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Even if you’ve not been to the city, you’ll know many of the streets by now. The news is filled with images of Kyiv. Of the city’s infrastructure shattered, of the resilient faces of Ukrainians ready to defend and rebuild their world. It’s impossible not to be moved by these scenes – families torn apart, lives lost and a city centre transformed into a theatre of war, where homes are newly vulnerable to violent attack, and to the elements.
In 1929, a film shot in those same streets, showing the people of the city rallying for a new start, provoked uncontrollable feelings of happiness. In Spring was directed by Mikhail Kaufman – he had been a cinematographer, and you may know him best as the man with the movie camera himself (on screen and off ) in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), directed by his brother Dziga Vertov (aka Denis Kaufman) and edited by Elizaveta Svilova. Kaufman wasn’t just a talented cinematographer; he was a daredevil, laying down on railway tracks or balancing on a moving train to capture a shot. Denis and Mikhail were born in Białystok, then in Russia, but they moved to Ukraine in the mid-1920s. There was also a third filmmaking brother: Boris Kaufman, the cinematographer for such films as L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934) and On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954).
In Spring is a city symphony, like Man with a Movie Camera in some ways, but where that film was shot across four cities (Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Moscow) and foregrounds its camera effects and editing, In Spring is devoted to Kyiv. The Kaufmans had a few disagreements while making Movie Camera, and some of the footage that Mikhail shot against his brother’s wishes ended up in In Spring.
Seeing this film was the most moving cinema experience of my year. How could it not be? The film documents how Kyiv emerges from winter into the warmth – it is not a smooth transition but a concerted human effort. First the snow melts and floods the city, and then the people fight to contain the water and reclaim their streets. Then the snow returns and the second thaw disguises the streets as canals. The people of Kyiv retrieve their city once more: the water is drained, windows are unsealed and soon bonneted toddlers are playing in the parks. There are bicycle races, birds nesting and a church procession in defiance of Soviet protocols. The images become more wholesome, and more precious.
Kaufman’s camera effects, extreme close-ups, superimpositions, stop motion and high angles defamiliarise the pleasures of the season to fill our senses with the wonder of life returning, the grandeur of the city’s architecture. When it was first screened, In Spring beguiled spectators – inspiring unprecedented joy. “If I were a poet,” said Mykhailo Makotynskyi, the president of the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, “I would have written lyrics for this movie… I have watched hundreds of thousands of metres, but I’ve never felt anything similar to this impression.”
The French critic Georges Sadoul was smitten. “Be it a horse, the workers exiting a factory, the bird’s-eye view of the city, or a children’s game, Mikhail Kaufman always finds poetry, embraces it, and puts it into the camera.” The Ukrainian poet Mykola Voronyi praised Kaufman’s lyricism, which went beyond “mere intelligence”. “While watching this picture, you feel joy and youth, you love the land and want to live upon this land.” The poet and critic Yakiv Savchenko said: “The film is so impressive and stirs up emotions, thoughts and associations so powerful that one can hardly compile all of this into a coherent system.”
Viewed in 2022, months into the Russian invasion, In Spring stirs up feelings that are arguably even more complex, that still defy categorisation. The film is available on a DVD set from the Dovchenko Centre (shop.dovzhenkocentre.org/en, though international deliveries are suspended right now), but I was privileged to see it at the Tromsø Stumfilmdager, a silent film festival in northern Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. Snow fell outside, an unseasonal extension of the winter climate into April, just like the second frost that Kaufman captured in Kyiv, 93 years earlier.
The film was sensitively accompanied by a pair of Ukrainian musicians, Roksana Smirnova on piano and Misha Kalinin on electric guitar. As the piano lines deftly followed the musicality of the film itself, the rhythms of nature and the movement of the people of Kyiv, Kalinin’s guitar brought an expansive range of sounds and textures to this moment of change, captured for posterity. It was the perfect match of music and image; clearly this duo had an affinity for silent cinema, and this film in particular.
In Spring is a testament to the city it celebrates and retains its capacity to spark not just patriotism but active resistance. In this sun-kissed Soviet Kyiv of 1929, there is a chill in the 2022 air: the writing on the shopfronts and street signs is all in Russian.
Sight and Sound September 2022
In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.Find out more and get a copy