In space, no one can hear you scream. In silent cinema, too. And this rule especially and memorably applies in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent Soviet masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin.
In one of the most influential sequences in all cinema, the citizens of Odessa, supporting the mutineers on the battleship, are massacred by Imperial soldiers on an enormous flight of steps leading from the city centre to the port. Everyone ever enrolled in a film school anywhere in the world will have been shown this sequence, a textbook classic in the art of editing and montage. And regular filmgoers would know it, too, without ever having seen the original, because the scene has continued to be quoted, imitated, parodied and otherwise referred to by directors ever since.
Just think of a baby-carriage, with a baby inside, rolling down an enormous set of steps out of control: Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971), Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), and, incredibly, Peter Segal’s Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994) all quote this single iconic element from the Odessa steps episode to radically varying effect. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), too, though he replaces the pram with a cleaning trolley! And these are merely the better-known examples.
And what of the woman who silently screams in this sequence?
Well, there are three women actually; the meek mother of the baby in the pram; the defiant mother of a little boy shot by the soldiers; and an older bespectacled grandmother taking charge of a group of terrified young women: all are mercilessly cut down, and all of them silently scream, their mouths wide open in close-up directly facing the camera’s lens. Due to the montage-effect (look it up!) of Eisenstein’s editing, they blur in the memory and in the viewing, so that it feels like one mother is martyred repeatedly.
The emotional impact for many viewers is devastating. And, especially, the shooting of the grandmother through the shattered lens of her pince-nez, like the out of control baby-carriage, remains one of cinema’s most compelling and oft-quoted images, cited by Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent, 1940), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, 1972) and, again, Woody Allen (Love and Death, 1975), among others.
Of course, unlike Edvard Munch’s famous Scream, which Eisenstein’s screaming mothers resemble, these stirring figures have never screamed in a total absence of sound, for silent films are always accompanied by music; live, when they were first projected in early cinemas, and pre-recorded as soundtracks in the so-called era of sound. How strange, then, to think of the super-cool Michael Nyman (2011) or the super-hip Pet Shop Boys (2004) in recent years composing music to accompany these flickering shadows of revolutionary violence filmed almost a century before.
What music do you hear as these mother figures scream?
– Russell Walsh