Sounds out of silence

 

The tenacity of a New York-based impresario led eventually to Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin being matched with Shostakovich's music. But, the pairing of these two Russians is ironic, writes Arminta Wallace.

If it sounds familiar, it's because it's one of the most admired - and most often copied - scenes on celluloid. You may have seen variations of it in The Untouchables, Blades, Star Trek, Love and Death, Naked Gun 33 1/3, and a fistful of other films. Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, based on the true story of a 1905 mutiny against Czarist oppression and the subsequent massacre of the civilian population of Odessa, is regularly voted "best film ever made" by film critics, while its Odessa Steps scene has been called "the greatest seven minutes in film history". Even in an age accustomed to dazzling visual effects, the sequence carries an explosive emotional charge.

That enormous set of steps down which ranks of uniformed soldiers advance relentlessly, shooting as they go; the horrified expressions on the faces of the people in the crowd; the shock and disbelief as a woman with a baby in a pram realises she has been shot, falls, and lets go of the pram. Which, with agonising slowness, begins its dreadful and mesmerising descent. Bump, pause, rattle; bump, pause, then it rattles down another few terrible steps.

The bumps and rattles are not, of course, made explicit in a silent film. But imagine the power of that visual image allied to a score by one of the last century's most emotionally expressive composers, and you get some idea of the experience in store at the National Concert Hall on Friday , when a showing of Battleship Potemkin will be accompanied by the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, played by the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Alexander Anissimov.

Eisenstein and Shostakovich: it seems natural that the two giants of the 20th-century Russian artistic scene should have collaborated on a film project. Yet they never actually did.

They planned to, but Eisenstein's death in 1948 at the age of 50 put paid to the idea.

So where did the score come from? Enter Sheldon M. Rich, a New York-based impresario and co-founder of Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, who had been instrumental in organising a complete cycle of Shostakovich's chamber music in 1990.

The following year, when Rich told the Russians he was interested in tracking down examples of cross-cultural fertilisation between the Soviet Union and the United States, they - in what seems, in retrospect, like an astonishing act of cultural largesse - put the Mosfilm archive at his disposal.

"The Soviets knew we were good guys," says Rich, on the phone from his New York office.

"I mean, at that time many Western producers went over to get the Red Army Band and the Red Army Chorus and this Bolshoi or that Bolshoi - and we didn't do that. We didn't exploit anybody. We really were paying homage to Shostakovich."

So there was Rich, sitting in a screening room in Moscow making his way through 50 films in seven weeks. Some were good; many were mediocre.

But nothing prepared him for what he heard on the soundtrack as the familiar story of the Battleship Potemkin and its rebellious crew began to unfold. It was part of a Shostakovich symphony.

"I had seen Potemkin before, and I'd heard funny little piano accompaniments to it that made absolutely no sense. So when we heard the Shostakovich score we got terribly excited because it was totally unknown. We were jumping up and down in our seats watching it, you know?"

Inquiries in Moscow eventually turned up the information that in 1975 - the 50th anniversary of the film and the year of Shostakovich's death - the Eisenstein Institute began a restoration of the original print, which had been damaged during the war, and commissioned a team of musicologists to compile a suitable soundtrack from the work of Shostakovich.

Then the whole thing was filed away and forgotten. "The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," is Rich's wry comment on the mysterious workings of pre-perestroika Soviet bureaucracy. "They were told to restore it, and they did a masterful job. But nobody told them to show it."

With permission from the Soviet Ministry of Culture, Sheldon M. Rich and Associates Inc began to prepare the print for screening abroad with live accompaniment - a mammoth task which took the best part of two years.

"Well," says Rich with a chuckle, "there was no score, so we had to take the soundtrack and transcribe it on to paper, and then make orchestral parts from the conductor's score. Then we had to put a time code on the film and put the equivalent time code on the score - and then match them and do visual cues. It was painstaking, almost like microscopic work; we had to go through about four or five editions to get it correct.

"And every once in a while another correction turns up - I mean, when I come to Ireland, I'm sure some day the conductor is going to turn to me and say, 'That should be a B flat not a B natural'."

It wasn't just the score which needed work. The print, too, had to be adapted to international standards. "It was flammable, and they didn't have the machinery to make a non-flammable print in Moscow - so we had to make a new inter-negative and then make new prints from that. It all took a long time. Everything took a long time - which is sort of the Soviet way.

"The film is a truly uplifting piece of art," says Rich. "It ends with the [Battleship\] Potemkin being able to pass through the Czar's squadron, which has been sent to meet them and stop them, but the sailors refuse to do it. So it's a victory for the people. This is a very important moment in Russian history, and a seminal moment in terms of the 20th century. Lenin said that the 1917 revolution couldn't have been successful without its precursor in 1905, so it was a crucial moment in terms of the changeover from the Czars to the Communists. From tyranny to tyranny."

There is a supreme irony in Shostakovich's music being used to accompany a film made to celebrate the glories of the Boshevik revolution.

When the composer's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was publicly condemned by Stalin in 1936, he is said to have been very close to suicide; and the artistic and personal ostracisation he suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime thereafter is poured out in music of bitter beauty. The Potemkin score begins and ends with quotations from Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, composed in 1937 and infamously described by him, at its première, as his "Creative Reply to Just Criticism".

It was, in turn, criticised for its joyous finale - until the composer pointed out that the "rejoicing" of the last 35 bars is a sham. "It's as if someone were beating you with a stick, saying, 'Your task is to rejoice! Your task is to rejoice!' " Shostakovich's score adds another layer of complexity to our readings of this film, 77 years after it was made.

Battleship Potemkin will be screened on Friday, accompanied by music by Shostakovich performed live by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Anissimov in the National Concert Hall, 8 p.m.