Isaac Babel's Screenplay Benia Krik: Why Is It Good?

Marina Madorskaya, University of Michigan

Allusions to Isaac Babel's silence in the last fifteen years of his life have become commonplace in scholarly circles. Meanwhile, between 1925 and 1939 Babel wrote more than twenty screenplays that constitute a body of writing outweighing in quantity his acknowledged work. The goal of the paper is to analyze one of Babel's screenplays, Benia Krik (1925), as a screenplay in order to redeem it from negative criticism. Written in collaboration with and to be filmed by Sergei Eisenstein, Benia Krik offers rich insights into the development of Soviet screenwriting in general. Its timing, genre specification, textual history and sources will be discussed in as much detail as the preliminary research done by the author of the paper allows. While establishment of direct influences demands extensive research, it is already appropriate to remark that Eisenstein–Babel collaboration takes place at least four years prior to the significant change in the great filmmaker's own screenwriting (the move from technical to emotional).

In 1925, debates about and around screenwriting reached their peak in Russia. In less than thirty years, Russian/Soviet screenwriting evolved from notes on the cuffs to cine-novella. The pecularity of this evolution consisted in the fact that new screenwriting forms did not cancel out the preceding ones even if they drew upon them. Furthermore, a distinction has to be drawn between screenwriting and film genres. Whether it is an iron scenario or a cine-novella, the end product may be a melodrama, a film noir, a screwball comedy etc. Benia Krik is particularly interesting due to its formal eclecticism. Derived from Babel's own Odessa Tales, the screenplay presents an exemplary case of differentiation between writing and screenwriting. Babel's choices in regards to narrative structure (substituting narration with history) and tropes (verbal to visual) will be analyzed. The screenplay is equally problematic as a montage-list and cine-novella (kinopovest') and the end-product (V. Vilner's 1927 film) is but one version of what it could have become.