A shipwreck, somewhere in the Caspian Sea. For two days and two nights a pair of survivors are pushed by the currents slowly southward. They are rescued near an island in Soviet Azerbaijan which, at initial glance, appears to be a dreamlike idyll. The heavy scoring of the shipwreck (courtesy Sergei Pototsky) has given way to complete silence. The quick-edit waves are replaced by surf lapping in slow motion. The population has its fair share of women, a fact which immediately pleases our two sailors. But this isn’t some dream or a dying vision, but rather a propagandist idyll where selfless collectivism rules. The fishing season is about to begin and, fortunately for these men, the island requires their skills for the coming months. Thus they are welcomed with open arms - and the occasional outbreak of song…
In all fairness, the paean to communism and collectivism isn’t the most important thing about By the Bluest of Seas. This was the second sound feature from Boris Barnet and a film which maintained the dazzling visual qualities of his silent work. From the off this is a wonderfully cinematic experience that rarely seems overly concerned with the politics. The strength of the film is its repeated invention, whether it be the initial shipwreck told only through images of birds, the sun and the sea (there are a few dozen edits before a human figure enters the frame) or the manner in which it captures a scene aboard a fishing vessel via an endlessly rocking, ill-angled camera. Barnet is also more than happy to switch between silent- and sound-era styles of filmmaking. He will use intertitles if it makes life easier for him and he communicates ideas through the simplest of means. One sailor’s infatuation for one of the islanders is encapsulated in a massive grin; no need for pages of dialogue there! Nevertheless, the soundtrack is used to its fullest: not only the songs, but also instances of Azerbaijan folk music and the Pototsky score employed for all their added drama.
Further diluting the lessons of selflessness whatever the conditions (the harshness of the environment, the job at hand, perhaps something more personal) is the central love triangle between our two sailors and one particular young islander. She happens to be the chairwoman of the co-operative - which, it is implied, makes her as attractive to these men as her looks - and, of course, she proves a test for their friendship. At the time of its release By the Bluest of Seas was criticised for being overly “emotional”, a handy pointer as to where Barnet’s emphasis lay. It is the relationships between this woman and the two newcomers which fascinates him, not so much the political messaging that needs to be espoused at regular intervals. It is this which fuels his visual and aural flourishes, to the point where they can transcend the social realism demanded of this kind of Soviet cinema. The soundtrack drops out as pearls fall from a necklace in slow motion, for example. Or a meeting in the co-operative’s hall becomes suddenly deserted as one of the sailors, disgruntled that his affections are shared by his friend, seeks to explain his feelings. At times like this the film could be seen as a close relative to Vigo’s L’Atalante. It helps that both are also never too far from the water, which photographs just beautifully in both cases.
Yet there is something about By the Bluest of Seas that doesn’t quite satisfy as fully as it should. For all the cinematic mastery on display, this is ultimately a fairly lightweight tale. It may spark in Barnet some truly astounding moments, but the emotions are coming from these instances of poetry rather than anything inherent in the flimsy set-up. Interestingly the sleeve to this disc labels the film a comedy as well as a melodrama, an assessment I wouldn’t entirely agree with. There are some cute moments and the occasional comic touch, though neither is persistent enough to have a genuine effect. With that said, it is possible to understand such a label in light of the romantic triangle’s weaker qualities. The logic being that because the drama doesn’t command our attention quite as much it should therefore the film is intentionally lightweight, ie as much a comedy as it is a tale of unreciprocated love.
Whilst this lack of a genuine dramatic impetus should be considered a flaw, it certainly isn’t enough to misbalance By the Bluest of Seas entirely. Indeed, I wouldn’t be comparing the film to L’Atalante if it came with genuine problems. Yes, it is flimsy, but tune out of the storytelling a little - or acknowledge the flaws - and instead focus on the stylistic content and the technical expertise. Viewed as a visual poem, or as an early example of the inventive (even experimental) talkie, By the Bluest of Seas is a wonderful experience. The use of Pototsky’s score - chopped-up by Barnet against his wishes - and the use of the landscape are continually remarkable. Even an action sequence making heavy use of back projection, which should surely come across as tired and dated nowadays, is treated in such a manner that it comes across as entirely fresh. It’s a shame, of course, that the narrative couldn’t live up to such moments, but it would be entirely wrong to dismiss the film as a result. There’s still plenty to make this worth your while.
By the Bluest of Seas has been released by Ruscico (the Russian Cinema Council) as part of their Hyperkino series. Six of the series have been picked up MovieMail to distribute in the UK, the others in the series being Eisenstein’s Strike and October, Lev Kuleshov’s Engineer Prite’s Project and The Great Consoler, and Alexander Medvedkin’s Happiness. (Click here for further information.) The format is a simple one, but effective. Essentially the films come in two-disc editions, one of which presents the main feature with a variety of the subtitle options, whilst the other contains an annotated edition in either English or Russian. These annotations are available throughout the film and signified by a number appearing in the corner of the screen. Press the ‘enter’ button on your remote at this point and some relevant information appears onscreen. These are mostly text-based, but occasionally will involve facsimiles of original documentation, a short clip or two, even a full-length documentary (Engineer Prite’s Project contains an hour-long doc on Kuleshov, for example, amongst its annotations). In the case of By the Bluest of Seas, all additional notes were text only, but that doesn’t prevent a wealth of information being revealed. Here we find anecdotal notes taken from cast and crew reminiscences and biographies, not to mention analysis of key moments, a highlighting of technical devices and reference to the reaction of critics, audiences and Barnet himself, who reportedly hated all of his films and apologised for them regularly!
In terms of presentation, both discs are decent enough without being outstanding. The opening credits are cropped a little tight as are the intertitles which may suggest that the framing is a little off throughout. Contrast levels have a tendency to waver at certain points, but are generally fine and reveal an acceptable level of detail. Damage is present in the form of moderate scratches which intermittently make themselves known, though only to a degree which is hardly surprising for a film of this age. Much the same is also true of the soundtrack, which clearly reveals its origins as an early talkie. Nevertheless, there isn’t anything particularly bad about this presentation and most of the flaws are inherent in the original materials. As such the majority shouldn’t have any problem it. The optional English subtitles are excellent and also cover the lyrics for the occasional outbursts of song.
Boris Barnet's visually stunning Soviet drama, now available to UK buyers.