6 February 2004 | mgmax
Sardonic view of Russian life around WWI
I first heard of Boris Barnet at the Telluride Film Festival in the mid-80s-- a rather dour intro by the historian Ian Christie was odd prepararation for two absolutely delightful silent comedies, The Girl With a Hatbox (starring Anna Sten, whom Sam Goldwyn would fail to make into the next Garbo) and The House on Trubnaya Street. Outskirts is Barnet's first sound film, and a darker work, though not as it is often described, purely a serious one.
The setting is the year 1914, first in a total backwater (we never know exactly where this town is, or if it's attached to something bigger, it's one town out of a thousand in Tsarist Russia) and then, as war breaks out, at the front as well. The plot is simply a series of episodes, initially comic though increasingly grim, depicting the ordinary folk. Though war is here and the great Soviet revolution is coming, the movie seems to offer little more than a sardonic Russian shrug toward such events, the people much more interested in love and clowning around. Like some other early Soviet talkies, Barnet makes a virtue of primitive Soviet sound technique by using sound expressionistically; the difference between this and a film like Pudovkin's Deserter is that Barnet often uses sound to blow a raspberry at whatever grandiose thing is supposed to be happening.
This vaguely avant-garde aspect has led a few critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum to call Outskirts an unknown masterpiece of cinema, but it's a little too rough and awkwardly put together for the name to fit comfortably. And more to the point, a Soviet masterpiece is something grand and auspicious, and this is a very different kind of film, closer in spirit to some of Godard's playful and absurdist early films, or to the casual working stiff's cynicism of 1960s Eastern European films like Menzel's Larks on a String, which mocked the pretensions and promises of Soviet society but were careful not to get too specific lest the censor's hand come crashing down. (Actually in both cases the hand came down anyway; Larks on a String was shelved for 20 years, and Barnet apparently got in trouble for Okraina, though by mid-30s Soviet standards he got off lightly and at least continued to work for another 25 years before committing suicide in the Brezhnev era.)