Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, Part 2: The House on Trubnaya (1928)

a-casa-da-praca-trubnaia_t47274_png_290x478_upscale_q90Thanks to Movies, Silently and Flicker Alley for hosting the Blogathon!

Despite what Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) might have lead you to believe, Bolshevism did not destroy the Russian sense of humor. Although the “message” of The House on Trubnaya (1928) (aka The House on Trubnaya Square aka The House on Trubnaya Street) is, predictably, that the Soviet state is just super, the film does not throw its hands up in the air, in classic Russian fatalism. The House on Trubnaya is a hoot. Yes, you read that right, Soviet comedy is not an oxymoron.

Trubnaya takes on the country-girl-in-the-city trope. Rather than following the well-worn path in which the naive girl is taken advantage of by some unscrupulous city slicker and, “falling” pregnant, is forced to return home, where, of course, no one will have anything to do with her, however, Trubnaya sets it up and then has the naive country girl triumph, all thanks to the glorious Soviet system. Luckily, Trubnaya’s director, Boris Barnet, has a much subtler touch than that summary suggests. The story is genuinely funny, the only character we hate is the actual villain, and Barnet and his cinematographer, Yevgeni Alekseyev, have a lot of fun with the camera. Trubnaya puts a lot of the Kino-Eye-Constructivist-montage techniques to much lighter effect than I’ve seen in the canonical Soviet films, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s breathtaking Man with a Movie Camera.

The film opens on a lyrical set of images—a Moscow empty but for a few street sweepers. The city “looks in the mirror and begins to wash up,” the inter titles tell us. The next shot is a serene reflection of buildings in water on the street, broken the next moment by sweeper’s broom. Everything here is linked to everything else—it’s a political theory but also an aesthetic. Our focus shifts to the Trubnaya apartments and the film’s best set: a cut-away of the stairwell in a communal apartment building. It’s a great introduction to the characters’ world and the humor Barnet creates here sets the tone for the film.

trubnayaWe watch the stairwell come to life along with the rest of the city: neighbors shaking out rugs and curtains, chopping wood (yes, in the stairwell), tossing out garbage, shooing cats, and all manner of morning rituals. The beginning of the film doesn’t have much dialog, which allows us to better appreciate the images, the way they’re connected, and what they tell us about these people. The rhythmic movements of the morning rituals are a language of their own. The sequence reminded me a bit of a much more salacious one in the French film Delicatessen (1991), which moves from room to room in an apartment building, as everyone’s movements, no matter what they’re doing, fall into the rhythm of a very squeaky mattress being used by two tenants. During this sequence in Trubnaya, as the camera moves fluidly up and down, we gather that this communal space isn’t being used all that communally. We are introduced to the three tenants in particular, Fenia, the building organizer, and we later learn, a union organizer, Golikov, a hairdresser, and a driver, Semyon, who turns out to be from the same village as Parasha, the film’s country-girl heroine.

The film moves out into the streets again as we follow Semyon to work. Parasha is wandering, a bit lost, along the streets. Like all good peasant girls, she has brought with her a beloved duck in a basket. Distracted by some dolls in a shop window, she fails to notice the duck waddle off. A classic silent film chase ensues as Parasha tries to recover her duck. The two are finally reunited on the tracks of a tram, which we saw so many of in the opening shots. Naturally, there is a tram bearing down on them, and there is a wonderful montage of Parasha and duck, tram, the tram-driver’s foot, the growing crowd. Just as we expect her to be smooshed or saved, the film “stops,” and the inter titles point out that we don’t know how the duck got to Moscow. We rewind to the moment Parasha (or Paranya, depending on the translation) is getting on the train from the boonies to the big city. Unfortunately, at just the same moment, her uncle is getting off a train arriving in the village. We hurtle back to the “present” and watch the tram driver stop just short of turning them into duck-and-Parasha paté. As the crowd circles around her, Semyon discovers he knows this peculiar girl, crouching in the road, hugging a duck. He takes her back to Trubnaya.

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There, Parasha is hired by Golikov as a housemaid/drudge. Golikov is played with a weasely air of general disapproval by Vladimir Fogel, early proof that villains are usually more fun to watch. The rest of the movie is really a struggle between Golikov’s version of the world, in which he treats Parasha a slave rather than an employee, and Parasha’s expanding and much sweeter version of the world. Fortunately, Parasha has Fenia, the domestic workers’ union, and, ultimately, of course, the glorious Soviet state on her side.

Later in the film, Barnet borrows a (hilarious) scene from the second book of Don Quixote,** in which our hero(ine) watches a performance of the Storming of the Bastille at the Workers’ Theater. The odious Golikov has been drafted at the last minute, standing in for an actor too drunk to play the French army general. Watching the “general” thrashing a revolutionary on stage, Parasha is overcome with an understandable desire to protect the underdog and leaps up to intercede. She storms the stage, knocking the general on his can, and…the crowd goes wild.

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Vera Maretskaya as Parasha

This is one excellent example among many of how Barnet caters to the need for Soviet propaganda on the one hand, while on the other hand, lampoons excessive patriotic fervor. And he does it through a character who, like the knight from La Mancha, remains sympathetic. It’s quite a balancing act and a great pleasure to watch.

You can watch The House on Trubnaya with a Fandor subscription (or with their two-week free trial). There are also versions available for free on YouTube.

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Director Boris Barnet

For more Russia in Classic Film Blogathon posts on comedy, check out the following:

Two (!) posts about the short Chess Fever (1925), starring Vladimir Fogel, at Once Upon a Screen and The Moon in Gemini.

and another two posts about Miss Mend, a serial co-directed by Boris Barnet (and set in America!), one at Big V Riot Squad and Mildred’s Fatburgers.

For more Trubnaya reading:

An argument that Barnet’s film belongs on a list of “best ever” silents on BFI’s site.

The House on Trubnaya @ Fandor and an accompanying essay on Russian Silent Film

Interesting historical context on the film at Cinetext.

 

 

** “Don Quixote, however, seeing such a swarm of Moors and hearing such a din, thought it would be right to aid the fugitives, and standing up he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Never, while I live, will I permit foul play to be practised in my presence on such a famous knight and fearless lover as Don Gaiferos. Halt! ill-born rabble, follow him not nor pursue him, or ye will have to reckon with me in battle!” and suiting the action to the word, he drew his sword, and with one bound placed himself close to the show, and with unexampled rapidity and fury began to shower down blows on the puppet troop of Moors, knocking over some, decapitating others, maiming this one and demolishing that; and among many more he delivered one down stroke which, if Master Pedro had not ducked, made himself small, and got out of the way, would have sliced off his head as easily as if it had been made of almond-paste. Master Pedro kept shouting, “Hold hard! Senor Don Quixote! can’t you see they’re not real Moors you’re knocking down and killing and destroying, but only little pasteboard figures! Look—sinner that I am!—how you’re wrecking and ruining all that I’m worth!” But in spite of this, Don Quixote did not leave off discharging a continuous rain of cuts, slashes, downstrokes, and backstrokes, and at length, in less than the space of two credos, he brought the whole show to the ground, with all its fittings and figures shivered and knocked to pieces, King Marsilio badly wounded, and the Emperor Charlemagne with his crown and head split in two.”

Read the whole chapter (or better yet, the whole book—Book I first!), including Gustave Doré’s illustrations, at Project Gutenberg.

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Russia in Classic Film Blogathon: Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)

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You will never get my fabulous headgear! Never! (Yuliya Solnetseva as Aelita)

Well, it’s some kind of thing.

As a portrait of the early Soviet state, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) is fascinating. As a film, less so. What makes it interesting is probably also what makes it not a great film. It’s the propaganda. In America, the closest thing to “state propaganda” was probably the moralizing epilogue which would occasionally be tacked on to pre-code films starting in the next five years or so—as though that would wipe an audience’s mind clean of the previous 60 – 80 minutes of extramarital sex, near or total nudity, and crime without punishment enjoyed by the film’s characters.

Naturally, all of what looks like fun in Aelita turns out to be capitalist evil—nice clothes, drinking, parties, edible food, even the cool Constructivist couture worn by Martians. Because Aelita is set in 1921, and the Communists will shortly be in control of what will become the Soviet Republic, most of the film is at pains to distinguish between good Communists and bad Russians. Our hero, and I use that word loosely, is newlywed Engineer Los (Nikolai Tseretelli). When a mysterious radio signal is heard all over the world, Los’s dreams of going to Mars kick into high gear. In a typical American film, the guy (it’s always a guy) with crazy dreams inevitably has the moral high ground, and his crazy dreams show humanity the way forward. In Soviet Russia (sorry, couldn’t resist), this is, of course, backwards. Individuals with dreams hold society back and lead to all sorts of immoral capitalist shenanigans (in this film, anyway).

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If the main characters were more interesting, they’d probably be on this poster.

Los engineers for the fledgling Soviet state, while his wife, Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), works in what the translated titles refer to as an evacuation center for refugees from the war and demobbed soldiers arriving in Moscow. Yet Anta Odeli Uta, the radio signal heard ’round the world, calls to Los like a siren. As he works feverishly on plans for a spaceship, good Communist things go sideways.

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The Robocop overlords are coming.

Life in Moscow is becoming more communal by the hour, and soon evacuated bad Russians Erlikh (Pavel Pol) and his wife are sent to move in with Los and Natasha. Los is unreasonably jealous of Erlikh, a clandestine black marketeer, who flatters Natasha. Without the example of her upstanding husband, frequently away for work, Natasha weakens and goes to a clandestine party with Erlikh. Suddenly, there is a scene in which everyone is dressed fabulously, their stylish clothes revealed as they strip off their shabby but voluminous outerwear. Natasha removes her prehistoric Uggs (which look they’re made out of cardboard) to reveal some excellent, slinky pumps. Before she is utterly lost to depravity, however, she remembers what pathetic bits of cloth the evacuees often have in place of shoes. Overcome by guilt, she hurries from this den of iniquity, where people are drinking alcohol and eating good food and generally enjoying themselves, back to her dingy, overcrowded apartment and what I assume is a lot of cabbage. Unfortunately, Natasha has missed her husband, who has left on yet another business trip, further estranging the two. When he finishes his six-month gig in outer-wherever, the government sends him a thank-you note. Returning home, he finds his wife talking to Erlikh. It is obvious to Los that they are sleeping together. So our hero shoots her and buggers off to build himself a spaceship. (Don’t forget, he’s the good Russian.)

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Having abandoned his new wife on Earth, Gusev finds the only happy Martian, Ihoskha (the impish Aleksandra Peregonets), and serenades her with his accordion. I think the movie we all want to see is the one this still should have come from.

You might well be wondering, at this point, what the hell happened to Mars, which is, you know, in the title. There are few sequences on Mars, sadly, but they are something—wonderful visions of a Constructivist dystopia with cool names like the Tower of Radiant Energy. The clothes are, well, you can see the pictures. Unfortunately, although the fashion-forward Aelita may be a queen, she is not the ruler, as Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), the ruler, likes to remind her. People on Mars are very frowny, if the two of them are anything to go by. Behind Tuskub’s back, she convinces Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the civilization’s Guardian of Energy, to show her other worlds using his new gadget. When she spies the handsome Los, early on in the film, meeting Natasha, and sees them kiss, she turns to the hapless Gor and vamps, “Touch my lips with yours, like humans do, on Earth!” Apparently, there’s no kissing on Mars. But that’s only fair, because Martians are evil (if stylish) capitalists. They send a third of their workers into cold storage.

aelita-queen-of-mars-1924-001-00n-5vi-faceless-martiansLos finally makes it to Mars, along with good Russian soldier Gusev (Nikolai Batalov) in drag (it’s a long story) and a detective who means to find Natasha’s murderer. The representative of law and order is presented to us as a laughable fellow whose dedication to holding someone accountable for a murder is obviously absurd. When this three-ring circus lands on Mars, what could happen but a bolshevik revolution, fueled by the stout-hearted Gusev. Los romances Aelita and the three of them free the workers, but at the last moment, Aelita betrays them. She tells the guards, in outfits clearly inspired by the 1987 version of Robocop, to open fire on the “insurgents.” The insurgents all look like they have televisions on their heads, by the way, as though they had wandered off the set of a Devo video. “Devo” is actually a pretty good description of the Martian aesthetic, created by art director Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky and costume designer Alexandra Exter. (The blog Teleport City has a great post on Aelita with lots of detail about its context and history, including the book it’s adapted from and who Exter was.)

I don’t want to ruin the whole plot for you, which, in any case would take a lot longer, and you’d get bored. But, I doubt I’m ruining anything when I tell you that our fine hero comes to his senses, and sees that, without the wife he murdered, “the only joy for [him] was the realization that he, too, could take part in the great work of building the new Russia.” All’s well that ends well, eh? That mysterious radio signal, Anta, Odeli, Uta, is finally revealed to be a capitalist plot—a publicity ploy created by a tire company, Anta Odeli Uta. All crazy dreams of exploring the universe have been patriotically squashed, and the film ends as Los burns his notes, stares heroically into the middle distance, and tells Natasha (yeah, turns out she’s not completely dead—maybe she was just mostly dead), “Enough of dreaming. A different, real kind of work is awaiting all of us!”

Hooray.

Aelita: Queen of Mars is disappointing if you’re looking for the first sci-fi film, as it is sometimes called. But it is absolutely worth a look if you’re interested in Russian/Soviet history, and the Martian sequences, particularly the uprising, are pretty fabulous. Watching the failed Martian revolution (to be fair, I bet it’s hard to pull off a revolution when you’ve just been released from a freezer), it’s easy to be reminded of the much greater Metropolis, which Fritz Lang will finish three years after Aelita is released. They’d make a great double-bill.

The Internet has, in its infinite wisdom, decided that all the best things about Aelita take place on Mars. And so, you’ll be hard pressed to find images of Los or Natasha, though they are the film’s central characters. What you will find are scads of images of the scowling Martians in their proto-Devo Constructivist gear. Enjoy.

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This post is part of the awesome Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by maven of all things silent, Movies, Silently. There are some fantastic posts about both famous Soviet/Russian films and the less-famous. Enjoy!