“If the silent period showed the flashes of brilliance as well as the unevenness of Barnet’s talent, the next few years would see him produce two worldwide masterpieces that place him as a precursor of French Poetic Realism and the work of Jean Renoir, as well as an influence on the French New Wave through the works of Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette.”
The inclusion of Soviet filmmakers in a canon of world cinema greats usually places the montage classicists — Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Vertov and Kuleshov — as the central figures making the most significant contribution to the development of cinema in the 1920s. All these directors are associated with some form or other of montage theory (one can summarise their differences by speaking of the emotional montage of Dovzhenko, the serial montage of Pudovkin, the biomechanical montage of Kuleshov, the montage of the attractions of Eisenstein and Vertov’s movement-based montage of life taken unawares), and all to a greater or lesser extent left detailed explanations of their methods, their written testaments. So it is to these directors that numerous book-length and other scholarly studies are generally devoted.
Yet early Soviet cinema was an even greater constellation of talents than conventional accounts have indicated. Occasional mention might be made of the Leningrad-based FEKS, or Factory of the Eccentric Artist, collective whose experimentation led to the development of talents like Kozintsev, Trauberg, Yutkevich and Gerasimov; some might mention Abram Room or Friedrich Ermler. But there is also a forgotten cinema of the Soviet twenties partly but not exclusively based around the Mezhrabpom studio, which has only been partially given its proper due in recent years. This studio would turn out films of a more popular nature, but would also nurture the two great masters of early Soviet comedy — Boris Barnet and Iakov Protazanov (although the twenties saw a veritable explosion of comedy also in the guise of works by less prolific directors such as Zheliabuzhsky and Komarov & Perestiani). If Protazanov, a director who began filming in pre-revolutionary Russia, was more closely (although not entirely justly) identified with a more traditionalist approach to cinema, Barnet was a filmmaker who straddled the division of the traditionalist/innovator dichotomy posited by, among others, one of the first significant historians of twenties silent Soviet cinema, Nikolai Lebedev. Boris Barnet has, outside of France and Italy, still not been accorded the central place that he deserves in the appreciation of the first half century of Soviet cinema. He still awaits his due for introducing into Soviet cinema a lyrical note (nuance) that would later be developed by Ioseliani, Danelija, and Khutsiev and that would parallel the French poetic realism of Vigo, Clair, Tati, and even Renoir. The uniquely lyrical voice in Barnet’s films, in which life “seeped into and washed away” all the stereotypes he was directed to shoot (Mitta quoted in Eisenschitz in Christie, I. & Taylor, R., eds., 1994 159), was something of a miracle given the constraints of Socialist Realism. If Socialist Realism was to have its didactic and rather plodding Tolstoy in the guise of Pudovkin, its best-kept secret was that it would also have a Chekhov in Boris Barnet.
Boris Barnet was born in 1902 into a family that owned a medium-scale typographical concern. His grandfather was an English printer who had emigrated to Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. He studied as an architect and painter and then after the revolution worked as a set designer at the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre. In 1920 he enlisted in the Red Army and subsequently after contracting an illness at the Front, returned to enter the Main Military School for Physical Education of Workers (Glavvosh), where he learned boxing. His boxing career lasted until he was spotted by Lev Kuleshov, who convinced Barnet to join his collective as an actor in one of early Soviet cinema’s first great comedies, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. Barnet’s role was that of Cowboy Jeddy, and he was to join a cast including future directors Pudovkin, Obolensky and Komarov. The collaboration between Kuleshov and Barnet would end badly, and Barnet would return briefly to Glavvosh. However, he soon returned to the cinema first as scriptwriter and then as director working jointly with Fedor Otsep in the serial adventure film Miss Mend. Over the next four decades he would gain his place as one of the great directors of the Soviet canon until his death by suicide in Riga in 1965.
Barnet’s Silent Films
Barnet’s silent films include some jewels that should be placed alongside the classics such as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Pudovkin’s Mother and The End of Saint Petersburg. Why this has not happened in most accounts of world cinema history is, arguably, because Barnet chose a genre that doesn’t always travel well. The genre was the comedy of contemporary life, and Barnet’s inability to work according to political orders has been much remarked by commentators, from his Soviet biographer, Kushnirov, to the Franco-Georgian director Otar Ioseliani. Barnet’s greatest flops are films that were given to him to forge a political message — whether it was the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in the 1927 Moscow in October (a film that was to appear alongside Eisenstein’s October and Pudovkin’s The End of Saint Petersburg but which was quickly withdrawn because of its clear weaknesses1) or the celebration of Stakhanovism and the denunciatory genre of the late thirties evidenced in his clearly lacklustre attempt A Night in September. Barnet would prove to be one of the least party-minded directors and the major filmmaker to stray furthest from lofty rhetoric of any kind. Not all of his films were comedies, and his first film was to be an adventure film that has been championed by, most notably, film critic Noel Burch. Miss Mend, still yet to be fully discovered by film historians, is, Burch argues, a film that skilfully merges German expressionism with American slapstick in a Brechtian way avant le lettre. The film was to be directed by Fedor Otsep but, in fact, became more and more Barnet’s film as the shooting got under way (he also acted in one of the main roles, an American journalist2, in the film). Miss Mend had an enormous public success3) but was severely disliked by many critics for its “hooliganism.” The film was an adaptation of one of the first in the genre of “red detective” novels by Marietta Shaginian. The adaptation was a liberal one, and new characters were invented during the writing of the script and during shooting. The kernel of the storyline of this three-part film is that four Americans discover a plot by a mysterious fascist organisation that plans to sow plague in the Soviet Union. This leads to a pursuit across the ocean, car chases, beatings, rocambolesque adventures, suspense, and a very fast pace of narrative. But it also has expressionist moments that remind us of German cinema and its classics such as Doctor Mabuse, Nosferatu, and Metropolis. As Burch shows in his seminal essay on this film, the struggle between Capitalism (or Fascism) and Socialism is carried out through, or paralleled by, a battle opposing two cinematic types. In Miss Mend the narrative codes and cinematic genres are playfully subverted in a way that would become increasingly rare in Soviet cinema but that would be an almost constant feature of Barnet’s style.4 It is simplistic to read this film merely as an adaptation of American cinema, as Youngblood does in her study (Youngblood, 130); rather, it should be situated in the context of the wild experimentation of the Soviet twenties, in which all genres and styles were both forged and subverted. Though the acting style of the film is different from the Kuleshovian naturshchik school of The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, it arguably still shares many of the eccentric traits of Kuleshov and fewer of the Protozanovian (or “traditionalist”) traits that Youngblood suggests (Youngblood, op cit).
The influence of Protazanov was apparent — they worked for the same studio, Mezhrabpom, and would collaborate briefly on an unfinished project — and yet that influence wasn’t necessarily straightforward. Barnet did not neglect the lessons learned in the Kuleshov School, using montage techniques like fast cutting to skillful effect in his second comedy, The House on Trubnaya Square (1928). But like Protazanov and unlike, say, Eisenstein or Dovzhenko, Barnet was an actor’s director. In fact, during the silent era, he used a whole group of actors discovered by Protazanov.5 However, there are also clear differences in the two directors’ working methods, most strongly apparent in Barnet’s inexhaustible powers of improvisation and acceptance of chaos, in contrast to Protazanov’s more controlled and ordered approach.6 Both directors shot a film to “promote” the new state lottery — both initially to be written by the same scriptwriter, Valentin Turkin (although for Barnet’s film, the script was later improved on by the imagist poet Vadim Shershenevich, a significant figure in the Soviet literary golden age of the twenties).
Barnet’s film certainly didn’t pale in comparison to that of the older, more experienced Protazanov. Girl with a Hatbox (1927) arguably signalled the birth of an indigenous Soviet comedy that pioneered a new style differing from those films appearing during the period of “Americanitis” of the early twenties. In retrospect, the late twenties produced a batch of Soviet comedies that represent one of the highpoints for experiments with this genre.7 Girl with a Hatbox tells the story of a milliner (played by Anna Sten) who lives with her grandfather in the Moscow suburbs but is officially registered in Moscow at the address of her employers to which she travels daily. She meets a young worker who takes a local train to Moscow to study at the special workers’ faculty. Their first meetings are antagonistic, but she then takes pity on him and enters into a fictitious marriage so that he can lodge in the house of her employers where she is officially resident. This causes conflict with her employers, who dismiss her and try to call in the bureaucrats to prove that the marriage with the young worker is a fake. However, an attempt by her employer to fob her off with a lottery ticket instead of real wages finally results in the victory of the young couple over the highly satirised husband and wife employers. The satire, though, is not vicious in intent; indeed, the film is a delightful example of a social and romantic comedy full of a “Barnetian” improvisation and indicating Barnet’s great strength — his ability to work with actors. (They include one of early Soviet cinema’s most versatile actors Vladimir Fogel, who played the role of railway clerk and the milliner’s unrequited lover and would play his last role in Barnet’s subsequent comedy before his untimely death by his own hand.) While a popular success, Girl with a Hatbox was again panned by some critics.8 It was during this period that critics began calling Barnet, as Yevgeny Margolit put it, “the Peter Pan of Soviet cinema” (Margolit 168) and chastising him for his supposed “infantilism.”
Barnet’s next silent comedy, The House on Trubnaya Square, showed his ability to use all the tricks of the avant-garde and yet still make popular cinema. The outstanding open traveling shot of the stairway of the apartment block where all the residents are carrying out their everyday tasks and the freeze frame in the middle of a sequence showing the heroine’s day in Moscow with an intertitle stating that they had forgotten to explain how the heroine had come to Moscow in the first place are evocative of both Eisenstein and Vertov, but in the case of Barnet all possible techniques (narrative as well as cinematic) are used in the construction of a comedy. As Ian Christie has noted, Barnet found a “progressive” path toward a popular and indigenous Soviet cinema that didn’t abandon those formal achievements acquired by the pioneers of Soviet cinema (Christie in Albera & Cosandey 81). The film’s script was shared by an ever-growing number of names who would play a significant role in the history of twentieth-century Russian and Soviet literature. They included the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote scripts for many of the great films of Soviet cinema including Room’s Bed and Sofa; Anatoly Mariengof, a novelist friend of Esenin’s who wrote the book Novel without Lies about this friendship and the great novella Cynics; Vadim Shershenevich, the imagist poet mentioned above who wrote the script for Barnet’s earlier comedy; and Nikolai Erdman, one of the greatest Soviet dramatists, who wrote two of the great classic plays of the NEP period: The Suicide and The Warrant. With talent like this providing the script and Barnet’s gift for improvisation and detail, the film shows a texture so rich that it is a wonder that so few histories posit it as one of the seminal films of the Soviet twenties.
This simple story tells of the journey to Moscow of the peasant immigrant Parasha, played by Vera Maretskaya, who would become one of the great Soviet actors. Multiple elements make The House on Trubnaya Square the most successful fusion of the popular and the avant-garde, of the principles of montage and mis-en-scene, in 1920s Soviet cinema. They include the interweaving of a number of themes relating to contemporary life during the NEP period, combined with Barnet’s comic treatment of characteristic overblown Soviet rhetoric (the demonstration scene ends with Parasha finding herself alone in an empty square); the splendid evocation of a Moscow waking up (which recalls those superlative shots of Khutsiev’s Moscow of I Am Twenty shot decades later); and a series of great comic scenes (the hilarious end to the theatrical play devoted to the storming of the Bastille and the Gogolesque preparations by her hitherto dismissive neighbours to welcome Parasha, who they mistakenly believe has been elected to the Moscow Soviet). Here one feels a filmmaker doing something comparable to what Zoshchenko, Olesha, and Bulgakov were still able to do in literature: to create a picture of social life during the NEP period that is comic to the point of absurdity, but one that creates its comedy from the details of daily life. Kushnirov has said that The House on Trubnaya Square is like a mini-encyclopaedia of Moscow life (Kushnirov 87), so full is it of all the tiny details that comprise everyday life in a metropolis. That this comedy was even more severely attacked by critics than his previous one was a sign of the times and of the increasingly harsh nature of cultural debate on the eve of the growing project of Stalinisation of the party and of the country.
The other two films of the silent period have been given short shrift by many contemporary film critics and film historians. As mentioned earlier, his film for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Moscow in October, has been viewed by many as paling before the two classics of Eisenstein and Pudovkin devoted to this anniversary. The fact that, at least until very recently, most of the film was missing has meant that its reported failure is based heavily on contemporary opinions. Youngblood, who has seen the extant three reels, concurred with this negative opinion, criticizing the bad staging of each scene as well as unconvincing mass scenes and Barnet’s work with the “inept non-professional” Nikandrov as Lenin (he also starred in Eisenstein’s October). For Youngblood, the main point of interest is Barnet’s use of formalist techniques — such as cross-cutting, fast-cutting, and fancy camera angles (Youngblood 134), which would help him in future and better made films like the above mentioned The House on Trubnaya Square. Christie’s opinion is more nuanced, arguing that the extant section of the film is not so badly made as many thought. For Christie it still resonates with Barnet’s special touch but simply fails to give the revolution a heroic character (which for Christie was the reason for the prevailing contemporary negative view of the film).
Barnet’s final major silent film The Ice Breaks, made at the end of the silent period (1931), is also considered a low point in Barnet’s production. Youngblood summarily dismisses the film as “the tale of a drunken Soviet chairman under the sway of local kulaks,” with the action being resolved by the fact that “the kulaks murder the chairman and are brought to trial by the bedniaks” (Youngblood 137). Christie, while admitting that it lacks the force or visual sense of his great silent films, states that the director’s fundamental qualities — a concrete sense of detail and use of irony — still shine though (Christie op cit 81). Eisenschitz calls it a “truly formalist film” and one in which “each frame, action and cut is carefully thought out to express fully the tension of class conflict” (Eisenschitz in Christie and Taylor 156). This reworking of Dovzhenko’s Earth may have been another film alien to Barnet’s comic genius, but it was a further step in broadening Barnet’s output and maturing his style. If the silent period showed the flashes of brilliance as well as the unevenness of Barnet’s talent, the next few years would see him produce two worldwide masterpieces that place him as a precursor of French Poetic Realism and the work of Jean Renoir, as well as an influence on the French New Wave through the works of Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette.
Barnet into the Thirties and the War Years
Soviet cinema in the 1930s has been seen as a reversal into the parochialism of Socialist Realism and barely worth a line in the history of world cinema. Emphasis is given to the attack on formalism, the triumph of mise-en-scene over montage, the theatricalisation and emphasis on the script over the revolutionary artistic discoveries of the canonised five.9 Yet there is an alternative story of the Soviet thirties waiting to be told: how it could have evolved were it not for the undisputed pressures on filmmakers to make certain types of film and on screenwriters to write certain types of scripts. In this context, Barnet’s output in the thirties (with one exception10) is an indicator of an alternative road that Soviet cinema may have taken had it been allowed to develop freely. His output in that decade is based around three films that show how far Barnet managed to transcend genres. If in the twenties he showed his genius in making comedies of contemporary life, in the thirties he managed to tell the tale of the Great War and the 1917 revolutions in the context of a provincial backwater mixing lyricism and tragedy, injecting comedy into moments of great drama and pathos in his masterpiece Outskirts (1933). He would go on to make By the Bluest of Seas (1936), which, through the good offices of Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francaise, both paved the way for and influenced the French New Wave — something of a miracle given that it was shot during the most hysterical period of Stalin’s rule at the start of the Great Terror. At the end of the decade, his third film appeared. The Old Jockey is another lyrical (often underestimated) masterpiece scripted by his old friend and previously exiled dramatist Nikolai Erdman. These three films demonstrate an ability to work outside of the constraints of the extreme rhetoric of Socialist Realism and to craft a style that would have an influence on later generations not only of Soviet Thaw filmmakers but also on later generations of French filmmakers.11
If there was one film from the thirties that was both to use the lessons of the revolutionary twenties and to create new possibilities (and even a new path) for Soviet cinema, that film was Outskirts. Recounting epic events like World War I and the revolution that Eisenstein and Pudovkin showed in their revolutionary epics like Battleship Potemkin and The End of Saint Petersburg was done in a new way. These events were retold not as epic tales of heroism but through the “minimalism” of the everyday life of inhabitants of a backwater town far from the centre of events. What was not portrayed was the epic struggle, the grandeur of war and revolution, the heroism and implacability of revolutionary sacrifices. If in Dovzhenko’s Arsenal the revolutionary hero, Timosh, is portrayed as immortal, untouched by bullets, in Outskirts the death of the revolutionary soldier is dealt with in a diametrically opposite way, depriving it of exaggerated pathos and heroism. If Soviet cinematography had found its epic spokesman in Eisenstein, its Tolstoy in Pudovkin, then Barnet was to emerge here as Soviet cinemas Chekhov, where outer action finds its own interior development, as the Soviet critic Nikolai Lebedev argued.12 In Outskirts an incredible collective of actors from different theatrical and film backgrounds was gathered (Meyerhold, the Moscow Art Theatres, the Maly theatre as well as already established film actors from Kuleshov, Kozintsev and Trauberg and Pudovkin’s films); and Barnet was, as stated above, the ultimate actor’s director. This collective managed to do what Eisenstein and even Pudovkin had failed to do — to give the characters a real individuality. What Barnet created in this film was something greater than the sum of these acting talents; he set a completely new tone in Soviet cinema through his ability to overcome the separation of comedy and tragedy, humour and pathos. In an article directly addressed to Barnet, Bela Balasz stated it thus:
In your films there is an explosion of laughter in the saddest of scenes. A tragic moment is at one and the same time comic . . . you don’t give a caricature of serious things. You show them in a serious manner . . . but you simply don’t sift them, you don’t cleanse them of the grotesque and comic details which may stick to the most serious of things . . . Tragedy and comedy are no longer in your films two different categories and thanks to this you have overcome that dualism which forces people to see life as either tragic or comic.” (Balasz quoted in Zorkaya; my translation from the Russian 193).
Outskirts is rich with examples of such moments, the most memorable being a scene in the trenches when one of the characters pretends to be dead, triggering reactions of both uproarious laughter and disconsolate gloom in his comrades. Also prevalent in the film is an ability to lighten moments of what would be heightened pathos in other Soviet films — the character who strays from the demonstration to pursue a woman with her lapdog sitting on a bench; the kitten that strays amongst the strikers before the police charge; the dog hanging by his leash at the farewell ceremony before the march off to war; and the wonderful sound gag in which what appears to be the shooting of unarmed strikers by the police ends up as the noise from a child’s rattle. This deflation of pathos, present throughout Barnet’s career, was rather unique in the Stalinist period and only developed later in the Thaw years and beyond by a number of directors.13 The film is notable for the absence of the hysterical declamatory style predominant in Stalinist cinema and the genuine humanism of Barnet’s internationalism in Outskirts (the obvious parallel to Outskirts in Western cinema is Renoir’s The Great Illusion. Much remains to be said of the many parallels between Renoir and Barnet as filmmakers).14
Barnet’s next film departed even more radically from Socialist Realism. By the Bluest of Seas was an exercise in lyrical impressionism based on an “emotional scenario”15 and, arguably, one of the greatest tributes to nonchalance during the height of the Stalinist period of mobilisation and terror. The film was shot after Barnet spent a period abroad promoting Outskirts, which gained international fame. By the Bluest of Seas was a joint production between Mezhrabpom and the Azerbaizhan Film Studios and was shot in the region of the Caspian. The film’s setting was an unlikely fishing kolkhoz (collective farm) named “The Flames of Communism” but this film has nothing in common with the collective farm comedies of Pyrev. And in spite of its light, lyrical tone it cannot really be termed a comedy. The plot is simple: two engineers get washed up on the shore of the farm after a shipwreck and both fall in love with the president of the kolkhoz, Masha (played by Barnet’s then wife, Elena Kuzmina). Much of the film is taken up with their friendship and rivalry for Masha’s heart. Finally the two men learn that Masha is in love with another man, a sailor serving in the Far East, and they depart. The structure is symmetrical and the tone is one of pure nonchalance — no question of meeting production quotas, fulfilling plans, building communism. The film ignores all the rhetoric of the time, all the mannerism of Socialist Realism; and the drama is based on small misunderstandings without any conceivable importance.
By the Bluest of Seas was well received at a showing for filmmakers but was later severely attacked in the press. The attack was part of a campaign against all “emotional scenarios” (the best-known of which was Eisenstein’s doomed Bezhin Meadow, which, curiously, was offered first to Barnet to direct). This brief, unlikely season of the emotional scenario (which also included Pudovkin’s film Life Is Wonderful and Dovzhenko’s Ivan) was a curious interlude in Socialist Realism; the scripts of Rzhezhevsky and Mints undermined the strict control systems of Soviet film production. Unsurprisingly, most of the films shot with this type of script were either shelved or placed on a blacklist so that after a brief release they wouldn’t be shown again.
After By the Bluest of Seas, Barnet found it difficult to work for another three years, but did make one film that most commentators today see as his worst: One Night in September. This was a story of Stakhanovites and saboteurs and featured the historical Stakhanov himself acting as a “consultant.”
Barnet then made his only film that was banned outright: The Old Jockey. If By the Bluest of Seas was a hymn to youth, The Old Jockey was devoted to a jockey seen as too old and whose rival tries to banish him from the track. The film is not an obvious candidate for shelving (Barnet was not a “dissident” filmmaker but one who was skilled in letting “life seep into his films”). As Eisenschitz says (making clear that it was a regular feature of Barnet’s films): “No lesson taught, no exemplary characters: a loose sequence of events within a tight structure . . . but within [the] scrupulous equilibrium, everything is constantly displaced. Once the point of a scene or a shot is established, it is immediately side-stepped, as if being shown through the wrong end of a telescope, or at least not developed” (Eisenschitz 158). As Eisenschitz goes on to demonstrate, Barnet’s path strongly diverges from both American and Soviet pre-war cinema with their maximum impact and maximum economy following the shortest route from one point to the next in the story; Barnet’s storytelling gives equal weight to minimal gestures and thereby divests them of any great ideological significance. The Old Jockey was another film where he used the services of the great dramatist Nikolai Erdman as well as Mikhail Volpin. (To his credit, he was not overawed by the scenario and proceeded to transform it, as he had others. In this case, this was particularly difficult as the scenario was in itself an exceptional piece of literature, as could be expected given the talent of the screenwriters.)
The banning of The Old Jockey was followed by the banning of other films of his made during the war — counterintuitively, since censorship was less common at the time. Many speak highly of Barnet’s war-era films such as A Priceless Head (1942) and Men of Novgorod (1943), which are rarely shown. The most significant of these films is, arguably, Once at Night (1945), made at the very end of the war and soon shelved because it was seen as too gloomy. This film once again shows an extraordinary ability to state themes that would only be broached a decade or so later during the Thaw. The refusal to give in to the rhetoric of heroism is accentuated by the choice of the main character played by Irina Radchenko, who represents a woman ruled not by selfless courage but by a desperate fear. The contrast between Donskoy’s Rainbow, with its inflexibly heroic mother sacrificing her child in the fight against Nazism, and Barnet’s film, with its terrified, panicky heroine, marks that chasm between Socialist Realism and the lyrical truth of the Thaw represented most memorably by Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier. Once at Night can be seen as a precursor to these nonjudgmental films about the recent war with their lack of rhetoric and Radchenko’s character is a kind of path-breaker to that memorable, complex portrayal of a woman in war by Tatiana Samoilova. While Once at Night had many shortcomings (including, perhaps, some rather sloppy work by the cameraman and some stereotyped minor characters), it represented an interesting departure from some of the naturalistic excesses of Soviet films made during World War II.
A meeting devoted to the film in May 1945 and attended by the great formalist writer Viktor Shklovsky and film critic Khersonsky offers a very interesting account of how Barnet was viewed at the time. Shklovsky states that Barnet was much closer to the inner or spiritual life of the average Soviet citizen even though the intellectual side of the Barnet character is weak (Shklovsky draws a comparison here with Eisenstein as embodying the opposing trends). Khersonsky also draws on this idea but in a more critical way; for him, there was always an “infantile” essence to all Barnet’s characters that made it impossible for the director to successfully build drama. Khersonsky goes as far to state that Barnet’s films have a surrealistic feel, which in Soviet times would not have had a positive ring to it. This view of the director’s dramaturgical failings was shared by many Soviet critics of the time, which meant they excluded him from the pantheon of directors. In retrospect, Barnet’s “infantilism,” or his light touch, is what is most attractive to contemporary viewers precisely because it avoids that Soviet dramaturgy and heavy rhetoric.
The established Soviet view of the post-war films by Barnet was that they represented a decline in his directorial powers. Critic Mark Kushnirov, who wrote the only major study of Barnet, dedicates a mere eight pages to Barnet’s last seventeen years of filmmaking, following The Exploits of an Intelligence Agent (1948), which even today is seen as Barnet’s best post-war film.16 One of the most notable spy thrillers of post-war Soviet cinema (a genre that was later developed in the Stirlitz series Seventeen Moments of Spring and in Savva Kulish’s Dead Season), it tells the tale of a Soviet agent in Nazi-occupied Kiev. John Gillett, writing after the only major Barnet retrospective to be held in the UK (at the NFT in 1980), stated that this thriller, shot in 1947, “seems closely influenced by American wartime models, the Germanic shadow of Lang and the convoluted plotting of Graham Greene” (Gillett, 1980).17 In this film Barnet was fortunate to work with cameraman Danil Demutsky (associated with the silent classics of Dovzhenko) who added special visual touches to complement Barnet’s vision. Artistic director M. Umansky also made an important contribution to the film, giving a strong sense of the inhuman and soulless surroundings of Nazi interiors. To Eisenschitz, Exploits had a noticeable Hitchcockian feel to it that countered the then predominantly “realistic” trend in cinema. He further claims that “Barnet was one of the few to use film narration as the source of emotion” (Eisenschitz op cit 160). Other things to note about this film is the excellent group of actors,18 which included Barnet himself (in the guise of German general Kuhn) and the intelligence agent Fedotov played by Pavel Kadochnikov (the actor who had played Vladimir Staritsky in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible). Kadochnikov was a uniquely Barnetian trouvaille who does justice to critic Neya Zorkaya’s opinion that Barnet was the ultimate actor’s director in Soviet cinema (Zorkaya 2000, 186-214). In spite of its technical brilliance, however, it is arguably Barnet’s most impersonal film.
If, for Kushnirov, it was all downhill from this point on in Barnet’s career, many other critics would deny this. It is helpful to question why exactly viewpoints differ so radically and how Barnet can be viewed so divergently. The post-war period and the Thaw period would not make him reinvent himself in the way that it would with Kalatozov (Barnet would not return to the Formalist experimentalism of the 1920s as would Kalatozov and Urusevsky), but there remained a dogged Chekhovian emphasis on the details of ordinary life, of comedy and pathos that would resist the rhetoric of late Stalinism and would equally be immune to the sincerity of Thaw re-appraisals.
For good reason Late Stalinism is seen as the very dullest and most arid period of Soviet cinema’s history. The “lakirovka” of Pyriev’s collective farm musicals and the static monumentalism of Stalinist biopics have meant that no monograph on this period has been written. Yet Barnet’s Bountiful Summer (1951) would inspire Rivette’s statement that Barnet was the greatest Soviet director after Eisenstein. This astounded Kushnirov and even Barnet himself, who was very critical of this film. A re-viewing of Barnet’s collective farm comedy supports Rivette’s argument that “Barnet’s outlook on the world and on the Soviet universe is one of innocence” (quoted in Eisenschitz op cit 239) and permits us to re-read the film as a questioning of personal and public boundaries. For example, the scene between Vera and the accountant Ruban talking about production quotas while charged with an unspoken desire for each other wonderfully illustrates Rivette’s characterization of Stakhanovism as a new form of shyness. The comic scene of Nazar demanding to know of the Marxist view on jealously from his political boss will be alluded to in Ettore Scola’s Jealousy Italian Style, with the Mastroianni character attempting to ask the same question at a Communist rally. Bountiful Summer has been called by the critic Anna Kukulina a “poem of movement”; for her, Pyriev’s better known Cossacks of the Kuban was in comparison “a mere fresco, static and frozen” (Kukulina).
The early or pre-Thaw period saw release of Barnet’s Liana (1955), a film rarely commented on despite Barnet working with two assistant directors, Marlen Khutsiev and Leonid Gaidai, would would become major figures in post-war Soviet cinema. (Khutsiev was the main figure of a still insufficiently explored Soviet New Wave, and Gaidai was perhaps the most popular director of Soviet comedy.) According to various accounts, including those of Khutsiev and Ioseliani, Barnet was “dead-drunk and decided to opt out” of the filming (Ioseliani cited in Eisenschitz op cit), yet even here one feels an almost late-Kusturica sense of chaos and energy.
The two subsequent films set wholly or partly in Odessa are marked by an interesting use of colour. The Poet (1956), set in the early days of the revolution and at the beginning of the Civil War in Odessa and partly based on the life of the poet Eduard Bagritsky, is typical of the resurgence of Leninist enthusiasm, although its call for some pre-dogmatic conception of art (predating Socialist Realism) played out in the scene of an argument between artists is echoed later in the comic scene in Barnet’s final film Whistlestop (1963), where an old lady brings out some cubist portraits of herself made by previous artists who had visited her village. In this film, Barnet worked yet again with one of Russia’s most significant writers, Valentin Kataev. From tales of revolutionary enthusiasm, his next film (which Barnet completed after director Konstantin Iudin died after shooting just one reel) recounts tales of grief, deceit, and the wanderings of a circus clown (based on the historical personage of Anatoly Durov) and a world champion wrestler (based on Ivan Poddubny). It has some of the hallmarks of Barnet — the running gag in the guise of a deaf character, the outsider and his wanderings, and even the typical circular form of Barnet’s films, where the beginning and ending are similar or identical scenes. Even though he did not diverge from the script (according to Kushnirov), it is perhaps one of Barnet’s most personal films. (Barnet’s early career as a boxer may be one reason for this as well as a growing sense of being the victim of deception and humiliation — a palpable theme in the film.) Next would come Barnet’s one and only melodrama Annushka (1959), a story of a war widow bringing up her children after the war in a town under reconstruction. Strangely, this was one of Barnet’s favourites as well as a popular success, and yet retrospectively it is clearly one of his weaker efforts. Melodrama is not one of Barnet’s genres; in this genre there can be no place for the director’s Chekhovian splendour and no mixing of the comic and the poignant (or tragic). Annushka is very thin compared to works like The Cranes Are Flying and seems an incongruous intruder into the Barnet oeuvre.
Barnet’s last two films, however, represent a return to form. Alyonka (1961, below) is a kind of road movie where various characters tell stories of wit and woe and equivocations. It features one of the greatest writers, actors, and directors of post-war Soviet cinema, Vasili Shukshin. The film presages both Shukshin’s later films in his scenes as well as Elem Klimov’s Welcome, or No Unauthorized Entry (1965) in its story of a little girl that features speeded-up action, the child-like anarchy and subversion of the adult world, and comic synching techniques. This road movie based on the Khrushchev-era Virgin Lands project recaptures some of Barnet’s Chekhovian greatness displayed most splendidly in Outskirts; the allusion to Chekhov is made explicit in the constant reference to the “Lady with a Lapdog” story.
Perhaps the film that has been most misread by critics is Whistlestop (1963). Kushnirov sees it as a final denouement. The “tedious, sickly-sweet film,” which held no interest for either critics or public (according to Kushnirov) is, in fact, anything but this. It has the vigour of The Old Jockey, and, as Eisenschitz rightly states, “we are once again in a typically Barnetian structure, where every pan . . . yields a surprise” (Eisenschitz op cit 162). The arrival of yet another artist into the village (like the arrival of the accountant in the collective farm of Bountiful Summer with its meeting on a bridge) prefigures scene after scene of subtle comedy on weariness, a theme that always brought out the best in Barnet, as The Old Jockey testifies. This strange artist with his war wounds who fixes and mends objects (although this isn’t his speciality), his tiredness, and his constantly being rudely awoken but never losing his cool or his humanity, is, perhaps, one of the fullest self-portraits we have of Barnet.
Barnet’s universe without logic; his art without mannerisms; his films without structures, rhetoric, or ideology; his ability to “reanimate the most petrified forms” (in the words of Eisenschitz) mean that Soviet cinema had to offer a uniquely different kind of master — a Soviet Renoir. The fact that his artistry has inspired the likes of Soviet New Wave directors such as Shukshin, the early Klimov, and Khutsiev indicates that our concept of Soviet Cinema, based on the categories of montage, revolutionary epic, or poetic cinema, needs a thorough overhaul. Barnet and his successors embodied a lyric trend that holds its own with the giants Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, and Tarkovsky. Soviet cinema should no longer be limited to the pantheon of these acknowledged giants. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has wisely observed, there is nothing minor about Boris Barnet (Rosenbaum).
Burch, Noel. “In & Out of Synch: The Awakening of a Cine-Dreamer” (Chapter 11 Harold Lloyd vs. Doctor Mabuse, pp. 228-37) Aldershot, 1991.
Christie, Ian, in Albera, F. and Cosandey, R. (eds.) “Barnet tel qu’en lui-meme ou L’exception et la regle” In Boris Barnet: Ecrits, Documents, Etudes, Filmographie, pp.74-85, Locarno, 1985.
Eisenschitz, Bernard, in Christie, I. & Taylor, R. (eds.). “A Fickle man, or Portrait of Boris Barnet as a Soviet director.” In Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema, pp. 151-64, London, 1994.
Gillett, John. “Russian Tides: Soviet Films and Boris Barnet.” Sight & Sound, Issue 202, Vol. 49, No. 4, 1980.
Kukulina, Anna Neobyazatel’ny Vozdukh. “Boris Barnet I Jean Renoir (An Unobliging Air: Boris Barnet & Jean Renoir),” Kinovedcheskie Zapisky Vol. 46, pp. 348-366, 2000.
Kushnirov, Mark. Zhizn’ I filmy Borisa Barneta (The Life and Films of Boris Barnet), Moscow, 1977.
Macdonald, Dwight. “The Soviet Cinema 1930-1938,” Partisan Review, Vol. 5, Nos. 2& 3, 1938 (pp. 37-50 and pp. 35-63).
Margolit, Evgeny. “Barnet I Eisenstein v Kontekste Sovetskogo Kino (Barnet and Eisenstein in the Context of Soviet Cinema),” Kinovedcheskie Zapisky, Vol. 17, pp. 165-80, 1993.
Musina, Milena. “Strakh I Smekh: O Filme Borisa Barneta ‘Odnazhdy Nochiu’ (Fear and Laughter: On the Film by Boris Barnet ‘Once at Night’),” Kinovedcheskie Zapisky, Vol. 57 (2002), pp. 158-65.
Youngblood, Denise J. “Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s” (Chapter 7, Boris Barnet: Soviet Actor/ Soviet Director, pp. 125-38) Cambridge, 1992.
Zorkaya, Neya. “‘Ya delayu stavku na aktera’: Boris Barnet v razhniye gody” (“‘I Count on My Actors’: Boris Barnet in Different Periods”), Kinovedcheskie Zapisky, Vol. 47 (2000), pp. 186-214.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Glimpse of a Rare Bird.” (downloaded from internet 22/10/2009)
Brenez, Nicole. Video essay for U samogo sinyego morya / By the Bluest of Seas (1936, Boris Barnet). Featuring commentary by Nicole Brenez, author of Abel Ferrara (University of Illinois Press), professor of cinema studies at Université Paris I and programmer at the Cinémathèque Française.-
- Although Ian Christie argues that because the film has rarely been seen, it is unclear whether it was as clear a failure as many critics argued or it didn’t fit within contemporary expectations of a revolutionary epic by failing to show a heroic side to the revolution. Barnet was a lyricist and not an epic filmmaker, and the portrayal of the October revolution was seen as the domain of the latter group of filmmakers. [↩]
- It is interesting to note that a number of Barnet’s acting roles were those of foreigners including that of Germans in war films (Once at Night) and spy dramas (The Exploits of an Intelligence Agent). [↩]
- 1.7 million people saw the film in the first six months. (Youngblood, 130 [↩]
- As Burch states, the injection of levity opposing a context of gravity is in this film linked to Illinski’s (or Hopkins’s) gag-shots, including one in the midst of a violent confrontation between striking workers and Pinkerton cops. [↩]
- Kushnirov lists these actors as Anna Sten, Vera Maretskaya, Ada Voitsik, Ivan Koval-Samborsky, Serafima Birman, and Pavel Pol (Kushnirov, 47). Some of them would have long, distinguished careers ahead of them. Anna Sten became a Hollywood star, though she did not achieve the success she seemed destined for given her superlative performance in the lead role of Girl with a Hatbox. [↩]
- This owes much to Kushnirov’s account of the difference between the two directors (Kushnirov 46-7), but regarding Barnet’s love of chaos there are many testimonials including that of his former wife Elena Kuzmina and Ioseliani. This trait was shared by Jean Renoir, and there are many ways in which the two directors may be said to have a common approach and point of view. [↩]
- Other examples were the films of Komarov (who himself played the fiendish Chiche in Miss Mend), who directed the gem The Kiss of Mary Pickford. The development of Soviet satirical comedy was a possibility in the liberalised NEP period but decidedly a rarity in the “high” period of Socialist Realism. During that time Aleksandrov and Pyryev would produce either a bombastic Soviet “blockbuster” comedy again trying to transplant American comedy onto Soviet soil (in the case of Aleksandrov), or a collective farm comedy which are “hymns to the glory of socialist labour in the fields” (in the case of Pyryev) (Gillespie 41). At that time only the often shelved work of Medvedkin would develop the genre in innovative ways. After the death of Stalin, a new Soviet comedy was again possible in the guise of works by Ryazanov, Danelia, and Gaidai as well as the Georgian director Ioseliani, who was soon to move to France to further develop his particular form of comedy. [↩]
- Wildly differing accounts of the reaction to the film have been given by Barnet’s Soviet biographer Mark Kushnirov (who stated that the reaction was almost universally positive) and by the American film historian Denise Youngblood (who stated that critics attacked the film with “vitriolic energy” [Youngblood 133]). [↩]
- A classic statement of this view was made by Dwight Macdonald in his July 1938 article in Partisan Review. In that year he saw the situation of the Soviet cinema thus: “Every single one of the radical innovations which Eisenstein and his peers introduced, and which were the base of their entire theory of cinema, every one has been discarded — officially proscribed, indeed. Montage is hardly a memory, the professional actor has been reinstated, the camera stays timidly inside the studio walls, the photographed play or novel has come back, and the slightest effort at experiment is a state offense. Any attempt to rebel against this degeneration is denounced as ‘formalism,’ an affair of the police” (Macdonald, 38). This view of the trajectory of Soviet cinema has much in common with that of Herbert Marshall and ignores the contributions of the popular cinema of the twenties and the extraordinary list of films of the thirties that carried on experimenting against the odds. To name but a few films from the middle of the decade: Room’s A Strict Youth, Gendelshtein’s Love and Hate, Medvedkin’s Happiness and Miracle Worker, and Faintsimmer’s Lieutenant Kizhe all add to the conclusion that experiment was not dead and filmmakers not completely cowed into submission. [↩]
- The exception is Barnet’s A Night in September, which was made in 1939 and which as Eisenschitz states was hardly made at all. Kushnirov notes that it was one of only two films in which Barnet didn’t stray from the script at all. A film about Stakhanovites and saboteurs, it was made late in the stage of those denunciatory films such as Pyryev’s A Party Card or Macheret’s The Mistake of Engineer Kochin. Barnet made the film after the very poor reception of his By the Bluest of Seas, but plainly his heart wasn’t in it. [↩]
- Both Godard and Rivette acknowledged the importance of Barnet. Godard spoke of the director’s “triangle style,” and Rivette said that Soviet cinema’s two greatest filmmakers were Eisenstein and Barnet. Langlois, according to Eisenschitz, showed By the Bluest of Seas (as well as his 1958 film The Wrestler and the Clown) so regularly at the Cinematheque Francaise that even without subtitles, intrigued audiences would eventually go to see them (Eisenschitz in Taylor and Christie,151). [↩]
- He argues that in both Chekhov’s plays and in the film Outskirts “an important role is played by everything that goes on beneath the words — the concealed and repressed emotions of its characters, the pauses and hints, the circumstances and atmosphere of events, the combination of comic and dramatic elements, all building a profound inner rhythm” (Lebedev quoted in Leyda, 290). [↩]
- That the most notable of these directors — Ioseliani, Danelija, and Khutseyev — were either Georgian or had Georgian roots is a curious fact. One could argue that the early satires of Elem Klimov also had a certain Barnetian humour. [↩]
- An article in the Russian film journal Kinovedcheskie Zapiski was devoted to the parallels between Barnet and Renoir — and not just in their two war films of the thirties. Both had a working method that favoured chaos, chance, and improvisation. Kukulina made further parallels between Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya Square and Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning as well as the two films devoted to World War II, Barnet’s Once at Night and Renoir’s This Land Is Mine. [↩]
- The emotional scenario was a screenplay linked to the name of Aleksandr Rzheshevsky, who worked both with Pudovkin on the original project for what was to become A Simple Case as well as with Eisenstein on the ill-fated Bezhin Meadow. This type of scenario was first theorised by Eisenstein in the 1929 article “The Form of the Script.” He argued that “a script is merely a shorthand record of an emotional outburst striving for realisation in an accumulation of visual images” (Eisenstein pp.134-35). This type of script would go against the grain of bureaucratic control of the film process inherent in Stalinist cinema and leave great freedom to the director. It proved a short-lived experiment in Soviet cinema. [↩]
- In an evening dedicated to Boris Barnet held at Moscow’s “Dom Kino” recently, the film director Marlen Khutsiev chose this film to remember him by. [↩]
- Eisenschitz shares with Gillett this view that it was influenced by American wartime cinema, recalling “the most Expressionist aspects” of this cinema. Eisenschitz finds evidence of Barnet’s “characteristic shot structure and his organization of space,” which imposes “symmetry rather than directorial or temporal continuity” (Eisenschitz op cit, 159). [↩]
- It is possibly Barnet’s greatest acting ensemble since Outskirts. [↩]