I first came across Boris Barnet by watching the Russian silent comedy Miss Mend, a frenetic, quirky, episodic tale of a female labor activist and an evil American industrialist. Miss Mend is a slapstick silly assault on capitalism, and while the lifts from American film are clear, there’s also a specifically Russian kind of dark humor — no matter how bad the situation gets, it can still be funny in the most fatalistic way.
Before Miss Mend, I was appreciative of the great Soviet silents, but a bit put off by the Bolshevik weightiness, never quite able to shake my sense that the work was censored. Miss Mend opened my mind to what else was out there — and it put me on the search for more Boris Barnet. (Barnet is credited only as an actor in the Miss Mend (he plays an American journalist), but film theorist Giuliano Vivaldi believes that Barnet was the film’s co-director.) Unfortunately, very few of Barnet’s films are on DVD with English subtitles. These are The House on Trubnaya Square (found in Kino’s Landmarks of Soviet Film set ), The Girl with the Hatbox, By the Bluest of Seas, and the film I’m going to discuss here, Outskirts.
Outskirts, made in 1933, is technically a talkie, but with the subtitles on, I really found that it worked quite naturally as a silent film; the visuals do much to tell the story.
I loved Outskirts (also found under the titles The Patriots — I have no idea why, as the film is subversively not patriotic — and its Russian title, Okraina). Outskirts is irreverent, poignant, and disturbing; I was moved by it, and it’s bumped into the top five films I’ve seen about World War I. Many critics rightfully compare it to Godard’s Grand Illusion. It’s also my favorite Russian film to date. There are a number of interwoven story lines, but put most directly, it’s the tale of a pair of brothers and a pair of friends who are divided by the war, of the effects of war on their isolated town. Two middle aged men, one Russian and one German, play checkers and drink beer together; the war makes them heartbroken enemies. Two brothers, one smart and one dumb, meet their fates in the stalemate of trench warfare. And those in the town of shoemakers display their corruption and their compassion when faced with those labeled the enemy. These situations aren’t presented in any kind of predictable or straightforward manner. They break the conventions of the war films to which I’ve become accustomed (and I’ve seen many). There are strange, disturbing twists which I would love to give away, but won’t; I can’t really get them out of my mind, I found them so startling. There are also some sweet, funny moments, also surprising, as when one brother, Nicolai, has a German soldier practically land in his lap and they rather happily agree that the German ought to now be a prisoner of war. At this point, the film then follows the story of this German soldier, who goes back as a prisoner to our little Russian town, thus linking the stories again in a new way. The depiction of the German soldier is deeply sympathetic, as it is with the German friend; this film takes no sides. (The only side seems to be against pre-revolutionary government and the industrialists who made money from the war.)
All of the stories come together through the setting of the town and through two townspeople: an innocent, knowing girl, and a poor old shoemaker, the brothers’ father. These characters are consistently the fairest and the least involved in the allegiances of the war. This is a complex ensemble, with all characters carrying a certain weight, and none of them serving simply symbolic purposes; both the setting and the characters are highly realistic. Nearly everyone in the film is poor-but-pretty-happy — not in an overly political sense, but in the way that a town full of laborers actually would be. I wasn’t getting too much of a feeling of These are the Proletariat (okay, just a little, as when a strike is depicted), but I rather found myself thinking, “oh, that’s what a little Russian town was really like in the early days of the revolution.”
Every person in this cast was first rate. No one hogged the limelight. No one came off as a caricature. The actors came from a range of theatrical and film backgrounds, and a number of them went on to appear in films for years. Barnet keeps all of the characters (and the actors) in beautiful balance. I can’t even say that I liked one actor more than another, can’t give any kind of special credit. The ensemble was seamless.
Though this is considered a war film, the battle scenes were not epic. They were close up with a focus on the characters. The action is mostly in the trenches — with the exception of a scene in which the German and Russian soldiers who face one another across the expanse attempt to forge their own ceasefire, and nearly pull it off. (By the way, this actually did happen in World War I — bored troops, tired of the stalemate, deciding to quit and wait it out by not shooting at one another anymore. This wasn’t just a symbolic scene.)
Without ever being heavy-handed, the film shows the pointlessness of war. Nobody has a valiant death. Nobody is redeemed. Nobody commits a heroic act (except, perhaps, the innocent girl, Anka). This isn’t played for melodrama — there’s no “oh, the futility!”. It’s simply the way it is. It’s even pulled off with a bit of bitter humor. And there is a very strange and very Russian ending.
Outskirts has been released with another Barnet film, The Girl with the Hatbox, in a set by Image Entertainment produced by David Shepard. It’s a bargain. Everyone who is interested early cinema of all kinds, Russian films, or war films really ought to see this.