To criticise or dismiss classical Hollywood because of censorship or constrictions placed on the filmmakers by producers, or for its alleged propagandistic purposes, is common enough. The very same people who take that approach towards Hollywood are however often in favour of Soviet cinema of the 1920s. It should be clear then that their issue with Hollywood is not censorship, constrictions or propaganda but that they just do not like the films or the politics they feel that those films project, but prefer to phrase their dislike in more "objective" language. After all, if they were so alarmed by restrictions and propaganda in general they should abhor Soviet cinema since it is quite obvious that making a film under, say, Darryl F. Zanuck was a walk in the park compared to making a film under Josef Stalin (Zanuck might at worst yell at you, Stalin might have you shot) and it was not possible to make a film which did not glorify the revolution and the dictatorship in Moscow. But, just like in Hollywood, the filmmakers still managed to make spectacular films of great force and beauty, regardless of their questionable politics. The most famous of the Soviet filmmakers is of course Sergei Eisenstein, with Dziga Vertov a close second. But it is Alexander Dovzhenko who is the focus of this post.
He was from the Ukraine, born in 1894, and his most famous films, Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930) are all hymns to the people and landscape of Ukraine, as well as to the Bolsheviks. That is his unique contribution to Soviet cinema of the 1920s. Those three films also constitute the bulk of his achievements. Some also hold Aerograd (1935) in high regard, even though it is a bit of a mess. That one is not about the Ukraine but other later films are also set there, like the biopic Shors (or Shchors, 1939).
Above is an image from the beginning of Earth, and shows Dovzhenko's eye for poetic compositions and juxtapositions of humans and nature. That is one of his strengths, and a reason why his films can be appreciated without subtitles. Even though they are communist propaganda they have a certain religious sentiment, or spiritual theme, which is not to be found in the films of Dovzhenko's Soviet contemporaries. Maybe pantheism is a word that describes his films. They could also be called portentous due to his habit of having his characters staring into space and say deep and meaningful things about life, death, the soil, or the revolution. But that is balanced by scenes like one in Earth when a man suddenly starts to dance when walking on a country road and then dance his way forward rather than continue walking, just being thrilled by being alive and at peace with his surroundings. Another strength of Dovzhenko is montage, which is of course what is to be expected from a Soviet filmmaker of the 1920s. This railway crash in Arsenal is an example.
So there are powerful emotions and great beauty in Dovzhenko's best films. But there are also nauseating scenes like the end of Aerograd when the war machine of the Soviet Union is glorified and an officer with a beaming face and immaculate white uniform says: “Long live Aerograd city which we Bolsheviks are establishing today on the shore of the Great Ocean.” The man is shining like he himself was the sun. There is sometimes a very thin line between communist and fascist propaganda, which should be acknowledged.
Dovzhenko did not do all that well after Aerograd, cinematically, and during the war he served at the front, as a journalist. He died of a heart attack in 1956. His reputation is no longer what it was, and his films are not automatically listed among the best ever made as was once the case, but he is worth the trouble to investigate, at least the films of the period 1928-1932.