STORY OF THE SHOT
WHAT DO THE following flicks have in common? Foreign Correspondent, The Godfather, The Untouchables, Revenge Of The Sith and The Naked Gun 33 1/3. The answer is they all worship at the altar of Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps sequence. One of the most revered, imitated set-pieces in cinema history, it sees tsarist soldiers open fire on a crowd of mutinous civilians in the port of Odessa. The sequence remains a dazzling showcase of director Sergei Eisenstein’s ability to elevate indelible images, including the iconic baby rolling down the steps in a pram, through stunning editing (montage) techniques. But despite its totemic status, it wasn’t even in Eisenstein’s original screenplay.
“It’s a very improvised sequence,” says Ian Christie, author of Eisenstein Rediscovered. “Once he decided to do it, he threw himself into it. He makes sure he gets the key shots he needs to get to punctuate the sequence — the baby, the pram, the woman shot through the pince-nez — that give it such bite, such edge.”
So ingrained is the sequence in the cultural consciousness, it is still surprising the Odessa Steps massacre never actually happened. It’s a complete Eisenstein fabrication spun from the actual 1905 mutiny. Legend has it Eisenstein came up with the idea as he stood at the top of the steps spitting out cherry stones and watching them bounce down the steps (hence the pram). The reality is more prosaic. The scene was inspired by an illustration of a Cossack slashing at civilians on the steps and Eisenstein’s own sense of “the run of the steps” while visiting the location.
“There were weather problems, problems in getting to Odessa in time,” says Christie about capturing the massacre. “It was shot fairly quickly.”
Eisenstein and DP Éduard Tissé threw out the tripod, strapping the camera to acrobats and lowering the camera team over wooden platforms by means of pulleys and ropes. The crowd were marshalled by the Iron Five, not a Marvel franchise but Eisenstein’s quintet of assistant directors (Grigori Alexandrov, Maxim Strauch, Mikhail Gomorov, Alexander Antonov, Alexander Liovshin) who all dressed in striped T-shirts and pumped up the throng with a 35-man brass band. Eisenstein had his own way to rally the extras, shouting out, “How about showing a little more pep, Comrade Prokopenko?!” to convince the mob he could pick out individuals. The crowd would subsequently redouble their efforts.
The sequence has inspired filmmakers but also creatives as diverse as Francis Bacon and Pet Shop Boys, who wrote a new electronic score for the film in 2004, replete with actual gunshot fire for the marching soldiers. The sequence stayed with Eisenstein too. The filmmaker later wrote an essay that wondered whatever happened to the extras, including the baby in the runaway pram. If that baby — who would be 92 — is your great uncle, write to iveonlyg one and found the email@example.com.
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY, DOWNLOAD AND FREE ON YOUTUBE