Two Rides on the Potemkin

It’s Back to School time of year again. This fall, visitors to the Detroit Film Theatre and Michigan Theater will have chances to return to the classroom for special film presentations that include introductory remarks by the leaders of the theaters.

The DFT 101 series will continue, with DFT Curator Elliot Wilhelm introducing movies from the long and rich history of film. At the Michigan, CEO/Executive Director (and Eastern Michigan University film professor) Russ Collins will host Movies 101: Appreciating the Language of Cinema.

Recently, both Elliot and Russ introduced one of the most famous and influential films of all time, Battleship Potemkin (1925), by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. They both focused on the famous Odessa Steps sequence that has been analyzed by film scholars and other enthusiasts for decades.

Detroit Film Theatre (March 26, 2011)

Comments by DFT Curator Elliot Wilhelm

When Eisenstein got to the port of Odessa and he saw the steps, and he began to read about the mutiny, he decided that this individual incident would be the perfect metaphor for the entire uprising of 1905, and then he made this film about that exclusively. It would have more power than a panoramic film that showed various, different incidents.

He was someone who took the language, the very way cinema works, very seriously, and believed that more than stating your themes, you could imply your themes through the style with which you made your film. And to do it, to explain it, some of his works are really fascinating.

Three of them that I would recommend, if you can get through all of them—some of them are a little bit impenetrable. You can go through some of Eisenstein’s books, such as The Film Sense and Film Form, in which he talked about these theories.

But his basic theory of editing motion pictures consisted of a simple recreation of hieroglyphics or pictograms, in which for example, you have a language in which there is no word for song, but you can have an image that depicts birds, and an image that depicts hearts, and you put the two of them together. The implication is more than the sum of the parts, and the idea of song comes from putting those two things together.

Eisenstein believed that the same was true of film and editing, and that’s where the true art of motion pictures was, and that by putting images together in a very specific rhythm, in a very specific pace, you could provide a feeling greater than the sum of any of those images and move an audience in ways that just simple dialogue or simple movement within the frame could not suffice.

And in Potemkin he reached what a lot of people consider to be the pinnacle of what he described as montage, which is simply the art of editing, at least in the silent era. Chaplin, after seeing the film, said it was the greatest film he’d ever seen. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who traveled to Berlin to see the film, said it was the greatest experience, theatrical experience, he’d ever had in his life.

Potemkin was immediately censored in the Soviet Union. They attempt to censor things, and as people came and went, and went in style and out of style, different things happened to this print, and they were taken out and put back in. The film was imported to the United States, where it was a smash hit.

The Importance of Music

So one of the things that Eisenstein felt was very important, even though this was not a sound film, was that the music would play a great important role in helping that rhythm, that editing rhythm that he had worked so hard to achieve, and a composer named Edmund Meisel wrote a score that Eisenstein approved of, and was first performed in Berlin in actually 1927.

Eisenstein didn’t get to actually hear the score until a couple of years later because his movements were restricted for various reasons, that he was preparing a film in 1928 on the 1918 revolution. Meisel’s score was lost. Prints of Potemkin went into the public domain. They were chopped up. Some scenes were shortened. Some of the intertitles in which we see the dialogue on the screen in which people are speaking had been changed or translated over the years. And for Potemkin fanatics, and I was one from the age of 10, back in 1960, various versions of Potemkin have been circulating throughout the world.

What’s exciting about the film you’re going to see today is it is believed to be the most complete version of Potemkin ever seen, and it has been reconstructed only recently based on Eisenstein’s actual shooting script. There aren’t that many new scenes, but many scenes that had been shortened, or transposed with other scenes in order to change the meaning later on had been put back where they belonged. So you will be able to see the impact that this film had in its original release.

They had to do a little bit of fiddling around with it in order to get the projection speed correct, because it was originally shot at around 18 frames per second, and today’s projectors run at 24 frames per second. So you may see a slight, sort of underwater movement occasionally, and that’s to prevent the characters from running around too quickly and spoiling the effect of the film.

One of the most exciting things is that the Meisel score, which has been completely reconstructed, is now performed in its entirety throughout the film. You will be able to see the film with a newly re-recorded Meisel score originally as it was meant to be seen.

Eisenstein’s Influence

Eisenstein’s later career was both fabulous and sad, but he remains one of the great figures of the cinema. For those of you who are fans, for example, of The Godfather, you may want to know that Francis Coppola’s favorite movie is Eisenstein’s last film, Ivan the Terrible, and so much was made between 1946 and 1948, but was never seen by the public until at least a decade later because of censorship.

All of the contrast that you may love in The Godfather between scenes that take place in dark offices and bright scenes that take place outdoors were all inspired by Eisenstein’s work in Ivan the Terrible.

And here’s one local thing. Many of you know about the RoboCop statue. What does this have to do with Potemkin? Well, I’ll tell you. Peter Weller, who played RoboCop, originally said that he based his physical movements on the actor Nikolai Cherkasov who played Ivan the Terrible in Eisenstein’s film. And he said the totality of the way in which his stylized movements portrayed emotion on the screen was the greatest acting school he could ever go to, even though he had certainly been to professional acting school.

Eisenstein’s influence echos throughout cinema history in ways that are very unexpected. But to get a flavor of what he means by editing, watch this film, and then do your best to try and watch it again, because you can’t take it all in on one viewing. You will notice things that will amaze you and they’ll go by like that, because the next thing that comes along will amaze you even more.

I’m happy to announce also that this complete version, even though what you’re going to be seeing today is a pristine 35-millimeter print of Potemkin, which is the way it should be seen, is available for your viewing and for study in the Blu-ray format. They’ve done a really nice job of putting that together.

So, I thank you for indulging me, and do enjoy the film, and I hope it opens your eyes to some of the influences that Potemkin has had on all of cinema over the last 86 years.

Michigan Theater (August 7, 2011)

Comments by Michigan CEO/Executive Director Russ Collins

We’re going to have a presentation of a classic, classic film presented with live musical accompaniment. Now you may have seen a commercial, a trailer for the film that said that the film had been restored with its original orchestral track, newly recorded. Well, we’re going to not do that here today. We’re going to have a live organ accompaniment by Steven Ball, and I hope you’re not too disappointed with that [applause for Steven Ball].

The Battleship Potemkin was made in the early days of the Soviet Union, and it was a propaganda film about the revolution that created the Soviet Union. And the filmmaker was a guy by the name of Sergei Eisenstein.

Now the film industry in its early days was kind of equally flourishing around the globe, in Russia, in Europe, in the United States. And there was this little thing that got in the way of much of the film production in Europe, and it was the Great War, World War I. And essentially during World War I and after the war, film production essentially stopped in Europe and in the United States, film production continued rather vigorously. This gave the United States a huge advantage in this new industry, which you can really think of as the World Wide Web, the Internet of its era.

It was a new communication vehicle that they were trying to figure out how to make it work. I just saw a news piece, the other day, yesterday, I think, that it was 20 years ago that the World Wide Web started, so if you think about the first 20 years of the World Wide Web and how we figured out how to make it work, you can kind of think that about the first 20 years of cinema.

So right at the turn of the century cinema was invented, and for the first 20 years, they were trying to learn what it was and how it worked, and how you could make an expression with it. Well, there was an American director that was particularly adept at innovation in this new field, and he was a director by the name of D. W. Griffith, an American director, like I said.

And he made a film called Birth of a Nation, which is terribly racist. The content of the film is really objectionable. But what he essentially did was created a work of art that allowed cinema to form a feature length film. It wasn’t the first feature length film, but it was a feature length film that used new editing techniques, story techniques that you can identify from that film in modern film.

Well, that film was totally fascinating to the Russians, and they studied D.W. Griffith’s film very, very intently, particularly Birth of a Nation again, because it was a long, narrative film. And the Russians were particularly focused on how film editing worked.

Learning to Edit

Now we don’t think very much about film editing these days. It’s just part of the language context that we expect to see when we go to the movies.

But in early cinema, people didn’t know that you could cut between shots, so early movies were kind of like Dad with the video cam at the high school play, and they just turned the camera on and made photographs of the play, and they really didn’t do much with cutting between long shots and closeups and middle shots. And so it was kind of boring, but it made sense. Well, they soon understood that you could cut between these various kinds of shots. Again, we don’t think about any of this these days.

What they came up with was an editing technique called continuity editing, and that means that all the shots flow together, they’re all psychologically connected, so again, you don’t think a thing about it.

My favorite story about editing, to show you the power and mystery of editing, is to think about a James Bond film, all right. So James Bond is there boating on the Thames River. He’s got, what, a beautiful blond with him in the boat, right? They pull the boat up on the banks of the Thames, right next to his Aston Martin, which in 1964 was the only car that had a phone in it.

So they’re making out in the boat, and then you hear the phone ring in the car, and James Bond picks up the phone and says, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, OK, Bahamas, OK.’ He hangs up, and then the next shot you see is a plane landing in a tropical airport.

So what just happened? [pause while audience guesses] Somebody’s got to know. James Bond flew to the Bahamas, right? And there’s all kinds of things that they cut out, like, what did he pack? Did he take his Walther PPK? Where did he get his documents about what he was going to do? And the most important thing, that if it was a different context, what happened to the girl? Who was she? Was that his girlfriend? Was that his wife?

But in film, they learned that you could cut all that out. In early film, they didn’t know that. So this continuity editing, that was invented and developed by D.W. Griffith and and some of these folks in that period was really quite revolutionary and these Russian folks studied and studied and studied it.

Combining Images

Well, they wanted to take it a little further and experiment even more with editing, so there was this guy by the name of [Lev] Kuleshov and he took this picture, this 10-second little frame of film of a guy just standing with a blank look on his face. And they took that shot, and they took a picture of a bowl of soup, where they took 10 seconds of a bowl of soup. And then they took 10 seconds of a woman in a coffin. And then they took 10 seconds of a child playing.

And they took these pieces of film, and they edited the guy with the blank look on his face, and the bowl of soup, and then the guy with the blank look on his face, and they called that a short little film and they showed that to people. Now the bowl of soup and the guy were taken in completely different places, at completely different times, and they didn’t have any thing to do with each other.

But they discovered if you just put these two things together, people said, ‘Oh, that guy’s hungry, and he wants a bowl of soup.’ And then they did the same thing with the woman in the coffin and the guy with the blank face. The woman in the coffin and the guy with the blank face again, and they said, ‘Oh, he’s so sad because his wife died.’

And then they did the same thing with the child playing and the blank face, and they said, ‘He’s bemusedly watching his child play,’ and you could just feel the parental pride. And it was the same face, and the only difference was what it was cut together with, and they realized that people created narratives in their heads based on how you edited pieces of film together, whether they were connected or whether they weren’t.

Well, this is a very long introduction to a particular sequence in the Battleship Potemkin which is well known as the Odessa Steps sequence. And the Odessa Steps sequence was one of these really successful experiments in editing.

It’s not quite continuity editing. It doesn’t flow psychologically smooth between each shot. In fact, you’ll notice, if you watch very carefully, that things happen out of time sequence slightly. Things are repeated and the geographical space of the movie is confused.

But it actually adds to the fact that these soldiers are attacking civilians. And so the filmmakers created this scene that has a lot of emotional punch, even though it doesn’t have strict continuity editing flow. And it’s really extremely, extremely powerful to look at, even today.

And it is so frequently copied in the movies, it’s probably most well known for being exactly copied in The Untouchables, and you’ve probably seen it in Brazil, and Godfather and lots of other films. And the thing that you’ll notice when it’s copied is there’s a baby crib that kind of teeters, and then goes down steps.

But it’s that whole sequence, and who gets shot, and where he gets shot, and how they get shot. Someone gets shot, and they clutch their gut, and then you see them clutch their gut again in a different shot. It’s really a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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