Tag Archives: Russian Film

Outskirts (1933) or livewithfilm rises up for the Motherland!…

4 Nov

Boris Barnet’s 1933 film Outskirts remains revolutionary in both form and content, an intriguing artwork with a beating political heart. Constantly surprising as only the earliest exponents of sound films could be, Outskirts uses all its means to express the destructive absurdity of the twentieth century. Giving a moving portrayal of the impact of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution on everyday life, Barnet focuses on the inhabitants of a small village on the Russo-German border. The onset of war forces factory workers to ditch their rebellion and volunteer ‘for the Motherland’. Brothers Nikolai (Nikolai Bogolyubov) and Seneka Kadkin (Nikolai Kryuchkov) march to the trenches, leaving their father Pyotr (Aleksandr Chistyakov) to lament their departure. With aggressive nationalism being provoked across the town, a young girl (Yelena Kuzmina) riles the masses by falling in love with a German prisoner of war.

Barnet’s control of Outskirts is formidable with both sound and vision coming to signify greater social ills. In his most subversive association, Barnet uses the sounds of machine gun fire over the driving machinery of the shoe factory. An image regularly returned to throughout Outskirts, here the individual is positioned as the victim of the twentieth century’s driving political change. As patriotic Russians cheer departing soldiers, their cries become the train’s jets of steam driving the young men to their violent destination. Similarly mocking the grand associations of conflict, the falling bombs of the Russian Front as introduced through a comical swanee whistle’s swoop. Even a horse sighs at the laziness of his sleeping master, with a mournful ‘oh my god’. At times surreal, Barnet’s manipulation of medium forces the viewer to see familiar historic events in a new light and reassess the impact and legitimacy of such acts.

Allowing Barnet to damn the early twentieth century with greater vehemence, the film’s naturalistic performances remain relentlessly moving. Akin to the Italian neorealist films Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City that would tread similarly revolutionary ground a decade later, Outskirts frequently remains interested in portraying ordinary characters caught in everyday life. Kuzmina’s performance as lovelorn Marika creates an image of heartbreaking naivety amidst worldwide violence. Similarly, early cross-nation friendships between her father Alexander and their German lodger recall the humanistic vision of Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. This comparison is also particularly relevant once Outskirts begins to dwell on the horrors of trench warfare. Constantly emphasising that the conflicting armies are both equally disgusted with the conflict and share a common humanity, Barnet tends to hammer home a point that subsequently loses some of its power. While this remains an uplifting theme, Outskirts smashes its steam train straight into it with little nuance.

Nevertheless, Outskirts remains as politically relevant and innovative as it did on its release. That we still haven’t got Barnet’s forcefully put message about the lunacy of warfare perhaps validates Outskirts’fury.

Outskirts is released on DVD on 12 November