The 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 intelligent photography.

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 dominate.

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 Shostakovich.

Eisenstein 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 under.

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.