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24 June, 2011  ▪  Serhiy Trymbach

The Cinema Poet

Ivan Mykolaychuk was an actor of a magical kind. He embodied specific aesthetics and ethics which directed us into the depth of culture and towards self-awareness as members of unique body and soul of the nation.

I met him in late 1979 when he worked on a literary script about the composer Mykola Lysenko. We were in the Writers’ House in Irpin. Mykolaychuk worked together with Ivan Drach. He would come to Drach’s place and they would sit at a luxurious table with a green-shaded lamp. Next to it was a neat pile of new books. I remember spotting the collected works of the renowned Russian literary critic and culture expert Mikhail Bakhtin there. All I needed from Mykolaychuk was an interview for the Moscow-based magazine Isskusstvo kino. But the interview somehow was not moving along, even though the editorial office had OK’d my bold intention (by the standards of the time) to talk about poetic cinema and its future.

So I took a different tack. And we started talking as people habitually did back then: about everything at once, inexplicably jumping from one subject to another and without focusing any one in particular. I remember that Mykolaychuk spoke about the future of a film which he and Drach had been commissioned by Tymofiy Levchuk to write the script for as possibly his own: “He may change his mind.” Drach had just completed his first film, Babylon XX, as a director and was testing many different things to see how they fit him. “I wish I could complete just one episode about Shevchenko’s casket being brought to Kyiv,” he said.


Death was his topic. He was working with it from the first movie role in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors - Remember the finale when Ivan Paliychuk’s dead body shook at the funeral as it was pushed by his fellow villagers? Then Mykolaychuk played Poet in Check Your Watches (script by Lina Kostenko and Arkadiy Dobrovskyi). The film was directed by a novice, Vasyl Illiashenko. The young man went to war and died. When they came to an episode in which his protagonist had to be buried, Mykolaychuk decided he wanted to experience what it was like to be in a casket. So he asked the director to permit a “real” burying act. And he did.

So they even put the cover on, hammered in the nails, lowered the casket into the grave and threw a few spadefuls of dirt on top. And they recorded it on film. Somehow I found it hard to believe this story, but Illiashenko assured me it was true. “We took the casket out of the grave and pulled out the nails. He was there, white as a sheet. I asked him: ‘How about another take, Ivan?’ ‘No, that was enough,’ he replied.

Illiashenko’s film production was ended and he never finished it. The CC CPSU commission found in the part he completed many malicious elements that were hostile to the socialist system. He and Dovzhenko Film Studio Director Vasyl Tsvirkun were called onto the carpet by the Politburo and received a dressing down from Petro Shelest, the then ruler of Ukraine. The material was burned on orders from above. Then they started over with another director, Leonid Osyka, and produced a notable film, Who Will Return Will Love to the End. A different actor was selected to play the protagonist, because Mykolaychuk flatly refused in protest. Kostenko demanded that her name be removed from the credits.

Mykolaychuk was interested in the magic, ritual component of death rather than the act itself. In the 1960s, cinema found this magic component and already kept to it. The ritual absorbed a colossal tradition of a people learning about fundamental manifestations of life on earth and life thereafter. In the finale of Shadows, the departure of the protagonist and the dead body itself are included in a ritual which thus performs a unifying, integrating function. In contrast, communist mythology portrayed Bolshevik characters as dying a martyr’s death for the sake of the collective to enable it to continue marching forward to the bright future. It led to the use of bombastic language and plastic, audio and noise overload. Ukrainian poetic cinema, as it is still known, portrays death as a routine rather than exalted thing. And it is only a human being that can somewhat reformat the moment itself by sprinkling it with ritual magic. For example, when Poet dies in Babylon XX, a village wise man, Fabian (Mykolaychuk), appears next to him and speaks loftily about how extraordinary his death is. Likewise, Ruzia (Raisa Nedashkivska) waits for other villagers to die to perform the appropriate ritual act. However, these are personal acts or actions that do not shake the world. As Fabian, for example, dug a grave in the cemetery, he immediately prepared another one.


Our conversation in Irpin took place five years after the Plenum of Ukraine’s CC CPSU put an end to poetic cinema condemning it for its ethnographic nature and love for old times – for nationalism, in other words. Communists detested individuality and national history as they moved toward their idealized vision of a unified world. They did not stop to think why foreign countries took such a liking to this film trend and did not have a clue that it fit well with the evolution of European and world art and literature.

Western avant-garde of the early 20th century was also infatuated with all kinds of autochthonous cultures and their mysticism. The closely related concept of magical realism emerged in the mid-1920s and became a hallmark of Latin American literature in the 1960s through the 1980s winning it worldwide renown. Poetic, or more exactly mythic-poetic, cinema built on high-quality works by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Nikolai Gogol, Vasyl Stefanyk, Vasyl Zemliak and others who invested personal effort into processing and refining popular culture. The key plot here is a duel between an individual and patriarchal collective.

In Shadows Ivan rose against the age-old custom of family feud. Leonid Osyka’s Stone Cross and Yuriy Illenko’s The Eve of Ivana Kupala and other masterpieces of Ukrainian poetic cinema tell stories in a similar vein. Party bigwigs did not like them, either – they had a gut feeling that there was a dangerous hidden message in these films. For communist society was a patriarchal one with its chief and immovable canons of collective behavior and even collective dreams.


Mykolaychuk dazzled by the surgical accuracy of his reflections and insightful understanding of national and worldwide cultural context. It was from him that I learned that poetic cinema borrowed their plentitude of plasticity and psychological tension from the Ukrainian Baroque and its folk component. This motif is present in Mykolaychuk’s scripts, which, unfortunately, never turned into films: a person is willing to have his routine life shattered but will not give up his individual independence.

He sought to define the essence of what he was doing. Gogol and Bulgakov were Baroque and had an influence on Latin American novelists (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Miguel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier and others) whom we all admired at the time. Saint Andrew’s Church in Kyiv is also Baroque. Mykolaychuk read out loud an interview with Carpentier for me in which he speaks about Gogol’s influence on Latin American writers: “ ‘You don’t know who Gogol is?’ the writer asked a journalist. ‘Go to Kyiv and look at Saint Andrew’s Church and you will learn everything about our novels and their origins.’”

Mykolaychuk beamed as he said these words. He added that Ukrainian filmmakers were being accused of little short of provinciality and "national otherness", while people abroad perceived their art differently. We have an ancient and powerful cultural tradition – and we are being beaten for it? The government is much more pleased to see the Ukrainian nation as simpletons sitting still in their hamlets.

Mykolaychuk was a man of world culture, and he both declared and embodied it in his art. May we be wise enough to grasp as much today and stop gabbing about a “European choice.” The most distinguished Ukrainian artists are already in Europe and the world and have been there for a long time now.

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