Ukrainian National Cinema and the Concept of the “Poetic”

By Joshua First (Miami University, Ohio)

© Joshua First, 2009

The concept of “Ukrainian national cinema” originally emerged alongside other non-Russian “national cinemas” in the USSR during the 1920s. The Soviet film industry employed such terminology to identify film production more broadly outside of Moscow and Leningrad, the promotion of which was necessary in the same ways as that of “national” literatures: cinema, like literature, represented the mark of an advanced nation, and the Bolsheviks demanded that “backward” nations catch up by replicating the cultural production of their more advanced comrades. In the mid-1920s, film studios were built in the Union Republic capitals of Kyiv, Erevan, Baku, Tbilisi, and Tashkent to provide the industrial foundation for “national cinema” in the Soviet Union. In this inclusive sense, any film produced in Ukraine was an example of “Ukrainian national cinema,” regardless of the film’s subject matter or to whom the film was addressed. Yet, this notion of “national cinema” provides the scholar with few analytical tools for examining particular films or directors and their relationships (or lack thereof) to questions of national identity. Andrew Higson, a historian of British cinema, writes that an understanding of nation and cinema also needs to incorporate questions of cultural specificity, in addition to how industries market films as “national” (Higson 1995: 4-5).

In this respect, we might view the concept of “poetic cinema” as a dominant trope in organizing Ukrainian film history. Even today, it remains the principal mode through which many understand Ukrainian cinema as a “national cinema,” despite Ukraine’s subordination within the Soviet Union during its most prolific era. From Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s work in the 1920s-30s to the canonical works of Sergei Paradzhanov, Iurii Illienko, and Leonid Osyka among many others, the term “poetic cinema” has determined Ukrainian cinema’s political and aesthetic meanings.

Yet, “poetic cinema” in Ukraine was never a fixed aesthetic system (in the fashion of Italian Neo-Realism, for example); rather, it functioned as a cultural trope to differentiate Ukrainian cinema, both from central productions in Moscow, and from the folkloric mode of representing Ukrainians that dominated film production in the Soviet Union from the mid-1930s to the early-1960s. For filmmakers involved in making “poetic cinema,” the term signaled a means of constructing Ukrainian difference, while rejecting socialist realism and participating in a pan-European modernist tradition. While “poetic cinema” functioned more broadly in Soviet critical discourse, during the early 1930s and again in the 1960s-70s, as a re-examination of modernism and the early twentieth century avant-garde, its association with Dovzhenko, after whom Kyiv Feature Film Studio was renamed in 1958, imparted a clear nationalistic value to the term in Ukraine.

Rather than a common aesthetic system, the concept of the “poetic” pointed toward a series of shared interests that spanned multiple generations of Ukrainian filmmakers. In grouping together filmmakers with divergent interests who nonetheless labeled their work as “poetic cinema,” however, we can identify a number of similar assumptions, with which each of them was working: first, and perhaps most important, is the question of authorship. As many scholars of nation-building and nationalism have argued, the construction of a canon of “national” authors has frequently been the first “phase” in the realization of a nation-state (see Hroch 1996: 63). Soviet nationalities policy, established in the 1920s and further developed under Stalin in the 1930s, demanded that each Soviet nation construct its own canon of authors, in collaboration with central authorities in Moscow, which would give credence to the “Friendship of Peoples” mythology.[1] In engaging with official notions of national authorship, Ukrainian “poetic” filmmakers aimed to dissolve its literature-centered authority. Instead of the screenwriter, they believed that the director (along with the cinematographer) was more integral in constructing cinematic meaning. While certain screenwriters were associated with “poetic cinema,” these were collaborations instigated by the director to accomplish his own authorial intentions. Related to the first, the second characteristic of Ukrainian poetic cinema is a shared interest in folklore and historical-mythological themes. Renowned scholar of nationalism Ernest Gellner has identified the re-working of folkloric material into mass-produced literary forms as a fundamental component of nationalism’s project. Moreover, the Soviet culture industry constantly celebrated a folkloric image of non-Russians, read through the aforementioned canonical authors, the ideological assumptions of realism and injected with perceptible condescension associated with a discourse of “national color” (natsional'nyi kolorit). Thus, in approaching such a discourse, Ukrainian filmmakers were also keen to reject its saccharine qualities, and attempted instead to both de-familiarize and re-authenticate a national folklore. Finally, filmmakers who identified their work through “poetic cinema” were all interested in modernist and avant-garde cinemas in the Soviet Union and Western Europe—specifically, with surrealism and expressionism, from an earlier period, and with the more open aesthetic system that characterized, for example, the French New Wave, from a later period.

Early Cinema and the Invention of the “Poetic”

Despite its association with Dovzhenko in the 1930s, and more broadly at the studio named after him during the 1960s-70s, the concept of “poetic cinema” first emerged during the 1910s-20s, primarily among the French avant-garde. While the aesthetic concerns of Ukrainian filmmakers during the 1960s-70s contrasted with earlier mobilizations of the “poetic,” questions of authorship and cultural respectability, along with a consistent desire to challenge certain mainstream conventions, are threads that run throughout both periods. Many participants in the French avant-garde wanted to salvage film as a legitimate art, and not only an object of mass culture. In this respect, identifying a “cinema of poetry” associated the medium with a respectable form of Modernist expression, and which moreover rejected cinema’s imperfect attempts to emulate performative and literary forms such as the theater and the novel. Similarly, promoters of “poetic cinema” in the 1960s-70s, and not only in its Ukrainian formulation, counterposed stylistic and formal innovation to the “prosaic” formulas of the “wide, grey flow” of socialist realism.

As early as 1911, French critic Ricciotto Canudo, made the distinction between theatrical and poetic conventions in early cinema, which he argued produced different results and held different possibilities for the new art. He wrote, “The new manifestation of Art should really be more precisely a Painting and a Sculpture in Time, as in music and poetry, which realize themselves by transforming air into rhythm for the duration of their execution” (Canudo 2002: 19). Canudo’s emphasis on rhythm over story and performance as constituting the essence of cinema informed Louis Delluc’s concept of “photogénie,” first articulated in 1919. Delluc saw in cinema the possibility to “stylize” reality, to “defamiliarize the familiar” (see Abel 1988: 110). Instead of the banal reality revealed in the photograph, cinematic language approached poetry to reveal people and nature in an altogether new fashion. Richard Abel writes that photogénie was of particular interest to French critics because of the concept’s relation to problems of representation and the cognitive mapping of nature and human society at the root of the French Romantic tradition. Abel calls this association to Romanticism an “essentially pre-narrative or a-narrative conception of the cinema” (Abel 1988: 107-08).

Surrealist Louis Aragon, whose influence in the Soviet Union would much later aid in Sergei Paradzhanov’s release from prison, wrote in 1918 that the cinema emerges from a poetic—rather than theatrical—aesthetic, and that even mediocre cinema was analogous rather to mediocre poetry. In essence, Aragon was interested in the semiotic dimensions of the form (a “language without speech”), which “entails something more than the exact representation of life” (Aragon 1988: 167).

In the Russian Formalist compilation The Poetics of Cinema (Poetika kino,1927),Boris Eikhenbaum would take up Delluc’s concept of photogénie, defining itas the “trans-sense essence of cinema,” by which he meant the elements of “end in itself,” which “shine through in every art and [constitute its] organic ferment.” While rather vague, the mobilization of the “poetic” through Delluc’s photogénie were imbued with revolutionary and utopian meaning in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. He went on, “We observe [photogénie] on the screen outside any connection with plot—in faces, objects, a landscape. We see things afresh [when on the screen], and perceive them as unfamiliar things” (Eikhenbaum 1982: 7). Photogénie came to signify the transcendent side of a new byt/bytie dichotomy in the arts, fitting into broader revolutionary projects for transforming everyday life, time and space (see Stites 1989: 165ff).Based on utopian possibilities, cinema’s continued emulation of theatrical styles of drama and narration was nothing short of retrograde (Eikhenbaum 1982: 15).

As was the case with the French critics, such a non-representational theory of cinema could only employ the critical language of other non-representational forms—poetry and music, in particular, but also post-impressionistic painting. In Viktor Shklovsky’s contribution to The Poetics of Cinema, he identified the two “genres” of cinema as poetry and prose:

They are distinguished from one another not by rhythm, or not by rhythm alone, but by the prevalence in poetic cinema of technical and formal over semantic features, where formal features displace semantic and resolve the composition. Plotless cinema is “verse” cinema (Shklovsky 1982: 89).

In contrasting the “formal and technical” to the “semantic,” Shklovsky privileged the visual over the narrative elements of a film.

In his work and criticism from the late-1920s and early-1930s, Sergei Eisenstein was the filmmaker most associated with Formalist theory, although Vsevolod Pudovkin also wrote extensively on Delluc and photogénie in his theoretical works of the 1920s (see Sargeant 2000: 88ff). In the early 1930s, after “formalism” had become a political denunciation, Eisenstein’s conception of a “cinema of poetry,” grounded in the French avant-garde and Delluc’s photogénie in particular, also became implicated. Filmmaker Sergei Iutkevich, who made the exemplary, but forgettable, early socialist realist film, Counterplan (Vstrechnyi, 1932), wrote of “poetic cinema’s” “consumerism,” “objectlessness,” and “connoisseurism,” associating its utopian aesthetic with a lack of political responsibility. For his own part, Eisenstein criticized the developments in “prosaic” cinema that Iutkevich represented, writing, “The screen stopped being a screen.  It became a suspicious four-sided piece of white cloth, and that is all. Gray representations of people move across it” (quoted in Dobin 1960: 91).

Even after the 1935 All-Union Creative Conference for Soviet Film Workers, during which socialist realism was proclaimed the official aesthetic system for all Soviet cinema, Eisenstein maintained his position that the foregrounding of plot and narrative “pushed cinematic means into the background” (Eisenstein 1996: 25-26). In line with the French avant-garde, Eisenstein moreover employed the theater as a synonym for an uncritical theory of realism, principally identified here with Iutkevich’s work. Nonetheless, the position on the French avant-garde, and indeed all manner of modernist cinema and film criticism, was wholly negative after 1935. In its association with “formalist” discourse, the “poetic” was also expunged from socialist realist cinema, even if those characteristics, which critics and filmmakers had identified with “poetic cinema” were still present.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko and “Poetic Cinema’s” Shifting Signifier

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksandr Dovzhenko stands out as an exception here, as Stalin-era critics continued to refer to him as the “poet of cinema.” Interestingly, despite his penchant for visual metaphor and nonlinear narration, Dovzhenko’s association with “poetic cinema” in no way identified him with the Russian Formalists, or with any in the Moscow avant-garde during the 1920s. The filmmaker’s continued residence in Kharkiv, Kyiv or Odes(s)a bought him into contact with a different set of people and ideas, leading more frequently to charges of “bourgeois nationalism” over allegations of “formalism.”[2] While Dovzhenko remained the only Ukrainian filmmaker with privileged access to Stalin himself, he also continued to disappoint him with deviations from the “Friendship of Peoples” narrative, which increasingly demanded that writers and filmmakers portray Russia as the leading force in the revolutionary struggles on the imperial/Soviet periphery. Dovzhenko’s major films—Zvenyhora, Arsenal, Earth and Shchors—virtually ignored the presence of Russia and Russians in their stories of revolution, civil war, and collectivization, suggesting that Ukraine had had its own unique historical experience during this period. Particularly after Stalin personally rejected his Second World War-themed screenplay, Ukraine in Flames, for concentrating too narrowly on Ukrainian suffering during the German occupation, Dovzhenko faded into relative obscurity.

During Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign after the 20th Party Congress in 1956, however, coupled with the filmmaker’s death during the same year, Dovzhenko became newly canonized as the authorial voice of Ukrainian cinema, and as part of a triumvirate of originary Soviet filmmakers, alongside Eisenstein and Pudovkin. But the tone of Dovzhenko’s posthumous rehabilitation did not resemble comparable processes for the other two. Whereas Soviet criticism had rehabilitated Eisenstein’s work during the Thaw, it was Dovzhenko’s life that was now deemed important. In one of the first textual commemorations of the filmmaker(Oleksandr Dovzhenko: Zbirnyk spohadiv i statei pro myttsia, 1959), Stalin-era Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna introduced the volume by commenting on the filmmaker’s upbringing, writing, “Oleksandr Petrovych’s admiration for the characters of his father and mother, and his admiration for the character of the Desna region’s nature give us one of the keys to solving how the future writer, public servant, thinker, and artist came to his success” (Babyshkin 1959: 7). Soviet critical discourse emphasized Dovzhenko’s life experiences, rather than his thoughts about art, to define the significance of his work. Four original poems followed Tychyna’s introduction, each of which dealt with these three characters—his mother, father, and the region in which he grew up (Babyshkin 1959: 26-30). Dovzhenko’s “poetic” quality had less to do with the character of his work, and more with his ability to embody the nation.

Significantly, this nativized interpretation of creative inspiration was unavailable, and moreover discouraged, for the other patriarchs of Soviet cinema. After all, Eisenstein and Pudovkin each came from bourgeois families. As a Ukrainian peasant from a village in the Chernihiv region, only Dovzhenko possessed the suitable “poetic” background for Soviet discourse to exploit.  Petro Masokha, who played significant roles in Earth and other Dovzhenko films, wrote, “We know that Oleksandr Dovzhenko came from a peasant family from the Chernihiv region. Twice I saw his father, a simple peasant, who looked like a patriarch through his great beard” (Babyshkin 1959: 75-76). By themselves, such statements were meant to carry independent meaning regarding Dovzhenko’s artistic and literary work. The arrangement of the photographs in the 1959 volume further affirmed the thematic and cultural associations related to the filmmaker: pictures of his birth house—a small, thatched-roof khata—appear alongside his mother and father, instead of stills from his major films.

Even in analyzing his work, Soviet critics drew explicit connection to his character and connection to Ukraine. In a series of article about “poetic cinema” during the 1960s for Iskusstvo kino,literary and film scholar Efim Dobin wrote about Earth: “The blossoming sunflowers across the entire screen is a favorite image of his native Ukrainian nature.” More than this, though, Dobin specified that the representation of national space constituted the essence of the film’s “poetic” character. He wrote,

Nature in Dovzhenko’s [work] is never a passive space of action. The landscape is itself metaphorical. It peculiarly ‘accompanies’ the transparent theme of the majority of Dovzhenko’s films – the theme of the liberation of his native Ukraine from forces hostile to it. In the landscape elements of Dovzhenko’s films is the image of his native land, its eternal creative force. In this way, it is poetic (Dobin 1961: 113-14).

Here, as elsewhere in his work on Dovzhenko in the 1960s, Dobin centered the reader’s attention on meaning contained outside of the narrative, the latter of which he downplays for its “transparency.” Unique among the patriarchs of Soviet cinema, Dovzhenko did not develop any significant film theory. Dovzhenko remarked on one occasion that he “belonged to the poetic camp,” but never spelled out what this meant to him. And despite the numerous occasions during his life that he was called the “poet of cinema,” few articulated the particulars of his style that made this seem plausible. Instead, his identification as a Ukrainian artist from peasant origins became a substitute for the de-territorialized space of film theory under consideration during commemorations of Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

“Poetic cinema” was spatialized and nationalized as Dovzhenko, who, since the thaw, constituted a canonical figure within a revised and de-Stanilized “Friendship of Peoples” mythology. At the same time, this nationalization of the term severed “poetic cinema’s” direct association with the Russian Formalists. “Poetic cinema” thus became associated with a “national” tradition through Dovzhenko, sharply distinguishing it from its original meaning. As Soviet film critic Nikolai Lebedev wrote in 1947, Zvenyhora was “the first genuinely Ukrainian work of cinema,” due not only to its Ukrainian theme, but also because Dovzhenko was “organically connected with Ukrainian culture” (quoted in Iurenev 1959: 28). By the late 1950s, Dovzhenko’s place within the “Friendship of Peoples” mythology was solidified, and it was the “poetic” space of the filmmaker’s personal Ukrainian pastoral that provided the basis for its articulation.

The original Ukrainian auteur, Dovzhenko came to embody the discursive intentions of the studio that later bore his name in Kyiv. One of the frequent critiques of the studio in the early 1960s was that Kyiv Studio had failed to live up to its namesake’s standards. Screenwriter Mykola Zarudnyi, for example, stated during the March 1962 Ukrainian Cinematographers’ Union Plenum that he felt “Oleksandr Petrovych’s displeasure” upon entering the studio grounds where a bust of the filmmaker stood.[3] Thus, at the beginning of the decade, national embodiment was grounded particularly within Dovzhenko’s individual character, perhaps to a greater degree as it was within his work.

This emphasis on character and place can be viewed through the lens of critical debates during the late-1950s. At this time, Thaw-era critics were denouncing “poetic cinema,” and Dovzhenko’s later work in particular, in order to establish a distance between the “romanticism” of Stalinist cinema and a new realism associated primarily with Marlen Khutsiev. In this respect, critics like Viktor Nekrasov and others, influenced by Chekhov and Italian Neo-Realism, identified Dovzhenko principally with the dogmatic pontificating and monumentalist imagery that characterized his later films, Shchors (1939), Michurin (1948), and Poem about the Sea (Poema o more, 1959). In his 1959 Iskusstvo kino article “Words, ‘Great’ and Simple” (“Slova ‘velikie’ i prostye), Nekrasov distinguished the new “prosaic” style found in Khutsiev’s Spring on Zarechnaia Street (Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse, 1956)and The Two Fedors (Dva Fedora, 1958) from Dovzhenko’s posthumous A Poem about the Sea.[4] While Khutsiev’s early features were everyday stories about ordinary people, Poem addressed large issues of modernity and tradition. With a narrative focused on the friendship between a general and a kolkhoz chairman against the backdrop of the construction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station on the lower Dnieper, Nekrasov wrote, “I did not believe the film.” In associating Dovzhenko’s film with a leftover Stalinist aesthetics, Khutsiev came to represent for Nekrasov a return to “the realism of everyday life [bytovoi realizm]” with Spring and The Two Fedors. Nekrasov advocated a return to Stanislavski’s method in the precision of realistic details in acting. Dovzhenko’s film, he stated, “is based on a highly conventional situation and means” (Nekrasov 2002: 1122). Nekrasov pointed toward the use of language in Poem about the Sea as an indicator of Dovzhenko’s complicity in Stalinist modes of representation: 

Having read a book or watched a film, I always ask myself: would I like to meet these new people? After Poem about the Sea, I can say, no. They would tire me with their talk. I know these people. And they would speak for a long time, in a lofty manner, only about the most serious things. And not making any jokes, with their heads raised high, they gaze off into the blue distance of the Dnieper. To argue with them would be pointless, because they will speak about correct and indisputable things. No, I do not want to meet them (Nekrasov 2002: 1123).

Nekrasov identified a mode of speaking in film that was completely divorced from “real life” in its lofty “poetic” voice. As with Dovzhenko’s earlier films, the association with a particular place is pervasive. The Dnieper, the Kakhovka region itself, and the rootedness of the main characters all speak to a localist discourse within the film, even as these elements foreground the stereotypical theme of socialist construction. In contrast, Khutsiev’s films, in addition to other Thaw-era classics like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957) and Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate,1959), are local only insofar as they focus on private human relations, which prefigure both landscape and event, the latter starkly subservient to ordinary human interactions. In this case, Nekrasov identified an entirely different manner of speech: “a passionate, but not bombastic, truthful and not utilitarian, a speech, in which ordinary people speak, the same [people] who sometimes do great deeds” (Nekrasov 2002: 1126).

Nekrasov, following on the heels of Vladimir Pomerantsev’s famous 1953 article in Novyi mir, “On Sincerity in Literature” (Pomerantsev 1953), promoted a shift in focus from event/setting as the cinematic subject to the human individual. Within this formulation, such anti-poetic critics encouraged a de-spatialized image of character, a hero that would not be beholden to setting, someone who would exist independent of the spaces that they inhabited. On the contrary, in the Stalinist representation of the non-Russian, the human subject was placed within a particularistic landscape, one that was essential to their identity, and from which Dovzhenko discovered his cinematic niche in the Soviet Union.

With few exceptions, films produced at Dovzhenko Studio in Kyiv during the late 1950s could not compete in quality to the best of thaw-era productions, and it was precisely this beholdenness to Stalinist conventions that turned away party officials, critics and audiences alike. During the 22nd Congress of the CPU in October 1961, First Secretary Mykola Pidhornyi (a.k.a. Nikolai Podgornyi) drew a firm distinction between political correctness and artistic feeling when he stated that Ukrainian films possessed an “outwardly truthful” character, but lacked an “elaboration” of the heroes’ “inner lives.”[5] One critic reported to Pravda Ukrainy thatmovie theater managers were forced to black out the name of Dovzhenko Studio on advertisements to sell tickets to its productions (Fomenko 1963: 3).The problem, according to many voices in Kyiv, was one of recovery from the effects of the “cult of personality,” which had supposedly reduced Ukrainian cinema to stale allegory and stereotypical notions of the Ukrainian folk character. While everyone at the studio was careful to pay reverence to its patron saint, the invocation of Dovzhenko’s name, or of “poetic cinema,” was not necessarily separate from this essential problem.

The Re-Birth of the “Poetic” in 1960s Ukraine

Despite its highly negative association with Thaw-era critics, a number of young (and a few not so young) Ukrainian filmmakers who came to work at Dovzhenko Studio during the early 1960s managed to place the filmmaker’s legacy and “Ukrainian poetic cinema” back in line with their original connotation of visual complexity. Several reasons provoked this final shift in the meaning of “poetic cinema”: First, renewed critical interest in mise-en-scène over and above realist styles of narration emerged in France beginning in the mid-1950s with François Truffaut’s famous article, “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema” (“Une certaine tendance du cinéma français”), and many of the early French New Wave films were in limited release in the Soviet Union.  Second, the release of a handful of new, self-consciously “poetic” films, most notably Moisei (Mikhail) Kalik’s Man Follows the Sun (Chelovek idet za solntsem, 1961) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962), displayed notable influence from the visual style and thematic content of New Wave director Claude Chabrol, in addition to earlier filmmakers associated with visual style, from Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. From this Western European and Japanese influence, we can identify a renewed interest in visuality among Soviet filmmakers during the 1960s, which also moved away from the prosaic turn associated with the cultural politics of the Thaw. But the desire of these filmmakers to reject Stalin-era visual culture was just as urgent as the “prosaists” of the 1950s. The new trend simply indicated, as Vladimir Semerchuk has argued, that the thaw-era debates in Novyi mir, Iskusstvo kino and other journals of the Soviet intelligentsia had become irrelevant with the emergence of a “new poetic cinema” (Semerchuk 2002: 78).

Finally, the shifts in meaning that “poetic cinema” acquired during the 1960s in Ukraine bore a close relationship to newer models in poetry itself. By this time, poetry had emerged as a dominant form of non-conformist literary expression, whereas the form had languished under a Stalinist politics of culture, which favored the socialist realist novel (see Hodgson 2006). The new poetry, at least in Ukraine and in other Union Republics, was interested once again in exploring questions of place, the individual, and its relation to regional and national identities.

At the same time, young poets and filmmakers of the late 1950s/early 1960s both had rediscovered aspects of the Soviet and Western European avant-garde, along with a renewed appreciation for 1920s-era formalist criticism. As in Dovzhenko’s early work, the new ‘poetic cinema’ had a historic and folkloric orientation. While the 1920s avant-garde emphasized the technique of montage, in emulation with contemporaneous trends in poetry such as Simultaneism, Surrealism, and Futurism, the newer “poetic cinema” was concerned with history and memory, while visually examining static spaces more so than the metaphors contained in the juxtaposition of images (as in Eisenstein’s theory of montage). In this respect, “poetic cinema” made a greater claim for visual sophistication, more so than structural complexity.

For his interest in these questions, within both poetry and cinema, Ukrainian writer and Dovzhenko Studio screenwriter Ivan Drach was simultaneously typical and exceptional of his generation. In an interview with young writers conducted by Voprosy literatury in 1962, Drach identified his influences as a diversity of Russian, Ukrainian, West European, and American writers and filmmakers, mentioning the obligatory Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, and Maksym Ryl's'kyi alongside Federico García Lorca, Hemingway, “the early Tychyna,”[6] Dovzhenko, and Fellini (“Molodye—o sebe” 1962: 130-31).

Drach published his first major work, “Shevchenko’s Death” (“Smert' Shevchenka”), in the March issue of Vitchyzna. In his poem, Drach forwarded two ideas regarding the poet for the centennial of his death: first, Taras Shevchenko was one of the few figures that Eastern and Western Ukrainians shared equally, even before “re-unification” in 1944; and second, the poet himself served as a harbinger of individual artistic style, which eclipsed his political significance and commemoration as a “revolutionary democrat.” Drach wrote,

The artist does not have well-trodden norms.
He himself is the norm, he himself in his own style . . .
In this hundred-year and hundred-colored storm
I throw myself into the troubled sorrow-waves (Drach 1962: 3).

Here, Drach was as much interested in the legacy of the poet for a new Ukraine that encompassed both east and west, as well as the Diaspora in the Russian Far East and on the Canadian plains (with his reference in the poem, “From Winnipeg to Vladivostok”), as he was in re-capturing a politics of personal expression, which, with its emphasis on “sorrow” and “loss,” denied the affirmative politics of a Stalinist folkloric.

With Drach’s direct influence at Dovzhenko Studio after 1962 as a screenwriter, these two sentimental elements continually worked together with a formal interest in visual metaphor to establish what would be called “Ukrainian poetic cinema.” Yet, the thematic interests that Drach and others involved in “Ukrainian poetic cinema” forwarded would not be unfamiliar to a Stalinist folkloric mode of representing Ukraine, endemic not only of 1930s Dovzhenko but many of his contemporaries who worked in the republic: Ihor Savchenko, Ivan Pyr'ev, Ivan Kavaleridze, to name but the most famous. As Alla Zhukova and Heorhii Zhurov noted in the second volume of the 1959 history of Ukrainian cinema (Soviet Ukrainian Film Art: Essays), “In Ukrainian cinema, folklore frequently lies at the basis of the work itself, and is one of the sources, which express its ideological content” (quoted in Pisarevskii 1960: 23). Without folklore, the authors implied, Ukrainian cinema would not exist as an independent national cinema. At the time of its publication, filmmakers at Dovzhenko Studio were embroiled in a controversy regarding the very importance of such a mode for Ukrainian cinema’s particularity. In this debate about the “original form of Ukrainian film art,” visuality rather than narrative took center stage as supporters and detractors of a “national style” explored the relationship between theater, folklore and the cinema. This debate made evident to many filmmakers that an image of Ukrainian difference required the maintenance of folklore as a particular quality, even if cinema’s implementation of it could transcend Stalin-era falsifications (see Bilinskii 1958; Chabanenko 1958; Makarenko 1961; Romitsyn 1961; Rachuk 1964).

In articulating a more “authentic” Ukrainian folklore, filmmakers, writers and critics discovered renewed value in Dovzhenko’s earlier work, Zvenyhora (1927) and Earth (Zemlia, 1930) in particular. These two films rejected standard realist narration, while containing none of the embellishments of the Ukrainian cinema of high Stalinism. The early Dovzhenko’s self-conscious lack of realism easily morphed into a surrealist de-familiarization of folkloric material that would characterize “Ukrainian poetic cinema” in the 1960s. These later filmmakers would note Dovzhenko’s stylistic eclecticism, with its combination of staged, tableaux framing, where medium shots predominate, and where actors deliberately moved away from realist verisimilitude in their hyperbolic gestures. Thus, there were at least two forms of appropriation of Dovzhenko and the concept of “poetic cinema” during the 1960s in Ukraine—one which defined an aesthetic system and principle of personal expression, and another which demanded a national and folkloric orientation under the banner of “Ukrainian national cinema.”

When Dovzhenko Studio released Sergei Paradzhanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv) in September 1965, they tellingly marketed the film as a revival of “Dovzhenko’s poetic traditions.” As is evident from the myriad of opinions about Dovzhenko, cited above, however, there was little agreement about the factors constituting his importance, and thus few (or perhaps too many) cues existed for acceptable emulation. Critics and filmmakers celebrated Dovzhenko, not only for his choice of Ukrainian subject matter, but primarily for his unique style. In distinction, Ukrainian cinema boosterism of the early 1960s viewed Dovzhenko’s style within a continuum of personal expression and national representation. While Paradzhanov promoted himself as the hand-picked successor to Dovzhenko in his Iskusstvo kino article, “Eternal Motion,” he did not believe that “poetic cinema” could be contained by “narrowly national” concerns. He told his colleagues,

Seven year ago, when I worked with [Petro] Lubens'kyi [screenwriter on his 1958 comedy, The Top Guy], I couldn’t do what I wanted to. I didn’t know how. I was less literate. Today, when there’s Fellini, Illienko, there’s Father of a Soldier [Otets soldata, Rezo Chkheidze 1964], when there are five, possibly six great poets in Ukraine […] I understand how to start to make new films at the studio, when Osyka and Illienko have appeared at the studio.[7]

While Paradzhanov routinely made use of the term “poetic cinema” to define his work alongside that of Iurii Illienko and Leonid Osyka, the attachment of the word “Ukrainian” was less essential for him. He was as much interested in the term as it applied to other auteurs like Fellini, poet-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Andrei Tarkovsky as he was the self-conscious student of the “poet of cinema” Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Yet the Soviet and Ukrainian context for “poetic cinema” was fundamentally entangled in the life and legacy of Dovzhenko, not only because Dovzhenko Studio continually drudged up his name for emulation but also as legitimating “poetic cinema’s” aesthetic and “political” agenda within the particular space of Ukraine.

After Shadows, the studio and Derzhkino[8] leadership of Vasyl' Tsvirkunov and Sviatoslav Ivanov banked their reputations on maintaining Dovzhenko’s (and Paradzhanov’s) variety of “poetic” national expression at Kyiv Studio. During 1965, VGIK graduates Iurii Illienko and Vasyl' Illiashenko began work on their debuts, neither of which made it into distribution. Authorities in the republic, including First Secretary Petro Shelest, not only found the two films politically and aesthetically objectionable, but disgraceful as representations of Ukraine. As the heirs of Dovzhenko and Paradzhanov, Illienko’s and Illiashenko’s films harbored many fears and expectations. Yet, both went into production on the basis of promoting the personal expression of talented young filmmakers and ones invested in a Ukrainian national theme, principles that emerged from the marriage of Thaw principles and a reinvenstment in the “national character” of republican film production. Yet both principles led to considerable misunderstanding and disagreement by the mid-1960s. At Dovzhenko Studio, authorities leveled complaints against Illienko and Illiashenko about the grim representation of the “Ukrainian national character,” the Ukrainian landscape and its history in their films. In one such statement,CPU Secretary Andrii Skaba called Illienko’s Well for the Thirsty (Krynytsia dlia sprahlykh) in 1966 a “wonderful film, but it is against us from beginning to end […] it’s insulting to the Ukrainian people, to the knowledge of the Ukrainian landscape.”[9]

At the same time, Illienko in particular garnered praise, both before and after the CPU Central Committee shelved his debut, for his “poetic” rendering of the national theme, which was in line with Dovzhenko’s vision. Thus, we can perceive a certain polarized atmosphere at Dovzhenko Studio during the mid-1960s over the meanings of Dovzhenko’s legacy and of the “poetic” itself. While diverse in style, both Illienko and Illiashenko considered their work to be the heirs of Zvenyhora, on the one hand, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors on the other. Paradzhanov, for his part, actively used his newfound prestige to promote their work, calling on the studio to establish a conscious policy for cultivating “poetic cinema.”[10] During this short period of 1964-66, the idea of “poetic cinema” took on an all-important dimension of how filmmakers at the studio defined their work. Illiashenko, for example, pleaded his case for his ‘difficult’ film with the words: “It’s necessary to consider that each game has its rules, which you can’t but consider.  This [poetic cinema] also has its rules, and it’s necessary to judge it accordingly.”[11] As Leonid Osyka was completing work on his remake of Illiashenko’s film, Love Awaits Those Who Return (Khto povernetsia—doliubyt')in 1966, he answered complaints that his film was mere imitation of Paradzhanov with, “This is in agreement with the genre of poetic cinema.”[12]

While no one had as yet stated that “poetic cinema” was a “genre,” pace Shklovsky in 1929, Osyka’s statement would have made perfect sense to his friends and critics at Dovzhenko Studio. Film director Volodymyr Denysenko proclaimed in 1964 that one could divide the production of the studio into two varieties: those that were merely “imitative” of films made in Moscow, and those that contained a “cinema poetics” [kinopoetika] which appealed to “Dovzhenko’s traditions.”[13] On a literal level, the films that Denysenko referenced, and those that later came to be identified with ‘poetic cinema’ were themselves written by poets. Denysenko’s A Dream (Son, 1964)was written by Dmytro Pavlychko,a noted poet, and Shadows screenwriter, Ivan Chendei, was a poet and collector of Carpathian folklore. Ivan Drach and Lina Kostenko, the authors of scripts for Illienko’s and Illiashenko’s films, were the two most prominent representatives of the young generation of Ukrainian poets during the 1960s. Kostenko was, moreover, the wife of studio director Vasyl' Tsvirkunov. Thus, poets and filmmakers came together at Kyiv Studio like nowhere else in the Soviet Union.

Owing to this latter collaboration, along with the association with Dovzhenko, filmmakers opened a discussion about “poetic cinema” as a particularly Ukrainian phenomenon. Pavlychko went so far as to call Dovzhenko the very “inventor” of “poetic cinema” in a bombastic article dedicated to the filmmaker’s septuagennial (Pavlychko 1964: 3).Yet, fundamental differences remained, in terms of how these concepts were mobilized: a soft claim to the filmmaker’s legacy meant a continued commitment to representing a local and national space, and that Dovzhenko Studio in particular had an exclusive claim to Ukrainian thematics. To make a hard claim to Dovzhenko suggested that the only possible representation of Ukrainians was within the “genre” of “poetic cinema,” and in the 1960s, this meant an implementation of a modernist and counter-realist “poetics.” The difference between soft and hard claims to Dovzhenko’s legacy were also contained in an understanding of film style as, in the former case, a collective mode of representation attached to the studio’s branding policies and, in the latter case, determined by personal expression and attached to the “mark” of individual authorship.

After the failures of 1964-66, however, authorities sought to reign in such excess as images of Ukrainian poets crucified on the banks of the Dnieper (contained in Illiashenko’s film), while continuing to encourage “poetic” representations of “national character.” As long as a realist ideological pragmatism and a sympathetic ear toward spectators’ patience tempered them. At the same time, Dovzhenko Studio sought alternatives, both to the theatricality of the Stalinist folkloric, and the “ethnographic” tendencies of “poetic cinema.” With a view toward surviving in an increasingly profit-driven Soviet film industry, the Ukrainian studio had to recoup its financial losses from 1965-66 and prove to both Goskino and audiences that it too could compete with central studios without sacrificing one of its primary goals to speak to and for the Ukrainian people.

By the 1970s, however, the fact that films “based on national material” did not attract large audiences mattered to Goskino under the new control of Filipp Ermash. The decline of a Thaw-era politics of culture, which qualitatively valued “personal expression,” in place of a focus on the quantitative dimensions of audiences, had a profound effect on film directors associated with “poetic cinema” by the mid-1970s. Creatively, some directors continued to make minor compromises while attempting to work within the same mode of 1965, while others moved toward zakaznye temy[14] or genre production. While poetic cinema managed to function very briefly within the realm of commercial cinema (Borys Ivchenko’s Annychka, 1968, for example), the national theme found continued resonance in zakaznye films, which were the only types of films that were not expected to generate profit. By the late-1960s, Ukrainian Cinemagraphers’ Union First Secretary Tymofii Levchuk became highly adept at negotiating the “national theme” within films that answered the demands of the latest party plenum.

After Shelest’s ouster in 1973, however, the lack of industry support gave way to a lack of political support for Ukrainian films dealing with “national themes,” associated as they now were with an “ethnographic,” rather than a “contemporary [suchasnyi]” conception of the Ukrainian people.  Such ethnographic imagery came to be associated with an anti-modern representation and thus outside the mainstream of Soviet realism. When film director Yuri Lysenko referred during a conference in 1968 at Dovzhenko Studio to the “national theme [as] consist[ing] of baggy trousers or something else like that,” he was as much discussing the films of 1965 as he was those of 1939.[15] But, in getting rid of the “morons in the pictures,” as Lysenko advocated, the question remained as to whether there was a method of representing a non-ethnographic Ukraine, which would answer both nationalities policy in the ways that Ukrainian filmmakers understood it (i.e., as different from a Stalinist folkloric mode of representation), and the demand for industry profits.

By the mid-1970s, Shelest’s successor as CPU First Secretary, Volodymyr Shcherbyts'kyi, called for the complete repression of the “Ukrainian poetic school,” which included many of those filmmakers influenced by Paradzhanov’s Shadows. During a CPU Plenum in May 1974, Shcherbyts’kyi signaled the end of all discussion of the “school”:

Some time ago, examples of so-called “poetic cinema” with its stress on abstract symbolism and sharply accented ethnographic ornamentation were treated by individual filmmakers almost as the leading principles of the development of cinema art in Ukraine. These views, it is necessary to say, have been overcome.[16]

After all the major Ukrainian-language periodicals reprinted the First Secretary’s statements on “poetic cinema,” the term itself was discouraged in public discourse within the republic.[17] Despite the political excision of “Ukrainian poetic cinema,” these individual filmmakers’ concerns initially were integrated into a new generic system of artistic representation. Now a national icon, Ivan Mykolaichuk, the actor most associated with the “school,” continued to play the roles in which he was coded as ethnically Ukrainian, but here these character types were determined by the generic conventions of adventure films, melodramas, and comedies. It was only at the end of the decade that Goskino completely abandoned the very idea of a “national theme” due to its sociologically determined economic liability. The question of Ukrainian difference had been resolved, and, from the perspective of filmmakers, industry officials and critics alike, the era of “national cinemas” in the Soviet Union had ended.

For a new generation of Ukrainian artists, writers and intellectuals who grew up after the formation of nationalities policy, in the urban “factories of Russification,” as Ivan Dziuba had called eastern Ukrainian cities, Ukrainian identity could not be assimilated unproblematically. Instead, the 1960s appear as a period during which cultural producers had less certainty about what it meant to be Ukrainian in the first place. This feeling of alienation that 1960s filmmakers in particular felt from their ascribed nationality and their subsequent desire to re-discover an ethnic identity contributed to the style of modernist self-expression that characterized what was called “Ukrainian poetic cinema.”

1987 marked the reemergence of “poetic cinema” in public discourse. Russian critic Liudmila Lemesheva published the first monograph on the topic, Ukrainian Cinema: The Problem of One Generation (Lemesheva 1987), after which a flurry of memoirs, critical analyses, documentaries, poetry and biographies dedicated to Paradzhanov, Illienko, Osyka, and Mykolaichuk followed. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, film culture in Ukraine seemed to be thriving in the absence of actual films, and solely on the momentum of memorializing the 1960s-era Ukrainian auteurs. Larysa Briukhovets'ka remains one of the most prolific of these memorializers, editing a mammoth volume of documents, essays and reminiscences on “Ukrainian poetic cinema,” its heroes and villains. Poetic Cinema: The Banned School (Briukhovets'ka 2001) is a truly impressive book, even if it presents a rather one-sided history of the period (see also Mykolaichuk 1991; Luhovs'kyi 1998; Kalentar 1998; Kapel'horods'ka 2002; Blokhin 2002; Illiashenko 2004; Briukhovets'ka 2004, 2006).

Despite the canonization of “Ukrainian poetic cinema” and its auteurs by the glasnostgeneration of Ukrainian film scholars and the popularization of its imagery, the young cohort who graduated from the Kyiv film school after independence now speaks of moving away from “shadowism” [tinizm], an explicit rejection of the ethnographic imagery of “poetic cinema.” In a statement reminiscent of the 1960s itself, however, Columbia University Ukrainian Studies specialist, Yuri Shevchuk, recently wrote, “Ukrainian cinema does not begin and end with the poetic cinema of Dovzhenko, Paradzhanov, Osyka, [and] Illienko […] There are other Ukrainian film schools, other filmmakers […]” (Shevchuk 2005). Shevchuk expressed a lack of comfort with narrowing the possibilities for “Ukrainian national cinema” to a rural vision of the now independent nation. While admitting that filmmakers like Kira Muratova were, and continue to be, uninterested in the politics of Ukrainian national identity, Shevchuk now seemed all too willing to examine their work within a newer, more inclusive notion of Ukrainian national cinema, precisely because such individuals were not interested in these problems. Perhaps the mark of a modern nation, he implies, was the ability of its artists and writers to simply ignore its meaning-producing qualities and canon of national images. In the absence of a Soviet culture industry that promoted folklore as the essence of “national character,” the imagery of Ukrainian poetic cinema appears hopelessly outdated, even though its auteurs continue to be celebrated icons of a nascent Ukrainian cultural movement.


1] A common example of this mythology’s perpetuation occurred during Oles' Honchar’s speech at the Bolshoi Theatre to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Taras Shevchenko on 11 March 1964. He opened his speech with the words, “The Taras Shevchenko Anniversary has become a celebration of our brotherhood, a hallowed celebration of multi-national socialist culture. [...] It is precisely this [Leninist] Friendship [of Peoples] that has brought us all together as one with a feeling of honor and love toward the genius son of the Ukrainian people, toward the great poet-revolutionary.” Honchar, who was the First Secretary of the Union of Ukrainian Writers throughout the 1960s-70s, went on to compare Shevchenko to the Georgian Shota Rustaveli, Persian-Tajik Abdullah Rudaki, Persian-Azeri Nezami, Armenian Sayat-Nova, Latvian Janis Rainis, Lithuanian Kristijonas Donelaitis, Turkmen Magtymguly Fyragy, and Uzbek Ali-Shir Nava'i—which, “alongside Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Chekhov, and Gorky represent our native artistic culture before the world, and become ornaments of a universal culture.” Thus, Honchar reduced Shevchenko’s personal significance to a mobile and a-historical mythology of all-Union cultural history, which coupled with several nineteenth-century Russian writers, demarcated a clear hierarchy of nations (Honchar 1964: 2).

2] Dovzhenko had direct experience fighting for Symon Petliura’s nationalist army against the Bolsheviks during the Civil War in 1919, but he later established contacts with Oleksandr Shums’kyi and the Borotbist wing of the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries. When the Borotbists disbanded in 1920, most members, including Dovzhenko himself, joined the RSDLP(b) and the CP(b)U. Nonetheless, the party apparatus in Moscow looked upon many of the former Borotbists, which included many Ukrainian intellectuals and cultural producers, as not entirely trustworthy. The contemporary Ukrainian film magazine, Kino-kolo recently published a series of archival documents detailed the surveillance of Dovzhenko’s activities due to his prior associations, and took it for granted that the film director continued to have “bourgeois nationalist” sympathies (“Dovzhenko vyzvolenyi”).

3] Tsentral’nyi Derzhavnyi Arkhiv-Muzei literatury i mystetstva Ukrainy (TsDAMLMU), f. 655, op. 1, d. 199, l. 76.

4] While begun during Dovzhenko’s lifetime, his widow, actor and film director Iuliia Solntseva, completed Poem about the Sea for a 1959 theatrical release.

5] Tsentral’nyi derzhavnyi arkhiv hromads’kykh orhanizatsii Ukrainy (TsDAHOU), f. 1, op. 1, d. 1691, l. 284.

6] A reference to Tychyna’s writing of the 1910s–1920s, before he capitulated to Stalinist aesthetics. His early poetry is considered one of the crowning accomplishments of Ukrainian Modernism.

7] TsDAMLMU, f. 655, op. 1, d. 199, ll. 64-65.

8] Ukraine’s equivalent of Goskino of the USSR.

9] TsDAMLMU, f. 655, op. 1, d. 355, l. 166.

10] TsDAMLMU, f. 670, op. 1, d. 1965, l. 242.

11] Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv literatury i iskusstva (RGALI), f. 2944, op. 4, d. 728, l. 15.

12] TsDAMLMU, f. 670, op. 1, d. 1783, l. 64.

13] TsDAMLMU, f. 670, op. 1, d. 1750, l. 161.

14] By “zakaznye temy,” or “ordered themes,” are implied those films that were placed in the annual thematic plans by the party itself.

15] TsDAMLMU, f. 670, op. 1, d. 2159, l. 62.

16] TsDAHOU, f. 1, op. 2, d. 101, l. 37-38.

17] Borys Ishchenko, the head of the CPU Department of Culture, complained to Shcherbyts'kyi in January 1975 that critics continued to talk about “poetic cinema” in the Ukrainian press, and advocated censoring such remarks.  See, TsDAHOU, f. 1, op. 32, d. 940, ll. 77-79.

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Updated: 09 Jan 10