Battleship Potemkin

Agitprop masterpiece given new life by a classical score played on the Ulster Hall's Mulholland Grand Organ

After last year’s triumphant screening of Nosferatu accompanied by a live score by acclaimed organist Martin Baker, the Ulster Hall has returned to the well for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Here, a revolting vampire is replaced by revolting Russians.

Sadly, the success of The Artist doesn’t seem to have lured any extra bodies into the hall for this silent, black-and-white classic. Nor do the cheeky few bars of the Titanic theme played beforehand.

Still, the sparse audience are treated to an engaging introduction by film scholar Mike Catto, who places Eisenstein’s 1925 'agitprop' masterpiece into its political and cultural context.

Banned in the UK until 1954 and in Ireland until the 1970s, Battleship Potemkin received its first proper general release just last year (2011). Catto is quite likely the only man in Ireland to have met one of the sailors of the actual ‘heavy armoured cruiser Potemkin’, as he puts it, in Cork, in 1977. His informed and impassioned speech is the ideal warm-up for the main event.

Improving on his Nosferatu work, Baker, an alumnus of St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, brings Eisenstein’s striking visuals to life. The sound of the mighty Mulholland Grand Organ, again hidden behind a giant cinema screen, reverberates throughout the room.

Baker performs an eclectic mix of music from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Holst’s The Planets and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, as well as the gospel hymn ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’ and, aptly, ‘The Red Flag’. The latter is accompanied by atmospheric flashes of red lighting.

As for the film itself, it’s as compelling as your media studies teacher always told you it was. Eisenstein gets straight to business, with rotten meat sparking a mutiny aboard the titular vessel. The wriggling maggots, shown in close-up, still elicit disgust from an audience nearly 90 years on.

The characters are archetypes: the brusque doctor, the cartoonish priest, and one of cinema’s finest moustache-twirling villains.

Battleship Potemkin was released on the 20th anniversary of the unsuccessful 1905 revolution against the Tsar. Needless to say, being a propaganda piece, not all of the events featured are true, but, as Catto says, this doesn’t matter. The massacre on the Odessa Steps perhaps didn’t happen, but the sequence remains one of cinema’s most thrilling.

The march of the militia down the seemingly unending steps, the mother and son cut down in a hail of gunfire and the runaway pram – Battleship Potemkin reminds us that moviegoers’ fondness for action and violence is not a new phenomenon.

Along with The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin remains one of the cornerstones of cinema. Eisenstein’s film has influenced everyone from Francis Bacon to Woody Allen, and has been homaged or parodied in everything from The Godfather to Naked Gun 33?.

Cineastes will gush about the pioneering use of montage, the symbolic imagery (a sailor smashes a plate, the citizens of Odessa emerge from the fog, a trio of stone lions 'react' – the first sleeping, the second waking, the third rising), or the daring use of non-actors in several roles.

Audiences will simply enjoy a damn good film – made all the more enjoyable on this occasion by Baker’s inspired soundtrack.