July 18, 2017

The following text originally appeared in Евгений Марголит, "Живые и мертвое. Заметки к истории советского кино 1920-1960-х годов" — Evgenii Margolit's The Living and the Dead: Notes on the History of Soviet Cinema of the 1920s-1960s (St. Petersburg, Seans, 2012).  
It was recommended and translated from the Russian by Dmitry Martov (great thanks to him) on the occasion of the upcoming July 27th, 2017 screening of Boris Barnet's Новгородцы (also known as A GOOD LAD) — to be shown alongside Hitchcock's AVENTURE MALGACHE and Monteiro's WHAT SHALL I DO WITH THIS SWORD?  as part of "Kino Slang" at the Echo Park Film Center, in Los Angeles.

"Slavnyy Malyy" 
(A Good Lad, Boris Barnet, 1942)
by Evgenii Margolit

For historians of the Soviet era in general and of Soviet cinema in particular, the present time has one undeniable advantage: we are dealing with a system that has completed its formation, and the entire network of previously latent, secret meanings and connections, of which the creators were unconscious, is now spread before our eyes, where global traditions at their origin could lead to phenomena which were, in the past, partly or completely ignored.

The template for Soviet films about the [Great Patriotic] War which unites THE CRANES ARE FLYING (
Kalatozov, 1957) and IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (Tarkovskii, 1962), FATE OF A MAN (Bondarchuk, 1959) and TRIAL ON THE ROAD (A. German, 1971), ONLY OLD MEN ARE GOING TO BATTLE (Bykov, 1973) and TORPEDO BOMBERS (Aranovich, 1983) manifests itself for the first time in a 1942 film by Boris Barnet that is not merely unknown but is, in a manner of speaking, the most unknown of his films, with even its exact title being a mystery until recently: according to the official papers it was NOVGORODTSY (MEN OF NOVGOROD) but during the opening credits the viewers would read with amused disbelief the title SLAVNYY MALYY (A GOOD LAD).

This film was completely forgotten as soon as its fate — or rather lack thereof — had been sealed. No documents have yet been found explaining why it was banned; and the surviving documents testify the following: no global objectives were set before Barnet; everybody clearly understood that no masterpiece could be created in the absence of a more or less proper script (there was a libretto by Petr Pavlenko titled “The Avengers” which, according to some testimonies, war correspondent Aleksei Kapler was trying to turn into a screenplay but he was soon purged); and the film that Barnet was eventually able to produce was met quite charitably.

Indeed, the lack of a script’s strong foundation would never be a fatal hindrance for Barnet, what with his irrepressible imagination as a director. He said on several occasions that to direct a weak script is, in a way, easier: the director’s prowess would be more apparent, and there would be fewer complaints. So A GOOD LAD turned out to be a modest, unpretentious film, sticking to its genre.

However, Barnet turned the subject of the partisan movement into a comedy. Did the ban have anything to do with his choice of the genre? On the one hand, the Russian official criticism certainly did not favor war comedies, but on the other hand, there had been precedents, and in the same year, 1942, Gerbert Rappaport made VOZDUSHNYI IZVOZCHIK (TAXI TO HEAVEN) and Konstantin Yudin directed ANTOSHA RYBKIN. Another thing was probably more important: the author of A GOOD LAD populated his film with characters who were fundamentally no different from the lovable and touching oddballs of [Barnet’s 1940 film] THE OLD JOCKEY. Actually, the plot thickens only when two completely eccentric characters appear in the midst of the squadron: a French aviator and an opera singer. The Frenchman is played by Viktor Dobrovolskiy who here looks somewhat similar to young Jean Marais; he is an actor from Leningrad, later based in Kiev, who became popular after PETER THE FIRST (Petrov, 1937) (where he played the parts of the officer Yaguzhinsky and runaway debtor Fed’ka). The role of the opera singer is performed by Nikolay Bogolyubov, and it is incredibly interesting to observe how Barnet yet again plays in a comical fashion with the monumental typecasting of his Kol’ka Kadkin from OUTSKIRTS (Barnet, 1933), whose trademark roles by this time were “the Great Citizen” and “the First Red Army officer”. This was the triumph of an auteur cinema logic, which was not very typical for Soviet wartime cinema. It is not a coincidence that, for example, SEKRETAR RAYKOMA (WE WILL COME BACK) by Ivan Pyryev, made during the same year and based around the same subject of the partisan movement, had nothing in common with Pyryev’s comedies: this was rather a partisan western, with a completely different cinematic universe, with the actors and archetypes being completely different.

A GOOD LAD, on the contrary, is a very moving and very humane, genuinely auteur gesture: when facing imminent danger, the first thing to be saved should be the spring of one’s loins — one’s world. Barnet searches for a narrative provision whereby this world can survive, and hides it in an almost fairy-tale forest, so remarkably shot by the cinematographer Sergei Ivanov, far from open spaces where the enemy is rampant. Thus emerges another half-ark, half-haunted island, so typical in Barnet’s cinema. A sanctuary of harmony, which from film to film becomes more and more fortuitous and exotic: from the crowded house on Trubnaya Square, through the prewar Russian province, to the island of the eccentrics “by the bluest of the seas”.

In this respect, Barnet is an artist-demiurge to the nearly the same degree as those artists to whom this term is usually applied. His model of the world is just as fortuitous and individual as that of, let’s say, Eisenstein’s. However, the nature of their models is fundamentally different. Montage cinema is imbued with the pathos of life-building: it is a sort of display of creative will, which re-creates reality based on new principles; a sort of campaigning for the advantages of this way of life. If you will, conjuring reality by demonstrating its future. Whereas for Barnet the most important thing is the self-propulsion of life, whose festive spontaneity he is trying to evoke with all available artistic devices. For such a world, any purpose prescribed from the outside is a catastrophe, a restriction to the abundance of life; in other words, a depravity. The director first and foremost strives to uncover in his characters their natural belonging to this spontaneity.

For this reason Barnet’s cinema at its core knows only two genres: idyll and tragedy, since, given such a complete degree of fusion between a character and the world, all other transitional genres drop out as unessential. A conflict in Barnet’s films is either flat-out false, serving as a foil to the sought-after harmony, or total — tragical, because the incongruity between an individual and the world is in itself already catastrophic [1].

This is one of the reasons why the blatantly fortuitous world of Barnet’s guerrilla fighters, led by a young woman (lovely ingenue-comеdienne Ekaterina Sipavina from the Lenfilm acting school), who sing romantic songs by Tchaikovsky and satirical stanzas composed by Nikita Bogoslovsky, nevertheless does not irritate us with its contrivedness. For the record, A GOOD LAD proved itself to be the precursor of the war musical comedy genre. Particularly if one takes into consideration the fact that both Semyon Timoshenko, the creator of HEAVENLY SLUG (1945), and Mikhail Zharov, who directed A NOISY HOUSEHOLD (1946) right after the war, in 1942 were also stationed in Alma-Ata and, therefore, could have witnessed Barnet at work.

However, in their films, made under completely different circumstances, the comic universe engulfs the plot entirely. In A GOOD LAD things are much more complicated. Apart from the idyllic partisan forest, there also exists the tragic universe beyond the forest’s bounds. These two universes, closed on themselves with heightened genre definitiveness and finality, oppose one another and define each other through this opposition. In the forest reigns early autumn, with its sun shining through the luxuriantly yellow foliage. But around the forest is a pre-winter season, with its bare wastelands, where under heavy skies and wind skeletal trees are stripped of their leaves and burned down huts stand still. During some of the shots the viewer is startled: we’re seeing the landscapes from IVAN’S CHILDHOOD.

To be sure, in Soviet wartime cinema this kind of opposition between the tragic and the idyllic is encountered quite frequently. However, as a rule, it is arranged temporally: the tragedy of war descends upon the pre-war idyll. (The most representative example is THEY FOUGHT FOR THEIR COUNTRY, again dedicated to the guerrilla subject. In this film the protagonist literally changes: a peace-loving person is transformed into a forbidding warrior, a soldier).

In Barnet’s wartime filmography, however, the characters remain immutable in their essence: they are profoundly civilian. They are intrinsically unable to live by the wartime laws, which are alien to them. In A GOOD LAD the partisans are not primarily fighting or avenging — they are simply living in the forest. Their primary mission is preservation of life’s vividness. The opposition between the two universes turns out to be the opposition between the element of vivid life and the element of war (which is intent upon conquering, dismembering and destroying life).

But it is exactly on this opposition that the whole paradigm of the Soviet cinema about the Great Patriotic War is built thereafter. One can effortlessly spot it in, for example, the very complex world of Aleksei German’s TRIAL ON THE ROAD that separates with the same precision the universes of war (stone cold snowfield) and life (forest). The same principle takes shape in the war films of Leonid Bykov, in which the protagonist organizes his own “combat unit”, right up to a musical ensemble. And is it a coincidence that the idea of IVAN’S CHILDHOOD came to Tarkovsky only when he envisioned Ivan’s dreams — the blatantly idyllic world?

Obviously, such an artistic template of the cinematic universe fundamentally contradicts the official sovereign template, because for the ideology of the state the immediate goal was “the final and decisive battle”, wherefrom the vision of war-as-a-festival, war-as-a-parade emerged, eventually transforming into the vision of war-as-a-competition between two military state-machines (from the defense films of 1930s through epic docudramas of 1940s to the LIBERATION film series [1970-1971] as well as the endless number of Stierlitziana films [2]).

Therefore, A GOOD LAD turns out to be the earliest exposition of the Soviet war cinema. The starting point of the plot is yet to come: in this film two universes, foreign to each other and at odds with each other, remain as if frozen before the collision. Here is where the lack of screenplay manifests itself: a flimsy storyline, proposed by the author of a libretto, is merely a substitute for the actual plot. For this reason, in A GOOD LAD the convergence of these universes has not yet taken place (although by this time there already existed the cinenovella A PRICELESS HEAD — perhaps the best segment in all of the FIGHTING FILM COLLECTION (BOYEVOY KINOSBORNIK). This collision was to occur eventually in the last of Barnet’s wartime films — in the truly unknown (even today!) masterpiece of war cinema DARK IS THE NIGHT.

1.This concept defining Barnet’s creative work was first proposed by Khrisanf Khersonsky during the post-screening discussion of Barnet’s DARK IS THE NIGHT at Moscow’s Dom Kino in May 1945.

2.Spy films inspired by the very popular TV series "17 Moments of Spring"(1972) about the Soviet spy who was operating in Nazi Germany under the name Max Otto von Stierlitz . (Translator’s Note)

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