Monday, September 19, 2016

196. Russian director-duo Grigory Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s silent film “Novyy Vavilon” (The New Babylon) (1929) (former USSR/France), with music by Dimitri Shostakovich: One of the most laudable silent films ever made that has surfaced recently

The exaggeration of the film's actors... fundamental to the film

The New Babylon is a Russian silent film, made in 1929, centred on the events related to the rise and brutal suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune.  As the Germanic Prussian army defeated the French army and advanced to conquer Paris, the rich in the city went on with their escapist lives without caring to protect the city. On the other hand, the working class of the city refused to capitulate and set up a Paris Commune with a socialist fervour to protect the city of Paris from the Prussian army. The Paris Commune achieved its primary aim of protecting the city but was in turn crushed by the French Government working from Versailles with financial and moral support of middle class in Paris. Thousands of members of the Paris commune were killed by the French Government instead of being grateful to the brave hearts. These events deeply influenced the writings of Karl Marx. Very few moviegoers are aware of this laudable film’s very existence and hence, The New Babylon rarely, if ever, gets mentioned on lists of important films of the silent era.

Graffiti of the movement scribbled by a dying member of the Commune  

There are several reasons for the lack of awareness about this film.

Louise selling clothes to the rich with a mannequin next to her

First, it was made by two Soviet Russian filmmakers who ran into problems with the Russian censors. The released version did not have the full approval of its principal filmmakers: directors Kozintsev, and Trauberg and composer Shostakovich.  Some versions of the original 2 hour film were chopped down to ridiculous 84 minute and 93 minute versions when shown in Russia and abroad post-censoring, respectively.  The film was considered by the Soviet censors to be an anti-war and not a communist film. Both charges were essentially correct, in retrospect. It was merely a film made in the wrong country at the wrong time.  The New Babylon incorporated composer Shostakovich’s first explicit work for cinema, written when he was only 23 years old, and his friendship and subsequent rich collaboration with director Kozintsev continued up to the final Kozintsev film King Lear (1971). (Shostakovich’s music, not written specifically for cinema, was used in Sergei Eisenstein’s October, released a year earlier in 1928.)

The rich of Paris captured in an interesting perspective,
 aided by an interesting camera angle

The second reason was the political climate that slowly disintegrated the interesting theatre movement called the” Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEX) developed and headed by Kozintsev and Trauberg that led to the making of several silent films, including a comedy called The Adventures of an Octoberite (1923) (now lost), Shinel (1926), based on Gogol’s The Overcoat , which many consider to be best cinematic adaptation of the literary work, The Devil’s Wheel (1926) and The Club of the Big Deed  (1927), which the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky considers “the most elegant film of the Soviet Union.” The Russian director duo tried to infuse futurism, surrealism and Dadaism in their creative outputs. The satirical elements in the film The New Babylon and the music in the film (“The Marseillaise” being diluted with Can-Can music) did not go down well with the Soviet censors. Shostakovich increasingly fell foul in the eyes of Josef Stalin from then onwards. He was denounced twice politically: once in 1936 for being “coarse, primitive and vulgar,” and later in 1946 for being “formalist and non-Russian.”   Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were either deliberately killed or imprisoned.  After the death of Stalin, the world recognized Shostakovich as a major composer of the 20th century.

The situation with the Jewish director duo Kozintsev and Trauberg (in today’s political geography they would have been Ukrainians) was not very different from that of Shostakovich.  The duo continued to work together until 1947, after which they began making their own individual films. One of Trauberg's celebrated works is a 1960 film Dead Souls based on Gogol’s literary work of the same name. Trauberg was again attacked by Soviet authorities for being a Jewish intellectual, post-World-War II. 

Ironically all the three individuals were recognized by the country that almost demolished their creative talent at their peak. In 1964, Grigori Kozintsev was named as the “People’s Artist of the USSR.”   Leonid Trauberg, initially in trouble for his early works, was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941 only to be attacked once again by the Soviet Authorities post-World -War II. Dimitri Shostakovich, was denounced twice during the Stalin years and yet was honoured with the Lenin prize, three times with the Order of Lenin, the Hero of Socialist Labour, etc. Outside his own country, he was honoured in UK, Denmark, Finland and Austria.

Trauberg thought his early work with Kozintsev-- the full version The New Babylon--was lost until the film was re-released in 1982. Kozintsev had died in 1973. Both filmmakers were not alive when the film was restored fully and re-released in 2010.

Thus, the third reason for the obscurity of The New Babylon was that its re-release and restoration only occurred some 80 years after it was made, and this was done outside Russia. Its relevance seemed to have been diluted by time. It is now freely available on You Tube for cineastes to enjoy.
It is with this background, one ought to evaluate the film The New Babylon. Why is the film important beyond the “The Marseillaise” and Can-Can mix of music that irked the Stalinist censors? What did it offer beyond the silent films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin?

Jean, the simple, starving soldier

...and Louise, the happy, idealist salesgirl 

Evaluating the film The New Babylon, one will realize the directors were directly projecting their views on socialism through the sad love tale between Louise, a working class shop assistant in Paris and Jean, an army deserter begging for food with tattered shoes meeting for the first time who had joined the army for a better life than what he had in his village.  Louise’s character is developed by the directors as a feisty woman who dislikes her employer but needs the job to make ends meet. Louise’s interest in Jean is a mix of charity and disgust as he has deserted. She feeds him and as he in turn is repelled by her overt dislike tries to leave the place while another elder male is repairing his tattered shoes. Louise cautions him that he needs to wait and wear the shoes that are being repaired before he leaves. The idealist Louise asks Jean to fight the Prussians but the disillusioned Jean is not interested.  Eventually Jean re-joins the French Government armed forces again as a lowly worker who is ironically commandeered to dig the grave of Louise, now condemned to death.  Kozintsev and Trauberg were evidently giving their own take on socialism—the idealism, the poverty and the irony of fate of two individuals who could probably have loved and led a peaceful and happy life in an ideal world.

The directors achieve this irony by an unforgettable sequence of light and shade (or black and white, if you will) as Louise’s face is illuminated with light as she contemplates her imminent death after being condemned to death by a kangaroo court, and watches the once–hungry man she had fed bread digging her own grave because he too has few options but do as he is told.  The smart lady laughs as she understands the irony of it all and shouts at Jean, a man whom she had come to love and understand, the words “We will meet again, Jean.” The film connects with the viewer both with the melodramatic story that unfolds and the use of visuals, editing, and music.

Women wearing aprons fire guns to protect the city,
only to be given death sentences 

A British librarian turned film critic Matt Bailey, writing in  (posted on 11 July 2004) pointed out the eloquence of the editing of The New Babylon thus “While the film is a rather unsurprising parable of revolutionary fervor and the tyrannical efforts of the bourgeoisie to suppress it, the visual style of the film is anything but conventional. While perhaps not quite as radical in form as the work of Eisenstein or Vertov, the two directors of the film, along with their gifted cast and crew, used the tools of cinema in a lively and invigorating fashion that still gets the blood flowing even today. Multiple storylines and locations are cut between with brisk fluidity; the camera is tossed, spun, raised lowered, and put in places you would never expect; the visual references to French painters of the fin-de-siècle come at a rapid pace and quite out of nowhere; and the performances of the cast are, as the school would have it, eccentric, yet never out of place or out of keeping with the tone of the picture. The film has all of the vigor and pure cinematic originality of Abel Gance’s Napoleon without all the pretensions to greatness shouldered by that film.”

There is more to the editing in this film. The directors give the viewer the impression that characters in the film are aware of incidents in real time by their reactions, when that could not be possible if you look at each sequence carefully.  

Visually the sequence of the columns of the Prussian army advancing on Paris is terrifying.

Everything in the film is visually exaggerated, not real. And that was the directors’ intention. But the satirical effect is profound even today where computer graphics hold the sway. Similarly the visuals of Jacques Demy’s celebrated 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg possibly took an idea or two from the early sequences in The New Babylon.

If one assumes the film is to be assessed by the revolutionary content of the words in the film “We are working for us, not for the owners.We do not work more night. Our children are not cannon fodder for the rich.. " this would only be partly true. The film is essentially a satire--a typical product of FEX--what the directors had set out to do, which understandably did not find favour with politicians of the day. Even the title of the film is cleverly chosen to represent the big shopping store, where Louise works, catering to the rich of Paris.

Does God care for the conditions of the poor and oppressed
(a rare but important shot in the film bringing into focus
the rich Catholic community of Paris/France)?

It is unfortunate that Soviet Russia never appreciated their greatest filmmakers Kozintsev, Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov during their lifetime just as the US film institutions refused to acknowledge Orson Welles, Abraham Polonsky and Terrence Malick. Malick is, of course, still alive and making films.

P.S. Kozintsev’s King Lear made with the collaboration of Shostakovich remains the author’s favourite film and one of his top 10 films of all time and is reviewed on this blog.

No comments :