Made in 1928, one of the most striking features is how crumbled and decayed the city of Moscow still was, 10 years after the great revolution. In the four years since Mr West, there had been changes and improvements but it was still a very poor society. The fabric of the tenement building crumbles under the assault of people chopping big logs on the landing, in defiance of official decrees. This was probably one of the key reasons why Barnet never got shown in the West, unlike the Party-pleasers such as Eisenstein and Pudovkhin and, to a lesser extent, Dovzhenko. The authorities must have wanted to keep a film like this out of sight with its images of a very backward, peasant rural society, the exploitative remnants of the urban bourgeoisie, and the fact that city life was grim. It also seems odd that someone could make a living as a a chauffeur, as does Parasha’s village friend Semyon. Did those jobs not go out with Kerensky?
It is a charming and stylish film that can really change your view of Soviet cinema. It did not have to be dull, tendentious, badly-acted, clunkingly-directed, despite the received wisdom of generations of cinema historians. It plays wittily with film conventions, especially in the initial sequence of a girl chasing a duck across the meshed tramways of Moscow, leading to a freeze-frame of a man leaping from a tram and then to an explanation of what led up to this moment. Yet it is also charmingly primitive in the way that the eyeline matching rule is occasionally ignored this late in the day – eg in a few shots out of Golikov’s window it is not entirely clear whether we are seeing what Parasha is seeing.
On one level, the most interesting thing about this film is the range of social attitudes it depicts. Golikov’s wife seems intent on being a “superfluous woman”, living a life of idle luxury. The tenement as a whole reacts in a very bourgeois way to the rumour that Parasha has been elected to the city Soviet: everyone clears the stairways of their rubbish and they throw a party. There is also an energetic and good-natured parody of a “revolutionary” play at the Workers’ Club. It is a high-spirited romp. The acting fits the style: it is broad but it is not stupid in the way that Eisenstein, for example, made his actors appear. It is broad and caricatural but it is having fun and is aware of its lack of subtlety. It does not strive to be over-serious and nor does it lapse into the patronising.
In the second half, we get the ideological stiffening, probably inserted at the behest of the Party. Golikov has always checked that his maids do not belong to a union. Parasha, of course, qualifies. However, she is signed up by the local union rep. There is an obligatory sequence of a march of heroic workers as they go to vote in the city Soviet elections. And we end with the threat of Golikov facing Workers’ Justice. It is a bit heavy-handed but does not really detract from the playful tone of the rest. It is like the deus-ex-machina in a Moliere play.
But what happened to the duck?