© Bohdan Y. Nebesio, 2009
In 1927 Dziga Vertov severed ties with Moscow-based studios and moved to Ukraine to join VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo and Film Administration) where he completed his masterpiece The Man with a Movie Camera (Liudyna z kinoaparatom, 1929) and several other projects. Industrial conditions receive little attention in the history of 1920s Soviet cinema, and Vertov’s decision to move to Ukraine is never seen in the context of the studio system. Why would a prominent director, entrusted with filming Lenin’s funeral in 1924, go to a “provincial” film studio two years later to continue his career?
Like everybody else in the Soviet film industry, Vertov knew that there was nothing “provincial” about VUFKU in the mid-1920s. In fact, it was one of the richest and the only vertically-integrated film studio in the Soviet Union, controlling nearly a quarter of the film market in the new socialist state (Nebesio 2009). Contrary to common belief, during the New Economic Policy (NEP) era, Soviet studios received little or no government funding; thus, VUFKU’s financial well-being must have been an important reason for Vertov—and for many international directors—to seek employment there. However, it was not the only factor. At VUFKU, Vertov also found the necessary ideological support—no longer available to him in Russia—for his variety of documentary cinema. At the time, VUFKU employed many artists and writers associated with the Ukrainian Panfuturist movement, and it was likely this group that recommended Vertov to the business-oriented management of the studio. Panfuturists offered not so much artistic inspiration to Vertov, who came to Ukraine as an already-formed artist, but rather cultivated and supported his avant-garde art, rooted in the culture of experimentation.
No artist operates in a vacuum, but filmmakers in particular need favorable industrial conditions and resources to make their costly films. Vertov was no exception and required a studio’s financial backing to make, process, and distribute his films. Furthermore, Vertov’s avant-garde documentaries required a developed film culture that would appreciate them. In this essay I argue that such film culture flourished in Ukraine and, by extension, it was crucial in providing support for Vertov’s projects.
This essay does not deal with Vertov’s films per se but rather attempts to shed some light on the contribution of the Ukrainian Panfuturist movement to the development of Ukrainian film culture in the 1920s. The Panfuturists were present in everyday operations of the film industry and became a driving force behind the vibrant film culture surrounding that industry. More than any other artistic and literary group, the Panfuturists were fascinated with cinema. Not only did they recognize the propaganda aspect of the film as envisioned by Lenin, they also saw it as a tool in their campaign of destruction aimed at art as a social category. Cinema, for them, was the new art, unlike traditional (read “bourgeois”) art forms they attempted to eliminate. Films were “useful objects” that could be made by craftsmen, or the “workers of the arts,” with the help of technology rather than with the divine inspiration claimed by the Romantics. The dual nature of cinema as a medium that both reproduces reality and offers creative potential was particularly appealing to them.
The involvement of Ukrainian Panfuturists in the film culture cannot be compared to other avant-garde movements in the West that had a considerable impact on the aesthetic history of the medium; although they admired and promoted the cinemas of German Expressionists, French Impressionists, Dada, and other Western contemporaries, the Panfuturists in Ukraine had no program and no desire to make films inspired by their beliefs about art. Despite their active part in the film culture, they remained “workers” of the pen: writers, poets, critics, and theorists. Even those among them who wrote scripts and directed films for VUFKU were not eager to turn their films into avant-garde works of art. It seems that for most Panfuturists their employment at VUFKU was just a day-job that allowed them to pursue, after hours, their true passion: writing.
Futurism in Ukraine was never a unified movement. Throughout the 1920s, the Futurists adopted the most radical positions within the Ukrainian art world and, as a result, attracted artists and writers from various branches of the avant-garde. Known under several names during the decade, they also struck alliances with other artistic organizations and individuals. It is not my purpose here to untangle the complex web of organizational transformations but some introductory remarks are in place. Broadly speaking, there were three major phases of the Ukrainian Futurist movement during the 1920s. New associates joined at each stage but its core members stayed with the movement throughout the decade. Most artists who broke their alliance with the movement maintained friendly relationships while a few others joined hostile factions. Some Futurists also kept their membership in other non-Futurist groups, such as VAPLITE (Vil'na Akademiia proletars'koi literatury [Free Academy of Proletarian Literature]) and Hart (Union of Proletarian Writers).
The inclusive nature of the movement came into being in the early stages of the Futurists’ organizational life when they formed the rebellious Aspanfut (The Association of Panfuturists), an organization with an ambition to represent not just the Futurists but rather live up to its prefix and stand for a variety of avant-garde movements. As Oleh Ilnytzkyj explains,
the Panfuturists embraced the entire spectrum of the avant-garde, advocating not some specific movement but rather the vanguard as a whole, which they interpreted as a unique turning point in the history of art. Marinetti’s Futurism, Dada, and German Expressionism were held in special esteem; this was less true, however, of Russian Futurism (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 55).
The members of the movement continued to be referred to as the Panfuturists, even after the organizational structures of the movement and official names had changed.
As a result of their multi-vector orientation, the Futurist organizations were never static. Even though the nature of their work changed only slightly in 1924, they re-branded themselves by adding a new socio-cultural, “proletarian” dimension to their manifestos. The new organization became known as AsKK, or Komunkul't, an acronym for “The Association of Communist Culture.” They embraced two approaches to the arts: a destructive one to be applied to the bankrupt cultural systems of religion and art, and a constructive one to be applied to science, technology, and everyday life (pobut). In the Komunkul't’s pursuit of new and constructive “crafts,” film and photography featured very prominently (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 85). The Komunkul't period also saw the fostering of close ties between the Panfuturists and the members of the Berezil' Theatre: directors Les' Kurbas and Favst Lopatyns'kyi, and set designer Vadym Meller (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 91-92). It is significant that during the Komunkul't period (1924-27), many Panfuturists, Berezil' directors, and actors started to work for VUFKU on a permanent basis.
In addition to their creative interests, the writers and Berezil' artists were lured to VUFKU by the studio’s economic independence and good wages. Considering the financial difficulties of writers, the Panfuturist leader Mykhail' Semenko applauds the fact that some writers “find salvation in VUFKU,” although he thinks that “thus far little can be accomplished there” (Semenko 1927: 9). Similar concerns can also be found in the minutes of Berezil' Theatre’s meetings (Kurbas 2001: 378-88, 430-38). Facing his theatre’s financial difficulties, Kurbas considered sending his directors and actors to work for VUFKU. In addition to ticket sales, Berezil' depended on government funding for support of its operations in several Ukrainian cities, its educational workshops, and the growing number of personnel. It came as no surprise that at least half a dozen of Berezil' directors begun to direct films, and a large number of Berezil'-trained actors started to work for the film studio.
The third and final period of the Panfuturist movement’s activities is closely connected to its journal Nova generatsiia (The New Generation, 1927-1930), edited by Mykhail' Semenko after his departure from VUFKU. A regularly-published, high-quality periodical gave the movement very high visibility among literary groups but also set off alarms among the Party officials who put it under close scrutiny for ideological deviations. The period coincided with the fiercest stage of the literary discussion in Ukraine, when literary groups fought for their organizational survival. The divide and conquer strategy of the Party produced immediate results as literary groups dependant on government support resorted to backstabbing, denunciations, and other dirty tactics. New alliances were formed and betrayed in order to gain the Party’s favours. In this survival of the fittest, the Panfuturists fared quite well as a result of their ability to adapt, a point upon which they prided themselves (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 122). In such a climate they spent a considerable amount of energy fending off attacks by their adversaries and launching new offensives on their fellow literati. Yet, they managed to produce world-class new art and literature, and to develop groundbreaking theoretical writings on the nature of the arts in general and in cinema in particular. Regular contributors to Nova generatsiia also published books of film theory and criticism. The demise of Nova generatsiia in the second half of 1930 coincides with the end of VUFKU and its transformation into Ukrainfil'm, a mere branch of a single all-Soviet film industry.
The radical positions of Ukrainian Panfuturists appeared mainly in their manifestos and theoretical writings which reflected their program “maximum.” Although their ultimate goal was the destruction of art as a social category, they had enough common sense to realize that Ukrainian society of the time was not ready for such a radical change. In line with numerous compromises adapted for the period of transition by the Soviet society at large,  the Panfuturists moved, somewhat reluctantly, towards “extructivism,” a compromise between “destructivism” and constructivism. “Extructivism” was seen as a temporary measure, whereby the traditional art would be tolerated as long as it served broadly defined “immediate social needs” (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 75, n39).
Although the Panfuturists’ creative work touches upon diverse avant-garde traditions, the uniting element can be found in their general beliefs regarding the nature and the social role of the arts. They faced a paradox of being against art (at least in its traditional form) and, at the same time, working as artists. They were by no means the only avant-garde group facing such dilemma, as it was part of many avant-garde manifestos. Josef von Sternberg, a prominent Hollywood director of the 1930s, grasps this destructive tendency of the Soviet arts quite succinctly: “Part of the Soviet experiment years ago, as Eisenstein explained it to me, was to abolish art because it was useless. Of course, that theory is not easily put into practice, as this apparent uselessness is the chief virtue of art” (von Sternberg 1965: 319).
The Panfuturist involvement in Ukrainian film culture of the 1920s took place on several fronts simultaneously. The Panfuturists occupied positions in many departments of VUFKU and used the experience gained there to enrich not only the films made by the studio but also to make film part of a new Ukrainian culture. There were four areas of their activities where their work left a permanent mark: they wrote film scripts and served as editors at VUFKU, they established close links between avant-garde traditions in theatre and the film industry, they acted as critics and theorists of cinema with a noteworthy record of publications, and, finally, they exploited the specificity of literature and cinema to enrich the former.
Screenwriters and Editors
Among the many participants in the Panfuturist movement three men can be seen as its driving force and all three contributed a great deal to the development of film culture in Ukraine. Mykhail' Semenko, Geo Shkurupii, and Mykola Bazhan, at one point or another, wrote scripts for VUFKU’s feature films, worked as editors in the film industry, and, most importantly, encouraged many others to devote their careers to cinema.
The responsibilities of editors (redaktor) at VUFKU, or for that matter, at any other Soviet studio are not always obvious. Some editors worked at the production studios, such as Odesa or Kyiv, others at the VUFKU headquarters in Kharkiv. In most cases, they had extensive powers in the process of commissioning and accepting film scripts in addition to performing functions that today would be carried out by film producers. Names of editors did not always appear in the film credits because they were associated with the studio administration rather than with creative personnel, such as directors, actors, and cameramen. Unless editors performed other functions at the studio, such as scriptwriting, in most cases they remained behind the scenes. In practical terms, however, they held positions of considerable authority, influencing the decisions of the studio management. Their position at the studio also allowed them close contact with the screenwriters, directors, and actors.
Many Panfuturists were executed in the 1930s, their creative legacy subsequently erased. As a result, it is difficult today to establish why the Panfuturists, and not any other literary organization, dominated the film industry and film culture in Ukraine. Consider, for example, the case of Mykhail' Semenko, the movement’s undisputable leader. His involvement in the film industry cannot be measured in terms of scripts written or films directed, but rather in his organizational talents. As the ideological father of the movement, Semenko surrounded himself with many talented individuals who, like him, saw cinema as the true art of the future. In the mid-1920s, Semenko limited his literary activities for about two years in order to devote his time to cinema. It is not clear how he managed to rise very quickly to a position of substantial influence at VUFKU but his advancement is, most likely, connected to the policy of Ukrainianization which gave Ukrainian-speaking individuals an opportunity to run cultural institutions in Ukraine. The fact that Les' Kurbas, Semenko’s friend, had established a good working relationship with the studio prior to Semenko’s arrival should not be entirely dismissed as a mitigating factor. Shortly thereafter, Semenko’s Panfuturist colleagues found employment in the film industry: Iurii Ianovs'kyi became a literary editor at the VUFKU studio in Odes(s)a, and Mykola Bazhan became editor-in-chief of the newly formed journal Kino (Cinema).
Ianovs'kyi was not exclusively devoted to the Panfuturist cause and organizational life, and belonged to other literary organizations, such as VAPLITE. At the Kharkiv headquarters of VUFKU, Ianovs'kyi initially worked as a screenplay editor under Semenko and subsequently as the artistic editor of the Odesa studio (Babyshkin 1987: 7-8). It is believed that a recommendation he made in 1926 yielded a permanent position at VUFKU for his close friend, Oleksandr Dovzhenko (Bazhan 1971: 181). In addition to his administrative duties at the studio, Ianovs'kyi wrote intertitles and scripts, and contributed critical essays and sketches on cinema to periodical press. For film students today, Ianovs'kyi’s cinematic legacy consists of a series of sketches about film industry in Odesa, Hollywood on the Black Sea Coast (Hollivud na berezi Chornoho Moriia,1930), and his first novel, a fictionalized biography of a film director, titled Shipbuilder (Maister korablia, 1928).
Another accomplished Panfuturist writer who worked as an editor for VUFKU in Kharkiv and Kyiv was Dmytro Buz'ko. He wrote a number of film scripts that were produced by VUFKU, as well as several theoretical articles on the nature of cinema, particularly on the nuances of script writing. Buz'ko joined the Panfuturists only during the Nova generatsiia period in 1927. By that time, his hit novel Forest Animal (Lisovyi zvir, 1923) was already translated into Russian and turned into a VUFKU motion picture on the basis of his own script. In the tradition of Western literature, Buz'ko believed that a writer should not be a philosopher or a teacher, but rather a good storyteller perfecting his craft. Popular fiction provided Buz'ko with the devices to reach the reader’s interest and express his world view “effortlessly, naturally, without force or sweat…” (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 311). In Buz'ko’s own opinion, his best work was the short story “Asta Nil'son” (Asta Nielsen, 1927), titled after the famous silent movie star.
Theatre and Cinema
Close ties between the Panfuturists and the Berezil' Theatre were, at least in part, the result of a personal friendship between the leaders of the two groups, Mykhail' Semenko and Les' Kurbas respectively. Occupying the positions of avant-garde in their respective art forms, Berezil' and the Panfuturists were able to find common ground, at least until 1928, when Kurbas severed his ties with Semenko’s group. By that time, however, numerous members of the theatre were well established in the film industry and continued their association with the Panfuturists’ publishing organs.
The contribution of Les' Kurbas to Ukrainian cinema of the 1920s cannot be overestimated. Although, by his own admission, cinema was not his medium, Kurbas succeeded in bringing to VUFKU a large group of actors and directors who not only changed the demographics of the studio personnel, but also brought with them Kurbas’s ideas about storytelling, acting, and performance in film. The influence of Kurbas-trained actors on the style of VUFKU films, particularly the works of Dovzhenko, requires a thorough study of its own.
Kurbas’s personal involvement in filmmaking is limited to four films, which he directed at VUFKU’s Odesa studio prior to 1925. The films are considered lost; therefore, it is difficult to assess his adherence to the ideas of the avant-garde in these productions or to see his handling of the new medium. The director himself took little pride in the films and was glad to return to his work in theatre when his filmmaking episode was over. However, according to his assistant, Oleksii Perehuda, Kurbas was excited about the expressive possibilities of cinema and tried to exploit the recording possibilities of the medium. Kurbas’s thrust towards formal experimentation, which guided his work in theatre, also became part of his cinema experience. In order to achieve the desired dynamics and rhythm of shots, Kurbas resorted to special effects such as slow and fast motion, trick photography, superimposition of images, split screen, and matte processes (Perehuda 1970: 46-47). We cannot independently examine whether the experiments produced the desired effects in Kurbas’s films. We can say, however, that the films somewhat incited VUFKU’s management to hire other Berezil' personnel and the Panfuturists who thrived in the culture of experimentation.
It seems that Kurbas’s method of training his actors and directors was very well suited to the nature of silent cinema. Kurbas’s theatre tried to limit the dominant role of speech in theatre and replace it with the visual devices having an immediate impact on the viewer. Although Kurbas was less fascinated with biomechanics than his Moscow colleague Vsevolod Meyerhold, he stressed rigorous physical training of the actors in order to achieve expressive control over the actors’ bodies. Like Expressionists in general, Kurbas trained his actors to work towards a powerful single image that would sum up, in the viewer’s mind, the character itself. Take, for example, the role played by Amvrosii Buchma in Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, where the actor created a powerful image of a gassed German soldier during World War I; it is the unstoppable laughter induced by the laughing gas that Buchma tries to convey through his body movement.
The uniting and organizing element of Kurbas’s plays was rhythm, or flow, of the movements and events into a single expressive whole. Judging by performances in Dovzhenko’s Arsenal and Earth, actors were able to put Kurbas’s training to good use. Chaotic rhythms of war and revolution in Arsenal drastically contrast the natural rhythms of village life in Earth. Dovzhenko was fortunate to work with actors who, thanks to Kurbas’s training, had the skills and understanding to implement his vision.
Favst Lopatyns'kyi was Kurbas’s right-hand man at Berezil' Theatre and one of the theatre’s most talented directors. He worked almost exclusively in film after 1925 and was an active contributor to Panfuturist periodicals. Lopatyns'kyi advocated a close connection between the Panfuturists and Berezil', which in 1923 resulted in the Initiative Bureau for the October Coalition in the Arts, a short-lived umbrella organization that succeeded in uniting many avant-garde groups in Ukraine (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 76-77). In his films, Lopatyns'kyi sought to replace the boring emotions of the old arts with “interesting [cinematic] tricks” (Shvachko 1970: 55). For his first film, Lopatyns'kyi was teamed up with German cameraman Josef Rona to direct Vasia the Reformer (Vasia reformator, 1926) from a script written by Dovzhenko, another VUFKU newcomer. On his own, Lopatyns'kyi completed five feature films.
Another major figure of the post-revolutionary theatre in Ukraine, Marko Tereshchenko parted ways with Kurbas before starting to work in cinema. As one of the leading actors and directors in Kurbas’s Young Theater (1917-19), Tereshchenko founded Tsentrostudiia Theatre (later known as The Hnat Mykhailychenko Theatre) which, like Berezil', was known for radical innovation. The artistic goals of the theatre, according to Tereshchenko, were consonant with the goals of Panfuturists: innovation through fresh and interesting experimentation (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 70-71). Tereshchenko supported Aspanfut, contributed to Panfuturist periodicals, and published a book on performance art through the efforts of the Panfuturist publisher Gulf Stream (Tereshchenko 1922).
The early career of Oleksii Perehuda, a prominent member of the Panfuturist organizations and contributor to their publications, who directed films for VUFKU, is likewise connected with Berezil'. Perehuda remained loyal to the Panfuturist cause to the very end of its organizational life. He contributed an article on cinema to the Panfuturist pamphlet Bumeranh (Perehuda 1927), and was a regular contributor to Nova generatsiia. He had first come to VUFKU with his mentor Les' Kurbas, serving as an assistant director on all Kurbas’s films and acting in one (MacDonald, 1924). After Kurbas’s return to theatre, Perehuda continued to work in the film industry. He wrote a screenplay, and directed and co-directed several films by 1930.
Pavlo Dolyna, one of the most prolific directors of the 1920s, also underwent a transition from theatre to cinema. An actor and director at Berezil', Dolyna originally came to VUFKU to act in Kurbas’s films (Arsenaltsi and McDonald), and decided to stay with VUFKU in Odesa and Kyiv as an actor and director. In Odesa he also taught at the Odesa State Technical College of Cinema. Dolyna’s career at the studio reflects the path of many Ukrainian artists who found employment there. Well-established in a film-related field, an individual would become a member of a shooting crew and be swiftly elevated to a position of responsibility. After taking part in several projects as an actor and assistant director, Dolyna quickly began directing on his own.
Vadym Meller is best known as a costume and set designer at Berezil' Theatre devoted to the ideas of the avant-garde. Meller was a member of editorial boards of various Panfuturist periodicals and served as the artistic director of Nova generatsiia in its first year. At VUFKU, Meller initially designed sets and costumes for Kurbas’s productions. According to critics, Meller’s designs were “based on a curious blend of grotesque expressivity and stark refinement… [They were] rigid, mechanical, and controlled, while at the same time incorporating a gestural flourish in highly contrasted bands of color in the costume or sloped scaffolding of the actual stage set” (Mudrak 1986: 204). Whether Meller had a direct impact on the art direction at VUFKU would be very difficult to establish. He definitely succeeded in bringing the ideas of the avant-garde and the need for experimentation to the studio.
The links between the Panfuturist ideas, the work of the Berezil' Theatre, and VUFKU were numerous; the above outline points out only the most obvious. The removal of the “ideologically undesirable” formalist and avant-garde traditions from the history of Soviet cinema in the later decades significantly distorts our perception of the aesthetic and ideological richness of the 1920s. The executions of the major players, Semenko, Kurbas, and Lopatyns'kyi, in 1937 struck the final blow to the legacy of this closely tied art community.
Film Theory and Criticism
It would be difficult to imagine an individual who contributed more to the Ukrainian film culture of the 1920s than Mykola Bazhan, who was only twenty-one when he became the editor-in-chief of the journal Kino, the official periodical of the Ukrainian film industry between 1925 and 1932. The pro-Western orientation of the journal was evident from its first issue. Kino published articles about the French and German avant-garde, and translations of influential articles from the Western press. It informed its readers about technological innovations and aesthetic trends. Kino had correspondents in Western capitals who reported on new films and directors. For example, Eugène Deslaw, a prominent member of the French avant-garde, sent regular contributions from Paris. A Ukrainian reader could learn about film industries and national cinemas in America, Western Europe, and Japan.
Today, Kino is an indispensable source of information about the Ukrainian cinema of the 1920s. The journal informed about new VUFKU films in production and reviewed new releases. Considerable attention was devoted to documentaries and to VUFKU’s “cinefication” campaign of the countryside, where the studio achieved substantial successes. Interviews with filmmakers and theoretical articles completed the journals’ offerings. Occasionally Kino would publish special thematic issues such as one devoted to Jewish cinema in Ukraine (Kino no. 3, 1928), an important segment of VUFKU activities.
Interestingly, Kino paid little attention to the developments in the Russian SFSR, at least in the first three years of its operation. News from Moscow did not receive much prominence because the editorial policy of Kino reflected the tensions between VUFKU and Sovkino over cultural policies as well as the economic conflict between the two studios (see Nebesio 2009). Kino was no different from many periodicals in its spirit of Ukrainianization and its direction “away from Moscow.” With the pressure from the Communist Party and with the limitation imposed on VUFKU’s independence in 1928, Kino slowly abandoned its Western orientation and, after 1930, fully became a mouthpiece for the Party.
A tireless propagator of cinema, Bazhan, in addition to his editorial duties, wrote several film scripts, regularly contributed pieces of film criticism, wrote two books: The Most Important Art: A Sketch on Cinema (1929) and O. Dovzhenko (1930) and managed to establish himself as one of the leading Ukrainian poets of his generation. Describing the place of motion pictures in Ukrainian culture, he wrote: “Cinema has imprinted itself on the contemporary Ukrainian literature, theatre, and painting. To this particular diffusion of the arts contributed the fact that the art of cinema has entered Ukrainian culture” (quoted in Shcherbak 1986: 122).
Iakiv Savchenko emerged as one of the most perceptive critics of Ukrainian cinema in the 1920s. His articles and reviews appeared in periodicals across the political spectrum. He was one of the first critics to recognize the talent of Oleksandr Dovzhenko, and he became an aggressive defender of the director against Party attacks. In fact, Savchenko called Dovzhenko’s Zvenyhora the first true Ukrainian film and thus opened a discussion on the nature of Ukrainian national cinema. Savchenko’s study of Dovzhenko’s silent trilogy remains one of the most insightful studies of Dovzhenko’s early films (Savchenko 1930). For example, Savchenko described the style of Dovzhenko’s films as the Heroic-Romantic Expressionism, thus linking it to the German art tradition that Dovzhenko studied before becoming a filmmaker. This connection received little attention in later decades as the Soviet and Western critics alike situated Dovzhenko within the Soviet montage tradition to which he never really belonged.
Savchenko’s affiliation with the Panfuturists was strongest in the first half of the 1920s when he was considered one of the major figures in the movement through his poetry, criticism, and theoretical-polemical writings. Although he drifted away from Semenko’s shadow and did not partake in Nova generatsiia, he remained an enthusiast of experimentation in the arts, especially through his critical writings. He found employment at VUFKU relatively late, only to witness the transformation of the once independent film studio into a political branch of a centrally-managed film industry.
From the Ukrainian Panfuturist ranks emerged two of the most original theorists of cinema in the Soviet Union. They are largely unknown today because they wrote in Ukrainian and because their most original works had appeared in print shortly before the Bolsheviks’ crackdown on the avant-garde and the Formalist school. As a result, their work was not reviewed, did not enter the critical discourse of the time, and was quickly forgotten. Leonid Skrypnyk and Oleksii Poltorats'kyi were the most prolific and the most influential theorists of Nova generatsiia, with impressive knowledge of cinema and its history. Both of them published book-length theoretical works a few years ahead of what is considered today the canonical early film theory, such as Lev Kuleshov’s Iskusstvo kino (Cinema Art, 1929) in Russian and Rudolf Arnheim’s Film als Kunst (Film as Art, 1932) in German (see Kuleshov 1974 and Arnheim 1957).
An accomplished writer, Leonid Skrypnyk became a leading film and cultural theorist in Ukraine while managing VUFKU’s film labs. His engineering background and experience at the studio convinced him of the need to educate filmmakers and the audiences about the nature of the new cinematic medium. To accomplish this, he published two books: A Photographer’s Handbook in 1927, and one of the most complete early theoretical works on film, Sketches on the Theory of Cinema Art, in 1928 (Skrypnyk 1927; 1928; see also Nebesio 1995-96).
The main impetus for conceiving Sketches is cine-literacy (kino-hramotnist'), and the book is divided into three parts: ontology of cinema, aesthetics of cinema, and the directions for the future studies of the medium. Skrypnyk’s background in photography distinguishes him from other theorists of the time. He was well aware that all the film viewer sees is the photographic image and not the objects and people one puts in front of the camera. Therefore, the image itself should be given much greater prominence in the making of as film as well as in the critical discourse on film.
In the tradition of the Soviet writing on film, Skrypnyk gives considerable attention to the issue of film editing, or montage, by proposing science-based methods of studying it. The most original part of Skrypnyk’s theory is devoted to the issue of rhythm in cinema and he proposes an elaborate look at the issue by considering both static and dynamic elements of rhythmic film composition. For Skrypnyk, rhythm is not only an undisputable part of film editing but also a part of shot composition which involves rhythms experienced through the viewer’s eye-scans of the film frame. Overall, rhythm for him is an organizing principle of the film structure and assists the viewer in the process of film comprehension.
Skrypnyk also took an active part in defending Panfuturist positions when they came under attack towards the end of the literary discussion in 1928. His polemical tone reflects the Panfuturists’ radical positions vis-à-vis the so-called proletarian art which at the time attempted to form a new elite in the Soviet Union. Skrypnyk concludes that the destruction of the arts has been inadvertently accelerated through the incompetence of the “proletarians.” His ironic remarks are addressed to artists who use traditional “old” art forms to create the new “revolutionary” art. For example, writing about opera, he ridicules the attempts to stage a “proletarian” opera and thus foreshadows the excesses of the 1930s:
One must stage as quickly as possible operas on themes like “The Industrialization of the Country,” “Highways,” “Agricultural Cooperation,” and “The Rational Manuring of Land.” When we finally hear the First Lovers’ aria on the subject of the comparative value of horse manure and superphosphate, when we admire for the last time the dance or the “airy ballet” of locksmiths in a locomotive machine-shop, we will then be able to close down the opera (Skrypnyk 1929b: 48; English trans. Ilnytzkyj 1998: 204 n. 15).
Shortly before his death, Skrypnyk was preoccupied with a longer work titled tentatively “The Arts and Social Culture” or, “The Arts and the Sociology of Culture.” It is not really clear whether the theory of the social and a-social arts he proposed should be taken seriously, or whether it was a part of the Nova generatsiia’s policy of destruction of art, which Skrypnyk masterfully theorizes. It is difficult to believe that he would change his positions in such a radical manner in about a year. From an eager defender of cinema as an art form in The Sketches on the Theory of Cinema Art and from his critique of the cinematic process in Ukraine as lacking “artistry,” Skrypnyk moves towards the view that a manifestation of the same artistry is socially undesirable and harmful. If Skrypnyk’s theory of cinema reflects his passionate personal views on the subject, his theory of culture is a somewhat desperate attempt to defend the interests of the Panfuturists.
Skrypnyk’s theory of culture also seems to contradict his ideas on reason versus the emotions of the viewer. The concern with human emotions is the basic premise of his theory of montage in film. While other theoreticians put together two film frames and argued the pros and cons of “linkage” and “conflict,” Skrypnyk saw behind the montage shots the emotions these shots evoked in the viewer. Therefore, the basic unit of montage, for him, is the viewer’s emotion, and montage is the ordering of the viewer’s emotions in time, or an itinerary for the viewer’s emotional journey.
In contrast to Skrypnyk, Oleksii Poltorats'kyi was a man of letters who, still in his early twenties, became one of the leading literary theoreticians and critics of his generation, most active between 1927 and 1930. Along with Mykhail' Semenko he edited Nova generatsiia, published two books, Literary Devices and Études of a Theory of Cinema (Poltorats'kyi 1929; 1930), and wrote a series of groundbreaking theoretical articles and reviews, mainly for Nova generatsiia. Poltorats'kyi was one of the many simultaneously Formalist and Marxist critics in Ukraine at a time when the two positions were not considered at war with each other. The most interesting are his early writings in the Formalist vein because he possessed a rare ability to separate form from ideology and write with great insight on both. For example, his article “The Language of Poetry and the Practical Language” analyzes two formal aspects of language proposed by the Russian Formalists in relation to the theories of Ukrainian linguist Oleksandr Potebnia. His articles “How to Produce Novels” and “The Practice of a Leftist Short Story” reflect the Panfuturist conviction that literature is a craft that needs to be learned, its conventions carefully studied (Poltorats'kyi 1927; 1928a; 1928b).
Despite his extensive knowledge of the subject, Poltorats'kyi’s interest in cinema is an extension of his interest in the Formal method and is treated as something secondary to his literary profession. His film articles usually appeared under the pseudonym Ol. Ozerov. However, in 1930 he published most of these writings in the collection Études of a Theory of Cinema under his own name. The collection consists of four parts. The first part, “The Stylistic Elements of Film Art,” engages in a debate with the Russian formalists shortly after the publication of their Poetics of Cinema (Eikhenbaum 1927). Poltorats'kyi considers Eikhenbaum’s ideas on film style rather superficial and offers some “corrections.” The second essay in the collection, “The Compositional Elements of Film,” examines the notion of a film genre in relation to its narrative construction. Poltorats'kyi draws on a wealth of examples from international cinema to illustrate his points.
The collection is complemented by two essays that combine Poltorats'kyi’s theoretical interests with a critical assessment of Ukrainian cinema of the 1920s. In “Ukrainian Feature Film,” the critic tries to outline the decade’s most interesting trends in VUFKU productions. He describes the successes and failures in making “Soviet films” in Ukraine during the transitional period, recognizes Okhlopkov’s Sold Appetite (Prodanyi apetyt, 1928) as the first Soviet satirical film, and devotes a considerable amount of space to the psychological trend in VUFKU’s output. The films of Dovzhenko, for the critic, form a separate category, unlike anything else produced by the studio. In comparison to other Soviet critics of the time, Poltorats'kyi is not merely interested in the social and political aspects of the films, but tries to see them as satisfying multifunctional cultural artefacts.
The last article in Poltorats'kyi’s collection, “On Non-acted Cinema,” is an example of the special attention the Panfuturists paid to the question of documentary cinema. Their notion of “non-acted cinema” (neihrove kino) broadly includes documentary films, newsreels, educational, and industrial films. Throughout the 1920s, VUFKU released a significant number of such films, which enabled Poltorats'kyi to deal with a large sample of local works in addition to Russian and Western films. VUFKU productions of Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman, along with the documentaries of his fellow Panfuturist Oleksii Perehuda, receive the critic’s special attention. Poltorats'kyi’s theoretical concerns in the article revolve around questions of artistry or creativity, versus the recording nature of film as a medium.
The Panfuturists’ interest and commitment to documentary tradition in cinema is best illustrated by the collection of essays, The Eleventh Year: Theory and Practice of Non-acted Film, published by VUFKU to coincide with the release of Vertov’s film (Odynadtsiatyi 1928). Regrettably ignored by Vertov scholars, the book includes original reactions to this lesser-known masterpiece. In addition to essays by Vertov and Kaufman, all contributions originate among accomplished Ukrainian Panfuturists: Buz'ko, Bazhan, Poltorats'kyi, and Zatvornyts'kyi. Overall, the collection attempts much more than simply to introduce the film to general public. It lives up to its subtitle by trying to explain the Vertov phenomenon in theoretical terms. It touches upon issues of “the cinema of facts” and its relationship to the contemporary notions of documentary cinema as well as to cinema in general.
The relationship between literature and cinema is most often viewed as a one-way path, with literature being a supplier of great ideas to be adapted for screen. The Panfuturist writers tried to reverse this relationship by drawing inspiration from the medium of cinema; they tried to adopt it by creating literary hybrids, such as Semenko’s poezofil’my (poetry-films), or simply by using film as a subject matter for their works, such as Ianovs'kyi’s Shipbuilder and Hollywood on the Black Sea Coast. However, two literary works by Lopatyns'ky and Skrypnyk go well beyond surface comparisons of the two media.
A theatre and film director, Favst Lopatyns'kyi conducted one of the most interesting literary experiments directly influenced by cinema. Nova generatsiia published his free verse film scenario, “Dynamo,” inspired by H.G. Wells’s story “The Lord of the Dynamos” (Lopatyns'kyi 1928). The scenario is both a literary work and a masterpiece of graphic design. It was meant to be read and seen at the same time. The work goes beyond the tradition of visual poetry—well-established in Ukraine—by using the visual design of a poem to mimic formal cinematic devices. The topography and layout of the text suggest the movement and rhythm of a motion picture. The arrangement of words describing actions conveys the direction of movement, suggests its velocity, and provides staging directions. For example, the word arrangement may suggest the camera distance or the framing of a shot (see Ilnytzkyj 1998: 330-34).
In order to achieve the desired effect, the scenario employs an unusual number of punctuation marks and other topographic symbols, including musical notation. The font used in the printing of the poem varies in size and some lines are set at a forty-five degree angle. In order to convey the nature of silent film, some lines are placed in boxes to resemble intertitles. In Lopatyns'kyi’s words, the scenario is supposed break with the tradition of boring film scripts, allowing the screenwriter to convey his emotions to the film director (Ilnytzkyj 1998: 332). In fact, Lopatyns'kyi’s scenario links a traditional film script with the story board usually prepared by a film director at the initial stages of film production. It seems that Lopatyns'kyi, a film director himself, saw the role of a scriptwriter to be at least as important as that of a director in the making of a film.
In addition to his theoretical work, Skrypnyk was also one of the most original prose writers of the Ukrainian Panfuturist movement. His fictional writings were very much influenced by cinema, and his groundbreaking ekranizovanyi roman (screen-adapted novel), The Intellectual (Intelihent) formally links the two media. The reader is invited on a journey that takes place on screen. In truly modernist fashion, the author’s presence is very pronounced and takes the form of an ongoing commentary on the events taking place on the screen. In the tradition of popular cinema, the content of the film is purposely very simple: a compilation of cinematic clichés from genre films, mainly melodramas. The novel’s plot is Skrypnyk’s version of Jedermann. The main character has no name, but is referred to as the Intellectual, thus placed within a certain social group of post-revolutionary Ukrainian society. Skrypnyk’s contemporary, the Intellectual comes from the most active generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia, born in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The life journey takes the young Intellectual through adolescence and, with a modernist overtone, focuses on his early sexual experiences. The political dimension of the protagonist places him as an all-Russian patriot who, after the Bolshevik Revolution, flees to Ukraine, where he becomes part of the communist establishment. Thanks to his rhetorical and oratorical skills in promoting the rationalization of bureaucracy, he quickly advances as a government official. His overzealousness in adherence to regulations brings his downfall.
The unusual character of the novel is first noticeable in its page layout. The reader faces three types of fonts and texts: 1) the novel proper, which is a story that supposedly takes place on the screen in front of the viewer; 2) the comments of the author, which are indented and set in a smaller font; and 3) the intertitles that are part of the silent film, and are set in a larger font and sometimes framed. This visually discrete separation of two narrative modes allows Skrypnyk to address the viewer directly. The author introduces himself:
I, the author and your friend, will at all times be near you. I will be that interpreter who is always present in every Japanese film. Be sure to listen to me carefully even though I will only whisper into your ear in small print (Skrypnyk 1929: 8; trans. in Ilnytzkyj 1998: 320).
The matter-of-fact third-person screen story is nicely contrasted with the lively first-person narration by the author who gains the reader’s confidence through his remarks on the film’s plot and on the director’s skill.
The novel can be linked to Skrypnyk’s theory of cinema in one important point. In The Intellectual, Skrypnyk argues that rational thinking is not the main force behind human behaviour and is often replaced by emotions that control our actions. In his commentary, the author states:
Most people call the process of feeling—“thinking.” Have you noticed how often we hear the words: “I am thinking.” One would imagine that we live in a genuine world of reason. Don’t believe it. Nine hundred, ninety-nine out of a thousand people think only very rarely. But every single one of them feels something, constantly and without end . . . (Skrypnyk 1929: 129; trans. in Ilnytzkyj 1998: 321).
This contrasts with the official materialist philosophy of the time promoted by the Intellectual on his way up the bureaucratic ladder. According to the slogans the Intellectual uses in his speeches, the new socialist state can be saved by rationalization, standardization, normalization, Taylorization, Fordization, and utilization.
Skrypnyk’s novel offers a tongue-in-cheek look at popular cinema of the time. More importantly, however, it lays bare the cinematic and literary storytelling process. By bringing attention to the medium, Skrypnyk seems to continue his project of educating the general public about cinema, which he started in the Sketches of a Theory of Cinema. He is devoted to the ideas of modernist avant-garde and to formal experimentation embraced so eagerly by Ukrainian Panfuturists. The novel perfectly combines Skrypnyk’s interests in film and literary theory with his ambitions as a prose writer by challenging the form of the nineteenth-century novel with the form of the new, most popular form of storytelling of the twentieth century.
* * *
Ukrainian film culture benefited a great deal from the overwhelming presence of the Panfuturists. The economic strength of the film industry in Ukraine offered a sturdy foundation not only for making films, but also for discussing them and theorizing about them. The traditions of experimentation and innovation at the centre of the Panfuturists’ attention were well-suited for the new medium of film, which was destined to replace traditional art forms. At VUFKU, the Panfuturists became editors, screenwriters, art designers, and directors. They also tirelessly promoted cinema through film criticism, and tried to understand the new medium through their theoretical works. In 1930, the Communist Party put an end to VUFKU’s operations and forced the Panfuturists to disband. The film industry in Ukraine has never again approximated the success of the 1920s. Similarly, the film culture, so nurtured by the Panfuturists, has never been revived. The legacy and the memory of that film culture disappeared with the individuals who shaped it. A great majority of the Panfuturists was executed in 1937, and those who survived were silenced for the rest of their lives.
As I had hoped to demonstrate, Dziga Vertov did not come to Ukraine by coincidence. At VUFKU he found the ideological support for his documentary cinema that was quickly evaporating in Moscow under Sovkino. The independence of the Ukrainian studio protected Vertov from his old adversaries, while the overwhelming presence of like-minded artists at VUFKU provided him with a mutually rewarding creative environment.
1] Vertov arrived at VUFKU during the studio’s most creative phase. There, he completed his most innovative works, Odynatsiatyi (The Eleventh Year, 1928), Liudyna z kinoaparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) and the first sound film made in Ukraine, Entuziazm (Enthusiasm: The Donbas Symphony, 1930). Also connected with VUFKU is the career of Dziga Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman, a talented cameraman and a documentary filmmaker in his own right whose film Vesnoiu (In the Spring, 1929) was completed at VUFKU.
3] Throughout this essay I use the term “Panfuturists” instead of a more inclusive “Futurists” to reflect the terminology used in Ukraine in the second half of the 1920s to describe the Futurist movement when it formed closest ties to the film industry.
4] I leave aside a discussion of Vertov’s relationship to various artistic traditions, especially to the Russian Futurism and Constructivism (see, for example, Petrić 1987). For the purpose of this essay, Vertov and Panfuturists share the most radical avant-garde position within Modernist art, regardless of the terms used to describe them.
5] Lenin’s famous dictum, “…of all the arts for us the most important is cinema,” recognizes the propagandistic power of cinema for the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, often misquoted, the phrase omits “for us” and suggests the universal truth about the position of cinema among the arts (Taylor and Christie 1988: 56-57).
7] The links between the Berezil' school of acting and the acting style of many VUFKU films need further study. For example, acting in Dovzhenko’s silent films does not follow established cinematic conventions but resembles ideas about acting expressed by Kurbas.
10] The New Economic Policy was such a compromise between the capitalist and socialist economies adapted for the period of transition together with the temporary recognition of peasantry as a social class that had no future in the socialist society.
11] For example, in the 1960s the theorists of Third Cinema adopted similar positions, leaning, during the transitional period, towards “extructivism” to achieve their political goals. Ironically, for distribution of their films they had to rely on “art cinema,” against which they rallied.
12] Geo Shkurupii (1903-1937) was a poet, prose writer, and one of the most important polemicists for the Futurists. He worked as an editor for VUFKU at both the Odesa and Kyiv studios, wrote intertitles, and co-wrote film scripts for Synii paket (Blue Package, 1926) and Spartak (Spartacus, 1926).
13] Beginning in the 1930s, the position of redaktor acquired a meaning and functions tied to the Soviet censorship. Most often editors were responsible for the ideological content of works they edited.
15] Throughout this essay, Ukrainian personal and place names are given in the versions derived from their Ukrainian-language spelling, with counterparts derived from Russian-language spelling provided for clarification wherever necessary.
17] Dmytro Buz'ko (1890-1937) wrote scripts for Lisovyi zvir (Forest Animal, 1924), Makdonal'd (MacDonald, 1924), Son Tvstopuzenka (Tovstopuzenko’s Dream, 1924), Dymivka (1925), Malen'kyi Taras (Young Taras, 1926) and co-wrote Taras Shevchenko (1926). For his articles on script writing, see his “Problemy kino-stsenarnoi tvorchosti,” Zhyttia i revoliutsiia 12 (1927): 323-337. His book Kino i kinofabryka (1928) was a textbook with a goal of explaining the basic technical and aesthetic aspects of cinema as well as the organization of the film industry.18] Les' Kurbas (1887-1937), a prominent theatre director and theorist, made four films for VUFKU: Shveds'kyi sirnyk (The Swedish Match, 1922), Vendeta (Vendetta, 1924), Makdonal'd (MacDonald, 1924), and Arsenal'tsi (Arsenal Workers, 1925). For more on Kurbas, see Makaryk 2004.
19] According to Sovetskie khudozhestvennye fil'my: Annotirovannyi katalog, a fairly reliable list of all Soviet films in the central archives, very few VUFKU productions have been preserved, most (rough estimate of 80 percent) are considered lost.
20] Favst Lopatyns'kyi (1899-1937) directed for VUFKU the following films: Synii paket (Blue Package, 1926), Poiedynok (Duel, 1927), Vasylyna (1927), Suddia Reitanesku (Judge Reitanescu, 1929). His last project, Karmaliuk (1931), was a Ukrainfil'm production.
21] Marko Tereshchenko (1894-1982) worked at the Odesa Studio of VUFKU between 1926 and 1930. He directed Mykola Dzheria (1927), Navzdohin za doleiu (Pursuing Faith, 1927), Ukhyl (Evasion, 1927), Mytroshka – soldat revolutsii (Mytroshka, Soldier of the Revolution, 1927), and Velyke hore maloii zhinky (Great Grief of a Small Woman, 1929).
22] Oleksii Perehuda (1893-1969) also worked for Goskino in Russia. At VUFKU, in addition to his work with Kurbas, he served as an assistant director for Son Tovstopuzenka (Tovstopuzenko’s Dream, 1924), and on his own directed Pilot i divchyna (Pilot and the Girl, 1929), and co-directed Divchyna z paluby (A Girl from a Shipdeck, 1928) and Za stinoiu (Behind the Wall, 1928).
23] Pavlo Dolyna (1888–1955) had been associated with Kurbas long before Berezil' as one of the leading actors in the Young Theater. Dolyna served as assistant director on two big VUFKU’s productions, Hamburg (1926) and Taras Triasylo (1926), and directed Chortopolokh (Scaredevil, 1927), Buria (Storm, 1928), V zametakh (In the Blizzard, 1929), Sekret rapida (Rapid’s Secret, 1930), and Chorni dni (Black Days, 1930).
24] Vadym Meller (1884-1962) was a painter, graphic artist, and stage and costume designer influenced by the ideas of Western art through his studies in Geneva, Kyiv, and Munich. His full contribution to cinema is difficult to assess because VUFKU also employed another artistic director, Vladimir Miuller (1887-1975). The same first initial and the similarity of these Germanic names in Slavic transliteration result in many inconsistencies in attributing proper credits to both men. It is clear that Meller worked on Kurbas’ films and most likely Meller, rather than Miuller, worked on films by other former Berezil' directors.
26] Mykola Bazhan (1904-1983) was a poet, writer, critic, screenwriter and editor. For VUFKU he wrote the following scripts: Alim (1926), Mykola Dzheria (1927), Pryhody Poltynnyka (Poltynnyk’s Adventures, 1929), Studentka (A Female Student, 1930) and Kvartaly peredmistia (Suburban Quarters, 1930) and continued to write scripts for Ukrainfil'm in the early 1930s (see Shcherbak 1986).
29] Leonid Skrypnyk (1893-1929) was a prose writer and one of the leading Ukrainian theorists of cinema, literature, and mass culture of his generation. Most biographical information on Skrypnyk comes from two published obituaries: Nova generatsiia 3 (1929): 5 and Krytyka 3 (March 1929): 125 (see also Ilnytzkyj 1984). Skrypnyk died in 1929 of tuberculosis at the age of 36. An engineer by profession, he received his education in Kyiv and worked in Moscow. During the NEP era he became a writer and theoretician of the Futurist movement in Ukraine.
30] “Mystetstvo i sotsialna kul'tura” was written in 1928 (Skrypnyk died on 26 February 1929) and has not been published in its entirety. Some parts appeared as articles in Nova generatsiia: (see Skrypnyk 1929a-f). An obituary in Krytyka (no. 3 , 125) gives the title of this unfinished work as “Mystetstvo i sotsiolohiia kul'tury (The Arts and the Sociology of Culture).”
31] Oleksii Poltorats'kyi’s (1905-1977) legacy, in the opinion of many critics, has been tarnished by his writings from 1930 onwards. Already in 1931 he denied all his significant accomplishments and helped the Communist Party launch attacks on his former colleagues and friends for “deviations” from the Bolshevik ideology. Many of them were executed in 1937 as a direct result of such attacks.
32] The collection includes the following articles: Dmytro Buz'ko, “Kino i ‘kino’”; Mykola Bazhan, “Kino-kamera i fil'm”; Dzyga Vertov, “Kino-oko i 11-i”; N. Ushakov, “Patetyka i ornament”; Ol. Ozerov, “Fil'm pro industriiu”; Hlib Zatvornyts'kyi, “Shcho take ‘Kinoky’?”; M. Kaufman, “Z ekspedytsiinykh notatok.”
33] Skrypnyk’s literary legacy consists of a short story, “Materials Toward a Biography of the Writer Lopus'ka” (Skrypnyk 1928a); a novel, Intelihent: Ekranizovanyi roman na shist' chastyn z prolohom ta epilohom (The Intellectual: A Screened Novel in Six Parts with a Prologue and Epilogue) published under the pseudonym Levon Lain as a serial (1927-28) and republished as a separate volume (Skrypnyk 1929), and two chapters of an incomplete novel Epizody z zhyttia chudnoi liudyny (Episodes from the Life of a Strange Person): Skrypnyk 1928b; 1928c.
35] Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) developed labour management and production systems. Ford Motor Company is credited with the introduction of efficient manufacturing methods resulting in the low-cost mass production and in wider availability and affordability of cars.
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