also helped to stop basic services. Electricity was cut, trams stopped running and newspapers weren’t published. This time the strikers did not just demand improvements to their own situation, they wanted a thorough transformation of the autocratic system. Their aims included the establishment of civil rights, amnesty for political prisoners, and the election of a constituent assembly by direct universal suffrage. The representatives of the various organisations and parties calling for this revolution managed to overcome their rivalries and draw up a common manifesto.
The regime was in a tight spot. In November 1905 it chose to fight its way out via a series of tough measures. Delegates from the strike committees and workers' councils (soviets) were rounded up and arrested. Those refusing to resume work were thrown out of their factory. These measures proved effective: the strike movement crumbled.
But not for long. In early December things came to a head in Moscow. A soviet had been set up there on 21 November, supported by both wings of the Social-Democratic party—the moderate Mensheviks and the radical Bolsheviks—which had created a committee to coordinate the struggles. A general strike was declared on 6 December. This soon led to an armed insurrection. Eight thousand workers joined in the fighting and barricades went up in the streets.
The regime did not change its tactics. On the night of 8 December all the members of the Social-Democrats' coordinating committee were arrested. The soviet's command centre was destroyed. Imperial Guard troops arrived from St Petersburg and laid into the workers at the barricades. Workers' groups resisted the onslaught for nine days, but by 18 December they were crushed.
So 1905 ended in victory for the tsarist regime. In the months that followed the government sought to punish those responsible for the revolt. Revolutionary leaders had to go underground. All opposition was suppressed. But the regime's victory could only last so long. By August 1914, on the eve of the first world war, the Bolsheviks controlled most of the unions in St Petersburg and Moscow. There were as many strikers as in 1905. Once again revolution was in the air.
The lessons of 1905 undoubtedly helped the revolutionaries achieve victory in 1917. But the memory of the uprising would not be nearly so vivid were it not for Eisenstein and his Battleship Potemkin. The film is not a historical reconstruction but an attempt, in Eisenstein's words, to “bring the whole saga of 1905 to emotional life” through one isolated episode: “the part that represents the whole”. Eisenstein also kept the victory of October 1917 in mind as a guiding theme. The film's symbolic closing image is that of the ship leaving Odessa to take to the sea in glory.
Battleship Potemkin went on general release in the Soviet Union in January 1926. The errors and unrealistic sequences that it contains did not escape viewers' attention. But Eisenstein admitted to these freely. After all, some of the most striking scenes in the film were entirely the fruit of his imagination—not least the shots of a baby in its pram bouncing down the Richelieu steps in Odessa in what is widely acknowledged as one of the finest sequences in cinema history. In fact, much as the Potemkin mutiny was just one episode in an uprising taking place across Russia, the Odessa steps massacre in the film was a condensation of scenes of tsarist repression that took place all over Odessa, killing 5,000-6,000 people.
Another famous scene dreamed up by Eisenstein is that of the tarpaulin being thrown over the sailors when they refused to eat their rotten meat soup (and started the mutiny). The scene was so realistic that one enterprising sailor pretended to have been among those covered by the tarpaulin and sued Eisenstein for a share in the royalties. He was ridiculed in court as the director explained how he had made the whole thing up.
Eisenstein also knew, of course, that the 1905 uprising had been roundly defeated, and that the real Potemkin mutineers' odyssey had ended in a chaotic scramble for the Romanian port of Constanta in search of fuel and supplies. They were not welcomed by the Romanian authorities, and most were handed back to the Russian military. Only a handful managed to escape the tsar's police and emigrate. But what mattered, as the director saw it, was that the revolutionary dream had not been crushed. While most world cinema churned out purportedly historical films exalting famous protagonists and piling on anecdotes, Eisenstein had shown how—even in failure—the anonymous masses could become the driving force of history.
(1) Victor Shklovsky, On Eisenstein, Sovetskii Pisatel, Moscow, 1964, translated by Benjamin Sher, 1991: www.websher.net/srl/shk-eis-14point.html