Abstract

This article discusses New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon), a silent film in eight parts by Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg with music by Dmitri Shostakovich, produced in 1929 by Sovkino, the state film studio of the USSR. It reconstructs the genesis of New Babylon in the context of the artistic avant-garde of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and engages with the recent debate on the different versions of the film, siding with those who believe that the “official” version of New Babylon was the result of a conscious re-editing of the movie.

To support this position, the author proposes a structural and aesthetic analysis of New Babylon that focuses on the literary and visual sources of the film and their relationship to sound. Shostakovich found compositional solutions that matched the choices of the directors perfectly, both in terms of musical quotes (corresponding to figurative references) and techniques. On the one hand, the composer employed strategies and topoi of the European musical tradition (such as the so-called figure of death), and on the other hand, he applied to his music the humour and grotesque style typical of literary works by the likes of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gogol. The influence of Russian formalism on the filmic and musical language of New Babylon is also considered in some depth, especially in light of the formalistic concept of “estrangement.” The film is then compared with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which helps to explain the original interplay between the arduous musical language and the complex configuration of the images. Finally, the formalistic approach of the authors of New Babylon—Kozinčev, Trauberg, and Shostakovich—is further analyzed by examining two sequences that exemplify the metatextual conception of the film, intended as a “symbolic form” that both generates processes of referring and requires an exegetical commitment.

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