Director: Aleksandr Rou
Screenplay: Aleksandr Rou
Starring: Aleksandr Khvylya, L. Myznikova, Yuri Tavrov, Lyudmila Khityaeva, Sergei Martinson, Anatoli Kubatsky, Vera Altayskaya, Dmitriy Kapka, Nikolay Yakovchenko, M. Sidorchuk, Aleksandr Radunsky, Georgiy Millyar
AKA: Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki
The Devil used to have a lot more to do on Christmas Eve than he does these days, having been supplanted more or less in the Christmas time evil business by retail store owners and Black Friday stampedes. There was a time, however, when Ol’ Scratch regarded the night before Christmas as prime soul-stealing time, what with so many panicked, distressed, depressed, or otherwise vulnerable humans ripe for temptation. Depending on whose folklore upon which we rely, Satan’s midwinter rascalry was combatted by a variety of traditional characters. In Mexico, since time immemorial, they have told the tale of how Pitch the Devil was thwarted in his efforts to corrupt the young and innocent by Santa Claus, who lives on the moon and employed the assistance of his most trusted friend, Merlin the Magician. In The Ukraine, which these days is more concerned with contesting the antics of Vladimir the Bare-Chested Yuletide Goblin, the corrupting efforts of the more unsaintly of the famous Nicks had to be foiled by a hearty peasant in a big furry cap.
Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is a spirited, ridiculously entertaining jaunt that tells the story of said peasant and his foiling of Satan. It’s based on a collection of folktales and customs collected by Ukrainian-born writer Nikolai Gogol, whose stories seem to be the basis for just about every Ukrainian fantasy-horror film (including Viy, an all-time favorite). Born in the town of Sorochyntsi in 1809, Gogol was the son of Vasyl Gogol-Yanovsky, a man who himself dabbled in poetry and playwriting when he wasn’t managing the family estate (he was a successful clerk in the army, but much of the family land on which young Gogol grew up came from the dowry gifted to Vasyl upon his marriage to a well-to-do woman of Polish descent). Gogol had a solitary childhood, disliked by his peers in school, who referred to him as the “mysterious dwarf.” As a result, he became a secretive and haunted young man but was also driven by an ambition fueled by his insecurities about himself.
He eventually moved to St. Petersburg seeking artistic fame and fortune. After a disastrous attempt at becoming a poet, he settled into the craft that would make him famous: writing short stories. In pursuit of this, he met the man who would become one of the most legendary writers of fantasy fiction in Russian history, Alexander Pushkin. In 1831, Gogol’s first collected volume of short stories was published to substantial acclaim. Titled Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the stories were recollections of the folklore and tall tales told by the peasants around whom he had grown up.
Although pegged as a social realist at the time, there was a sense of the macabre in some of Gogol’s stories, resultant no doubt from the alienation he felt growing up (as well as the near-universal tendency of folktales, regardless of the culture in which they originate, to dwell upon the creepy and shocking) and causing many to compare him to Gogol’s contemporary and fellow master of the short-story, Edgar Allan Poe. The stories in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka are surrounded by a frame in which a beekeeper Pan’ko-the-Redhaired explains this is a collection of fantastic stories he has heard over the years, and which you are lucky to hear recounted by him since he is a wondrous storyteller (Gogol himself was quite accomplished as an oral storyteller as well, and hearing him read his own stories was considered quite a treat).
Among these tales is “Noch pered Rozhdestvom,” or “Christmas Eve,” the short story on which the film Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is based and which had been the basis for many adaptations previously, including operas by two of Russia’s greatest composers, Tchaikovsky (in 1887) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (in 1895). It was also twice adapted into a film before the 1961 version, first in 1913 and again as a beautifully animated feature in 1951. In both previous film adaptations, as well as with the 1961 film, the script sticks pretty closely to Gogol’s original, and all are quite enjoyable. But the 1961 version is my favorite, if for no other reason than it is highlighted by the sort of special effects pioneered by director Aleksander Ptshuko in Sadko (1952) and Ilya Muromets (1956), the director’s splendid adaptations of short-stories by Gogol’s pal Alexander Pushkin.
The movie opens as all good Christmas movies should: with a scene of a jolly witch tearing across the night sky astride her broomstick, collecting stars for her eldritch brews, while the devil bats the moon around and eventually slips it into his pocket. Meanwhile, a trio of village elders meet up to go get drunk at the local tavern, noticing en route that it’s especially dark that night and that someone seems to have stolen the moon. The devil responds by sending a snowstorm to bury the three revelers, who become separated in the blizzard but in true can-do spirit, two manage never the less to reach the tavern. Among the elders is Choub (Aleksandr Khvylya, who was also in the enjoyable Russian fantasy film Jack Frost in 1964), who has a daughter, the rosy-cheeked beauty Oksana (L. Myznikova) with whom every eligible man in the village is infatuated. Her most determined suitor is a young blacksmith named Vakula (Yuri Tavrov), who happens to be the son of Solokha (Lyudmila Khityayeva) — the very witch we saw having such a blast at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately for Vakula, Oksana is more interested in flirting, sledding, and having fun than she is in settling down with the rather solemn — if dependable — blacksmith.
As if his morose, unrequited love for the spirited but occasionally callous Oksana wasn’t enough to depress Vakula, unbeknownst to him the Devil (played behind hair and horns by Georgi Millyar, a mainstay of Russian fantasy films who has probably played “Baba Yaga” more frequently than any other actor) also has a grudge against the lad. It turns out that when he’s not smithing wares or pining for Oksana, Vakula volunteers his time at the local church, where he paints unflattering pictures of the Devil (artwork actually taken from the previous animated version of the same story). And as fate would have it, the Devil is flirt buddies with Vakula’s witch mother. See? This is already better than most any other Christmas story, like the one about a millionaire country music singer who is temporarily sad about a kid who has no shoes or the one where ALF discovers the emotional trauma of children dying of cancer. It is about on the level of a Christmas movie where Dolph Lundgren and the guy from Dream On fight a buff space Swede who throws CDs at people.
In fact, the buxom, good-natured witch Solokha is as popular with the older men of the village as Oksana is with the younger. While the Devil is in her cottage pitching woo, who should drop by but the amorous mayor of the town? Not wanting her flirtatious familiarity with the Devil to become common knowledge, she hides the old beast in a coal sack before allowing the mayor to enter. She is as receptive to his flattery as she was to the Devil’s, but just as things are starting to heat up, there comes another knock. Hustling the mayor off into another coal sack, she opens the door and finds the mayor’s drunk buddy, also looking for a little cuddle time. And no sooner has he launched into his seduction that another knock comes, resulting in yet another hefty town elder being bundled away in a coal sack (good thing she has a blacksmith for a son) while Choub himself enters and begins making bedroom eyes at the irresistible witch.
While his mother is juggling basically every married man in town (and the Devil, who seems positively innocent compared to the leering Cossacks around him), Vakula is pitching considerably less proficient woo to Oksana. Now, the elders of the town may be a tad lascivious in nature, but at least they got some game and stick to batting their eyelashes at a woman who is receptive to their come-ons. Vakula could really benefit from spending a night or two hanging out with them and picking up some tips. His woo involves a lot less winking and proclamations of the woman’s beauty and a lot more frustrated pouting and threatening to kill himself if Oksana doesn’t love him. On the one hand, Oksana can be a bit shallow and cruel. On the other hand, this dude is not what I’d call a catch, behaving as he is.
Eventually, she says she’ll only marry Vakula if he brings her as a gift the jeweled slippers of the Tsaritsa. Assuming this impossible task to be the final rejection, Vakula stalks off back home, his arrival causing the final of his mother’s suitors to once again find himself secreted away in a coal sack. Seeing the coal sacks, he decides to drown his sorrows by lugging the heavy sacks to the forge. Halfway there however, he decides that by golly he will get the Tsaritsa’s slippers, even if it means visiting the local sorcerer and making a deal with the Devil — who, Vakula soon learns, is right behind him and looking for a chance to spoil things for the lovestruck young blacksmith.
Despite the presence of the Devil and a potentially suicidal stalker who wants to steal a lady’s shoes, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is a thoroughly light-hearted affair. The Devil is of the capering prankster mold, less about flaying people alive or making them do weird back-bend contortions (which seems to be what modern possession/exorcism movies think is his favorite move) and more likely to trip someone, pinch their bottom, or cut a fart in a crowded room. And while, by modern standards, Vakula’s romantic pursuit of Oksana is obsessed and a little creepy, by fairytale standards it is positively sane and healthy — which perhaps says more about the quality of romance in old fairytales than it does Vakula’s suitability as a husband. Overall though, there is little in the way of darkness to be found in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which is all about slapstick hijinks and wild special effects.
In terms of effects, they are endearingly crude but inventive and fun. The film trots out its quirky special effects immediately, with Solokha midnight broomstick ride and the Devil’s filching of the moon, drawing obviously from the highly staged and stylized sort of effects pioneered decades earlier by magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès. The stand-out sequence comes when Vakula turns the tables on the Devil, hopping on the fiend’s back and flying off to St. Petersburg in a mad scheme to acquire those much coveted shoes and win the heart of the petulant Oksana. It’s mostly rear projection and super-imposed images of two guys twisting around on wires, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the peculiar atmosphere.
When the movie isn’t watching Vakula fly around on the Devil’s back or Oksana laughing and sledding with her friends, it’s spending time with the trio of drunken elders. Perhaps a little too much time. The parade of man-in-a-sack based comedy has moments during which it’s quite funny, but here are also moments during which you really wish the movie would, like you, lose interest in the predicament of the three drunks in coal sacks and get back to Vakula sneaking through palaces with the Devil in his coat pocket. This overlong dwelling on such hijinks is hardly enough to derail the film though, so enjoyable is the rest of the tale. If nothing else, at least the elders all have majestic mustaches.
Amid so much spritely revelry, Vakula’s overly serious demeanor and pouting makes him a bit of a dud, but actor Yuri Tavrov keeps the brooding young man likable by playing him almost to the point of parody. While everyone else is celebrating and cavorting, Vakula stalks through the village with a permanent thundercloud hovering over him. Even the Devil is way more enjoyable company than this dire young man. Yet he makes a serviceable protagonist simply because he is so unlikely a candidate for mounting the Devil’s back, flying the demon to St. Petersburg, and infiltrating the heavily guarded palace of the Tsaritsa. Also, rather than sticking with the portrayal of Oksana as a spoiled torturer of men, actress L. Myznikova gets to bring sympathy to the character as she begins to regret being mean to Vakula, questions (without being chastized or forced to do so) her own selfishness, and wants to make amends with the endlessly put-upon but forever loyal buffoon. For his experience flying around on the devil and hanging out with bellowing pipe smokers in resplendent robes, Vakula learns to be less of a sourpuss. You know, I think these kids just might make it.
Director Aleksandr Rou (my goodness but there are a lot of Aleksandrs in Russian entertainment) is not as well-known outside of Russia as Aleksandr Ptushko, but within Russia he is recognized as what he is: one of the great masters of Russian fantasy film. Beginning as far back as 1945’s Kashchei the Immortal, Rou’s filmography is a virtual tour of some of the best and most whimsical fantasy films Russia has to offer, including Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964), Jack Frost (1965), Fire, Water and Pipes of Glory (1968), and Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969). Assisting Rou in bringing magical atmosphere to the movie is special effects supervisor Leonid Akimov, who worked on a number of special effects films, including Rou’s The Magic Weaver in 1960. Set against the endlessly snowy backdrop of the Ukrainian countryside, they mount an impressive production on what was obviously, by the standards of much of the rest of Europe, a very limited budget. Rather than mining the rural village and surrounding plains of snow as oppressive or bleak, they transform everything into a winter wonderland full of drunk dancing Cossacks, laughing rosy-cheeked maidens sledding down the snowy dunes, and stubborn young blacksmiths flying around on the devil’s back.
And that is how we should all be spending Christmas Eve.