Frolicking through the Winter Wonderland of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka

Nikolai Gogol’s stories seem to be the basis for just about every Ukrainian fantasy-horror film. 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 labeled a social realist at the time, there was a sense of the macabre in many of Gogol’s stories. This no doubt stemmed 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. Many people compared Gogol to his contemporary and fellow master of the short-story, Edgar Allan Poe. The stories in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka are contained within a framing device 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 1961 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 (1887) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (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 closely to Gogol’s original, and all are quite enjoyable. But the 1961 version is something special, if for no other reason than it is highlighted by the sort of delightful effects pioneered by director Aleksander Ptshuko in Sadko (1952) and Ilya Muromets (1956), both splendid adaptations of short-stories by Gogol’s pal, Alexander Pushkin.

The Witch, the Blacksmith, and the Devil

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 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. The winter holiday season is replete with traditions, old and new, religious and secular. If you’ve never been exposed to the versions of Santa Claus before Macy’s got ahold of him, you really should be. Throughout Europe (where Santa tends to visit earlier in December, around the 5th or 6th), the Santa Claus of legend is a very different man than the jolly, fat chap we know in the United States. In some of the oldest legends, Santa is the god Odin, and he celebrates the winter season by delivering gifts and leading the Wild Hunt. Later, we get guys like Sinterklaas, who plies well-behaved Dutch children with gifts, while his culturally-dubious blackface sidekick, Zwarte Piet, deals with the bad little boys and girls—usually by bundling them up in a sack, beating them, and taking them away to work as slaves in Spanish salt mines or something. In Germany, Santa travels with a different sidekick, Knecht Ruprecht, who will arrive ahead of Santa and demand children sing and dance for him. If the child performs well, it is considered a sign of good behavior, and Santa will show up to give them sweets. If, however, they are poor performers, Knecht Ruprecht will throw them in a bag, spirit them away to the Black Forest, and either drown them in a river or eat them. Or he will just swat them with a sack full of ash. France has Pere Fouettard, yet another Santa sidekick, this one a former child murderer fond of lashing children with a whip.

But none of Santa’s many sidekicks have achieved quite the cult popularity as Krampus, the devilish, tongue-waggling goat-man popular throughout the German, Italian, and especially Austrian Alps. Krampus, who like every other Santa sidekick, spends most of his time whipping or drowning children, has been embraced by a growing number of Americans who are throwing their own Krampus festivals. But even the most out-of-control of American Krampusnacht celebrations pale in comparison to the drunken, debauched madness of Krampusnacht in Austria, where the biggest celebrations take place and often end up with the snowy streets strewn with unconscious, bloodied drunks in nightmarish and ornate devil costumes.

Not surprisingly, these days abusive sidekicks and Yuletide devils play less of a role in Christmas celebrations than once they did, and so too are they a rarer thing in Christmas movies than someone like me would prefer. Luckily, we still have Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka a spirited, entertaining jaunt that tells the story of a sullen blacksmith, his foiling of Satan, and his love for a local beauty. It 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 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. In true can-do spirit, two manage nevertheless to reach the tavern.

Among the elders is Choub (Aleksandr Khvylya), 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 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. 

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 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 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 a catch, behaving as he does. Oksana 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 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 burdens 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 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, by fairy tale standards it is positively sane and healthy — which perhaps says more about the quality of romance in old fairy tales 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.

The film trots out its quirky special effects immediately, with Solokha midnight broomstick ride and the Devil’s filching of the moon, drawing inspiration from the stylized 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 superimposed 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 comedy has moments during which it’s funny, but there 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 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 over him. Even the Devil is more enjoyable company. 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 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 chastised 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, these two kids just might make it.

Aleksandr Rou is not as well-known as Aleksandr Ptushko, but within Russia he is recognized as 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 whimsical Russian fantasy films, 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 is special effects supervisor Leonid Akimov, who worked on a number of special effects films, including Rou’s The Magic Weaver. Set against the snowy backdrop of the Ukrainian countryside, they mount an impressive production on what was, by the standards of much of the rest of Europe, a 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.