FILM - POTEMKIN
1925 Soviet silent screen classic, Battleship
Potemkin, swept up Sydney Festival audiences. Few film-buffs had
ever seen so crisp a print, or one in which the final flag flashed red
as it had been hand-coloured to look by its director, Sergei Eisenstein.
The Soviets sold the negative to German distributors in the 1920s so that the prints with which most people became familiar were a hotch-potch from running repairs. The print now available was reconstructed by Russian scholars in 1975.
The accompaniment by the Sydney Symphony
Orchestra raises questions about the integrity of mechanically
reproducible works of art. Cineastes campaigned to stop the colouring of
such black-and-white classics as Casablanca
for sale to cable. Should comparable prohibitions apply to adding sound
to silent film?
The original did not have a score composed
for it, as did some major silents. The usual practice was for
improvisation to evoke the action or mood. In 1926, in Odessa, the piano
accompanist decided that such rough handling was inadequate. He turned
to Bach’s preludes and fugues. Their sparseness is in keeping with the
precept that film music should not be sound effects but - in addition to
leaving space for silences - should offer an emotional counterpoint.
After Eisenstein’s death in 1948, the
Soviets commissioned a score; the musicians felt free to re-edit his
montages. In 1975, as much harm was done to the recently deceased
Shostakovich’s music as to the film. He had written a lot of film
music to keep himself in roubles and out of political strife, but he had
done none for Eisenstein who used Prokofiev.
Officialdom plundered four of
Shostakovich’s symphonies to serve up the bureaucratic bombast that he
had ridiculed. This appropriation was part of the Soviet propaganda to
link Shostakovich to the Party. He had retained sympathies for the 1905
revolution, irrespective of his changing views about 1917.
It hardly matters what happens to the 11th,
called ‘The Year 1905’, because it was never more than film music.
But the 10th is one of the great symphonies. How more
thrilling the evening would have been if a silent screening of Potemkin
had been followed by a performance of the 10th. The orchestra
would have sounded happier.
Because most screenings in the Soviet Union
of the 1920s were at romote locations, Eisenstein composed his feature
in five, 15-minute movements, just long enough for a reel. The current
score drives ahead without the breaks in a concert.
The concocted 1975 score accentuates the
melodramatic conventions of the silent era and thus slows the acceptance
by audiences accustomed to sophisticated screen devices, if not to such
Eisenstein had different ideas about how
sight and sound should be brought together. Just as the film-editor, he
wrote, achieves ‘his total effect through the general sensation
produced by the sequences”, so in “matching music with the sequence,
this general sensation is a decisive factor”. The score was never to
The early scenes with the doctor inspecting
the rotten meat, and of the cringing priest, call for mockery. Instead,
the band blasted away. When the screen showed a trumpeter, the score
provided a trumpet call.
Long before Eisenstein dreamt of a sound
track, he had learnt how “to create the effect of sound and music
through purely plastic means”. The most famous instance is where the
boom of the guns is visualised by a montage of stone lions appearing to
wake from couchant to rampant.
Eisenstein treated the music that Prokofiev
wrote for him for Alexander Nevsky
in the same way as he did his own footage. To achieve mounting
intensity, he multiplied one bar twelve times, not just four as the
composer had indicated. He would have made those fine tunings to the
built his impact from tiny effects, such as the repeated eye-glasses.
These motifs were like those of a composer. The uprising begins as a
ballet of swinging mess tables, criss-crossed hammocks and raised fists.
Lenin had feared that although Russian troops
would rebel, they would soon afterwards submit to the gallows and the
knout. That is what happened to the Potemkin’s
crew after the screenplay’s ending. In 1917, millions refused to go
The film’s impact still depends on its
politics. As the uprising spreads, the viewer cannot help but take
sides. Are you for the men, or the maggots? The Czars and their Cossacks
may be gone, but their successors operate in every continent.