Towering Babel

The new documentary Finding Babel opens with the construction of a statue of the author Isaac Babel. Scenes of the statue being sculpted are intercut with an introduction to Babel’s grandson, Andrei Maleev-Babel. We spend the rest of the film with Maleev-Babel as he he travels the world trying to discover the truth about his grandfather’s past.

As Maleev-Babel follows his grandfather’s footsteps, Finding Babel unspools in a chorus of voices. We hear from fans of Babel about what his work means to them, from people who remember Babel, from people who saw firsthand the same atrocities that Babel witnessed. The horrors of World War II are relayed across generations: we see a field where 2400 Soviet citizens of Jewish descent are buried, forced by the Germans to dig their own mass grave. “Tragedy,” a local man says. But then he shrugs. “Such was the time. What are we to do? It’s history. Our history.”

Mixed in with Maleev-Babel’s journeys are readings from Babel’s work performed by Liev Schreiber, whose purring voice could make an interpretation of HTML code seem positively profound. “A majestic moon floats on the waves,” Schreiber reads, and you don’t even need the visual interpretation of the words that appears on the screen to put you there. Then, a few lines later, he tells us that “someone sinks, loudly cursing the mother of God,” and a somberness soaks the words. We never see Schreiber’s face, but his performance is what holds the film together: by bringing Babel’s words to life, he’s demonstrating why we still care about his writing, why this journey matters.

The little details are what makes Finding Babel so successful. At a shrine, we’re introduced to the expression “well-prayed,” which is to say that an icon has “absorbed the prayers” of decades of worshippers and therefore taken on a greater, unspeakable depth and complexity. Babel’s words are well-prayed like that: the people in Finding Babel who adore his writing so much have, with their adoration, retroactively imbued Babel’s life with an additional meaning.