|BOROTBA VELETNIV (Borba Gigantov; Das Kampf ums Leben) (UkrSSR 1926). [THE STRUGGLE OF GIANTS] Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev|
Ucraina: il grande esperimento
Ukraine: The Great Experiment
Cinema in Ukraine dates back to 1894, when the first films were made by Yosyp Tymchenko with a prototype apparatus of his own invention. The production of full-length feature films was begun by private companies in 1911. During the most fruitful period of Ukrainian silent cinema, 1922-1930, all movies were produced under the aegis of the state film monopoly VUFKU, the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate, which united Ukrainian film production, distribution, education, and press coverage. Established on 13 March 1922, VUFKU superseded the All-Ukrainian Film Committee, which had existed since January 1919, as part of the People’s Commissariat for Education of the Ukrainian SSR. The First State Odessa Film Factory was created on 23 May 1919, based in the premises of the nationalized Kharitonov, Borisov, and Grossman film studios. The Yalta Film Studio was created the same year, commandeering the premises of the former Khanzhonkov and Ermolieff companies. Both studios became part of VUFKU in 1922.
The Ukrainian SSR government, then enjoying wide-ranging economic and political autonomy, provided VUFKU with virtual independence from the All-Soviet authorities. In 1923 VUFKU was granted the monopoly of film distribution in Ukraine, with profits increasing from 12% in 1924 to 34% in 1927. During the years 1924-1925 the number of cinema halls in Ukraine expanded from 110 to 714.
In 1922-1925, owing to the lack of professionals who could be considered “ideologically faithful”, most filmmakers dated from before the Revolution. Following the Russian symbolist tradition, directors of this period often based their films on literary works by Edgar Allan Poe, Leonid Andreev, or Alexander Grin, full of gloomy romanticism and decadence. A clumsy combination of pre-revolutionary symbolist cinema aesthetics and Bolshevik political mottoes pushed these exquisitely decorated costume dramas into a phantasmagoric time and space of invented worlds and locales. Irrelevant to the Soviet scheme of political utopia, they were more closely related to German Expressionism. Formally archaic, such films offered a kind of escapism from the post-revolutionary famine and ruin then dominating real life in Ukraine, but they were also a source of cinematic embarrassment, and began losing audiences. Filmmakers began to search for new forms to express the drastic reformation of social life.
During this period, the production capacities of the two Ukrainian film studios in Odessa and Yalta were completely renewed. A total of 33 feature films and at least 165 Kulturfilms were produced. VUFKU entered the international film market; in 1926 it became the second biggest film supplier to the German film market, after the United States. Beginning in 1929, VUFKU productions were released in France, Great Britain, and the Czech Republic, as well as the U.S. and Japan.
The frustration of Ukrainian cinema in 1922-1925 was broken by such films as McDonald (Makdonald, 1924) and Armory Men (Arsenaltsi, 1925), which marked the first realization of a new film language corresponding to revolutionary themes. Both of these films were directed by Les Kurbas (1887-1937), an avant-garde theatre director, theorist, and pedagogue regarded as the founder of modern Ukrainian theatre. After graduating in philosophy, Kurbas founded the experimental Berezil (literally “March”, symbolizing “Spring” or “Beginning”) Theatre in Kharkiv in 1922. It included six artistic studios in which the nature of acting was researched, a directors’ laboratory, and a theatre museum. Kurbas implemented bold theatrical experiments, such as dividing the stage space into several vertical zones where action took place cyclically. In 1922-1926, Kurbas developed the theory of “political theatre”, evolving into avant-gardism, Expressionist aesthetics, Constructivism, and neo-Baroque symbolism in set design. Kurbas was experimenting with cinema long before his début as a film director. In 1922 he staged his famous production of Dzhimmi Higgins (Jimmie Higgins), an adaptation of a novel by Upton Sinclair, which followed the principle of film editing, using light to create the optical effect of close-ups and fade-ins. Actual film was included in the play, projecting war newsreel, actuality footage, and close-ups of the characters on a screen.
In 1923 VUFKU’s Odessa film studio invited Kurbas to work there as a director. In his 1925 revolutionary film drama Armory Men (Arsenaltsi), which inspired Dovzhenko’s masterpiece Arsenal, Kurbas divided the screen horizontally into two planes.
In the theatre Kurbas worked with the Constructivist artist Vadym Meller (1884-1962), who was awarded a gold medal at the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925 for the design of a Berezil play, while in cinema he collaborated with another Constructivist artist, Volodymyr Muller, an avant-garde stage designer of populist spectacles and parades in Odessa as well as of Constructivist furniture. Along with Kurbas, the film studios welcomed the outstanding scriptwriter Solomon Lazurin, and Berezil actors Amvrosii Buchma, Semen Svashenko, Stepan Shahaida, and Natalia Uzhvii.
The year 1925 became crucial for Ukrainian art and cinema in particular. Promoting the Ukrainization policy, the Ukrainian SSR People’s Commissariat for Education encouraged avant-garde artists to work in state cultural institutions and contribute to the development of proletarian art. VUFKU started recruiting young avant-garde artists to work in cinema. The artistic board of the Odessa Film Factory was headed by Mykhail Semenko, a Futurist poet and cultural advocate, who invited writers Mykola Bazhan and Mike Johansen, and modernists Yurii Yanovskyi, Dmytro Buzko, and Oles Dosvitnii to work at the studio, as well as artists such as Vasyl Krychevskyi, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, and Yosyp Spinel, and the photographer Danylo Demutskyi (who had won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris). Besides welcoming the brightest talents of “proletarian” avant-garde culture, in 1925 VUFKU invited foreign experts, mostly of German origin, to the Odessa film studio, including the cinematographers Joseph Rona and Albert Kühn, and designers Heinrich Beisenhertz and Karl Haacker, as well as the Turkish director Ertug˘ rul Muhsin Bey.
Between 1925 and 1927, modern writers, foreign specialists, and young professionals with specialized education joined the studios, and in 1927 the first students of the VUFKU film college, established in 1924, graduated. More than 65 feature films were made in these years, including such outstanding works as Hamburg (1926) by Vladimir Balliuzek and Viktor Turin’s social dystopia The Struggle of Giants (Borotba Veletniv, 1926).
In 1927 there were revolutionary changes in Ukrainian cinema: the dynamic influence of the avant-garde resulted in the appearance of experimental films that broke with artistic tradition. In the years 1927-1930 Ukrainian cinema moved away from a dominant response to audience taste to become involved in the search for a universal film language, exploring the limits of art and the nature of art work. Highly-qualified directors used their expertise to create sharply psychological “realist” films, such as Two Days (Dva Dni, 1927), The Night Coachman (Nichnyi Viznyk, 1929), Wind from the Rapids (Viter z porohiv, 1930), Museum Keeper (Okhoronets muzeiu, 1930), and The Benefit of George the Clown (Benefis klouna Zhorzha, 1928), which unfortunately were subsequently branded as “petty bourgeois”. These were followed by a number of clearly experimental films, such as Arsenal (1929), Man with a Movie Camera (Liudyna z kinoaparatom, 1929), Spring (Navesni, 1929), Bread (Khlib, 1930), and Earth (Zemlya, 1930), which were ostensibly aimed at fulfilling Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization projects.
The avant-garde aesthetics of Ukrainian cinema were developed by the directors Arnold Kordium (Mirabeau / Mirabo, 1929), Mykola Shpykovskyi (Bread / Khlib, 1930), and Ivan Kavaleridze (Downpour / Zlyva, 1929, and Perekop, 1930). Already a noted Cubist sculptor who had created two huge, striking monuments to the Communist leader Artem (Fyodor Sergeyev, 1883-1921), Kavaleridze (1887-1978) entered the world of film with a “moving sculpture” experiment, attempting to solve the paradox of turning cinema into a moving sculpture by using light as a chisel. The episodes of Downpour filmed against a background of black velvet and Cubist decorations, the use of gold, bronze, and white actors’ make-up, as well as the decelerated mechanical movements of the characters and the lack of a clear narrative, provoked perhaps the biggest scandal in Ukrainian cinema of the 1920s.
Thanks to the head of the Ukrainian Commissariat for Education Mykola Skrypnyk, who allowed Russian experimenters in exile to benefit from the relative autonomy of Ukraine, Dziga Vertov filmed at VUFKU The Eleventh (Odynadtsiatyi, 1928) and the avant-garde masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera (Liudyna z kinoaparatom, 1929), working with his brother, cameraman Mikhail Kaufman. The fact that the film was made in Odessa and partly in Kyiv and Kharkiv is often mistakenly disregarded by researchers. But not by chance was the totally apolitical Man with a Movie Camera different from Vertov’s other agit-films. The film’s first shots lyrically capture the special atmosphere of the Mediterranean-like city of Odessa, serving as evidence of the director’s aesthetic assimilation in Ukraine, where the concept of “vitaism” introduced by the writer Mykola Khvyliovyi and criticized by the government was popular among the intellectual élite. Khvyliovyi predicted the Eurasian renaissance, with its centre in Ukraine, advancing his famous slogan “Away from Moscow”, postulating the mental, cultural, and geopolitical autonomy of Ukraine. Its recognizable Ukrainian landscapes and “non-Russian” aesthetic code, combined with the characteristic lyricism of its southern world-view, all endow Man with a Movie Camera with the features of a distinctly Ukrainian work. The same aesthetic and ideological attributes are characteristic of Spring (Navesni, 1929), an independent work by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman, which was accused of “biologism” – the charge that would later be levied against Dovzhenko’s Earth.
A relative revival of the new bourgeoisie in the heyday of the NEP (New Economic Policy) and the rejection of the Leninist idea of world revolution ended with the Party declaring war on domestic enemies: apolitical tradesmen and enterprising “NEPmen” businessmen in the city, and prosperous kulak (kurkul, in Ukrainian) peasants in the countryside. A new genre of comic satire on bourgeois life appeared: In the Claws of Soviet Power (V pazurakh Radvlady, directed by Panteleimon Sazonov, 1926), Three Rooms with a Kitchen (Try kimnaty z kukhneyu, directed by Mykola Shpykovskyi, 1928), Oktiabriuhov and Dekabriuhov (Oktiabriuhov i Dekabriuhov, directed by Oleksii Smirnov and Oleksandra Smirnova, 1928), The Benefit of George the Clown (Benefis klouna Zhorzha, directed by Oleksandr Solovyov, 1928), and The Self-Seeker (Shkurnyk, directed by Mykola Shpykovskyi, 1929). There were also some rural agit-dramas based on stories of class struggle in the countryside during the 1917-1921 Civil War.
VUFKU production figures fell during 1927-1929. Nearly 30 features were produced annually in 3 film studios (in late 1927 the newly-built Kyiv film studios began operation). In 1927, films produced by VUFKU made up 39%, and in 1928 20%, of the Soviet Union’s total film production. But these years also marked the peak of classic Ukrainian silent film production, with Two Days (1927), Arsenal (1929), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Spring (1929), The Night Coachman (1929), The Self- Seeker (1929), Bread (1930), and Earth (1930).
After the proclamation of the “collectivization” and “industrialization” policy in 1929, Ukraine’s political autonomy came to an end. The centralization of social and political life in the Stalin era resulted in the reorganization of the independent VUFKU as Ukrainfilm. This new entity was subordinated to Soyuzkino in Moscow. VUFKU was liquidated as a separate self-governing institution in November 1930.
Ukraine’s VUFKU productions of the 1920s are a rich territory still awaiting exploration. We hope in the future to present programmes featuring other genres from this period, which include films reflecting the emancipation of women in the USSR; Ukrainian Jewish films – stories of provincial Jews, often based on classic literary works, as well as narratives recounting the drama of the pogroms during the Civil War; exotic films with Oriental stories; films for children; newsreels, documentaries, and Kulturfilms; and the pioneering work of VUFKU’s central animation workshop. – Ivan Kozlenko (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, catalogue, 2013)
|ARSENAL (UkrSSR 1929). [THE ARSENAL]. Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev|
|DVA DNI (UkrSSR 1927). [TWO DAYS] Heorhii Stabovyi. Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev|
|ZEMLYA (UkrSSR 1930). [EARTH]. Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev|