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The New Babylon

Santos Zunzunegui

Tabakalera | Cinema - Screen 1

21/11/2020 - 18:00

  • Conference
  • Screening

Participants:

Santos Zunzunegui

Languages:

Spanish

Price:

3,5 €

November 21th, saturday

18:00 Conference: Santos Zunzunegui

19:00 The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev and L. Trauberg, URSS, 1929, 93 min.)

Cines Palafox, Madrid, June 1966. Nearly thirty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, a Soviet film appeared on the Spanish screens. Russian cinematography had been absent from these screens since Franco’s troops entered the Spanish capital in April 1939. This first demonstration of a possible cultural thawing was backed by the fact that the film in question was an adaptation of the quintessential Spanish novel, a work that the Regime's rhetoric had relentlessly praised as the most representative example of Spanish racial and cultural genius: Don Quixote (Don Kikhot, 1957), directed by a filmmaker named Grigory M. Kozintsev and starring actor Nikolai Cherkasov who had, following the orders of Sergei M. Eisenstein, incarnated two of Russian history’s central figures - Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. On top of that, this was the first wide screen, stereo sound Soviet film, with Spanish sculptor Alberto Sánchez, then exiled in the USSR, even playing a fundamental role as artistic advisor. Although late, the already declining Francoist regime appeared to begin rehearsing a special version of peaceful coexistence. 

Unsurprisingly, news that Spanish audiences had about the film’s director was scarce and more probably non-existent. While that same year audiences could sample his peculiar (and splendid) version of Hamlet (Gamlet 1964), another great classic of world literature that had been shown previously at the San Sebastian Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize along with an additional honour from the National Federation of Film Clubs.

With that in mind, everything seemed to point to this being a solid filmmaker that did not shy away from taking on major classics of literature and stage (the latter with the invaluable help of Boris Pasternak, who would be responsible for the film adaptation of a play, and Dmitri Shostakovich providing the score). He seemed to present universal themes, being far removed from any more or less hidden political intention such as those that had typically been attributed to works from the other side of what was then called the Iron Curtain. Yet at that point Kozintsev was truly a fortunate survivor of a system that would still allow him one last film de qualité (the remarkable King Lear, also with text translated and adapted by Pasternak, and once again with music by Shostakovitch), which was completed in 1971 shortly before his death in mid-1973. 

He left behind a multifaceted work that moves from avant-garde experiments of the 1920s, then reconverts with an intelligent adaptation to the “new” forms of “socialist realism” (which, as its name indicates, was neither “socialist” nor “realism”), which allowed him to create some of this trend’s most dense and suggestive works during the complicated 1930s. A later clash with cultural leader Andrei Zhdanov (no less than the author of the canonical rules of the ill-fated “socialist realism”) cost him his film Simple People (Prostie lyudi), which was created in 1945 but would collect dust in the archives until 1956. In order to reach his final refuge as a respected point of reference for young filmmakers and an artist that showed his “classic” final films (the two “Shakespeare” come to mind), up to what point would his old, initial work have served as a profound basis for film that was only more conventional in appearances?

It is true that Kozintsev's work (as with that of his accomplice over the course of many years Leonid Z. Trauberg) had not enjoyed the same attention that other Soviet filmmakers had received by western critics. Only when the filmmaker was about to disappear (Trauberg would survive him until 2002), the Italian Centre for Dramaturgy and the Cà Foscari Theatre of Venice organised a review of both his cinematic and theatre work in 1972. The review brought to light one of the least known cases, up to that point, of the great variety of cultural and cinematic projects that had shot up like weeds in Russia immediately after the Bolsheviks took political power in 1917. 

On 5 December 1921, on the grounds of Petrograd’s Free Comedy, the Discussion on Eccentric Theatre took place, which would end up producing the Eccentrism Manifesto (Ekstsentrizm, 1922) a year later after being co-signed by Grigori Kozintsev, Georgy Krizicky, Leonid Trauberg, and Sergei Yutkevich. In his introduction to the aforementioned book, Giusi Rapisarda concisely places us in the intellectual climate from which this movement arose: “In the 1922 Manifesto, Kozintsev, Krizicky, Trauberg, and Yutkevich situate themselves in an area of inquiry where the teachings of Meyerhold, reflections on the linguistic innovations of futurist theatre, and the absorption of theories on poetic language from the Formalist school converge, with accents and tones not far off from those used by Eisenstein in “The Montage of Attractions”’.

From his fragmented recollections (“From the Workbooks”) appearing late in 1966, Kozintsev explained the original synthesis of the diverse elements that were to be behind the works that would be known as the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS). This name pointed to the “production” of a type of art that did not demand improvisation as a preferred working method, but rather sought to cast aside any “charlatanism” around notions such as “pure art”, “inspiration”, or “creation”. The FEKS proposed delving into the questions of leftist art represented by names such as Mayakovski or Meyerhold, art capable of vindicating what was considered “inferior genres”, seeking to explore and take pantomime to its limits or to borrow some of its resources from the circus, and it did not shy away from the expressiveness of puppetry, acrobatics, and even boxing in an attempt to combine them later with teachings emanating from the cinematic practices of filmmakers such as Chaplin, Griffith (they planned to extract a framework for action from his “melodramas”), Sennett, and Stroheim. All of this with the purpose of producing film (or theatre) that took a stand against what members of the FEKS called “everyday naturalism”. Kozintsev specifies that, in this way, “editing the first frames and brief sequences taught us about the expressiveness of hidden emotion, the strength of barely insinuated movement, the importance of glances exchanged, of a gesture”.

As can be immediately gathered, this is a proposal that not only concerns itself with the search (that today we may consider naïve) for a “specifically cinematic style”, but also dives into the major problem that traversed the first years of the Revolution: to what point should a society hoping to reinvent itself produce art worthy of the new circumstances, new art liberated from the contingencies that had defined art produced in the previous bourgeois society that they hoped to erase. As is logical, this problem could never be satisfactorily resolved. The years of the 1920s were those of the titanic attempt to construct a “Soviet art” that could go hand-in-hand with the future development of the new society it hoped to build. Victor Erlich precisely summarised the scope of the fundamental problem that Soviet artists faced by recalling that “the Revolution of 1917 did not confine itself to a thorough over-hauling of Russia’s political and social structure; it also shook loose fixed patterns of behaviour and accepted moral codes and philosophical systems.  This cultural upheaval was not a mere by-product of political revolution; it was spurred and accelerated, rather than brought about, by the breakdown of the old regime. The tendency to revaluate all values, to drastically re-examine all traditional concepts and procedures transcended the boundaries of revolutionary Russia: during the aftermath of the First World War, the determination to “eschew statics and bar the Absolute” (in the words of Roman Jakobson) became well-nigh a universal phenomenon”.

Even at the risk of simplifying problems that would require significant explanations, a superficial review of the different proposals to emerge from that time would suffice to demonstrate two quite different yet intimately related ideas. The first is that building a “new type of film as the result of a new type of social mandate” (to use the illuminating formula coined by Eisenstein) could not have been done without being perfectly in tune with the social and economic development that could sustain such an ambitious endeavour. For that reason it is not surprising that, following the film industry’s 1919 nationalisation and 1921 implementation of the NEP (New Economic Policy) that sought to resolve the most pressing problems of an economy devastated by civil war, opening the country to private initiative even partially and under strict control gave rise to debate around questions regarding the type of art that should go along with the march towards a communist society. For a good part of the 1920s, Soviet cinema featured notable diversity in its search for this “new cinema”, a diversity often accompanied by notable controversies. One of these controversies entangled members of the “cine-eye” movement (led by Dziga Vertov) and those demanding cinema that unleashes the full power of its complete artistic awareness (as Eisenstein would promote) to separate itself from the fascination for a document that ends up falling into the pure “fabric of Pointillist paintings”. 

The second problem would receive a real solution when the leadership of the Bolshevik party (to which Stalin had been named General Secretary in 1922), which had always viewed what was happening in the world of culture with distrust, took advantage of the Communist Party’s First All-Union Conference in 1928 to open a debate on Soviet cinema. The conclusion was that Soviet cinema was “excessively formalist” and that “films should be made so that they can be enjoyed by millions of people”. It should be of no surprise that October (Eisenstein), classified as a “notable failure of experimental cinema”, was the film chosen to exemplify the “deviationism” from the needs that cinematic art should fulfil. It should also be of no surprise that, taking advantage of the launch of the First Five-Year Plan and the agricultural collectivisation policy that would début the following year, cinema would be incorporated into industrial plans or establish “supervision of film content and themes”.

On this order of things, Kozintsev himself would describe the end of the decade as a moment in which there was a clear awareness that an era in Soviet revolutionary history was coming to an end, and that another one was emerging before Russian citizens’ eyes: a mixture of old things (“for the last time”) and new things (“for the first time”). En relación con la producción de La Nueva Babilonia todo comienza con una llamada a Kozintsev por parte de P. Bliakhine, un dirigente de Goskino, veterano bolchevique bregado en la lucha clandestina y que incluso había trabajado en la industria cinematográfica como guionista del filme de Ivan Perestiani Diablillos rojos (Krasnye dyavolyata, 1923). It should be noted that, at that time, the FEKS had already made more than a dozen films that had stirred notable interest among avant-garde Soviet circles: The Adventures of Oktyabrina (Pochozdenya Oktyabriny, 1925), Mishki versus Yudenich (Mishki protiv Yudenicha, 1925), The Devil’s Wheel (Chyortovo koleso, 1926), The Overcoat (Shinel, 1926), Little Brother (Bratishka, 1927), and S.V.D. (The Union of a Great Cause, 1927), which was not an obstacle for the first act of the interview being the pertinent self-criticism of the filmmakers regarding their last film in which the cultural authorities detected a dangerous “childish fascination with melodramatic effects and romantic accessories”. With these trivialities resolved, a surprising job arrived. Blyakhin requested that Kozintsev and Trauberg bring nothing less than the tragic revolutionary vicissitudes of the 1871 Paris Commune to the screen. In the words of Karl Marx, an example of the first international workers party in history and the direct antithesis of the Empire and growing power of the bourgeoisie, it was a revolution that sought the “expropriation of the expropriators”. Unsurprisingly, this was an offer that the filmmakers couldn’t refuse, and they immediately started their work. Particularly since The Commune was seen as the failed opportunity to go down the paths that the Bolsheviks were now treading in their supposed march towards a communist society. 

Kozintsev has said that he was inspired by the metaphors that Marx used in The Civil War in France to describe the 1871 uprising: “The prostituted Paris of the Second Empire”, “that Assembly of Legitimists and Orleanists, the vampires of all defunct regimes”, “the parasite State”, “the Paris for which nothing considering the civil war was but an agreeable diversion, eyeing the battle going on through telescopes, counting the rounds of cannon, swearing by their own honour and that of their prostitutes, that the performance was far better got up than it used to be at the Porte St. Martin”, “the women of Paris joyfully give up their lives at the barricades and on the place of execution. What does this prove? Why, that the demon of the Commune has changed them into Megaera and Hecates [in ancient Greek mythology, the goddesses of evil, sorcery, and darkness]”. “re-establishing the circulation that ran from the street to the store”, “the Paris of Theirs was a phantasmagoric, gilded, parasitic, of phantasmal existence”, etc. 

For the filmmakers, this was about moving from “literary epithets” to their visual representation, leading them to search for inspiration in contemporary caricaturists of the events such as Honoré Daumier, J. J. Granville, and Robert Macaire. Likewise, they carried out a thorough review of the art of the second half of the 19th century, in a search that they themselves called fruitless. On the other hand, while there is no doubt that literary works such as The Ladies' Paradise (Au bonheur des dames, 1883) by Émile Zola played a decisive role when it came to making a wholesale store and commercial circulation part of the story’s focus. They also travelled to Paris, where Ilya Ehrenburg served as their guide to see the places that would be recreated in the film first hand. The first script carried the predictable title of Assault on the Heavens, with it finally being changed to a reference to the modern wholesale store (“The New Babylon”) where the female protagonist was working as a saleswoman.

The fundamental goal of the filmmakers consisted in finding the light and the rhythm of the events. Kozintsev says that, in terms of this first aspect, this search for the contrast between the “maleficent frenzy of over-abundance” and the “silence of the siege and hunger days” would be definitively clarified when they saw some of the stills filmed by cameraman A. N. Movskin: “Painted in dense black and crackling white like prophets of doom, the suited men rose; and behind them dissolved a bacchanalia of stains, a magma of skirts and top hats. A phantasmal, fantastic, feverish universe was before me; it lived, it had been made real. The non-existent world existed. It was real life. But it was not at all naturalist. Not at all a photographic print”. 

If we talk about the rhythm, from the beginning the main idea was one of a “dynamic painting” of the events, and to provide it with a musical form with an aspect of “visual symphony”: Fall of the Second Empire (sinister scherzo); Siege of Paris (painful andante); “The liberation” (“radieux” theme); The battle (fiery melody), and the End (requiem). The final structure of the film is organised into eight acts: First act: General sales; Act two: The chaos; Act three: The siege of Paris; Act four: The 18th of March; Act five: Versailles against Paris; Act six: The barricades; Act seven: In the pillory; Act eight: Death

In this creative context, it should not be surprising that Kozintsev and Trauberg rejected traditional musical commentary when it came to accompanying the images of their film. In fact, they hired a young, 23-year old musician named Dmitri Shostakovich who debuted his line of cinematic work with this job, along with his collaboration with Kozintsev that would culminate in their later collaborations on Shakespearian films at the end of the 1960s. Shostakovich rejected the conventional use of what was then known as “musical film libraries”, which were comprised of “fragments of works meant to bring a tear to the eye, to move the decadent bourgeoisie, to inspire love, etc.” and flowed out in the most “shamefully shoddiness” being occupied by what the composer called an “anti-artistic spirit”. To the contrary, the fundamental purpose of his music, that did not shy away from eclecticism, attempted to “be in tune with the cadences and rhythm of the film, and increase the strength of its impact”. A perfect example of this type of composition work is offered by the music composed for the fourth part. These are the words that Shostakovich used to illustrate his work: “At the beginning of the fourth part, when the ‘rehearsal’ of the operetta appears, I used an interesting process. The music was developing variations on the motif of a famous galop, and so uniting with the action through different nuances. From this, a sometimes happy, and other times terrible resonance was derived. In large part, I used dances of the time (waltzes, can-can), as well as melodies taken from Offenbach’s operettas. I also turned to popular and revolutionary French songs (Ça ira and La Carmagnole). La Marseillaise was the leitmotiv of the Versailles government, and it sometimes appeared in the most unexpected ways (can-can, waltz, galop)”.

The film debuted on 16 March 1929 as part of a season that included, among others, works such as Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Dziga Vertov), Arsenal (Aleksandr Dovzhenko), Turksib (Viktor Turim), Fragment of an Empire (Friedrich Ermler), and The Old and the New (S. M. Eisenstein). These works would reach the screens when the cultural winds were openly changing in the Soviet Union. A storm was unleashed against the film, as would also occur with Eisenstein, who Stalin personally called and reproached his lack of knowledge regarding the basic fundamentals of Marxism. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that the campaign against The New Babylon would begin by accusing Kozintsev and Trauberg of being “followers” of Eisenstein, who at that point had been defamed in all official forums, particularly for the “intellectualism” present in a film like October

As summarised years later by Nikolai Lebedev, the accusations charged the filmmakers with not having searched through their inspiration in life and historical events, and instead having used literature and representational art, producing “a true festival of impressionism”, creating an “aestheticizing and cold” film that “did not represent living figures of The Commune, and instead used concepts of the leading forces that had participated in the revolt and its repression”. The conclusion was inevitable: this was a pure and simple example of “formalism”, of “rational symbolism” that resulted from a straight line running from the FEKS’ tendency to dive into waters that were increasingly chilly for their frequenters, of “expressionism”, and “romanticism”.

Regardless of the limitations of the FEKS’ project and, more specifically, those of The New Babylon, it cannot be overlooked that the purpose of its institutional rejection (as occurred in the case of The Old and the New) did not just target the specific films. Its scope was much larger: opening up the path towards what would culminate just a few years later in the establishment of “socialist realism”, with the definitive liquidation of any experience of creative diversity and a submission to certain manners of doing things proscribed to contemplating “realism” in terms (more or less valid and more or less complex) of the “effects of writing”, as was mentioned in the 1970s. The Soviet cultural horizon was clearly designed with an exaltation of the homo sovieticus not as it truly was, but rather how it should be, ignoring the contradictions that were made clear on the difficult road towards the “new society”. 

In this space, the blindness of the bureaucrats was of such a calibre that they were not even capable of distinguishing between the diverse manners of addressing a problem that had them worrying obsessively: the creation of a “positive hero”. We can simply compare the contemporary films of Eisenstein and the Kozintsev/Trauberg duo to become aware of the truth that the relationship between the wholesale store saleswoman that embraced The Commune’s cause and the young country soldier does not culminate in any positive transformation. For civil servants of the system, this transformation is intolerably postponed sine die. We will not debate whether this fact is, at its core, more “realist” or the subject’s rapid “conversion” to revolutionary ideals now. I will limit myself to stating that a “formalist” such as Eisenstein puts forth a specific response to this problem through the use of the vicissitudes of the young kolkhoznitsa Marfa Lapkina. This bureaucratic blindness reached such an extent that Eisenstein was forced to change the end of his film where, citing Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris with admiration and irony, it would convert the uneducated peasant into a tractor driver while making a peasant of the tractor driver, who would reach the kolkhoz full of urban preconceptions. What was shared by both films (which also irritated the censors) was that this relationship was largely based on eroticism. This was certainly much more explicit in the case of filmmaker from Riga, however the first “acts” of Kozintsev and Trauberg’s film does not lack allusions to the mediation that sex exercises in the cohabitation of the merchant and politician.

Beyond being a film library entry, what does The New Babylon tell us today? I would like to mention an anecdote that seems useful to recall. To do so, we have to go back to 1971. It was that year, when The Commune celebrated its centennial and the cobble streets of Paris had not yet been fully replaced following their destruction during the May 1968 revolts, that the ORTF refused to include the film in their scheduled programming. Before continuing, it may be useful to remember that, together with Kozintsev and Trauberg’s work, history delivered only two other films on the subject. In chronological order, Toute révolution est un coup de dès, the short film shot by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in 1977 that addresses the subject of The Commune in a way that is as surprising as it is brilliant, and the 2001 film La Commune (Paris 1871) by Peter Watkins, a masterpiece (conceived in open opposition to what its author called the “monoform” that was colonising film around the world) that gave way to “updating” the historical situation described to bring it into modern times conceptually.

If we take a closer look at the film (and, if possible, without preconceptions), it will not be difficult for us to identify the emblematic writing styles (for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the first two “acts”) that the FEKS had claimed as their own and Nedobrovo had identified as a central component of the search for a “specifically cinematic style” associated with easily recognisable ideas: achieving new ways of “showing emotion” where they tried, with varying degrees of success, to displace “the emphasis” of the emotion to the objects. This is precisely the usage given to one of the main accessories in a “wholesale store”, the mannequins on which luxurious fabrics and ostentatious suits are displayed. Mannequins that would reappear at the moment in which the Versailles government attacked the last barricades of rebel Paris, burning in splendour, while the young saleswoman protagonist crazily repeats the slogan (now transformed into a scream of death and desperation) calling out “Sales!” . The same is true with “the exaggerated use of the body” of the actors that starts with an initial “decomposition of their movements in terms of the task to be completed” by the characters to later create a series of “neither imprecise nor disorderly, but rather precise, economical, and expressive” gestures that would not shy away from the exaggerated use of a single part of the actor’s body. All of this with the purpose of obtaining a defamiliarisation (ostranenie) effect that calls the naturalism of conventional film into question.

No less striking (and here we see retroactively how some of the visual ideas of Kozintsev and Trauberg preceded those that would be some of the specific hallmarks of the Hollywood cycle that would bring together Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich) is the composition of the images of boundless excess populated by a forest of fans and umbrellas inside a wholesale store, the epitome of unbridled consumption, that result in this “joyful and carefree Paris”, even in defeat before the German enemy, that The Commune would radically question. The same occurs with the use of out of focus frames (visual hallmark of the Parisian bourgeoisie, in contrast with the dry point engraving quality used to portray the life and work of the proletariat: washerwomen, shoemakers) or the flous that end up culminating in practically abstract images thanks to accelerated editing when news of the French army’s defeat reaches the cabaret, making visible the (momentary) dissolution of a world. Everything would end with an empty stage where only a dancer remains in the scene with Chaplin-esque movements. 

Certainly these scenes, which are probably drawn out in an excess of unnecessary exhibitionism, are some of those that form the basis of the “official” rejection that the film suffered at the time of its release. The interpretation of the theme addressed must have been seen as a “poetic” and not “prosaic” by attentive viewers like Yury Tynyanov (one of the most important authors of the formalist movement and two-time FEKS collaborator as a screenwriter), was seen by its detractors as an inclination towards the perverse avant-garde that separates the needs of “realist” cinema and views the “needs” of the broad proletariat masses with elitist disdain. Tynyanov insisted: “It seems to me that this film will be equally important even in its non-historicism. Purely poetic images and metaphors derived from the comedy that play a hyperbolic role. These are the new methods of this cinematic ode”. 

No less powerful are the nocturnal images that show the galloping of the German cavalry towards Paris on a sinister night. The same goes for others in the sixth “act” (“the barricades”) when the Versailles government army bursts into Paris by attacking barricades made from the cobblestones of the streets, and others with boxes full of lace and silk, as well as mannequins from the “The New Babylon”. One unforgettable image is that of a leader of The Commune sat at a grand piano that had been dragged to the barricades playing for the last of the resistance. Another is that of the young country soldier in the third “act” that has been taken in by the Parisian proletariat shooting at commune members and then digging the grave where the young saleswoman that he had fallen in love with would be buried after the summary trial she was subjected to while the rain pours down on the Père Lachaise cemetery. 

Without question, herein lays one of the major problems that the film posed to the Bolshevik cultural directorship: “postponement” of the young country man’s “conversion” to the fight against the bourgeoisie beyond the film’s chronological limits, which clashed head on with the policies that were starting to be implemented in the Soviet Union. At a time when the Communist Party was beginning to liquidate private agrarian property at all cost and transform agriculture into a collective enterprise, it was unacceptable to show a character from the countryside that did not head in the direction set forth by History. 

In other words, The New Babylon’s reception was pierced by the fact that the film was superimposed with two historical levels: that which we will call diegetic (Paris 1871, the Franco-German war, The Commune), and another that is directly related to the specific situation of the Soviet Union in 1929. For this reason, even authors sensitive to the stylistic elements that the film presented, as would be the case for Viktor Shklovsky (who talked about how The New Babylon “amazed with its originality”), were able to reproach it when filmmakers like Pudovkin (thinking about The End of St. Petersburg, 1927) had shown “the path of the peasant class towards the proletariat through the factory and military defeat” with great clarity, Kozintsev and Trauberg made it so “the peasant Jean's betrayal is made complicit to the crimes of Versailles in order to appear as a continuation that takes places in a sort of future symbolic revolution”. However there was no time for frills or experimentation, nor for support that was not blind and immediate. Showing anything else was “collaborating” with the forces that opposed not just the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, but also the inevitable course of History. All histories (with a lower-case H) that could be told had to submit to the inexorable development of History (with an upper-case H), because what was in play was not only the completion of a “stylistic exercise” with the pretext of reconstructing a definitively closed revolutionary past, but rather with being able to adopt a “productive” position in a specific time in a specific country: Russia at the end of the 1920s.

Santos Zunzunegui