The Censors After 79 Years
By Ronald Bergan
18 February, 2005
was appropriate that a newly restored version of Sergei Eisenstein's
The Battleship Potemkin should be shown during this year's Berlin festival
with a full orchestra playing 'the original' score by Edmund Meisel.
When The Battleship
Potemkin was first shown in Moscow in December 1925, finished just in
time to commemorate the (partially successful) 1905 Revolution, it had
an uninspired musical accompaniment played on an organ. The film played
to half-empty theatres, because audiences, then as now, preferred the
products from Hollywood.
were exaggerated by the authorities to demonstrate to the rest of the
world that there was a large Soviet audience for Soviet films.
A short while later,
The Battleship Potemkin was shown in Berlin where it became an enormous
hit, moving from a small cinema on the Friederichstrasse to twelve cinemas
around Berlin. Encouraged by the film's success, its German distributor
decided to commission the Austrian-born Edmund Meisel to write a score
for the theatre orchestra. By the time of Eisenstein's arrival in Berlin,
Meisel had reached the last reel in which the battleship, with the mutinous
sailors on board, goes out to confront the Tsar's navy, tension mounting
as the ships approach one another.
to the composer was 'the music for this reel should be rhythm, rhythm
and, before all else, rhythm.' He dissuaded Meisel from composing purely
illustrative music and got him to accentuate certain effects. (Meisel's
score was thought lost for some years, and other music has been tagged
onto it over the years from extracts from Shostokovich symphonies to
the Pet Shop Boys.)
At Berlin, 79 years later, the pulsating score, which included gunshots
realistically simulated by drums and cymbals, made a tremendous impact,
especially during the final 'music for machines' sequence, where it
reaches an almost unbearable percussive crescendo, counterpointing the
speed of the ship. (In fact, it was an illusion created by montage.
The ship was stationary.)
During the Odessa
Steps sequence, against which the whole of cinema can be defined, the
music reflects what Eisenstein called 'dialectical montage'.
is one of collision, conflict and contrast, with the emphasis on a dynamic
juxtaposition of individual shots that forces the audience consciously
to come to conclusions about the interplay of images while they are
also emotionally and psychologically affected. The 80-minute The Battleship
Potemkin contains 1,346 shots, whereas the average film around 1926
ran 90 minutes and had around 600 shots.
Curiously, the music
was one of the aspects of the film considered to be subversive at the
time. In some cities of Germany, the film was passed for screening but
the music was forbidden. The Battleship Potemkin's depiction of a successful
rebellion against political authority disturbed the world's censors.
The French, banning
it for general showing, burned every copy they could find. It was only
shown in film clubs in London, where it had been banned. Initially,
in the USA, it was forbidden on the grounds that it 'gives American
sailors a blueprint as to how to conduct a mutiny'. Likewise, in Germany,
the War Ministry forbade members of the armed forces to see the film.
The German censors
cut a scene when an officer is thrown into the water and a close-up
of a brutal Cossack. A few years later, after Stalin came to power,
a written introduction by Leon Trotsky was removed by the Soviets and
replaced by a quote from Lenin. This latest version reinstated the original
as well as some other intertitles felt too inflammatory at the time.
(Despite the festival's claims of restoring a few missing scenes, there
is not one frame that I had not seen previously.)
However, the one
aspect of The Battleship Potemkin that has never aroused any censorship
is Eisenstein's mischievous homoeroticism, which is more evident to
modern audiences than ever. In the 1980s, Nestor Almendros, the exiled
Cuban cinematographer, wrote: 'From its very beginning, with the sailors'
dormitory prologue, we see an "all-male cast" resting shirtless
in their hammocks. The camera lingers on the rough, splendidly built
men, in a series of shots that anticipate the sensuality of Mapplethorpe,
and at the great moment when the cannons are raised to fire, a sort
of visual ballet of multiple slow and pulsating erections can easily
Almendros, and other gay commentators, cannot be accused of special
pleading. Eisenstein was a self-confessed phallic obsessive. Knowing
this, it is not unlikely that Eisenstein was slyly playing with the
slowly rising guns as well as the scenes with sailors polishing pistons
in a masturbatory manner.
There are also the
fleeting shots of a young man tearing his shirt in fury to reveal his
bare chest (a young monk has his shirt torn off him in Ivan The Terrible)
and of two sailors obviously kissing as the cannons rise. None of this
was lost on the sophisticated festival audience, who gave the performance
(film plus orchestra) a standing ovation.