Hitchcock on the Potemkin steps

This month Hitchcock made a posthumous visit to Odessa – and Robin Baker, the BFI’s Head Curator, was lucky enough to travel with him.

Robin Baker

25,000 spectators watch Blackmail at the 2014 Odessa International Film Festival

25,000 spectators watch Blackmail at the 2014 Odessa International Film Festival

Goose-stepping Cossacks march while firing into the crowd of civilians. A young mother is shot. She grabs her stomach and, as she falls, the pram holding her baby plummets down an enormous flight of stone steps. It is part of the most arresting and influential sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), a scene so potent that Odessa’s ‘Potemkin’ Steps have become one of the most iconic locations in cinema history.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Battleship Potemkin came late to Britain. Banned for four years, it finally debuted in 1929 at the Film Society in London (set up to encourage “the production of really artistic films”), at a screening attended by the director.

Among the Society’s more notable members was the young Alfred Hitchcock. Records don’t reveal whether he attended the screening – he was possibly busy working on his silent and early sound masterpiece, Blackmail (1929) – but the influence of Eisenstein and his Soviet contemporaries feels embedded in Hitch’s work.

85 years later, in July 2014, Hitchcock made a posthumous visit to Odessa – and to the Potemkin Steps – and I was lucky enough to travel with him.

The five-year-old Odessa International Film Festival is Ukraine’s largest, and one of the major events in the city’s calendar. Despite the current crisis in Ukraine (and a cut to the festival’s budget), this year’s festival went ahead with old school red carpet glamour much in evidence. British cinema featured prominently, with a retrospective of the work of Stephen Frears, who also received the festival’s Golden Duke Lifetime Achievement Award.

The festival’s highlight, though, is an open-air screening of a silent film classic, shown on the Potemkin Steps to an audience that dwarfs any other in my experience, in both scale and enthusiasm. This annual festival tradition began, of course, with Battleship Potemkin – and has included Metropolis (1927), Sunrise (1927) and City Lights (1931) – but this year saw the turn of British cinema, and the BFI’s restoration of Blackmail.

The British Council, who supported the event, had advised that the anticipated audience for the screening would be 10-12,000. I checked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website just before I left the UK. It advised steering clear of large public gatherings in Odessa. That was necessarily going to be tricky.

The screening took place before the international horror spurred by the shooting down of flight MH17. However, with the killings in Donetsk (another 20+ Ukrainian soldiers died the day before the screening), the deaths of 42 pro-Russian activists and six others in May (the bloodiest civil conflict in Odessa since 1918) and the continued imprisonment of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, it was hard to know if a silent film was going to be the tonic the city required. But looking out from the stage at the crowd it was clear that every one of the 192 giant steps was packed with a young and hugely enthusiastic audience.

The Odessa Symphonic Orchestra played Neil Brand’s thrilling score live (with nods to the greatest of Hitchcock’s composers, Bernard Herrmann), setting the pace and tone of the event. Blackmail contains Hitchcock’s first ‘true’ cameo appearance – as a passenger on the underground who is annoyed by a small boy who appears to be cruising for a smack. The sight of the director solicited enormous applause and cheers from the crowd. Later, in response to the cathartic effect of the film’s most shocking moment – when, following an attempted rape, Anny Ondra (as London shopkeeper’s daughter, Alice White) repeatedly stabs her assailant with a bread knife – the crowd burst into spontaneous claps and cheers once again. Finally, following Hitchcock’s breathless, perfectly planned and edited chase across the British Museum, the film ended with an ovation.

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail (1929)

No one in the overwhelmingly young audience that I spoke to afterwards had seen Blackmail before. For each of them, the film seems to have been a revelation. One man – an avowed Hitchcock fan – described it as “the missing connection”. He said that until this evening he had thought that Hitch’s career began with The 39 Steps (1935). We left amid blue and yellow Ukrainian flags waved above the Potemkin Steps and the dispersing crowd took the party atmosphere with them into the city centre.

The next day I met up with Ivan Kozlenko, the Dovzhenko National Centre’s smart and energetic deputy director (and programmer of the innovative Mute Nights silent film festival), who took me on an impromptu tour of hidden corners of the city. He explained the importance for him of defining Ukrainian cultural identity through cinema and the work he’s undertaking to establish and make available a canon of ‘Ukrainian’ films from the Soviet era.

There’s a palpable sense of creative energy in the city and the highlight of Ivan’s tour was a just-opened alfresco cinema concealed at the back of an anonymous passageway close to the Potemkin Steps. Framed by a crumbling proscenium arch (the cinema hadn’t been used since the 1980s) and shaded by trees, it looked like the kind of place where the characters in a Chekhov play might have found themselves had they been cinephiles. There was also the added pleasure of a lunch of cheese and herb-stuffed flatbread in the adjoining courtyard, followed by sweet plums grown in the stall-holder’s garden.

Later that evening, Viktoriya Tigipko, the festival’s president, advised me that the audience for Blackmail had exceeded all expectations and records – with an estimated attendance of some 25,000 people. I was glad I hadn’t known that when I introduced the film. This is almost certainly the biggest audience for a British silent film anywhere in the world and at any point in history.

As I walked back to my hotel, a man stopped me on Deribasovskaya Street – Odessa’s shopping hub – embraced me and thanked me three times for the screening. He said it was “what we need in these times”.

Many thanks to Anna, Anna, Christine, Darsha, Volodymyr and Yvgenia (British Council); Ani, Marina and Viktoriya (Odessa International Film Festival); Ivan (Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre) and fellow travellers Melissa and Stephen for making my visit so rewarding and enjoyable.

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