by Allan Fish
(USSR 1929 97m) DVD2 (Germany only)
Aka. Novyi Vavilon
Vive la Commune!
d/w Leonid Trauberg, Grigori Kozintsev ph Andrei Moskvin, Yevgeni Mikhailov ed Grigori Kozintsev m Dimitri Shostakovich art Yevgeni Enei
Yelena Kuzmina (Louise Poirier), Pyotr Sobelevsky (Jean), Sofiya Magarill (actress), Vsevelod I.Pudovkin (shop assistant), Sergei Gerasimov (Lutro the journalist), Andrei Kostrichkin (head shop assistant), David Gutman (owner of New Babylon), Lyudmila Semyonova (can can dancer), Yanina Zhejmo (Thérèse), Emil Gal (Bourgeois), Yevgeni Chervyakov, Oleg Zhakov,
Here’s another one of those overlooked masterworks that goes against the grain; the grain that dictated amongst the critical masses that Russian silent cinema began and ended with Eisenstein, with Dovzhenko, Vertov and Pudovkin in between. All very well, but what of Boris Barnet, Fedor Ozep, Evgenii Bauer, Lev Kuleshov and Abram Room, all of whom have been represented within this selection, not to mention those such Yakov Protazanov, Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev and Grigori Alexandrov, all of whom had films that came damned close. Then we have Kozintsev, who never gets mentioned amongst the Soviet silent masters. Perhaps because he’s better fêted for the epic adaptations of Shakespeare and Cervantes he produced in his autumnal years after the war. His earlier radical work with Leonid Trauberg is of a much different ilk.
The New Babylon becomes a microcosm for the events that shook Paris in 1870, when the Franco Prussian war lead to the Prussians advancing on Paris and the French government capitulating and causing the uprising of the everyday French citizens, only for the replacement Commune government to be put down about fifty days later and the communards sentenced to death by firing squad. The events are seen through the eyes of a shop girl at the department store of the title, who eventually meets the same fate as her colleagues.
Those seeking an objective look at the events of 1870 had better seek out Peter Watkins definitive depiction from 2000. This is propaganda, as befits a Soviet film of its era; its heroes are revolutionaries, ordinary citizens, while the enemy is the government in the face of greedy capitalism, personified in deliberately grotesque caricatures of champagne drinking, dinner suit wearing, moustachioed egomaniacs. Whole sequences recall numerous films of the era, from l’Herbier’s L’Argent to Murnau’s The Last Laugh, as well as Eisenstein’s entire back catalogue in its use of juxtaposition of events and montage, none more famous perhaps than that of the advance of the German cavalry as the revellers inside the Babylon carry on partying.
Certainly visually the film is hard to fault; splendidly designed and shot and typically exquisitely edited. To this add the real heartbeat of the picture, the debut score of Dimitri Shostakovich, then only 22, incorporating – in much the same way as Carl Davis would do decades later on the silent reissues – French revolutionary and patriotic themes to stirring effect. Cineastes will observe the appearances of directors Gerasimov and Pudovkin amongst the supporting cast, but the stand-out is undoubtedly the fiery Kuzmina – who would become a favourite of Kozintsev’s and was here remarkably only 19 – as the tempestuous Louise, an embodiment of the spirit of French national symbol Marianne, bayonet in hand. It’s certainly one of the major performances by any actress in Russian silent cinema and, though this might not be quite the last gasp of the Soviet silent era, it’s the last gasp at least of old-fashioned montage. The last act, climaxing in the infamous executions of the Week of Blood, remains not merely impassioned but haunting, as the unfortunate condemned are forced to dig their own graves in a torrential downpour prior to being shot en masse. “We’re off to our Paris” they cry. Appropriate perhaps because one film it was undoubtedly influenced by was Gance’s Napoleon, another film edited in a veritable revolutionary frenzy.