Jolly Cinema > 14:30


Margarita Barskaja
Introduced by

Irène Bonnaud and Bernard Eisenschitz

Born in Baku in 1903, Margarita Barskaya grew up with two sisters and her divorced mother, a would-be artist who made ladies’ hats. She took theatre classes in Azerbaijan and joined a troupe in Odessa. On a visit to the city’s studios, she met the veteran of Tsarist cinema, Pyotr Chardynin, 30 years her senior. She went on to become his wife, leading lady and assistant-director. She appeared in Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s first film, Yagodka lyubvi (Love’s Berries, 1926), but had little interest in acting. She left Chardynin and moved to Moscow, where, in 1929, she opened a dramatic arts studio for children and published numerous articles where she laid out her idea of cinema “by children, for children and about children”. In 1930, she filmed an educational documentary about bread-making: a narrow-minded peasant realises that he needs agricultural tools and tractors, in short that he needs the working class to be able to increase production. Kto vazhneye – Chto nuzhneye (Who’s More Important, What’s More Necessary), long believed to be lost, was identified in the archives of documentary film and photography (RGAKFD) by Natalia Miloserdova in 2008. Poetic and humorous, despite its mandatory didacticism, the film mixes animation and live action. Following praise for this success, Barskaya was able to make her first feature film, Rvanye bashmaki (1933). It depicts the rise of Nazism in an industrial German town, shown from the perspective of children. Convinced that her young actors wouldn’t be able to post-synchronise their dialogue s, she filmed them with direct sound, allowing them to react without having learned a script by heart. She also built a tripod to set up the camera at their height. The film was a triumph, both in the USSR and abroad. Gorky declared he was staggered to see “a young boy expressing a range of emotions that are only seen in the greatest actors”. Famous by the age of 30, Barskaya eventually persuaded Boris Shumyatsky to entrust her with a production unit dedicated to children’s films. But what she had envisioned as an experimental venture, in the summer of 1936 became a major studio, Soyuzdetfilm, jealously controlled by the Party’s youth organizations. In September the arrest of Karl Radek, whom she had been close to, made her situation worse. While the screenplay of her second feature film, Otets i syn (1936), had been accepted, the film was attacked, re-edited and finally banned. Barskaya refused to fall in line and protested; she refused to testify against Radek. A violent campaign was unleashed against her. She began a new project with the pedagogue Anton Makarenko, but his death brought this to an end. On 23 July 1939 she killed herself by jumping from the fifth floor of a building.

Irène Bonnaud and Bernard Eisenschitz


Tuesday 25/08/2020


Original version with subtitles


Film Notes

“A real masterpiece… The best talking film from the Soviet Union”, wrote Henri Langlois of Rvanye bashmaki in 1936. Working with children led Barskaya to create superb direct sound and an inspired style of shooting. Don’t look for conventional cinematic syntax here. The film is chaotic in the way that Soviet films still knew how to be, and Langlois couldn’t help but be seduced by its rebellious spirit, its anarchy and love of children, comparable to Vigo’s Zero de conduite.
As well as being a film made with and for children, it offers a complex take on Western society. Pre-Nazi Germany is not named as such but is carefully reconstructed, possibly under advice from Karl Radek, and children offer a playful reflection of class struggle – doubly excluded, as proletarians and as minors. “They play in the same way that they live”, one intertitle says. The interaction between their comical games and the yet more ludicrous ones played by adults is developed on several levels. The first shot quotes M: children are playing, one of them is excluded from the circle. As with Fritz Lang, this is one of the keys to the film’s meaning, but it leads to another moral message. Foremost here is the depiction of daily life: soup, the unemployed father, poverty and the work born of poverty. Barskaya had seen Dudow and Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe. Gradually the country’s situation becomes visible. Class hostility at school and in the factory; a portrait of Hindenburg presiding over the classroom; the appearance of one and then many swastikas worn by older students; conflict that starts with the nationalist chants to which Rotfront marschiert responds; rebellion in the classroom, then on the streets; police firing at children… Until the obligatory marches and well-ordered parades, where Communist leader Ernst Thälmann is glimpsed. But this is not the real end: ultimately it is the children, like Lang’s little Elsie Beckmann, who will be sacrificed.

Irène Bonnaud and Bernard Eisenschitz   

Cast and Credits

[Torn Boots]. Scen.: Margarita Barskaja. F.: Georgij Bobrov, Sarkis Gevorkjan. Scgf.: Vladimir Egorov. Mus.: Vissarion Šebalin. Int.: Michail Klimov (professore d’istruzione religiosa), Klavdija Polovikova (cieca), Ivan Novosel’cev (padre di Walter), Vladimir Ural’skij (spia), Vera Alechina, bambini da un anno e tre mesi a tredici anni. Prod.: Mežrabpom- Fil’m. 35mm. Bn.