Eisenstein’s kaleidoscope

I was fortunate to catch a rare showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin on the big screen at the Edinburgh Filmhouse yesterday evening.

It’s available on DVD and YouTube, but this is the way to see it, if you can. Potemkin famously pioneered the use of cinematic montage, a technique that has become so integral to every filmmaker’s basic toolkit that it isn’t possible to appreciate its initial impact. But watching Battleship Potemkin as Eisenstein intended it to be seen, in the cinema, gives some idea of its visceral force: a brilliant kaleidoscope of bold images that really does succeed in capturing the the tumult of the revolutionary era in which the story is set.

The film’s effectiveness as a channel for Soviet propaganda soon became notorious. It was greatly admired by Joseph Goebbels, and was used as the template for the powerful Nazi movie Triumph of the Will, produced a decade later. Potemkin was banned from distribution in the United Kingdom till as late as the 1950s on account of its persuasive force and – by the standards of the day – extreme violence. The bloodied faces of the victims of the famous massacre scene on the Odessa steps inspired several of Francis Bacon’s most grotesque images.

But there is more to Potemkin than violence and revolution: there is much impressionistic beauty here too, something much better appreciated when the film is allowed to shine forth on a large canvas. The famous battle sequences stay in the mind, but so too do the many images of the sea, captured by Eisenstein in all its moods: the limitless horizons of the ocean, the rippling calm at dawn, the gusty turbulence of a storm, and the glittering peace of a moonlit harbour.