I was pretty psyched to get a chance to see Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film classic The Battleship Potemkin (1925) this past Friday night as part of Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries’ The Riches of Early Soviet Cinema series. Full of powerful images designed to incite revolution, The Battleship Potemkin possesses one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history (Odessa Steps). I had been thinking about adding it to my Netflix queue, but the prospect of catching it on the big screen at Meyer Auditorium with live musical accompaniment was a tad cooler than watching it in my living room.
Much to my dismay (and more than a few others'), the print of the film lacked English subtitles. Luckily I had brushed up on the plot of the movie beforehand. It’s the age-old story of Russian sailors get served rotten meat, get angry, and then mutiny, thus inspiring a brief people’s revolt against the Czar on a big flight of stairs back at home.
Now, yes, Eisenstein is known as a visually narrative filmmaker, but translations of the occasional Cyrillic storyboard would have greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the movie.
Nevertheless, I was still most impressed by the Odessa Steps sequence (see video above), and it was great to see it on a large screen. Eisenstein’s dramatic switching of perspectives within the action turned the outdoor staircase massacre into seven minutes of brilliance. When viewed today, his techniques aren’t revolutionary, but back in 1925, they were cutting-edge stylistic innovations.
Minimalistic solo piano musings by Burnett Thompson as accompaniment didn’t generate enough power to inspire me to revolt—I think a few more instruments would have been needed for that.
Go experience some more Soviet propaganda this Friday night at the Meyer Auditorium when The Riches of Early Soviet Cinema series continues with Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks(1924). Just make sure to brush up on your Russian before attending, however.