Outskirts is another story of happiness, sadness, life, love, and poor people with very few teeth, in Soviet Russia.
Mr. Bongo’s spree of raiding the world’s film vaults and hungrily retrieving the best films everyone has forgotten about continues with Outskirts. Made in 1933 by Boris Barnet (he of By the Bluest of Seas fame, among others), it continues Barnet’s good work in chronicling the minutiae of the lives of normal people in times of crisis. The action takes place in a tiny village in Soviet Russia during World War I, where a German prisoner of war (Hans Klering) is forced to work in the village cobblers. He comes to learn, as his captors do, that the forces that they are ostensibly fighting against are actually made up of men, with feelings, thoughts, and opinions.
This story is just one aspect of a larger whole, as the film reveals itself to be composed of a series of vignettes that show the rapid transformation that Russia was undergoing at the time, and the troubles as it attempted to regain its sense of self throughout. There’s a sense of grim humour throughout, which is commendable, and seems to be a feature of a lot of Soviet films of the period.
Set at a contentious time in Russian history, when Kaiser Willhelm II was enthusiastically throwing his support behind Austro-Hungary in their invasion of the Soviet-supported Serbia, the film was made as a call for mutual understanding between the two sides, with the Soviets obviously coming out a little bit on top as the magnanimous captors, always respectful and honourable, even to POWs. While this may have been true in isolated occasions, it’s clearly not indicative of their general attitude towards POWs.
The film is made in a realistic style but it’s set in a fictional, idealised world, like all films of the time under the restrictive and censor-happy system. While there are occasional moments of anger and violence, these are painted as isolated moments from lone operators, the kind that all Communist systems (even now) do their best to reveal and distance themselves from. The act of revealing bad things makes the government appear more honest, when in fact it’s a smokescreen for their more egregious excesses.
This film is very much a product of its time, and should be seen more as an interesting piece of history than as an entertaining film to lose yourself in. There’s no chance of being swept away by the story, or the acting; this is an artifact of an alien time, and one that is much misunderstood. That’s probably the reason for Mr. Bongo’s unearthing of these films – it’s an interesting representation of the mentality of another time.
Unfortunately for them, this is a film site and not a political history site, and as a film it’s just not very good. Even for the time, it’s not very good. It’s trite, it’s dull and it’s just not entertaining to watch. It’s been called a masterpiece on other, less well-endowed websites, which it plainly isn’t. It’s a little too avant-garde in its use of sound, and a bit too absurdist (in the least interesting way possible) to ever really be a satisfying watch.
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