New Babylon (Novyi Vavylon)

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A resident of Kyiv Grigory Kozintsev and a resident of Odesa Leonid Trauberg, the founders of the FEX creative union (‘Eccentric Actor’s Factory’), have taken their rightful place in the pantheon of Soviet avant-gardists. The eccentricity constituting the basis of this abbreviation is one of the core characteristics of Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s joint works, and that was manifested by the tandem in Petrograd back at the end of 1921 and embodied in the joint manifesto ‘Eccentricity’. As the result of experimental search of this film director duet, their movies keep astonishing with their universal expressiveness and non-trivial aesthetic solutions up till now.

New Babylon is an ideological movie by definition. Since its plot is dedicated to the 72-day-existence of the Paris Commune – the sacred cow of the Bolsheviks who announced it ‘the first ever case of proletariat’s dictatorship’.

And the movie does not leave any after-taste of propaganda after you watch it, of which it certainly contains a lot. Dramaturgic dynamics and perfect work of the regular FEX operator Andrey Moskvin comes to the forefront here.

Still, right after New Babylon came out, it was not such a huge hit and its was even criticized. The movie was blamed for aesthetic excessiveness, ‘admiration of the beauties’, absence of any clear and understandable revolutionary struggle line. The latter remark later, in the 1930s, was also voiced in relation to different movies more and more often and caused disastrous consequences. Here is just one quotation from a hard-hitting text about Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s movie in the Tbilisi Rabochaja Pravda: ‘Let alone the fact that the movie is boring, obtrusive, deprived of any plot and full of various film director’s tricks like the rain pouring over three parts, or cafe chantant dancing in the ‘artistic mist’; let alone all those awkward things, – the film has no commune, no proletariat’s dictatorship’.

At the same time, such feedback just stresses the innovativeness of the movie and encourages to watch it. All the more that in many senses New Babylon has become an illustrative movie in FEKS creativity file – almost equal to high-profile free screen version of Gogol’s Shynel (The Overcoat) of 1926. While working at the movie, the authors themselves were writing the following: ‘No matter what our movie is like, we personally are extremely interested for the first time, maybe even more than the other few, in watching it’.

Hence, New Babylon is the name of a Paris department store that becomes both the place of action, and the marker of the cultural and historical period. In the second half of the ХІХth century department stores were being opened throughout Europe and, to a certain extent, constituted an embodiment of the striving for wide access to luxury, for leveling self-oriented elitism inaccessible for the proletariat. It is illustrative in this sense that in Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s movie prior to a defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 bourgeoisie representatives buy jewelry in New Babylon, and after capitulation a rich department store is transformed into the Paris Commune barricades.

The main heroin is a shop assistant of the department store, and then – ardent commune supporter Louise, whose part was acted as a debut by a would-be popular actress Elena Kuzmina. Louise seems to be the embodiment of numerous female images of New Babylon, with an obvious advantage over male ones. This characteristic feature of the movie is also manifested in the love line: Louise’s beloved, soldier Jean, does not come down to the side of the commune – he remains loyal to Versailles and later digs a grave for the heroin before her execution, being incapable of saving or at least somehow influencing the girl’s fate. Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s words stress that the conflict of a strong female and weak male character was there from the very beginning: ‘...making a collision, in spite of anti-melodramatic trends of Soviet cinematography, between ‘him’ – a narrow-minded soldier and ‘her’ – a lean shop assistant on the barricades, in dense smoke and fair fire’.        

The feministic message of the movie, as it has already been mentioned, is embodied not just in the image of the main heroin: female characters here appear to be more decisive than men in a whole number of episodes.

That also creates contrast with the social status of women at the beginning of the movie. For example, the owner of the department store invites Louise to a ball to harass her; and just several minutes later he gets a bribe in the form of state order from the minister caught red-handed while harassing another woman. Also, a female community, which is joined by men only later, represents the proletariat that takes away from soldiers the canons that are necessary for the commune. The overall plan of this group is shown by camera operator Moskvin from the upper point, which makes us recall a bloody scene at Odesa staircases in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, where armed service men were looking in the same way at the helpless crowd. But in New Babylon such technique acquires just an opposite development: women do not become victims, but vice versa – symbolically reach the point equal with soldiers and win over through their relentless emotional pressure. The tragic close is also stressed by the devaluation of the status of women in their fight: they, who had been fighting on the barricades on a full-fledged basis, are executed with a shameful label of whores and arsonists.

New Babylon owes its astonishing expressiveness to Andrey Moskvin’s cinematogaphic talent, since his visual solution in the movie was compared to the works of French impressionists (and sometimes – even accused of following them). Cinema expert Yakiv Butovsky, the author of the monograph dedicated to Moskvin, considers the use of light and shadow as the main technique to be one of the key principles thanks to which the movie is built up as the ‘cinema audience symphony’. No less important is music created by a 22-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich specially for the movie, while the composer himself wrote the following: ‘The key goal of music is to be of the same pace and rhythm as the movie and to intensify the impression it produces’. The combination of techniques aiming not to stress the ideological component but to create a unique organic background for the movie, to correctly transfer the atmosphere of the selected historical period and the dramaturgy of the events, become a pre-condition for artistic topicality of New Babylon. Along with that, this creates the effect that would later be commented by film director Grigory Kozintsev as follows: ‘Numerous tests (with so many failures!) of lighting, composition, shooting regime have led to the following result. ‘Single musical attack’ became visible.

New Babylon is one of the masterpieces of silent movies, which are not just of historical interest, but that can impress you both by the authors’ intention, and to hit the target without their intention. For example, the scene with a pianist playing on the barricades of the Paris Commune will inadvertently be associated by contemporary Ukrainian viewers with the Revolution of Dignity. Cinema expert Semen Freilikh, mentioning New Babylon side by side with some other movies, writes about that epoch in cinematography: ‘These works made an epoch, exceptionally turbulent, and probably, therefore, very short: within some five years the screen, it seems, ate away all expressive opportunities it had’. Whatever the situation, familiarization with the then works and their unique means of expressiveness fully change the view of cinematography. Similarly, the people who come to know that Montmartre in New Babylon was shot at Marinesco Descent, will no longer be able not to see this and to continue viewing Odessa as they used to.

Lukian Galkin. 2019