Sunday, 22 September 2013

Alexander Dovzhenko

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.


  1. Who are the people who dismiss classical Hollywood on political grounds? Are they cinephiles or just ideologues? At least in the U.S., I see more people expressing skepticism towards classic Soviet cinema for political reasons.

  2. Well, they're not cinephiles... But this is a question of personal experience and so it of course depends partly upon the specific context in which you grow up and go to school and university, which books are available, and so on. All through my years as a student and even later the general tendency among most scholars and critics I have come across has been suspicion and sometimes outright hostility to American cinema and a disproportionally high regard for European art cinema and Soviet montage cinema. I often felt embarrassed for liking American cinema when I was younger. But even last year a Swedish film writer said to me "So, I hear you like American films?!" with incredulity filling his voice.

  3. With "disproportionally" I mean that the appreciation often lacks critical nuance (sexism is often overlooked for example) and that the achievements of movements such as neorealism are overstated (it really wasn't as new and revolutionary as is often claimed) and misunderstood.

  4. Come to America, and you'll find plenty of people who love Hollywood, although unfortunately they're generally unaware that films are made elsewhere in the world or that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas didn't invent cinema. Also, the Cold War has left its mark on our perceptions of Soviet cinema: I'd say Tarkovsky and even Paradjanov have higher reputations than the directors who made their marks in the silent era, because they can be seen as dissidents.

  5. Things are different now so I needn't move for that reason!

    Paradjanov was a student of Dovzhenko.