28th 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Finding Babel (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: David Novack

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Babel loved life. He believed that people are born to enjoy life.”
–Antonina Pirojkova, mathematician, construction engineer, and second wife of Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel, the acclaimed Jewish writer from Odessa, Ukraine, enjoyed a momentous life—two wives, two children, numerous lovers, an international literary reputation, and an adoring public. But it was not a long one. He was arrested on May 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Eventually, he was transferred to nearby Butyrka Prison, where he was tried for treason and executed in secret on January 27, 1940, at the age of 45. Soviet agents seized 24 folders that may have contained nearly 80 of Babel’s writings; they have never been recovered.

Andrei Malaev-Babel, an acting teacher at the theatre conservatory of Florida State University, was moved to uncover the history and retrace the steps of the grandfather he never knew upon the 2010 death of Pirojkova, his grandmother and still grieving widow of Babel. The odyssey took him to Polish Galicia, Odessa, Paris, and Moscow, to the places where Babel lived, was detained, died, and was interred. Along the way, he samples Babel’s works as a progression of the things the writer saw and felt compelled to comment upon, even though it meant his death.

Finding Babel, directed and cowritten by award-winning documentarian David Novack, offers viewers a look at a perhaps unfamiliar literary giant in a way that illuminates just how great a writer and chronicler he was. Malaev-Babel and he approach Babel’s story chronologically, linking key writings with the places and people they visit.

The film opens with a sculptor burnishing a giant, bronze sculpture of Babel that is to grace an Odessa square in front of a new museum dedicated to the writer. This polishing process, which makes the sculpture shine like gold, is an evocative metaphor for bringing Babel out of the shadows of Soviet oppression and his secret fate and into the light of a new age.

To emphasize the point, the film launches immediately into Liev Schreiber reading from Babel’s Red Cavalry, based on eyewitness reportage of his time riding with the Cossacks, the traditional enemies of the Jews. The music is mournful, and the image on screen mimics the location where Babel stood, posterized to distinguish it as heightened reality. The language is rich and voluptuous, the descriptions horrifyingly vivid:

“A dead old man lay there on his back. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two. In his beard, blue blood cloated like a lump of lead.

“‘Sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking the feather bed. ‘Poles cut his throat.’”

This is what it means to be a witness to history.

The film jumps to New York’s Brighton Beach, with lively klezmer music invigorating what was, and is, Russian Jewish life. Malaev-Babel is being interviewed on Russian-language radio about his pending trip to trace Babel’s footsteps. Next stop is what is now western Ukraine, where he meets a guide in Lviv who helps him find the places Babel wrote about in Red Cavalry. During his travels in Ukraine, he meets a group of tourists from Israel who are likewise interested in Babel, confirming to Malaev-Babel that Babel is more than remembered—he is revered. He visits a large Jewish cemetery Babel mentions in his 1920 Diary, one of the few not destroyed by the Nazis or the Soviets and an image that will form a bookend with Babel’s final resting place, a mass grave marked only by a single monument festooned with nameplates and flowers.

From his teens until his 30s, Babel lived in Odessa’s Jewish Moldavanka section, where he may have been born. His famous Odessa Stories put the area on the map, infusing it with the lively chatter of the courtyard buildings, streets, and shops before the pogroms began. Malaev-Babel is escorted by two history professors, who comment that the cobblestones that still line the streets are the same as in Babel’s time. Following a reception at the Babel museum and the unveiling of the statue, Malaev-Babel visits the apartment where Babel lived, a crowd of journalists and onlookers documenting this historic meeting of past and present.

Novack offers excerpts of Benya Krik (Benny the Howl), a 1926 silent film by director Vladimir Vilner of one of Babel’s Odessa stories about a master criminal of whom Babel says, “He is the king while you give people the finger with your hand in your pocket.” Novack cleverly superimposes images of the films on present-day structures, again working very deftly to bring Babel’s words to life.

Malaev-Babel moves on to Paris, where Babel lived for a time with his first wife and three-year-old child, both of whom he abandoned to return to his homeland, soon meeting Malaev-Babel’s grandmother. In Paris, his grandson stretches his professional muscles by rehearsing a production of Babel’s 1935 play Maria. The play was never produced in Babel’s lifetime; it was shut down during rehearsals because of its very dangerous message that human nature will devour the utopian ideal of the Soviet Union and that all the people who died during the Russian Revolution were sacrificed for nothing.

A final, chilling moment comes when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the place where Babel was arrested. It is now in a gated community, and when Malaev-Babel tries to enter, he is roughed up by two security guards. The past, of course, is still present in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. As French actress Marina Vlady, the daughter of Russian immigrants to France, told him in Paris, “We have no Stalin, but we have a great many little Stalins.”

I’ve largely given a precis of this documentary because I fear many people will not be able to see it, but if you have a chance, do not miss it! Novack is a master imagist, creating filmic paintings of wonderfully chosen excerpts from Babel’s works that reveal the writer’s sensuality, keen eye, and vivid understanding of events he thought, in his idealism about the Revolution, would never happen. Malaev-Babel exhibits a lot of the charisma and intelligence that must have adhered from Babel, and thus, is a compelling and engaging guide. The horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror are everywhere apparent, from our tour through the monastery that was built above former torture chambers and cells to the ruins of barracks that housed the murderous Cossacks and their horses, the latter a strong symbol in Babel’s writing.

Babel met his fate, but remains a passionate voice in our world today. Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, explains it this way: “Tyrants fear the poet, and people fear the writer, because they tell the truth. They tell a much deeper truth.”

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, screens Finding Babel January 29 at 2 p.m. David Novack will introduce the film and lead a postshow discussion. Finding Babel is the first of four films showing at Spertus in its Sunday Cinema film festival, January 29–February 19, 2017.


23rd 03 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Ivan Groznyy, 1944; Ivan Groznyy: Skaz vtoroy – Boyarskiy zagovor, 1958)

Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, M. Filimonova

By Roderick Heath

The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory. Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.

The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.

The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.

Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.

Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.

Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.

Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”

Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.

Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.

Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.

Interestingly, however, whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant. The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around.

In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off. As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.

The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life.

With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers. When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.


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