In April-May 2012, a retrospective of films by Ukrainian sculptor, playwriter and one of the pioneers of Ukrainian cinema Ivan Kavaleridze was shown in Kyiv film theatre, one of the most beautiful cinemas in Kyiv, in honor of the director’s 125th anniversary. The retrospective included six films directed by Kavaleridze: Perekop, Koliyivshchyna, Prometheus, Natalka Poltavka, Skovoroda, and The Prostitute, five of which he had also written. What is curious about Kavaleridze is that he is one of the most prominent and at the same time underestimated Ukrainian filmmakers. On the one hand he was compared to titans of the Renaissance; he was the first director to make a Ukrainian historical film and a musical; he was the pioneer of Ukrainian sound film. Kavaleridze managed to live and work through tsarist and Soviet times and survived Nazi occupation, during which he was the cultural department of the City council, to die peacefully in his home at the age of 91.
And nonetheless, Ivan Kavaleridze’s place in Ukrainian culture is rather an outsider one. In the public discourse “Kavaleridze” is a half-forgotten sculptor, quite rarely mentioned as a filmmaker. This is largely due to the fact that the place of poet, prophet and martyr in Ukrainian national narrative is occupied by Oleksandr Dovzhenko. However, Kavaleridze could successfully compete for a place in the pantheon of Ukrainian cinematic icons.
Having gained his first experience in cinema as a make-up artist in pre-revolutionary times (movies of the Russian Golden Series), Kavaleridze debuted as a director with the film Rain (Etchings to the Haidamak History, 1929), which became one of the most controversial Ukrainian film texts of the late 1920s. In his memoirs Kavaleridze described Rain as an attempt to unite sculpture and cinema: the film was shot in a pavilion on a black velvet background, while the trees were made from soil in order to control light and shade. The leading Ukrainian film magazine of the time Kino called Rain one of the most controversial Ukrainian films along with Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal. The avant-garde Rain became a target of the party leaders’ criticism and was soon withdrawn from distribution. It is still not clear if any copies of Rain survived till our times, so search for them became a quest for Ukrainian film critics and archive keepers.
The earliest Kavaleridze’s film which partially survived and was included in the retrospective is Perekop. Even though this epic experimental work was based on historical events – the victory of Red Army in the Perekop operation (1920), after which Wrangel's troops (monarchists) were expatriated to Constantinople, its transgressive vector was rather futuristic and referred to extermination of the kulaks and fulfillment of the 5-year plan.
Within the retrospective Kavaleridze’s most famous films Koliyivshchyna (1931) and Prometheus (1936) were shown for the first time in several decades. They were created as two first parts of a trilogy about three hundred years of liberation struggle in Ukraine. But the trilogy was never to be finished – Prometheus was accused of naturalism, antisocial character, as well as misuse of vulgar social patterns and withdrawn from distribution, forcing Kavaleridze to abandon historical cinema and start working on the first film in a synthetic genre described as the film-opera – actually, one of the first Soviet-Ukrainian musicals. His screen version of the famous play Natalka Poltavka (1936, also shown within the retrospective) was also released in USA, and the remained on the screen of the Roosevelt Film Theater in New York for three weeks, competing with the American version by Georges Ulmer.
Two Kavaleridze’s late films concluded the retrospective:Hryhorii Skovoroda (1959) and The Prostitute (1961). Hryhorii Skovoroda was shot after more than ten years of postwar obstruction and prohibition to work in cinema (Kavaleridze was accused of collaboration with the Nazis). Still, he was interested in the biography of the most prominent Ukrainian 18th century philosopher Skovoroda for his whole life, not only as a film-maker, but primarily as a sculptor, as evidenced by numerous sketches of the monuments to the wandering philosopher, some of which he was able to implement (the monuments in Lokhvytsya (1922) and Kyiv (1977). However, Skovodroda portrayed by Kavleridze had little to do with the real historical figure and belonged to all those constructed images of the revolutionary fighters, so popular in the Soviet public discourse. And, finally, the director’s last film The Prostitute featuring the future Soviet star Lyudmila Gurchenko was based on the social novel by the literary classic Panas Myrnyi. The remastered version of this explicit critique of 19th century class and gender tensions was shown on big screen at the opening of the retrospective, which attracted around 300 spectators.