New Babylon III

Posted 14th December 1999

In this third post on New Babylon, I'd like to talk about Marek Pytel's book and video, and make one or two further suggestions about the background to the film. The last time I saw New Babylon was in the version televised by BBC-2 on 11th January 1985. My impression was much the same as the Times reviewer's (quoted by Pytel, p. 54): "a virtuosic, if highly propagandist, montage of fact and symbol." Having anticipated a measurable alteration of emphasis in Pytel's reconstructed synchronisation of the film and music in the 1929 European Export Edit, I confess that, at first sight, I retained my original impression. Kozintsev and Trauberg's juxtaposition of virtuous downtrodden workers against top-hatted bourgeois "bloodsuckers" (standard imagery in late 1920s Soviet cinema) seems too sustained, indeed too crude, to be readily interpreted otherwise. When, for example, the melodramatically downcast Parisian washerwomen perk up and start to scrub with beaming smiles because the Commune lets them work for themselves and not for "the bosses", it's difficult to discern any ironic intention. (Coarse hatred for "bosses" is the standard fare of Communists, who, naturally, always leave themselves out of it.) Only Shostakovich's music gainsays this initial impression -- often very provocatively. Yet other evidence suggests that something else is going on which does not immediately meet the eye. At the very least, there is reason to think that the story behind New Babylon is pregnant with significance both for our understanding of Soviet culture in the 1920s and for Shostakovich's role in it.

What is important to realise is that the 1929 European Export Edit (used by Pytel for his synchronisation reconstruction) is the shortest extant version of New Babylon, removing around ten minutes of film from the Gosfilmofond version approved by the Moscow censorship board at the beginning of 1929. (These shots consist mostly of female cleavage, come-hither expressions from prostitutes, and other erotic images then unacceptable to censors in France, Britain, and America.) The Gosfilmofond edit, in turn, is shorter by nearly a third of its length (about 700m of film) than the German Export Edit (Cinemateque Suisse), which was somehow despatched to Berlin before the censorship process intervened. And even the German Export Edit was cut for its local market (including a lopped ending). Furthermore, the incarnation of the New Babylon shooting script used for the pre-censorship "German" version is itself a substantial revision of the version of the script approved by the Sovkino board at the beginning of 1928. In other words, the version of New Babylon which appears in Pytel's early 1980s video reconstruction is at least three stages removed from Kozintsev and Trauberg's 1927 scenario.

Pytel's book contains many evocative stills from the film, as well as some posters, a few rare photographs of the FEKSy themselves, a bibliography and filmography, and a mass of information on every aspect of New Babylon. Among this profusion of data we find the curious coincidence that the Commune's military leader, General Jaroslaw Dombrowski, was aided in escaping a Tsarist prison camp (to which he was sent for his part in the 1863 Polish Uprising) by none other than Shostakovich's paternal grandfather, Boleslaw. Whether this held any great significance for the 23-year-old Shostakovich is, for now, impossible to say, though he's sure to have known about it, if only because it was for this act of Polish nationalist solidarity that his grandfather and family were internally exiled to Siberia. (Dombrowski plays no part in the film, so the subject need not have arisen.)

As a producer/director, Pytel shows his expertise in several ways, some of them subtly perceptive. For instance, among citations of New Babylon which he unearths is an extract from Graham Greene's film journalism published in 1938:

Trauberg, the director of New Babylon, that magnificent, ludicrous, and savage version of the Paris of 1871 [...] has a genius for legend. One is sometimes still haunted on evenings of rain and despair by the midinette of New Babylon with her rain-soaked face and her gawky body, her expression of dumb simplicity and surprise, as she plods painfully in her own person through the stages of evolution and dies with the first glimmer of human intelligence.

Pytel stresses that Greene acquired this impression from the European Export Edit of New Babylon in which the central portion of the frame was zoomed into and enlarged, thereby forfeiting "approximately 35% of the film's screen area". This distortion of the original image, says Pytel, creates a close-up narrative "Eisensteinian in its intensity". Thus was Greene's haunting memory quite unintentionally created.

Was Graham Greene nevertheless correct in identifying the transformation undergone by Yelena Kuzmina's character (with its accompanying suggestion of an objective, critical stance on the part of the directors of this "ludicrous" film)? If so, can this transformation be addressed as an instance of the "revolution in the individual" to which Pytel has referred in attempting to isolate a unifying creative aim in FEKS's seven films? On the face of it, this is a matter of opinion. Few would lightly demur with the judgement of so insightful a writer as Greene, even if his conception was arrived at from viewing unintentionally intensified cinematic images. On the other hand, nearly all dramatic art involves change in the protagonists, even if this amounts to little more than a rise in pulse-rate due to physical exertion. Kuzmina's character can certainly be said to realise the ghastly truth of her situation, but it's a moot point as to whether this cocksure young woman would have modified her abrasive behaviour had she not perished while making her discovery. At first glance, the thrust of the film is that such abrasiveness is the very stuff of revolutionary consciousness and will in time prevail. Do not all surviving prints of New Babylon perorate on the avenging cry of Communard utopianism, "We shall return"?

Yes, acknowledges Marek Pytel, but Kozintsev and Trauberg's original script ended differently: the soldier Jean digs the grave of Louise (the character, subsequently anonymous, played by Kuzmina); a photographer shouts "Strike a pose! I'll take your picture for the Album of Heroes"; a sergeant pats Jean on the shoulder and says "Don't worry, son, you'll get used to it"; THE END. -- A much darker, more downbeat conclusion. For Pytel, this indicates an entirely different interpretation:

With this ending, the film is changed. No longer an exhortation for revenge, New Babylon becomes an incitement to mutiny and an exercise in sedition. The film's message [is] no longer "We shall return" but the far more specific and unspoken "Don't join the army".

There is a certain justification for this pacifist reading in the opening images of the film, where jingoism is linked, satirically, with decadent eroticism and business interests. The trouble with this is that there was no pacifist context in contemporary Soviet Russia. True, there was a war scare in the USSR during 1927 (offering Stalin a context for his final moves towards supreme power) and there were constant popular rumours during 1926-9 that Russia's enemies were about to invade and that the Soviet government would thereupon collapse... but there was no Russian anti-war movement. At the very most, the original ending of New Babylon can be described as bitter and cynical -- quite subversive enough in the Soviet context. (Endings were a perennial issue for Soviet arts watchdogs. The fundamental proposition of Soviet Communist doctrine was that society was advancing towards the "radiant heights" of the "final victory of Socialism": pessimism was counter-revolutionary and endings had to be upbeat. Accordingly, Bulgakov's play The Days of the Turbins had its ambiguous ending changed into something more acceptable to Russia's new rulers in 1926; nor are musical instances of this syndrome hard to adduce.)

Nevertheless, in drawing attention to the evolution of the script of New Babylon, Pytel raises a key question: how did the original script (described by Trauberg in 1984 as "a real love story, an excellent melodramatic scenario like S.V.D.") become the stylish but schematically propagandist final work? As a film-maker, Pytel's main interest is in FEKS and its opus of seven cinematic features: The Adventures of Octiabrina (1924), Michka Versus Udenich (1925), The Devil's Wheel (1926), The Cloak (1926), Little Brother (1927), S.V.D., The Society for the Great Cause (1928), and New Babylon (1929). One of his upcoming projects will be a history of FEKS, incorporating an account of how their aims and methods changed, from the dadaist anarchy of their stage production of The Marriage (1922) to New Babylon with its evolution from melodramatic love story to melodramatic "historical" propaganda during the course of its making. We shall have to wait for the full story, but Marek has meanwhile given me some clues as to FEKS's creative evolution which cast light on the curious conceptual transitions behind New Babylon.

FEKS began in a mocking spirit, treating Soviet institutions as subjects for oblique satire (as in the contemporary work of Ehrenburg, Bulgakov, and Zoshchenko). According to the first study of FEKS (Nedobrovo, 1928), the group's now lost debut film The Adventures of Octiabrina featured a surreal sequence in which aviators who hadn't joined ODVF (Voluntary Share Association for Assisting the Development of Aviation) were thrown out of an aeroplane. (Pytel: "a satire on the fairly well-known 1923 Rodchenko Dobrolet poster.") A camel declines to assist these unfortunates because they don't eat cakes baked by the state monopoly; a tractor regards them as enemies because they're opposed to the "alliance" between city and village; and so on. Similarly, the finale of The Devil's Wheel contains an exhortation to turn the guns of the cruiser Aurora once more against Leningrad -- this time in order to demolish its slum tenements (which the Soviet government had done nothing about during nine years in office). Thereafter, says Pytel, FEKS's angle shifts:

The Cloak is more Formalist in structure than New Babylon, using mirror-images and levels of filmic dream subjectivity. S.V.D. is more linear and uses different photographic textures. The Cloak contains no politics, but has a gentle anti-bureaucratic slant and looks with horror at parade-ground punishments. The scenario of S.V.D. deals sympathetically with the failed uprising of the Decembrists in 1825. Neither film, though, is intensely propagandist. There's no didacticism in them.

FEKS's focus, insists Pytel, remained "humanist, pacifist" in these films, a trait still visible in the final version of New Babylon. Moreover, the group's interest in individuals -- as opposed to the contemporary Proletkult emphasis on "mass" representations (choral songs, corps dances, spectacles, etc) -- persisted into the original script for New Babylon, with its intricate love story and sub-plots. Kozintsev (The Deep Screen, Moscow, 1966; i.e., under Soviet constraint) spoke as follows of the development of the script for New Babylon:

In Assault on the Heavens (the first version of the scenario), various episodes of the subject were elaborated across numerous pages. Little by little, we lost our taste for the labyrinthine complexities of the plot... A social generalization appeared... a collective portrait of the epoch interested us infinitely more. The pages of the scenario dwindled, to be replaced by the "unique musical thrust" of the era, a dynamic fresco.

This passage, quoted by Pytel, bears the hallmarks of Soviet reportage rather than the actual words of Kozintsev himself. The phrase "the 'unique musical thrust' of the era" is Soviet officialese, analogous to the phrase "the rhythm and pace of the Revolution" ascribed to Lev Arnshtam in the article that appears on pp. 20-23 of Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Such vague politico-aesthetic formulae, inherited from Proletkult texts of the 1920s, were as much a reflexive feature of official discourse throughout the Soviet period as the notorious "stormy applause rising to an ovation" (customarily said of the receptions "given" to the speeches made by Politburo figures). Sometimes such routine locutions were used by interviewers or their subjects to alert readers to the presence of opinions which, owing to Soviet censorship, could only be expressed by means of their mirror opposites. Hence, Kozintsev could, in fact, have been hinting that FEKS, while developing the scenario of New Babylon, was obliged by official pressure to give up its artistic focus on individual psychology and turn to the collectivist ethos then being promoted by RAPP, RAPM, and the Komsomol.

On the other hand, Trauberg (speaking to Theodore Van Houten in Moscow in 1984), ascribed the change of direction in the New Babylon scenario to his viewing of Vsevolod Pudovkin's The End of St Petersburg in December 1927: "I called Kozintsev and told him that something had happened which would change all our plans and that we couldn't work according to our scenario." Seeing The End of St Petersburg with Trauberg and Pudovkin in Berlin in early March 1928, Kozintsev supposedly agreed with his colleague's view and the original scenario was dumped in favour of the one now most fully preserved in the German Export Edit. Yet speaking to Natasha Nusinova in 1990, Trauberg seemed rather less confident and adopted a distinctly opaque line of argument:

What will be difficult for me will be questions regarding the FEKS movement itself, because from a certain point (this point began around the middle of making New Babylon) we followed the path of treason. What do I mean by that? [Mikhail] Romm says that we did everything we were ordered to. But this was not because we were mere bootlickers, that we wanted to get one up on anyone, or just wanted to make money. We sincerely thought that, in the Soviet interest, it was right to do this or that.

It's unclear how far old scores are being settled here (with respect to Romm) -- or whether Trauberg's evasive obscurity indicates a compromise he wished to avoid talking about, even sixty-one years later. (He never emigrated from the Soviet Union and so, in old age, remained at the mercy of the state, unable freely to speak his mind.) It is, in fact, more than possible that he and Kozintsev had been pressured by the Soviet authorities.

Like Lenin, Stalin saw cinema as a vital arm of revolutionary expression and, in 1924, urged that the film industry be placed under direct Party control. During 1927, Soviet cinema was mandated to produce films in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Among these were The End of St Petersburg by Pudovkin, Esfir Shub's propagandist documentaries The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and The Great Way, and Eisenstein's October. The latter film, made with the participation of the Soviet armed forces, was four hours long when delivered in November 1927. Stalin, though, had just ousted Trotsky, so a third of the print had to be cut to remove references to him. Furthermore, Eisenstein had used October to experiment with "intellectual" montage -- a step forward from the theories of his teacher, Lev Kuleshov, whose ideas on montage were predicated solely on visual or emotional associations (the so-called "Kuleshov effect"). Eisenstein, though, wanted to work with ideational associations (what we now call Conceptual Art). This new approach, linked with the theories of the Formalist group of literary critics, was too much for Stalin's ideological watchdogs and the proletarian art groups who, together, attacked October for "Formalist excess" (intellectual "elitism", "bourgeois aestheticism").

Stalin, who kept up with Soviet arts (except for painting) but whose favourite genre was film, decided that the USSR's cinema intelligentsia required reform. During 15-21 March 1928, the Party convened a conference on film which, among other things, produced a resolution signed by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Yutkevich, Kozintsev, Trauberg, and others, which called for "the forming of an organ directly under the Central Committee's Agitprop section which will present producers with comprehensive tasks of a political and cultural nature" -- in effect, a recommendation for the removal of film planning from Glavrepertkom (State Repertoire Committee) and the placing of all such control in the hands of the Party. No doubt this call for ideological dictatorship in the film industry was itself dictated to the signatory directors, who had no choice but to add their autographs. (A formal end to semi-independence in the Soviet film industry followed in 1929 when Stalin removed Sovkino from the aegis of the Commissariat for Enlightenment, renaming it Soyuzkino, and placing it under the control of the Socialist Realist bureaucrat Boris Shumyatsky.)

Those in the Soviet film industry would have been aware of this change in the weather from as early as December 1927. Yet there was no possibility of overt protest against the "proletarianisation" of their art; indeed, for public purposes, they were obliged to conform with the way in which such issues were presented by the Party. Kozintsev and Trauberg's references to The End of St Petersburg may be evasions of this sort (or possibly even Aesopian statements, Pudovkin having warned them of the coming crackdown). Certainly they were not at liberty to say, in so many words, what was almost certainly the truth: that Party-deputed watchdogs had overruled the original, Sovkino-approved, scenario for New Babylon, informing them that they could junk it completely or rewrite it on propagandist lines.

If, in March 1928, Kozintsev and Trauberg had been given direct orders to "proletarianise" New Babylon, setting them on "the path of treason" (treason to their own artistic principles), they could only have confided this in private. Indeed, they seem to have done just this, to judge from a statement by Eisenstein made soon after the 1928 Conference: "FEKS can tell you a funny story about how and why the Paris Commune was accepted, rejected and then accepted again. There was nowhere they could go and complain." As for the horse's mouth, there is very obviously something Aesopian being "signalled" in the joint statement made by Kozintsev and Trauberg in the December 1928 issue of Sovetskii Ekran (given as Afterword I in Pytel's book):

We have been asked to communicate some of what we know about the modernity of our picture. Unfortunately the modernity of New Babylon is as nothing to us. Modernity is just a name... This is also unfortunate. The film was originally to be called Assault on the Heavens; a name rejected as too indefinite and unconvincing. Then we wanted its name to be La Canaille [the mob, the vulgar rabble; also: rogue, rascal]: regrettably that, too, was rejected as being too inflammatory and too convincing [...] We know nothing else except that the thematic plan of New Babylon definitely means that [it] is in the "historical-revolutionary" genre. But we can't talk about this theme nor about the message of the film, even if it were possible[...] We are surprised at the late realisation of something unnoticed at the time of release of The Cloak or that of S.V.D. Our film would have been like neither of these, but at first our faces were found to be a little too alarming to interested viewers. Therefore we have no time to write or speak -- rushing to assemble the film because we thirst to know and want to see the 7 reels of the film New Babylon. [Act 7 of the film is reproduced in the same issue of Sovetskii Ekran.]

These virtually uncoded lines suggest that the authors, being under constraint, wished to urge a special alertness among viewers with respect to their film, and that the particular point at issue involved both "outside interference" and a hidden agenda in the work itself. Marek Pytel, whose family is Polish and who thus has Aesopian blood in his veins, is convinced of such a hidden agenda, partly on the basis of pure instinct but also on the rational grounds that Formalist theory (as imported into FEKS by the writer and critic Yuri Tynianov, scenarist for The Cloak and S.V.D.) indicates not only consistent use of double meaning but also historical double-images, i.e., using one historical event as an analogy for another recent or contemporary one (as Lev Lebedinsky, among others, claimed of 1956 in respect of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905). Pytel: "I have always thought that New Babylon carries a strong subtext about contemporary Soviet society, viz., the First World War, the mutiny of the Russian troops, the revolution, etc." (Another possible candidate would be the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921, which, as a barometer of anti-Bolshevik unrest throughout the country following the Civil War, prompted Lenin to decree the New Economic Policy as a palliative to allow the national economy to recover and let off some social steam.) What we can be fairly sure of is that, when Kozintsev and Trauberg write "We know nothing else except that the thematic plan of New Babylon definitely means that [it] is in the 'historical-revolutionary' genre", they mean that their film is definitely NOT merely "historical" but also contemporary.

There is little evidence of such seditious intent in the filmic side of New Babylon as it survives in the twice-cut European Export Edit. The character of the Journalist, played by Sergei Gerassimov, is made up to resemble a young Lenin (cf. Gerassimov as Medox from S.V.D on Pytel, p.83). His visible shock at the failure of the Commune, of which he is represented as the rather smug ideological convener, might perhaps be construed as subversive. Some other facets of the film are likewise open to speculative interpretation. The main visual impression, though, is melodramatically propagandist.

The only aspect of New Babylon which systematically casts doubt on the surface impression of the film is Shostakovich's music. How far Pytel's synchronisation of music and image is dependable is unclear. The full-length film, approximated by the German Export Edit, runs about 20 minutes longer than the European Export Edit used by him for his experimental reconstruction (made in Abbey Road, 1981). He has detailed cue notes and is satisfied that the structural relationships of music and image in this video are "fairly accurate". (On the other hand, he has also made a video rough-cut reconstruction of the full length film, assembling frames from the European, German, and Gosfilmofond versions and using music from the 1985 BBC broadcast: "Basically it fits like a hand and glove.")

Without a definitive full-length synchronisation it's hard to make secure inferences about Shostakovich's intent in respect of specific juxtapositions. His stipulations about projection speeds (quoted and explained by Pytel) indicate that he was concerned to preserve his synchronisation structure in some detail, especially at key transitions. As for the theory behind his image/music juxtapositions, he (defensively?) explained some of his intentions in Sovetskii Ekran in March 1929:

In composing the music for Babylon, I was led least of all by the principle of obligatory illustration of each shot. Essentially I started from the principal shot in each sequence. For example: at the end of the second reel. The principal movement is the attack on Paris by the German cavalry. A deserted restaurant closes this section. A deep silence. But, despite the absence of the German cavalry on the screen, the music of the cavalry persists, reminding the viewer of the terrible force that has been unleashed.

It is the same with the music for the seventh act, when the soldier stumbles into a restaurant full of bourgeois in the throes of hilarity after the Commune has been crushed. The music, despite the gaiety which reigns over the restaurant, takes on the sombre sentiments of the soldier who is searching for his sweetheart, condemned to death.

I also constructed a great deal on the principal of contrasts. For example, the soldier who meets his love on the barricades is filled with despair. The music becomes more and more cheerful and is finally resolved in a giddy and "obscene" waltz reflecting the Versaillais army victory over the Communards. An interesting process is used in the opening of the fourth reel. While rehearsals for an operetta are being shown, the music performs variations on a well-known "galop" which takes on different nuances in relation to the action. Sometimes a gay mood, sometimes bored, sometimes terrifying.

Shostakovich's technique of juxtaposition contradicted the approach he'd been obliged to use during his years as a cinema accompanist, where his (improvised) music was expected to complement, if not further "illustrate", the images. As such, he may have brought his own disruptive ideas to the commission for New Babylon. Yet the FEKS team seems to have conceived this novel approach before Shostakovich became involved. Reflecting, under conditions of constraint in Russia in 1966, Kozintsev spoke as follows:

Our ideas coincided. In those years, film music was used to strengthen the emotions of reality or, to use the current terminology, to illustrate the frame. We immediately came to an agreement with the composer that the music would be linked to the inner meaning and not to the external action, that it should develop by cutting across events, and as the antithesis of the mood of a specific scene. Our general principle was not to illustrate, and not to complement or coincide on this point.

The most extreme instance of "antithetical" synchronisation (and one of the few such juxtapositions of which we can be certain) occurs in the ostensibly tragic final scenes where The Soldier digs his lover's grave and the Communards die by firing-squad in a gloomy downpour of rain. This is set to a mutation of Offenbach's can-can, segueing into the burlesque circus march with which the score commences. The contrast here is too violently confrontational to have been missed by New Babylon's audiences. Even if Left activists had not objected to the "personalisation" of the film's subject-matter (the individual love story of Jean and Louise, as they were called in the first draft), they could scarcely have avoided being outraged by the image/music juxtapositions of the finale. Indeed, this contrast remains shocking today and it is no surprise that proletarian and Komsomol voices were soon accusing FEKS and Shostakovich of "jeering at the heroic pages of revolutionary history and the French proletariat". To the Left of the time, this apparently brazen insult to canonical revolutionary principles must have been highly offensive. It's less puzzling that KIM should have attacked the film than that its makers managed to survive the ensuing furore at all.

What was KIM and why did it adopt the "vanguard" role in attacking New Babylon? The Communist Youth International (KIM) was one of a cluster of organisations affiliated with Comintern in Moscow. (Others included the Trade Union International, the Peasant International, the International Labour Relief Committee, and so forth). Comintern itself was founded by Lenin in March 1919 to sideline his rivals ("social traitors") in the Second International, its job being to fund and coordinate the activities of communist and socialist parties abroad. Until 1926, Comintern represented the core of Bolshevik internationalism. In 1925, however, Stalin had staked his political future on the policy of Socialism in One Country (simultaneously calculated to save resources for building up the USSR and to give him a platform from which to oust his main "internationalist" enemies: Trotsky and the head of Comintern, Zinoviev). Bukharin replaced Zinoviev as head of Comintern in 1926 but, under Stalin's orders, the organisation was already being penetrated by the OGPU. In 1928, Stalin ordained a shift in Comintern policy from so-called "united front" internationalism to one of polarised isolation. Foreign social democratic parties were denounced as "social fascists" and, under Mikhail Moskvin (Meer Trilisser), Comintern's role switched to subversion of all foreign parties not under OGPU control. (Stalin meanwhile steadily purged Comintern of Old Bolshevik intellectuals until finally terminating it in 1943.)

KIM's function was to organise and control communist youth associations abroad. Little has been written about KIM and we can only speculate as to how it came to be used to denounce New Babylon. Given that Comintern and its affiliates were being purged and brought under Stalin's control in 1928, the year in which New Babylon was being shot abroad, KIM's interest in the film can hardly have been coincidental. Since foreign communist youth organisations were prime targets for Soviet propaganda cinema, KIM very probably shared some responsibility for vetting new films. Conceivably, a few KIM delegates sat on the Moscow film censorship board; equally conceivably, since cinema was very much a young person's medium (Trauberg was 20 and Kozintsev 17 at the time of the FEKS manifesto), KIM's Komsomol activists might have been deputed to keep a special watch on Soviet cinema in general. Under Stalin's internal reform of Comintern during 1928-9 (and in view of the strictures on the cinema industry laid down at the Party conference on film in March 1928), KIM's spying eyes would have been especially sharp and censorious.

As for how the German Export Edit of New Babylon, with its extra twenty minutes of pre-censorship footage, managed to get out of Russia in late 1928, that, too, would probably have been via a sub-operation of Comintern. KIM may have been involved (they would not, then, have heard Shostakovich's score in conjunction with the film); but a likelier route was the export side of Mezhropohmfilm Russ, the Comintern-controlled Moscow film company which distributed the work of Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, and Aleksandr Dovzhenko. This company was part of the network run by Willi Münzenberg, a Comintern agent who, from Berlin, organised the clandestine operations to recruit Western Leftist intellectuals ("fellow travellers"). Prometheus Films, the German distribution company for Soviet films, was also Münzenberg-owned -- the channel through which Eisenstein's films were exported to the West or sent to leftwing student groups (i.e., it was linked to KIM). Trauberg's brother Ilya, himself a director, happened to work for UFA in Berlin, where the creators of New Babylon stopped off on their way to Paris, ostensibly to see Pudovkin's The End of St Petersburg. UFA's studio, courtesy of cash-injections by Paramount and MGM, was very well-equipped and advanced in the coming development of soundtracks. Marek Pytel thinks the idea of an orchestral score for New Babylon may have sprung from what Kozintsev and Trauberg saw at UFA: that their final intention was to record their envisaged score to soundtrack. (Ilya Trauberg was then shooting Blue Express with a score by Honegger. He subsequently made a disc-soundtrack version with music by Willi Münzenberg's in-house composer Edmund Meisel.)

So much, then, for the KIM connection -- except to add that there is a possibility that Volkov misheard Shostakovich, who might actually have been referring to KEM (Experimental Cinema Workshop), a censorious left-wing production collective organised in Leningrad in 1924 by the feared GPU officer turned film director Fridrikh Ermler. But what was the image/music juxtaposition technique, which so annoyed KIM (or KEM), originally intended to convey? The fact that Kozintsev and Trauberg found that their ideas "coincided" with those of Shostakovich presumably means that it wasn't a matter of mere anarchic irresponsibility or misjudgement on the part of the 23-year-old composer. They agreed together what was required and Shostakovich gave them what they wanted. There must therefore have been a conceptual basis for the choice. Was this concept purely aesthetic or in some way political?

The nearest thing to pure aesthetics in 1920s Russia was the Formalist literary school, centred on the theoretical writings of Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Yuri Tynianov. Tynianov was head of scenarios for FEKS during 1926-7, scripting The Cloak and co-scripting S.V.D with Yuri Oksman. Of the first of these, Dmitry Shlapentokh and Vladimir Shlapentokh write:

Another excellent example of a movie brimming with hints of the oppressive nature of the Soviet regime. The very fact that well-known writer Iurii Tynianov wrote the script demonstrated that the movie had an oppositional political viewpoint. Tynianov's dislike of the regime was well known. His writings often dealt with the era of Nicholas I -- an era characterised by bureaucratisation, regimentation, and brutal repression. During this time, not only was real political protest suppressed but even the most innocent deviation from the prescribed way of thinking was enough to invite disaster.

These characteristics of the reign of Nicholas I were also prevalent during the NEP period. Like the tsarist regime, this was a time of intense bureaucratisation of Soviet life. Additionally, as in Nicholas's time, the Soviet government allowed a certain degree of freedom for those engaged in purely economic activity. On the other hand, it was suspicious of intellectuals, especially freethinking writers. Given its parallels with the Soviet NEP period, the reign of Nicholas I provided excellent allegorical material. It was also open to attack because the period was officially designated as having been reactionary...

The use of Gogol's theme was additional protection for Tynianov and the movie's directors against criticism for portraying the life of a clerk, who was a petty bourgeois and deserved neither attention nor sympathy. In the film, the clerk was formerly a part of the state bureaucratic machinery but had become alienated from it and victimized by it. The leviathan confronting the clerk not only represented the bureaucratic machinery itself, but, together with all aspects of life in the city, represented a cruel and repressive regime. The entire movie was infused with an air of irrationality that emphasised the omnipresent bureaucratic regime as poisoning society. From this perspective, the movie followed the familiar anti-Bolshevik theme of the revolutionary period that viewed the Bolshevik victory as the ultimate victory of the forces of evil.

The director[s] took a very fatalistic approach, implying that any attempt to change the existing order was doomed and would ultimately result in the subjugation of the individual and the creation of an all-embracing bureaucracy. To compound this pessimistic view, the film also implied that any attempt by the individual to absorb him- or herself in private life, or seek solace in family ties, was also doomed to failure. It is clear that the director[s] saw no hope for humanity. [Soviet Cinematography 1918-1991: ideological conflict and social reality (Aldine de Gruyter, NY, 1993), pp. 65-7.]

Tynianov left FEKS before New Babylon was originated, becoming head of the cinema department of the Institute of the History of Arts in Leningrad. Marek Pytel sees elements of Tynianov's Formalist ideas in his two FEKS scenarios and identifies similar structural concepts (e.g., mirror-symmetry of "acts") in the mostly uncut German Export Edit of New Babylon. Could the shock effect of the musical mirror-symmetry at the beginning and end of the film have resulted from blindly following Tynianov's ideas? This is unlikely -- if only because, while Formalism might seem purely aesthetic to Western readers, in Soviet Russia its principles of "defamiliarisation" (Shklovsky) and multiple voices or "heteroglossia" (Bakhtin) were innately opposed to monopolistic ideology and certainly against totalitarianism.

Formalism inescapably stood in a political relationship with Bolshevik rule. The Jakobson-Tynianov theses of 1928, now important to postmodern literary theorists, were drawn up by Roman Jakobson and Yuri Tynianov partly in defence of a movement which was about to be proscribed under the Cultural Revolution. There is, then, no chance that FEKS and Shostakovich could have followed Tynianov's precepts in New Babylon without an awareness of their political consequences. Shostakovich, according to Volkov (St Petersburg, p. 389), read Tynianov "avidly", importing aspects of the critic's work on Gogol into his treatment of The Nose (and later, perhaps, becoming aware of the poet Kiukhelbeker through Tynianov's Kiukhlia: The Tale Of A Decembrist). Likewise, Ivan Sollertinsky, a friend of Bakhtin, introduced Shostakovich to the critic's Problems of Dostoyevsky and drew his attention to the presence, in The Nose, of Bakhtin's "carnival" principle. During the late 1920s, Formalism flourished in Leningrad's underground intellectual circles, including those of the individualist ethos -- and Shostakovich and FEKS were part of this.

The question arises: how could people as intelligent as Kozintsev, Trauberg, and Shostakovich -- with their often even more brilliant colleagues among the Leningrad arts intelligentsia looking, as it were, over their shoulders -- possibly have been serious about the propaganda aspect of New Babylon? That the proletarianisation of Soviet culture had commenced early in 1928 could not have been lost on such astute minds. It was clear by late March of that year, with the Party conference on film, that things were on the turn. In Moscow, the proletarian Oktyabr Group, which included the film directors Sergei Eisenstein and Esfir Shub, issued its manifesto in the March issue of Sovremennaya arkhitektura:

[The purpose of Oktyabr] is to unite the most advanced production-artists [sic] in the fields of architecture, industrial art, film-making, photography, painting, graphics, and sculpture, who wish to devote their creative efforts to the concrete demands of the proletariat in the work of ideological propaganda, and in the production and shaping of the collectivist way.

The Oktyabr Manifesto went on to castigate individualism as mere bourgeois aesthetic elitism which "canonises the old way of life and saps the energy and depresses the will of the culturally under-developed proletariat". There were, among Russia's artistic avant-garde, more than a few who vaguely incorporated what they understood to be "Marxism" into their work and tried, if only for a while, to work with the Soviet bureaucracy (rather than, surreptitiously, against it, as those of both the progressive and retrogressive individualist type did). But appearances could be as deceptive as the times were, to some, confusing. Many who signed proletarian-collectivist declarations (and even, like Shostakovich with TRAM, worked for organisations that operated within the proletarian ethos) were ambivalent or even frankly cynical about ideology in art.

Eisenstein's anecdote concerning the vicissitudes of FEKS's Commune scenario shows that he was one such. Another, Adrian Piotrovsky, who worked with both FEKS (the scenario for The Devil's Wheel) and TRAM (the Agitprop play Rule Britannia! with music by Shostakovich), was equally hard to pin down. A leading classical scholar, he nevertheless put himself at the service of the Bolshevik arts bureaucracy in 1920, deploring petty entrepreneurialism and middlebrow taste (he was himself a highbrow) and issuing the slogan "Let the theatres be empty, let the philistines stay at home!". This was not far from the FEKS manifesto of 1922 (except that, being young and disposed to annoy aesthetes by embracing popular vulgarity, the FEKSy welcomed the culture of the café chantant which offended men of Piotrovsky's cultivated background). Seeking to imbue the new revolutionary culture with the Ancient Greek democratic spirit, Piotrovsky must have sensed defeat when Stalin took over. In the turnaround month of March 1928, he commented in Zhizn' iskusstva on the "proletarian" edit of Eisenstein's October (already cut before screening on Stalin's orders):

There can only be one conclusion. Work on October cannot be considered finished. We have a second version of the film on our screens now. It differs greatly from the first version, which was shown during the 10th anniversary celebrations. And this is both good and bad. Now we have a right to ask for and expect yet another version of October or, more correctly, several new versions.

Given that Piotrovsky prostrated his sophistication before the promise of the revolution (or at least his vision of its promise), is not the absurdity of this statement of an order jarringly incommensurate with a man of his intelligence? Within the imperium of the Communist world (Absurdistan, as it was referred to by certain of its inhabitants), absurdity was at once a naturally occurring phenomenon and a subject for the deliberately contrived artifice of irony. We have a choice: either Piotrovsky was, in phases, an idiot; or, on occasion, he was sufficiently intelligent to be able to mimic idiocy for special effect. (There is a third possibility, of course: that he was mad. With tragic irony, he does seem to have gone mad in prison soon after his arrest in 1938.)

The totalitarian environment offers a heightened version of the philosophical proposition that one can never really know who anyone else is -- and our dilemma in the case of Piotrovsky is typical in this respect. Probability, based on context, is all that removes such dilemmas from pure abstraction. In this case, the fact of Piotrovsky's high intellectual gifts, taken together with the ambiguity of his manoeuvring between a company like FEKS and a company like TRAM, suggest that the absurdity of his request for endless multiple "remixes" of Eisenstein's October was quite deliberately calculated. Far from obvious to all who read it, the Aesopian absurdity of Piotrovsky's statement would have had a ready alibi: the fact that contemporary proletarian arts ideology advocated "endless revolution", a notion which, in an aesthetic rather than a political sense, was also part of Formalist theory. (Piotrovsky also had links with Formalism.) If challenged, depending on the company, he would have a perfect defence.

Such straightfaced absurdism was absolutely integral to what, in Soviet Russia, was called Aesopian discourse and which, as such, has often been referred to as form of yurodstvo. (Cf. Shostakovich's notorious observations on the length and yet also the shortness of certain aspects of his Tenth Symphony.) Often Western critics take this sort of thing at face-value, accepting deliberately ridiculous statements under political constraint as representative of the real views of those who made them. (In a nutshell, it is this problem which bedevils so much Western would-be evaluation of Shostakovich.) Yet we only have to delve a little into the details of individualist intellectual life in Russia to see that the people making such seemingly ridiculous or self-contradictory statements were often highly intelligent. Take Yuri Tynianov, a man among whose "anti-Bolshevik allusions" is the satirical story Lieutenant Kije and whose various books, according to Nikolai Chukovsky, "appeared every few years [and] were read by the intelligentsia eagerly and anxiously" (Volkov, op. cit., pp. 387-8). Is this a man -- close to FEKS and respected by the young Shostakovich -- who could have fallen for propagandistic art as operatically exaggerated as that of New Babylon? And are Kozintsev and Trauberg -- the authors of the barely encoded announcement reproduced above from the December 1928 issue of Sovetskii Ekran -- any more likely to have done so? As for Shostakovich, he was the composer of an opera which Leningrad Formalists had welcomed, in terms of its aesthetics, as one of their own.

Contextual knowledge, even of this provisional sort, together with reasonable deduction, leads us inexorably to the logical conclusion that either there is more to the filmic aspect of New Babylon than meets the eye, or that its raw propagandism was largely forced upon FEKS by a proletarian intervention (or a visit by the GPU) during the same month, March 1928, which produced the Party conference on film, the Oktyabr manifesto, and the ambiguous utterance of Piotrovsky concerning the infinite editability of Eisenstein's October. Since neither Kozintsev nor Trauberg ever left Russia, it is hardly surprising that they were reluctant, after 1928-9, to say anything about New Babylon which might have indicated other explanations for its metamorphoses. In 1928, Trauberg's wife was pregnant with their daughter Natalya (now known for her Russian translations of P. G. Wodehouse); as a family man, he had no choice but to knuckle under. Later, of course, he suffered during the anti-Semitic campaign of 1948-53 -- in itself enough to explain his evasive pronouncements of later years (e.g., the "Ghent Statement", reproduced as Afterword II in Pytel's book, where Trauberg sticks firmly to the line that the extra footage in the German version is illegitimate).

Self-published, Marek Pytel's book is not perfect, lacking the supervising hand of an editor, the long-stop of a proof-reader, and, most vital, an index. Technical glitches aside, this book is visually elegant (courtesy of Clifford Harper's design) and is valuable in itself for the way it opens up cultural areas so far little addressed (and there's plenty more to come). It's also valuable to students of Shostakovich in drawing attention to the deeper surroundings of New Babylon, and the effects which understanding this background may have upon our grasp of the work itself. One may not agree with Pytel's estimate of New Babylon as "a leading example of libertarian art rarely seen in any media let alone in national state cinema", but one is left deprived of the superficial response of dismissing his claim outright by the fact that his work discloses, in passing, that perhaps nine-tenths of the Shostakovich story is yet to be revealed. (Pytel, for example, is one of the few people outside the 1930s USSR to have seen Alone, Shostakovich's next film with post-FEKS Kozintsev and Trauberg. He reports its opening reels as satirising the nascent Socialist Realist aesthetic.)

There remains the question of what Shostakovich, together with Kozintsev and Trauberg, intended to effect with his score for New Babylon. It is, for example, a fair assumption that he would have been aware of the wider politico-cultural hiatus of March 1928 and of its effects on the New Babylon project in particular. (For the First All-Union Party Conference on Cinema, see Richard Taylor, The Politics of the Soviet Cinema 1917-1929, [publ. 1979]; Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 [publ. 1988].)

Returning, finally, to Laurel Fay, I hope I've shown why it's so extraordinary that, during twenty years of access to primary Soviet research material, she has never bothered to look into why KIM chose to attack New Babylon, let alone to investigate the wider culture and politics of the mid-1920s or to probe the intellectual company Shostakovich kept during that time. Instead, she has chosen to pursue her conviction (in the face of personal testimonies to the contrary from those who knew him) that Shostakovich was a communist throughout this period. In her essay "Shostakovich as Man and Myth" (in the booklet for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts of June 1999), Fay declares that "there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Shostakovich's political or aesthetic convictions [in 1927-36]. He was not an elitist composer. He was a patriot with a deep commitment to his people and culture[...] endeavouring to create a progressive new art necessary and appropriate to the new socialist reality." (The elementary mistake of confusing patriotism with Soviet orthodoxy is astonishing in 1999.) Fay goes on: "That art did not exclude overt propaganda; for the climaxes of his Second and Third symphonies, Shostakovich used a chorus to deliver stirring idealistic texts."

It is Laurel Fay's prerogative to ignore whatever documentary material she wishes. It is ours to judge her conclusions accordingly. Take, for instance, her assertion that, in his Second Symphony (1927), Shostakovich, out of "sincere political convictions", used the "overtly propagandistic" verse of Alexander Bezymensky in the service of "a progressive new art necessary and appropriate to the new socialist reality". How can this be squared with Shostakovich's admission, in his contemporary letters to Tatyana Glivenko, that he wrote the Symphony in haste, became "tired of occupying [him]self" with it, and thought Bezymensky's (supposedly "stirring, idealistic") poem so "abominable" that he feared he'd be unable to set it? We are further entitled to enquire how Fay reconciles her claim with the fact that Glivenko told Elizabeth Wilson in 1989 that Shostakovich had considered Bezymensky's propaganda verses "quite disgusting", and that Nikolai Malko, who conducted the premiere, recalled that "Shostakovich did not like [Bezymensky's verses] and simply laughed at them; his setting did not take them seriously, and showed no enthusiasm whatever". Where is the stirring, idealistic political sincerity of which Fay speaks? (And why does she talk in Communist jargon: "a progressive new art necessary and appropriate to the new socialist reality"?)

As those who've studied the unfolding of the documentary record on Shostakovich during the 1990s will be aware, the case of the propaganda poem in his Second Symphony is merely part of an extensive sequence of evidence which indicates a conclusion about his "political" beliefs quite contrary to Fay's assumption. Indeed, Elizabeth Wilson comes to precisely that contrary conclusion in her narrative for Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, where Shostakovich is shown as evading or skimping his musico-political responsibilities wherever he could. Why, then -- aside from her decision to ignore (i.e., not even try to explain away) testimony in conflict with her prejudice -- does Fay reach a conclusion about Shostakovich's beliefs in 1927-36 diametrically opposed to that of her "close friend" Wilson (DSCH Journal 9, p.49)? I would suggest that it's because she lacks the deeper understanding of the background to this period which would lead her to -- at the very least -- lend some consideration to the aforementioned contrary evidence which Wilson has fully accepted. The example of New Babylon is merely one indication of the lack of depth in Fay's approach.

--Ian MacDonald

NB. I wish to clarify my statement, made in my second post on New Babylon, that Marek Pytel met Leonid Trauberg "on several occasions". The preface to his book states that he and Trauberg began a "brief" correspondence in 1977 and met "for a few hours" in 1983. In fact, these few hours took the form of three separate encounters spread throughout one week, during which Trauberg called him a "friend" and, referring to Pytel's manuscript thesis on FEKS of 1978, told him, "if anyone asks you about it, tell them Trauberg has seen it and gives it his full authorisation".

(Also on-line: the 1922 FEKS manifesto and a site devoted to the Commune.)

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