The 1926 masterpiece Bronenosets Potemkin (The Battleship Potemkin), the second feature of a wise-ass 27-year-old Soviet director named Sergei Eisenstein, is one of those works whose effect on modern culture almost can't be overstated. Although Eisenstein already had experimented with the technique he called "montage" in his 1924 debut feature, Strachka (Strike), it was Potemkin that brought this method's stirring power to the world. It's basic film grammar now, but at the time, montage was a remarkable aesthetic innovation.
Potemkin is unapologetically a propaganda film. It was commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the failed 1905 Revolution, and it chronicles--with a certain amount of historic license--how a mutiny aboard a czarist battleship led to a massacre of civilians in Odessa by the czar's troops. Eisenstein gave the film a classical five-act structure. All five are powerful, but the fourth act, The Odessa Steps, is easily the most famous single sequence in cinema history--to film students, at least.
Other famous movie sequences--the finales of King Kong, Gone With the Wind and Casablanca, the shower scene in Psycho, the melting witch in The Wizard of Oz--are perhaps more universally recognizable. But these are pop-culture pipe dreams, archetypal "silver screen" fantasies rising from the experience of being audience members. The Odessa Steps sequence is famous as filmmaking. It's virtually the emblem of cinema as art and craft.
You've probably seen it. If you're a movie buff, the very mention of Potemkin probably conjures up the images of the woman carrying her dead son, the runaway baby carriage clattering down the steps, the legless man fleeing on his hands, the woman with the bloody face and broken spectacles, the inexorable tromp of the soldier's boots, the stone lion statues looking on with seeming interest.
If you've ever taken a course in film theory, the mention of Potemkin may make you shudder with memories of endless, tiresome explications of how Eisenstein used rhythmic editing and juxtaposition of "colliding" images to create dramatic effects and heighten our emotional responses.
So, even allowing that it's an authentically great work, why go to any trouble to see it again? Producers Sheldon M. Rich and Alicia Schacter have come up with a doozy of a reason. Slap some phrase along the lines of "lost masterpiece," "director's cut" or "restored footage" onto a rerelease of some old movie, and hundreds of nerdy cinema suckers will beat a path to your box office (with me, alas, at the head of the line). The gimmick of the special, one-time screening of Potemkin, Saturday night at 8 p.m. at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, is live accompaniment by Phoenix Symphony.
Music buffs, of course, will insist that the film is the accompaniment for the orchestra. The score, prepared for the film in 1976, is an arrangement of passages from the work of the great Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich, and includes parts of, among other works, his 4th, 5th, 8th, 10th and 11th symphonies (the last, titled The Year 1905, was partly inspired by Potemkin).
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The historical irony of both Eisenstein's and Shostakovich's careers was that these creators of some of the greatest and most lasting works of Soviet art were both persecuted by the regime for which they labored. By the time Potemkin was premired, Joseph Stalin had been secretary general of the Communist party for three years, and the Soviet government was about as entrenched and oppressive as the czar's had been. A film about starving sailors standing up to their officers, or innocent citizens slaughtered by government forces, didn't sit as well as it would have back in the revolutionary days.
As producer Rich points out in his program note for the Gammage show, coupling Eisenstein's beautiful but politically simplistic film with the music of Shostakovich, some of which was ruefully borne of the composer's troubles with Stalin's regime, adds a new dimension to both works. It might be said to take Potemkin a step further away from its initial incarnation as propaganda, and a step closer to being an abstract parable about tyranny and resistance.
Many critics have called Potemkin the greatest film of all time. Others, including me, would be willing to question if it's even Eisenstein's greatest film, with the likes of Strike and the unfinished Que Viva Mexico as its competition. Still, it's a beautiful, often shattering film, without a dated minute. The Gammage screening promises to be an unforgettable way to see it.--M. V. Moorhead
The Battleship Potemkin: Directed by Sergei Eisenstein; with Alexander Antonov and Vladimir Barsky. Unrated. (Screens Saturday, October 21, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.)