Isaac Babel was the most prominent Jewish
Soviet writer of the 1920s and 1930s. That made him a logical choice to be the
face of the Popular Front and a lead-pipe cinch to be subsequently swept up in
the Stalinist Purges. Yet, decades later, questions still persist regarding his
final years in an NKVD prison and the fate of his large archive of unpublished
works. When the great writer’s grandson retraces his footsteps, he finds the
new Russia has not changed so very much from Soviet times in David Novack’s Finding Babel (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
During his own lifetime, Babel was
internationally acclaimed for Odessa
Tales and Red Cavalry, but the
latter’s often brutal depiction of the Red forces earned him suspicion within
the Party’s upper echelon. However, he was “useful” for a while, which is why
he was allowed to function as a sort of literary ambassador for the USSR in
Paris. However, the radically honest criticisms of post-revolutionary Soviet
society in his play Maria probably
sealed his fate.
Andrei Malaev-Babel’s pilgrimage in search
of his grandfather’s legacy stops in Paris, where the actor-drama teacher
advises a new production of Maria. He
also takes us to Ukraine, where the Odessa-born Babel is celebrated by average
citizens and high ranking government officials alike as a national hero. This might
be a good time to point out Putin’s propaganda machine is trying to make this
nation synonymous with anti-Semitic nationalism. Eventually, Malaev-Babel
visits the Russian artist colony where his grandfather was arrested. Although
he has a pleasant visit with family friend Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the trip turns
sour when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the site of his grandfather’s arrest. It
seems that historic site now lies beyond the steel gates of a shadowy compound,
the owner of which has no reluctance to unleash his thugs on Maleav-Babel and
the film crew.
We very definitely get that sinking feeling
of “the more things change . . .” throughout Finding Babel, especially when the grandson makes a formal request
to see his grandfather’s KGB/NKVD files. Fortunately, investigative journalist
Vitaly Shentalinsky gives him a good idea of what to expect and strategies to
circumvent obstructions. Frankly, Shentalinsky could probably be a fascinating
subject of his own documentary. The same is probably true of Brother Victor.
Unlike so many in the Church hierarchy, the free-thinking monk openly equates
the new regime with that of the Communist era. Of course, he has a unique vantage
point at St. Catherine’s Monastery, the former site of Sukhanovo Prison, where
Babel was tortured.
Throughout Finding Babel, Liev Schrieber reads excerpts of Babel’s writings in
his best PBS voice. He brings out the poetry of Babel’s prose, which definitely
helps put him in literary perspective. Novack adds further color with vintage
black-and-white film clips of Yuri Shumsky playing Benya Krik, the Jewish
gangster anti-hero of Odessa Tales in
Vladimir Vilner’s 1926 Russian film.
Clearly, Novack (who also produced N.C. Heikin’s
outstanding Kimjongilia) is aware how
the evil legacy of Soviet Communism continues to reverberate in modern day
Russia and Ukraine. He tries not to beat us over the head with parallels, but
sometimes the Russians will do it for him. Yet, he never neglects Babel’s place
in cultural, socio-political, and family history. It is a film of great
sensitivity and rather unfortunately, significant modern relevancy. Highly
recommended for anyone interested Ukrainian and Russian history and literature,
Finding Babel opens this Friday
(10/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.
Labels: Documentary, Isaac Babel, Ukraine