Slowly but surely the works of Soviet filmmaker Boris Barnet are becoming increasingly more visible. For many years there was just a single release available: a two-disc set from the States pairing his WWI feature Outskirts with the delightful 1927 comedy The Girl with the Hat Box. Things picked up slightly in 2009 when Flicker Alley issued the epic three-part spy flick Miss Mend (co-directed with Fyodor Otsep), though arguably it is this year which has seen the most obvious step forward. A number of his pictures played the BFI Southbank this summer as part of their ‘Kino: Russian Film Pioneers’ season, prompting Barnet-dedicated coverage in Sight & Sound and elsewhere. Plus a number of titles have finally emerged on disc in the UK. Thanks to MovieMail the Russian Cinema Council (Ruscico) DVDs of Outskirts, By the Bluest of Seas and The Girl with the Hat Box can be easily purchased, whilst the first two of that trio have also been picked by Mr. Bongo and issued as extras-free editions this week. 2013, meanwhile, should hopefully see the arrival of Edition Filmmuseum’s long-promised The House of Trubnaya Street and The Girl with the Hat Box (again!) double-bill. That still leaves a great deal unaccounted for – Barnet worked steadily until his death in 1965 amassing twenty-plus directorial credits – but it’s a start.
Reviews of the Ruscico discs for By the Bluest of Seas and The Girl with the Hat Box have already appeared on this site (here and here), though Outskirts has so far evaded our attention. Given the recent availability of two different DVDs in the UK, we’ll be looking at both the Ruscico and Mr. Bongo editions below, but firstly some words on the film itself. Outskirts was Barnet’s first sound feature, made in 1933 and set during the First World War. Its title is explained by its principal location: a small town on the outskirts of Tsarist Russia. At the film’s opening it is a sleepy, seemingly contented town. Here we find casual flirting in the sunshine and drunks passing out on their horses. Only a general strike at the local shoe factory – this being the summer of 1914 – provides drama, though it is soon interrupted by the declaration of war. What follows is an account of how the war years affect the town’s occupants, both young and old, male and female, of German and Russian descent (these outskirts are also happen to be on the border with Germany), in the trenches and back home.
Such a description perhaps makes Outskirts sound positively epic. Indeed, most WWI dramas from the early talkie period generally were: Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front; G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918; Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol. As with those movies Barnet encompasses all manner of explosions and machine gun fire and deaths on the front lines, yet somehow manages to maintain an incredible intimacy. Rather than being swayed by the grand sweep of his tale, he instead maintains a keen interest in the smaller moments and the character details. Furthermore, he lets these moments dictate the tone, not the war itself. Despite the on-going conflict his picture still has time for little bouts of romance or comedy; there’s even a touch of Chaplin-esque slapstick involving a makeshift park bench. Consequently, Outskirts always feels alive to possibilities and keeps its audience on its toes. We can move from the raw terror of trench warfare to light humour within the bleak of an eye, the effect being an arguably more realistic portrait of life during wartime.
Barnet’s attention to detail also translates into the visual style and, especially, his experimentation with the sound format. Outskirts is filled with numerous dazzling moments, whether it be the shot of the father at the train station – solitary and seemingly stoic, though his faces gives something away – almost lost amid the waving crowds rushing past him or the remarkable editing feat which bounces the viewer between the trenches and the town thanks to recurring images of boots. Yet it’s the soundtrack which really impresses and where Barnet’s playfulness really comes to the fore. Though the age of the picture may occasionally result in some of the effects being a touch primitive, the inventiveness nevertheless shines through. The use of music and song as a counterpoint is particularly strong, though arguably it’s the comparatively minor touches which stick in the memory: a horse that seeming exclaims “Oh my God”; the cross-cutting between a steam engine and sundry hurrahs; the incessant factory hooter that abrasively heralds news of war.
Such examples continue to standout today simply because they seem so entirely unconventional. At the time of Outskirts’ production the sound format was still being experimented with and standard practices had yet to be laid down, particularly outside of Hollywood. Within the Soviet there were the likes of Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (natural sounds reconfigured into an impressionistic soundscape) or Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev’s Alone (which place a far greater emphasis on orchestra and sound effects than it did naturalistic dialogue). No room here for the staid and static impracticalities of the early talkies out of Hollywood; Barnet, Vertov and others seemed to be freed by the technology rather than constricted by it. Indeed, Outskirts still feels incredibly fresh today as a result, and despite the primitive technology – a sure sign of Barnet’s exceptional skill and talent.
The two discs under review – the Ruscico ‘Hyperkino’ edition available via MovieMail and the Mr. Bongo DVD – have both been sourced from the same print. The running times are identical (90 minutes and 25 seconds), likewise the framing and the amount of damage and general instability of the image. As this no doubt suggests the print also isn’t in the best of conditions and that’s without mentioning the ‘jaggies’ that are prevalent throughout on either disc. Of the two the Ruscico edges things in the presentation department thanks to a superior encode – the Mr. Bongo has the more prominent compression artefacts – and the slightly sharper image. In both the contrast levels are generally fine, though they can waver from scene to scene and the blacks are generally solid. Both make use of the original soundtrack (which comes with expected hiss and other signs of age) and come with optional English subtitles.
There are no extras on the Mr. Bongo edition, whereas the Ruscico includes a second disc containing both feature and ‘Hyperkino’ commentary. Essentially this means a collection of interactive essays which can be accessed via the remote at key points during the picture. In the case of Outskirts these essays come courtesy of Bernard Eisenschitz (who has written extensively on Nicholas Ray and Fritz Lang among others) and cover all manner of themes and areas of exploration. As well as direct analysis we also get discussion of talking horses, Soviet talkies, background on some of the performers and the use of animals in Barnet’s back catalogue. Illustrative film clips are also used in some cases, mainly from the director’s other features.