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Odessa, 1905. Enraged with the deplorable conditions on board the armored cruiser Potemkin and raising the red flag of revolution, the sailors' revolt becomes the rallying point for a Russian populace ground under the boot hells of the Czar's Cossacks. When ruthless White Russian cavalry arrives to crush the rebellion on the sandstone Odessa Steps, the most famous and most quoted film sequence in cinema history is born.
For more about Battleship Potemkin and the Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray release, see Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on April 28, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov, Mikhail Gomorov
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
» See full cast & crew
Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray Review
The Russian Revolution? What a bunch of Bolshevik.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, April 28, 2010
For students of film, Battleship Potemkin is Moviemaking 101, the cinematic equivalent of the ABCs. But I don't mean to make it sound simplistic. With its brisk, frequently dialectic editing— as revolutionary at the time as the film's agitprop subject matter—Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent shocker is not so much elementary as it is elemental. Eisenstein's theory of montage— which held that the essence of cinema is found in the sudden juxtaposition of images, forming a split-second visual dialogue of point, counterpoint, and emotional resolution—would help define the modern language of film. And editing, no longer a mere technical encumbrance, a way of getting from point A to point B, would become an indispensable item in every filmmaker's thematic arsenal. While Potemkin has lost some of its incendiary power over the years—the sight of comrades cheering the raising of the red-tinted revolutionary flag seems more quaint than rousing now—the film is essential viewing for anyone interested in the exponential evolution of cinematic technique that took place in the 1920s.
The film has never had much of a story. Party officials commissioned Battleship Potemkin as communist propaganda to celebrate the failed 1905 uprising that foreshadowed the Russian Revolution. Eisenstein originally intended to make an eight-part historical epic called The Year 1905, but various setbacks led him to scale back the film's scope, limiting it to a single series of events—the mutiny that took place on the Potemkin, the public's overwhelming support, and the inevitable smackdown by Czarist Cossacks. There's little regard to historical accuracy, though. Eisenstein plays fast and loose with the real events, less concerned with the facts—as is the case with all propaganda—than with the dissemination of proto-Soviet ideas and ideals. Throughout the film's five linked vignettes he manipulates the audience's sympathies, building a justification for revolutionary action by grotesquely characterizing the Czarist forces as cruel and mechanical.
On board the Potemkin, the sailors gripe about the rotten, maggot-infested meat that's used to make their daily borscht. The captain, with his aristocratic air and aquiline nose, is indifferent, the ship's medical officer, dismissive—"It's good meat, end of discussion." For refusing to eat their rations, a group of sailors is taken topside, where they're covered with an enormous sheet—a collective now, no longer individuals—and placed before a firing squad of their peers. At the last moment, revolution-ready sailor Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) calls out to the riflemen, "Brothers, what are you shooting at?" He convinces them to turn their guns on the officers instead, sparking a successful mutiny that leaves the sailors in control of the ship. Vakulinchuk dies in the skirmish—the film has no heroes, no protagonists, only the efforts of the mobilized mass—and his body is laid on a quay in Odessa, where his martyrdom incites the citizenry to gather in protest of the Czar. He's no longer a man, but a symbol of the movement.
And The Man—capital M—can't abide movements. In the film's most famous sequence, the Czar's Cossacks descend in a ridged rank down the Odessa Steps, firing into a crowd of innocents, trampling a young boy underfoot, shooting a schoolmarm through the eye, and sending an infant rolling helplessly down the stairs in a pram. There's really no room to wonder who the bad guys are; Eisenstein casts the Cossacks as unyielding, stoically violent, and damn near unstoppable, moving with cold precision as they mow down the mob and step over the bodies. To contrast, the town's citizens are all archetypes of goodness, peacefulness, and humility—mothers, teachers, children, and even a defenseless amputee, too helpless to get out of the way. Like most propaganda, it's simplistic, clearly designed to provoke a rah-rah response from a presumably already sympathetic audience, reinforcing hearts rather than truly changing minds. The brilliancy of the sequence comes from the jarring rhythms of Eisenstein's editing. The emotional effects of juxtaposition—giving two shots context and meaning by placing them next to one another—were prefigured in the works of D.W. Griffith and other silent movie masterminds, but Eisenstein's use of "montage" was groundbreaking in its directness and purposefully unsettling style. The six- minute Odessa Steps episode is one of cinema's most influential sequences, and even if you've never seen Battleship Potemkin, you've probably witnessed at least one homage or parody—think De Palma's The Untouchables, Gilliam's Brazil, or even third Naked Gun film.
Though Battleship Potemkin didn't rile up the masses like Eisenstein thought it would, at the time, it did make quite an impression on cultural tastemakers of all political persuasions, along with members of the Hollywood elite. Movie star Douglas Fairbanks, who attended the film's 1926 Berlin premiere, called it "the most powerful and most profound emotional experience of my life." And Hitler's future minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, proclaimed that Potemkin was "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema. Anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film." But that was—like just about everything Goebbels would later say during the Third Reich—somewhat of a spin-doctored overstatement. When the film eventually made its way to the screening rooms of Hollywood studio execs, Photoplay reported, "Nobody went Bolshevik, but a lot of people left with some revolutionary ideas of filmmaking." Even then, the film was more revered for its technical innovations than its fists-in-the-air propagandizing. The incisiveness of the film's message has certainly dulled with time—especially after the downfall of the U.S.S.R.—but Eisenstein's editing is as sharp and influential as ever.
Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray, Video Quality
After years of sub-par, public domain copies cobbled together from sliced up source prints and damaged, washed-out elements, Kino International's 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray presentation of Battleship Potemkin's 2005 refurbishment is nothing short of astounding. To begin with, this is now the definitive edition of the film—Eisenstein's 146 intertitles have been restored to his specifications, along with all of the material that was cut by German censors in 1926 and 1928. What we get here, according to the liner notes in the included booklet, is "a version that is as close to its director's intentions as it is ever likely to be." I've had the pleasure of reviewing two other silent classics on Blu-ray—Kino's release of Buster Keaton's The General and U.K. imprint Masters of Cinema's restoration of F.W. Murnau's City Girl —and with each I've been amazed by the level of detail to be found in the 80-some year old films. That feeling certainly carries over to Battleship Potemkin.
The print does show evidence of decades of wear and tear—vertical scratches, white specks, small pieces of debris clinging to the edges of the frame—but this is to be expected, and I applaud the restoration team for not going overboard, so to speak, in trying to digitally remove age-related damage. In fact, I don't see any manipulation here at all. The grain structure is natural, and I didn't spot any signs of edge enhancement or other post-telecine tweaks. As you'd hope, clarity receives a titanic upgrade from prior DVD releases. Close-ups reveal skin texture and other fine details—like the brushed gunmetal on the ship's cannons—and the longer shots of extras fleeing down the Odessa Steps are impressively resolved. The black and white gradation is equally striking, with deep blacks, never overblown whites, and strong shadow delineation. You'll notice some brightness flickering from time to time, but this is inherent in the film technology of the time, not a transfer-related issue. There are two versions of the film contained on the 50 GB disc —one with the original Russian intertitles, the other with English title cards—and aside from the obvious differences, both look identical. In short, this release of Battleship Potemkin is the most complete, most visually impressive presentation the film has received since its 1925 Bolshoi premiere. Kino, Filmmuseum Berlin-Deutsche Kinematek, and the British Film Institute should be proud of, and praised for, their efforts.
Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray, Audio Quality
For the film's Moscow premier, Battleship Potemkin was accompanied by a kind of temp track, a "hastily assembled pastiche of pre-existing orchestral cues," as New York Sun film critic Bruce Bennett explains in his liner notes. For the debut in Berlin, Eisenstein hired composer Edmund Meisel to write a proper score—"I told Meisel I wanted the score to be rhythm, rhythm, and above all pure rhythm," wrote the director—and Meisel's compositions have been reproduced here in a new performance by conductor Helmut Imig and the 55-piece Deutsches Filmorchestra Babelsberg. As I wrote in my review for City Girl—who's original score had been lost to time —I was less than impressed by the new music that had been commissioned for Murnau's film, which seemed to overshadow rather than complement the subtlety of the story's emotion. It's good, then, to hear Battleship Potemkin as it was originally intended—or, at least, as close to the original intent as is possible. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track sounds excellent, with frantic strings, rich horns, and a propulsive quality that underscores the film perfectly. Dynamically, the track is detailed and expansive, and the music has been worked pleasingly into the rear speakers to create a more involving mix. Crank up the volume and you'll feel like you're sitting down in the orchestra pit.
Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Tracing the Battleship Potemkin (1080i, 42:23)
This fantastic German documentary goes into great detail regarding the history of the frequently re-cut and often outright banned film—providing comparisons between different versions—and guides us through the tedious reconstruction and restoration process that was prepared for Potemkin's 80th anniversary in 2005. Narration is in German with hard-coded English subtitles.
Photo Galleries (1080p)
I quite like Kino's user-controlled photo galleries, which sport an elegant interface and large stills. Included here are galleries for promotional materials, behind the scenes stills, and photos of deleted scenes.
The case comes with a full-color 8-page booklet with film notes by New York Sun critic Bruce Bennett.
Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I can't express how pleased I am that companies like Kino, Criterion, and Masters of Cinema have shown their commitment to putting out miraculously restored editions of cinema's earliest and most influential films. Kino's slate, in particular, is impressive, with upcoming Blu-ray releases of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Metropolis. If you're a fan and collector of silent films, 2010 is shaping up to be a banner year. Battleship Potemkin looks phenomenal in high definition and demands inclusion in every cineaste's home video collection. Very highly recommended!
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Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Restored Battleship Potemkin Blu-ray in April - January 29, 2010
Kino Video is set to release the classic of silent cinema Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein, on April 20. For this 1080p restoration, Kino has joined the Deutsche Kinematek in association with Russia's Goskinofilm, the British Film Institute, ...
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