New Babylon

The London Philharmonic Orchestra is not known for its adventurousness when it comes to live silent film concerts. And so with New Babylon? Marek Pytel knows...

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by Marek Pytel, for outsideleft.com
originally published: November, 2006
Ham-fisted subtitling to Kozintsev and Trauberg's dramatic tale of the failed 1871 revolution of the Paris Commune, ensured that the Barbican audience failed to engage with the film right from the start.
by Marek Pytel, for outsideleft.com
originally published: November, 2006
Ham-fisted subtitling to Kozintsev and Trauberg's dramatic tale of the failed 1871 revolution of the Paris Commune, ensured that the Barbican audience failed to engage with the film right from the start.

NEW BABYLON
Grigorii Kozintev, Leonid Trauberg, Dmitri Shostakovich
USSR 1929
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurovski, Barbican 8.11.06

The London Philharmonic Orchestra is not known for its adventurousness when it comes to live silent film concerts. Its work with composer/conductor Carl Davis nearly brought the medium to its knees some years ago and a lacklustre easy listening performance of Shostakovich's brilliant 1929 first work for cinema was always on the cards given their participation. The Philharmonic's work last night under the baton of Vladimir Jurovski, and their own production of the show - brought in for the occasion wholesale from an organisation called the European Film Philharmonie - did little to redress the balance.

New Babylon was the culminating masterpiece of the experimental "Factory of the Eccentric Actor" which operated in 1920's Leningrad, satirising the Soviet "bon ton" approach to the arts. (their motto: "Better to be a young pup than an old bird of paradise" ) and in competent hands this, their final film, has been assessed as "the highpoint of Soviet cinema, of Shostakovich's career, and of dramatic music in general".

However, ham-fisted subtitling to Kozintsev and Trauberg's dramatic tale of the failed 1871 revolution of the Paris Commune, ensured that the Barbican audience failed to engage with the film right from the start.

The main problem of course, as the programme notes bravely attempted to deny, was that almost 25% of the film for which Shostakovich's score was written was missing in the print being screened. This made complete nonsense of the synchronization of the film to its music - a fact which became increasingly clear during the first half of the film where most of the missing footage had once been concentrated.  Major problems with reel changeovers also helped destroy the film's original cohesion and ensured the orchestra played it as a continuous piece instead of the structured 8 act work the composer had originally scored.

As the programme booklet noted, the film had been censored for its "formalism" only three weeks before its original 18th March 1929 premiere and after Shostakovich's music had been completed. It might therefore have been interesting to have seen exactly what such "formalism" may have actually been. In its original form the film would have demonstrated this art movement. The fact that many of the directors' and composer's fellow artists, such as the great theatrical director Meyerhold, were shot by the state for the fictitious crime of "formalism" might have been deemed relevant to the evening, but the Philharmonic and its management skirted round the issue just as their orchestra avoided engaging in the work itself, seemingly wishing they were anywhere but on a stage performing what they obviously regarded as communist propaganda instead of the more usual bourgeois fare for which they are noted.

By the time the musicians and their conductor eventually limped over the finish line, despite slowing the film down as far as possible to accommodate the lack of original footage, all pretence of providing a finale had vanished. The music, written for an orchestra of two dozen instruments, and performed last night by over three times that number, had long ago degenerated into a dismal wash, undistinguished by nuance, spark or indeed basic understanding.

Rumour had it that these shows were also being recorded for a future CD release. On this showing, the public might be better advised to wait for a different version of Kozintsev, Trauberg and Shostakovich's first and lost epic work to appear before parting with any more money on such a disappointing production as the London Philharmonic's performance of it.

One star.


Read the FEKS 1922 Eccentric Manifesto online at: www.newbabylon.co.uk.

And visit Reality Film for more information about the work of the author

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