2 For more on the organisation of the cinema industry at the time, see Paul Babitsky and John Rimberg, The Soviet Film Industry (New York: Frederick A Praeger, 1955), 44-49. Despite the success of Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev was either not invited or declined membership of the Arts Council, though the film’s director Eisenstein, and stars Nikolai Cherkasov and Nikolai Okhlopkov were all members. Composers were represented by Shostakovich, Shaporin and Khrennikov.

3 Korneichuk’s entry in Jeanne Vronskaya and Vladimir Chuguev, A Biographical Dictionary of the Soviet Union 1917-1988 (London: K.G. Saur, 1989) says he is “remembered as a particularly odious Stalinist figure, his literary achievements are referred to mostly in jokes about Stalinism”. He managed a smooth transition into supporting first Khrushchev and then Brezhnev. Ironically Korneichuk’s now even more obscure wife, Wanda Wasilewska (1905-64) gave up her Polish nationality and wrote similarly “patriotic” works, often set in Ukraine. She is best-known for the wartime story The Rainbow (Raduga), filmed by Mark Donskoi in 1944 and, like Partisans, starring Natalia Uzhvii.

4 Translated into English as Guerillas of the Ukrainian Steppes, it was published in Four Soviet War Plays (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1944).

5 Published synopses and reviews set the film in 1918 but on the DVD the opening title reads “Ukraine 1941”. This and the intertitles are in Ukrainian while the credits are in Russian. Versions were probably produced in both languages (perhaps dubbed) and this uses elements of both. There may have been other differences but they were probably limited to using alternate takes.

6 A page of Prokofiev’s manuscript from the film score, headed “Beginning 2nd Song”, is illustrated in Riley, 2005: 22.

7 The Cinema, 19 August 1942, 12-13.

8 Kinematograph Weekly, 20 August 1942, 29 and 39.

9 Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 9, 107.

10 Sadly Russian film transfers often suffer from this fault yet the facilities houses sometimes brazenly deny that there is a problem!

Although Igor Andreevich Savchenko (1906-51), like many Ukrainian film directors, was intensely patriotic, he has been overlooked in popular histories of Soviet cinema. His films are often beautifully shot with sweeping views of the Ukrainian landscape and his characters believable. But, if he sometimes had to work on less personal projects, there were hints of independence. On the conventional Stalin film The Third Blow (Tretii Udar, 1948) an uncredited assistant was former pupil Sergei Paradzhanov, recently released from prison for homosexuality. Nevertheless, Savchenko was a safe pair of hands and in September 1944 was one of six directors to join a new 28-strong Arts Council. This was one of several newly-formed subdivisions of the Committee on Cinema Affairs and, while the parent organisation administered the industry, the Arts Council looked after ideology, which may be why, during the war, two of its members were military consultants. (2)
     Music is often central to Savchenko’s films: in The Accordion (Garmon, 1934) he plays a Soviet village leader who defeats the kulaks by drowning out their music with the titular instrument. Sergei Pototsky was his regular composer, though the posthumously released Taras Shevchenko (1951) was scored by Liatoshinsky and Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes (Partizany v stepiakh ukrainy) has music by Prokofiev.

Savchenko also worked regularly with playwright Alexander Korneichuk (1905-72), who wrote in Ukrainian though his texts were translated into Russian.(3) Korneichuk’s rapid response to the Nazi invasion, Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes, used characters from the earlier In the Ukrainian Steppes and was one of several of his plays to be filmed.(4) He was fortunate that it featured several popular actors including Boris Chirkov, the Soviet everyman best-known for starring in The Maxim Trilogy (1935-39), and Nikita Bogoliubov, who regularly played Party heroes and noble characters. The film is dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Soviet rule in Ukraine.

Partisans is the story of a Ukrainian village, threatened by advancing Germans (5), which decides to resist, initially with a scorched-earth policy, though they are hindered by spies and collaborators (ubiquitous in the art of the time). Eventually the village leader tracks the traitor down and forces him to hang himself (though we don’t see it). Though there are casualties, the partisans fight back, Stalin declares the victory over the radio and there is general rejoicing. The conventional story also has conventional iconography: a woman carrying her child torches hayricks (everyone has a role in defeating the enemy); the Germans are boorish; there are several self-sacrifices in the fight; and a couple of comedy muzhiks come good. Even Prokofiev’s music does not entirely avoid lapses into predictability.
     With the Nazis occupying Ukraine, Partisans’ studio scenes were shot in Ashkabad, Turkmenistan as, probably, were the forest battles, which could easily be mocked up either on location or in the occasionally rather obvious studio. However the wide vistas seem genuinely Ukrainian.

Reflecting Savchenko’s musicality, the 75-minute film is divided into three “songs”(6), with Prokofiev’s score filling just over half the time and some sections being propelled for minutes at a time by the music. The continuity of music makes it an important staging point on the way to Prokofiev’s next and final cinema score, the very operatic film Ivan the Terrible. He scored Partisans between November 1942 and early 1943. There is some original, often appropriately martial music but perhaps a lack of time and interest led him also to recycle parts of the symphonic suite The Year 1941 and a march from his previous film Kotovsky while, for local colour, he used a Ukrainian folk-sounding song. It may be that the 1941 excerpts (intended for the concert hall) were reorchestrated to take account of the poor quality of Soviet film soundtracks but it is very difficult to be sure from the sound alone. Unfortunately, as is common at the time, the soundtrack performers remain anonymous but they manage to inject real drive and emotion into their playing.

The Year 1941 provides some of the film’s most striking music. The credits are accompanied by the broad opening of For the Brotherhood of Man (third movement of The Year 1941); after the first section (around 1’30”) this fades into a brief fragment for choir, while the title card sets the scene. This is also used at the grave of a villager, making it a theme of fraternity. In the Struggle (first movement of The Year 1941) accompanies battles with the Germans but it has a more ambivalent introduction and we first hear it when the villagers decide to burn the crops to hinder the enemy; then, although a bust of Lenin in the background dignifies the decision, an argument breaks out. In the middle of all this the wounded hero-son of the village leader returns home but the music takes no account of this bittersweet moment: In the Struggle continues.
     One interesting moment comes when the village head encounters a villager translating for the Germans (his fate will act as a warning to anyone considering collaboration). With its steady tread and wailing woodwind, the music seems to be groping its way towards The Death of Glinskaia, from Prokofiev’s next film assignment, Ivan the Terrible. Perhaps he was thinking of the two scenes’ shared theme of betrayal.
     Retitled Guerillas of the Don, the film was released in the UK in 1942. The reviewer in The Cinema (identified only as “E.A.P”) spotted the historical parallels and was enthusiastic: it is “rousing”, “moving” and “stirring” and includes “probably most [sic] action-crowded sequence of incident seen in any Russian film to date”. Prokofiev is not mentioned though “Music is employed particularly effectively” and the use of sound is both “effective” and “imaginative”. Another trade journal, Kinematograph Weekly, was less enthusiastic, suggesting it for “specialist halls” and assuring bookers that it was “harmless for juveniles”.(8) Monthly Film Bulletin, aimed at the cinephile public, merely noted that the film was issued between 21 July and 20 August but was not reviewed. (9)
     Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes is unsurprisingly propagandistic and the characterisation leaves something to be desired but, as E.A.P noted, it has excitement and tension and furthermore captures the beauty of the Ukrainian landscape. In addition, Prokofiev’s music – whatever its various sources – is central to the story-telling and therein lies the fascination.

Though unrestored, the image quality of the original film is fair (it can’t have been shown too often since the war!) with relatively light scratching. However, the transfer could be much better: there is some tracking at the bottom of the image but, criminally, it is not a full-frame transfer, being certainly clipped at the left and, to judge from some of the compositions, also very slightly at the top. (10) Neither is the image always rock-steady in the frame. With the murky blacks, it may be that the DVD is taken from a 1980s digital tape rather than any newer materials. All in all, it’s an insult to cinematographer Yuri Ekelchik’s often luminous images. The sound quality is typical of the time, i.e. a bit better than the original Nevsky soundtrack, though a couple of suspiciously silent moments imply some damage. Prokofiev’s music certainly comes over, and his knowledge of how to score for film soundtracks overcomes many potential problems, but there’s more to the music than can be heard here. A modern recording would be welcome. The only extra is a text biography of Savchenko.
     Nevsky and Ivan are common fare in cinemas and on DVD; Kizhe isn’t commercially available but can be seen with a bit of burrowing, so a DVD would be welcome. But the wartime films remain elusive. Lermontov, with its relatively brief score, and Kotovsky both flitted through the Russian VHS catalogue some time ago, and with Partisans now available, perhaps we can look forward to a release for Tonya. But please, a better quality transfer!

Partizany v stepiakh Ukrainy is available on DVD from a Russian website,
at the cost of 94 roubles.