Names like Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Lev Kuleshov understandably dominate the column inches when it comes to the pioneering Soviet filmmakers of the early 20th century. This means that it can be easy for other revered cinematic artists of the time, such as Boris Barnet, to be overlooked. To help make sure that doesn’t happen, two of Barnet’s most celebrated works, Outskirts (1933) and By the Bluest of Seas (1936) this week receive a DVD rerelease in the UK courtesy of Mr. Bongo Films. Taking place in a village on the Russo-German border, Outskirts tells of a community infected by nationalism at the outbreak of the First World War.
This commencement of armed hostilities between the two warring nations sees many of the town’s sons head out to join the fight at the front line while the village itself plays host to German PoWs. The film breaches topics such as wide ranging as life at the front, the difficulties facing returning veterans, the Russian Revolution and kinship across the national divide – several years before Jean Renoir’s magnificent La Grande Illusion (1937).
By the Bluest of Seas, on the other hand, is something of an anomaly in early Soviet filmmaking in that it lacks any particular propaganda. In this instance, Barnet chose to tell the rather whimsical tale of two friends, Yussuf (Lev Sverdlin) and Alyosha (Nikolai Kruychkov) vying for the heart of the same woman. After being shipwrecked on the shore of Azerbaijan, the two meet Masha (Yelena Kuzmia) in a commune. Despite their friendship, the two men both attempt to woo Masha with humorous consequences.
Barnet’s first two sound films, both of these aforementioned features are hugely ambitious efforts in terms of innovations in camera movement and show fantastic experimental sound design. More than illustrating the reason that the director is placed amongst the other great Russian filmmakers, there are some truly remarkable sequences. Outskirts is aurally interesting with sounds often being misappropriated such as the village being plagued by bullets – only to be revealed as machinery or a children’s toy. Meanwhile, a confrontation aboard a storm-plagued ship in By the Bluest of Seas allows the camera to rock violently from side to side creating the effect of the waves.
Clearly, there is much to admire in Barnet’s work, so it is a true shame that these films are not quite as emotionally engaging as they are technically fascinating. Outskirts is a definite precursor to La Grande Illusion, but the latter delivers a far more potent and affecting message. By the Bluest of Seas, conversely, is a light-hearted affair which never particularly attempts to create compelling characters. These are two releases that will be a great interest to enthusiasts, but are perhaps more impressive than enjoyable.