December 6, 2016

Silent Ukrainian Film, Considered Lost, Is Found in Germany

Pigs Are Always Pigs (Pupky Station), a silent comedy produced at the Ukrainfilm Odesa Film Studio in 1930 by director Khanan Shmain, was long considered lost. Last year, the Russian film scholar Piotr Bagrov discovered the film in the Bundescarchiv German Federal Archives. The director of the Bundesarchiv contacted Mr. Ivan Kozlenko, the director on the Oleksander Dovzhenko National Film Archive in Kyiv in February 2015 with the offer to transfer the seven reels of film, both positive and negative prints, that were in their collection to Ukraine. It was arranged for the film to be sent by diplomatic post. Pigs arrived in Ukraine on August 22.
The return of Pigs is the third great triumph toward reaching the goal of enriching our film archives with the rarest exemplars of early Ukrainian cinema. Petro Chardynin's Taras Triasylo (1926), a film that was believed to have been lost up until the mid-1990s, was returned to Ukraine in 2014, and Mykhailo Kaufman's A Novel Expedition (1931) was introduced into scholarly circles last year.
Breaking the news on his FB page, Ivan Kozlenko notes that "Pigs is an unbelievably witty, dynamic comedy that simultaneously makes fun of Soviet bureaucracy, formalism pushed to the limits of the absurd through utter mayhem and sabotage, anti-intellectualism, and provincialism far from the historical challenges of the age. The spirit of the film is similar to that of Mykola Shpykovsky's philistine comedies, especially his legendary Self-Seeker (Shkurnyk, 1929), which was aimed at an immanent critique of the new Soviet life. Taken together, the two films form a separate body of early Ukrainian satirical comedies."
Khanan Shmain is a completely forgotten, original director of the Les Kurbas school. In fall 1921 when the Kyiv Drama Theater (Kyivdramte) moved to Bila Tserkva, the 19-year-old Khanan joined the theater's dramatic arts studio. From 1923 to 1928 he worked in the Berezil director's laboratory and assisted Kurbas with a series of productions. In 1930, Shmain moved to Odesa where he began working at the film studio. That same the year Khanan welcomed a son, Illia, who would later become a famous theologian and Orthodox priest.
Pigs Are Always Pigs was Shmain's full-length directorial debut. In 1936 he made his most famous movie at the Kyiv film studio, One Time in Summer (Yakos' ulitku)a comedy based on a script by Ilf and Petrov featuring Ihor Ilyinsky in the main role. The film's success made his colleagues jealous, especially the newly arrived Russian directors who were supposed to "stand in for" the almost fully repressed Ukrainian film professionals.
Shmain's granddaughter, culture and Jewish studies scholar Anna Shmaina-Vielikanova, had this to say about her grandfather: "This was his most famous film, after which Pyriev 'ate' him. When Les Kurbas was executed, he and his family had to leave immediately, which is how he ended up in Moscow." The story of Shmain's miraculous rescue in German captivity during the war is also very strange: "When the war began, he joined the Moscow militia in the very first days. And he immediately was captured. Some amazing guys from Bila Tserkva who remembered his father, Moisei Shmain, a confectioner, hid him during the selections for three years in a row."
Since the Dovzhenko Center unfortunately does not currently have the resources to systematically study film collections abroad, discoveries such as Pigs occur rarely and mostly by accident. Some, such as the Czech, former Yugoslav, German, French, and Japanese collections, without a doubt, still hold quite a few Ukrainian silent films today believed to be lost. Finding them from time to time can fundamentally change our present ideas about early Ukrainian cinema. In any case, comedies are perhaps the worst preserved genre of the Ukrainian silent period: most trenchantly broadcasting all the flaws of the Soviet totalitarian system, they were the first to be banned and often never even made it to the screen. Today we know of just five surviving Ukrainian comedies. Beyond a shadow of doubt, Pigs is one of the best.
Ivan Kozlenko, Director
the Oleksander Dovzhenko National Film Archive, Kyiv, Ukraine
translation from Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella

Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia University© 2015. For more information please contact Yuri Shevchuk