New Babylon, op. 18 (1929)
DVD: New Babylon, The Eccentric Press
I’ve been looking forward to watching New Babylon, to hear an unfamiliar, early Shostakovich score (his first for film) in something like its original element. Just prior to starting this blog survey I tore through John Riley’s Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film, a fine account of each of the composer’s film scores. Practically, I expect it to come in most handy in the many cases when I can’t get ahold of a DVD copy of a movie and Riley can flesh out the plot as well as the context of the musical cues that made it into the concert suites. One of Riley’s bigger points, though, is that Shostakovich’s film music is too often dismissed as perfunctory and unworthy of much attention, while in his view the film scores, though they exhibit as much inconsistency and varying quality as the rest of Shostakovich’s output, constitute a coequal branch of the composer’s career. I’ve been interested in hearing and seeing what I can; Riley makes a good case for Shostakovich’s seriousness in crafting some of his scores and in seeking a viable film-music language but he doesn’t describe the composer’s film style in contrast to his concert or theater works.
This DVD edition of Grigori Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s film, prepared by Marek Pytel, comes bundled in a special-edition set (at a fairly premium price point) with his informative but haphazardly edited book New Babylon: Trauberg, Kozintsev, Shostakovich, based on his research into the film’s history. It doesn’t speak directly about the version of the film on the disc but lays out Pytel’s justification for trying to restore it to a version prior to several studio-mandated cuts just prior to its premiere, which besides adding a more propagandistically appropriate ending (still in place) muted some of its formal experiments and threw the final edit of the film out of sync with Shostakovich’s score. Pytel fails to credit the musical performance in his disc; it’s not entirely clear to me to what extent the soundtrack has been recut. There is another, apparently similar, considerably cheaper DVD release on Arte Edition, though I haven’t (yet) seen it for comparison; in a quasi-public exchange of emails through a reviewer at DVDBeaver.com Pytel asserts that his own edition’s frame rate is the correct one. Both are based on an old print of the film which, for international release, censored some of its allegedly racier shots. All of this to say, it doesn’t seem there is an authoritative version of New Babylon currently on the home video market, and the concept of authority itself gets tricky for such a long-troubled film, but the energy and inventiveness of both film and score both shine in the present version.
The film presents a predictably one-sided account of the 1871 Paris Commune with a romance, not often in the foreground, between a perpetually fiery salesgirl / eventual Communard (Yelena Kuzmina) and a thoroughly miserable-looking soldier (Yevgeni Chervyakov). Its 1929 premiere of the film was a disaster by all accounts: The film’s avant-garde techniques baffled the audience, despite the above-mentioned late cuts, and an under-rehearsed and uncomprehending cinema orchestra butchered Shostakovich’s unconventional score. On disc now it’s lucid and bracing. My previous exposure to early Soviet film consists of Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera (and my familiarity with early film in general doesn’t go much beyond that) but, compared even to those strikingly constructed works, Kozintsev and Trauberg deploy an extraordinarily kinetic editorial style. Unlike anything else I’ve seen in film, too, is an uncanny, muddy quality they bring to out-of-focus figures moving in the middle background of several scenes, most notably dancers in a restaurant early in the film and soldiers digging graves for executed Communards late. Maybe due to the directors pushing at the bounds of a not yet settled cinematic language and maybe due to their freedom from the stagey anchor of dialog, the film frequently pushes into swirling near-abstraction, full of high contrast (both photographically and thematically) and extremely fast-cutting montage. The clearest example to me is this scene of a journalist attempting to announce the defeat of the French army over the din and bourgeois nonchalance of a Parisian dance hall:
The film works as propaganda but, by propagandistic standards, it still seems sardonic and gloomy by turns, willing to find dark humor in the Communards’ circumstances and show their pessimism: In a scene near the end, the salesgirl, awaiting her execution, notices that her soldier is digging her grave and bursts into hysterical laughter before breaking down into tears.
The music here — to turn finally to Shostakovich — is one of his characteristic sweet-sour dance numbers, both comical and cloudy. His score, which according to Trauberg he wrote in three weeks, is stylistically of a piece with The Nose, although it’s also thinner in texture and more repetitive. The brash instrumentation is, by now, recognizably the composer’s, for instance in the eerie use of a flute paired with, I think, a quiet flexatone (I do love mentioning the flexatone) to indicate nighttime bugle calls. It almost constantly propels itself and the film forward, although a very few dramatic silences and lowerings of the music occur at key moments. It’s highly parodistic — the composer and filmmakers alike are at their most exuberant when lampooning the excesses of wealthy Parisians. One thing it’s not is directly tied to what’s happening onscreen: At some times the score is illustrative of the images (most literally when a solo piano shadows an old Communard as he plays a sentimental song onscreen) but more often Shostakovich’s music suggests a more abstract level of drama, or else just seems to exist on its own plane entirely. The latter kinds of moments have their joys, especially when the music is in its elbowy, high-energy mode, but the sequences in which Shostakovich draws out a lower emotional layer are some of the most powerful. In my favorite example, a group of radical women trying to protect cannons from a French army detachment give the starving soldiers milk and attempt to win them over to their cause, only to have the soldiers turn on them when reinforcements arrive; the score, in marked constrast to the fury of the filmed action, is pensive, tragic, tender, evocative of the women’s feelings of betrayal:
I’ll conclude with an example of the film’s overall mood of anarchy, visual energy, and warped humor, as the French army mounts its final assault on the Commune’s defenses. (The burning mannequin belongs to the titular “New Babylon” shop where the salesgirl worked before joining up with the Communards.) This excerpt also shows off Shostakovich’s willingness to repurpose existing music, his own or anyone else’s: A prominent musical theme throughout the film, including here, is a distended, wrong-note-ridden version of Offenbach’s famous cancan from Orpheus in the Underworld, associated with the Parisian bourgeoisie. (Riley suggests that Shostakovich’s tendancy to recycle was exacerbated in this score’s case because of his close deadline.)
It’s just a stunning movie for its youthful exuberance all around and the music, while not Shostakovich’s most careful score, is a fine specimen of his spirit. I wish he’d written music like this longer (although there is more work in this vein to listen to) and I wish more narrative movies today were made with this level of visual daring.