Friday, 18 November 2016

Boris Barnet - Three Films, 1927-1935

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)

If there was ever a filmmaker to defy stereotypical expectations of a national cinema, it’s Boris Barnet, a director described as ‘the greatest forgotten master of the golden age of Soviet cinema’. Here I am going to look at three films – his 1927 silent comedy, The Girl with the Hat Box, his humanistic WWI drama from 1933, Outskirts, and his enchanting lyrical bathe in the light and water of of an island in the Caspian sea, By the Bluest of Seas, made in 1935. That was the first film of his that I watched, and that’s the film I’ll start with.

And there is no better place to start than with the words of Barnet’s biographer, Mark Kushnirov, who said of By the Bluest of Seas, ‘it’s an amazing film. A salty, windy, sunny film. You don’t seem to watch it or listen to it, you’re simply absorbing it, like the blue sea air, gulp after gulp.’

A lovely, windblown ‘cinematic fairytale’, its storyline is simplicity itself: two sailors fetch up on an island in the Caspian sea after their boat is shipwrecked and find work at the ‘Lights of Communism’ fishing collective. They also both fall in love with the same girl - the winsomely smiling farm manager Mashenka (Yelena Kuzmina), who teaches her lovesick suitors a lasting lesson about love and faithfulness. It's all done with a smile and an occasional song, and the film is thoroughly imbued with its island environment, this signalled early on by numerous shots of the sun sheening a turbulent sea, the rolling sparkle of waves, and gulls wheeling in front of an immense sun. Barnet’s entrancement with the elements is given form by Mikhail Kirilov’s sublime cinematography, his ingenious long-lensed filming of the sea prompting lead actor Lev Sverdlin to remark that he ‘captured the sea’s emotions on film’. At one point his camera even briefly takes the perspective of a flying fish.

A common theme in commentary on the film is that though people agree that it is exquisitely enjoyable, they find it hard to put a finger on just why this is so. This unfettered enjoyment in visual delight gives a partial answer. Its guilelessness means that you can do nothing but take the film on its own terms. You know that the people and places in the film were clearly and truly seen in a spirit of affection and curiosity and therefore memorably recorded. In this it has a close relation in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, made the previous year, another film whose indelible images can be called to mind years after being seen. As the director Otar Iosseliani says of Barnet, ‘he was a poet at a time when cinema had thrown out all its simple, unmannered poets’.

I think of Mashenka and suitor Youssouf eating lemons as they walk the shoreline and share sour faces; a silhouette of fishermen rowing across a sun-silvered sea and then bringing their boat home, Man of Aran-like, against the crash of waves; the slow-motion tumble of glass beads to Mashenka’s feet as she rips them from her necklace. I think of the curious dreamlike sequence in which somnolent comrades in a meeting give the floor entirely to the complaint of Youssouf against his friend Alyosha, or their mysterious disappearance when Alyosha takes the floor to reply.

Unsurprisingly, the film’s script was officially derided at the time for its ‘emotional’ nature, and the director chided for cutting up Sergey Potosky’s swelling score. That’s the least of its subversive crimes. As Nicole Brenez says of the film, ‘nothing stems from negativity, the only antagonism is between desire and fidelity, By the Bluest of Seas is a film of full and continual euphoria’. To make such a film in Stalinist Russia in 1935 seems remarkable indeed.

It’s a film to discover; as a viewer I can’t help but feel like Alyosha ­- one of the smiling, shipwrecked stripy-topped sailors who can’t quite believe his luck as he gazes in wonder at the lovely girl who just happens to be sitting in a boat nearby on the beach where he has just fetched up. All of a sudden, life is better.

Two years previously, Barnet had made Outskirts – a tale of the First World War told from ‘the outskirts of Tsarist Russia’ –  that begins in 1914 with … ducklings waddling through the wavering reflection of a church in a puddle. Russian soldiers will leave for the Front; German prisoners of war will be relocated to the town; soldiers will die; who or what will fill the space of their senseless loss is the question – though the spirit of the times, and Barnet’s own approach to the subject, make the answer plain, justifying the comparisons with Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, made four years later. This is a story that emphasises brotherhood and the community of a trade over narrow nationalistic boundaries. Meanwhile, young Man’ka - played by Yelena Kuzmina, the same winsome girl from By the Bluest of the Seas, at the time the director’s spouse - again seeks to build bridges with a ready smile, though her task is much more difficult this time round, as others – not least her father – are less willing than she to welcome the presence of nationals from the country with whom they are at war into their lives.

It’s a slightly flintier film than the other two -– it is about the divisions and ruin caused by war after all -– but you can still never quite be sure just where the film is going, and whether comedy, tragedy or a disorienting mix of the two, is just around the corner. This starts early in the film and runs throughout. When Sen’ka, one of the brothers who goes off to war, scoots up to the woman sitting with her dog on a bench, he shuffles along at right angles and swings his leg over, accidentally booting the dog off the bench in the process. He then strokes the dog, perhaps in appeasement, perhaps in an effort to impress its owner – but when this has no effect, gives up and throws it to the ground. More bench humour of a silent film variety recurs later in the film when Man’ka first attempts to strike up an acquaintance with a German PoW, her futile effort ending with a sudden bump as he rises abruptly from one end of the bench and she, just as abruptly, is dumped on the ground at the other. The uncertainty of what to expect even happens in moments of solemnity, as Sen’ka embraces his new lover before he leaves to go the front. Putting his arm around her neck, he ends up hanging (non-fatally) the long-suffering dog by its string. When the soldiers head to war, the train joins in with the three cheers with blasts of steam.

In the first of a number of surprising and innovative uses of sound in the film, after the opritchniks on horseback have dispersed the striking workers who have gathered in solidarity, we hear what we fear is the rattle of machine-gun fire – which turns out to be a young boy who walks into shot making a din with a rattle. Later, Sen’ka is in the trenches, looking forlorn and petrified after having seen the death of a colleague in a shell attack, marked by an extraordinary electronic whistle and whine. A comrade removes a boot from the dead man’s foot; ‘anyone need it?’ he asks. No-one responds so he flings it into the air – whereupon it lands on the floor of the cobbler’s, hundreds of miles away, where Sen’ka’s father is making more boots for the soldiers. His employer flings ever more boots onto the floor, then flinging one which lands as a shell that dumps even more earth on the soldiers’ heads. Sen’ka’s brothjer Kolya feigns death, and increasingly desperate, Sen’ka tries to rouse him, to no avail –- until Kolya wakes with a start and laughs in his face, the rest of his troop laughing with him as Sen’ka sobs and moves his dirt-covered shaven head into the shadows. Things will not end well for him.

Throughout, Barnet softens the edges of scenes, structurally and emotionally, disrupting the formalism of the settings. Some examples: early on, a horse and cart with its rider walk into view at right angles to the camera, as part of the rather constructivist beginning to the film, all squares and diagonals of movement, but, as if refusing to be tied in to such a scheme, the man is asleep and nodding and the horse whinnies a line of dialogue, complaining ‘oh my god,’ in the intertitles. A little later, when Sen’ka finally gets the girl, he turns and gives a crafty wink to the camera, the pair of them walking directly away from the camera.

And then there is the war-weariness; a half-dead German falls among Russians, saying ‘don't kill me, I have a cow and a child at home.’ ‘Explain it to me,’ says an old solider, ‘we don't want to fight, they don't want to fight – but we are in the fourth year of war’. Later, he says he is ‘just delirious’ at the news of revolution taking place at home, but the news is mostly greeted with the shrug of those who have been too long at war. His form of celebration is to dream of home, of Russia’s land and lakes, his reverie interrupted by industrial boot-making equipment working at full speed with a machine-gun clatter.

‘Soldier deputies have taken some Winter Palace or something,’ says the same old soldier to a dying Kolya, shot by his countrymen for sticking a bayonet in the ground, breaking the cycle, raising a white handkerchief and greeting his supposed enemy. As the sound of Bolshevik revolution carries through the air, with Man’ka foremost among the marchers, the old man’s fur cap is turned up at the sides, giving the impression that he is listening to the approaching music. There is always room for a little wry humour.

Humour of a much more acrobatic, rambunctious and physical sort comes with Barnet’s 1927 feature debut, The Girl with the Hat Box, a film made to promote the sale of premium bonds for the State Peasant Loan. It doesn’t sound promising, but it’s a thoroughly jaunty caper that blends winsome naturalism with a healthy dose of slapstick, creating a film to which it is a pleasure to return.

It tells the tale of the eponymous hatmaker Natasha (Anna Sten), a lovelorn railway cashier and homeless student Ilya. After Natasha offers the student the room that is fictitiously held in her name (so the owner can have more living space) at Madame Irene’s, the Moscow hat shop to whom she sells her creations, expediency turns to affection. Complicating things however (but perhaps not in the manner you might expect), is a lottery ticket with which Natasha was paid in lieu of wages.

With a ready and infectious smile, Anna Sten shines out as the sparky, spunky heroine (hoping that he had found the ‘new Garbo’, Samuel Goldwyn tempted her to Hollywood in 1932, only to release her from her contract after a few unsuccessful attempts to break her into the movies there), while Ivan Koval-Samborsky channels the great silent physical comedians in his portrayal of Ilya.

It’s surprising just how physical and irreverent the humour is. Madame Irene’s maid is more acrobat than housemaid; in the tearing about and scuffling at the climax Natasha’s grandfather gets dumped in the snow, twice, and at one point the film censor’s office even objected to the way that Ilya washed himself (with ‘an air of hooliganism’ they said). However, the film balances youthful zest with lyrical interludes and charming tenderness, as in a beautifully-judged scene in which Natasha and Ilya spend a chaste night in an almost bare room. Add to this a number of scenes filmed on the snowy Moscow streets, inventive framing and focussing and subtle comic repetition, and there is much to enjoy. Throughout it all, there is a feeling (familiar to anyone who has seen Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas) of reconciliation and a ready smile always winning out over comedy or tragedy.

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