There exists a traditional Russian story about a young woman who leaves her village to go the city and is taken advantage of by an unscrupulous man. Her experience in the city is very negative and she returns to the countryside, where she is treated as an outcast. This is the story that inspired the movie House on Trubnaia Street. Whereas the traditional cautionary story is very much a tragedy, Barnet takes it and transforms it into a story of hope for the then fresh and nascent Soviet society. It is a Soviet movie, but it is in no way heavy-handed, nor does it try and shove anything down your throat, in fact Barnet transforms the story into a comedy.
In this film, the young lady from the village, Parashka, gets taken on as a maid in an apartment in the house on Trubnaia Street, where she is abused by Golnikov the Barber and his wife, a Lady Muck type. The story departs from tradition with the entrance of a charming young union worker who visits the apartments looking to sign union members up. The union is a route whereby Parashka will have recourse if she is beaten or paid unfairly. It's also a place where she can go and meet other young people, who are shown as being boisterous and enthusiastic.
The story could have been played straight, but would have become obvious agitprop. As it is the freedom to stand up against abuse here is shown as something invigorating and innocent, rather than as bloodthirsty or intolerant, and the whole situation is played for laughs. I think the movie has been mistaken by one reviewer who has called the ending doctrinaire, I won't spoil the ending, but I think the reviewer may have seen a threat as an actuality.
Golnikov is quite an amusing sort, he is very put upon by his wife, who rarely rises from her bed. He works hard but also is expected to do all the cooking and housework. Abuse is shown in the movie as cyclical, after the arrival of Parashka, he passes the abuse on to her. Another way of putting it is that abuse in this film is shown very much as an infectious disease, rather than as something to castigate particular individuals for, which I think displays the humanistic credentials of the director. Golnikov is played remarkably well by Vladimir Fogel, who unfortunately died a year later in his late twenties. His short but glittering career highlights included working on several famous films with luminary directors of the time: with Kuleshov on "By the Law"; Abram Room, in another charming Soviet film, "Bed and Sofa"; Pudovkin in "The End of St Petersberg; and on the famous short film Chess Fever, again with Pudovkin.
I might mention as well that the film is shot very well although it is not so formal that it is academic. There are very wistful shots, for example one of the great domes of Moscow is shown reflected in a puddle at daybreak, the puddle is disturbed and an intertitle comes up that suggests the city is having its morning washing, which is exactly the impression of the rippling that the viewer sees in the puddle.
For me the great scene in the film perhaps is at the start where we see the staircase of the apartment building which rises up about seven floors, all in one frame, a Babel in the morning where folks rise and begin their noisy cleaning, wood chopping and gossip, oblivious to the effect they are having on others, a slapstick cacophony.
Might be doing the circuit at good city cinemas shortly, was the great discovery of last year's Pordenone silent film festival (currently the premier global festival for silents).
This review is for Claire, who couldn't make it and will be seeing Avatar with me instead :)
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