NEW YORK – The film “Bitter Harvest” unfolds on the vast canvas of one of the great tragedies of history. In the early 1930s, a genocidal famine known as the Holodomor was engineered in Ukraine by Stalin. Millions perished – while reporters lied and the world looked the other way. (As Stalin shrugs in the film: “Who in the world will know?”)
The parallels with today’s ongoing Russian predation against Ukraine are inescapable. The Holodomor was not only a genocide of the Ukrainian people, but an attempt to erase the rich culture of Ukraine, its poetic language and music. The true scale of the Holodomor remained hidden by the Soviets for many years.
Midway in the film, a Kyivan Arts Academy professor challenges the protagonist Yuri: “As an artist, you must find the truth, not escape from it!” Ripping the curtain off a window, he exclaims: “How? With light!…”
“Bitter Harvest” does indeed cast a searing light on the Holodomor, Stalin’s motives and Moscow’s savage repression of Ukraine’s resistance to the Soviet regime. But it is neither a history book nor an impersonal polemic. Above all, it is the gripping tale of Yuri and Natalka – a young couple in love, who fight to overcome every obstacle life throws at them.
Director George Mendeluk is first and foremost a master storyteller, breathing vivid life into the nuanced characters in his epic-romance. By spinning a tale anyone can identify with, Mr. Mendeluk also illuminates our common humanity. “Bitter Harvest” stands out as a romance in the same sense as Verdi’s “La Traviata” – that composer’s most intimate opera, where he plumbed his heroine’s heart with a wealth of poetic expression and economy of means.
Richly layered and rewarding repeated viewings, “Bitter Harvest” is the world-class Ukrainian art film of our time.
Dreams and omens
The dream-like character of “Bitter Harvest” is established in the opening narration over vast vistas of golden wheat fields: “Across the ages, it’s been called many things… but since I was a boy, Ukraine was simply home… life went on, moving to the rhythm of the seasons – waxing and waning in the eternal cycle of seed and plow and reaping… a life of hard work and small pleasures.” Like a fairy tale, the lyrical narration concludes: “My Ukraine was a land where legends lived, and anything was possible. Before I grew up and learned that dragons were real and evil roamed the earth – I fell in love.”
Thus begins “Bitter Harvest” – an idyllic dream that will quickly evaporate to reveal a monstrous nightmare. The initial sunny memory of two children playing underwater will resurface at key moments in the film. Such dream-like scenes and omens, apparitions, symbols and subconscious links weave their way through the intricate fabric of “Bitter Harvest.”
Just one example of a striking detail in “Bitter Harvest” is the burial scene of Yuri’s father, shown inside the casket with a lit candle affixed to his hands. A central theme, this image of light is subtly recapitulated after Mykola Skrypnyk’s suicide: “His was a light that burned brightly… but all too brief!”
Writing to this author, the director explained that his goal was to preserve in the film the traditional harvesting songs, the traditional wedding, the funeral ceremony, as well as the Kupalo ritual. Mr. Mendeluk said, “I wanted to immortalize, resurrect, and preserve for posterity the ritual and culture for Ukrainian generations to come and for the world to see.”
All the visuals are a feast for the eyes. Cinematographer Douglas Milsome, who had worked on Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” creates spectacular panoramas and revealing close-ups, with striking composition and lighting, and a flowing variety of camera angles.
To mention but a few: the ravishing tableau of wide Ukrainian fields with windmills against the setting sun; the mystery of the age-old pagan midsummer night rituals (Kupalo) when maidens launch flower rings and candles into a stream (one of the most hypnotic images in the film); the convoluted patterns of intersecting staircases in the Kremlin; the expressive framing of Natalka through her window with a lone candle that crossfades into the moon. Many interiors are illumined by candles, creating an intimate “Rembrandt-like” chiaroscuro effect.
Haunting images flow throughout “Bitter Harvest.” Yuri and Natalka’s parting at the railroad station takes place on an empty platform with steam billowing from the moonlit locomotive, focusing all attention on the young couple’s embrace.
On his way to the Kyiv Art Academy, Yuri encounters the reporter Gareth Jones, who reveals the horrible secret of Stalin’s induced famine throughout the land. As Jones disembarks, two hungry children’s faces appear, pressed to the railcar window – and just as quickly, as in a dream, they disappear. Yuri then sees Jones arrested outside and his glasses (the agency of sight and truth) crushed on the pavement. Later, when Yuri is driven to sort out refuse on the streets of Kyiv, he notices a similar pair of glasses.
Scene after scene is constructed with an economy that is subtle yet highly expressive.
When Yuri is incarcerated in a desolate snow-swept prison fortress, there is a remarkable composition of the young man being dragged underground. All we see are silhouettes of the guards in an opening of light streaming down one side of the screen; this clip lasts for but a few seconds, but is unforgettable. So too is the composition of the sadistic guard’s face when he opens the observation hatch to peer at Yuri in his cell.
Later, after Yuri makes his escape, he is suddenly aware of wraith-like faces of the orphaned children, silently materializing among the birch trees – as if they were unreal beings. During the final desperate scramble through the backlit forest on the Polish border, the menacing black tree trunks intertwine like a nightmarish fairy tale. As Yuri and Natalka jump into the river, we see one brief but terrifying full frame of the barking guard dogs straining at the leash, with torches in the background.
According to Mr. Mendeluk, British actors are “some of the best on the planet.” He cast English-speaking actors because he wanted the world to know about the genocide that was one of the biggest secrets of the 20th century. The actors who played Russians spoke cockney, or in a less arch accent like Tamer Hassan’s commissar.
Both protagonists are formidable young talents. Max Irons is best known for his roles in “The Riot Club,” “The White Queen” and “The Host.” Samantha Barks has been acclaimed for her performance in the movie version of “Les Misérables.” She is also an experienced stage actress and singer.
Mr. Irons delivers a powerful portrayal as Yuri, unaffected in adolescence, growing in depth and awareness up to the shattering climax. Yuri’s father perceived him as “different,” and his grandfather even mistakenly called him a coward. It is a measure of Mr. Irons’ skill that he emerges a multifaceted character – one that we care about every step of the way.
Ms. Barks is riveting as Natalka. Enchanting in the bittersweet midsummer night ritual, she is deeply moving in her many demanding scenes of conflicted passion and intense emotion.
In the words of Mr. Mendeluk, “Max and Samantha became Ukrainian before my eyes on set. I always say that most of directing is in the casting. I believe both researched their characters and dug deep into their psyches, and delivered memorable, heart-wrenching performances.”
Veteran actors Barry Pepper and Terence Stamp are authentic and excellent as Yuri’s father and grandfather.
Mr. Hassan has previously appeared in “Clash of the Titans,” “Batman Begins” and episodes of “NCIS” and “Game of Thrones.” Here he brings to life the complex commissar with a low-voiced menace. This malevolent character is all the more absorbing because of the ambiguities and mystery that Mr. Hassan brings to it.
The richness of “Bitter Harvest” can be illustrated in one episode. While Natalka is forced to prepare a private supper for the Commissar, he plays a record of the “Lucia” aria with the ironic text: “You who unfolded your wings to God, oh beautiful, loving soul.” The commissar’s inability to love resurfaces with the apparition of his mother’s face after the poison begins its work, shown with a disorienting dolly zoom effect (similar to the technique Alfred Hitchcock developed for “Vertigo”).
Ms. Bark’s bitter/triumphant half-smile (her “lipstick” was from her own blood) is truly unnerving. This supper of poison is subliminally contrasted with the next shot of villagers clandestinely sharing the “Bread of Life,” the Eucharist. In a caustic nod to Mary Magdalene, the commissar orders Natalka to wash his feet, then commands her to dry them with her own hair, while we are subtly made aware of liquid tears – the rain from heaven drenching the village. The interplay of all the myriad details is overpowering.
Mr. Mendeluk layers his story with relatively few, but concentrated brushstrokes. He is concerned with universal archetypes, paring away extraneous details so nothing could distract from his central concern – the inner truth of the characters. While historical personages like Walter Duranty and members of Stalin’s Politburo appear and are listed in the credits, they are not identified during the film. Even Gareth Jones, the real-life reporter who told the truth about the Holodomor, is not named in the train episode – he is not even revealed to be a reporter. But the more important point, what these nonfictional characters signify, strikes home.[Author’s note: On February 10, the show-business daily “Variety” reported that Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s next project will be a feature film about Gareth Jones, and how he stood in opposition to The New York Times reporter who built his career on a monstrous lie – Walter Duranty.]
Most of “Bitter Harvest” was filmed in Pyrohiv, an open-air museum of Ukrainian folk architecture that is located just six miles from Kyiv, in the autumn of 2013 – right at the time of Maidan and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas. Mr. Mendeluk related: “Directing the film was not just an artistic exercise, but a calling. I knew that the cast and crew felt the same. Some went down to the Maidan to fight after we finished shooting, and came back smelling of burnt rubber. And there is a tragic story to tell. One actor in the film, Gregory Matias, died in combat in the Donetsk region when an illegal 120 mm mortar exploded, killing him. He was engaged to another Ukrainian actress on the film, Olena Dydick, who embroidered a shirt for Gregory to wear for their wedding day. Sadly, 10 days from their wedding day he perished.”
The film’s artistic direction is impeccable. From the wide vistas, Soviet steam locomotives and field tractors, authentic Maxim wheeled machine guns, thrilling battle scenes with virtuoso horse riders, down to Soviet uniforms and village hut interiors – all the detail is convincing. Post production and the underwater scenes were filmed in Pinewood Studios, home of the James Bond franchise.
The editor is Stuart Baird, who also worked on “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall.” For “Bitter Harvest,” Mr. Baird has crafted a wonderfully compact and eloquent flowing narrative.
Another indication of the care that went into this production is composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s sensitive and muscular score. At times he elaborated on the traditional Ukrainian plaintive chants sung in the film by Mariana Sadovska to spin lyrical violin and cello solos. Mr. Wallfisch has composed music for Hollywood legends Steven Spielberg and Hans Zimmer in films like “Batman V” and “Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Sound effects and the final audio mix are top drawer.
Canadian actor Richard Bachynsky Hoover wrote the original story for “Bitter Harvest” (at first titled “Devil’s Harvest”) and collaborated on the powerful and compact screenplay with Mr. Mendeluk. Dialogue is concise and memorable. (Stalin barks: “Damn those Ukrainians! Lenin was too lenient; syphilis had softened his brain. We will implement his plan, but without mercy!”)
“Bitter Harvest” was financed and produced by Canadian businessman Ian Ihnatowycz, whose family fled Ukraine in the 1940s. “Like all Ukrainians, my family suffered enormously,” Mr. Ihnatowycz said. “There isn’t a Ukrainian alive who doesn’t know about the persecution, executions and starvation. Given the importance of what happened, and that few outside Ukraine knew about it because of the cover-up, the story of this genocide needed to be told. It is relevant today.”
Director George Mendeluk
Mr. Mendeluk was born in Augsburg, Germany, to Ukrainian parents. His directorial credits include the feature films “Stone Cold Dead,” “The Kidnapping of the President,” “Deck the Halls” and many TV episodes of shows like “Miami Vice,” “Night Heat,” “Highlander: The Series” and “Relic Hunter.” Two Ukrainian films that greatly influenced him are Alexander Dovzhenko’s “Earth” (1930) and Serhii Paradzhanov’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1965).
Mr. Mendeluk shared with this author that he has written two screenplays he plans to produce in the next few years – “The Play” about his parents’ journey to freedom during and after the second world war, and “Forbidden,” based on the famous love story between Ivan Mazepa, the legendary Kozak leader, and Motria Kochubei, his 18-year-old god-daughter – a riveting epic about power, passion and treachery.
The director commented on his experience working in Ukraine: “The extras and re-enactors were the best I ever worked with. On our next projects we are looking forward to working with Ukrainian crew, and more Ukrainian actors! Basically, more than 50 percent of film revenue today comes from the international market. My goal is to help grow the Ukrainian film industry by producing more projects here.”
Referring to “Bitter Harvest,” Mr. Mendeluk stated: “I thought my parents would have been so proud that I provided a voice to those who perished brutally, including members of my family. …My goal is to bring personal stories to show the world Ukrainian culture, the indomitable Ukrainian spirit, with its colorful history and heroes – especially its ongoing struggle for freedom in light of current events.”
Mr. Mendeluk concluded: “And as a director, to be able to entertain and educate audiences around the world, is a rare lifetime opportunity for which I am honored and grateful beyond words.”
“Bitter Harvest” will premiere in American theaters on February 24, and throughout Canada on March 3, 2017. Please check your local theater listings.