La révolution en Russie (1906)

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*. Well of course it’s hard to follow. It depicts the same historical events as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in just under four minutes. As I noted in my commentary on another Ferdinant Zecca film done for Pathé Frères, Histoire d’un crime, there are real difficulties in compressing a complex narrative into such a format.
*. Given this massive abbreviation I think it’s easy to mistake what is going on. The officer who takes over the ship, for example, isn’t reasserting imperial authority but joining the mutiny. And that’s not the Potemkin lobbing shells into Odessa in the final part of the movie but a warship loyal to the tsar (hence the destruction of the working-class home). These actions are not very clear (and the absence of any title cards doesn’t help).
*. In outline there are four major passages. A brief establishing shot nicely introduces the ship, and sets up the studio-sets that will follow. The mutiny takes place on deck, and but for some rather sad looking dummies flying through the air it’s easy to follow, especially if you know Eisenstein’s film. Then there is the display of the dead mutineer, which works well within the confines of what movies had to work with at the time, being a theatrical tableau.
*. The final section is the most memorable and is actually quite well done. We stand behind a naval officer who in turn stands behind a cannon that fires on the painted city, its shells sending forth eruptions of stage smoke. This master shot alternates with two scenes of violence in the city as seen through a telescope. We see the officer using the telescope, so these shots are nicely integrated with the rest of the passage, even if they are presented on the same plane as the rest of the action.
*. Finally, the sudden cut at the end makes me think they might have just run out of film.
*. The main point of interest, at least for me, is this last part. The man with the telescope, and the way we join with his point of view by looking through its spyhole at the victims of the bombardment, prefigures what’s been called the pornography of war. He exults in the carnage while remaining detached from it, safe offshore. It’s a precursor to the way we watch bombsight explosions from laser-guided missiles on television today.
*. It’s not really comparable to Battleship Potemkin, and not just because Eisenstein’s film is a work of genius made twenty years later with much greater resources behind it. Potemkin was also a movie with a passionately held idea behind it, one that informed the film at every level. Whatever its technical accomplishments, which are not negligible, this is still just a docudrama bound by the limitations of the form.

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