Meet the Woman Who Made Some of the Greatest War Movies of All Time

At long last, Yuliya Solntseva’s stunning Ukrainian Trilogy arrives on North American screens


Forgive me if I plotz for a moment, but I am not exaggerating when I say that I’ve been waiting most of my life to see Yuliya Solntseva’s Ukrainian Trilogy. But I can’t be the only film nerd who grew up wondering about the triptych’s evocative titles in the year-end lists of Jim Hillier’s translated Cahiers du Cinema collections. There was something called Poem of the Sea at No. 5 among the best films of 1960, just behind Shoot the Piano Player and a full four places ahead of Psycho. There was something called The Enchanted Desna, in 1965, well ahead of works by Billy Wilder, John Ford, and Federico Fellini. These movies sounded magical. How could one see them?

Not easily, it turns out. Astonishingly, the Museum of the Moving Image’s presentation (also part of its invaluable ongoing “See It Big!” series, with two of the titles screening in 70mm) represents these films’ North American premieres. Yet the timing feels strangely right, too. Solntseva’s name popped back into the culture earlier this year when Sofia Coppola became just the second woman to receive the Best Director prize at Cannes; Solntseva was the first, winning for the second film in the trilogy, The Story of the Flaming Years (1961). And then there’s the small matter of recent news events, which have made watching war epics about the devastation wrought by Nazi invaders suddenly a bit more urgent.

Solntseva started her career as an actress during the heyday of early Soviet cinema — she played the title character in Yakov Protazanov’s 1924 sci-fi fantasy Aelita, Queen of Mars — and eventually entered a close collaboration with her husband, Alexander Dovzhenko, the great Ukrainian director who fused tales of revolution and war with earthy, naturalistic expressionism in masterpieces such as Earth (1930) and Arsenal (1929). Solntseva and Dovzhenko worked for years in both fiction and nonfiction; during World War II, as artists in major cities were being evacuated, they remained close to the fighting and made a number of influential newsreels.

All three pictures in the Ukrainian Trilogy originated as stories and scripts by Dovzhenko, who died in 1956, the night before he was scheduled to begin shooting Poem of an Inland Sea (also known as Poem of the Sea, released in 1958). He’d spent two years preparing the project and had shot documentary footage of the construction of the Kakhovka dam on the river Dnieper, the ostensible subject of the movie. Solntseva made the film using her late husband’s detailed notes and sketches, and it’s the work in the trilogy that most resembles Dovzhenko’s earlier output, propelled by dream visions and passages of surreal beauty, with little regard for narrative clarity. (Dovzhenko rarely relied on conventional storytelling means; addressing those who had trouble comprehending his films, he once said, “The reason why you don’t understand it is within yourself.”) Nevertheless, Solntseva brings a renewed attention to character and performance; she’s less comfortable with the monumentalism of Dovzhenko’s images and scenarios. Whereas his melodramatic gestures often feel symbolic, she invests them with plausible emotions.

Poem and the final film in this trilogy, The Enchanted Desna, share a deep love of the Ukrainian landscape — a wonderment at its soft light, its gently rolling hills, its placid waters and its endless fields of blossoms. That last title portrays a village childhood through the memories of a soldier on the front. (There’s an autobiographical kick here: Dovzhenko was one of the Soviet directors who’d seen the most combat, during both the Russian Civil War and World War II.) As such, it’s a work of stark contrasts — the fiery hellscape of battle set against the supernaturally redemptive power of nature. Both movies are gorgeous, mysterious, mesmerizing — even if, narratively, they sometimes make it hard to maintain your bearings.

The greatest treasure here is the second picture in the trilogy, 1961’s The Story of the Flaming Years (also called Chronicle of Flaming Years, or just Flaming Years), a sweeping look at the effect of the war on the people of Ukraine, as seen (loosely) through the eyes of young soldier Ivan Orlyuk. We first meet him, addressing the camera, as the Red Army marches through Germany’s Brandenburg Gate. We then see him years earlier, being court-martialed — as bombs fall all around — for killing two of his comrades as they were retreating from German forces. Flashbacks eventually give way to a narrative that is somehow both linear and elliptical, as we swiftly pass through each year of the war.

The audacity with which Solntseva stages her combat scenes is astounding. The camera swoops from on high across the smoking battlefield. Rows and rows of tanks come charging across the fields. Artillery lights up the sky like a ceaseless stream of fireworks. Characters stand on cliffs watching soldiers and explosions as far as the eye can see; the camera glides through tight interiors and out onto burning villages and up over hills. It’s a spectacle that would put most Hollywood products to shame, yet it has purpose, too: You never get the sense that somewhere out there — in the distance, beyond a forest or river — might be a land uncorrupted by war. Solntseva brings the apocalypse home. There is no escape from this hell.

Over and over, Ivan seems to return from the brink of death — from crippling injuries and battlefield blackouts. Periodically, we return to his village, where the Nazis massacre a school full of children, and Ivan’s elderly parents try to stay warm beside a ruined fireplace, the only part of their home that remains somewhat standing. Along the way, we witness stirring vignettes of other lives: One woman rushes home to see if her beloved has come back from the front. “He’s waiting for you, in the square,” she’s told. She runs to find him but is met instead by a statue erected in honor of his martyrdom. A Nazi officer sits in his jeep, calmly ignoring the bombs exploding close by. It seems like battle-hardened bravery at first (and in an American film, it would read as such), until we realize that he’s gone insane and doesn’t know who or what or where he is.

The high poetic style transforms what might otherwise come off as didacticism. A village wedding gives way to a speech by a local official extolling the glories of the Russian greatcoat and its importance in warfare. Looking over at a group of bridesmaids dressed in uniform, the man declares, “History has made its own choice. It put on your feminine shoulders the rough dress of a warrior.” Such speechifying shouldn’t ordinarily move us, but Solntseva gives the moment such sincerity, such genuine melancholy, that it’s unbearably beautiful. It’s just one glimpse into her remarkable abilities as a filmmaker. The belated arrival on our screens of these magnificent works reclaims a major forgotten talent of world cinema.

“The Ukrainian Trilogy”
Directed by Yuliya Solntseva
The Gosfilmofond and Mosfilm
Screens Aug. 26-27, Museum of the Moving Image