Monday, 27 March 2017

The Communards… The New Babylon (1929), Sasha Grynyuk, LSO St Luke’s


Dmitri Shostakovich spent three years as a jobbing silent film accompanist prior to writing the music for this film, the directors asked if he could put something together in three weeks but he told them he could do it quicker with their help and the precocious pianist wasn’t to disappoint.

Shostakovich’s original score for this film was so perfectly synchronised with the rapid cutting that it proved all but impossible to perform after the Moscow Sovkino office ordered the removal of a fifth of the film. Directors Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg created state of the art cinema that featured extensive montage that suited the fleet fingers of the 23-year old composer but which was fatally out-of-step once trimmed to suit official tastes.

The New Babylon
This was a UK premier for the film and score as originally intended… a story of the Parisian revolt against the defeated Second Republic originally subtitled Assault on the Heavens: Episodes from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, 1870-71.

Shostakovich wrote about the scoring process saying that he was aiming to capture the tone of the film and not give a musical blow-by-blow account of the narrative. Informed by his day job he included multiple references, popular dances like the Can-Can a cluster of notes quickly morphed into the larger picture, a flavouring that doesn’t stay specific for long enough to distract from the tone on screen.

He also included emotional counterpoints and something like musical sarcasm as events turn against our heroes as they are ruthlessly supressed by their compatriots applauded by a bourgeoisie more concerned with their own deals than La Republic.

Drudgery above and below
It’s a masterclass in film composition and one that could only have been achieved by a practiced accompanist. So, even though we had the grand Steinway in the concert hall reverence of LSO St Luke’s, Ukrainian pianist Sasha Grynyuk was channelling music of the water-logged fleapits this film was originally shown in.

John Leman Riley, author of Shostakovich: A Life in Film introduced and described the run down premiers of The New Babylon in its original form. Ninety years later we got to see something like the original film with only the ending, explained with title cards, missing (what remains is still powerful) and with the score as originally envisaged. Everything comes to those who wait… eventually… sometimes.

Prussians advance
The war of 1870 marked the changing of the guard in Europe with the modern, industrialised army of Prussia cutting through the dated complacency of the French… or so my A-Level history essay might have gone. France lost and lost badly and in the ensuing power vacuum exploded a revolutionary alternative.

The Commune was brutally supressed but signalled huge changes in the political balance just as surely as the military balance had been shaken by the success of the new Prussian Army. Not surprisingly, it remained an inspiration for the Soviets… a reminder to all of the decadence that must inevitably give way to socialist progression. 1870-71: Twentieth Century Prelude, as my essay might have been entitled…

Amused to death, as Paris falls...
Kozintsev and Trauberg assumed a certain level of knowledge of these key events and don’t bother too much with the specifics: whether under siege form the Prussians or barricading themselves off from their own army, The Communards are the heroes throughout – likely to be oppressed and ground down unless they take this chance to fight for their rights. The struggle will be glorious and even as they face their own demise, they know that their endeavours will inspire others: more communes will come and the callous bosses of business, politics and war will eventually be defeated.

The action centres on a department store, The New Babylon, in which works a young woman Louise (Elena Kuzmina). She catches the eye of the shop’s owner (David Gutman) who has designs and invites her to a night out at the follies.

Trouble with the supervisor...
From the outset, the film is focused on visual expression more than narrative exposition and is in visual alignment with its composer’s approach to the score: there are some big dramatic moments but these come through in the midst of the film’s dazzling emotionalism, they do not drive the response per se.

The two directors also anchor the story on a strong cast of characters from the journalist Loutro (Sergei Gerasimov), the actress (Sofiya Magarill), milliner Teresa (Yanina Zhejmo), national guardsman (Eugene Chervyakov), communard (Oleg Zhakov) and others. The events whirl around them but it’s the close up response of these individuals that tells the tale.

Do the right thing...
At the centre is the relationship between Louise and an everyman soldier, Jean (Pyotr Sobolevsky). The restoration includes more detail of the romantic side of their liaison and yet it is politics that really passes between them. Louise refuses to be compromised by her boss and quits her job when his favouritism saves her from being laid off. But Jean goes with the flow even though you can see the absolute horror in his eyes from the outset.

Even Louise urgings cannot pull him away from defeated conformity. He has fought himself into the ground and has only strength enough only to just carry on; fear and depravation allow him only survival compliance whilst they drive Louise on.

As the Prussian victory is followed by the establishment of the Commune, Jean is one of the soldiers used to defeat the uprising and, in the end he is one of those clearing up the insurgents. At some point Jean will turn… just as surely as the revolution will eventually be complete.

Cobbles and mud: the tracks of a defeated army
The film has some stunning imagery from the whirl of the can-can to the rush of the cavalry, and the Commune defeated as the bourgeoisie safely picnic on some faraway hill applauding as they would in the theatre. The cinematography from Andrei Moskvin and Yevgeny Mikhailov captured the troops sunken in muddy retreat, the rage of betrayal and an emotional scale beyond most Western cinema of the time.

Their light re-projected through to the St Luke’s screen and Shostakovich’s quicksilver expression relayed through Sasha Grynyuk's playing: The New Babylon was a fresh, visceral experience full of original feeling and a sense of connection to revolutions past though still present.

Elena Kuzmina
Back to my A-Levels and I remember watching Kozintsev’s last film, King Lear (1971) taken not by our English teacher but our History teacher… of course.

The audience awaits at St Luke's

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The poet and the painter… Il Fuoco (1916), Lillian Henley and John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope




One of the great silent Italian divas and the return of the Bioscope Dream Team, Lillian Henley on voice and John Sweeney on keys, this was an evening to savour as we were lost in the infinite gaze of Pina Menichelli and the heat of dangerous passion.

If Borelli was the most expressive overall, Bertini the most naturalistic, then Menichelli is perhaps the most purely cinematic diva with a career born in front of the cameras not on stage and a face meant to be photographed. She’s got cheekbones to burn and commands the audience’s attention as easily as her lover, sneering a wide-angled smile that just radiates operatic haughtiness.

You think it’s funny back there in row five? Maybe it is and maybe she means it to be; this is Fifty Shades of Red in which the lead character knows the extent of her own caricature… nothing phony to see here just a mesmeric talent and a woman who knows how to wear an owl headdress. She is a joy to watch and moves as freely as she expresses: a moth that burns the very flames it's attracted to.

Pina Menichelli
Diva films put the woman at the centre of the story and not necessarily as a tragic adornment. In Il Fuoco (The Fire) it is the leading man, the painter Mario Alberti (Febo Mari) who is subject to the female will and who is not guaranteed a happy ending. Over in the US, Theda Bara was channelling Kipling’s very British idea of a femme fatale as the vamp in A Fool There Was but in Italian film, women were just that bit more sophisticated.

Yes, Pina may stalk her male prey with darting ornithological exaggeration but her little mouse is all too willing to play along as he paints a sunset and she sneaks up behind passing poetic comment as he struggles with his vision. Mario is stricken and yet when he returns to see her again the next evening at the same spot she rudely spurns his attentions before storming off.

Febo Mari
But the poet is merely toying with her prey and has left a note on a bulrush setting out the terms of their ensuing contest in which she will seek him out in his “nest” and he will try to take control of her… He tries ot prepare but she takes him by surprise, scorns him as a mother’s boy and then demonstrates the energy efficiencies of pure passion: he can either love in a mild way like his table oil lamp or be consumed like the flames that erupt when she smashes it.

Naturally he opts for the quick burn and the next thing we know its morning and as she slinks him away, arms and hands intertwined, he leaves a note for his mother: he has gone to find the way.


In the poet’s castle – yes, busting rhymes paid out as big then as now – the artist’s creativity  reaches new heights as he paints his love as she drapes herself on the nearest couch. It’s a passionate work and one that impresses the critics and public alike. Mario is a star of his lady’s making and his painting makes him rich.

But… you cannot dream without awaking can you?

Giovanni Pastrone directs with Caibirian dynamism and there is some gorgeous composition as well dreamy dolly shots as his camera moves around the action.


The film came with Italian titles translated by David Robinson and impeccably read by Lillian Henley accompanied by John Sweeney on piano. I loved what this duo did with TerjeVigen last year and they were no less impressive tonight. Lillian brought musical intonation to the reading, working hand in hand with her fellow pianist: only a silent film musician would know how to pace the words and only another could control their playing so well as to allow the reading to meld with their playing. All the words said and all the notes played in exactly the right order!

There were some huge, romantic chords from John – so much emotional on screen - and Lillian’s modulation was precise, filled with practiced emotional edge: the two were dueting and Pina made three. More please; this stuff should be on prescription!

We watched a superb 35mm print travelled over from Italy as part of a joint venture between the Bioscope and South West Silents – an exciting alliance that promises more riches from European archives.

Amleto Novelli and Pina Menichelli,
Also on the plane was a short film also featuring Pina but in a more conventional romantic comedy, Papà (1915) directed by Nino Oxilia. The film begins with a jaded playboy, Giuseppe Piemontesi, discovering that he has a son out in the country. Looking for purpose in his life, he heads out to meet the young man who turns out to be the not-so-young Amleto Novelli (about 30 at the time, not much younger than his cinematic “dad”).             

The lad has been romancing a local beauty, played by Pina, and disappointing a lovelorn shepherdess (Suzy Prim), well, amidst the lovely scenery, can you guess what is going to happen…?

Cyrus Gabrysch played along to this pastoral aperitif and enhanced its gentle if slightly confusing joy with Lillian making verbal sense of the translated titles.

So, you're my Papa?
First up we broadened our minds with some travelogues from the Cineteca di Bologna DVD Grand Tour italiano. 61 film dei primi anni del ’900 (available direct from Bologna!). There was a sea of faces from 1910, all gobbling up the potential of instant fame from the faces looking back up at them on screen, a novelty that never fades. Then to the skies for some fascinating shots taken from the Brera Observatory in L' Eclisse parziale di sole del 17 aprile 1912 - a partial solar eclipse had been filmed and the mechanism for capturing this event was shown: all this from a time when relativity was barely a twinkle.

Next we joined a group of patiently-posing dignitaries at The Great ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the sugar factory in Casalmaggiore (1910) the stone was carefully laid and then the men – and a few women – power posed like so many cigar-chomping frozen peacocks, for the moving camera.

L' Eclisse parziale di sole del 17 aprile 1912
Lest we forget that the Italian sense of humour is amongst the most advanced in the World, a smashing 35mm print of A Shrapnel Duel (1913) was shown: two silly men trying to blow each other in pursuit of a young woman’s hand. Bombs are attached to the daft duellists and they try and hit their opponent’s shell using metal hammers: be careful not to lose your head (and other body parts) in love or war.

Lillian was on piano for these first three, as modulated and expressive with music as with words.

Ben fatto Bioscope!! Stupendo!