“We’ll Come Back to Paris!”: The New Babylon
Novyy Vavilon (The New Babylon, 1929) is the fifth feature film produced by the FEKS (“Factory of the Eccentric Actor”) group, founded in 1922 by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. While it was the first of their films set outside of Russia – depicting the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1971 – it was not their first period piece. The film was preceded by a 1926 adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat, which gave Kozintsev an opportunity to reflect on the aesthetics of the historical film: in contrast to the usual approach of simply recreating a period through costumes, Kozintsev explained that FEKS “wanted primarily to replace this parade of historical costumes across the surface of the film by a feeling of the epoch, in other words purposively to replace it with a general style, and not the naturalism of details.”1 This same sense of an “epochal” feeling is present in The New Babylon: on one hand, it is indeed evident in the film’s elaborate sets and detailed costumes, but the more vague “feeling” that Kozintsev refers to here permeates the film as a kind of rumbling undertone, one that is expressed through the film’s play with stasis and motion and which suggests that we are witnessing a revolutionary moment, albeit a thwarted one.
The broad feeling I refer to here is not simply a matter of mood or of aesthetics, but rather one that takes on a concrete material form through the film’s use of rhyming images and montage: these devices suggest that what might seem to be no more than a ubiquitous tone (“revolution in the air”, we might say), is in fact created by a certain set of historical circumstances and relationships. Like Eisenstein, Kosintzev and Trauberg are concerned with how mobile parts can be constructed into a coherent rhetorical whole, and devise a form that inextricably intertwines historical events and human affect while insisting on their lability and mobility.
The key terms of the film’s rhetorical operation are set up in the first sequence, which depicts crowds outside in the shadow of the French flag, calling for Prussian blood, shoppers in an extravagant department store (clearly informed by Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames), and clients at an upscale cabaret. The parallelism between the department store and the cabaret is made abundantly clear through a use of matching images and movements: both are characterized by whirling fabric and items that appear in series, such as the dresses of the dancers in the cabaret and the spinning umbrellas in the store, or the frenzied crowds of women in both. It is not just the presence of these images as symbols that matters here, but also the way that they perpetually move, creating a dizzying, overpowering sensation that is experienced by the shopworkers as exhausting and by the cabaret clients and the store’s customers as exhilarating. Both drinkers and shoppers are subject to the same thrall, that of a capitalism that offers hedonism as a distraction from politics, yet those calling for Prussian blood are clearly part of the same ensemble, demonstrating the close connections between imperialism, hedonism, and moral decadence.
The film’s main character, Louise (perhaps a reference to Communard Louise Michel?), functions as something of a link between these three levels: she bridges the gap between the department store and the cabaret when she is invited to the latter by the store’s owner, who makes feeble advances while the singers proclaim “We’re all thirsty for love!” Class power here is also sexual power, a point that the film underscores by making the female communards, who take far more leadership and initiative than any of the film’s other characters, the main focus of the Commune sequences.
Louise refuses her boss’s advances, and the defeated soldiers return home from the war. One of them, Jean, encounters Louise, who begrudgingly offers him a crust of bread. But Jean is no longer animated, not even in the zombie-like fashion of the shoppers or the cabaret dwellers – here again the film underscores the deeply concrete and corporeal effects of class violence, insofar as whatever labor power Jean possessed has been completely sapped by his military service. He simply wishes to go home and rest, but Louise insists on reactivating him: here as in other moments in the film, the Communist act par excellence is to locate and re-purpose energy, whether in the form of labor or in the form of affective commitment, to take it back from those who have stolen it and to return it to the people. Jean makes a weak attempt to participate in a conflict between the French Army and the Workers’ Guard, who are trying to keep the former from seizing their tanks. He ultimately submits to the command of the military and takes his orders to retreat to Versailles, although not before sharing a kiss with Louise.
The subsequent portion of the film shows a victorious Commune, in which the energy that links all things but has henceforth been routed to suit the priorities of capital, has been released: the tired and sluggish workers we saw before are now full of life, working for themselves, and seemingly animated by that very same vital force that had previously been the exclusive property of the bourgeoisie, who of course squandered it on hedonism rather than using it to labor for a better life for all. But the appropriation of energy and labor on the part of the people does not last for long, and the Commune ultimately falls to the French soldiers: it is this moment though, the last heroic struggle before the fall, that allows the film to depict a revolutionary act of reappropriation and dialectical transformation, which is itself mobilised by a transformation of affect.
As news of the French soldiers’ approach and the Commune’s impending defeat spreads, the Communards once again seem exhausted, listless, incapable of moving. We see one soldier, however, run into the street and begin striking the pavement with his gun: of course anyone with any knowledge of Parisian street battles knows what will be coming next, but what is so striking here is how this gesture is portrayed. At first the soldier’s blows seem to be purely frustrated, a final impotent burst of that energy that can no longer find its outlet in revolutionary activity—far better to strike a bourgeois than the street! Yet as the act continues, we see that this impotent rage is in fact a form of imagination: the very streets of the city will be transformed, used as the foundations for barricades. The rest of the communards follow suit, bringing consumer commodities (furniture, carriages) to build the barricades, transforming the very objects that before contained the material traces of alienated labor and class relations into tools in the fight against both.
But as we know, the Commune must fall. Here the film’s meditation on transformation, on what to do with latent or wasted energy, takes on its most profound dimension. Jean, who throughout the film has acted as a symbol for stasis, both in his status as a worker who can only take orders from the ruling class and as a man drained of all vital force, returns to Paris and searches for Louise, only to be praised (much to his chagrin) for his acts against the Commune and then dismissed as a beggar. He finds Louise in the custody of the military. As the officer who holds her is to decide her fate, she looks expectantly several times at Jean, as though once again exhorting him to find the energy that would change the course of events, to act in his own (or the people’s own) interest for the first time. Jean does not, or can not, respond: he is a mere husk of a human being, hollowed out by war and submission, and instead agrees to dig Louise’s grave. He remains trapped in the military-capitalist machine, and seems to have no energy, no potential left that could disrupt that machine. As he digs her grave, Louise looks at him once again, and this time rather than conveying an expectation, she simply smiles and laughs. There is a clear violence to her laugh: on one hand it feels ironic, a laugh at the horror of her own lover digging her grave, not to mention an expression of rage towards him and her captors. Yet her laugh is followed by words of hope: “We’ll see each other again Jean! We’ll come back to Paris!” As she is executed, the camera turns to a message written on a nearby wall, reading “Vive la Commune”. The chalk used to write the message is still in the hand of the man who wrote it, who now lies dead, as though struck down at the very moment he finished.
Here, I would argue, the idea of the transformation of an energy that is always material and concrete (taking the form of labor, of objects, of human actions upon others) becomes at once more historical and more abstract: whereas the earlier transformations depicted by the film, such as the Commune’s seeming appropriation of the decadent energy of the bourgeoisie, occur locally and involve parties who are physically co-present in the same historical moment, here the possibility of a longer term process emerges. This, I think, is why it is so important that Jean can not respond: whether or not this is his fault or the fault of those who have ground him down, he can not answer in this moment, and that lack of an answer, at bottom, reflects the fact that this was not a possible moment of revolution. The Commune was too precarious, and unable to defend itself against its enemies. Yet Louise knows that this is not the end of the story: the promise of transformation, which was momentarily realised here in a very concrete way, has to be shifted, at least in part, to the realm of the abstract, and more specifically, to the level of written language. The words “Vive la Commune” hardly contain within them the necessary conditions for revolution, but nor do they need to: on the one hand, the viewer (or at least any viewer with the slightest sympathy for the film’s perspective on history) knows that the conditions of exploitation and alienation that the film depicts still exist (except maybe in the Soviet Union, but this is something the film leaves implicit), and that the same process of appropriating labor and material in the name of the people is necessary. It is left to us to decide when the moment in which that action can take place may arise, and what circumstances might render it successful. But more importantly, Louise’s statement functions to preserve the affective element that seizing that moment will necessitate: it converts historical experience and working-class self-determination and self-rule into three simple words, but the context into which the words are inscribed in the film make it more than this. It is also a question and a demand, the linguistic inscription of the expectant look that Louise turns towards Jean before her death. But where Jean failed, we must succeed: Louise’s laugh defers failure, it points us towards the future when “we’ll meet again,” when Jean’s counterparts – whether we think of them as military men or agents of the state more broadly, they are those “others” who remain on the outside of the Commune and who can not or will not commit to entering it – will turn the shovel on the executioner instead of digging their comrades’ graves.
- Quoted in Jay Leyda, Kino (New York: Collier, 1973), p. 202. ↩