Battleship Potemkin

When Max Reinhardt, then the world’s most famous theater director, saw the German premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s monumental 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, he supposedly cried, “I’ve just seen the end of theater!” You’ll think so too, since Eisenstein’s magnificent piece of political propaganda was a major accomplishment for film, which was still in its infancy as a medium. Because of his joyous anarchy, violent juxtapositions and brutal editing, Eisenstein forced the movies to grow up. Potemkin is so raw, its images so graphic and immediate, you might confuse the movie for a documentary.

Eisenstein had originally planned to shoot only a few scenes about the imperial cruiser Potemkin as part of another film. Those plans fell apart when Eisenstein, fleeing the unpredictable early March weather in Leningrad to shoot near the Black Sea, saw the grand sweep of the Odessa staircase, a huge outdoor stairway that leads from the town down to the sea, and immediately knew he had found the best set of his life. He staged the film’s most famous scene there — the fictional killing of civilians by the Tsar’s Cossacks marching in step down the seemingly endless stairs. The Odessa steps sequence is unrelenting in its physicality and deserves its international reputation, as does this powerhouse film, which is consistently rated by film scholars as one of cinema’s best.

As the ultimate piece of agitprop, the film has been cut, butchered, slashed and reordered ever since its Moscow premiere, where the front of the theater was bedecked like a ship’s prow and the ushers wore sailor suits. The print screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the justly revered 2005 reconstruction by Kino International with the original 1926 German musical score by Edmund Meisel, restored missing footage and more accurate intertitles, including the restored Trotsky introduction, which had been excised by Stalin. 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7515 or visit www.mfah.org/films. $6 to $7.
Fri., Feb. 18, 7 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 19, 7 p.m., 2011

 
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