Socialist Worker

Red Square to Trafalgar Square

by Yuri Prasad
Issue No. 1920

A COLD and wet Sunday night—but Trafalgar Square was packed more densely than a rush hour tube.

From the stage erected at the base of Nelson’s Column came a call to remember the night we had stood here in defiance of George Bush’s visit to Britain. It was greeted with a huge cheer.

Projections around the square beamed the words, “Resistance = Existence”.

A demonstration? A protest? No, a showing of an 80 year old film about the first Russian Revolution of 1905.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is rightly regarded by critics as one of the most important films ever made.

His technique of film montage involved juxtaposing two opposing images so that a new third image was created in the viewers’ imagination.

Potemkin challenged the conventional way of using cinema to tell a story.

As the titles rolled in Trafalgar Square two weeks ago, I looked around me and wondered whether the crowd would “get it”. If you didn’t know anything about the 1905 revolution, would it still make sense?

Ten minutes later my doubts were dispelled. Nearly everyone cheered as the firing squad refused to shoot the revolutionary sailors.

A young woman next to me cried as the Cossacks massacred the workers of Odessa.

I should not have doubted Eisenstein’s ability to tell a story. He learned his trade during the early years of the successful Russian Revolution of 1917.

Joining the Agit Trains that took newsreels to front lines of the civil war, he filmed soldiers in action to show people in the cities.

The period immediately after the revolution saw a massive expansion of the arts in Russia. It was a time of great creativity and experimentation.

Strike—Eisenstein’s first film—dealt with the development and destruction of a strike in Tsarist Russia.

Rather than centring the story around one or two leading characters and using famous actors, Eisenstein emphasised the collective experience.

Potemkin was Eisenstein’s second film and the one which brought him international acclaim.

American film mogul Samuel Goldwyn told him that he loved the film and wanted him to make some for him—but cheaper.

While on trial in 1933, the mutinous crew of the Dutch battleship De Zeven Provincien said that they had been inspired by Potemkin.

But Potemkin was the last film over which Eisenstein had complete control. His film October depicted the history of the 1917 revolution. It was being edited during the height of Stalin’s battle to consolidate his grip on Russia.

In the last stages of editing Stalin personally supervised the cutting of many leading figures of the revolution from the film.

Eisenstein went on to collaborate in Que Viva Mexico, a film that would tell the story of the Mexican poor and their battles for freedom.

A year and 200,000 feet of film later and the product was sent to the US for processing. Eisenstein was due to edit the film in Hollywood but was refused an entry visa.

The footage came into the hands of Sol Lesser, who had made the original Tarzan films, and was butchered.

On his return to Moscow, Eisenstein had wanted to make a film about the Haitian slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture which would star Paul Robeson. But he was unable to get permission from the Russian authorities.

During his time away Russia had changed enormously. The new rulers did not want films that challenged audiences and made them think. Eisenstein fell out of favour.

During the period of show trials and repression, Eisenstein attempted to fall into line by making patriotic films like Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible (Part One).

But before his death in 1948 he made Ivan the Terrible (Part Two).

With its tale of a paranoid ruler spreading fear across the land with his band of young security guards the parallels were too great for Stalin to avoid. The film was banned.

Eisenstein’s ability to inspire was a product of his belief that ordinary people would be the lead characters in a future society.

Anyone in Trafalgar Square two weeks ago would have said it was Eisenstein, not Stalin, who had the last laugh.

All Eisenstein’s films can be seen on video and DVD. The videos are distributed by Tartan Video (www.tartanvideo.com), and a range of box sets are also available.


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Sat 25 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1920
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