Boris Barnet - Director

Nationality: Russian. Born: Moscow, 1902, grandson of an English settler. Education: Studied at School of Art and Architecture, Moscow. Military Service: Joined Red Army, 1919, later PT instructor for Army. Career: Professional boxer; joined Lev Kuleshov's "Eccentric Workshop," 1924; directed first film, 1926. Awards: Retrospectives at La Rochelle Festival, 1982, and Locarno Festival, 1985. Died: By suicide, 8 January 1965.

Films as Director:


Miss Mend (serial) (co-d, co-sc, role)


Devushka s korobkoi ( The Girl with the Hat Box ); Moskva v oktyabre ( Moscow in October ) (+ role)


Dom na Trubnoi ( House on Trubnaya )


Zhivye dela ( Living Things ) (short) (+ co-sc)


Proizvodstvo muzykal'nykh instrumentov ( The Manufacture of Musical Instruments ) (short)


Ledolom ( The Thaw )


Okraina ( Outskirts ; Patriots ) (+ co-sc)


U samogo sinego morya ( By the Deep Blue Sea )


Noch' v sentyabre ( One September Night ) (+ role)


Staryi nayezdnik ( The Old Jockey ) (released 1959)


"Muzhestvo" ("Courage") episode of Boyevoy kinosbornik no. 3 ( Fighting Film Album no. 3 )


"Bestsennaya golova" ("A Priceless Head") episode of Boyevoy kinosbornik no. 10 ( Fighting Film Album no. 10 )


Novgorodtsy ( Men of Novgorod ) (not released)


Odnazhdy noch'yu ( Once One Night ) (+ role)


Podvig razvedchika ( The Exploits of an Intelligence Agent ) (+ role)


Stranitsy zhizni ( Pages from a Life ) (co-d)


Schedroe leto ( A Bounteous Summer )


Kontsert masterov ukrainskogo iskusstva ( Masters of Ukrainian Art in Concert ) (+ sc)


Lyana (+ co-sc)


Poet ( The Poet ); Borets i kloun ( The Wrestler and the Clown ) (co-d)






Polustanok ( The Whistle-Stop ) (+ co-sc)

Films as Actor Only:


Neobychainiye priklucheniya Mistera Vesta v stranye Bolshevikov ( The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks ) (Kuleshov)


Shakhmatnaya goryachka ( Chess fever ) (Pudovkin) (short); Na vernom sledu ( On the Right Track ) (A. Dmitriyev)


Protsess o trekh millionakh ( The Three Millions Trial ) (Protazanov)


Potomok Chingis-khana ( The Heir to Genghis Khan ; Storm over Asia ) (Pudovkin)


Zhivoi trup ( The Living Corpse ) (Otsep)


Lyubov' i nenavist' ( Love and Hate ) (A. Endelstein)


Sinegoriya ( The Blue Mountains ) (Garin and Lokshina)


On BARNET: books—

Kushnirov, M., Zhizn' i fil'my Boris Barneta [The Life and Films of Boris Barnet], Moscow, 1977.

Albera, F., and R. Cosandey, editors, Boris Barnet: Ecrits, Documents, Etudes, Filmographie , Locarno, 1985.

On BARNET: articles—

Obituary in Kino (Warsaw), no. 2, 1965.

Obituary in Cinéma (Paris), no. 96, 1965.

"Boris Barnet," in Film Culture (New York), Fall 1965.

Kuzmina, "A Tribute to Boris Barnet," in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1968.

"Boris Barnet," in Film Dope (London), March 1973.

Gillett, John, in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), July 1980.

Gillett, John, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1980.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1982.

Revue du Cinéma (Paris), October 1983.

Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November 1984.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1985.

Eisenschitz, B., "A Fickle Man, or Portrait of Boris Barnet as a Soviet Director," in Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema , edited by Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, London and New York, 1991.

Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 6, June 1993.

Filmkultura (Budapest), vol. 31, no. 11, November 1995.

* * *

Boris Barnet's career as a director has been much underrated in the West, yet it spanned almost forty years of Soviet filmmaking. After a brief period as a PT instructor in the Red Army and then as a professional boxer, he joined Kuleshov's workshop as an actor and handyman. In 1924 Barnet played the part of Cowboy Jeddy, a grotesque caricature of an American, in Kuleshov's eccentric comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. He frequently appeared later in his own films, often in cameo roles.

Like Kuleshov, Barnet went to work for the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio, where experimentation was combined with the production of films that were commercially successful. Barnet collaborated with Fyodor Otsep on the serial thriller Miss Mend and then made his first two feature films, The Girl with the Hatbox and The House on Trubnaya. Both films involved actors from the Kuleshov workshop and both were light-hearted comedies, satirising the excesses of the New Economic Policy and the social and economic tensions associated with it. The first centred on a lost lottery ticket and the second on the arrival of a country girl in Moscow, but Barnet managed very gently to broaden their frame of reference. His deft touch on these two films marked him out by the end of the 1920s as a director of originality and distinction.

The advent of sound seems to have caused Barnet fewer problems than it did other directors: he made two sound shorts about musical instruments in 1930, neither of which has been preserved. His first sound feature film, Okraina , was produced in 1933. This was a remarkably powerful, and in some ways almost Chekhovian, portrayal of life in a provincial Russian town during the First World War and the start of the Revolution. The lives of the characters are almost imperceptibly intertwined with the historical events unfolding far away. The relationship between individuals and events was, however, portrayed in too subtle a fashion for many of Barnet's contemporaries and, like so many other Soviet filmmakers of the time, he was attacked for ideological obscurantism. Hence it was that Barnet later remarked that he was not merely a "film director" but a "Soviet film director."

The reception for Barnet's next film, By the Deep Blue Sea , was even more hostile. On one level the film was a light-hearted love intrigue set on a collective farm on the banks of the Caspian Sea. On another level, however, it can be read as an allegorical tale of the eternal struggle between dream and reality, with the collective farm itself as a latter-day utopia, emphasised by the somewhat ironic title—a dangerous comparison in 1936 in the Soviet Union. Given the atmosphere of the time, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that Barnet's next film, One September Night , was devoted to a more conventional account of the birth of the Stakhanovite movement. In this film the secret police were portrayed as heroes, defending the Soviet Union against sabotage. But The Old Jockey , made the year after, fell afoul of the authorities and was not released until 1959.

The Second World War dominated Barnet's output for the next few years and his efforts were rewarded with the Stalin Prize in 1948. He returned to his true métier, comedy, in 1950, with his first colour film, A Bounteous Summer , made in the Ukraine. Another film, Lyana , was made in Moldavia five years later. Barnet's last completed film, The Whistle-Stop , was also a comedy, but other films that he made during the last decade of his life are more properly characterised as dramas. But to say that is to underestimate Barnet, because his films cannot be easily pigeon-holed.

Barnet's career in Soviet cinema spanned four decades. He belonged to the generation of lesser known filmmakers who in fact constituted the backbone of that cinema, while taking a back seat in the theoretical polemics that attracted international curiosity and focused attention on the avant garde. His films displayed a mastery of visual technique and a disciplined economy of style. He was a mainstream director but a subversive artist, whose work, tinged with warmth, humour, and humanity, constantly attracted Soviet audiences. He took his own life in 1965.

—Richard Taylor

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