Director: Sergei Eisenstein (1925)
Music: Jan Bang, Matt Calvert
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Strictly speaking, the appropriate film by Sergei Eisenstein to commemorate the centenary of the October Revolution (which occurred in November 1917 according to the New Style calendar) would have been October, but, as Battleship Potemkin is a much superior film, most of us would go along with Opera North’s choice. Also, Eisenstein reportedly stated that the film should have a new score every 20 years, so the newly commissioned electronic score by Jan Bang and Matt Calvert has no reason to offend the purists.
Battleship Potemkin was part of the Soviet celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution which forced constitutional concessions from the Tsar and paved the way for the events of 1917. Eisenstein’s original commission was to cover various aspects of the Revolution, but instead, he concentrated on the part played by the Potemkin in the naval mutiny.
The film broadly follows historical events, from the refusal to eat maggot-ridden meat to the revolt on board ship to the rising in support by the people of the Black Sea port Odessa. Eisenstein’s purpose is, of course, propaganda, but that leads to some of the most memorable images in a masterpiece of early cinema.
The most famous of these is the magnificent and terrifying Odessa Steps sequence, brilliantly filmed by Eduard Tisse. Citizens of Odessa, gathered on the steps to welcome the battleship, are fired on and swept aside by Imperial troops and the cutting between sweeping epic shots, dramatic close-ups and powerful details (such as the out-of-control pram bouncing down the steps) is masterly.
Eisenstein’s control of crowd scenes (ship’s crew lined up on deck with armed marine guards ready to shoot, citizens of Odessa winding back along the harbour breakwater) is matched by the precision and passion of the individual portraits. Historically over-reaction among the officers helped to provoke the mutiny and Eisenstein delights in presenting them satirically as near-grotesques: the stiff-backed supercilious captain, the manically homicidal second officer, the apoplectically blustering commander.
The epic set pieces still have the power to astonish, but equally, there are scenes of great beauty: the port of Odessa and its ships in the half-light, for instance. Among the people of Odessa Eisenstein’s ability to pinpoint class in a brief close-up is perfect – and the revolution is not confined to the working class.
In his later films, Eisenstein used magnificent scores by Prokofiev, but Bang and Calvert’s intention is to prioritise sound and texture over theme and melody. In the live performance the only orthodox musical instrument is Calvert’s guitar; otherwise, everything is electronics and “found” effects.
At the outset, there is a hint of the iconic sound of Imperial Russia, the chiming of bells, and in the early slower phase of the narrative Bang and Calvert create a general atmosphere with a harsh sound world. Specifics come in with the buzzings that represent the maggots in the meat. The most dramatic sections are the crashing crescendos that accompany the dramatic set pieces. Prokofiev, it is not, but very much a 21st Century response: the brutality and tension are amplified, the glory played down – no stirring marches or hymns to solidarity.
Reviewed on 18 November 2017 | Image: Contributed