The Border


USSR, Lenfilm, 1935
B&W, 81 min
Russian with no English subtitles

Director: Mikhail Dubson

Screenplay: Mikhail Dubson

Cinematography: Vladimir Rapoport

Design: Isaak Makhlis, Efim Khiger

Sound: Lev Val'ter

Music: Lev Pul'ver

Cast: Veniamin Zuskin, Boris Poslavskii, N. Val'iano, Nikolai Cherkasov, Sergei Gerasimov, V. Bakun, Vasilii Toporkov, Elena Granovskaia 

The nearly mythological status of the Soviet border (as well as of the border guard) was a fixed feature of Soviet culture by the time of the Second Five-Year Plan.  The border was no longer the porous point of contact across which world revolution was to be exported and well-wishing foreigners were to be welcomed unconditionally.  By this time, the national border of the USSR had become a fortified, impermeable barrier sheltering "socialism in one country."  In The Border, a rediscovered work by Mikhail Dubson, the border has become difficult, but not yet impossible to cross.  Its role in the film, however, does not quite correspond to either of the two extremes.  The Soviet reality on the far side of the divide has been seen personally by virtually no one in the Jewish shtetl, located four kilometers inside Poland.  Yet rumors, reports, and tales of the Jewish collective farm serve to inspire, encourage, frighten, or anger various members of the poor Jewish settlement.  The place where "Jews live like human beings" is not so much a tangible reality as a vague future toward which various groups in Poland look in hope or dread.  

The plot largely conforms to the requirements of Soviet socialist realism, and the social structure of the shtetl supports the requirements of the plot.  The conflict is set into motion by the need to hide Boris Birshtein from the police.  Boris is a conscious young revolutionary and has clearly served as a role model for his friends in the shtetl as well as for the Polish workers in the neighboring factory.  His newest disciple and the central character of the film is Ar'e, a young clerk working for the reactionary Novik, the one rich Jew, who controls the local economy.  Anti-Semitism and fear have prevented the poor Jews and the revolutionary Polish proletariat from forming what ought to be a natural alliance against their common boss.  The religious leadership in the shtetl has been a willing participant in the campaign to keep Jews and Poles not only separate but also enemies.  The two groups must overcome their prejudices in order to foil the schemes of Novik and the viciously anti-Semitic local police force.  

This film, virtually unknown for many years, is now coming to be regarded as one of the best works of Jewish cinema made under the Soviet regime.  While its simple and honest portrayal of life in a Jewish shtetl makes it unique for its time, Dubson's attitude toward this culture is difficult to ascertain.  Novik and his family, as exploiters of the poor, are subject to biting satire.  The mocking of the religious leaders, while much more gentle, is also unambiguous.  Positive markers of a specifically Jewish culture are limited to characteristic music, dress, and a humble, self-deprecating attitude most clearly seen in the character of Ar'e.  Ania, with her Zionist sympathies, is ambiguous: while her devotion to her ideals and her family is unshakable, she has probably betrayed her brother unwittingly due to her mistaken faith in Novik's false philanthropy in support of Palestine.  All in all, the Jewish settlement is shown to be utterly unable to improve its lot until enlightenment from a conscious revolutionary movement enables it to throw off religious obscurantism.  

The so-called "black wedding" is frightening in its grotesqueness.  Novik stages this marriage of an aged couple in a Jewish graveyard because the superstitious folk believe that this will drive away bad luck and, thus, quell the violent uprising that the rich merchant fears.  This is the last of three sequences that Dubson drags out to a painfully unnatural length, each of which depicts the artificial theatricality that maintains the ossified "order" of the community.  Only when the poor Jewish craftsmen, encouraged by the factory workers, move from theatrical "rehearsal" to real action can there be any hope for change. 

There is a strange, almost uncanny resemblance between this exemplary Soviet adventure and another, much older narrative, owing not so much to any specific Jewish thematic but to the structuring role of the Soviet border.  At the film's conclusion, Ar'e executes the successful escape to the Jewish kolkhoz not of the young revolutionary, but of his aged father, who "became political" in a fit of spontaneous rage.  Ar'e, now having glimpsed the Promised Land, returns to the shtetl to tell the tale and to continue the struggle to bring a stubborn people out of bondage—and into a freedom that he himself will almost certainly not live to experience.  

Mikhail Dubson

Director and screenwriter Mikhail Dubson was born in 1899 in Smolensk and studied law at Moscow University from 1916 to 1920.  By the late 1920s he was directing films in Germany.  There he married the actress Hilde Jennings, with whom he returned to the USSR in 1930.  In the 1930s he worked at Mezhrabpom and various other studios, as well as in the administration of Soiuzfilm.  He was later arrested and his wife expelled from the country, but he survived to the end of Stalin's rule and directed his last film in 1957.  He died in 1961.  

Director filmography

1929 Two Brothers (Germany)
1929 Poison Gas (Germany)
1935 The Border
1937 Large Wings
1941 Concert-Waltz
1957 The Storm

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