Studio Hack to Inimitable Auteur: The Strange Path of Parajanov's Early Films

A Berlin retrospective reveals the rare, uneven early films by the great Armenian-Georgian director of "The Color of Pomegranates".
Redmond Bacon


After the staggering success of Shadows of The Forgotten Ancestors (1965), which won awards in London, New York, Mar Del Plata and Montreal, Sergei Parajanov was thrust onto the world stage as one of the most original filmmakers in the business. Depicting the conventions of the Hutsul people of the Carpathian mountains, it was a brave new step in Soviet filmmaking due to its restless camerawork, intense subjectivity, and ambiguous tone. The positive reception would inform his later work, a triumph of the local, celebrating ancient customs and dress in a visually dazzling fashion.

To celebrate his legacy, Arsenal Kino in Berlin, supported by the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia, presented all eight of Parajanov’s feature films this fall, allowing audiences to see how the acclaimed filmmaker changed from studio-tied hack to inimitable auteur. When talking about Parajanov’s filmmaking and style, critics will invariably focus on his last four films—Forgotten Ancestors, The Color of Pomegranates (1969), The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985) and Ashik Kerib (co-directed with Dodo Abashidze, 1988). They are personal, visually unique and difficult to process for non-Western viewers, coming from a place of deep respect for the local customs and traditions of the Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Ukrainian people. 

His first four films however, made at the Dovzhenko Film Studios in Kyiv—named after the influential Ukrainian director—were flattened for general Soviet consumption, working from State-approved scripts and dubbed into Russian from Ukrainian and Moldovan. At times they feel like the work of a completely different director. Parajanov himself disowned these movies as he didn't have full control over their content. In his manifesto “Perpetual Motion,” written after the success of Shadows of The Forgotten Ancestors, he writes that: “Directing is a deceptive profession. It is not as independent as it sometimes seems, because often you have to embody on the screen someone else's theme, other people's thoughts, other people's images. And if you have good culture and skill, you can do quite good things. In those years I did not have such skill.” Yet as Parajanov himself reflected, his best skills “sometimes, very rarely…happened to break through onto the screen.”

These four films display the tension between Soviet ideals and regional themes. An Armenian born in Georgia who made the vast majority of his films in Ukraine, the Trans-Caucasian director was always more interested in the particular than Stalin-inspired ideals of collectivism and the hero-worker. For example, his lost graduate short film, Moldavian Tale (1951), sounds more in line with the ambition of his later work. In the tale, a young shepherd’s way of life is threatened by an outside force who steals the only sheep left in the village, and only the song of a magic flute can save the day. Based on the Moldovan folk story by Emilian Bucov, it was an ambitious attempt to meld the mythic and the local, with its titular character played by a life-size puppet filmed on location.1 When Parajanov was signed up to the Dovzhenko studio however, the feature length adaptation, renamed Andreisch (1954), turned it into something far more generic. While it shares the bucolic Carpathian setting of Forgotten Ancestors, its special effects (including flying horses and magically disappearing villains) and kitschy sets feels closer to 1940s Hollywood Technicolor productions such as The Thief of Bagdad.

The next three films—tackling the farm comedy, war melodrama and atheist propaganda filmplay like an overview of 50s and 60s Soviet cinema in general. With the collective farm comedy First Lad (1959), Parajanov got one step closer to fully expressing his love for Ukrainian customs; sneaking in traditionally Ukrainian images of pageantry, song and dance, into a highly conventional plot. Soviet kolkhozy (collective farm) romances often share similarities with American campus comedies, the close proximity of men and women allowing for unusual types to bristle against one another. First Lad follows these conventions perfectly, culminating in a football match where the anti-hero (played by the rugged Grigori Karpov) proves his love via successfully goalkeeping for his team. Stylistically, Parajanov is indebted to ideas of Soviet montage theory, which prioritized the collective over the individual. The images of men and women engaging in sports is reminiscent Dziga Vertov's A Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Nonetheless, the use of montage is watered down here, demonstrating how the style was codified by the Stalin regime in the 1940s and 1950s to fit within the realm of the social message picture. Despite the difficult work in the fields, the landscape is bountiful, and these workers are never seen without a smile on their face, singing songs about how “our destiny is our collective.” It may be propaganda for a failed economic system, but it contains a certain sunny charm.  

Ukrainian Rhapsody (1961) is easily Parajanov’s best pre-Ancestors work, playing like Vincente Minnelli directing The Cranes Are Flying (1957). It’sa delirious WW2 melodrama that transcends the conventions of its screenplay by visual brilliance alone. Using a train journey as a means to explore singer Oksanka’s (Olga Reus-Petrenko) memories, it moves between a singing contest in Paris (filmed in Lviv) to the devastation left by the Nazi invasion. It is full of grand images unlike anything else in Parajanov’s oeuvre, such as a rendition of Moonlight Sonata in a rubble-strewn theatre, a tank crashing into a farmhouse, and a baby using a Nazi helmet as a seat. Like this year’s Cold War, the music of the mountains forms a thread that ties the narrative together, showing the importance of maintaining art in the midst of such terror. Its characters are typical of the post-Stalinist thaw, sympathetic and flawed, trying their best to survive in a brutal world.

If Ukrainian Rhapsody transcended propaganda, Flower on the Stone (1962) is consumed by it. Taking place in the coal-rich Donbass region, it is hardline atheist propaganda at its most odious. Depicting a community infiltrated by a Pentecostal sect, it shows these figures as raving lunatics, attempting to destroy the moral fabric of this conventional Soviet community. The influence of Sergei Eisenstein is obvious throughout Flower on The Stone, with its endless, gloomy montages of men in the mines and transmission towers signifying the immense, godlike power of Soviet industry, one scene even soundtracked by Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Lenin’s quote that “Coal is the veritable bread of industry”is even thrown in for good measure. A lot of this isn’t Parajanov’s fault. He was asked to finish the film after its original director, Anatoli Slesarenko, was sent to jail for his role in the death of actress Inna Kiriliuk-Burdechenko, who died of burns from a mishap that occurred during the film’s production. Parajanov himself thought the finished product was terrible, referring to it as “the turd on the stone.”  

Flowers on the Stone would be his last true compromise, with his later work displaying a sense of freedom perhaps unparalleled in Soviet cinema. The epiphany came upon seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut Ivan’s Childhood (1961). He said of Tarkovsky that he was “the first to use images of dreams and memories to present allegory and metaphor.” But Parajanov paid a heavy price for abandoning state-approved fare. While Forgotten Ancestors was generally well-received by the Soviet authorities, as it was based on the respected novella by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, his follow-up The Color of Pomegranates was banned in the Soviet Union, leading to his eventual imprisonment in 1973 on trumped-up charges of rape and homosexuality. Even upon his release he was declared persona non grata until the relaxing of the rules from glasnost allowed him to make his final two films, The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib. His poor health, caused by the harshness of prison conditions, led to his death in 1990 at the age of 66.

Writing on Soviet cinema as a whole, Parajanov stated that “We impoverish ourselves thinking only in cinematic categories…I am more willing to communicate with artists, composers, than with my colleagues in the profession.”This comment seems more pointed at censors and producers than cinematographers and actors, displaying how a state-sponsored system can so brutally limit creativity. The story of so many Soviet filmmakers is the tragedy of missed opportunities. There’s not only the great work that exists, but the work that couldn’t be made or was released in a distorted and censored form. Imagine what Tarkovsky or Alexei German could have come up with working free from government constraints. With this in mind, Parajanov’s latter work seems all that more brave, considering the middling output of the Dovzhenko years. It begs the depressing thought: how many potentially great Soviet filmmakers didn’t have Parajanov’s courage and were left directing compromised state-sponsored fare? 

1. The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, James Steffen, 2013

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