Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

World after Kira: by 18 films better

Now, when Kira Muratova is gone, one starts sensing the true scale of this figure, which seems to be still unrealized
20 June, 2018 - 15:46

We hope that this text by Dmytro Desiateryk will launch a thorough discussion about what exactly can be considered a product of Ukrainian culture. For example, is the “Ukrainianness” of a cultural product influenced by the language in which it was created? After all, there is still no consensus on this matter, just like before. Even if the answer is available, it is a multi-layered one... We call on you, dear readers, to join the conversation. 

It is unrealized, since a question that should not have arisen anymore is appearing again.


So, it surfaces time and again, even if, fortunately, not as often as before: is Muratova a Ukrainian filmmaker?

Overall, if the creator lives on the territory of Ukraine, shoots films at the expense of the Ukrainian budget with Ukrainian actors, there is nothing left to discuss.

But, apparently, this is not enough to satisfy some of the most enthusiastic guards of the national culture’s purity. For example, Muratova is blamed for making Russian-language films.

Oh well.

When I go to a market near my house, I pass by an agitation tent of the National Corps. I have never heard from the youths standing there (there is a whole brigade of them) and distributing newspapers of that organization as much as one word in Ukrainian.

Language is a means of communication. A tool. A form. With it, one can get completely different results, do entirely different things.

One can, for example, praise the Russian Empire, promote the Kremlin order, and lie on the TV.

One can also give combat orders in the same language as one is fighting separatists in the Donbas.

Viktor Yanukovych spoke fluent Ukrainian, and it is no less fluent when coming from supporters of the approach “things are not so clearcut” and “stop the fratricidal war in eastern Ukraine” (yes, yes, they do exist, and there are not as few of them as we would like).

Is Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s multiple-award-winning film The Tribe less Ukrainian because its characters communicate in a sign language alone? Why is Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s silent film trilogy Zvenigora – Arsenal – Earth called “Ukrainian”? Should the Russian-language film Donbass by Serhii Loznytsia, which voluminously and meticulously shows how the “Russian World” cripples the occupied territories, be removed from our cinema tradition? Does Lars von Trier stop being a Danish director, and Wim Wenders a German one, because they both regularly film in English?

For everyone but civil servants, it is not the language of communication that is important, but what people say in that language and with what consequences.


Muratova’s penultimate film, Melody for a Street Organ (2009), is an ideal example of Ukrainian content of her films. Thus, it is worthwhile to cover it in more detail.

After the death of their mother, Olenka (Olena Kostiuk) and Mykyta (Roman Burlaka) set out on Christmas Eve to find their parents. Evicted and robbed everywhere, frozen and hungry, they pass through all levels of urban chaos, from the railway station through a casino, an auction house and entrances of apartment buildings to a supermarket with its festive atmosphere, only to finally lose each other: Olenka is detained for stealing bread, while Mykyta freezes to death in the attic of a house which is being rebuilt.

Let us start, actually, with the language. Among other components of the polyphony of the film, one of the most interesting is the unprecedented, for Muratova, emphasis on Ukrainian. At first, the children observe a mummers’ procession on a suburban train, with its participants carrying an octagonal star and singing Christmas carol “Good Evening to You.” Then, a station bum (Nina Ruslanova), just as rejected and persecuted as Olenka and Mykyta, explodes with a long monolog: “Our Bethlehem is full of poor, barefoot people in tattered clothes! Where are the Magi? They are carrying gold to the rich...” The foreman of the builders who found the body of Mykyta had berated his employer who did not give him a well-deserved leave and failed to pay the wages on time, and he tells his story in Ukrainian, but reproduces replies of the absent miser in a high disgusting voice speaking Russian. Finally, after a terrible discovery in the attic, the credits are accompanied by New Year carol “The Little Swallow.”

A closer examination reveals that besides Ukrainian speakers, the film features Russian speakers of the same class, and there is neither social nor characteristic difference between the two groups: the ornately-speaking madman in a knitted cap, who watches on as Olenka and Mykyta are robbed by homeless in a railway hangar, a veteran who strives to get into the high comfort room as if he was assaulting the Reichstag, elderly Zoia, standing on the snow-covered stairs in the city at night, who loves “apples, cherries, sweet cherries, strawberries, grapes,” and others. All of them sing songs on the roadsides of a Babylon formed by mixing Odesa and Kyiv, making up the general polyphony of the poor who will eventually enter the promised Kingdom.

There is, however, another element of Ukrainianness that will help us understand the structure of the film.

The procession in the train is a simplified version of the vertep, the folk puppet theater. In today’s Ukraine, companies with stars, in simply decorated costumes, with a minimal repertoire of songs perform predominantly to earn money and foodstuffs for celebration (the vagrant played by Ruslanova complains, among other things, that “they even do not let me join a vertep company”). But now we are talking about a much older genre, namely the vertep drama.

It necessarily includes two planes of the narrative: the biblical story of the birth of Christ and semi-improvised scenes featuring recognizable types: the Gypsy Man and Gypsy Woman, the Zaporozhian Cossack, the Pole, the Muscovite, and the Jew. Herod, who seeks to kill the newborn Christ, is the key antihero, but Death eventually takes away the wicked king. The architecture of the vertep chest recreated this duality of sacred and earthly. The secular life unfolded in the lower part; meanwhile, the upper level, depicting the Bethlehem Cave, hosted only canon plots, including the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Gifts of the Magi.

The puppets and theatrical performance, sufferings of children, religious rituals, and social inequality – all of these long-standing motifs of Muratova’s cinema oeuvre – are linked into a single whole by the vertep. Here all the key elements of the vertep performance are observed: the earthy bustle at the bottom, social plane; characters change in the string of tragicomic scenes; the large number of characters also does not contradict the paradigm of the vertep, which shows primarily figures of the viewer’s own period; numerous songs, monologs, sermons; there is also a superior (literally top) part where the child calms down on the bed; builders, acting as shepherds, come to him and freeze in a mise en scene which resembles the iconography of adoration because of its static nature and poses of the participants; there are even fully matching characters: the Gypsies at the station (they refuse to tell Mykyta’s fortune, only saying “Oh, poor lad!”), the beggars (the vertep’s Savochka the Beggar), the supermarket guards, persecutors of children, who push Mykyta out, to be tormented by underage criminals, and arrest Olenka. All this suggests that the procession in the beginning of the film marks the notional border, on crossing which Olenka and Mykyta find themselves, in a sense, inside the vertep, and bring it into action. At the same time, the canon scenes are immediately introduced by a traveling seller of holiday cards: the Magi and Shepherds, the Holy Family, and King Herod’s Soldiers Massacring the Infants. It is the last card that is picked up by Mykyta, as he chooses his own story and fate.

Having introduced the vertep structure, Muratova subjects it to deconstruction with the same determination as the linear plot of her anti-fairy-tale. The lower boundaries of the puppet house have greatly expanded. Instead of a chorus, we listen to a collective aphasia of mobile-equipped banterers at the station. The sacred part is reduced to verses and inappropriate sermons. There are “shepherds,” but they have no words of respect, only swearing at the miserly employer and nervously hiccupping in the attic. The heavens are empty. The upper level is involved only in the final, where the place of the living infant Christ is taken by the dead – in essence, killed – little kid, also the son of a carpenter. Herod is removed from the frame (to the auditorium?), as the massacre of the young and defenseless will happen just fine without him. God is absent, but Christmas preparations continue. What should have become the beginning of history becomes the end.

The Christian space is timeless, simultaneous: he who lies in the Bethlehem Cave, is immediately crucified. The one who froze to death in the attic is an innocent victim just as much. This also reflects the logic of the vertep, which, according to the observation of the Russian scholar Olga Freidenberg, is genetically linked to the temple box, which was a copy of the tomb and the temple alike: in both cases, the dead man and the (puppet-like) godhead were always placed atop of it and/or on a special raised platform.

Thus, redefining the vertep drama, Muratova does not “steal Christmas” – she just reproduces its other side, diametrically opposed to the festive pathos. Thus, she recovers its initial tragic nature.


In view of the above, it seems that the question of the territorial affiliation of Muratova’s directing legacy comes from a wrong context. First one should ask: what is Ukraine?

The answer has been obvious for the last four years: Ukraine is Europe.

This answer has been bought with blood. Vladimir Putin did not forgive us this answer, and took revenge by occupying 20 percent of our territory. To oppose it means to endanger our own future.

So, again: Ukraine is Europe. But Muratova really was a European director.

On the one hand, the Ukrainianness means joy of life and seeking delight in the transient (the classic example is the poem “A Cherry Orchard by the House”). On the other hand, it also means rejecting any leaders and having constant doubts in authorities and authoritative ideas. Love for a heated discussion (famously described as “three hetmans out of two Ukrainians”). Anarchy as a principle of solidarity and protest. Indestructible sense of humor. In aesthetics, it includes the rejection of imperial literature-centrism in favor of visual richness and looking at the world with wide-open eyes (it was not for nothing that in the autonomous Ukraine of the 17th and 18th centuries, not yet completely subjugated by Russia, it was the fine arts that flourished: painting, architecture, theater).

And all these are characteristic properties of Muratova’s cinema oeuvre. Her films are appropriately witty at every degree of dramatic tension. Her characters always hold fast to their beliefs. Even episodic and secondary characters have colorful, sometimes to the point of eccentricity, tempers, whether it is a station employee or a rich criminal; conflicts and quarrels between them are always brilliant mini-performances with almost musical rhythm (Two in One even takes place in a theater). She did not stage her performances, because she masterly organized them in the frame. The frame itself is always saturated with movement and at the same time features mass of details, which seem to have no direct relation to the plot, but constitute the atmosphere of what is happening – this is always a perfect multilevel Baroque composition; and the Baroque, in turn, is the basic constant of the Ukrainian cultural universe.

The main thing, however, is that Muratova had that skeptical, sober, Cartesian mind, but it was not cold; no director of her time exhibited such a deep sympathy for the weakest and most vulnerable. Moreover, there is no trace of nagging moralization, inherent in even the best Soviet or Russian cinema works. This wonderful skepticism also colored her personal communication, and, of course, her films.

So, I will repeat: she made European cinema here long before Ukraine began to realize itself as Europe. As often happens with great artists, Muratova came too early. Only now we are catching up with her.

So, Ukraine has to do its share of the work. We have not published a thorough study of Muratova’s oeuvre, despite the fact that Russians published two monographs in her lifetime. This is only the first step: to publish such a book, well written and illustrated, which would be obligatory addition to the bookshelf of any cultured person. In the future, we also need to publish her collected works. A museum doubling as an artistic center. Possibly a festival named after her. It is necessary to start now.

Muratova made our world by 18 films better. We are indebted to her.

By Dmytro DESIATERYK, The Day