It’s a time-tested comedy trope that transcends just about any culture or era: a naive rural resident undertakes a daunting journey to a metropolis, is swindled by nefarious city slickers, and is left wiser but disillusioned (or worse).
There is, however, just as much resulting amusement when this narrative is turned on its head and the country hayseed outwits the sophisticates (even if accidentally). Filtered through a Soviet lens, the result is Boris Barnet’s 1928 silent cinematic classic, The House on Trubnaya Street, which this week opened the 2018-19 season of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History.
Movie goers—among them Russian cinema buffs and Carmel Institute awardees from American University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland at College Park and Baltimore County, as well as George Mason University—dined on a pre-screening buffet of Russian delicacies and desserts before taking their seats in the Russian Embassy’s Tunlaw Theater.
The House on Trubnaya Street was created during the era of Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy (1921-1928). Following the Great War, two revolutions and a civil war, by 1921 Lenin and his party faced the challenge of creating a functional economy. Their proposal was the New Economic Policy, which combined free market elements with state control of the “commanding heights.” Private individuals could own and operate small businesses, but the state still controlled banks, transport, heavy industry, and foreign trade. While short-lived, the New Economic Policy impacted every sector of Soviet life, including cinema.
“Although the Bolsheviks embraced the propaganda value of the new art of film, they also realized during the 1920s that there needed to be movies made that were less experimental and abstract, but would appeal to the ordinary public through standard stories about love,” explained Carmel Institute Director Dr. Anton Fedyashin in his welcoming remarks. “And so parallel to (Dziga) Vertov’s and (Sergei) Eisenstein’s crazy and wonderful visual experiments, there was another trend in the 1920s: the filmic comedies and love stories.”
Barnet decided to cross-pollinate the trends and made The House on Trubnaya Street as a comedy and a love story. A young peasant girl, Paranya, travels to Moscow—pet duck in tow—in search of her uncle, who has already returned to the country. Staying in Moscow, she finds work as a maid, but is subjected to the petty tyrannies of her union-averse hairdresser boss and his lazy roommate. Run off her feet both day and night, Paranya’s new situation is bleak—until she boldly asserts her rights with the revolutionary act of joining a worker’s union.
In a case of mistaken identity, Paranya’s housemates come to believe she has been elected as a representative to the Moscow City Council, and—until they realize their error—they compete with one another in obsequiousness towards the maid they formerly despised. It’s a comedy of manners that deftly skewers both fundamental human nature and the social climbing bourgeoisie aspirations of a non-collectivist culture.
In a humiliated rage, Paranya’s boss fires her—but “in the end, the union defends her rights as a woman, so the film is also about female empowerment, Soviet-style,” said Dr. Fedyashin. Soviet feminism was, Dr. Fedyashin observed, “one of the most effective and popular recruiting campaigns that the Bolsheviks used to co-opt women. If you look at the history of progressivist and leftist movements in Europe in general, you will see that women flocked to them in the thousands—because for women’s rights, progressivism-leftism was the flag under which you marched. It was the opposing movement to business as usual in Victorian-era Europe, including Russia.”
Despite being produced almost a century ago, The House on Trubnaya Street exploits a school of comedy so universal that its visual and dialogue jests are still stunningly contemporary. Slapstick humor—with discernable influences from American masters Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd—intersperses with snappy intertitles that propel the cast from one misadventure to another, in a whirl of action reminiscent of the bustling pace of the city itself.
The house of the titular name is a Moscow apartment block suggestive of a turn-of-the-century New York City tenement. Among its residents are apparent bachelors and spinsters, couples and families, all living on top of one another in what appears as barely controlled chaos. Barnet brilliantly captures this in a set piece that takes place on the main stairwell—as the camera roves from top to bottom, we see the dwellers go about their daily routines of sweeping, arguing, chopping wood, and more.
“The experience of country folk flocking to Moscow, the new Soviet capital, and being totally overawed by the urban lifestyle, is what this film is partly about,” Dr. Fedyashin said. “But it’s also a Soviet take on the Cinderella story. There’s even a Prince Charming in there—but he’s not the one who makes a difference—the Collective does.”
Boris Barnet admitted a preference for rooting his films in the present: “All my films, for better or worse, deal with contemporary life and its problems,” Barnet stated. “When I have an option, I have always chosen contemporary subjects, even though it is not always easy to tackle these.”
Indeed, The House on Trubnaya Street is anchored in the realities of daily life and work, with a bit of romance stirred in, as Paranya discovers that a hometown boy lives in the same building. “This is a love story,” Dr. Fedyashin observed. “It’s also a film that was politically coded—everything was in the 1920s and thereafter in the Soviet Union. But it’s how Barnet codes all of this in the film that’s interesting.”
Outside the walls of the house, the gritty realism of Moscow contrasts with the almost idyllic scenes of streetsweepers and reflective puddles, traversed by pedestrians, streetcars, and automobiles. There is pandemonium, to be sure—but it is meant to be the stuff of advancement and forward motion: the energy of promise.
The House on Trubnaya Street became wildly popular in its era—and the reaction of the Tunlaw Theater audience confirmed that its comedic genius has stood the test of time.
“Every cook has to learn how to govern the state,” Lenin famously declared. While Paranya’s tale does not end with her scaling the political ranks, it is nonetheless implied that she has enlarged her perspective by transitioning from peasant girl to urban worker.
“The Bolsheviks obsessed over peace and cooperation between peasants and workers,” said Dr. Fedyashin. “This is why the hammer and the sickle became the symbol of the Soviet Union. The hammer represented the workers, the sickle—the peasants. And the overlay represented the union of those two classes that formed the basis of this new society.”
And while there is indeed satire at Paranya’s expense—her bewilderment at finding her uncle’s city address, complete with the conflicting directions of passersby at every turn; her obliviousness to the spectacle she creates by carrying a duck in a basket through the streets of Moscow, and its perilous escape; her distinctly farmhand fashions, critically appraised by the hairdresser’s wife—she is still ultimately rendered not as a stereotype, but as a unique person with her own hopes and dreams.
“There’s a little fun poked at the country bumpkin coming to town, but the country bumpkins are also humans, and they have human emotions—and this is part of the message of the film,” Dr. Fedyashin noted. “Remember, the best kind of propaganda is the type of propaganda that you don’t recognize as such; you laugh; you cry; you love it all—but there’s a message embedded in there.”
Photos from the film screening can be viewed on the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History Facebook page.