THE NEW BABYLON (Leonid Trauberg, Grigori Kozintsev, 1929)

You will find below an entry that had been included in the list of the 100 greatest films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, which you will find elsewhere on this site. However, today I added another entry to that list (Béla Tarr’s The Prefab People), which required subtracting something. I chose to delete the Trauberg-Kozintsev film. Here, then, is the deleted entry:

It is curious that neither of the two major films about the 1871 Paris Commune have come from French artists, but understandable, really, given France’s suppressed memory of its painfully brief experiment with a just society. The second work, a masterpiece, was made by England’s Peter Watkins: La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000). The first was made by the Soviet team of Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev. Although the pair continued to make movies together, Novyi Vavilon was the final work of their avant-garde collective, The Factory of the Eccentric Actor, which Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Strike (1924) had inspired to expand from theater into cinema.
     The silent film (for which Dmitri Shostakovich composed live musical accompaniment—his first score) consists of broad strokes of heightened—sometimes, farcically exaggerated—reality. The opening movement portrays a frenzy of activity inside La Babylone Nouvelle (Zola’s satirical Au bonheur des dames weighs in here), as the high bourgeois department store’s vulture-like patrons descend upon bargains generated by the disastrous progress of the Franco-Prussian War. In a ferocious image, Prussian soldiers, in spiked helmuts, gallop towards Paris at night.
     I don’t buy the use of the shopgirl for a unique perspective on the unfolding events; the film’s most famous aspect is, for me, its weakest. But the film delivers an engrossing portrait of the Commune’s birth, as workers and intellectuals come together; and the government’s assault, and the street executions that followed, with merchants licking their chops, pierce. The Commune fell in less than two months.
     The closing tone, so odd when one considers the historical tragedy involved, is justified in terms of the film’s thematic motive. Trauberg and Kozintsev find in the crushed commune an unstoppable spirit that took political form in their own new nation—as can happen elsewhere besides.

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