It would be difficult to define Sergei Eisenstein‘s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin as anything short of genius. For many years banned in the UK, West Germany and France thanks to the extreme violence and socialism depicted within it, the west has perhaps been less kind to it than necessary, but it still resonates today, having been listed as one of the top three films of all time in Empire Magazine three years ago.
Unpredictably, and seemingly out of nowhere, Pet Shop Boys turned up in late 2004, announcing that they were about to record a new soundtrack with the Dresdner Sinfoniker, conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer and orchestrated by Torsten Rasch.
In many ways, I think Pet Shop Boys‘ score is not only the best soundtrack to the film, but it’s actually also one of their best albums. Not often are they able to step into deep and dark experimental electronic music to this degree, but it’s a genre which suits them extremely well. Nyet demonstrates shades of Underworld, while To the Battleship, as with much of the soundtrack, complements the film perfectly.
I love in particular the work they have put into synchronising what you hear on the soundtrack with the events on screen, although this must have been interesting to coordinate for the live performances. If you want to try listening to the soundtrack while watching the film at home, it’s pretty easy to keep in sync – all you really need to do is play Men and Maggots twice (the full movie version was edited for the soundtrack as it was thought to be too repetitive).
If you’ve never seen Battleship Potemkin before, then you have at least heard of the Odessa Steps sequence, a total work of fiction which has entered the popular consciousness to such a degree that you would be forgiven for thinking it happened in reality rather than just in a film. In the film, a crowd of happy onlookers is standing on the steps watching the battleship and its revolutionary heroes, when suddenly soldiers appear at the top of the steps shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. Towards the end of the scene, a mother is shot, knocking her pushchair careering down the steps.
Better writers than me have explored in depth the impact of that sequence, and all I really wanted to do here was highlight just how well the accompanying Pet Shop Boys soundtrack complements this. After All (The Odessa Staircase), apart from being one of their finest songs, is an absolutely beautiful punctuation to the harrowing scene. Like the original scene, it’s a pretty brave statement. Even its second half as the violence explodes, the uplifting anti-war song is more of a counterpart to the imagery than a natural accompaniment, but it works beautifully.
The steps, by the way, having undergone a number of name changes throughout the twentieth century, are now known as the Primorsky Stairs, but, quite rightly, seem to be almost universally referred to as the Potemkin Stairs.
Other than Battleship Potemkin, Pet Shop Boys have never done a full film soundtrack, and in many ways it is completely right that this should be their only one. For such an erudite, detached, academic duo, it would be entirely wrong for them to be scoring the next Star Wars film. As a slight silent movie purist, I can easily see how some people might be offended, but for me this is the essential version of the soundtrack, and it makes a great album too.
At the time of writing, the live screening of the film has, somewhat inexplicably, only been performed nine times, and only the studio recording has ever been released commercially. If you believe the internet, a DVD release was planned for 2005 but was scuppered for rights reasons [citation for made up fact needed], but this seems unlikely given that the film is long since out of copyright. Whatever the reasons, it is worth hoping that a release will one day appear, and that more screenings will also follow.
The CD is still available in the UK through Amazon, but the US will have to put up with this download version with dreadful artwork. You can watch the full movie on the Internet Archive here; re-recorded with the original score here; or with a dreadful avant garde score here.