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Studio: Kino
Year: 1925
Cast: Alexander Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Release Date: May 18, 2010, 7:44 pm
Rating: Not Rated for (violence)
Run Time: 01h:15m:00s

"To the rifles, brothers!" - Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov)

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Many will question what an oft-abused silent film could possibly benefit from a high-def presentation. The answer is right here in this brilliant restoration of a brutal propaganda classic.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: A+

Battleship Potemkin was conceived purely as propaganda, a commemoration of a 1905 uprising by Russia's Black Sea Fleet. While the uprising failed, it is seen as having paved the way for the successful 1917 Bolshevik revolution that was still profoundly fresh in the mid-20s. It was the first full-length film of auteur Sergei Eisenstein. He secured the job on the strength of theatrical and short film work, as well as his extensive writing on film theory. As a young academic of film, he was eager to put everything he knew and believed about filmmaking together in order to maximize emotional heft. His ideas involving timing and juxtaposition weren't new, exactly, but no one had mastered them in quite the way that he thought he could. The plan was to create a film that would stir audiences into patriotic fervor in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the uprising. Perhaps ironically, Eisenstein's popularity abroad and worldliness brought tremendous suspicion upon him at home, so he never emerged as the socialist hero that one might expect of the director of one of the finest propaganda films of all time. Indeed, even at the time, the film was equally hailed and feared for its perceived potential to incite revolution based on its powerful images. The plot and characters are simple enough, and Eisenstein wisely eschews getting too much into the specific politics of the moment. The oppressed and ultimately fed up crewmen of the Potemkin have had enough of cruel treatment, overwork, poor wages and (vividly) rotten meat. The ensuing revolt takes aim at the officers and the clergy on the ship ("Beat it, sorcerer!" says one mutineer to the ship's cowardly priest). Away from the early-Soviet context, it's easy to view the film without thinking too much about the politics: at the core, this is a story of heroic, if mostly generic, soldiers confronting oppression head on. It's hard not to root for the crew when they are offered shelter in the seas-side town of Odessa. Of course, that harbor provides the setting for Potemkin's most famous and brutal scenes, and the cycle on the steps when the Tsarist military re-takes the town from the revolutionaries.

It's this sequence that demonstrates vividly the profound effects of Eisenstein's theories regarding montage in film: basically, the effects of proper editing in building tension and heightening emotion. That impact seems obvious today, but not so much in 1925. Where earlier films and directors had toyed with the idea of using editing as a filmmaking tool every bit as much as writing, acting, and direction, Eisenstein raised the bar in a dramatic fashion, and the film feels strikingly modern as a result. The sequence depicting the massacre on the Odessa steps is presented not in the straightforward, linear fashion that other filmmakers of the time might have chosen, but instead in a series of relatively quick changes: the camera cuts between the scene as a whole to a series of vignettes: a child is trampled, a woman pleads her life, and, most famously, that runaway baby carriage. There are several mini-stories within the overall tableau, and the effect is brutal and completely unforgettable. The level of violence is striking as well, especially for the time.

The primary extra is the 42-minute German documentary Tracing the Battleship Potemkin. Instead of discussing the production of the film, the 42-minute piece follows the tortured path of the film through the decades following its initial release in Moscow. Early Russian audiences had mixed reactions to Battleship, but the film got a big boost when it premiered in Germany. Nevertheless, German censors required huge cuts to the film that robbed it of much of its impact. Subsequently, the film was cut and recut over the years, with bits being lost, found, and recreated in various version with mixed results. This most recent reconstruction was done in 2005, and would seem to represent the most complete and accurate version of Eisenstein's vision possible given its long and winding history. While a bit more on the creation of the film might have been nice, its history from the moment of its premiere is every bit as fascinating. There's a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, and the film print includes newly-translated English intertitles along with the original Russian text as an option. Finally, there's a pretty great booklet accompanying the disc, though it again traces the film following its production, covering much the same ground as the video documentary.

There's a mild but consistent level of dust and damage to the print, but the film looks far better than it has a right to. That's not damning with faint praise: it's in stunningly good shape, and it's amazing what a difference it makes. The establishing shots of the ship and of the town of Odessa have a crispness and reality that would be severely muted in a lesser print. The black and white contrast is absolutely flawless, and gives the image a proper sense of depth. With many films of this vintage, the extant image quality doesn't provide for the feeling of presence that is provided here: you find your imagination doing a bit more of the work than is probably appropriate. Here, though, it's all thoroughly alive: the primitive but strategic bit of color is striking, and even the maggot-infested hunks of meat are vivid to the point of making me a bit queasy (and how's that for a recommendation?) The audio is presented in the form of a rediscovered and newly-orchestrated score in six-channel HD-Audio in a lossless format. Potemkin's earliest score was generally considered lackluster and tossed-off, so the score on the disc is a version created by Edmund Meisel with Eisenstein's input for the early release in Berlin. It's thought of, pretty much universally, as the go-to soundtrack for the film, and it works beautifully. It's a bit repetitive and limited in its motifs (in the style of the time), but for such a tightly crafted film, it's perfect at maintaining tension. Technically, Kino's presentation of the film is stunning. Many people will question what an oft-abused ninety-year-old silent film could possibly benefit from a high-def presentation. The answer is right here.

Ross Johnson May 18, 2010, 7:44 pm