the spectrum of human enormity, the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal campaign to
starve Ukraine to the brink of extinction, ranks somewhere near the Cambodian
Killing Fields, just below the National Socialist Holocaust. Yet, many in the
West never knew it was happening. The prime culprit of Stalin’s disinformation
campaign was the compromised journalist Walter Duranty. The New York Times no longer stands by his
reports but the Pulitzer organization refuses to rescind the prize they awarded
for his denial of Stalin’s crimes against humanity. On one level, George
Mendelok’s English language Bitter Harvest functions
as a historical romance, but it is also a timely reminder of what happens when
journalists chose to serve as propagandists. Truth is a victim along with
upwards of 7.5 million Ukrainians in Mendeluk’s Harvest (trailer here), which opens
this Friday in New York.
was no love for the Czar amongst Ukraine’s sturdy peasantry, so they initially
welcomed the revolution as an opportunity to finally declare independence.
Unfortunately, Lenin soon reconquered the republic, expressly so its grain
could fuel the Soviet regime. After his death, Stalin pursued a more
exploitative and intentionally brutal policy. All land was nationalized and
collectivized. Harvests were almost entirely exported back to Moscow, leaving
insufficient stocks for even subsistence living and the borders were sealed, with
full knowledge mass starvation would result.
so many Ukrainians, Yuri comes from Kulak stock, the so-called “rich
land-owning” peasants, a term that only makes sense to a Marxist-Leninist
theorist or a Bernie Sanders intern. His childhood sweetheart Natalka grew up
in even meaner conditions, but her family will still suffer and starve at the hands
of the brutal commissar quartered in their village.
Yuri is awarded a scholarship to a Kiev art school, he assumes it will offer
opportunities to help his family, but conditions in the city turn out to be
worse than in the countryside. He also witnesses the Party’s attack on free
expression first-hand when Socialist Realism is rigidly mandated throughout the
school. He assumes his old village chum will protect him when he is elected
Ukrainian Party Secretary, but poor Mykola fails to understand the caprices of
Comrade Stalin until he finds himself on the business end of a purge. When Yuri
is also imprisoned, his hopes of reuniting with Natalka look grim, but the
grandson of a legendary Cossack warrior has more fight in him than the art
school pedigree might suggest.
Bitter Harvest has the epic tragedy
of its obvious role model film, Doctor Zhivago. However, if you sniff underneath the celluloid, you might smell
the burnt rubber and tear gas that permeated many crew members who participated
in the Maidan Square demonstrations on their free days from shooting. The parallels
between the Lenin and Stalin eras of exploitation and attempted annihilation
and the Putin era neo-Soviet militarism hardly need explaining. Yet, lingering ignorance
of the Holodomor helps embolden Putin’s military incursions.
like Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, Mendeluk
and screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover clearly illustrate the acrid
demoralization of the propaganda that so brazenly denied the victims of
Communism’s abject suffering (Duranty does indeed make an appearance in the
film, but there is no context to explain who he is). Yet, the Zhivago-esque storyline has plenty of sweep
and even harbors a handful of surprises. Samantha Barks was probably the best
part of the Les Mis movie, but she is
even more convincing as an illegitimate Slavic peasant than a French street
urchin. Max Irons is a little stiff portraying Yuri’s puppy love years, but he
shows some surprising grit in the second and third acts. Terence Stamp does his
hardnosed thing as old leathery Ivan, while Tamer Hassan chillingly projects
the wanton cruelty of the empowered extremist.
Harvest is not a pitch-perfect
film. Frankly, Mendeluk’s dream sequences are far too woo-woo for a film that
ought to be all about cold hard realism. However, it vividly shines a light on
a criminally under-reported and often deliberately misunderstood case of
systematic mass murder, while the family saga picks up speed and power as it
develops. Highly recommended for fans of big picture historical dramas, Bitter Harvest opens this Friday (2/24)
at the AMC Empire in Midtown and the Village East downtown.
Labels: Holodomor, Terence Stamp, Ukrainian Film