Series Advisor Martin Sixsmith introduces Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, ahead of the opening concert of the Philharmonia's Voices of Revolution series with Vladimir Ashkenazy on 12 October.
Most of us know at least something about Battleship Potemkin. The images of the massacre on the steps, the child’s pram careening down them and the old woman shot through her spectacles are celebrated icons of political cinema. But how many of us know what led up to the massacre? What year it took place? If indeed it did take place?
Sergei Eisenstein’s film is set not in 1917, but twelve years earlier, in June 1905. The Tsarist regime had been rocked by two cataclysmic events, the Bloody Sunday revolt in February and military disaster in the Russo-Japanese War in May. Spooked by unrest at home and gambling on the distraction of a foreign war, Nicholas II had sent the Russian fleet half way round the world to engage the Japanese in the Straits of Tsushima.
The outcome was a seaborne charge of the light brigade, the worst naval defeat in Russian history. Outmoded, underequipped ships advanced into a hail of concentrated enemy fire to be picked off and sunk, one after the other. Eight battleships and four cruisers went down before the Russian admiral raised the flag of surrender. Four thousand men were dead, another seven thousand taken prisoner.
Russia had been humiliated and anger with the Tsar boiled over. “An unparalleled crime was committed by those who sent us to our deaths”, wrote Vladimir Kostenko, ship’s engineer of the cruiser Oryol. “Our decrepit, degenerate monarchy was hoping for a miracle, but instead got the catastrophe of Tsushima. It is Tsarism that has been smashed by the Japanese guns. It is Tsarism that bears the shame of this defeat. The whole absolutist system is morally bankrupt!”
Discontent spread quickly. In the southern port of Odessa, sailors of the Black Sea fleet rose up in protest. It was a natural subject for Bolshevik propaganda and in 1925 – the twentieth anniversary of the revolt – Eisenstein’s film made the most of it. We see the sailors on the Potemkin abused by their masters, forced to eat maggot-infested meat and threatened with a firing squad when they complain. The film draws us into indignant complicity with the men’s plight; we share their exaltation when the mutiny spreads to other ships then to the inhabitants of Odessa itself.
The drama is compelling and Eisenstein uses ground-breaking cinematography to intensify its impact. Rapid intercutting between shots, subliminal frames with images evoking pity or horror combine with sophisticated montage techniques to give the film an enduring potency. It was judged so powerful, in fact, that it was banned in several countries, including in Britain until 1954, on the grounds that it would foment social unrest.
But as with so many revolutionary legends, the Potemkin events were less dramatic than their subsequent portrayal. The film’s most celebrated scene of Tsarist Cossacks slaughtering civilians on the steps leading to the docks did not happen. There were clashes elsewhere in Odessa, but it was Eisenstein’s genius that transposed them to the now legendary location. And the final tableau of the pro-Tsarist flotilla switching sides to grant the revolutionaries safe passage out of the port is largely fantasy. So convincing were Eisenstein’s efforts, however, that more than one history book has reported them as fact.
By the time the film was made, the Bolshevik regime had decreed that all art should be clear and simple, with a political message comprehensible to the even the least educated. Eisenstein’s task was to elicit a visceral response from his audience, to channel their sympathies in the correct political direction; and because dialogue was impossible in the era of silent movies, the role of the soundtrack took on added significance. The film needed music that would heighten the onscreen emotions and reinforce its effectiveness as agitprop.
The Austrian socialist composer Edmund Meisel, who wrote the score for the first international screening in Berlin, did a solid job. Delays in getting the film passed by the censor meant he had only 12 days to complete it, but he worked hard to match the music to the action on the screen – not always the case with film scores in the past.
Eisenstein liked Meisel’s music, but expressed the hope that a new score would be written every 20 years. Only that, he felt, would preserve the film’s freshness and guarantee its impact on future audiences, as musical tastes changed. It was an expression of faith in Potemkin’s longevity, a faith that has been justified. New scores were written in 1950, 1985, 2004 and 2011 by different Soviet and Western composers.
In 1975, when the Soviet authorities released a fiftieth-anniversary edition of the film, extracts from three Shostakovich symphonies were assembled into a slightly cumbersome soundtrack, beginning and ending with the supposedly triumphant D Major fanfares and finale from number 5. The use of well-known bleeding chunks was hardly subtle, and the score that will be performed by the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy attempts to remedy that by deploying a wider range of Shostakovich themes (from symphonies 4, 5, 8, 10 and 11) in a version that succeeds in sounding more organically connected to the storyline.
Marrying film and live music is not always simple, however, and Eisenstein himself left a warning in his memoirs that should keep modern day performers on their toes. “A 1929 showing of Potemkin in London,” he writes, “was utterly ruined because they varied the projection speed to help fit it to the music. They destroyed the whole rhythm of the thing and, for the first time in my film’s existence, the audience burst into laughter.”
© Martin Sixsmith