b. 10 September, 1894, Sosnitsa, Ukraine
d. 25 November, 1956, Moscow, Russia

“I sit down beside Pudovkin,” writes Sergei Eisenstein in 1928, after he and his filmmaking compatriot Vsevolod Pudovkin attend the premiere of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora. “We both had just come into fashion — and weren’t yet venerable […]. In the crush we meet the director – his name is Alexander Dovzhenko. On to the three screens of the Hall of Mirrors – the true one and the two side ones that reflect it – Zvenigora leaps! Mama! What goes on here!”1

It was high, typically loquacious praise from Eisenstein, the most renowned and influential filmmaker of silent Soviet cinema. But while his reaction attests to the overwhelming potency of Dovzhenko’s fourth film — the same intensity shown in several of the Ukrainian director’s succeeding features — what this early impression could not foresee was the tumultuous path Dovzhenko’s subsequent career would take. As the son of illiterate farmers, one of fourteen children (one of only two to survive into adulthood), Dovzhenko entered a nation beset by raging strife. In the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, his homeland was embroiled in a resurgence of nationalism, artistic and cultural regeneration, and violence. In this “kaleidoscopic political setting,”2 battle lines were drawn and allegiances were upheld. The prevailing animosity and rampant civil confusion led to a lingering undercurrent of injustice, marring much of Dovzhenko’s working life and resulting in a recurrent struggle to preserve his autonomous Ukrainian heritage in the face of mounting parochial resistance.

“Always one to dislike easy classifications,” as Marco Carynnyk remarks, Dovzhenko was “by turns schoolteacher, political worker, and diplomat, cartoonist, book illustrator, and painter, film director, short story writer, playwright, journalist, and finally teacher again.”3 Indeed, by the time he became a filmmaker, Vance Kepley, Jr. adds, “he had already lived more than half of his eventual sixty-two years […] and had formed many of the convictions that would shape his films.”4 Prone to biographical reinvention (not always of his own volition), and forced to remain “politically agile,”5 details of Dovzhenko’s early life have been notoriously obscured or altered by the fluctuating necessities of political adherence. What is clear is that by 1926 he had found a new artistic calling. Having joined the Odessa Film Studios, Dovzhenko entered the vocation for which he would be best known, and the one that would cause him the most consternation. “I believed that film was the art with the greatest potential for the masses,” Dovzhenko commented. “I longed to serve the people; I was sure that I had been born to bring them much good.”6 His motivations also went beyond the rhetorical possibilities of the medium. There was something inherent in the form he could appreciate: “What can an artist show on canvas? Only a small part, an episode of what happens here. But film can capture everything completely, show it during its development, show its rhythm, breathing, and human fate…”7

Though now lost, Dovzhenko’s first film was a 1926 comedy, Vasya reformator (Vasya the Reformer), on which he served as co-director with Faust Lopatinsky. His debut plants its titular personality in a succession of moral and legal crusades, as he becomes an unwitting righter of wrongs. “Through a series of slapstick adventures and misadventures,” Vasya exposes and rectifies a chain of social ills: “drunkenness, fraud, clerical dishonesty and marital strife.”8 Running less than an hour, this was followed by another comedy, the 27-minute Yagodka lyubvi (Love’s Berries). Dovzhenko’s sophomore effort is a farcical sketch about a dandy barber and his repeated attempts to abandon his apparently illegitimate child. With sight gags, prop manipulation, and a hapless hero, this 1927 film evinces a clear Western influence (not surprising in a market dominated by European and American imports). Its emphasis on physicality and scheming, on comic mugging and simple, silly acts of chance combine with high-speed antics and technical pranks. Though it contains little to distinguish itself as one of Dovzhenko’s exemplary films, or as part of any particular national origin, Love’s Berries is a capable production with sharp photography and an unaffected manner. Most striking, though, are its audacious sexual undertones, reflecting an extensive shift in moral permissiveness; it is revealed the child doesn’t actually belong to the straw-hat wearing ne’er-do-well, but that the film even deals with such material is noteworthy. While just Dovzhenko’s second movie, Love’s Berries was his last with no overt motive or message. For a few brief minutes, in the resort city of Yalta, Dovzhenko conveyed a distinct lightness, a rare, delightful diversion.

This temperament changed significantly with Sumka dipkuryera (The Diplomatic Pouch). Expanding a range of sectarian connotations, inspired by the assassination of a real Soviet diplomat, this 1927 espionage thriller embeds its race-against-the-clock scenario within a topical concentration on contingent sociopolitical unity. Opening the film in an incessant downpour, refining strained faces with pointed lighting in the darkness, creating a visceral portrait of man and nature in ecstasy and anguish, Dovzhenko deploys an array of visual trickery, exploiting throughout the picture manifold superimpositions and distorted, disorienting states of shifting perspective. Frequently enhanced by optical texture, shooting through rain-speckled windows or tracing a facial outline in brilliant illumination, casting the focal figure in relief, The Diplomatic Pouch indicates Dovzhenko’s embryonic avant-garde aptitude. More conventionally, it escalates a conspiratorial tension by concealing characters along the edges of the frame, having them hover in darkened backgrounds, and by linking combatants in vivid positions of photographic rigidity.

The Diplomatic Pouch, 1927

An entertaining, largely unassuming film, The Diplomatic Pouch also initiates the emergence of conservative political corollaries (generally unpretentious at this point), from ever-present Lenin iconography to the applauding of an admirable death as being “like a man … and a Bolshevik.” Most optimistically is the ubiquitous perception of like-minded adherents doing the right thing in the name of Soviet ideology, with sympathizers representing not just the proud proletariat but the personification of a widespread belief as it influences other nations, moving forward in the beliefs and actions of its faithful.

As accomplished as these early efforts are, they scarcely scratch the surface of what came to define Dovzhenko’s cinema, a propensity best and incomparably encapsulated in the three films that followed. “On the basis of Love’s Berries and The Diplomatic Pouch, no one was prepared for Zvenigora,” writes Denise J. Youngblood of Dovzhenko’s 1928 film. “Dovzhenko came into his own as an artist when his subject was the Ukraine that he so dearly loved.”9 Steeped in a fluid amalgam of peasant life and cultural antiquity, this sweeping, episodic chronicle harnesses a compendium of enchanted fantasy and folkloric national record. Guiding the fable’s variable orbit is an old man (Nikolai Nademsky), who disseminates tales of buried treasure to all who will listen, including his two disparate grandsons, Timoshka (Semyon Svashenko) and Pavlo (Aleksandr Podorozhnyy). As established by his charmed omnipresence, this grandfather humanizes a secular constancy and represents an eternal progression of life. “A grandfather,” Dovzhenko wrote, “is a prism of time,” 10 and in this case, the old man shepherds a compelling, centuries-spanning exploration of “decay and renewal in the cycle of the seasons … something to be ultimately welcomed as a natural phenomenon.”11

Trumpeting his Ukrainian affection, Dovzhenko infuses Zvenigora with enigmatic allusions to religion, myth, and superstition. An indefinable, lyrical tale, riddled with analogy and modernist inspiration, it was a bold, illuminating step forward. Open to narrative digression and displaying elegant special effects, exaggerated lighting, and stilted camera placement, the film, according to Dovzhenko, was a “catalog of all [his] creative abilities.”12 Masterfully inaugurating tender elemental detail – the rain, smoke, and wind, the fulsome harvest, the toil of men, women, and children in rural, communal engagement – he posits an existential course shared with animal and plant life, progressing with inevitable seasonal flux. Opposed to this vision, as it often was for Dovzhenko, is the depiction of industrialisation, contrasting with an unspoiled reverence for the land. “I have always believed,” he avowed, “that a person cannot be an artist without a passionate love of nature.”13

In terms of structure, themes, and political intent, Zvenigora is decidedly less straightforward than Dovzhenko’s previous work (and most of what was to come). Although it would cement his legacy, it also raised the ire of those unaccustomed to such elusiveness. As Peter Kenez contends, “the uninitiated viewer can follow the story-line only with the greatest difficulty,” for “Dovzhenko wanted to present images, and did so in balladic fashion.”14 A charge of unnecessary, albeit stunningly realised complexity was levelled by many, to which Dovzhenko issued a still-surprising rebuke: “Well, I cannot help it. I cannot very well appear before them at each performance and say ‘look here, fellows, if there is anything you do not understand it does not mean that my film is bad or unintelligible. The reason why you don’t understand it is within yourself. Maybe you simply are unable to think.’”15

Zvenigora, 1928

The unique ethnographic appeal of Zvenigora, its undeniably regional specificity, meant a great deal to Dovzhenko, who called upon a litany of material from his heritage library. But this was also the sort of unequivocally nationalistic awareness that amplified existing tensions between Ukrainian and Russian authorities. Arsenal, released in 1929, was seen as a contrary way of adhering to political dogma, upholding Dovzhenko’s fidelity to a specific national slant (at least on the surface). Commemorating the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, Arsenal highlights an ill-fated workers’ strike in Kiev. Against the tripartite backdrop of industry, agrarianism, and political defiance, the film initially relates the horrors of World War I with broken families and broken bodies, stoic individuals struck by a disturbing malaise, blanket destitution, and by the plague of authoritative abuse. But as Arsenal delves into war’s ravages and its grotesque agonies, it likewise explores the multifaceted casualties stemming from socioeconomic as well as national discord. Moving from the “realistic picture of a war-torn landscape and the madness of human conflict, to a mythologization of the armed struggle and the ultimate victory of the proletariat,”16 Arsenal attempts to deromanticise revolution, extending the cultural, fiscal, and familial repercussions of violence.

Arsenal, 1929

Arsenal is a downbeat and vivid portrayal of what should have been a favourable picture of the Communist state, with due glory paid to the insurgent productivity of munitions production and pecuniary prosperity. Instead, revealing an ambivalence concerning the message he was entrusted to purport, Dovzhenko turned his attentions to the province he knew best: “I wanted to make a film about the revolution, not the palace revolution, but the revolution of peasants, workers, and intellectuals who made the revolution and then did not get anything.”17 Populated with characters assuming broad caricature form — anonymous Germans and illustrative Ukrainians — most of those in Arsenal are “hardly individualized,” as Dovzhenko acknowledges. “They were embodiments of ideas and ideologies.”18 The one representative character, Timosh (Svashenko again), is a catalyst for continued rebellion. His final stance, during which he proves impervious to bullets, becomes a surreal, provocative, and inspirational demonstration.

Visibly corroborating his graphic artist training, working in tandem with cinematographer Daniil Demutsky (who shot Vasya the Reformer and Dovzhenko’s next two features), Dovzhenko adopts intricate, high contrast lighting and a refined balance of stasis, enhancing tempo, and sudden crest, surpassing traditional linear construction and supporting imagination over strict causal action and temporal logic. Rapid editing and associative juxtapositions – machines of production and destruction, pictures of war and industry, studies of soiled, cold modernity against the bright, warm tranquility of rustic living – form a swelling discrepancy, a manifold national symphony hinging on history, revolution, and labour. Given how radically much of this appears, combined with its elastic timeline, incongruent spaces, and abstract cross-cutting parallels, the ambiguities of Arsenal made it “one of the few Soviet political films which seems even to cast doubt on the morality of violent revolution,” representing as it does the “vagaries of the actual civil war experience.”19 But by the end of the 1920s, as Liber notes, “Stalin’s Soviet Union could not tolerate moral ambiguity.”20 In the sceptical eyes of those in power, a film like Arsenal appeared to encourage volatile alienation on all sides of the region’s on-going skirmish: “Ukrainian intellectuals denounced [Dovzhenko’s] apparent criticism of Ukrainian nationalism [while the] orthodox community criticized his ambivalence regarding the Revolution and social change.”21

Earth, 1930

State-funded films like Arsenal were required to meet certain political criteria, and Dovzhenko’s next film, Earth (1930), was no exception. As its ostensibly edifying emphasis, Earth considers Joseph Stalin’s enforced collectivization of farmland. Such was the precarious nature of the time, however, that while this message was accepted when production started in 1929, by the spring of 1930, as Liber explains, the same message had “become suspect.”22 Earth was therefore “caught in its own historical contradiction. Conceived in a period of voluntary collectivization, it appeared during the harshest phases of dekulakisation [repressive Soviet actions].”23 Whatever its impetus, and however long this inspiration lasted as a productive quality, Earth is Dovzhenko’s pictorial love song to nature, a radiant canvas for flowing wheat fields, oceans of crops, and idyllic close-ups of produce and foliage. The film begins with the introduction of another of Dovzhenko’s expressive elderly men, Simon, played by Nademsky as a near extension of his Zvenigora grandfather (he also appeared uncredited as a grandfather in Arsenal). Simon’s life has come to an end, a peaceful, matured death, his acceptance of which eases into a symbolic paradigm of assorted organic processes. In addition to its properties of life, death, and rebirth, all so vital to Dovzhenko’s practice, Earth is an explicit illustration of his own peasant background, with all ages, capabilities, and physical constitutions linked in analogous compositions to the fruits of their labour (Simon’s depleting body lies amongst an apple pile) and their indispensable livestock (a “talking” horse is one anthropomorphic touch). It is part of an idealized landscape, a pure countryside where the environment “seems to become animate and to interact with humans.”24

It is with this in mind that the arrival of modern machinery is met with enamoured incredulity. As Vasyl (Svashenko) walks proudly alongside a trailblazing tractor, greeted by exclamations of “It’s here! It’s here!” the entry is a momentous occasion and a transitional one. The outmoded methods of farming will forever be compared to the speed and efficacy of this machine, a divergence Dovzhenko charts with a flurry of movement, vigorous montage, and inspired framing. Earth’s cooperative accent is on not only the uniting of rural citizenry, but on the adaptation of this divisive equipment, and to meet that end, Dovzhenko dutifully shows how most of the villagers “possess an internal rhythm, which they effortlessly coordinate with the rhythms of nature and of the new machines. Animate and inanimate power produce a rich harvest.”25 Not everyone is so convinced, and the sublime apparition of Vasyl as he dances along a darkened pathway, kicking up luminous dust in the moonlight, becomes particularly redolent after he is shot down by an oppositional neighbour against the activism of his counterpart.

“That a Dovzhenko could grow so consistently and accomplish so much,” observes Jay Leyda, “even alongside superficial works — that a non-naturalist artist continued to work freely amidst the mounting acceptance of naturalism — this is the proudest episode in the history of Soviet films.”26 With individual silhouettes painted against partly clouded firmament, in low angles and formidable close-ups, the so-called “sky canvases of the 1920s speak of majesty and grandeur and of the essential unity of nature and man.”27 Yet for many, Dovzhenko’s films were boring if not downright incomprehensible, especially for their intended peasant audience. True enough, for as far as its actual story is concerned, as Leyda comments, Earth is “so slight as to be almost plotless.”28 The routine agitprop assignment was deemed excessively high brow, and certain contentious sequences didn’t help: a shot of mild female nudity, the image of a woman in labour, farmers refilling the tractor’s radiator by urinating into the contraption — offbeat perhaps, but a patent example of the organic influencing the synthetic. Accordingly denounced as a formalist purveyor of Ukrainian propaganda (among other accusations), Dovzhenko was roundly reprimanded.

With dissipating Ukrainian sovereignty, and hoping to alleviate any doubt about his devotion to the Soviet cause, Dovzhenko began a project that would be a testament to political and industrial prowess and would give him a chance to work with emergent sound technology. Bound by the engineering framework of a dam construction along the Dnieper River, Ivan (1932) centres on one particular peasant, the eponymous figurehead played by Pyotr Masokha, as he progresses from middling worker to principal lead. Compared to the dawdling layabout Stepan (Stepan Shkurat), who evokes the tedium of such a massive undertaking, Ivan is a robust operative. But in a process common to Soviet films of the period, his prominence as a fleshed-out protagonist basically dissipates in favour of broadly celebrated worker accord and concerted strength. Logging the constructive exertion of the endeavour, the adulation and pride, and the robust depiction of man and machine working in unison, the kinesis of Ivan is a prodigious sensation, which Dovzhenko enlivens with dynamic technical and individual action. The consequential encounter between “poet-director Dovzhenko and the great hydro-electric project on the Dnieper River” resulted in film that “fits no easy category.” According to Leyda, “‘A Dovzhenko film’ is the only adequate description.”29

Ivan became Dovzhenko’s “most sophisticated study of the peasantry’s adaption to new technology,”30 therefore meeting the conditions of its rather impersonal content, and Dovzhenko was still able to retain his visual flourish. As stated by Liber, it was an “ordinary film which may have taxed Dovzhenko’s use of political symbols, but not his creative powers.”31 But neither did the film curtail his susceptibility to perceived antagonistic content. Insulated within a thriving landscape, Ivan’s laborious edifice conjures a disruption of the environment’s innate current, a negative by-product of industrialisation, and not only does Dovzhenko never show the completed dam, but he dares depict its varied failures, those mechanical and man-made. Adding to the film’s polemic, as the first sound feature to use the Ukrainian language, Ivan raised concerns over the spreading of its essential message — could all of its intended audience even understand the absolute proclamations? Furthermore, that Ivan seeks education and intellectual “heft,” moving from the assembly hall to the classroom, suggested to some a discontent with his formulaic role in national efficiency.

“In following the party’s guidelines,” writes Liber, Dovzhenko “experienced problems in reconciling his perspective of reality with the party’s interpretations.” 32 So again, the ever-frustrated filmmaker found himself hard-pressed to appease those who harboured misgivings regarding his political commitment. Playing on the fears and paranoia of an embattled nation, his 1935 film Aerograd attempted to assuage these uncertainties. Materialising from worries that Japanese rivals might infiltrate a vulnerable expanse of land in the far east of the Soviet Union, Aerograd is situated amongst the rolling hills of a secluded wilderness, where the mountains, trees, and wide rivers perfectly suit Dovzhenko’s scenic sensibilities. Here, though, these topographical features also affect the susceptibility of the state. Working outside Ukraine for the first time, Dovzhenko and Eisenstein’s stalwart cinematographer Eduard Tisse (who was eventually replaced by Mikhail Gindin and Nikolai Smirnov), scan an abundant milieu with definite didactic purpose. Roaming the East Siberian taiga, average men embark on their protective mission, securing the territory with the benefit of terrain familiarity, thus allowing their unimpeded movement and their apposite appreciation of the locality.

Aerograd, 1935

Filling Aerograd with salt of the earth types to flavour its propaganda, these authentic frontier figures lament a changing world, a world that induces a degree of enthusiasm and an undercurrent of threatening possibility. Exemplified by the presence of interminable aircraft, the most efficient way to reach this secluded spread, such transportation offers the freedom of travel – but it can also transport the enemy. Like Ivan and Arsenal, development takes its toll, progress has dual consequences, and technology can change a culture and a landscape. Though it is slight in story, Aerograd contains impassioned characters and a firm pronouncement of their (and the film’s) intentions. A partisan roll call, as they cry out their towns and cities of origin, gives voice to the pervasive popularity of the Soviet standard, and decrees noting the enemy’s hated of Soviet teamwork, youth, and expertise stress the importance of this standard’s survival. Politically correct by most every measure, Aerograd was nonetheless a commercial and critical failure. But as part of Dovzhenko’s political rehabilitation, it worked, becoming, as Liber maintains, “his most socialist realist film.”33

“While Aerograd marked Dovzhenko’s political comeback,” Liber continues, “his next film, Shchors (1939), manifested his political triumph.”34 A triumph, but one with substantial baggage. As succinctly detailed by Jamie Miller, Shchors is “one of the most remarkable cases of Stalin’s involvement” in the work of Soviet filmmakers. “The relationship between Stalin and Dovzhenko,” Miller writes, can be traced back to Arsenal. “Stalin liked the film but the Ukrainian authorities thought otherwise and began to harass Dovzhenko.” The situation deteriorated after the release of Earth and Ivan, which were heavily criticised:

By this stage, Dovzhenko was in danger of arrest. However, Stalin played his part in preventing this and convincing Dovzhenko to move to Moscow in 1933. From this point on, Stalin formally became a protective father figure/teacher to Dovzhenko who would meet the leader more often than any other filmmaker in the Soviet Union. Stalin recognized Dovzhenko’s talent and exploited the director’s position of obligation to the leader by compelling him to make political film in support of the communist system.35

It was within this context that Stalin advanced the none-to-subtle suggestion that Dovzhenko should consider directing a biopic on the civil war commander Nikolai Mykola Shchors, under whom the director had fought during the years 1919 and 1920.

With such prompting, and the associated oversight from on high, Shchors was destined to be a film of tremendous importance. For Dovzhenko, the resulting pressures were compounded by issues ranging from casting (beginning the film three times with three different lead actors) to the extraordinarily convoluted screenplay, in which the life of this Bolshevik icon became a fictionalised, near-mythic account; files on Shchors, Dovzhenko recalled, described “the same things six, eight, and ten times, but in different ways.”36

Dealing as it does with a glorified Soviet idol, Shchors took shape as a unique veneration of one individual, and was thus opposed to the collective nucleus seen elsewhere. Yet there are considerable efforts made to stress the good humour of Shchors, his collaborative dexterity, his motivations, sacrifices, and his vociferous appeal to the masses. Shchors is in a position above others, but it is often in name only, for his distinction appears attainable to any one of his subordinates. Moreover, as he rebuffs his own official title and humbly affirms, “I’m a worker,” he epitomises an ideal leader: calm, composed, confident, competent, and just one of the honoured multitudes.

“As in all his best work,” Leyda declares, “Shchors leaves in the memory burning images of death and of passionate life,” 37 and Dovzhenko’s knack for composition boomed with an increased budget and the polish of a large-scale sanctioned production. A consummate picture in every way, Shchors contains some of the most outstanding imagery in Dovzhenko’s œuvre, adding artistry to the aggression. As assailing soldiers are placed against towering flora in an obscene disparity, his trademark sunflower fields explode under enemy fire, the serenity giving way to an onslaught of ferocity; later, a snow-covered countryside is peppered by the black specks of men marching into battle. But rather than showing war’s true fallout, save for a few fatigued and wounded troopers, Shchors is a film of durable enthusiasm, its worn and weary militia relating their dreams and desires instead of recoiling in pain.

Three years in the making and heavily scrutinised, Shchors involved extensive research on Dovzhenko’s part, as he sifted through countless documents and spoke to those who knew and worked with the film’s lauded hero. Attesting to the unsound nature of contemporary Soviet policy, however, many of these individuals began to “disappear” as part of Stalin’s pugnacious purges. The tense atmosphere of wary intrigue resulted in a film encumbered by its careful, even fabricated presentation. For example, when one of Shchors’ primary colleagues was expunged in real life, so too was the film rewritten to excise his character; even Shchors’ own death was manipulated to fit a more acceptable version of history. It was a familiar story for Dovzhenko, entering a film with the best of intentions only to have those aims subverted by the harsh realities of the time. “He succeeded in completing the film and achieving a compromise between his own artistic vision and the official party line,” writes Liber, “but he did so at the cost of his own physical health and his own emotional equilibrium.”38 Awards and approval followed, and for a time, Dovzhenko was compliant and content. “I made the film with all my love and strength as a memorial to the nation,” he stated, “a token of my deep respect for the heroes of the Ukrainian Revolution. I felt that my creative urges were being expressed not in flimsy celluloid, but in durable stone or metal fated to survive the centuries.” 39

Shchors, 1939

But it was all for naught. Shchors was the last completed feature directed by Alexander Dovzhenko. Unable to return to Ukraine, he became a combat correspondent and supervised multiple documentaries. Films like Osvobozhdeniye (Liberation, 1940), Bitva za nashu Sovetskuyu Ukrainu (The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine, 1943) and Pobeda na Pravoberezhnoy Ukraine i izgnanie nemetsikh zakhvatchikov za predely ukrainskikh sovietskikh zemel (Victory in Right Bank Ukraine and Expulsion of the German Aggressors from Soviet Ukrainian Territory, 1945) are comprised of conventional wartime images: exhausted soldiers, sullen peasants, towns and cities demolished but surviving, and a devastated landscape. But they also straddle a tonal oscillation, presenting a portrait of liberty, prosperity born from individual heroism, increasing military might, and the hard-fought fulfilment of a modern world born anew. These triumphant records of enduring Soviet strength are samples of pure, persuasive propaganda, touting socialist endeavours and anti-German sentiment, extolling the virtues of the Red Army, the soldiers and leaders and the inexhaustible populace. Though his active role in their realisation varied, from editor and narrator to manager if not outright director, the staid speeches, vigorous rallies, impersonal maps, and parades and military formations often appear rigid and severe, lacking Dovzhenko’s typical sensitivity. Engraved impressions of soldiers in song, settings on fire, and a devotion to natural integrity are sporadic exceptions. It is primarily in The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine that traces of Dovzhenko’s influence are most prominent. Confirmed by Leyda, “From its opening scenes of the rich Ukrainian crops in 1941, waiting for harvest, but reaped by bombers, [The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine] is an astonishingly personal film, making one believe its ‘supervisor’ had controlled all of its seemingly uncontrollable elements of unstaged reality.” 40

Dovzhenko’s wartime efforts did little to relieve his anxieties. He faced severe denunciation in 1944, when a proposed screenplay was censured for its flawed heroes, its negativity, and its perceived criticism of Soviet fallibility, and he was only able to shoot and edit a portion of the 1945 Armenian documentary Native Land on the sly, having been forbidden to work on the production (the credits list him only as the narration’s author).

Michurin, 1948

Permitted to proceed with approved filmmaking, Dovzhenko turned to the life of Russian agronomist Ivan Michurin, basing his biographical film on a previously composed stage play. Nevertheless, Michurin (Life in Bloom), Dovzhenko’s first colour film, suffered from seemingly preordained political interference. This story of a venerated horticulturist should have been, as Dovzhenko argues, an “ideologically safe subject” with no “nationalist tendencies,” and yet, taking five years from inception to completion, working from six different screenplays, the chief issue confronting Michurin was its representation of the titular character’s various domestic dramas, the argument being that daily activities should only be in the “context of their social activities and not their private lives.”41

Dovzhenko submitted Michurin in the spring of 1948, a series of amendments ensued, and while it managed to resurrect his reputation, Dovzhenko practically disowned the finished film: “This is someone else’s picture, completely not mine.”42 Despite his professed detachment from the production, and its genuinely dubious authorship, Michurin showcases Dovzhenko’s characteristic grace and his favoured themes. As Carynnyk observes, “All films directed by Dovzhenko portray reorganizers of nature and society and explore the same subject: by exploiting the earth’s resources and transforming nature, man also transforms himself. In this lie both his salvation and his doom.”43 Ivan and Aerograd are good examples, and so too is Michurin. Here is a modest figure who exemplifies the joint enhancement of nature and science in a fruitful union, framed with billowing clouds, blue skies, green fields, flowing bodies of water, and bouquets of vibrant vegetation; a montage of flowers in bloom shows Michurin conducting an enraptured orchestra of ecological animation. In the end, while recognising its debatable additions, Michurin, writes Leyda, “has beauties and intensities that no one but Dovzhenko could have given us.” 44

In late 1950, Dovzhenko started work on Proshchay, Amerika! (Farewell, America), a cold-war drama based on a short story by American writer Annabelle Bucar, who emigrated to Russia, defected to the Soviet Union, became a Soviet citizen, and wrote a book about her experiences, The Truth About American Diplomats. It was delicate, controversial content, and just two months after Dovzhenko started filming, the production was shut down. Having concluded nearly half the film, the material was left untouched until 1995, when the existent footage was assembled for posterity. Because of its partiality and scarcity, it is difficult to judge Farewell, America! as it presently appears. Generally, there is more to separate it from Dovzhenko’s filmography than there is to conform: an idealistic middle class homelife, quaint, bureaucratic interiors, learned men and women, and a female protagonist.

The far-reaching thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953 led to Dovzhenko’s slow but steady reintegration. Embittered, demoted, and increasingly ill, he remained hopeful and productive. He considered a science fiction film, “In the Depths of Space,” and the widescreen “Poem of an Inland Sea,” one of several projects ultimately accomplished by his wife, the former actress Yuliya Solntseva (she won Best Director at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, working from his screenplay for Chronicle of Flaming Years). As related by Liber, Dovzhenko’s later scripts “dealt with the theme of family, home and the difficulties of maintaining meaningful communication. Their subtexts, however, dealt with the trauma of his exile in Moscow and his desire to return to Ukraine.”45 Tragically, Dovzhenko in fact died just as he was about to embark on filming a trilogy about Ukrainian life in the years leading up to World War II.

Alexander Dovzhenko was, in the words of Kepley, “the great folk artist of cinema,” a “lyrical poet and the modern polemicist, the spokesman for tradition and the advocate of revolutionary change.”46 Fraught by recurrent adversity, private and professional impediments, failing heath, and, more impactful than anything, the misfortune to be operating at a time of immense political and social instability, Dovzhenko’s cinematic trajectory was punctuated by sporadic moments of awesome success, only to be burdened by periods of demoralising disappointment. “The few films that I did complete,” he stated, “I made with love and sincerity. In those films lies the primary meaning of my life.”47 But to maintain his fertile output, Liber argues, Dovzhenko “compromised politically and artistically at every turn. Doing so, he achieved much in terms of quality, if not quantity.” 48

While ostensibly designed to speak effusively to the masses, his pooled output was, at the same time, a deeply personal and profoundly poetic accumulation. Time and again, enlightening and simultaneously impeding his productivity, he flaunted a conspicuous aesthetic with relentless formal and narrative invention, all while attempting to toe the party line. Films likes Aerograd, Shchors, and Michurin outwardly demonstrate Dovzhenko’s political loyalty, Liber argues, but a “subversive subtext softens their central, politically approved messages.”49 And at the risk of alienating anyone not conversant in the obscurities of Ukrainian history and culture, usually rendered through poignant visuals and dense reference points, Dovzhenko reinforced a fundamental depiction of the common man in harmony and opposition with nature, transcending the era of his undertaking and besting any obstacle he may have encountered.

“I truly regret having accomplished so little,” Dovzhenko recalled late in life, “especially in the last fifteen years. At times I think evil forces surrounded me […] I love film art. I have not always loved the people who supervise it.”50

Filmography

Vasya the Reformer (Vasya reformator, 1926), also writer
Love’s Berries (Yagodka lyubvi, 1926), also writer
The Diplomatic Pouch (Sumka dipkuryera 1927), also writer and producer
Zvenigora (1928), also writer
Arsenal (1929), also writer and producer
Earth (Zemlya, 1930), also writer
Ivan (1932), also writer
Aerograd (1935), also writer
Shchors (Shors, 1939), also writer
Liberation (Osvobozhdeniye, 1940), also writer
The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine (Bitva za nashu Sovetskuyu Ukrainu, 1943)
Victory in Right Bank Ukraine and Expulsion of the German Aggressors from Soviet Ukrainian Territory (Pobeda na Pravoberezhnoy Ukraine i izgnanie nemetsikh zakhvatchikov za predely ukrainskikh sovietskikh zemel, 1945)
Michurin (Life in Bloom, 1949), also writer
Proshchay, Amerika! (Farewell, America, 1949), also writer

Select Bibliography

Marco Carynnyk (ed. and trans.), Alexander Dovzhenko: The Poet as Filmmaker: Selected Writings (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1973).
David Gillespie, Russian Cinema (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2003).
Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001).
Vance Kepley, Jr., In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986).
Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (New York: Collier Books, 1973).
George O. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film (London: British Film Institute, 2002).
Jamie Miller, Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion Under Stalin (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010).
Denise J. Youngblood, Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Denise J. Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991).

Articles in Senses of Cinema

“Poetry in Motion: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth” by Adam Bingham, http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/earth/
Arsenal” by Miguel Marías, http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/arsenal/

Endnotes:

  1. Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (New York: Collier Books, 1973), p. 243.
  2. Vance Kepley, Jr., In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), p. 17.
  3. Marco Carynnyk (ed. and trans.) Alexander Dovzhenko: The Poet as Filmmaker: Selected Writings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973), p. ix.
  4. Kepley, In the Service of the State, p. 11.
  5. George O. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film (London: British Film Institute, 2002), p. 5.
  6. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 12-13.
  7. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 70.
  8. Ibid., p. 73.
  9. Denise J. Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), p. 180.
  10. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 91.
  11. John Riley, “A (Ukrainian) Life in Soviet Film, on George O. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film.” Film-Philosophy 7:5. www.euppublishing.com/doi/full/10.3366/film.2003.0031 (2003)
  12. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 14.
  13. Ibid., p. 4.
  14. Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001), p. 56.
  15. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. xv.
  16. David Gillespie, Russian Cinema (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), p. 126.
  17. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 100.
  18. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 14.
  19. Kepley, In the Service of the State, p. 62-63.
  20. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 113.
  21. Ibid., p. 113.
  22. Ibid., p. 111.
  23. Kepley, In the Service of the State, p. 84.
  24. Ibid., p. 81.
  25. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 11.
  26. Leyda, Kino, p. 255.
  27. Gillespie, Russian Cinema, p. 5.
  28. Leyda, Kino, p. 275.
  29. Ibid., p. 290.
  30. Kepley, In the Service of the State, p. 158.
  31. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 125.
  32. Ibid., p. 126.
  33. Ibid., p. 136.
  34. Ibid., p. 146.
  35. Jamie Miller, Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion Under Stalin (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), p. 64.
  36. Cited in Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 157.
  37. Leyda, Kino, p. 354.
  38. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 162.
  39. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 19.
  40. Leyda in Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p.xxxi.
  41. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 234-236.
  42. Ibid., p. 238.
  43. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. xlv.
  44. Leyda, Kino, p. 395.
  45. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 249.
  46. Kepley, In the Service of the State, p. 3.
  47. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 21.
  48. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 267.
  49. Ibid., p. 270.
  50. Carynnyk, Alexander Dovzhenko, p. 21.

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.