For much of its history, New Babylon has been a forgotten film.
It was the last production of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s
“Factory of the Eccentric Actor”, and due to a disastrous premiere
it was also their first major box office failure.
Dismissed as “Formalist” even by its own directors, for many years
the film was known abroad only through its shortest version - a
European and USA export edit of approx 1900 metres - without Shostakovich’s
score which hitherto had never been recorded. It was only in 1975,
shortly after the composer’s death, that the Gosfilmofond archive
in Moscow released a more complete print of 2,070 metres, with original
titles, and it was this version which has subsequently been presented
across the world with live orchestras performing the original score
that Shostakovich composed for it.
However, recent research has highlighted more problems in restoring
the film to its original form and synchronisation, notably due to
the aforementioned re-cut ordered by the Moscow Sovkino film production
factory head office. Hence, up to now, the only accurate performances
the film ever received were those in which the composer himself
played his piano score, accompanying the film at two preview screenings.
In all, at the last minute, 510 metres of the original 2,580 metres
of film were discarded, equating to 178 shots out of the original
1,349. In total 24% was cut from Act 1; 22% from Act 2; 36% was
cut from Act 3; 15% of Act 4 was cut; 7% was cut from Act 5 and
13% was cut from Act 8. Many shots were also moved within the film.
Attempts were made to re-edit the music to match, but were unsuccessful.
A widely reported comment in the visitor’s book at one cinema accused
the conductor “of being drunk tonight”.
The musicians responded by claiming that Shostakovich knew nothing
about music, the composer and his friends (such as Sollertinsky,
who had been asked by Shostakovich to support the viability of the
hastily recut and unfinished score in the open debate that ensued)
countered that the orchestra deliberately played badly so as to
sabotage the score because they were not receiving arrangement fees.
The music as a result was abandoned, the film was accompanied by
stock tunes – exactly the sort of thing the original score had been
commissioned to prevent - and the original innovative score lay
“lost” for over fifty years.
The full size English language reconstruction of New Babylon has
been restored using digital transfers of material from two incomplete
One, 2,070 metres, widely available through the Gosfilmofond archives
in Moscow and generally assumed to be the complete film - distributed
in Europe for over twenty years by Contemporary Films London and
more recently available on DVD.
The second, a unique 35mm German language print of 2,050 metres
kindly made available by the Cinémathèque Suisse who, through a
stroke of remarkable good fortune rare in film history, had preserved
their highly inflammable nitrate copy of the complete film, including
nearly all the footage cut just three weeks before the film’s scheduled
premiere, and which had been exported from the USSR for German distribution
in early 1929, and retitled Der Kampf um Paris.
The restoration work involved the re-editing of these materials
into their original order using as reference all three surviving
re-edits of the film so as to synchronise more accurately with Shostakovich’s
film score. New full size English language inter-titles, translated
from the Russian and German of the originals, were designed in Berthold
Block font to match the visual tone of the original Cyrillic. There
also existed at least two versions of the score – neither of which
readily matched the Gosfilmofond or the Cinémathèque Suisse original
Lost permanently however, is the original ending to the film, for
which music was also written and some of which has survived, recently
published by DSCH Editions as “fragments” in an appendix to the
2004 complete score.
Fortunately, a script extract of this missing finale was published
in the December 1928 issue of the Soviet film journal Sovetskii
Ekran and enables us to understand how Kozintsev, Trauberg and Shostakovich
originally intended their film to finish. In this, far from the
conclusion featuring the habitual triumphant exhortation of ‘Vive
La Commune’ while the music plays elements of the ‘Internationale’,
the soldier Jean is finally and ironically humiliated for one final
time. The admonition: ‘You’ll Get Used To It’ whilst in the background
Shostakovich’s music collapses onto itself in a grotesque collage
of the themes and melodies he had used so tellingly in this masterpiece
of Russian silent and early sound cinema.