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 prints:
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 incomplete prints.

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.

New Babylon - In Performance - Restoration - Mark Fitz-Gerald
Press - DVD and Book Set