29. Bronenosets Potyomkin

Battleship Potemkin

January 18, 1926
Goskino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Stachka demonstrated the power of revolutionary cinema by showing the effect workers can have when they organize. Yes, the strike itself ended in annihilation, but it was punctuated by a final command, addressed directly to the audience: Remember, proletarians!

Sergei Eisenstein and his comrades gave them little time to forget. Within a year’s time Bronenosets Potyomkin brought the cinema into its next dialectical stage, demonstrating what can happen when proletarian power is joined by military power. We saw in the German Revolution how the military, which normally operates as the repressive apparatus of state power, has within its organization its own version of proletarian industrial workers, namely sailors. In 1905, when the Russians were being obliterated by the Japanese, a non-Western industrial upstart, the sailors of the ship Potemkin decided to join the revolution their were hearing rumors about and stage a mutiny. The events of this mutiny, largely fictionalized to suit the needs of cinematic narrative, were depicted here as part of a 20-year celebration of the Revolution of 1905.

The film wasn’t a big hit in the Soviet Union, but news spread, and it scared the shit out of foreign governments. Industrial nations were experiencing worker unrest of their own, and it was a very real possibility that they would see their own Bolshevik moment in the months ahead. To those in power, this movie was a manual of how to stage a real revolution. Britain and France banned all public showings. The German censorship office made substantial cuts, including the entirety of the most-famous pram sequence, but ultimately approved the censored version (military personnel were still prohibited from seeing it).

The movie premiered in Berlin two days before Mayday and was an overwhelming critical success. Douglas Fairbanks declared it “the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Bertolt Brecht composed a poem about it. Potyomkin was a bold display of the power of revolutionary political art and an example of the potential for superior cinema in a socialist economy.

The power of a movie that presented all filmmaking under the capitalist mode of production with an artistic challenge presents modern viewers with a different challenge. Potyomkin is almost exclusively watched as a technical exercise. The emotional centerpiece, the famous Odessa Steps sequence, which exploded onto the Berlin screen as a consummate vision of war-as-chaos, has been so institutionalized and academized by countless shot by shot analyses that it can be hard to feel anything when watching it. John Waters, that master of screen chaos, recalls a screening of the Odessa Steps as the moment he decided film school was unnecessary bullshit.

Is it possible to see in this movie with its original revolutionary thrill? Possible for it to excite us with its picture of a new way to live, showing us what is greatest and most important in life, and filling us with solidarity and the courage to defend our brothers and sisters against the dread force of Capital?

Sound may be the key that unlocks this silent film.

Eisenstein himself saw his masterpiece as a sound film. All of his montage tricks, gross or subtle, were to be matched in unison or counterpoint by similar moves in the soundtrack. But the versions I’ve seen on video use those standard orchestra or piano scores that tend to make silent movies a dull, academic experience. A Film 101 class to fall asleep in. A great silent movie is timeless, but the soundtrack is usually not. Many composers and ensembles have re-scored Potemkin, and you should never pass up the opportunity to see it this way. For those playing the home game, I can personally recommend the Pet Shop Boys version, which as of this writing is available here in what is apparently a fan edit. Chris and Neil’s synthesizer melodies soar in solidarity as the skiffs meeting the battleship and sing an understated dirge during the great Steps scene. As the tension of the final showdown mounts, they go into full Hi-NRG. We are your brothers! As we move into our own version of 1926, prospects for World Revolution are once again starting to look up.

13. Foolish Wives

foolishwives

January 11, 1922
Universal
Directed by Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim was an Austrian of unknown origin who immigrated to America at the age of 24 under mysterious circumstances, and got a job working with D.W. Griffith, and then later found success playing Prussian bad guys on the stage in patriotic productions. He somehow contrived a meeting with Universal boss Carl Laemmle and convinced him to make his movie, let him star and direct, and give him whatever money he needed. Universal made genre movies without stars. Von Stroheim was to be his own star, developing his successful sadistic German character into more calculating and devious rapists. His first two movies were a huge success, and he was ready to write, direct, and star in his third and greatest movie, Foolish Wives.

Laemmle was unable to run both the California and New York units by himself, and he appointed his twenty year-old right-hand man Irving Thalberg to run the operations in Hollywood.  Irving Thalberg’s first big challenge was von Stroheim, who had by now far exceeded any conceivable notion of budget, and he showed no sign that he was going to stop filming. Thalberg removed his equipment and took the film to be edited with no further assistance from the master.

There were many hours worth of footage, which the studio cut to about three and for the premier. They cut it again for the road show and again for the release. The extant version is 2 hours 20 minutes, and it feels both too long and short. Most of the takes should go on longer, but the picture as a whole is not a complicated enough narrative to warrant an epic length. Crucial moments are crudely cut.

Constant crisis, building to its climax way too soon, before anyone is ready, hacked apart by the very capitalist process that is skewered so elegantly here. But many of the hacks were made not just by Thalberg and his men at Universal, but the censors demand to remove the most offensive material. The movie we have only hints at the horrible conquests and humiliations that are surely in the lost footage.

Prohibition was an incredible victory for the moralists, and once it was in place with the Volstead they pushed to new territory. Decency. They had a huge victory with Ulysses. A book with dirty moments so brief and opaque they could only bring excitement to the especially erudite, banned in the United States. Copies mailed from Paris were liable to be burned by the Post Office.

What remains of Foolish Wives is hilarious, disgusting, frightening, and misogynist. The Russian aristocrats fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, in exile living in Monaco. Like Capitalism in perpetual crisis, betting everything on an enormous bluff. already living in paradise, making money out of nothing, but always trying to get somewhere better. To conquer and move on to new territory.

Rapacious and cruel. We know even less about where they’re trying to get to than where they’re from, which is almost nothing. Trapped in their seaside villa where the ocean swells in the corners of the frame, with their servants and their fake money and fake lives. The cousins playfully tease each other, argue about who to fuck over next. Launder the fake money and move on. Leave no trace on the scene.

Cover your tracks.

Bibliography

  • Curtiss, Thomas Quinn. Von Stroheim. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
  • Koszarski, Richard. The Man You Loved to Hate: Eric von Stroheim and Hollywood. Oxford University Press, 1983.