Will musical and film triumphs spill over into German politics?
The Berlin Philharmonic sets the stage / Berliner Philharmoniker

BERLIN—On August 24, the famed Berliner Philharmoniker (the Berlin Philharmonic), led by their new conductor Kirill Petrenko, 47, offered an amazing performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Brandenburg Gate, with an audience of at least 30,000 music-lovers standing—free of charge—in the wide adjoining boulevard in Tiergarten, Berlin’s main central park.

Petrenko, elected by the orchestra (its usual custom), replaced Sir Simon Rattle, who is retiring. The preparations for this concert, with all the many screens and amps, lasted for two whole years. From all I’ve heard, the giant outdoor audience and the far bigger TV audience (including me) were deeply moved and very, very grateful for the music, the surroundings, and the admirable new conductor. And the words sung in the final movement by the big chorus were as eloquent as ever in their “Ode to Joy” in solidarity of all people, worldwide, defying all differences of class or nationality.

Five days later another event, though indoors and therefore far, far smaller in size, was also extremely moving for the nearly 500 people who filled the Babylon cinema theater on Rosa Luxemburg Platz in the center of East Berlin.

A still from ‘The New Babylon’

It was a film, coincidentally called The New Babylon, that premiered in Leningrad in 1929, created by two young directors, Grigori Kozintsev, 24, and Leonid Trauberg, 27, to tell the story of the Paris Commune of 1871. They were lucky in finding a young musician, only 22, who still made a living playing piano for the silent films of the day and was just embarking on his musical career: Dmitri Shostakovich.

The film’s style was based on their avant-garde Factory of Eccentric Actors (FEKS), which broke with all traditions of the day and created a dadaistic mixture of dance, theater, film, circus, music hall, and opera. With its many exciting dance scenes and back-and-forth editing, this film satirized the crooked, corrupt bourgeois atmosphere of a Parisian department store called “The New Babylon.” The film showed it getting hit after the severe military defeat by the Prussians and the betrayal by the new French government, and finally the 72-day-long revolution which was drowned in the blood of over 30,000 victims.

A tragic love story weaves its way through the history, and the music follows every twist and turn with wit, sarcasm, emotion, and quotes from can-can music, the revolutionary songs “Carmagnole” and the “Marseillaise,” all timed amazingly closely to the action.

Its fascinating modernity—both the silent film and the music—were a little bit too much for the critics and authorities of the day, in Moscow but also in Berlin and Switzerland, and the film was largely lost and forgotten. Its fragments had to be painstakingly pieced together again and fitted exactly to the newly rediscovered Shostakovich score. This was played wonderfully by the little Babylon Orchestra Berlin (directed by Brazilian-born Marcelo Falcão), which now accompanies a number of silent film masterpieces in the handsome theater. Despite the tragic ending, the audience was not only deeply moved but then jubilant. (Complete disclosure: The theater manager is my son!) The complete film can be viewed here, although with a different score.

A recording of the Shostakovich score to ‘The New Babylon’

This film and the music by both Beethoven and Shostakovich were revolutionary in spirit, and both found enthusiastic audiences. The months ahead will show how many and to what degree traces of such a spirit will somehow find their way into the Berlin and German political scenes. A few samples have been registered: Many demonstrations on environmental rescue operations, including those of the kids on Friday afternoons, also the far smaller but certainly as important rallies to mark the beginning of World War II just eighty years ago, in September 1939, with demands for an end to nuclear weapons buildup, war games and war-mongering, and, even smaller but equally determined, solidarity meetings near the U.S. embassy to demand freedom for the Indian leader Leonard Peltier, 75,  imprisoned since 1977, for the African-American journalist and writer Mumia Abu-Jamal, 65, imprisoned since 1986 on a similar frame-up charge, and Sundiata Acoli, 82, a lesser-known Black Panther prisoner, who has also been jailed since 1974, with many years in solitary confinement. Enthusiasm is vitally necessary in all these causes, with or without musical accompaniment.

Germany will be facing many a weighty decision, to great effect in all Europe and the world. Let us hope for an occasional success. From my longtime outpost in Berlin, I’ll try my best to keep People’s World readers informed.


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.