Odessa, cultural crossroads and city of cinema

Odessa was an important seaport for the Greeks and a military detachment of the Turkish Empire. Since joining the Russian Empire at the end of the XVIII century.as well as century, it was inhabited by Europeans – Italians, Greeks, French, Spaniards, as well as Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks – and is home to a large Jewish community.

An important role in the development of the city was played by an engineer of Dutch origin Francois Saint de Vollan, whose chess plan was developed in accordance with the wind rose under the guidance of an Italian-Spanish military officer who served in the Russian army, José de Ribas is considered the founder of the city.

The Duke de Richelieu, a distant relative of the famous cardinal, was one of his first governors. After ruling Odessa, he became Prime Minister of France during the Bourbon Restoration after the expulsion of Napoleon. Richelieu was also an adventurer in the service of Empress Catherine II. His statue stands at the top of the spectacular Potemkin Stairs; he is dressed in a neoclassical Roman toga.

Odessa suffered from the fighting during the First World War and was briefly captured by the young Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Soviets take over Odessa in 1920, but cannot stop, as in Al Capone’s America, the Jewish mafia from continuing to control the city.

In his Tales from Odessa, Isaac Babel, an Odessa-born Soviet Jewish writer, does a very good job of portraying that happy and brash 1920s vibe in this Black Sea Chicago. Movie Benya Creek (1926) is inspired by one of his short stories. Babel was a friend of Eisenstein and arguably influenced the most famous directors of the Soviet propaganda era, who chose the city as the setting for such important films as Man with a camera (Dziga Vertov) or several films by Eisenstein that made Odessa the Mecca of Soviet cinema.

Odessa, city of cinema

On the occasion of filming a documentary about the founder of the city, José de Ribas, I spent several months in Odessa.

I also managed to visit the largest Ukrainian film festival, the purpose of which was to draw the attention of production companies and investors to the restoration of film studios and remind the world of the importance of the city in the history of cinema.

Joseph Timchenko.
Wikimedia

Because it was here, in this cosmopolitan city, two years before the Lumiere brothers, that inventor Iosif Timchenko created the first device for viewing moving images.

The first film studio was opened in Odessa on the territory that at the beginning of the 20th century was still the Russian Empire.as well as century, and in the 1930s was considered “Ukrainian Hollywood”. Many of the founders of major American studios in Hollywood were Jews from Odessa.

Some of the most famous silent films of Soviet cinema were also filmed in various urban areas of Odessa, and it was at its film studios, the largest in the entire Soviet Union, that the great director Alexander Dovzhenko began his career.

But the film that glorified Odessa to the whole world, no doubt, Battleship Potemkin (1925) Eisenstein with the famous scene on the stairs.

Odessa stairs

Battleship Potemkin inspired by an event that took place twenty years before the execution, the mutiny of the sailors of this Russian battleship in 1905. In fact, the repression of the rebels did not take place on the ladder, but in the port.

Cinema has made this transitional space, constantly changing, like Odessa itself, a symbolic place.

Now this place is called the “Potemkin Stairs”, before the film this place was known as Richelieu, the boulevard or simply “the main staircase”, with its hundreds of huge sandstone steps.

Scene on the Odessa stairs Battleship Potemkin.

Eisenstein’s dynamic montage is memorable: the tsarist army descends in a tight block and fires indiscriminately at a mass of civilians chaotically running away and rolling down the stairs. The white uniforms of the Cossacks stand out against the dark tones of their victims, among which our attention is drawn to the dying mother, who pushes her baby’s pram down the slope, which, after a few jumps, plunges into chaos.

This scene has since been taken to the cinema to the point of exhaustion (The Incorruptibles, The Godfather Where music Box these are just a few examples).

Brian de Palma’s tribute to Einstein Incorruptible.

On some images Potemkinat the top of the stairs, you can see a small Byzantine church, which was later destroyed by the Soviets and replaced with an innocuous building that housed a department store or mall.

Odessa at the crossroads

The city has changed so much (and thus represents change in Europe) over time, and in such a consumer and tourist direction, that I thought the stairs would end up being renamed after the shops around.

A few meters higher, on what is now called Ekaterininskaya Square, a sculpture of Catherine the Great replaced the monument to the Potemkin heroes, which was moved to the port in 2007.

This statue, erected when Odessa was part of the Russian Empire, poses no problem for Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking democrats. Not being particularly Russophile, they are proud of their history and their belonging to a democracy that is approaching or approaching Europe.

Potemkin Stairs, between 1890 and 1905.
Library of Congress/Wikimedia

When we screened a documentary about José de Ribas in Odessa in 2012, the Ukrainian nationalist government lost the election to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, and the city’s history of cosmopolitanism was reminiscent of the city’s history.

A high-ranking official from the mayor’s office then, not without cynicism, admitted to me that the last elections were monitored by Russian cameras that did not work. In short, he boasted of rigged elections. Then I wrote in my blog that the statue of Putin could replace the Queen. I never imagined that irony, which seemed comical to me at the time, could be so tragic today.

Today, the famous staircase once again evokes bloody episodes similar to those of Eisenstein, but this time with a real historical basis. Let’s hope that we can continue to enjoy such an emblematic place, whose cinematic history is both the history of recent Europe and the history of a country located at the cultural crossroads, now in the center of attention of the whole world.

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