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Berlin Bulletin by Victor Grossman

Music and film this time

Berlin Bulletin No. 165, September 17 2019

To older readers and newcomers (to whom: Welcome!), this Berlin Bulletin will differ somewhat from my usual more strictly political subject matter.

After the elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, and before the election in Thuringia on October 26th, the various German parties are sorting out the results. In Saxony, where the Christian Democrats (CDU) lost strength but stayed in the lead, they are trying to patch up a difficult coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, their only option without their tabooed LINKE (Left) and Alternative for Germany (AfD)—the far, far right. In Brandenburg, the SPD also lost feathers and must now decide whether to stay with the LINKE plus the Greens—both would now be necessary to barely reach that needed majority, or to replace the LINKE with the CDU and, necessary here too, the Greens.

The only winners were the Greens, though not as well as expected. And, very alarmingly, the biggest gainer, the AfD. The biggest loser was the LINKE, which has been sliding downhill in the East German states for at least five years. Most members and friends now insist on a sharply critical, down-to-eartth appraisal and reevaluation with many changes, maybe at a special conference in November, then at the next party congress which might be moved ahead from June to February, and very probably with a new leadership team. I’ll go into this urgent matter more thoroughly in a later Berlin Bulletin.

Since the SPD is now tied up with its own choice of new co-chairs, as now usual with the LINKE and the Greens with one male, one female. Nearly ten duos are still in the race to the top (somewhat like in the USA). Since the Greens are also facing a choice of two new leaders, with a former right-leaning head, Cem Özdemir, now trying for a comeback, and with the CDU shaken by jockeying motions aimed at replacing Angela Merkel in 2021, I will use this uncertain, up-in-the-air situation as an unusual opportunity to move to music in the air. In the fresh air, in fact.

On August 24th the famed Berliner Philharmiker, led by their new conductor Kirill Petrenko, 47, offered an amazing performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Brandenburger 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 call for joy in solidarity of all people, world wide, 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. It was a film, coincidentally called The New Babylon, and was first 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 avantgarde Factory of Eccentric Actors (FEKS), which broke with all traditions of the day and created a dada-istic 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 and then 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 Carmagnole and the Marseillaise, all timed amazingly closely to the action.

The film New Babylon, which first premiered in Leningrad in 1929, created by two young directors, Grigori Kozintsev, 24, and Leonid Trauberg, 27, tells the story of the Paris Commune of 1871. The showing was extremely moving for the nearly 500 people who filled the Babylon cinema theater on Rosa Luxemburg Platz in the center of East Berlin.

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 Marcelo Falcao), 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!)

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 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 Two just eighty years ago, in September 1939, with demands for an end to nuclear weapon increases, 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), also for the African-American journalist and writer Mumia Abu-Jamal, imprisoned since 1986 on a similar frame-up charge, and Sundiata Acoli, 82, a less-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—with a great effect in all Europe—and the world. Let us hope for an occasional success. I’ll try my best to keep you informed.

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