STORY OF THE SHOT

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW - WORDS IAN FREER

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 fuck­ing­potemk­in­baby@em­pire.com.

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY, DOWNLOAD AND FREE ON YOUTUBE

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