The Watchlist: Ukrainian Poetic Cinema

The Watchlist is Klassiki’s series of themed viewing recommendations drawing from the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we explore a radical movement that emerged in Kyiv in the 1960s to change Ukrainian filmmaking forever.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1965)

Emerging from Kyiv’s Dovzhenko Studio in the mid-1960s, poetic cinema was Soviet Ukraine’s most consequential and innovative film movement. Poetic cinema drew on Ukraine’s long tradition of “folk modernism” in literature and the arts, as directors sought ways to put Ukrainian national identity onscreen – in defiance of official efforts to promote a trans-national Soviet identity that elided cultural and linguistic differences. The vivid visions of Ukrainian life that resulted – sometimes surreal, sometimes ethnographic – were alternately celebrated and censored; today, they are recognised as milestones in Ukrainian film history. The symbolic significance of these films in the face of the ongoing Russian assault on Ukrainian sovereignty can hardly be overstated.


Earth (dir. Oleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930)

Poetic cinema was a product of the Soviet sixties, but its roots stretched further back. Ukrainian “folk modernism”, which married traditional themes with formal innovation, had flourished in the late nineteenth century: in the writing of Sholem Aleichem, for instance, or the art of Mark Chagall. A few decades later, Oleksandr Dovzhenko – the great poet of early Soviet film – brought that legacy to bear on Ukrainian cinema. Dovzhenko’s blend of the avant-garde and the folkloric reached its peak in his silent masterpiece Earth. Nominally a propagandistic account of collectivisation in the Ukrainian countryside, the film unfolds in a series of striking, expressionistic tableaux, its political agitation conjoined to an almost animistic vision of man’s place in the natural order. Dovzhenko, whose name would later adorn the national film studios in Kyiv where poetic cinema proper was born, was the crucial link between Ukraine’s pre-Soviet artistic heritage and its mid-century renaissance.

Watch Earth on Klassiki now.


Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1965)

The film widely seen as kickstarting the poetic cinema movement in the mid-60s was not directed by a native Ukrainian. Georgian-born Armenian auteur Sergei Parajanov had left Moscow for Ukraine after the murder of his first wife, and it was in this adopted home that his filmmaking career first flourished. Parajanov’s love for Ukraine was spectacularly rendered in Shadows, his first mature masterpiece. Made under the profound influence of his friend Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 breakout Ivan’s Childhood, Parajanov’s film charts the doomed love affair of Ivanko and Marichka, Hutsul villagers in the Carpathian Mountains.

Shadows established the conventions of Ukrainian poetic cinema: it rejected state-sponsored (socialist) realism in favour of exuberant, expressionistic visuals and soundscapes; it engaged with the folk modernist tradition, and in particular its literature (the film adapts the eponymous novel by the great Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky); and it drew inspiration from the folklore and traditional communities of the nation’s south-western highlands, where a resolutely non-Russified, supposedly “authentic” Ukrainian way of life could be found. What’s more, its principal players, Ivan Mykolaichuk and Larisa Kadochnikova, were to become recurring figures in poetic cinema, while its cinematographer, Yuri Ilyenko, would become one of the movement’s greatest directors. Unusually for both poetic cinema and for Parajanov personally, the film was well received by Soviet authorities, who agreed to release it without dubbing over the Hutsul dialect.

Watch Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors on Klassiki now.

The Stone Cross (dir. Leonid Osyka, 1968)

The Stone Cross (dir. Leonid Osyka, 1968)

Parajanov’s challenge to Soviet film conventions was enthusiastically taken up by younger directors over the rest of the decade. In his study of poetic cinema, Joshua First describes how native filmmakers at Kyiv’s Dovzhenko Studio began to insist upon Ukrainian cultural difference, rejecting the “exoticised and domesticated” image of the nation popularised by mainstream Soviet cinema. Meanwhile, the studio was seeking to repair its reputation as a locus of the post-Stalinist cultural “thaw” in the USSR – as the same time as the authorities were beginning to roll back earlier liberalisation drives and reassert centralised control over the arts.

1968 would prove an annus mirabilis for poetic cinema, producing a handful of its greatest hits. Of these, Leonid Osyka’s The Stone Cross is perhaps the most canonical, seen retrospectively as a distillation of the means and ends of the poetic cinema moment. Like Shadows, it is set in the Carpathians at the close of the nineteenth century and adapted from a folk modernist literary source ­– here, the short stories of Vasyl’ Stefanyk. The action revolves around elderly peasant Ivan Didukh (Daniil Ilchenko), who has decided to renounce his homeland in search of a better life in Canada. As Ivan is forced to deal with a thief caught in his home, and the village comes together to ceremonially mark the symbolic death of his departure, Osyka incorporates local song and ritual into quasi-ethnographic spectacle. Unlike the films of Parajanov or Ilyenko, though, The Stone Cross is shot through with a mournful austerity; shot in crisp monochrome by Valery Kvas, it suggests that Ukrainian identity is defined as much by loss as by celebration.

Watch The Stone Cross on Klassiki now.


Annychka (dir. Borys Ivchenko, 1968)

Another masterpiece from ’68, announcing the emergence of another of Ukraine’s most iconic directors. Borys Ivchenko was only two years into his career at the Dovzhenko Studio when he made Annychka from a script by his own father, fellow director Viktor. The film is a wartime melodrama – a curious sub-section of poetic cinema, in which the movement’s concerns with Ukrainian national identity are juxtaposed (sometimes delicately, sometimes provocatively) with the demands of official Soviet historiography. Once again, the action is set amongst the Carpathian Hutsuls, this time during the dark days of Nazi occupation. A young girl (Lyubov Rumyantseva) comes across a wounded Soviet partisan in the woods (Moldova’s Greigore Grigoriu); they fall in love, but her collaborationist brother (Ivan Mykolaichuk in menacing form) and overbearing father ensure that the story has a tragic end. Eschewing the vibrancy of some poetic cinema, Ivchenko nonetheless displays a bravura approach to filmmaking, his roving camera roaming through the folkloric settings that have been darkened by the violence visited upon them. He was rewarded for his efforts with a state prize and would continue to produce films in Kyiv until the end of the Soviet period.

Watch Annychka on Klassiki now.

Conscience (dir. Volodomyr Denysenko, 1968)

Conscience (dir. Volodymyr Denysenko, 1968)

Not all filmmakers fared as well as Ivchenko. The contentious relationship between Ukrainian poetic cinema and the Soviet establishment is better illustrated by another director and another war film: Volodymyr Denysenko and his aptly titled Conscience. Denysenko was barely out of his teens when he was arrested for “bourgeois Ukrainian nationalism” in 1949 and sent to a labour camp. Upon his release following the death of Stalin in 1953, he entered the Dovzhenko Studio and soon found work as a director. Vasyl’ Zemlyak’s script was a near-autobiographical rendering of the author’s wartime experiences in occupied rural Ukraine. The film, which concerns native insurgency and brutal Nazi recriminations, was technically shot as a diploma project as part of Denysenko’s teaching job at Dovzhenko – a means perhaps of evading studio oversight. To no avail: the film was denied a release on the grounds that it dwelt too much on the deeds of desperate individuals and not enough on the guiding hand of the Party. Conscience was not screened to the public until 1989. Less overtly “poetic” than the other titles on this list, its “ideologically suspect” concern for the experiences of ordinary, rural Ukrainians make it nonetheless an important document of its time.


The White Bird Marked with Black (dir. Yuri Ilyenko, 1971)

Like Ivchenko’s Annychka and Denysenko’s Conscience, Yuri Ilyenko’s The White Bird Marked with Black is a Second World War film. But to describe it as such almost does a disservice to its freewheeling imagination. In what is certainly his masterpiece, Ilyenko pushes the visual exuberance and historical scope of poetic cinema as far as possible. Set in the region of Bukovina, on the border between Ukraine and Romania, the film follows the Zvonars, a family of poor musicians, as personal and geopolitical crises collide across the course of the tumultuous 1940s. Romanian and German occupiers, Ukrainian nationalists, and communist partisans struggle for control as romance blossoms and withers. The camera swoops and swoons, the narrative is often interrupted by dance, music, and folkloric tableaux, and the dialogue has a lyrical, hyperreal quality.

Ilyenko suffered at the hands of the censors more than most of his contemporaries. After making his name as Parajanov’s cinematographer on Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, his first two directorial efforts were shelved until the 1980s: A Well for the Thirsty (1965) and The Eve of Ivan Kupala (1968). White Bird was denounced at the 24th Congress of the Communist Party of Ukraine as “the most harmful movie that has ever been made in Ukraine” but was nonetheless sent by First Secretary Petro Shelest to the Moscow Film Festival, where it won first prize. Harangued by the authorities, Ilyenko eventually emigrated to Yugoslavia, although he soon returned and by the 1980s had achieved a level of respectability within the Soviet system. The director’s turn towards ugly, far-right nationalism in later life should not overshadow the achievements of his early career.

Watch The White Bird Marked with Black on Klassiki now.

The White Bird Marked with Black (dir. Yuri Ilyenko, 1971)

The Lost Letter (dir. Borys Ivchenko, 1972)

This list would not be complete without some mention of Mykola Hohol ­– known to most as Nikolai Gogol. A Ukrainian who wrote in Russian and gained fame in the imperial capital St Petersburg, the life of Gogol/Hohol speaks to the uneasy (and often forced) intertwining of the two nation’s cultures – a topic now debated with fresh urgency. One of the founding fathers of nineteenth-century Russophone literature, Gogol/Hohol was a frequently adapted favourite of Soviet filmmakers. Where Russian directors tended to mine his work for cartoonish, folk-kitsch comedy (Aleksandr Rou’s The Night Before Christmas, Kropachyov and Yershov’s Viy), the poetic cinema crowd saw in his grotesque, proto-modernist takes on Ukrainian folklore the pre-history of their folk modernist icons. Based on the eponymous novella from Gogol/Hohol’s 1832 collection Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Ivchenko’s Lost Letter stars the irrepressible Ivan Mykolaichuk as a Zaporizhian Cossack and is full to bursting with the author’s trademark devils, comic digressions, and bawdy folk humour.

Like the other most significant poetic cinema adaptation of Gogol/Hohol’s work – Yuri Ilyenko’s The Eve of Ivan Kupala (1968) ­­– Ivchenko’s film was banned on release. By the mid-1970s, the first wave of Ukrainian poetic cinema had broken. But its radical reimagining of national identity, and the neglected world it had so thrillingly captured, could not be denied.

Explore our full collection of classic and contemporary Ukrainian cinema here.