Thursday, October 13, 2011


Spanish Synagogue
October 11

The New Babylon: Inspired agitprop.

Who knew propaganda could be so entertaining? The Berg Orchestras performance of soundtracks to two silent films at the Spanish Synagogue earlier this week was not only a musical tour de force, but an enlightening excursion to the early years of Russian cinema.

After a brief stop in America. The program opened with a D.W. Griffith one-reeler, A Child of the Ghetto (1910), the heartwarming story of an impoverished young Jewish woman who manages to escape the pitfalls of New York’s Lower East Side and find a new life and love on a farm. It’s stereotypical silent fare, notable chiefly for Griffith’s evocation of the teeming streets of the ghetto, jammed with peddlers and immigrants.

A new soundtrack by Czech composer Jan Dušek got off to a promising start, with light woodwinds that offered a hopeful counterpoint to the grim ghetto scenes. But as the movie grew more melodramatic, so did the music, which sounded positively cheesy by the end. Still, it was a perfect match for the film, mirroring the heroine’s travails and redemption in the New World.

The New Babylon (1929) is an unabashed piece of Russian agitprop, drawing on the novels of Emile Zola to recount the rise and fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. The title refers to the central metaphor of the film, a department store where the frenzy of consumption makes today’s credit debacle seem tame. But even that pales beside the debauchery of the bourgeoisie prior to the Prussian siege of Paris, where a wild-eyed, delirious bunch in tuxedos and evening gowns sate every appetite while the world crumbles around them.

But on a purely artistic level, the film is dazzling. Jewish Ukrainian directors Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozincev show influences ranging from Griffith to Dada in their riveting images of a clockwork consumer culture, invading armies, decadent behavior and human anguish. Typical of the period, most of the acting is overwrought. Yet much of it is cleverly staged, with full-lit figures emoting in the foreground while epic action unfolds behind them, in silhouettes and shadows and a haze of movement that looks like rear projection. The juxtaposition of sweeping historical forces and personal tragedy is as good as anything from the silent era.

This is due in no small part to the score, written by 23-year old Dmitri Shostakovich. In excerpts from an essay thoughtfully included in the program, he noted that most composers regard soundtrack work as “a swamp that threatens to submerge anyone coming in contact with it, annihilating their talent.” Shostakovich never felt that way. He gladly took on what he called “cinematic illustration” early in his career, and returned to it when Soviet censors shut down his serious work; he even scored cartoons.

His music for The New Babylon is like a continuous symphonic work, establishing themes and then developing them over the course of scenes and sequences. Rather than trying to match the action onscreen, Shostakovich creates a rhythm, melody or mood and then stays with it, often as a counterpoint. An ominous march accompanying the invading German army, for example, continues even as the scene switches to a nearly deserted nightclub – “reminding the viewer of the terrible force that has been unleashed,” as the composer says in his essay.

And quite uncharacteristic of his later music, there are wonderful touches of humor. Shostakovich incorporates snatches of popular music of the time – waltzes, cancans, bits of Offenbach operettas – and makes very effective use of La Marseillaise.

The Berg ensemble pulled all this off with panache, playing with controlled bursts of emotion and exquisite timing. A shot of hands playing the piano in The New Babylon matched perfectly the keyboard sound from the orchestra. If you were sitting in the back of the room, where the orchestra was out of sight, it was easy to forget they were there – the best compliment an ensemble can get for live film accompaniment.

Next month, the Berg Orchestra will reprise its performance of Heiner Goebbels’ Schwarz auf Weiss at Veletržní palác (Nov. 25, 26 & 27). If you haven’t seen it, put it on your calendar. Like the silents, it’s a rare and entertaining event.

For more on Schwarz auf Weiss:

For a closer look at The New Babylon:

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