Before seeing “Finding Babel,” I’d never heard of Isaac Babel, a Jewish writer during the first couple of decades of the Soviet Union until he fell victim to Stalin’s purges.
My knowledge of Russian literature — Babel wrote for a general audience in Russian, not Yiddish — skipped from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. But I’m eager to dive into Babel’s works after watching this documentary about the writer and about his Russian-American grandson’s journey of discovery into the family’s past.
Babel, who grew up in the thriving, cosmopolitan Jewish community of Odessa in Ukraine, was in his mid-20s when he assumed a Russian name to serve as an embedded reporter with a cavalry unit fighting in the Soviet-Polish war of 1920.
Babel recorded his experiences in a diary, which he later used as the basis for the story collection “Red Cavalry,” which covers the savagery of war and the suffering of the Jewish population caught between two armies rife with anti-Semitism.
The movie brings to life excerpts from “Red Cavalry” through animation and the dramatic readings of Liev Schreiber. Clips from a silent Russian film provide the visuals for excerpts from Babel’s short story collection about his hometown, “Tales of Odessa.”
For Americans unfamiliar with Babel’s work, those illustrated dramatic readings would have been enough to make the film entertaining and interesting. But “Finding Babel” rises above a mere biographic tribute, thanks to two features that add a personal, intimate feel: Andrei Malaev-Babel’s guided tour of key places in his grandfather’s life in Ukraine, Russia and France, and an interview he did with his grandmother Antonina Pirozhkova, Babel’s widow, a few years before she died.
Directed by David Novack, “Finding Babel” is documentary filmmaking at its best: It educates through great storytelling.