not so silent resurrection

keith gallasch: new babylon

New Babylon

New Babylon

A GENEROUS, INSTRUCTIVE AND MOVING BONUS FOR SYDNEYSIDERS ENJOYING THE 2008 RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL WAS THE SCREENING OF AN EXCELLENT PRINT OF THE 92 MINUTE SILENT FILM CLASSIC NEW BABYLON (1929), PROJECTED ONTO A LARGE SCREEN AND ACCOMPANIED BY THE ORIGINAL DIMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH SCORE PLAYED BY THE SBS YOUTH ORCHESTRA. IT WAS THE COMPOSER’S FIRST FULL-LENGTH SCORE AND HIS ONLY ONE FOR SILENT FILM. THE RESULTING JUXAPOSTION OF MUSIC AND IMAGE WAS REVELATORY, NOT LEAST IN THE COMPOSER’S RESTRAINT, LARGELY WORKING AGAINST THE COMPULSION TO LITERALISE OR, WHEN HE HAD TO, WORKING TO GLORIOUS EXCESS, MATCHING THE FILMMAKER’S MONTAGED DELIRIUM OF DECADENCE AND REVOLUTION.

Gregoriy Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s New Babylon is endlessly inventive, always coherent and complexly empathetic despite a couple of stock class villains and predictable but brilliantly realised juxtapositions of war and shopping. Set during the Paris Commune of 1871, a young woman working in a luxurious department store, a crystalline palace, identifies with the city’s exploited workers, but her attention is increasingly drawn to a young soldier. Exhausted, empty of emotion, he seems a likely candidate for the cause but, despite his growing love for her and his own maltreatment at the hands of the bourgeosie, he remains on the side of the establishment, digging our heroine’s grave, by way of grim tribute, as she awaits peremptory execution in flooding rain. Throughout, the camera’s gaze allows us to read emotional subtleties in faces that underplay rather than overact, and there’s music in the very editing. The orchestra, conducted by Matthew Krel (who also played the piano passage in synch with the doomed musician on the onscreen commune barricade) rose to the occasion with a clarity and delicacy of playing that revealed in the score both the exuberance of the early Shostakovich symphonies and the austerity of the later.

The reception of the film and its music in 1929 was restrained, both regarded as ironic and intellectual, a taste of the brutal oppression of the arts to come in the 1930s. This Australian premiere screening of the film with live music provided clear evidence of the innovations and the nuances that Stalinism would not tolerate. The audience, many of them Russian-Australians, applauded this Soviet era classic fulsomely.

2008 Russian Resurrection Film Festival, New Babylon, directors Gregoriy Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, music Dmitri Shostakovich, conductor Matthew Krel, SBS Youth Orchestra, City Recital Hall, Sydney, Nov 9

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 23

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2008