Joshua First / Visual Culture

National(ist) Themes in Ukrainian Cinema

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, a canon of images and themes established in Ukrainian cinema from the 1920s to the 1970s remains central to cultural understandings of the country’s perceived difference from Russia. Frequently, such imagery feeds into nationalist discourses. Here, Joshua First, author of Ukrainian Cinema: Belonging and Identity in the Soviet Thaw, looks at five essential Ukrainian films that highlight the folkloric and ethnographic preoccupations of multiple generations of Ukrainian filmmakers.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Zvenyhora (1927)

Dovzhenko’s Zvenyhora has often been identified as the birth of ‘Ukrainian national cinema’. The film is narratively and stylistically eclectic and highly modernist, which would later stand at odds with socialist realism. Dovzhenko introduced spectators to a canonical Ukrainian ethnoscape of earthy old peasants, Cossacks, and Carpathian highlanders, which would come to characterize much of Ukrainian cinema as a whole. The main character in Zvenyhora, known only as ‘old man’, becomes a symbol of continuity and tradition, while the Cossack represents a historical origin for the Ukrainian nation. Finally, Zvenyhora introduces the landscape as an important visual and narrative component, which, through a stylised tableaux-like imagery, invites the spectator to contemplate its meaning-producing quality.

Zvenyhora deals with various disconnected moments of a highly mythologised Ukrainian history, from the invasion of the Normans, to the seventeenth-century Cossack Hetmanate, to the First World War and post-revolutionary Ukraine. Dovzhenko narrates each of the historical episodes separately and out of order, which suggests a historical progression that never materialises. The film opens as seventeenth-century Cossack bandits encounter an old man raving about lost treasure. The middle of the film breaks to tell the story of the ninth-century Princess Roksana, who “betrays her nation” by marrying a Varangian lord. The end relates Timosh’s story as he joins the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. The connecting segments between these historical / mythological episodes follow Timosh’s brother Pavlo and their grandfather (the old man) as they search for a lost treasure (referred to as ‘our Ukrainian treasures’ in the intertitles) at Zvenyhora (lit., treasure mountain).

Historical time constantly abuts with mythological time, which is in essence cyclical, due to the presence of the static images of Zvenyhora and the old man. This is an anti-materialist perspective, where humans, in their stability over time, function as objects in nature. The nationalistic value of this perspective is in the stability of place over the mutability of history, and the revolutionary process represented in the film is only legible as positive insofar as it conforms to the film’s allegorical constructs.

Ihor Savchenko, Bohdan Khmelnytskyi (1941)

Savchenko’s historical epic about the mid-17th century also reveals the interplay between historical time and folkloric time, the former represented through a narrative of uniting the early modern Russian state with the Ukrainian periphery, and the latter by the visual spectacle of ‘national color’. The title character is a Ukrainian Cossack leader who first brought Eastern Ukraine under Russian control just prior to the reign of Peter the Great. Savchenko’s film represented the culmination of the two parallel sites of meaning production in the Stalinist cinema of the periphery: First, Khmelnytskyi is the quintessential Soviet historical-biographical film, a particular kind of socialist realist genre that dominated the cinema from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. The genre is characterised by a theatrical and monumental style and a predominant focus on the leader as the principle agent of history, which clearly served to affirm Stalin’s own cult of personality in 1941.

Savchenko’s Cossack hero comes to national consciousness through his alignment with Russia, which functions in this case as the agent of political and cultural modernization. The film ends in 1654 with Khmelnytskyi, victorious over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, signing the Pereiaslav Agreement with the Muscovites. While the agreement celebrates Russian control over Eastern Ukraine, the precise relationship between “Russia” and “Ukraine” is complicated by Savchenko’s framing. After signing the agreement, the Cossack remains elevated in relation to the Russians, demonstrating that, as a sovereign, Khmelnytskyi held a higher rank than the vassals of the tsar present during the meeting. The image shows two nations signing a treaty as equals, rather than the Russian state with a subordinate people. In this way, the arena of visual representation occasionally overshadowed the strictures of the narrative’s historical teleology.

Sergei Paradjanov, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

The plot of Paradjanov’s film could not be simpler: Ivanko, a boy from a small Carpathian village falls in love with Marichka, a girl from a rival family. As a young man, he has to take work as a shepherd high up in the mountains and leaves Marichka alone, pregnant, in the village below. He returns at the end of the grazing season to find that his love has fallen into the river and died. After a prolonged period of mourning, he marries another woman, whom he never loves, and refuses her the children she desires. Eventually his wife has an affair with another man, a sorcerer, and the film ends with a fight between the two men, during which Ivanko is killed with an axe.

The simplicity and linearity of the plot, however, contrasts with the chaos of the camera work and the orientalising beauty of the Carpathian ethnoscape. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson called Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors “a flurry of hysterically modernist techniques.” [2] The film’s eclecticism is evident in the frequent shifts between literary, theatrical and uniquely cinematic visual motifs. Beyond the plot, the spectacle of ritual and everyday life lie at the center of the film. Cinematographer Iuri Illienko frames Carpathian dancers in tableaux, standing in a perfect line, as if performing on-stage for an implicitly visible audience. At other times, he aligns the spectator’s view with a participant in the action, but fluidly moves between subjective and objective perspective without cutting, which evinces the intimate connection between subjective and objective narration. Finally, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is experimental in its use of sound, with an eclectic mix of symphonic and diagetic music and dialogue, the latter seemingly ‘found’ on location. In employing these visual, narrative and aural motifs, Paradjanov hoped to place the fictional story within an authentic site of folkloric reality.

Leonid Osyka, The Stone Cross (1968)

An adaptation of two classic short stories by early twentieth-century Ukrainian writer, Vasyl’ Stefanyk, Osyka’s The Stone Cross was profoundly influenced by the folkloric and ethnographic themes in the previous three films, but also represented something radically different from them. The narrative tells of an impoverished Galician peasant, who is forced in his old age to leave his home and set out with his children for Canada in search of work. Like Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Savchenko’s Bohdan Khmelnystkyi, Osyka’s film incorporates local song and other elements of ethnographic spectacle and local ritual, as a mobile camera surveys the guests wishing Ivan farewell. As the family prepares to leave for Canada, they change out of their ‘native’ clothing into urban formal wear. The film ends as they pass a stone cross on a hillside, understood as a ‘symbolic death’ [2]. Therefore, unlike the previous films, the iconic Ukrainian village is rendered unstable in the face of modernity. The protagonist’s identity is associated with loss, rather than affirming a bounded Ukrainian ethnoscape.

Iuri Illienko, The White Bird with a Black Mark (1971)

Illienko’s The White Bird with a Black Mask possesses many of the same features as earlier canonical works of Ukrainian cinema, evident in its emphasis on national colour and modernist camera techniques. Moreover, the film contains frequent breaks in the narrative to accommodate the presence of folkloric display (dance, diegetic music, and tableaux). The White Bird with a Black Mask, nonetheless, insisted upon a more complex psychological investigation of the main characters than the films discussed above. Moreover, its narrative followed ‘classical’ norms in its emphasis on continuity and motivated action. In many respects, these two aspects of the film are sharply distinguishable: spectacle is delineated from narrative content, and the rhythmic flow of the camera contrasts with the static framing devices that characterized both Dovzhenko’s, Savchenko’s and Paradjanov’s work.

The film’s narrative, which takes place during World War II and the struggle between the Romanian and German occupiers, Ukrainian nationalists, and communist partisans, follows a standard plot found in many Soviet war films that focus on everyday life and suffering during the war. The White Bird with a Black Mask serves to nationalize the conflict, making it specific to the particular experience of West Ukrainian peasants. Outside of the narrative we find the essential questions that the film addresses: the reconciliation of a folkloric and ahistorical past with the needs of the heroic (Soviet) interpretation of the war. The film is not really about ideas; rather, it is about the presentation of various facets of rural life in Western Ukraine; the dialogue is frequently poetic or lyric in quality, and the characters both inhabit and perpetuate a bounded, folkloric existence. Objects from everyday life fill the scenes, and constitute the film’s spectacle. This is emphasised by placing humans and objects self-consciously within frames, constructed out of the fabric of the scene itself. ■

Ukrainian Cinema: Belonging and Identity During the Soviet ThawJoshua First is an Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at the University of Mississippi, where he teaches courses on Russian history, contemporary politics, and cinema.  His book, Ukrainian Cinema: Belonging and Identity during the Soviet Thaw was published by I.B. Tauris earlier this year.
[1] David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003), 460
[2] Vitaly Chernetsky, ‘Visual Language and Identity Performance in Leonid Osyka’s A Stone Cross: The Roots and the Uprooting’, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema vol. 2, no. 3, 2008, pp. 269-280

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