The visionary potential of today’s cinema is infinite. Yet the antediluvian truism of having a greater understanding of the future by looking to the past remains paramount in film history. The techniques of yesterday, such as those demonstrated in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), have been digitised and refashioned to adhere to the demands of a modern audience. Visual crafts, including the theory of montage, have dominated movie culture for decades. It’s timely then that the BFI’s latest offering compares two of history’s most groundbreaking socio-political films, Battleship Potemkin and John Grierson’s Drifters (1929).
Heralded as one of the most blisteringly influential films of all time, Eisenstein’s propaganda film has left an indelible scar on the establishment of film as art. Originally titled The Year 1905, Eisenstein dramatises a microcosmic revolution when a naval crew of the Russian battleship, ‘Potemkin’, rebel against their officers of the Tsarist regime. Considering its contentious zeal, the film was banned from West Germany, France and, rather alarmingly, Britain (until 1954 and x-rated until a despicably late 1978).
What may seem a placid and temperate comparison, Potemkin is followed by Grierson’s avant-garde documentary, Drifters. Its mesmeric rhythm coupled with its technical dynamism drew heavily from Eisenstein’s early work, which aided in solidifying the importance of montage and the idealistic capabilities of editing. In a sleepy tale of man vs. nature, Drifters is a whimsical account of a British North Sea herring fishery. Filmed on location, Grierson eulogises the tribulations of real fishermen in real situations – something that was desperately new for its time. Documentary filmmaking had rarely been so in touch with reality, yet Grierson still left some much needed room for visual poetics.
If it were not for Eisenstein’s political agenda to colour the prospects of a soviet uprising through artistic means, film narrative would not be the same. What Eisenstein did, and the fundamental reason why Drifters is the perfect engagement, was develop upon a theory that would ultimately recast how directors choose to structure their films. It was the beginning of personality. Scenes such as Potemkin’s infamous Odessa Steps possess artistry that is inherently ingrained in British cinema and how we tell stories.
Also included in this edition are three classic films made by the GPO Film Unit: Grierson’s Granton Trawler (1934), Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937) and Harry Watt’s North Sea (1938). Every film is in great debt to Eisenstein’s direction and the immeasurable myriad of possibilities thanks to the theory of montage.
Win a copy of the BFI’s The Soviet Influence: Battleship Potemkin and Drifters on Dual Format with our brand new competition. Follow this link to enter.