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The Soviet Influence: Battleship Potemkin and Drifters

On the 10th of November 1929, the London Film Society opened its fifth season with a programme which included the long-delayed British premiere of Battleship Potemkin. Also on the bill was the first film from director John Grierson, Drifters, which was heavily influenced by Potemkin. This moment is often seen as the start of the Documentary Film Movement in Britain. Now the BFI have packaged the two films together on blu-ray and DVD along with three other documentaries which show Potemkin's influence.

Battleship Potemkin must be one of the most influential films ever - and one of the most analysed. So there's not a lot I can add to the mound of critical comment it has generated. Some classic films are classics because they pushed the art of cinema forward and others are classics because they are just very good. Potemkin falls into both categories. Director Sergei Eisenstein put his theories about film montage into practice to dramatise the 1905 mutiny and praise the spirit of the masses. In a series of set pieces, including the Odessa Steps Massacre, he exploited the technique to the full and demonstrated its worth.

This, and the series of lectures Eisenstein gave in the weeks after the British screening, had a huge effect on the intellectuals and industry folk who were members of the Film Society. John Grierson, however, had a head start on them since he had helped prepared the film for its earlier American screening. So Drifters used many of Eisenstein's techniques to tell of a fishing community's ordinary working lives. Naturally, this makes for a less dramatic tale than Potemkin but the results aren't too shabby. Viewed today it forms a valuable record of a way of life that's virtually gone.

The other films on the disc are Grierson's Granton Trawler (1934) and Harry Watt's North Sea (1938) both of which concern the fishing industry and Len Lye's psychedelic animation Trade Tattoo (1937) which reuses some of Drifter's footage. These can also be found on the BFI's GPO series. All follow the theme of the heroic, and hunky, working man battling against the rigours of his day.

The discs feature excellent transfers of prints which have seen better days despite the extensive restoration they have undergone. Potemkin is accompanied by the Edmund Meisel score heard at the 1929 screening while Drifters has a new avant-garde score by Jason Singh which suits the film perfectly. The discs come with a booklet which features extensive notes on the films.

The package achieves its aim of showing the Soviet influence on the documentary movement. After viewing Potemkin it's hard to look at the other films without seeing Eisenstein's hands all over the editing table. It's hard not to see the other films, including Drifters, as extras to a Battleship Potemkin disc, but it's worth getting just for Potemkin so why not enjoy the supporting programme as well as the main feature! 

Battleship Potempkin and Drifters DVD cover


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