When the movie impresario David O. Selznick first saw Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic masterpiece, he was shaken to the core. The producer who would later become responsible for Gone With the Wind felt the raffish breeze of artistic revolution at his collar. He wrote one of his famous memos to the rest of the MGM studio. They should study the Soviet classic, he said, “as a group of artists might study a Rubens or a Raphael”.
Several decades later, Martin Scorsese, who also adored Potemkin, gave out his own eastward-looking homework to the crew of his lusty epic Gangs of New York, when he distributed handfuls of Russian movies to them every night, to tutor them in the art of action editing.
Western cinema, led astray from the path of seriousness in its early years by the staggering commercial rewards attached to light entertainment, has always been star-struck by the gravitas of early Soviet cinema. Hollywood may not have found its revolutionary message to its taste, but it was lost in admiration for its technical mastery and fervent sense of mission.
Say what you will: here was a society dedicated to the promotion of social revolution by revolutionising its own art. It made all those high camp comedy capers look a little feeble.
The British Film Institute pays extravagant tribute to the enduring allure of the Soviet masters in its six-month “Kino” season starting next month. Of course it includes Potemkin, the 1925 film that remained banned in the UK until 1954, when it was finally released with an “X” certificate. Since then, some of its most potent scenes – notably the Odessa Steps sequence – have been widely imitated in homage to Eisenstein’s brilliance. The Russian director mirrored the west’s admiration by admitting to a love of Walt Disney, and based a bombastic sequence in his Ivan the Terrible on that well-known despot Willie the Whale.
A couple of years after Potemkin came another ground-breaking though lesser-known classic, Bed and Sofa, a satire on the plight of Moscow’s homeless that casually took in topics such as abortion and the delights of living in a ménage-à-trois. Few things were more incendiary in 1920s Britain than calls for proletarian revolution, but group sex was one of them. It, too, was banned.
As was Storm over Asia, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1928 epic of a young Mongolian herdsman rising against imperialist occupiers. Its offence was to depict British troops in a bad light, but that did not stop it being shown in private club settings, such as – according to a poster in the BFI archive – that hotbed of insurrection, the Futurist Society of Salford.
There was a certain cachet in being a fan of Soviet cinema in the restrictive west in those years. The lure of prohibition in addition to its artistic excellence was a potent combination. Ironically for a society that glorified its version of realism, eastern bloc filmmakers also led the starry way in science fiction. Part of the BFI season is dedicated to those space-age jeux d’esprit that were such an influence on directors such as Stanley Kubrick, and are ripe for cultish rediscovery. In 1963’s Icarus XB1, cosmonauts dress in black tie for cocktail parties while searching for life on distant planets. Star Trek and the rest rarely achieved such heights of surrealism.
The solemnity of the Soviet view of cinema rests heavily on the younger generation of Russian filmmakers. Alexei Popogrebsky, the urbane director of last year’s London Film Festival winner How I Ended This Summer, conceded as much at the BFI launch. “I had the good luck to have watched 8½ when I was seven-and-a-half,” he said of a precocious engagement with Fellini. He was part of a filmmaking tradition, he added, that was “always avant-garde, in spirit as well as form”.
And yet the abiding legacy of a film such as Potemkin is as a masterly piece of entertainment, as well as artistic heft. The action sequences in Eisenstein’s epic leave us no time to ponder their revolutionary scope. It is a movie that glorifies an abstract ideal, but also one that has us gripped throughout its 71 dizzy minutes. Its direct descendant is not so much Andrei Tarkovsky as Steven Spielberg.
The action movie is a generally debased art form now, so congratulations to the BFI – announcing new box office records by the month – for so generously reminding us of its splendid origins. The bright red flag picked out by Eisenstein in his classic film celebrates a peerless cultural heritage, as well as an event that changed the world.
‘Kino: Russian Film Pioneers’ at the BFI Southbank, London, May-December, www.bfi.org.uk
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