Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Battleship Potemkin: Art & Agitprop

Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin has been called the greatest propaganda film of all time by none other than Nazi Germany's very own poison dwarf, Joseph Goebbels. He called it "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema...anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film."

I recently watched the fully restored, unedited version of Battleship Potemkin. All the greys and silvers have been buffed and polished and it looks gorgeous. The original score by Edmund Meisel has also been re-recorded with a few minor alterations and it sounds crisp, booming and surging with the ebbs and flows of the Black Sea, the setting for the film.

Eisenstein based the film on the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin and transformed the event into a metaphor for Lenin's ideal of revolution in general:
"Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just and truly great war. In Russia this war has been declared and begun."

At the time of its release in 1925, film was considered to be a fluid medium, open to edits and reinterpretations. Meisel's score was lost and substituted for a time with music by Shostakovich and others, including a version by the Pet Shop Boys as recently as 2004. Eisenstein said, "I told Meisel I wanted the score to be rhythm, rhythm, and, above all, pure rhythm," and the composer succeeded in delivering a riveting soundtrack in only twelve days.

It was banned, heavily edited and given an 'R' rating whenever it was shown in the west for fear it might stir up the riff-raff. It's a stirring testimonial to the power of early silent film and transcends propaganda simply because the drama is stronger than its didacticism. It was also considered to be extremely violent for its time, with most versions editing this scene out and more:

The image inspired some of the artist Francis Bacon's more disturbing work like this "Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X":

Here's an unedited version of the famous "Odessa Steps" scene:

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