Sovist’ (Conscience) – A Rediscovered Showpiece of Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s
By Oleksii Isakov
The summer 2023 in Berlin is marked with a special film event that is taking place for the first time. It is all about Ukrainian Dreams, a retrospective of Ukrainian films organised from 8th July to 27th August 2023 by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in cooperation with Dovzhenko Centre, Ukraine’s largest film archive. The project aims to decolonise and remap Ukrainian cinema by emphasizing its position within the global cultural context and by bringing the works of Ukrainian directors out of the shadow of the mostly hegemonic Soviet and Russian past. Taking into account Russia’s full-scale imperialist war against Ukraine resulting in daily physical destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage, this retrospective proves to be more timely and vital now than ever. Nevertheless, a part of its decisive goal, to emancipate Ukrainian cinema, fades when the works of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are screened and analysed at Arsenal at the same time, despite the ongoing war.
The programme of Ukrainian Dreams covers nine films dated between 1927 and 2001 and produced at two main Ukrainian films studios, in Kyiv and Odesa. It represents a wide cinematographic palette starting with Ukrainian avant-garde of the 1920s (Oleksandr Dovzhenko), through Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (Sergei Parajanov, Volodymyr Denysenko, Yuriy Illyenko), and ending with a perestroika film by Yuriy Illyenko and Ukraine’s early independence films by Serhiy Rakhmanin and Kira Muratova. In addition, the films by Mykhailo Karyukov/Oleksandr Kozyr and Roman Balayan represent two in-between periods respectively, Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw of the late 1950s as well as Brezhnev Stagnation Era of the early 1980s. Besides that, and even more importantly, the programme also involves a number of Ukrainian film critics and in some cases even directors of the screened films or their family members. Their introductory and interpretive voices significantly help to understand the broader historical, political and cultural context of the time when the films were created.
Sovist’ (1968), directed by Volodymyr Denysenko (1930-1984), is one of those films from Ukrainian Dreams that certainly deserve a closer look. By the time it was made, Denysenko had quite a dissident past already. Having completed two years of studies in Kyiv as a theatre actor and transferred to the directing department, he was accused of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism – quite a standard allegation for any effort to express Ukrainian identity different from the official Soviet vision of it – and imprisoned for five years. After being pardoned and released, he managed to finish his studies as a film director and even went to Moscow to become Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s assistant for the planned film Poem of the Sea. Due to Dovzhenko’s sudden death in 1956, Denysenko returned to Kyiv and started working at the Kyiv Film Studio which one year later was re-named after Dovzhenko, one of the most famous Ukrainian directors by now.
With its emotional authenticity, minimalised dialogues and focus on individual instead of collective characters, Sovist’ is usually considered to represent the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s. Rooted in the aesthetic tradition of Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s silent films of the 1920s, this cinematic movement united young, mostly dissident filmmakers of the Kyiv Film Studio in their aspiration for new expressive methods as well as in opposition to the widespread style of socialist realism, a burdensome heritage from the Stalinist times.
The plot of the film touches upon the rather sensitive topic of German occupation of Ukrainian lands during the Second World War. A young Ukrainian partisan, Vasyl’, first attempts and later on succeeds to kill a German officer, apparently as a revenge for shooting prisoners of war displayed in the opening scene. An intense hunt for the fugitive follows through almost the whole rest of the film. In its culmination, the village where Vasyl’ originally comes from is caught in a dilemma: either they give away the assassin by dawn or all the inhabitants will be shot dead. Will the villagers collaborate with the occupants to save their own lives? And how would the young partisan feel if dozens of people get killed because they are not willing to betray their fellow countryman who fights against the invaders?
This psychological struggle and moral choices of the civil population living under German occupation are meticulously portrayed throughout the whole film, although the topic was mostly taboo in the post-war Soviet Union. The strikingly beautiful black-and-white aesthetics of the film, together with repeated close-ups of human faces and thrilling soundtracks by Krzysztof Penderecki and Myroslav Skoryk, two prominent Polish and Ukrainian composers of the 20th century, increase the emotional tension.
Camouflaged as a student film project at the time when Volodymyr Denysenko was teaching at Kyiv State I. K. Karpenko-Karyi Theatre Institute, Sovist’ was banned directly after its production in 1968. According to Oleksandr Denysenko, Volodymyr Denysenko’s son whose recorded interview is shown directly after the film screening, there were two main reasons for imposing strict censorship on the film. First, a leading role of the Communist Party was completely absent; and second, Ukrainians were not depicted at traitors or collaborators with the Nazi regime, a widespread myth supported and spread by the Russo-centric Soviet propaganda. As a result, several copies of Sovist’ were destroyed throughout the following years and only one copy survived. Luckily, it was rediscovered in the late 1980s, repaired by the Ukrainian director Roman Balayan at the Dovzhenko Film Studio and finally screened to the public in Kyiv in 1991. Twenty years later, in 2011, Dovzhenko Centre restored the film that has now made it to Berlin.
The plot and its development acquire an even deeper meaning when the audience learns after the screening from Oleksandr Denysenko that his father actually underwent the same experience in his home village of Medvyn, around 140 km away from Kyiv, where he stayed during the war. According to his words, the villagers of Medvyn were prosecuted by the German occupation government mainly for hiding Jewish families in their homes as well as for the active resistance mounted by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
Another interesting fact: As mentioned by Oleksandr, Volodymyr Denysenko was not a big fan of the term ‘poetic cinema’. He expressed the opinion that cinema, at its core, cannot be non-poetic and referred to Sovist’, rather ironically, as ‘Ukrainian Steppe Cinema’. With its representation of Ukrainian fertile fields and lush fruit gardens that are strongly reminiscent of Dovzhenko´s nature scenes in his most famous film Earth (1930), Sovist’ seems to match this descriptive neologism pretty well. It also follows the overall trend of searching for new definitions of Ukrainian cinema that was very typical of the Ukrainian cultural environment of the 1960s.
All in all, Sovist’ is a very straightforward and tense film that holds the audience´s attention until the very end. Besides the already mentioned features, it also raises the extremely important topic of Germany´s historical responsibility towards Ukraine, which mostly remains in the margins of the present public debate but definitely deserves further in-depth discussion.
As of 15th August 2023, there are two more upcoming screenings as part of Ukrainian Dreams: Bilyi ptakh z chornoyu oznakoyu/The White Bird Marked with Black (1971, dir. Yuriy Illyenko) on 17th August and Druhoryadni lyudy/Second-class Citizens (2001, dir. Kira Muratova) on 27th August.
 See programme description of Ukrainian Dreams (https://www.arsenal-berlin.de/en/cinema/film-series/ukrainische-traeume)as well as Tarkovsky Revisited (https://www.arsenal-berlin.de/en/cinema/film-series/tarkovskij-revisited) on the Arsenal website.
 The full programme of Ukrainian Dreams includes (chronologically): Zvenyhora (1930, dir. Oleksandr Dovzhenko), Nebo klyche/The Sky Beckons (1959, dir. Mykhailo Karyukov/Oleksandr Kozyr), Tini zabutych predkiv/Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964, dir. Sergei Parajanov), Sovist’/Conscience (1968, dir. Volodymyr Denysenko), Bilyi ptakh z chornoyu oznakoyu/The White Bird Marked with Black (1971, dir. Yuriy Illyenko), Polyoty uvi sni ta nayavu/Flights in Dream and Reality (1982, dir. Roman Balayan), Lebedyne ozero. Zona/Swan Lake. The Zone (1989, dir. Yuriy Illyenko), Lyudyna K (1992, dir. Serhiy Rakhmanin), and Druhoryadni lyudy/Second-class Citizens (2001, dir. Kira Muratova).
About the author
Oleksii Isakov graduated in linguistics and translations studies from Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University in Ukraine and finished his master’s degree in intercultural communication studies at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). Since April 2021, he has been working on his PhD project on literary adaptations in Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s–70s under the supervision of Annette Werberger and Andrii Portnov at Viadrina University.
Oleksii Isakov, Sovist’ (Conscience) – A Rediscovered Showpiece of Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.08.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48353