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.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


In case you thought I'd forgotten about it - a heads-up/reminder of Between Two Worlds, the Alfred Schnittke festival led by the LPO and happening at various places in London from 15 November to 1 December to mark what would have been his 75th birthday.

It's hard in the course of such a mini-fest to do justice to the enormity of Schnittke's output (even if you think - as I don't - that it's wildly uneven). Of course there are things I'd want to have seen, primarily the hallucinogenically terrifying First Symphony, and one of the last symphonies, and perhaps a survey of the concerti grossi (and of course, more films!) but over all it's as balanced as it could be in the time available.

The LPO has a minisite devoted to him here.

The main stuff is:

15/11. The Gogol Suite and the (brilliant) Monologue followed by Prokofiev 6 at the RAM.

18/11. Royal Festival Hall. A 6.15 pre-concert event with the 3rd SQ (his best?) played by the Harpham Quartet. Then, in the main concert, rather than just doing the Faust Cantata, there are excerpts from the opera that swallowed it (basically as Act 3). These are semi-staged, so perhaps Jurowski is moving towards a very welcome production - in which case, hopefully he'll be conducting what Schnittke wrote rather than the 'Hamburg edition'. It's preceded by Haydn 22 (is the subtitle the only link?) and bits of Parsifal. Here's a bit of Arte's broadcast of Historia von D. Johann Fausten. Would that BBC4...

19/11. Back at the RAM for a visit from the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir and a good belt of Russian choral stuff. The Concerto for Choir is another cast-iron masterpiece.

21/11. An all-day symposium at Deptford Town Hall under the aegis of the Alfred Schnittke Archive at Goldsmiths. Even those usually averse to academic conferences might be tempted by the world premiere of the Concerto for Electronic Instruments. This includes four ekvodins (a 1930s Soviet synthesiser), a crystadin (something to do with Oleg Losev's research, I assume), a camerton piano (errrrr...?) and a shumophone (even more errrr... but it sounds polyglottally tautological: 'shum' [шум] being Russian for 'noise' and 'phone' being Greek for 'sound'). In such company the theremin that the estimable Lydia Kavina will be playing seems almost workaday!

On 22/11 those able to keep up will be headed to the South Bank Centre for another all-day-er. Amongst the talks will be an unmissable interview with animator Andrei Khrzhanovsky, director of, inter alia, The Glass Harmonica fresh from his debut feature (of which more anon) A Room and a Half. The other music will include the hilarious Music for an Imaginary Play, the fantastic Epilogue from Peer Gynt and the Kandinskian Der gelbe Klang, which I seem to remember being really interesting (if only I could find that decade-or-so old off-air cassette).

25/11. Ater a couple of days rest you'll be ready to venture back for a kaleidoscopic look at old musics: Stravinsky, the venerably double-barrelled Bach-Webern, Schnittke and Safronov. That's at 6pm, after which there's another concert: Webern, Lindberg, Berg and Schnittke's Third Symphony. I prefer Schnittke's (more secular) odd-numbered symphonies and this is one of my favourites - a piece I find endlessly fascinating.

Films are covered at Pushkin House on 26 and 27 (The Ascent and Commissar) and 28 at the RFH (Agony). Later on the 28th at the RFH there's a concert with an interesting pairing: Schnittke's Second Cello Concerto (which uses some of Agony's music) and Haydn's Seven Last Words. The Schnittke is being played by Alexander Ivashkin (he and conductor Vladimir Jurowski are the main movers behind the festival), who, just a few days ago, was in Moscow playing and conducting a concert of Unknown Schnittke. Hopefully there'll be a CD or at least some more performances.

Things are wrapped up on 1 December at the QEH with the String Trios by Schnittke and Tchaikovsky.

Alexander Ivashkin's written several books about Schnittke, including a biog-intro (published by Phaidon) that should be every anglophone's starting point

As an adjunct I'm doing a one-hour intro to Schnittke and his music for Resonance 104.4fm on Friday the 13th at 8pm. Also listenable on-line.