Recently, I had the pleasure to experience a silent film landmark in a fun evening with friends. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 infamous “The Battleship Potemkin” was showing with live orchestral accompaniment at the local arts center. A rare treat in such a setting to be certain. So, I contacted a friend and silent screen enthusiast from the twittersphere, Trevor aka @tpjost to set the wheels in motion.
My husband and I joined Trevor and a couple of his friends, whom all drove several hours from Newton, KS for dinner and drinks prior to the show. After sharing burgers, beers and stories, it was moments until showtime. We five settled into ideal seats up front and directly behind the orchestra pit. While my husband and Trevor shared that this was not their first time, it was mine and I couldn’t wait to experience the legendary Russian propaganda classic for myself.
“The Battleship Potemkin” is the stuff of legends. I was, if anything, anxious to see the film that so many of my fellow film buffs consider a basic prerequisite for any film fan. And frankly, I was curious about the iconic Odessa steps scene that inspired so many filmmakers- most paralleled in “The Untouchables”. Originally intended as a propaganda film by leaders of the Russian revolution for the Potemkin uprising 20th anniversary, it resulted as Eisenstein’s historically controversial masterpiece.
It’s visually stunning and engages the audience with an editing technique that contrasts and juxtaposes startling images. The plot is itself is rather gut-wrenching throughout and wastes no time getting there. In the beginning we see a battleship who’s crew is weary from a long and arduous journey. Overworked and malnourished, the crew is subjugated to a morning meal of rancid meat, crawling with maggots. Commanded to consume this foul meal unfit for any beast, a group of sailors stands defiant. Officers corral the rebels into a huddle, throwing a tarp over them as a firing squad assembles; ready to fire upon the helpless victims. Just as the firing squad is about to deliver their deadly shots, a lone sailor Vakulinchuk breaks the silence with “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?!” The firing squad lowers their weaponry and the uprising begins.
The most compelling sequence dramatically builds near the end of the film and is undoubtedly the Odessa steps scene. Onshore, this horrific massacre unfolds slowly down a sequence of wide steps as citizens flee for their lives, scrambling to escape their executioners’ chase. A particularly emotional segment in the midst of this nightmare follows a woman desperately trying to save a vulnerable baby while also bravely attempting to plead for a truce to end the madness. Tragically, she was unsuccessful.
Silent film uses very little dialogue and with this film, its almost unnecessary as Eisenstein tells the story so brilliantly through his imagery. One of the best components of this cinematic experience was the live music in harmony to the dramatic images on the screen. This experience was thrilling and I look forward to my next silent big screen outing shared with friends.