Boxer With a Movie Camera: A Soviet Pioneer’s Lyrical Antics


Out of the dozen or so first-rate film artists who broke into production during the Soviet silent era, Boris Barnet (1902-65) has the most elusive personality. A pugilist turned actor (he made a splash as the American bodyguard Cowboy Jeddy in Lev Kuleshov’s satire The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks) turned director, Barnet shows a taste for lyrical, proto-nouvelle-vague hijinks that can suggest a Russian equivalent of Jean Vigo.

The Girl With the Hat Box (1927), screening December 9, is Barnet’s best-known movie, mainly because this charming housing-shortage comedy features the future failed Hollywood star Anna Sten, here a Soviet Kewpie doll with bee-stung lips. The even more beguiling follow-up, The House on Trubnaya Square, which opens the series Tuesday, might have been called The Girl With a Duck: The hayseed heroine arrives in Moscow, quacker in tow, and has to cope fast with the overstimulation of metropolitan life. This antic city symphony—complete with elaborate multi-story tenement set—at times suggests a comic precursor to Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera.

With the switch to sound, Barnet maintained much of his formal playfulness, and his doting appreciation for human dopiness. Okraina (1932), screening December 8, has a sensational opening sequence in which the street scene in a prerevolutionary backwater is represented as a sort of circus parade. The movie shows the strain of maintaining a correct political line but not before Barnet has orchestrated some of the most vivid and modern scenes ever of trench warfare. Coming later in December: the nouvelle vague favorite By the Bluest of Seas (1936), the socialist realist peasant musical Bountiful Summer (1951), and Barnet’s own “new wave” road film, Alenka (1961). All seem ripe for discovery.