New Babylon

“New Babylon”
A film by Kozintsev & Trauberg
Music by Shostakovich

A screening of the film with Shostakovich’s music performed live

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Shostakovich’s films have done well by the Barbican Centre in this his centenary year – with an ongoing series of film-showings, a screening-with-orchestra of the pioneering “Odna” back in February, and this presentation of the first film to which Shostakovich contributed music.

When it appeared early in 1929, “New Babylon” garnered attention through the often surreally stylised manner – inspired by circus and cabaret as much by ‘straight’ theatre – of its characterisation; its oblique and irreverent approach toa historical episode – the short-lived Paris commune of 1871 – cherished by the Soviet hierarchy; as well as a score, through-composed and symphonic in its ambition, that proved impractical to perform outside of the metropolitan cinemas and which languished unheard until after Shostakovich’s death.

It was the Paris showing in March 1975, followed by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s 1976 reconstruction and airing of a suite taken from the complete score, that led to the film’s timely rehabilitation. First seen in London during September 1982, “New Babylon” has since enjoyed frequent revival at film festivals and Shostakovich retrospectives, though this showing of the now-standard 93-minute version claimed to have included a further 300 bars of music previously unheard.

It was a pity that the often awkwardly translated and misspelled English captions were not upgraded for the occasion, but this was a small blemish given the print-quality was more than adequate and the transmission speed seemed absolutely consistent. Those hard-of-hearing had the benefit of Zane Hema’s signed interpretation – which, in a film without any on-screen dialogue, certainly added a layer of intrigue for the rest of us.

The film itself indubitably blazes a trail while being wholly of its time. Its eight sections, centring on the figures of Louise – an assistant at the New Babylon emporium in Paris who joins the Communards and dies for her convictions, and Jean – a young soldier caught between loyalty to the army and love for Louise, only to end up digging her grave prior to her execution – is a compelling one, and powerfully realised by Elena Kuzmina (the star of “Odna”, and an electrifying visual presence) and Piotr Sobolevsky (who much later claimed to be completely in the dark as to what the film was about), along with an enthusiastic cast of secondary actors – not least the lecherous, champagne-imbibing capitalist played by David Gutman (no relation to the esteemed critic who contributes to this site!). Yet in a desire to make the scenario as conceptually radical as possible, co-directors Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg often cross over into a parody of the bourgeoisie and proletariat they are attempting respectively to castigate and eulogise – with the result that the film at times takes on a degree of parody closer, ironically, to the needs of propaganda that even the Soviet censors can have intended.

Not that this is any fault of Shostakovich, whose score often transcends the scenic imagery in the way it probes into the psychological motivation for what is being portrayed. Populist elements, not least an astounding superimposition of the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Can-Can’ as Prussian troops advanceon a Paris oblivious to the disaster at hand, are part of a heady amalgam that at times threatens to overwhelm the visual component: a ‘failing’ the composer was to learn from in his equally inventive but less virtuosic scores from the ensuing decade. Yet when rendered with a commitment such as evinced by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, confidently guided by Vladimir Jurowski (whose father, Mikhail, has made the most complete available recording of this score, for Capriccio), one may be glad that such a failing was made in the first instance.

A pity the audience could not be more attentive (hopefully those at the second, 9 p.m., showing were more so), but the presentation itself was a success, and the performance should be well worth revisiting when released on the LPO’s own label in due course.

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