Soviet silent-era cinema usually conjures images of the perspective-bending stylistics of its most famous maker, Sergei Eisenstein, whose startling camera angles, extreme close-ups, and breakneck rhythms have come to define the entire epoch. But among the Soviet films that survive today several were made outside the Moscow–St. Petersburg axis and were distinctive in other ways. The All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration (VUFKU), with studios in Odessa and Kyiv, operated from 1922 to 1930 with an autonomy not shared by those making movies closer to the Kremlin. A leading writer of the Ukrainian literary renaissance that flourished in the early 1920s even gained a following for advocating an “Away from Moscow” approach to art.
VUFKU was home to Oleksandr Dovzhenko, where he made his trilogy about Ukrainian history—Zvenyhora, Arsenal, and Earth. But Russian filmmakers also took creative refuge at this other film factory, where the regional government provided a cushion against Moscow’s interference. Viktor Turin, unusual among Soviets for having worked five years in Hollywood, found it a welcoming place to direct The Struggle of Giants, which melds the avant-garde with the audience-pleasing into Bolshevik-approved outcomes, before making the film he is most identified with, Turksib, a poetic documentary about the building of the Siberian railway. More well known but much less acknowledged as a VUFKU filmmaker is Dziga Vertov, who shot his marvelously imaginative (and devoid of Bolshevik aims) Man with a Movie Camera in Odessa, Kyiv, and Kharkiv. From this relatively safe distance hails another film, one that requires an expansion of our idea of Soviet silent-era cinema, Heorhii Stabovyi’s Dva Dni, or Two Days, the first Ukrainian film to be distributed in the United States.
A longtime doorman stays behind to safeguard his employer’s mansion (and a stash of valuables) when the family flees the coming Bolsheviks—an option he does not share as a poor working stiff, nor theoretically needs as a member of the proletariat. When the young son (Valeriy Hakkebush) is left behind in the tumult the doorman (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) hides him, caring for him, at the beginning, with the tenderness of family. Inevitably, Bolsheviks arrive and things get complicated as the invaders convert the mansion into their barracks with the boy hiding out in the doorman’s cramped attic quarters. Things get more complicated still, as the leader of the band of rebels is the doorman’s very own estranged son (Sergey Minin). The basic plot outline doesn’t explain why an American distributor would feel confident enough about finding an audience for the film, a microcosm of the dialectic so vigorously scrutinized by Communists. Then you experience its strassefilm shadows and its crime-film pacing, and the usual vocabulary doesn’t apply. It couldn’t have hurt, either, that Two Days does not quite toe the Moscow party line.
Two Days falls into a small category of Soviet films that pit parent against child in the great revolutionary struggle. In Pudovkin’s Mother, the title character betrays Bolshevism to save her activist son, until reeducated through strife, she becomes a more fervent joiner. In The Night Coachman, by Ukrainian Heorhii Tasin, a father is caught between his livelihood, dependent on cab-hailing White Russians, and his daughter who helps run a clandestine rebel printing press in their house. But according to a Ukrainian critic at the time, Two Days offered something beyond experimental epiphanies: “Tangled pompousness gave way to clear simplicity both in the narrative and the staging. There is movement in this film; it is interesting and expressive.”
Big revolutionary themes give way for a personal story whose rigorously slim dramatic arc would be the envy of any Poverty Row programmer. But, it has a richness to it, in the visuals, shot in shades of German Expressionism by Dovzhenko’s chosen cinematographer Danylo Demutskyi, clearly influenced by the street films coming out of Berlin. And, a depth in the portrayal of the doorman whose struggle with loyalty, integrity, dignity, and love renders moot any political agenda. The actor was praised by an American reviewer, who conferred on him what could be considered the highest compliment possible at the time: “Zamychkovskyi, playing an old servant, delivers an expressively national and impressive portrayal. He resembles Emil Jannings in his thoughtful and detailed acting.” At times he can seem indistinguishable from the downtrodden doorman in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, but director Stabovyi is less inclined to give his actor the full frame in which to emote.
VUFKU cultivated a broad internationalism, led by a Futurist poet who had the vision (and leave) to invite fellow risk-takers, like Les Kurbas, founder of modern Ukrainian theater who had used lighting effects to mimic close-ups and fade-ins onstage. According to Ivan Kozlenko, head of the Dovzhenko National Film Centre in Kyiv, there was a director from Turkey as well as German cinematographers and production designers, one of whom, Heinrich Beisenherz, did the sets for Two Days. They joined the freshly trained local talent and pre-Revolutionary holdovers to produce a sizeable roster of features with enough first-class entertainments to be a force on the world market. According to Kozlenko, by 1926, VUFKU was second only to the United States in supplying films to Weimar-era Germany with which it shared a cinematic and humanist affinity. By 1929, Kozlenko says, VUFKU’s output had slowed but its reach expanded, into other European countries as well as the U.S. and Japan.
It didn’t last. And now we can deploy familiar vocabulary. The coming of sound made things much more expensive and threatened to grind to a stillness the exalted kinetics of Soviet cinema. But graver than any technological threat was Moscow’s iron fist tightening across Mother Russia and its satellites. Like so many authoritarians before him, and apparently after, Stalin had his eye trained on the Ukraine, with its strong national identity, rich culture, and fertile wheat fields. With forced collectivization of an almost completely rural Ukraine, Stalin implemented an administrative famine (“Holodomor” in Ukrainian), starving to death an estimated ten million people to bring the region to heel, one of the grimmest entries, in terms of sheer numbers, in the twentieth-century catalog of genocides.
Artists of all kinds were also brought to heel, and the VUFKU’s brief heyday as a haven for its own and artists-in-exile came to an end. Two Days remarkably hung onto some favor, getting a new score in 1932, but it was soon slapped with the epithet “petty bourgeois” and disappeared for so long that it missed out on consideration for the canon—until its 2011 restoration by the Dovzhenko National Film Centre. Worse things than that happened, of course. Stalin rounded up and executed Ukraine’s folk artists and seemed to spare cinema only a little. Two Days cinematographer Demutskyi, perhaps because of his close association with Dovzhenko, was falsely accused of sabotage, arrested, and shipped off to Central Asia. According to Kozlenko, other Dovzhenko comrades “were arrested or shot in the years 1937–38, including the actors Mykola Nademskii, who became famous for his role in Earth, and Symon Shahaida, who played the hero in Aerograd.” The “Away from Moscow” proponent, Mykola Khvyliovyi, committed suicide in 1933 amid the terror of Stalin’s selective persecution.
As Stalin well knew, political control is not enough. Art, especially in a popular form like cinema, can inspire dissent and must also be restricted. But doing so comes with a risk. In its nuanced depiction of what happens to the little people when the big forces of history collide Two Days has a lesson for anyone willing to heed it. Stripped of everything held dear, a person can choose to gather whatever strength remains and burn the whole thing down with him when he goes.
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by Stephen Horne