People's picture

Cinema - It is 100 years since the events dramatised in Battleship Potemkin. Sebastian Harcombe send

You'd be forgiven for walking past without noticing. The Potemkin Steps, signature monument of the mighty Ukrainian port of Odessa and setting for one of the most celebrated sequences in cinema history, are looking decidedly the worse for wear. In the climactic scene of Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, hundreds of innocent protesters are shot dead on this cascade of 192 steps, and the sight of a baby in its pram rattling headlong down them and crashing fatally at the foot remains an enduring image of political violence.

This year is the centenary of the historical events dramatised in the film, which was made 80 years ago. In the light of these anniversaries and the deep suspicion many Odessans feel about Ukraine's recent "orange revolution", I wondered if the very mention of the film, a potent symbol of 74 years of the Soviet Union, might provoke some interesting conversation.

Descending dutifully, besieged by bitter blasts from the Black Sea, with only a few stray dogs for company, I found it impossible to ignore the huge cracks and crumbling brickwork. In the film, a church lies at the bottom. Today, there is a car showroom, a dirty road and flyover, an enormous hotel, a vast clanking ferry terminal and a half-finished, rusting funicular. Odessa is crumbling faster than it can be repaired. The steps have long been on the historical priority list, but with Ukraine being one of Europe's poorest nations, restoration could take some time.

Battleship Potemkin is universally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, with its powerfully oscillating imagery and striking metaphors. It also contains cinema's first use of colour. The battleship's bright red victorious flag was hand-painted on to the celluloid by Eisenstein himself.

The cast were almost all ordinary citizens of Odessa. Eisenstein passionately believed in encouraging working people's involvement in the arts and had been director of Moscow's first workmen's theatre. "There are no actors in Potemkin, only real people - because we aren't making a film for you or me, but for us all." However, in the 1970s, a script about the making of Potemkin was rejected by Soviet film censors - because among Eisenstein's extras had been prostitutes and the unemployed, elements considered morally unacceptable.

Eisenstein cast his film primarily by physical appearance, and many of the "actors" subsequently became well-known local figures. After fighting as a partisan in the Second World War, the film's hapless baby, Abram Glauberman, became professor of physics at Odessa University. Ivan Borobov, Potemkin's legless cripple, was "discovered" on the corner of Odessa's main street, Deribaskaya, where he worked as a shoeshine. As a child, he had been thrown into a ravine by robbers who had murdered his well-to-do parents. Little Ivan survived, but his legs were so badly frozen in the snow that they had to be amputated.

Although most of the Odessans were paid for their part in the filming, a considerable number swelled the ranks for free, out of simple patriotic duty. The city's deep pride in the film is still apparent today, albeit mainly among people born in the Soviet era.

The Odessa Film Studio was one of the most famous in the Soviet Union. Vadim Vasilyevitch Kostromenko worked there for more than 50 years and now runs the museum voluntarily. "It's impossible to imagine Battleship Potemkin without thinking of our city," he said. In the crepuscular light of his little office, he told me of his graduation from camera operator to well-known film director. Sitting there was like being in a time capsule - 1970s phone on the desk; props and posters from famous Soviet films taking up every inch of available floor and wall space; glossy photographs of hundreds of actors stacked in piles; the treasured glove of a Russian movie star who died of an allergic reaction to a bouquet of lilies; a clapperboard, dredged up from the Black Sea, the title of the film a mystery, having long since been washed away . . .

"Sadly, most of our young people won't have seen Battleship Potemkin," said Kostromenko. "Odessa's five cinemas (there used to be 50) show only commercial films now and tickets are very expensive. I only hope it will be shown on television during this special year." Most of all, he hopes his studio will once again become a centre for young people to train and work in the film industry.

A school party was collectively shivering on the Potemkin Steps; their teacher shrieking, trying to herd them together. They had all heard of the film, though none had actually seen it.

A seaman's club, originally an 18th- century palace. Two young sailors were playing snooker in a vast, dank, nicotine-stained ballroom. They'd not seen Potemkin either - "But a great film, yes?"

In the coffee salon of the elegant Londonskaya Hotel, where Eisenstein stayed during filming, a waitress sat in haunted reverie on a plush, red velvet chair. When I asked her, she just smiled. Ethereally.

My final visit to the steps was at night. As I passed the deserted 1965 monument to the Potemkin's sailors, the explosive optimism and pride on their granite faces suddenly seemed unbearably vulnerable. An elderly homeless woman, swathed in coats, sat on a bench and looked disconsolately out to sea. Halfway down the steps, a pair of young lovers were sharing a cigarette and shouting. I couldn't understand what they were saying at first. Eventually, I realised they were stargazing, calling out the names of the constellations.

Next Article