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Shostakovich: New Babylon, a film by Trauberg and Kozintsev, with music by Shostakovich, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, (conductor). Barbican Hall, 08.11.2006 (AO)




Cinema was integral to Shostakovich’s career.  It was a truly innovative art form, in that it appealed to mass audiences who might not otherwise have been drawn to “art”.  It was direct and modern.  Russian directors, like Eisenstein, were pioneers of the new medium, developing ideas that still inspire film makers today.  It’s against this background that this film “New Babylon”, made in 1929, evolved.  By the standards of the day, it was daring.  By working on it, the youthful Shostakovich was right in the centre of what was artistic avant garde in Soviet terms. He didn’t have the relative luxury composers in the west had, of conducting and teaching.  He needed the movies to make a living.  What is intriguing is how much film influenced the development of his music.  In the last few years there have been other screenings of films linked to Shostakovich, and even a screening of a film about the Siege of Leningrad, with the Leningrad Symphony conducted by the composer’s son. New Babylon is interesting because it was made by FEKS, a group of filmmakers who were shortly to fall foul of the regime and be “disappeared” from the historic record.


The film celebrates the Paris Commune, dutifully showing images of downtrodden workers, capitalist degenerates, effete officers, healthy peasants and other stereotypes. The plot is simple: the downtrodden rise up against the system with some vague idea of “getting rid of the bosses” but are soon crushed by the military. The acting is banal.  The heroine uses one pained expression for every purpose.  It’s a relief when she suddenly falls out of the plot, her place taken by a minor actress who really can act, so much so that her personality seems to enliven the screen, even if she’s long dead and forgotten. 


This being a propaganda film, the plot doesn’t bear analysis.  One moment the washerwomen struggle with weariness.  Once they’re told they’re free they suddenly wash with such hysterically manic vigour they get soaked through in the process.  If only it were that simple…..   The climactic scene is one where the communards and the bourgeoisie face each other in a stand off. Of course the communards are supposed to be expressing contempt for the depraved ways of the capitalist class, proving their moral superiority and ultimate victory.  Perhaps it’s the bad acting again, but the distinct impression I got from the scene was that the actors playing the communards would much rather have been enjoying sinful hedonism.  Eighty years after this film was made, we’ve learned a bit about communism and its collapse. Russia possibly needed a transition period, but the New Rich of the former USSR don’t have any qualms about embracing ostentation, wealth and excess while they can, and I don’t blame them.  It’s been a long time coming and could so easily be snatched away.


Perhaps the film was banned because it portrayed the degenerate capitalists with too much glee.  They may be a drunken lot with rotten teeth, but they sure seem to have a good time. At least they get to do it in satins and lace.  Indeed, the decadence is portrayed with such historical detail that in one brief shot, I’ll swear I saw why the Can Can was so scandalous! Mixed messages, then, in this film.


It’s not a great masterpiece, as the programme booklet would suggest, for there are far too many repeated takes, and Eisenstein and the German Expressionists had done much artier things. It’s unlikely that New Babylon would receive such a high profile screening were it not for the Shostakovich connection.  The score is a delightful riot of witty set pieces, such as the Marseillaise and variations thereon, Can Can music and a maudlin Tchaikovsky piano solo to match the onscreen scene where a communard plays an instrument consigned to the barricades. Moreover, there are obvious “scenery” effects, such as gunshots, the trundling of carts, cannonades and so on.  Subtle this isn’t.  Someone somehow managed to edit film and music in such a way that they are perfectly synchronised.  In reality, writing for film was a much more haphazard affair, as was film making itself – Eisenstein was working on Potemkin almost at the point of screening.  This gives the music a kind of manic, mayhem abandon.  For a composer of film music, as Adorno and Eisler were to write, there’s no ivory tower.  Shostakovich had to learn to write with his wits about him, ready to improvise and adapt. 


This isn’t great art music, so if the orchestra sounded less refined than usual, it was no loss.  It’s probably a change for them, too, to play music so over the top that hackneyed clichés sound normal.  Jurowski conducted with brio, though he, like the orchestra, was rather wasted on this. 



Anne Ozorio



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)