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DVD Pick: Battleship Potemkin (Two-DVD Boxed Set)

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The Best DVD Version Yet of One of the Great Films of All Time

Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) is an important film, both in terms of cinema history and world history, and it is well worth watching many times. But over the years, there have been several different versions of the movie, most of them with only so-so picture quality. Also, some frames known to exist were usually not included, and a few sequences were not in the same order in all versions. Furthermore, Battleship Potemkin is a silent film, and several different scores have accompanied it — probably the one most widely heard during the last several decades has been the music by Shostakovich, which was added after Eisenstein's death.

In 2005 a team of experts led by film historian Enno Patalas completed a restoration of Potemkin that provides very good picture quality and incorporates all footage from all known early copies. The order of the sequences was taken from the earliest copies, and the team tried to assure that the stream of images would appear at the same speed as they would have in late 1925. The music used was that composed by Edmund Meisel for the film's opening in Berlin in April 1926.

In October 2007 Kino released a two-disc set containing the 2005 restoration of Battleship Potemkin with the soundtrack in 5.1 stereo surround. The DVD set contains two versions of the film, but the only difference is the intertitles: on Disc One they are in English, while on Disc Two they are in Russian (with English subtitles available). For some viewers, the Russian intertitles are distracting, while for others they are enriching.

The Most Influential Sequence in Cinema History?

Battleship Potemkin is set in 1905 in the Black Sea port of Odessa, and its most celebrated sequence takes place on a sunny day when a large, peaceful crowd of local residents has gathered on the monumental steps leading down to the harbor. Suddenly tsarist troops arrive, and the people try to flee. But the size of the crowd and the congestion on the steps make escape difficult, and the army quickly opens fire, resulting in a bloody massacre. Amid the chaos, faceless soldiers march over dead bodies and shoot a woman carrying her injured son, a young mother is shot and her baby in its carriage rolls down the long flight of steps, and a middle-aged woman wearing a pince-nez is stabbed in the eye with a saber. By the end of the sequence, Eisenstein has left the viewer with the feeling that any government which treats its citizens this brutally should to be overthrown.

When the Odessa Steps sequence was seen by Hollywood filmmakers, it had an enormous and lasting impact. But that was not so much because of subject matter as it was because of visual style. Eisenstein was making brilliant use of the idea that filmmaking should not only be thought of in terms of story, but also in terms of employing a series of visual images impressionistically to evoke emotional and intellectual responses. An important legacy of Battleship Potemkin has been its influence on film editing.

A Soviet Propaganda Piece, but a Masterpiece of World Cinema

In 1925 the Soviet leadership decided to commemorate the 20th anniversary of an unsuccessful revolt against the tsarist government that occurred in 1905, the claim being that it set in motion a chain of events that led to the successful revolution of 1917. They tasked Eisenstein, then 27 years old, with making a movie suited to the observance of the anniversary. He chose to focus on a single incident known as the Potemkin mutiny and portray the mutinous sailors aboard the battleship as heroes of the class struggle. Eisenstein was unconcerned about historical accuracy in a literal sense, but he was arguably faithful to the spirit of the real-life events.

The film first takes us aboard the Potemkin and shows us how badly the aristocratic officers, who are agents of the tsar, treat the enlisted men, who come from the working classes and the peasantry. While the Potemkin lies at anchor in Odessa harbor, the enlisted men seize control of the warship. In sympathy with the mutinous sailors, huge crowds of locals come to the quay to mourn a seaman who was killed during the mutiny. Soon a feeling comes over much of the Odessa populace that they must stand in solidarity with the sailors against the tyranny of tsarism.

The tsarist regime quickly sends military forces to Odessa, and the revolt is put down. But the viewer can conclude that the mutiny and its aftermath have planted an idea in the minds of the Russian masses: to improve their situation they must work together to mount an armed revolution. Twelve years later, that idea came to fruition.

There Are Differing Versions of the Film

The Kino two-disc set contains the 42-minute "Tracing Battleship Potemkin," an informative, but tedious German-language documentary which discusses various versions of the film that have been shown over the years. The documentary spends quite a bit of time on the sequences that were cut by German censors in the 1920s.

But in 1976 the Soviets made available a version that contained nearly all the footage and was very close to being complete. In 1998 Image Entertainment released the 1976 version of Battleship Potemkin on DVD, and it's not easy to identify the places in the movie where the 2007 DVDs contain additional footage. However, the picture quality is noticeably better on the Kino DVDs.

A major difference between the Kino and Image DVD versions is the score. Kino uses music Edmund Meisel composed for the film's 1926 Berlin premiere, while Image uses music by Shostakovich that was put in years later by the Soviets. Meisel's score is traditional movie music, while Shostakovich's is more like something you would hear in a concert hall. However, the Kino DVDs have significantly better sound quality.

There are other differences in the DVD versions. The most eye-catching is that the flag hoisted on the Potemkin is colored red in the Kino version, while it is white in the Image version. (The flag was hand colored in some early copies of the film.) Another difference is that the Kino version contains a quote from Trotsky, while in the Image version, the Soviets replaced that with a quote from Lenin.

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