Review: BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN - Exciting, Powerful Epic That Changed Cinema

rating: 5

(BFI are re-releasing Battleship Potemkin in theatres from today. Check out full venues, HERE). 85 years have passed since the original release of Battleship Potemkin, and director Sergei Eisenstein's name has become forever synonymous with the term 'montage'. Potemkin did, after all, lay down much of the groundwork that would later inspire future filmmaking technique. Now, the 71-minute silent film has found itself tagged uncomfortably as an art picture, forever doomed as a source of study and academia. In actuality, it's a roaring epic, the kind of film that Michael Bay might lay awake at night thinking about, pondering the possibility of a full-on remake. If such an imagining were true, you honestly couldn't blame him. For Battleship Potemkin, like the vessel from which the film gets its title, is a gigantic force that simply refuses to die. The story is not a complicated one, regardless of what effect the title might have on those shy of films implicating history. Set in 1905 aboard a Tsarist navy ship, Potemkin is broken into five chapters, each running about twelve-minutes long, and chronicles the events during and after a mutiny. The object that pushes the narrative into overdrive (and this can't be said of many films) is borscht. It's a type of soup, and the sailers are insulted that all they're being fed is maggot-infested meat. The officers aboard Potemkin don't agree and threaten violent ends. It's all too much for the sailers, and a revolution has been brewing anyway - what follows will lead audiences through a violent battle on a ship, an uprising on a colossal scale, and a horrific massacre on the steps at Odessa. It's important to emphasise the sheer size of Battleship Potemkin as a cinematic endeavour. It looks huge and put simply, it is. In the days when CGI was completely off the radar, it's astounding to know that, for a film made in 1925, what you're looking at was really there. Eisenstein assembles entire battleships, takes the ocean for his own, and enlists crowds of thousands to react, run riot, and rise and fall as the Bolshevik revolution fights its way into history. As a spectacle, it is potentially unsurpassed. The control Eisenstein exercises over a picture of such monumental means is a notch above astonishing. To divulge honestly, Potemkin's credentials as an art film (a foreign, silent art film at that) aren't exactly prepped to muster an excited audience. Many films of a similar age are studied for what they gave to cinema, what they inspired, or what they innovated (for better or worse). And there are a number of veteran pictures that might only be watched academically, as fodder for film historians: they are no longer entertaining, or they've dated, or remain important for those first steps (The Jazz Singer comes to mind). Potemkin has its innovations, but as a piece of sheer entertainment, it still manages to whack it out of the park. It's a thrill ride in every sense. It is true that Potemkin isn't a nice picture. The most famous sequence takes place on the steps of Odessa, where Tsarist soldiers arrive to massacre the revolutionaries. If this is a set-piece, it is a powerful and spellbinding one. There are so many great moments: the woman carrying the body of her deceased son, the old lady who is shot through her glasses, the mother and the runaway pram. This is also the scene that proves a showcase for Eisenstein's montage technique. Even a casual viewer, ignorant of the term montage, will find themselves hooked on the succession of powerful images. The entire sequence evokes the feeling of some strange and twisted documentary reel: the result is something that you cannot turn away from and will not shake from your memory. The BFI's new treatment of the film (20 years in development) isn't going to make converts of those who didn't take a shine to a previous version. That, of course, isn't the reasoning behind this 2011 remaster: it's to show the film in its most completed form, with missing bits and pieces put back into place, and a fresh orchestral recording of the original score. For hardcore fans, it's a delight, with the score shining through as an extraordinary piece of work in its own right. It does what it should, driving the picture without suffocating it, whilst remaining as memorable as the stunning visuals Eisenstein has so carefully put in place. It's enough that the years have been good to Potemkin. What Eisenstein hoped would be a driving force of propaganda has become one of the silent era's most critically lauded films. It has been parodied and referenced since its release (most famously in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables), and frequently assures a place in the most prestigious of film lists. An honest movie lover might tell you it's the greatest film ever made. Accolades aside, the crucial notion rests with the fact that Battleship Potemkin, for all its political means, transcends its origin: more than ever, it is an exciting, powerful epic that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. BFI are re-releasing Battleship Potemkin in theatres from today. Check out full venues, HERE

All-round pop culture obsessive.