Dir.: George Mendeluk; Cast: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Terence Stamp, Gary Oliver, Tamar Hassan; Canada 2016, 103 min.
Veteran auteur George Mendeluk was born of Ukrainian descent in Germany and emigrated to Canada where he worked in television and the US (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Miami Vice). BITTER HARVEST recreates one of the most dramatic episodes of the 20th century where in early 1930s Ukraine, Joseph Stalin caused mass starvation with an economic policy of collectivisation which led to his man-made famine of ‘Holodomor’.
After the idyllic opening scenes in a Ukrainian village where schoolboy Yuri (Irons) battles to save his childhood love Natalka, comes the Russian October revolution and the death of Tsar and his family, an event that is celebrated by the Ukrainians. For a few years Lenin has his hands full with the Civil War, and the country enjoys freedom and prosperity. But this would change dramatically when Stalin came to power forcing collectivization on all the farmers in the Soviet Union. Ukraine was then the “bread basket of Europe”, and suffered horrendously from the results of this policy. By the mid 1920s, before Stalin had killed or exiled his political enemies and established his dictatorship, Yuri (Irons) has grown up into a handsome young man, but contrary to his father and grandfather Ivan (Stamp), who were warmongers, Yuri is only interested in painting and Natalka (Barks). His friends leave for Kiev, to take part in the a new revolutionary art movement. When Yuri later joins them at the art academy – Natalka stays in the village to look after his sick mother. But the wind is changing: Stalin policies not only mean the end of any independence for the Ukraine, but also the death of a true revolutionary, modern art: in painting this is replaced by a drab soviet-style-realism. At the beginning of 1932 Stalin (Oliver), has decided to destroy the “Kulak class” – in reality independent farmers, not rich feudal lords, as Stalin called them. With Yuri in prison in Kiev, and one of his friends, a leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, commits suicide and his family and Natalka are brutally repressed: they are led by the sadistic Sergei (Hassan), who fancies Natalka, and humiliates her. Yuri has escaped from prison, joining his family in the bloody uprising against the Russian troops. Whilst his father and grandfather are killed, Yuri and Natalka, who has lost her baby, escape with a young boy, they have adopted, trying to escape, they flee to the Polish border.
BITTER HARVEST tells it like it is without pulling any punches in recounting the harsh realities. DoP Douglas Milsome are very much in line with his work on Full Metal Jacket, but the narrative is full of plotholes. Although a more measured approach occasionally would be preferable, the rawness of the unflinching confrontation between good and evil, is perhaps the only way to tackle this genocide. After all, when Stalin was warned by Bukharin that his policy would cost millions of lives, Stalin answered “And who will know?”In spite of all its shortcomings, BITTER HARVEST is perhaps the only way to bring these atrocities to a wider contemporary public, not only just an arthouse-audience. Considering the recent invasion of large parts of Ukraine by Russia, we need to learn more about the history of Russia’s ongoing subjugation of an independent country: there is a clear line from the feudal imperialistic empire of the Romanovs, the genocide of the Stalinists and Putin’s unpunished invasion of today. MT
ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM FEBRUARY 27