Boris Barnet: Outskirts/The Patriots & Girl with the Hatbox

The Girl with the Hatbox (1930)

Outskirts/The Patriots (1933)

Outside of Jonathan Rosenbaum, who called Outskirts and By the Bluest of Seas masterpieces, Boris Barnet is a little-known figure even in cinephile communities. It’s a shame too, as the two films on this DVD point towards an early master of Soviet cinema. Of course, even mentioning “Soviet cinema” brings to mind the likes of Eisenstein, montage theory, and propaganda, but Barnet is the rarest of birds: an early master of Russian cinema that shies away from propaganda, and is supremely tasteful and judicious in his use of montage. The Girl with the Hatbox closely recalls the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin in its elegance and charming humor. In the case of Outskirts, the truth is more devious; it’s a film that’s almost anti-Soviet in its satire, mixing comedy, drama, war, as well as sound and images in utterly original ways for a film from 1933.

In The Girl with the Hatbox, Anna Sten plays Natasha, a young girl who lives with her grandfather and makes hats for Madame Irene (Serafima Birman). Irene is married to her lazy husband, Paul (Pavel Pol), who uses the room that Natasha supposedly rents for them for laying around. One day, on her way to Irene’s, Natasha meets the clumsy Ilya Snegiryov (Ivan Koval-Samborsky), a young student studying in Moscow. While the two don’t hit it off at first, Natasha takes pity on him when she learns that he’s sleeping in the local railroad station. This prompts her to “marry” Ilya and take him back to “her room” that she “rents” from Irene, but neither Irene nor her husband like it, and things get even more complicated when Paul pays Natasha with a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner.

If you imagine the graceful social comedies of Lubitsch combined with the sentimental, romantic, slapstick comedies of Chaplin, then you have an accurate description of The Girl with the Hatbox. To pull such a work off you need both the effortless light touch of the director combined with the alluring talent of the stars. Thankfully, this film has both. Anna Sten’s Natasha is especially outstanding in one of the finest silent female roles I’ve ever seen. She actually reminds me of a more naïve, less erotically charged version of Louise Brooks. She certainly has the same effervescent energy and magnetism, but with a lightness better suited to comedy; call her a yin to Brooks’ yang. Another quality she shares with Brooks is the ability to deliver a broad canvas of emotions simply through her facial gestures, and, also like Brooks, she loves traipsing through as many as possible, effortlessly transitioning from coy shyness to authoritative surety.

Although the film is certainly a comedy, it actually plays better as a romance, as the former element comes up short if you’re looking for laugh-out-loud funny moments à la Chaplin or Keaton. This is especially true in light of the chemistry between Anna Sten’s Natasha and Ivan Koval-Samborsky’s Ilya, and even more so considering the central plot involving Irene, her husband, and the lottery ticket almost seems like an afterthought. All of the film’s best moments involve Natasha and Ilya, even early on when they first meet inside the train and Ilya accidentally steps on and crushes Natasha’s hat that she’s delivering to Irene. When Natasha and Ilya first try to move into “their room,” the comedy and romance synthesize for the first time as it takes an hilarious effort on everyone’s part to clear the room of its guests and furniture, leaving Natasha and Ilya alone to sleep on the floor. Even their sleep is filled with furtive, flirty gestures, including many grin inducing shared glances.

Barnet also saves the best for last, namely the epic chase down involving a lottery ticket that finally finds Natasha and Ilya together and in possession of their winnings. At first, Ilya doesn’t think he’s worthy of Natasha and attempts to leave, but Natasha calls him back, accidentally pricking her finger and provoking Ilya to kiss it to stop the bleeding. This gives Natasha the idea to prick her lips and provoke him to do the same. Maybe it’s cheesy, but it makes for one of the most “awwwww” moments outside of Chaplin’s cinema. While this film certainly stands in this shadow of its much more significant younger sibling on this DVD, it still an utterly delightful silent comedy that glides by in its sprightly sixty-minute runtime.

Outskirts is certainly a film on a much grander scale, yet it still retains the intimacy, humanism, and comedy of Hatbox, but set in a much darker, sardonic tone. A plot synopsis is difficult considering the film is composed of impressionistic sketches involving a small rural town near the end of Tsarist Russia. The opening finds the elderly Alexander Petrovich (Sergei Komarov) living with his daughter, Anka, and a German boarder named Robert Karl (Robert Erdman) living in the wake of a worker’s strike headed by another boarder named Alexander Feodorovich. Eventually, the war splits the Russian Petrovich and German Karl apart, and the film moves to the war-torn battlefields. When it returns, Anka has found a boyfriend amongst the German POWs residing in the Russian town, and it’s not long before the Tsar is abdicated and the temporary Soviet government takes over.

Really, that plot synopsis only scratches the surface of the substance that’s here. Given the film’s breath, complex concoction of characters, themes, tones, and subtly building associative dramatic tension, I can understand what lead Rosenbaum to proclaim it a masterpiece. If it didn’t feel quite so scattershot I may have been more tempted to agree with his assessment. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is that it lacks a hook early on to pull us into it. None of the characters have the emotional immediacy or contagious charm of Anna Sten’s Natasha in Hatbox, and given the general lack of overt plot, drama, and development early on it’s easy to tune out before Barnet unleashes some of the most devastatingly powerful examples of Soviet montage in the history of cinema.

It could almost be said that the entire film builds up to the final fifteen or twenty minutes. Throughout, Barnet has deftly orchestrated and juxtaposed silence and sound, war and peace, domesticity and society, comedy and drama, work and play, and a variety of associative images solely so he can assimilate them all in a transcendental barrage. The ending elevates the deep humanism at the core of the film above politics, propaganda, war, and every petty obsession and misguided idealism that was such an integral part of Soviet cinema and even Russia as a nation during that period. Perhaps the most powerful combination finds Barnet crosscutting the machine gun like sounds of the workers in the shoe factory with the actual machine guns of the battle mowing down soldiers. The suggestiveness of the juxtaposition is immense, essentially equating the “heroic” workers with doing little more than to expedite the death of their fellow Russians.

But not all of film’s finest moments are that cynical. One stunningly gorgeous shot has Barnet panning across a country landscape and twilight as a chorus sings majestically, even heavenly, over the images. But even that is tinged with sadness, like an ephemeral dream of freedom and equality that Barnet realizes will never manifest in reality for the Russian people. But for every moment like that there are others that are completely incongruous. Take the pervasive comedy, that ranges everywhere from the slapstick of a soldier gently kicking a dog off of a bench so he can sit near a pretty lady, to Barnet’s unique use of early sound to make it seem as if an exasperated horse is talking. Other comedic moments feed more into the satire, like the soldier’s “meh, so what?” reaction that the Tsar has abdicated and the Soviets have taken over. These elements bring an absurdist bent to the film, which meshes in endlessly provocative ways with the heavy-hitting drama and social commentary.

If the rest of the film lived up to its best moments then it would indeed be a genuine masterpiece as Rosenbaum claims, but given its unevenness I feel that “masterpiece” is overselling it. Outskirts is certainly a brilliant film that deserves to be seen by every serious cinephile and critic. There’s a tremendous amount of fertile, untouched soil here left to uncover, especially for the more eagle eyed, analytical types out there. I’m rather surprised that it hasn’t received more attention than it has if only for that reason. Outskirts is one of those films that I feel I could never exhaust writing and talking about because of how multifaceted it is. My only regret is that I wish it was as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually satisfying.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: