Eisenstein at his most thrilling
No movie better illustrates the double-edge benefits of canonization than Sergei Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin.” A staple of introductory film classes, Eisenstein’s account of the 1905 rebellion aboard a Russian battleship has been endlessly pored over and broken down, analyzed shot by shot to illustrate the filmmaker’s adherence to Soviet theories of montage. But what can get lost in the close readings, to say nothing of the innumerable homages to the film’s climactic Odessa Steps sequence, is how radical -- and how thrilling -- Eisenstein’s techniques remain.
Kino’s Blu-ray disc, out this week, offers an opportunity to start from scratch, as well as to examine “Potemkin” frame by high-definition frame. Stepping up the resolution from Kino’s otherwise identical 2007 DVD, the 2005 restoration by Deutsche Kinemathek includes shots not seen since the film first fell under the censor’s knife in 1926, as well as a Trotsky epigraph (“the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary élan”) that fell foul of the ever-shifting winds of Soviet politics, as eventually would Eisenstein himself.
Both within shots and between them, Eisenstein harnessed opposing forces to create a feeling of conflict. Below the Potemkin’s decks, the sailors’ hammocks form a lattice of crisscrossing diagonals, foreshadowing the revolt soon to erupt amid their ranks. When the ship’s officers insist that slabs of maggot-ridden meat are good enough for the rank and file, a group of sailors personified by the stout Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) refuses to eat, whereupon they are lined up on deck and covered by a tarpaulin, presumably to make it easier to shoot them. But in reducing the sailors to an undifferentiated mass, the Potemkin’s officers have unwittingly unleashed the collective consciousness that is their greatest strength. The sailors rise up and toss their erstwhile superiors into the drink, and word of their acts soon reaches the nearby port of Odessa, where the residents are inspired to follow suit.
The restored print clarifies the exhilarating geometry of Eisenstein’s compositions as well as his overlooked mastery of light and shadow. It also allows us to glimpse in renewed detail the faces of the nonprofessional actors Eisenstein chose to embody the requisite types: the jowly corruption of czarist commanders, the bony brows and broad shoulders of the imminent revolutionaries. In one of the movie’s many indelible images, the foredeck is filmed from high above, visually linking the sailors lined up along its edges with the ship’s massive cannons.
Although Eisenstein killed off Vakulinchuk at the end of the film’s first section to prevent individual heroism from overshadowing mass élan, Vakulinchuk’s attempt to escape from the murderous clutches of the Potemkin’s officers owes a strong debt to the melodramatic chases of D.W. Griffith, albeit without Griffith’s patented last-minute rescue. Even though Eisenstein was careful to pinpoint the ideological flaws in Griffith’s technique, his openness to such influences was part of what made him a world-class artist as well as an unsuccessful propagandist. “Potemkin” also freely emulates religious iconography, a sharp irony in a film in which the ship’s demonic chaplain is dismissed with the words “Beat it, sorcerer!”
The fourth of “Potemkin’s” five movements -- the Odessa Steps -- is among other things a masterpiece of emotional manipulation, shamelessly exploiting images of trampled children and grief-stricken mothers as the people of Odessa flee the implacable approach of the czar’s rifle-wielding soldiers. Those who know the sequence only through parody may be shocked at the lengths to which Eisenstein goes to illustrate the czar’s inhumanity. At the end of the extended pastiche in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” lawman Eliot Ness swoops in to stop a baby carriage from careening down the train station steps; in Eisenstein’s version, the pram flips and spills its contents, adding an infant to the rolls of revolutionary martyrdom.
Considering the reams of available scholarship, Kino’s disc is light on supplements: a midlength documentary and notes by critic Bruce Bennett. But the spare presentation is not without its benefits. After decades of encrusted study, “Potemkin” can afford to stand on its own.