Boris Barnet

Boris Barnet is regarded in Europe as one of the greatest artists of Russian cinema, while he’s practically unknown elsewhere. This marginalization is ironic since Barnet was in many ways the most accessible and Western film-maker from the classic Soviet era. Critics compared his silent comedies to those of Ernst Lubitsch while his lyrical style has much in common with French masters, and contemporaries, Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir. In a period of revolutionary state-directed propaganda films, Barnet directed his attention to stories of everyday life through comedies which brought much needed levity in the era of humourless socialist realism. His uncommon name stems from the fact that his grandfather was an Englishman, a printer who lived on the outskirts of Moscow, where Barnet was born in 1902. Barnet’s early life reflected the abrupt changes and shifts of his own films. He studied to be a painter but during the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, he served in the Red Army as a medic.

After the war he became a boxer where one of his matches was attended by the legendary film theorist Lev Kuleshov. He would cast Boris Barnet in his comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). As an actor he played small roles in his own films and made further appearances in Kuleshov’s Chess Fever (1925) and Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia (1928). He played a key role in the serial adventure film Miss Mend, which he co-directed with Fyodor Otsep. The film’s enormous box-office success launched his directorial career. His first solo film was The Girl with the Hatbox (1927), a comedy starring Anna Sten, a Ukrainian beauty who would eventually work in Hollywood with King Vidor. This was followed by The House on Trubnaya Square (1928), regarded as one of the greatest silent comedies of the period, noted by critic Dave Kehr to display, “a superb technique, a grace with actors, and a talent for eccentric characterizations” which typify Barnet’s style. Barnet’s films belonged to a popular cinema (which also included film-makers like Abram Room and Iakov Protazanov) that paralleled the avant-garde typified by Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, his films were related to American genres but filtered through Barnet’s distinctive style which emphasized the performances of his actors. The actor-friendly nature of his films earned him harsh criticism during his early career where he was dismissed as “the Peter Pan of Soviet Cinema.”

In fact, Barnet’s least successful films, commercially and artistically, were those which were explicitly commissioned by the state. Moscow in October (1927) was produced alongside Eisenstein’s October and Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersberg (1927), as a tribute for the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, yet it was shelved and rejected for lack of ideological fervor by the state bureaucracy. Barnet himself admitted, in an interview with historian Georges Sadoul, that, “I am not and never was a man of theories. I always found my material in everyday life.” This would create problems for his career during the period of the 30s where the state bureaucracy became even more repressive. Paradoxically, the early 30s was an especially creative period of film-making. The period of early sound which is regarded by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as the creative peak of the Russian avant-garde, is exemplified by films like Dovzhenko’s Ivan and Aerograd, Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler, Alexander Medvedkin’s Happiness and two masterpieces by Boris Barnet – Outskirts (1933) and By the Bluest of Seas (1936).

Like Jean Renoir, Barnet demonstrated a mastery of tonal shifts. A horrible scene of trench warfare in Outskirts is immediately defused by a gag, where a comrade expressing concern over his friend’s unconscious body shrieks in terror when he suddenly wakes up laughing. Outskirts anticipated La Grande illusion with its depiction of human relationships free from national and class barriers and its war scenes are as formidable as later depictions of combat by the likes of Roberto Rossellini and Samuel Fuller. By the Bluest of Seas is perhaps Barnet’s freest film, simple in plot but intricate in the performance styles and emotional textures. Nicole Brenez noted that in this film, Barnet “developed a repertory of conflicting gestures” whereby happiness was conveyed through grimaces, sadness through humor and triumph with terror. An observation that goes far to express Barnet’s uniquely protean style, always committed to portraying the flux and flow of human feelings. “His films convey more than most the intensity of happiness,” writes Bernard Eisenschitz, “the physical pleasure of meeting and contact, the inevitable tragedy of relationships.” Both films starred Yelena Kuzmina, an actress trained at Grigori Kozintsev’s FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor), who was briefly married to Barnet. By the Bluest of Seas was one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s favorite films and a major influence on the Georgian-French film-maker Otar Ioselliani who met Barnet towards the end of his life.

Barnet subsequently suffered under Stalin’s repressive film policy of the 30s. His succeeding film One September Night was stifled by the propaganda story of the Stakhanovite movement while the more personal The Old Jockey was banned, and would not be released until 1959. A further three films, made during wartime (A Priceless Head, 1942; Men of Novgorod, 1943; Once at Night, 1945) would receive similar treatment. Secret Agent (1948), where Barnet himself acted as a Nazi officer, was a commercial success. Barnet’s films found favor in the 1950s in France, largely through the efforts of historian Henri Langlois who regularly screened his work at the Cinémathèque Française. The emerging film-makers of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette especially, recognized Barnet’s genius and championed his colour films Bountiful Summer (1951) and The Wrestler and the Clown (1957) as among his best films while others have noted that his final films, Alyonka (1961) and Whistle-Stop (1963) contain some of his best direction. However the film’s box-office failure and poor reception discouraged Barnet, whose tumultuous character affected several of his personal relationships (he was married several times). He committed suicide on 8 January 1965. His body was found hanging on a fishing line.

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