Boris Barnet’s Dom na Trubnoi, Mezhrabpom-Rus (The House on Trubnaya, 1928) is a masterpiece of Soviet silent cinema. It is a delightful comedy of manners that satirises contemporary life in Moscow during the height of the New Economic Policy (NEP, 1921-28). The film celebrates the changing character of Moscow while offering a sharp social commentary on the contradictions of the shifting Soviet state. Blending slapstick with the formalism of the Soviet avant-garde, the film achieves outstanding narrative dynamism and finely observed character portrayals.
This is the story of a city and the trials and tribulations of a young peasant girl, Parasha (Vera Maretskaya), who comes to Moscow with her pet duck in search of her uncle but discovers the injustices of the petite-bourgeoisie before demonstrating her genuine revolutionary spirit and joining the domestic workers union and affirm her proletarian rights.
The House on Trubnaya was boxer, actor and director Barnet’s third feature and marked him as a pioneer of Soviet screen comedy with his penchant for slapstick, dynamic motion and the absence of an explicit political message despite Soviet-themed material. For a silent film with few intertitles there was an unusually large collection of talented scriptwriters attached: the satirist Nikolai Erdman, the formalist film theorist Viktor Shklovsky, and the poets Anatoli Mariengof and Vadim Shershenevich. The production challenge for Barnet would have been balancing the fine conceptual and satirical authorship with his commitment to free flowing action and detailed character observations. Barnet had a talent for negotiating a nonchalant line between appropriate Soviet mythmaking and popular humanism and blasé social critique in films that were genuinely popular with audiences. In an interview discussing his attraction to comedies Barnet explained, “all my films, for better or worse, deal with contemporary life and its problems. When I have an option, I have always chosen contemporary subjects, even though it is not always easy to tackle these.” (1) Barnet combined comedy with avant-garde cinematic techniques of dynamic montage, flashbacks, Rodchenko-styled photographic constructivism, magnificent crane shots and a relentless energy and dynamism. The camera’s perpetual motion seems to naturalise the growing Gogolian surrealism and mixing of cultural tropes. The film’s style suggests a gentle mocking of Eisenstein’s intellectual montage while putting the avant-garde aesthetics to use for the purposes of narrative development in what becomes a serious story of the emergence of class-consciousness and the quashing of bourgeois exploitation of the peasantry.
The film contains numerous standout comic set pieces. The morning ritual scene in the Trubnaya apartment stairwell compares favourably with Eisenstein’s “Odessa Steps” sequence in its complexity of staged action, eccentric character detail and comic timing, as all the denizens use the overly public space to clean their rugs, discard their refuse and chop wood in an upstairs-downstairs farce. The rug-cleaning scene escalates from the mundane to a frenzy of competition between the domestic workers. The amateur society’s theatre performance of the storming of the Bastille goes further than the similarly themed scene in The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919) (which features “The Bloke’s” inappropriate barracking during the fight scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Here Parasha does more than support the combatants. She becomes overwhelmed by the passions of the performances and charges on stage and protects her friend playing the part of a revolutionary soldier from the evil royalist General, much to the amusement of the boisterous audience. The ensuing mayhem combines slapstick with genuine incredulity and good-hearted fun.
Devised as a contemporary reversal of the cautionary folktale of the peasant girl who comes to the city with great expectations only to be destroyed by the experience, returning home with a baby and a ruined reputation, the film presents the story of a peasant’s success in the city because of her simple charm, hardworking attitude and union membership. Barnet combines continuous narrative action with a range of avant-garde techniques in his storytelling, including: flashbacks; point-of-view shots through water spray; quirky stop-motion animation; low angle framing; freeze-frames and backwards motion. We first meet Parasha when she chases her duck between the busy tram tracks. And just as she catches the absconder a tram bares down on her. From her point-of-view she sees the tram driver jump down. That moment is caught in a freeze-frame before stopping and rewinding to the day before and recounting how Parasha arrived in Moscow. Throughout, Barnet demonstrates a flair for comic montage and an eye for urban symphony.
Barnet’s Moscow resonates with Albert Room’s Tretya Meshchanskaya (Bed and Sofa, 1927) and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927) in its affectionate portrayal of an abundant, complex city slowly waking to bright sunshine on empty tram tracks. It is a frank depiction that mixes humour with sharp nips of social critique. It shares the urban energy of a Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, Dziga Vertov, 1929), where peasant folk culture and local oddballs brush up against the speed and sophistication of a metropolis that moves incessantly like a wind-up mechanical beast. Indeed, it would appear that Vertov might have been influenced by Barnet’s images of an urban awakening. Barnet’s Moscow is a changing city that is at once a labyrinth of cosy alleyways and genially buzzing stairwells obscured from organised street marches and large public spaces that are teeming with strangers moving purposely in different directions. But even in this endlessly active metropolis of anonymous worker bees all moving in a hurry, a country girl can still run into a friend from her village. It is still a warm, sympathetic city where passers-by care about a duck on the run. Barnet’s portrait is of a mobile, elastic city inhabited by kind-hearted eccentrics, pompous snobs, passionate not-yet cynical unionists, enthusiastic philistines and scruffy figures of authority. It is a city that allows Parasha to walk all night and disappear into the crowd but also to be searched for by her friends and recognised by her neighbours. Like Joris Ivens’ Regen (Rain, 1929) there is a nostalgic view of an urban terrain captured at its best after rain with yawning puddles reflecting monuments of the past before being upset by the brooms of modernity. The mood is somewhat foreboding suggesting that the lively chaos is about to be crushed by an as yet unseen shadow. Criss-crossed by myriad tram tracks, this is a happy Moscow in its last gasp of the NEP and on the verge of plummeting into codified pageants, structure and fear.
Dom na Trubnoi, Mezhrabpom-Rus/The House on Trubnaya (1928 USSR 64 mins)
Prod Co: Mezhrabpomfilm Dir: Boris Barnet Scr: Nikolay Erdman, Anatoli Marienhof, Vadim Shershenevich, Viktor Shklovsky, Bella Zorich Phot: Yevgeni Alekseyev Prod Des: Sergei Kozlovsky
Cast: Vera Maretskaya, Vladimir Fogel, Yelena Tyapkina, Sergei Komarov, Anel Sudakevich, Ada Vojtsik