Monday, 27 March 2017

The Communards… The New Babylon (1929), Sasha Grynyuk, LSO St Luke’s

Dmitri Shostakovich spent three years as a jobbing silent film accompanist prior to writing the music for this film, the directors asked if he could put something together in three weeks but he told them he could do it quicker with their help and the precocious pianist wasn’t to disappoint.

Shostakovich’s original score for this film was so perfectly synchronised with the rapid cutting that it proved all but impossible to perform after the Moscow Sovkino office ordered the removal of a fifth of the film. Directors Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg created state of the art cinema that featured extensive montage that suited the fleet fingers of the 23-year old composer but which was fatally out-of-step once trimmed to suit official tastes.

The New Babylon
This was a UK premier for the film and score as originally intended… a story of the Parisian revolt against the defeated Second Republic originally subtitled Assault on the Heavens: Episodes from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, 1870-71.

Shostakovich wrote about the scoring process saying that he was aiming to capture the tone of the film and not give a musical blow-by-blow account of the narrative. Informed by his day job he included multiple references, popular dances like the Can-Can a cluster of notes quickly morphed into the larger picture, a flavouring that doesn’t stay specific for long enough to distract from the tone on screen.

He also included emotional counterpoints and something like musical sarcasm as events turn against our heroes as they are ruthlessly supressed by their compatriots applauded by a bourgeoisie more concerned with their own deals than La Republic.

Drudgery above and below
It’s a masterclass in film composition and one that could only have been achieved by a practiced accompanist. So, even though we had the grand Steinway in the concert hall reverence of LSO St Luke’s, Ukrainian pianist Sasha Grynyuk was channelling music of the water-logged fleapits this film was originally shown in.

John Leman Riley, author of Shostakovich: A Life in Film introduced and described the run down premiers of The New Babylon in its original form. Ninety years later we got to see something like the original film with only the ending, explained with title cards, missing (what remains is still powerful) and with the score as originally envisaged. Everything comes to those who wait… eventually… sometimes.

Prussians advance
The war of 1870 marked the changing of the guard in Europe with the modern, industrialised army of Prussia cutting through the dated complacency of the French… or so my A-Level history essay might have gone. France lost and lost badly and in the ensuing power vacuum exploded a revolutionary alternative.

The Commune was brutally supressed but signalled huge changes in the political balance just as surely as the military balance had been shaken by the success of the new Prussian Army. Not surprisingly, it remained an inspiration for the Soviets… a reminder to all of the decadence that must inevitably give way to socialist progression. 1870-71: Twentieth Century Prelude, as my essay might have been entitled…

Amused to death, as Paris falls...
Kozintsev and Trauberg assumed a certain level of knowledge of these key events and don’t bother too much with the specifics: whether under siege form the Prussians or barricading themselves off from their own army, The Communards are the heroes throughout – likely to be oppressed and ground down unless they take this chance to fight for their rights. The struggle will be glorious and even as they face their own demise, they know that their endeavours will inspire others: more communes will come and the callous bosses of business, politics and war will eventually be defeated.

The action centres on a department store, The New Babylon, in which works a young woman Louise (Elena Kuzmina). She catches the eye of the shop’s owner (David Gutman) who has designs and invites her to a night out at the follies.

Trouble with the supervisor...
From the outset, the film is focused on visual expression more than narrative exposition and is in visual alignment with its composer’s approach to the score: there are some big dramatic moments but these come through in the midst of the film’s dazzling emotionalism, they do not drive the response per se.

The two directors also anchor the story on a strong cast of characters from the journalist Loutro (Sergei Gerasimov), the actress (Sofiya Magarill), milliner Teresa (Yanina Zhejmo), national guardsman (Eugene Chervyakov), communard (Oleg Zhakov) and others. The events whirl around them but it’s the close up response of these individuals that tells the tale.

Do the right thing...
At the centre is the relationship between Louise and an everyman soldier, Jean (Pyotr Sobolevsky). The restoration includes more detail of the romantic side of their liaison and yet it is politics that really passes between them. Louise refuses to be compromised by her boss and quits her job when his favouritism saves her from being laid off. But Jean goes with the flow even though you can see the absolute horror in his eyes from the outset.

Even Louise urgings cannot pull him away from defeated conformity. He has fought himself into the ground and has only strength enough only to just carry on; fear and depravation allow him only survival compliance whilst they drive Louise on.

As the Prussian victory is followed by the establishment of the Commune, Jean is one of the soldiers used to defeat the uprising and, in the end he is one of those clearing up the insurgents. At some point Jean will turn… just as surely as the revolution will eventually be complete.

Cobbles and mud: the tracks of a defeated army
The film has some stunning imagery from the whirl of the can-can to the rush of the cavalry, and the Commune defeated as the bourgeoisie safely picnic on some faraway hill applauding as they would in the theatre. The cinematography from Andrei Moskvin and Yevgeny Mikhailov captured the troops sunken in muddy retreat, the rage of betrayal and an emotional scale beyond most Western cinema of the time.

Their light re-projected through to the St Luke’s screen and Shostakovich’s quicksilver expression relayed through Sasha Grynyuk's playing: The New Babylon was a fresh, visceral experience full of original feeling and a sense of connection to revolutions past though still present.

Elena Kuzmina
Back to my A-Levels and I remember watching Kozintsev’s last film, King Lear (1971) taken not by our English teacher but our History teacher… of course.

The audience awaits at St Luke's

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