With the results of Sight & Sound’s decennial ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ poll due to be published in next month’s issue, I can’t help wondering how many of the films chosen will be silent. There will probably be some, or at least I hope there will (Battleship Potemkin and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans both made the top ten in the 2002 critics’ poll). But the idea is hard to escape – even when it’s shown to be wrong – that not to have had sound (in the sense of audible synched dialogue) at the filmmakers’ disposal is somehow to have lacked one of the central pillars of cinema.
Of course, the coming of the voice was a miracle, in its way – who can deny it? But the strange thing is that in the best silent films (as we recently saw demonstrated by The Artist), nobody really worries about sound’s absence. Music, mime, photography, intertitles: in their heyday, these constituted a complete expressive vocabulary – in much the same way as in ballet.
Discerning cinephiles, of course, have always known about the depth and the beauty of the silent epoch, but what we’ve seen over the past 20 years or so is a vast opening up of access to the movies in question. Probably – in the UK at least – this trend started in the 1980s, with Kevin Brownlow’s wonderful restorations of films like Napoleon (1927), and the enlightened backing given to this enterprise, over the years, by Thames Television. (Thames has long since gone, alas, but Brownlow, I’m happy to say, is alive and flourishing.) Over in Italy, meanwhile, the patient work of festivals like Pordenone’s Giornate del Cinema Muto and Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato has borne fruit in the enlightened enthusiasm of a new generation of amateurs and film scholars.
At the same time, the archives appear, at last, to have become user-friendly – competing with each other to publicise their hoarded treasures in optimum screening conditions, with imaginative musical accompaniment. Nothing can beat seeing silent cinema ‘live’, but it would be inappropriate not to mention, as a last link in this chain, the coming of high-quality DVD editions, with their extraordinary standards of visual clarity and their wealth of contextualising extras. The conditions are ripe, as they have never been before, to experience what Geoffrey O’Brien calls (in a recent and typically suggestive essay) “the rapture of the silents”.
Among the thousands of films, then, that might be chosen to illustrate the beauty, grandeur and self-sufficiency of silent film, I have opted for The House on Trubnaya Street (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928) by Boris Barnet. This is partly because I’ve always loved Russian films, but more specifically because – among Russian films, and in contrast to the flavour of many of the better-known classics by Eisenstein, Pudovkin etc – this one shows genuine charm and merriment.
Interest in Barnet has been slowly reviving in recent years (last year’s Bologna festival devoted a retrospective to him). A child of the revolution (he was 15 when the Bolsheviks took power, four years younger than Eisenstein), he trained first as a medic, and was then a boxer before becoming an actor in Lev Kuleshov’s famous experimental workshop in Moscow. He began directing in the mid-1920s, again under the auspices of Kuleshov. The House on Trubnaya Street is a free work of art, produced at a time when artists in the Soviet Union were increasingly being asked to subordinate their individuality to the service of the state. So this is its first quality: a kind of moral integrity. It isn’t beholden to anything, except the pleasure and ingenuity of its makers.
That ingenuity, in the first place, is structural: the film begins with a daring reversal. It opens with precious shots of historical Moscow: night-time initially, and then dawn – the crepuscular summer streets hosed down by water lorries. Into our vision strides a healthy peasant girl with a fat white duck under her arm, evidently in search of the address that is written on a piece of paper she is holding. Passers-by prove to be helpful or less helpful, sending her in every direction (except, unfortunately, the right one). While the duck’s owner becomes more and more flustered, the duck itself escapes from her basket and skitters off on its own itinerary, our heroine in hot pursuit. Moscow is a maze of tramlines. Suddenly disaster looms: there is the bird in the middle of the tracks, with a commuter-laden tram bearing down on the creature!
“Freeze frame!” The order is relayed to us via an intertitle, followed by the helpful suggestion, “Let’s rewind the film to see how we got into this mess.” And so we go back, so to speak, to where the story begins: a countryside railway station, where the girl with her bundle is seen saying farewell to her mother. Clearly, there’s work to be had in the city; as for housing, the intertitles tell us, she can lodge with her uncle, if she can find him. Unfortunately for her (second nice gag of the film), as her train pulls out of the station, another train pulls in, depositing said uncle on the platform. Well, who said it was going to be easy?
So here she is now – or rather, here we all are – back on the tram track, duck looking panicked, vehicle approaching alarmingly, as before. Only this time it’s the conductor’s brakes, rather than those of the filmmaker, that halt the juggernaut. And as luck would have it, among the gossipy crowd that swiftly gathers round the incident, there’s a friend of the girl’s from her home village – employed, we can see, as a chauffeur. Not a diffident one, either: in his splendid new motor car, he’s ready to offer his services, as guide and knight errant.
Her uncle’s away, of course, so we next see the chauffeur taking her, as fallback, to his own lodgings – the eponymous house on Trubnaya Street, under whose capacious roof there is bound to be a spare room somewhere. Up until now, the film has been shot mainly in exteriors, a distinct part of its charm being the way it allows us to glimpse and savour forgotten corners of a long-vanished world. By contrast, the interior of the house is studio-constructed – and what a set the filmmakers have built for us! Five storeys high, it is introduced in cross-section, splitting the building down the middle, at the common staircase.
Here, in this common space, everything is chaos and cheerful bloody-mindedness. On the top landing, two men are chopping wood, vying with each other, it seems, as to which of the pair can dislodge more loose masonry onto the tenants underneath. Onto another landing, a housewife is busy sweeping the leavings of her private apartment; while a fourth tenant simply sweeps his garbage (dead cat included) down the steps onto the parapet below. Communism has brought all these Muscovites together, for their collective good. But the gene of petty-bourgeois individualism, it seems, cannot be eradicated so swiftly.
It’s quite daring of Barnet to be so direct about this. It could, after all, be interpreted as a criticism – not of petty-bourgeois recidivism, but of the policy of forced collectivism. Be that as it may: among the tenants in this nest of termites, we are introduced in due course to one in particular, a lanky, ill-tempered dandy (profession: hairdresser) who lives in slovenly squalor on the second floor with his plump, lazy mistress. Wouldn’t it be a good idea, they think, to get a bit of help in the kitchen? Grateful for any work she can get, our heroine allows herself to be installed in their apartment as the pantry maid. Very efficient she is too. In no time at all, the pair are exploiting her like hell.
The film will go on to outline, of course, the manifold ways by which hairdresser and mistress – and their Gogolian crew of hangers-on – will arrive at their well-deserved comeuppance. The ‘message’, on one level, is unexceptionable: one doesn’t have to be a communist to agree that fairness and equality are important in our daily personal dealings. Thus the morality of the film can be summed up as a sort of cheerful liberalism; and considering the reefs the Soviet Union was about to founder on in the space of a few short years, that’s already something.
But in fact it’s more interesting than this. If the peasant girl (played by Vera Marezhkaya) is nice enough in her way, the heart of the film centres on the hairdresser. Portrayed by the popular actor Vladimir Fogel (familiar to some from Pudovkin’s 1925 Chess Fever), he comes across in performance as one of the all-time great self-justifying monsters – up there, in self-deluding arrogance, with Blackadder or Withnail. This of course is what makes the film so enjoyable. It would be going a bit far to claim that we love such a character; yet, in a strange way, it‘s impossible not to admire him – he so clearly takes the world as he sees it.
The House on Trubnaya Street is an exquisite comedy, but it’s not in the least sentimental – indeed it’s part of its general intelligence that its villain should remain unrepentant. Ticked off for his behaviour by a committee of the – admirably tolerant – “Trade Union of Domestic Servants” (I wonder whether that organisation lasted?), Fogel is last seen sitting hunched over a table, glaring defiantly at his persecutors. Whether we like it or not – and we do like it – his cussedness has a kind of integrity.
The House on Trubnaya Street is by no means Boris Barnet’s only film of note. There are several memorable works from much the same period: Miss Mend (aka The Adventures of the Three Reporters, 1926, co-directed with Fyodor Otsep); The Girl with the Hat Box (Devushka s korobkoy, 1927), a film I also love; Thaw (Lyodolom, 1931) and Outskirts (aka Patriots/Okraina, 1933).
The Girl with the Hat Box is a comedy – you could even say a bourgeois comedy. The intrigue centres on the attempt of a greedy, feckless landlord to retrieve from his pretty lodger a premium bond of high rouble value that he has inadvertently put into her hands as collateral for some money he owes her. (What? There were premium bonds in Soviet Russia at this time? Apparently. The film’s even funded by the premium-bond company!)
The girl, meanwhile, is torn between two admirers: a dreamy but Chekhovianly incompetent sub-stationmaster (our heroine lives far out of Moscow on a deserted, snowy branch line, commuting every day to the millinery shop in central Moscow where she works); and a handsome, poverty-stricken student she takes pity on – and puts up, inadvisedly, in the bedroom she rents from the landlord.
The complications don’t need to be gone into; suffice to say that the film is lyrical, sexy and carefree. The landlord and his wife, as bourgeois-rentier types, are satirised, of course; but the satire is good-natured and cheerful, and far from the venom of class rancour. The lovers’ kisses, when they come, are real kisses. Even at this date (1927, ten years after the revolution, with Stalinism closing in), one wonders how the filmmakers got away with a script that was so insouciant.
Barnet’s knowledge of, and delight in, the theatre had always been congruent with realism. He had a great feeling for theatrical set construction, but an equally fine eye for location shooting. His films have a sure sense of place, and in this way seem reluctant to lie to us.
Thaw, his next fiction feature after Trubnaya, is not by any stretch of the imagination a comedy. Three years into the Five-Year Plan, the feeling might have been that there was not much to laugh about. Set in the Ukraine, in the midst of collectivisation and mass starvation, it tells its story in the only way it was permitted to tell it – that’s to say from the official, communist point of view. (In this way it resembles Dovzhenko’s 1930 Earth.) To spell out the problem clearly: the film claims that the kulaks (Ukrainian farmers) were killing the peasantry, whereas in fact, as has long been known, the peasantry – aided and abetted by the local Bolsheviks – were killing the kulaks.
The outsider at this distance of time is hardly in a position to know what Barnet’s personal thoughts about the tragedy were, but one thing Thaw can’t be accused of is insincerity. The story is set in wintertime, and throughout the action a perpetual snowstorm is blowing, like a blizzard of hatred. Doors flap on their hinges, candles gutter in the midst of party meetings, messengers get lost, waylaid and murdered in the snow. All is confusion – and perhaps this is the point. In contradiction to its professed ideology, the film succeeds in showing, subliminally, the mischief of the times – the disruption, rancour and unhappiness unleashed by official class warfare.
With Outskirts, two years later, we revert to a more humane Barnet – and this despite the fact that substantial sections of the film are set (very realistically) in the trenches of World War I. But perhaps it was just this backward glance that allowed the film to escape, relatively speaking, the constrictions of political correctness. The revolution is still in the future; we can deal with how things were rather than how they should be.
Lovely scenes early in the movie recreate life in a provincial township in the period before 1914, in all its freedom, idleness and underground eroticism. Yes, there are strikes in the shoe factory, and the riots that follow are fiercely put down by the Cossacks; but you’re not meant to feel, I think, that these protests take up the whole heft of life. Other realms of experience – other sections of society – have their claim on our time.
The main plot of the film (we have now reached 1917) examines the love affair between a gauche but charming cobbler’s daughter and a German captive who has been billeted in the area. These scenes are painted with great finesse and tenderness (and great humour too). Outskirts belongs with the wave of movies that came out in Germany, Hollywood and France in the early 1930s lamenting, retrospectively, the waste and suffering of World War I from a pacifist (or quasi-pacifist) point of view; it shares the decent humanity of the best of these films.
Barnet’s early sound film By the Bluest of Seas (U samovo sineyvo morya, 1936) was also released on DVD earlier this year, and is well worth getting hold of. But in the post-war period his career faltered. Fearing (it is said) that he had lost his artistic touch, he committed suicide in 1965, at the age of 63. The history of cinema is littered with minor tragedies, and his is one of them.
‘The House on Trubnaya Street’ is available on Region 0 DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s ‘Landmarks of Early Soviet Film’ box-set. ‘The Girl with the Hat Box’, ‘Outskirts’ and ‘By the Bluest of Seas’ are out now on the specially annotated ‘Hyperkino’ format DVD from MovieMail.