Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source 35mm print
When the subject of Russian silent film arises, the name that comes instantly to the mind of most is Sergei Eisenstein. The magnificent films the iconoclastic director and theorist made during the silent era cast such a large and looming shadow that it is sometimes difficult to discern the significant contributions of others during the same era. Those who have done their homework might add the names Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, and Vertov to the discussion; those who keep up with silent film releases on DVD can add the name Evgenii Bauer, thanks to the release of three of his films on the format on both sides of the Atlantic; and aficionados of silent comedy might add Boris Barnet, whose films are currently undergoing a revival of exhibition. Rare, I would venture to guess, is the person who would think to contribute the names Grigori Kozinstev and Leonid Trauberg. Despite careers that spanned decades, working on and off as a collaborative duo — and despite having founded a school of avant garde theatrical practice (the Factory of the Eccentric Actor) that attempted to create the Russian equivalent of Futurism, Surrealism, or Dada — the two names (and the films they created) are almost entirely unknown today.
In a cinematic culture that seems to have to reduce the history of film in any given country to a handful of names and masterpieces (Renoir, Bresson, and the Nouvelle Vague in France; Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi in Japan; Fellini, Pasolini, and Neorealism in Italy), it is perhaps no surprise (yet still a terrible embarrassment) that a film as formally brilliant, beautifully shot, and deliriously inventive as Kozinstev and Trauberg’s The New Babylon should have fallen into obscurity. As dazzling as anything else created in the silent cinema in 1929 (and yes, I am including Sunrise in this audacious claim), The New Babylon will likely astound anyone whose knowledge of Soviet cinema is limited solely to Eisenstein.
An unashamedly socialist look at the aftereffects of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune of 1871 on the working class of France, the film lures the viewer in with the sympathetic tale of a shop girl who falls for a soldier shortly before he goes off to war. Once the French army is defeated and the Commune is formed (the film assumes a certain level of familiarity with these events), the shop girl (now a proud member of the Commune) and the soldier end up fighting, unbeknownst to each other, on opposite sides of the siege of Paris.
While the film is a rather unsurprising parable of revolutionary fervor and the tyrannical efforts of the bourgeoisie to suppress it, the visual style of the film is anything but conventional. While perhaps not quite as radical in form as the work of Eisenstein or Vertov, the two directors of the film, along with their gifted cast and crew, used the tools of cinema in a lively and invigorating fashion that still gets the blood flowing even today. Multiple storylines and locations are cut between with brisk fluidity; the camera is tossed, spun, raised lowered, and put in places you would never expect; the visual references to French painters of the fin-de-siècle come at a rapid pace and quite out of nowhere; and the performances of the cast are, as the school would have it, eccentric, yet never out of place or out of keeping with the tone of the picture. The film has all of the vigor and pure cinematic originality of Abel Gance’s Napoleon without all the pretensions to greatness shouldered by that film.
Though it would perhaps be expecting too much for Criterion or Kino to put this forgotten film out on DVD so that the commonly-held cultural history of Soviet film could be enriched, it is enough for me to have seen it once and to know that there are still unheralded treasures of cinema yet to be rediscovered by an eager and waiting audience.