Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Benya Krik

It seems a good moment to mention a forthcoming screening of Benya Krik at the Purcell Room on 29 November 2009. Among other things, it's a fascinating view of early 20th-century Jewish life, apparently shot partly on location in Odessa.

Made in 1926, it was directed by Vladimir Vilner, while Isaac Babel based the script on his own short stories The King and How It Was Done in Odessa. The Russian texts and the 'kino-povest' (illustrated, left) are here, and Jeff Glodblum - that's Goldblum - reads The King (in English) here.

But Krik, the leader of a bunch of criminals, is hardly admirable and the film had something to offend everyone.

For starters, Krik's gang seems to be first precursors of, and then profiteers from the Revolution. Even though they're ultimately foiled by the Bolsheviks, the regime, obviously, was not impressed.

Meanwhile, Jewish groups were alarmed that it might inflame anti-Semitism.

The Soviet Union spent 1921-22 struggling economically in the face of what Lenin called "the elemental forces of the petty-bourgeois environment", before initiating a limited return to capitalism, even de-nationalising some enterprises - excluding, of course, the 'commanding heights' of heavy industry, banking etc. This 'New Economic Policy' became increasingly divisive: on one hand it made available luxuries - and even some essentials - that state and collective organisations were so signally failing to provide, but NEP-men were despised as spiv-like semi-gangsters and, plugging into Russian anti-Semitism, were often seen as Jewish.

In such an environment, Krik couldn't do right for doing wrong. Not only did it upset the authorities, but it was accused of ignoring the proletariat and concentrating on Jews (as if they were inimical!). But of course, it 'concentrates' on them only to criticise them as cynical petty thieves who are happy to trash tradition and their Jewishness in the pursuit of profit.

A few months later Babel's astonishing play Sunset opened, in which Krik, fearing disinheritance, beats his father up then arranges an abortion for his gentile girlfriend, and forces his sister into marriage to obtain the dowry. After all this, he is praised by the local rabbi.

Ethnically even more confusing is that Babel based Krik on the well-known Odessa gangster Mishka 'Yaponchik' (Mike the Little Jap) Vinnitsky, though I'm not sure why - he was Jewish and born in Odessa. Allegedly this is a portrait.

He's also the subject of Juliusz Machulski's Polish film Déjà vu (1988), which takes the action to Chicago: I suppose the archetypal US gangster city - it's where Balabanov's Brother II goes. Babel, perhaps seeing that he had created a potentially long-running franchise, didn't kill Krik in the books but he does die in Vilner's film, suffering a fate based on Mishka's death. Maybe Babel felt (or was advised) that the more popular medium needed to show retribution.

Krik is still a popular hero, largely thanks to the panache which Babel gave him - the Russian movie Мишка Япончик (Mishka Yaponchik, 2007) is part of the series Great Russian Adventurers! You can see a silent movie style trailer here.

Vilner's film was released in January 1927 but pleased nobody. It was almost immediately banned in Ukraine and never shown in Moscow. It has since fallen into that huge well of forgotten curiosities. After a couple more films, Vilner returned to the theatre, from when he had come.

Nevertheless Eisenstein recommended the script to Ivor Montagu, whose English translation was published by Collett's in 1935 in a numbered edition of 500. That sold well enough to go to another numbered 500. I've never seen this tome but I suspect it's the 1925 script that Babel wrote with Eisenstein, who later remembered the author observing that "writing a script is like calling the midwife out on your wedding night".

Eisenstein, whilst eating stewed apples, sharing vodkas with Malevich, and corresponding with Stefan Zweig, was dividing his time between Krik, 1905 (aka The Battleship Potemkin) and a wartime front-line brothel comedy called The Bazaar of Lust. In 1932 he praised the 'laconicism' of 'the vastly underestimated play Sunset', though it had been heavily criticised and dropped from the repertoire five years previously. Babel got permission to go to Paris for a year and on his return he and Eisenstein would work on the banned and destroyed Bezhin Meadow. In 1939 he was arrested for being an 'anti-Soviet Trotskyite spy' (recruited during his time in Paris) and 'a member of a terrorist conspiracy'. He was shot in 1940 and dumped in a mass grave.

You can get a silent DVD of Benya Krik from The National Centre for Jewish Film, but better go to the South Bank where klezmerish live music is provided by Robin Harris in a screening that's part of the Jewish Music Institute's Jewish Culture Day.

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