The New Babylon (1929)

I do not know if it was raining in Paris on the night of May 28th, 1871.

In the New Babylon, Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev has so convincingly staged the mass executions that took place at the Mur des Fédérés in Père Lachaise Cemetery on the final day of the Paris Commune that I will never imagine it any other way. Kozintsev, who would go on to make a film version of Hamlet that critic Dennis Grunes rates above Lawrence Olivier’s, is almost completely unknown in the United States. Yet, at least as far as his black and white cinematography goes, he ranks right up there with Eisenstein, Kurosawa, and John Ford.

The New Babylon is available in full on Youtube.

While it’s natural to compare The New Babylon with La Commune (1871), the only other major film made about the Paris Commune, it’s comparing apples and oranges. They are very different films that try to do very different things. La Commune (1871) is a very long, very rough, improvisational stage play, videotaped and edited down to 6 hours for French TV. The New Babylon is a traditional melodrama, filmed in 1929, and could be said, along with William Wellman’s Wings (1927), to represent the culmination of the art of silent film. The New Babylon is the first film to feature an original score from Dmitri Shostakovich, who would go on to write the music for Kozintsev’s Hamlet and King Lear. The film also, like Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part II, also fell afoul of the Soviet government. The censors removed several key scenes. They threw the music and the narrative out of sync, and ended up trashing Shostakovich’s magnificent score altogether. It was restored in the 1980s.

The Soviet censors in 1929 accused The New Babylon of being an anti-war and not a communist film. It’s both. How the they came up with the idea that an anti-war and a communist film were mutually exclusive will remain a mystery, at least until someone with a better knowledge of Russian than me comes along and explains it. Let’s just say that Russians, like Americans, often neglect great artists like Kozintsev, Orson Welles, Jon Jost, and Mark Rappaport.

The film’s heroine is a shop assistant who works at a great Parisian department store, called, appropriately enough, The New Babylon. The shop assistant, played by Russian actress Yelena Kuzmina, spends most of her time shuffling between her lazy, alcoholic employer, and the public, well-off bourgeois women who mob The New Babylon every time there’s a sale on the latest fashions. If you think people getting trampled to death on Black Fridays at Walmart is anything new, you haven’t seen The New Babylon. Dennis Grunes, an admirer of Kozintsev’s films, thinks the use of the shop assistant to frame the story of The Paris Commune is the film’s weakest point. I disagree. Not only does Yelena Kuzmina have a physical nobility that members of the working-class rarely have in American movies — The Okies in John Ford’s great film Grapes of Wrath are sympathetic but certainly not beautiful — her job at The New Babylon lets Kozintsev set the stage for the Paris Commune with a narrative economy Peter Watkins could only dream about. Paris, in 1871, was the Detroit of the fashion industry, a big part of the French working-class being made up of miserably poor women worked as seamstresses, or prostitutes when times got tough, when they’re wasn’t enough piece work, and they had to pawn their sewing machines.

We meet the hero of The New Babylon when France declares war on Prussia in the Spring of 1870. While it’s possible that Jean, a regular army soldier Pyotr Sobolevsky is what got Kozintsev into trouble with the censors — He’s a war weary private, a character more out of the First World War than the Paris Commune — his role in the film is to provide a bridge between the Parisian working-class represented by the shop assistant, and the kind of rural, small town Catholics who made up the bulk of the conservative troops who marched on Belville and Montmartre during “Bloody Week.” The capitalist reaction, Kozintsev argues, tore France in half, the civil war of 1871 the means by which the French ruling class smashed the first genuine, proletarian revolution. The French, English, German, and American ruling classes would repeat the same performance in 1914, going to war rather than face a working-class revolution. Both France ad Germany had huge social democratic parties in 1914, and the United States and Britain had extensive networks of radicals, and well-developed labor movements.What’s more, the Paris Commune was doomed, largely because it was isolated to Paris, a radical city in a largely conservative, Catholic, rural France.

The decadent bourgeoisie in Paris drink, fuck, and make merry while soldiers like Jean are dying at the front. The news that Louis Napoleon had surrendered at Sedan, and that another French Army was trapped at Metz hits them like a thunderbolt. In spite of their losses in Mexico, they still thought French Army was invincible, certainly more than a match for the upstart Germans. Kozintsev dramatizes the siege of Paris as column after column of German Uhlans riding through the mist, an image so startling, even today, that I did a double take, rewound, and played it over again three times. It must have made people in 1929 shit their pants in sheer terror. While The New Babylon doesn’t dig into the radicalism of the Paris Commune to the extent that Peter Watkins does in La Commune (1871) he really didn’t have to. Everybody in Russia, or western Europe in 1929, knew that the Russian Revolution was the culmination of the process that started in Paris in 1871, something not so obvious in 2000.

Kozintsev portrays socialism as a doomed romance. The shop assistant finds Jean, a deserter, begging in the streets of Paris. She gives him food, and tries to push him back into the fight against Germany. He’s not interested. Later, after the Thiers government arranges an armistice with Bismarck, Jean goes back to Versailles with his regiment. The shop assistant joins the Commune, which Kozintsev portrays, much like Watkins, as a feminist, as much as a working-class revolution. Must more than Watkins, Kozintsev also portrays the rank and file soldiers in the Versailles army sympathetically. There’s none of the class hatred between the regular army soldier Jean and the working-class shop assistant that John Merriman would talk about in his book Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune. Jean is no Catholic, at least as far as we can see, and he’s no fanatical conservative. The shop assistant’s employer, on the other hand, taunts her about the suppression of the commune. “So,” he says. “You thought you could be the boss. I’m the boss.”

As Jean searches through the streets of Paris for the lost love, she’s led off to Père Lachaise, and hauled in front of a kangaroo court, where a leering officer twirls his mustache, accuses her of being a prostitute, and speculates about how much of a wild time she must have had during the Commune. Jean is press-ganged into a detail assigned to dig the graves of executed communards, including, as it will turn out, the shop assistant’s. If it sounds melodramatic, that’s because it is. Silent movies were all about melodrama, and The New Babylon is one of the greatest. The 24-year-old Kozintsev is already a master of black and white lighting, shadow, and dramatic camera angles. The rain against the cement, the shadows of the figures against the Mur des Fédérés, the light reflected off of Yelena Kuzmina as she contemplates her fate, knowing that he had no access to fast film or advanced digital technology, I’m almost at a loss to understand how he actually did it. As Jean digs her grave, the shop assistant starts laughing. In the face of certain death, she can still appreciate the irony of her fate. “We’ll meet again Jean,” she says.

Yes, we think, they will, in October of 1917, in St. Petersburg.

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