New Babylon in Performance

Dismissed as an error of “Formalist” youth by its own directors and composer, for many years “New Babylon” was known abroad only through its shortest version - a European and USA export edit of approx 1900 metres - without Shostakvich''s score, which despite hopes for possible synchronisation to Vitagraph disc in Berlin by the film’s German co-producers, had never been recorded. It was only in 1971, and to commemorate the centenary of the Paris Commune, that the Gosfilmofond archive in Moscow released an initial more completely restored print of 2100 metres with original titles and it was this version, as eventually released after censorship in 1929, which has subsequently been presented across the world with live orchestras performing Shostakovich's original score composed for it.

Recent research however has highlighted the problems of restoring the film to its original form and synchronisation while footage for which music was written remains absent. Only three weeks before “New Babylon’s” original premiere, and after Shostakovoch's music had been completed, the film was extensively re-cut by orders of the head office of the Moscow Sovkino film production factory - after it had been passed (the previous day) by the organisation's Leningrad office.

In what turned out to be the only accurate performances the film ever received, the composer himself played the solo piano score to the film at two preview screenings.

In all, at the last minute, almost 500 metres of the original 2600 metres of film were discarded: 178 shots out of the original 1349: In Total: 24% was cut from Reel 1. 22% from Reel 2. 36% cut from Reel 3, 15% of Reel 4 was re-cut. 7% cut from reel 5 and 13% cut from Reel 8. Many shots were also moved within the film. Attempts were made to re-edit the music to match but in the time available these 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 while the composer countered that the orchestra deliberately played badly to sabotage the score because they were not receiving arrangement fees. As a result the music was abandoned, the film was accompanied by stock tunes and the score lay “lost” for over for over fifty years.

The High Definition full size English language reconstruction of New Babylon has been restored using digital transfers of material from two incomplete prints: One, the 1971 restoration, 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.

The second, a unique 35mm German language print of 2050 metres kindly made available by the Cinematheque Suisse who, through a stroke of remarkable good fortune rare in film history, have preserved their highly inflammable nitrate copy of a ‘complete” print of the film containing film from before its re-edit. This includes nearly all the footage cut just three weeks before the film’s scheduled USSR premiere, exported to Germany for foreign distribution, retitled "Kampf um Paris". This was the first version of the film distributed and seen abroad in 1929.

The restoration work involved the re-editing of these materials into their original order and composition so as to synchronise more accurately with the film's scores. Of these there existed at least two orchestral versions - neither of which readily matched either the Gosfilmofond or the Cinematheque Suisse original incomplete prints. Now there is the newly discovered and fiercely avant-garde original published piano score: Opus 17.

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. Lost permanently however is the original ending to the film - for which music was also written and some of which has survived. Fortunately, a script extract of this missing finale was published in the December 1929 issue of the Soviet film journal Sovetskii Ekran and enables us to understand how Kozintsev, Trauberg and Shostakovich originally intended their astonishing avant garde, seditious and anti militarist film to finish.