(The New Babylon)
Directors: Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
Production: Sovkino Studies, Leningrad; black and white, silent; 6 reels, running time: 111 minutes. Released 1929. Re-screened with original score at London Film Festival, 1982.
Screenplay: Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, from an idea by P. Bliakin; photography: Andrei Moskvin and E. Mikhailov; art director: Yevgeni Enei; music: Dimitry Shostakovitch; historical consultant: A. Molok.
Cast: Elena Kuzmina (Louise Poirier); Piotr Sobolevskii (Jean the Soldier); David Gutman (Grasselin); Sophie Magarill (An Actress); Sergei Gerasimov (Lutro, a journalist); S. Gusev (Old Poirier); Janina Jeimo (Therese, a needlewoman); A. Gluchkova (Washerwoman); Evgeni Cherviakov (Soldier in National Guard); Andrei Kostrichkin (Old shop assistant); Anna Zarazhinskaia (Young girl at barricades); Vsevolod Pudovkin (Shop assistant).
The New Babylon is a metaphorical clash of glittering surfaces and deep social cynicism that marked the climax of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg's experimentations with the conventions of the Soviet silent cinema. Taking their thematic inspiration from the story of the Paris Commune of 1871, the two directors fashioned a highly conceptualized allegory of social strata under pressure that transcends its historical roots to form a sardonic comment on the human condition.
NEW BABYLON, the last truly silent film directed by the team of Soviet filmmakers Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, had an original musical score written for it by Dimitri Shostakovich. It will be shown with music performed by a live orchestra.
NEW BABYLON is both a historical and a revolutionary epic. It is set during the Paris Commune of 1871. Through a series of incidents, it portrays the clash between the Paris workers and the bourgeoisie. The film’s heroine is Louise. She works as a clerk in a luxury store in Paris – the New Babylon of the film’s title. As Louise becomes politicized, she joins the Communards, and ends up dying for her principles and the cause. The script was co-authored by Kozintsev and Trauberg, who then shot the film in Leningrad and Paris.
Jay Leyda, the great historian of Soviet cinema, wrote that NEW BABYLON provides “a consistently magnificent climax to the silent films of Kozintsev and Trauberg. The performances have just the right mixture of warmth and caricature, and the chiefly studio photography is irreproachable. It is a glittering film in which the glitter plays a calculated dramatic role.”
Despite being considered today the culminating achieement of the Soviet silent film era, NEW BABYLON was received with mixed reviews when it was first released. Some critics thought its expressionistic style was too intellectual. Shostakovich wrote a score that made use of French music popular at the time of the Commune. Some of this harks to the popular operetta-style of Jacques Offenbach, but the score also features a highly original arrangement of La Marseillaise. The music did not go over too well at the film’s premiere. Shostakovich’s orchestration was too sophisticated for the orchestra which performed it. Those who attended the premiere simply thought that the conductor was drunk.
Kozintsev and Trauberg are the under-appreciated geniuses of Soviet cinema. Shortly after they arrived and met in St. Petersburg, the 17-year-old Kozintsev and the 21-year-old Trauberg formed what they named the FEKS Studio – the Factory of the Eccentric Actor. This “factory” was to integrate pantomime, circus and commedia dell’arte into a new revolutionary art form. The films made by the FEKS team included “The Adventures of Oktyabrina” in 1924, “The Devil’s Wheel” in 1926, and the great adaptation of Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat” in 1926. The films brought to the screen unforgettable character-types which Kozintsev and Trauberg found on the city streets, in what they called “bottom of the city barrel.” This expressionist realism in brilliant casting is evident in NEW BABYLON and continued throughout Kozintsev’s career up to his last film, the greatest Shakespeare adapted for film, KING LEAR. ... more