Screened as part of NZIFF 2001

New Babylon 1929

Novyy vavilon

Directed by Grigory Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg

87 minutes B&W

Production Co





Grigory Kozintsev
Leonid Trauberg. Based on an idea by P. Blaikin


Andrei Moskvin
Yevgeny Mikhailov

Art Director

Yevgeny Enei


Dmitry Shostakovich


Elena Kuzmina (Louise Poirier)
Pitr Sobolevsky (Jean)
David Gutman (Grasselin)
Sophie Magarill (Actress)
Sergey Gerasimov (Lutro)
S. Gusev (Old Poirier)
Janina Jeimo (Thérèse)
A. Gluchkova (Washerwoman)
Evgeny Cherviakov (Soldier)
Andrey Kostrichkin (Old shop assistant)
Anna Zarazhinskaya (Young girl)
Vsevolod Pudovkin (Shop assistant)


Before Moulin Rouge there was New Babylon. A hugely entertaining fresco of nineteenth-century bourgeois decadence and proletarian revolt, New Babylon represents the final triumph in the silent era of the Soviet avant-garde.

The film's vivid original orchestral score, composed by the 23-year-old Dmitry Shostakovich, will be performed for the first time in New Zealand by the Auckland Philharmonia, then a fortnight later by the Wellington Sinfonia, conducted by US composer and silent film maestro Timothy Brock. The Auckland International Film Festival Live Cinema performance is sponsored by JP Morgan in association with Twinings. — BG

Created by Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg and their Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), New Babylon celebrates the 1871 Paris Commune with a mixture of elliptical melodrama, contrapuntal eloquence, and canny, jolting spectacle. The film is a dynamic pageant visualising history in a series of swift, playfully lurid strokes. New Babylon eschews the intellectual montage of Eisenstein’s October (1928) and the manic invention of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). But more than either, this once-in-a-lifetime synthesis of Eisenstein and Sennett, Lenin and Zola, Jacques Offenbach and Jelly Roll Morton, epitomises the astonishing ferment of the Russian roaring 20s.

Kozintsev and Trauberg organised FEKS in revolutionary Petrograd while still in their teens. They considered themselves ‘engineers of the spectacle’ and the October revolution fueled their natural sense of Dada. According to Sergey Gerasimov (a communard in New Babylon and one of several Soviet directors to emerge from the Factory), the FEKS game plan was to reject, overthrow, and negate – ‘in every way possible’ – all pre-existing forms of theatrical art. In practice, however, FEKS idols included modernists Picasso and Chaplin, as well as Meyerhold and Mayakovsky, and American slapstick proved a key text.

‘The actor was required not to “feel”,’ Gerasimov recalled. ‘The very word “feeling” was pronounced with derisive grimaces accompanied by scornful laughter from the whole troupe.’

Sergey Eisenstein teamed with the FEKS kids in 1922, their second season at Proletkult Hall, to effect the ‘electrification of Gogol, Vaudeville Americanism, and Grand Guignol’. The FEKSniks called him ‘the Old Man’ (he was all of 24) and it was Eisenstein’s Strike, two years later, that inspired them to move into cinema. FEKS’ first efforts were low-budget trick films and children’s comedies (including one in which an intrepid ten-year-old foils Calvin Coolidge’s attempted robbery of the Soviet state bank), an expressionistic gangster flick, a conspiracy drama, and a hypermodern romantic comedy about Petrograd auto traffic.

New Babylon was the FEKS super-production, the integration of their revolutionary style with a revolutionary theme. The story of the Commune is an almost religious episode in socialist history. When the Second Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian war, organised workers and Proudhonite intellectuals revolted and assumed control of the capital, making new laws, and administering the city. Panicked by the specter of 1793, the defeated French bourgeoisie surrendered to the Prussians, then enlisted the foreign army to help them attack Paris.

For Marx, the Commune was a foretaste of the millennium. For Engels, it represented the realization of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ For Lenin, it was the model worker insurrection of modern times and its climactic atrocity – the torching of Paris with upwards of 20,000 communards slaughtered in the streets by army death squads – was a lesson he would never forget. (Lenin considered it a great victory when his own revolution survived one day longer than the ten-week Commune.)

For FEKS, the Commune provided the occasion to create a monument to adolescent energy. The film opens in a Second Empire department store where the frenzy of consumption is exceeded only by the frenzy of the FEKS mise-en-scène, proceeds to a cabaret whose perpetual can-can is matched by the rat-a-tat-tat of ‘eccentric’ montage, and saves its most tumultuous rhythms for the mid-film triumph of the Parisian working class – ‘radiant,’ as Marx put it, ‘in the enthusiasm of their historic initiative’. Even the Commune’s bloody collapse is rendered with a furious verve that, abetted by Shostakovich, is ultimately upbeat.

New Babylon’s sense of the Second Empire comes from Zola – whose novel Au bonheur des dames satirizes Parisian department stores as cathedrals of commodity fetishism – and Marx. ‘Industry and commerce expanded to colossal dimensions; financial swindling celebrated cosmopolitan orgies; the misery of the masses was set off by a shameless display of gorgeous, meretricious and debased luxury,’ the great comrade explained to the International Workingman’s Association in his powerful defence of the Commune. The film’s tempo however, is anything but nineteenth century.

Even younger than the directors, Dmitry Shostakovich – who, as a teenager, earned money playing piano in Petrograd movie houses – composed an elegantly agitated collage of marches, can-cans and carnival music. A work of witty dissonance, lilting sarcasm, and brassy ebullience, the Shostakovich score was designed to counterpoint, rather than illustrate, the film’s sensational imagery…

The score was shelved after the first few performances, but New Babylon was controversial even apart from Shostakovich’s incendiary musical assemblage. One of the few Soviet films to ever treat a non-Russian revolution, New Babylon was criticised for its frivolity and aestheticism and perhaps regarded with suspicion for the inspired enthusiasm with which it portrayed anarchy, decadence and heroic martyrdom. Kozintsev and Trauberg went on to make talkies under the prescribed ‘realism’ of the new Five Year Plan, proving more adaptable to the general line than did the Old Man. While Eisenstein fell into disfavor, the pair’s Maxim trilogy were among the most celebrated films of the Stalin era. Narrowly eluding the postwar purges, Kozintsev and Trauberg enjoyed separate careers that continued into the 60s and 70s. — J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 4/10/83

The Score
New Babylon, a hugely entertaining fresco of nineteenth-century bourgeois decadence and proletarian revolt. New Babylon represents the final triumph in the silent era of the Soviet avant-garde.
The film's vivid original orchestral score, composed by the 23-year-old Dmitry Shostakovich, was performed for the first time in New Zealand in 2001 by the Auckland Philharmonia, then a fortnight later by the Wellington Sinfonia, conducted by US composer and silent film maestro Timothy Brock. The Auckland International Film Festival Live Cinema performance was sponsored by JP Morgan in association with Twinings. — BG

When I first learned the news that the Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky had rediscovered the score to New Babylon in 1971, my initial reaction was one of both great excitement and slight trepidation. I had heard various rumours and myths about this work throughout my life. It was considered a sarcastic masterpiece but wickedly difficult to play. I feared that my historically stubborn defence of the composer’s early work would now be put to the test.

The score, written in 1929, was deemed unplayable and wholly uncinematic by its first conductor, and was met with a general sense of hostility by the orchestra. In those days cinema orchestras grew sated with a steady diet of Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Rubinstein, whose music was frequently used to accompany early dramatic pictures. Both conductors of both orchestras (New Babylon ran simultaneously in two theatres) greeted the new score with a fatal unwelcome, and discarded it after two performances. It was considered lost from that time until its first complete performance over 50 years later. However, it provided wonderful grist for the rumour mill!

Dmitry Shostakovich had worked off and on as a cinema accompanist at the Piccadilly Cinema in the Nevsky Prospekt, as well as at the Bright Reel and the Splendid Palace, all in Leningrad between 1923 (when he was 17 years old) and 1926. Under this employment he was able to experiment at will with his cine-music innovations, while providing a much-needed income for his family. One evening while illustrating a showing of Marsh and Waterbirds of Sweden, a theatre patron complaining of Shostakovich’s accompaniment stated to the management, ‘Your pianist is obviously drunk!’ But cinema music directors fervently defended their young pianist, a man who recently premièred his first symphony to resounding successes.

Kozintsev and Trauberg had been present at rehearsals for his opera The Nose, based on the Gogol story. Their admiration for this work served as the lone credential in obtaining the commission to score New Babylon. Invited by the filmmakers to view the unedited rushes of the film, the 22-year-old Shostakovich agreed to write the music. He worked on the score day and night for two months, between January and February 1929. But less than two weeks before its screening the directors dramatically re-edited the film, leaving the composer six days to rewrite the symphonic score, and a remaining three to prepare the player parts. This undoubtedly contributed to the cool reception given to the score by the musicians and conductors, who were forced to contend with hastily written and often inaccurate materials. Though we may still count our blessings, it is unfortunately only this second version of the score that has survived.

I commenced the restoration of the score from a complete facsimile of the original manuscript, on permanent loan from Boosey and Hawkes, London. Neither visual cues nor metronome markings had survived. Up to this time score synchronisation (timing the music to fit the film) was left up to the individual conductor and varied widely in interpretation. Over the course of five months, I strove to decipher the precise tempi for synchronisation, thereby attempting to secure the score’s original framework of thematic material to film imagery.

The score, like the film itself, is a sublime example of a composer’s desire to reach beyond the music-to-action mirroring, to go further into a scene’s meaning by reflecting and emphasising its content rather than its visual surface. The score becomes an equal contribution to the film’s message, and is by no means merely background music. It is riddled with emotion, wit, sarcasm and irony. His inventive use of musical quotes serves too as a means of ironic gesture. The use of the can-can, to which the bourgeoisie grotesquely frolic while under invasion by the Prussians, devolves into a whirlwind of stampeding gallops, reflecting the image interplay between the dark horses of their invaders, and the drunken patrons of Nouvelle Babylone. Even the use of the Marseillaise is met with musical indignation as it is sung by the bourgeois patrons to inspire the French army to attack Paris in order to repossess their societal riches from the ‘underworld’ (Communards).

Although the music does more than ‘illustrate the frame,’ to quote the co-director Kozintsev, the musical descriptions do bring to life the images before us. The textural xylophone and string pizzicato figures aptly reflect the frantic bargain hunters at the opulent New Babylon department store. Illustrating the worker’s plight in a clothing factory, the simple and effective use of a quick circular staccato pattern in the violas, coupled with a rolling tambourine, poignantly describes what a room full of relentless sewing machines would sound like. Shostakovich also calls for a rare percussion instrument called the Flexitone, a popular instrument in variety shows in the 1920s. The performer rattles its handle causing two wooden beaters to strike a blade of metal connected to it, producing a wild sliding pitch controlled by the thumb. Shostakovich typically uses this instrument in moments of the film where the character is in some sort of delirium, as when the owner of New Babylon had just gorged himself on a great meal, or when Jean and Louise kiss for the first time.

New Babylon, op. 18 surely stands as a remarkable work not only for its innovation as a film score, but equally as a truly symphonic creation. Much like Shostakovich’s concert hall work, what emanates from the pages of this score is a mirror of its times, an accurate reflection of the progressive Soviet artist’s vision of the future and all its promise.

I am grateful to the New Zealand Film Festival for providing the arena in which to bring this ingenious score to life as it was originally intended, and giving me the opportunity to perhaps unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Shostakovich’s relatively unknown masterpiece. — Timothy Brock