Soviet filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko (1894–1956) made several Russian–cinema classics of the 1920s and 1930s, but his heroic epics of peasants triumphing over a harsh, forbidding landscape never quite fully fit the political ideologies of the Stalinist era. Cultural historians rank Dovzhenko with the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, two other great Russian directors that were his contemporaries, but his work was largely forgotten in the years following his death. A journalist for London's Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Rosenbaum, called Dovzhenko "one of the most neglected major film–makers of the 20th century."
A Household Visited by Death
Dovzhenko was born on September 12, 1894, in Sosnytsia, a town in northern Ukraine in the Chernihiv district. His father was an illiterate farmer descended from the Cossacks, the large tribes of warrior–horsemen that dominated Ukrainian history. Dovzhenko was one of fourteen children born to his mother, but only he and his sister survived to adulthood. He noted many years later that "I still cannot bear to look at funerals," the Guardian's Rosenbaum quoted him as writing, "and yet they pass through all my scripts and all my pictures, for the question of life and death affected my imagination when I was still a child and left its imprint on all my work."
As a young man, Dovzhenko studied to become a teacher at an institute in the city of Hlukhiv, and from 1914 to 1919 taught school. He grew disinterested with his career choice, and took up the study of economics in Kiev just as the Bolshevik revolution gained momentum. He would abandon that for a stint at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kiev before serving a year in the Red Army during the Russian civil war. He then joined the Borot'bisti, a Ukrainian peasant party that supported an independent Ukraine during this brief period of sovereignty. When that party was dissolved, Dovzhenko joined the Ukrainian Communist Party.
Settled on Filmmaking
The party affiliation helped him land a job with the Ukrainian Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and he became the chargé d'affaires at the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw, Poland, in 1921. He was later posted to the Ukrainian embassy in Berlin, Germany, and used this time to take up the study of painting with the German Expressionist Erich Heckel. Retuning home, he settled in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov and found work as a political cartoonist and illustrator. He also fell in with a circle of leftist writers and artists. Around 1925, he co–founded VAPLITE, an acronym for the self–styled "Free Academy of Proletarian Literature," which promoted new literary trends with a decidedly Ukrainian focus. He then embarked upon another career change, this one his last: he joined the Odessa Film Studios in Ukraine's south to learn the art of filmmaking. By then the films coming out of Soviet Russia—particularly Eisenstein's sweeping 1925 epic, Battleship Potemkin—had been hailed by international audiences for their technical and artistic achievements.
Dovzhenko was a quick study and picked up the technical details and artistic concepts with ease. His first film was the 1926 comedy Vasya–reformator (Vasya the Reformer) from his own script about an overly curious boy. His next full–length feature was 1927 Teka dypkuryera (The Diplomatic Pouch), an espionage thriller with the British as the villains. It is notable for the director's sole on–screen appearance in his career, as a furnace stoker on board a ship.
By 1928 Dovzhenko was working at the Kiev Film Studios and turned to Ukrainian culture and history for his subject matter. His first work of true artistic merit was Zvenyhora (Zvenigora). This avant–garde film shows peasant life in the Ukraine and the shift toward industrialization, but it draws heavily upon Ukrainian folklore and manages a sweeping overview of a millennium of Ukrainian history. "The linking thread of this visual symphony in twelve cantos," noted an essay in the UNESCO Courier by Lubomir Hosejko, "is the figure of an old man who embodies the patriarchal peasantry, and who is attached to the values of the past and indifferent to those of the Revolution. The film marked the beginning of Dovzhenko's own personal tragedy."
Began Classic and Troubled Trilogy
Funded by the state, films from the Kiev studio where Dovzhenko was working at the time—as well as any other product of government–subsidized cultural institutions in Soviet Russia—were compelled to meet certain political criteria. The films were expected to depict the world's first Communist state in a favorable light, and glorify the ideals of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Filmmakers like Dovzhenko had a tricky time negotiating the sometimes–murky waters between these politically correct notions and the realities of recent history. Dovzhenko asserted that his next film would exalt the working classes in its depiction of a January 1918 workers' strike in Kiev. Arsenal, released in 1929, had a dense, perplexing narrative structure and fantastical images in cryptic montages, including a horse that spoke. In one scene, a Bolshevik soldier, cornered by counterrevolutionaries, rips open his tunic to take their bullets. As they miraculously fly off him, he asserts, "There is something here you cannot kill." Despite the overt political message, the tale of this invincible hero was drawn directly from relatively recent Ukrainian folklore, in the story of one rebel leader whom bullets could not kill.
Arsenal became the first in a trilogy of films that are considered Dovzhenko's best work. "His films are clearly political, yet at the same time he was the first Russian director whose art is so emotional, so vividly his own," noted an essay on him in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, which hailed this work and the two that followed as "no less than poetry on celluloid. Their emotional and poetic expression, almost melancholy simplicity, and celebration of life ultimately obliterate any external event in their scenarios. His images—most specifically, farmers, animals, and crops drenched in sunlight—are penetratingly, delicately real." Yet in a Film Comment essay, Dovzhenko scholar Vance Kepley, Jr. conceded that Dovzhenko was a master of the montage sequence, but noted his "elliptical style presented—and continues to present—formidable intellectual challenges to spectators. Even sympathetic and sophisticated members of Dovzhenko's original audience confessed to occasional problems of narrative comprehension posed by the films' disjunctions. Upon first viewing Zvenigora, Eisenstein admitted to being profoundly impressed—and periodically baffled."
Film historians deem Zemlya (Earth) to be Dovzhenko's masterpiece, but it was trounced when it was released in 1930. Its plot centers on the murder of a peasant leader by a Ukrainian landowner, who opposes Moscow's plan to collectivize agriculture in the region. In the film, the simple farmers wholeheartedly support collectivization, and the landowner becomes enraged when the farmers manage to obtain a tractor. The enmity between the two factions was indeed reflective of current events in the Ukraine at the time—though peasants were not entirely eager to turn their farms into communal enterprises. Nevertheless, Zemlya remains an important document of the time, and a classic of Russian cinema. "The shots showing the first tractor flattening the boundary markings in the fields and turning the peasantry into a collectivist society were much imitated in later Soviet films," noted Hosejko in the UNESCO Courier article.
Moved to Moscow
In reality, Zemlya was denounced as a piece of Ukrainian nationalist propaganda, and Dovzhenko was removed from his lecture post at the Kiev Film Institute. Even his aged father ran into trouble and was ejected from his own collective farm unit because of it. Deciding to settle in Moscow to prove his commitment to the Soviet, not Ukrainian, cause, Dovzhenko reemerged with Ivan, his first movie with sound. The 1932 work follows the story of a major construction project for a dam on the Dnieper River and one illiterate peasant boy's involvement in it and political coming–of–age.
Film historians note that the epics that came out of Soviet Russia during this era were obvious propaganda for the Soviet state. At the time, Soviet leader Josef Stalin was leading the country on a massive shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse, and swiftly crushing resistance to those goals in any form. In the Ukraine, in particular, there was tremendous opposition to the collectivization policies at the time, for millions were starving from the upheaval in what had once been known as the breadbasket of Europe. Though Dovzhenko had to work under constraints that were clearly designed to serve the state, Rosenbaum noted in the Guardian that his films "failed more often than not to carry out those objectives. Most of them are no less clearly avant–garde films financed by state money, and this was bound to make some bureaucrats furious."
Stalin sent Dovzhenko to the Siberian taiga to make 1935's Aerograd (Air City), which was released in the United States as Frontier. His next project took nearly four years to complete. Shchors was a 1939 period film about Nikolai Shchors, one of the few Ukrainian Bolshevik heroes. Dovzhenko attempted to research the film by speaking to Shchors' former comrades, but many of them were disappearing as a result of Stalin's Communist Party purges of 1936–37. His own work was closely supervised by government officials, and often the completed scenes had to be sent to Moscow for vetting. "Depending on Stalin's mood and the political situation at a particular moment, Dovzhenko might be forced to rejig whole sequences, sometimes even five or six times," wrote Hosejko in the UNESCO Courier. "Shchors, who had actually been killed by a stray bullet, had to be shown as the hero of a Bolshevik happy end."
Made War Documentaries
Allowed to return to Kiev, Dovzhenko served as artistic supervisor at the Kiev Studios after 1940, but struggled over the next decade. He served as a combat correspondent for two periodicals, Red Army and Izvestia, during World War II, and directed a handful of films about the wartime heroics in the Ukraine. In 1943, when excerpts from his next planned project, Nezabivaemoe (The Unforgettable) were published, Dovzhenko found himself in serious trouble once again. The script for the movie, also known by the title Ukraine in Flames, was denounced as a work of bourgeois nationalism, and got him fired from his post at the Kiev Studios. His wife, actress–turned filmmaker Julia Solntseva, however, managed to finish it several years after his death.
During the 1940s, Dovzhenko had also found work as a theater director, and wrote a stage play about Russian agronomist Ivan Michurin. In 1948, its screen version became his first color film. Michurin suffered from further political interference, however, and Dovzhenko actually made two final versions, but kept one secret. His next project was Goodbye America, based on a short story by the American writer Annabel Buckart. The plot centers around a woman working at the American embassy in Moscow who refuses to become a spy for her government and instead defects to the Soviet side. The film was never completed during Dovzhenko's lifetime, however. He was inexplicably locked out of the studio after he had shot the interior scenes, but a 1995 version was cobbled together from existing footage.
When Stalin died in 1953, much of the repressive political atmosphere dissipated for a time and Dovzhenko was able to resume his filmmaking career. He died in Moscow on November 26, 1956, just before he was set to begin filming a trilogy about a Ukrainian village during the years of collectivization and World War II. The trio was completed by Solntseva and released as Poema o more (Poem of an Inland Sea) in 1958, Povest plamennykh let (Story of the Turbulent Years) in 1961, and Zacharovannaya Desna (The Enchanted Desna) in 1965.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, fourth edition, St. James Press, 2000.
Film Comment, May–June 2002.
Guardian (London, England), July 4, 2003.
UNESCO Courier, July–August 1994.
Nationality: Ukrainian. Born: Sosnytsia, Chernigov province of Ukraine, 12 September 1894. Education: Hlukhiv Teachers' Institute, 1911–14; Kiev University, 1917–18; Academy of Fine Arts, Kiev, 1919. Military Service: 1919–20. Family: Married 1) Barbara Krylova, 1920 (divorced 1926); 2) Julia Solntseva, 1927. Career: Teacher, 1914–19; chargé d'affaires, Ukrainian embassy, Warsaw, 1921; attached to Ukrainian embassy, Berlin; studied painting with Erich Heckel, 1922; returned to Kiev, expelled from Communist Party, became cartoonist, 1923; co-founder, VAPLITE (Free Academy of Proletarian Literature), 1925; joined Odessa Film Studios, directed first film, Vasya-reformator, 1926; moved to Kiev Film Studios, 1928; Solntseva began as his assistant, 1929; lectured at State Cinema Institute (VGIK), Moscow, 1932; assigned to Mosfilm by
Stalin, 1933; artistic supervisor, Kiev Studio, 1940; front-line correspondent for Red Army and Izvestia in the Ukraine, 1942–43; denounced as "bourgeois nationalist," transferred to Mosfilm, 1944; theatre director, 1945–47; settled in Kakhiva, 1952. Julia Solntseva directed five films based on Dovzhenko's writings, 1958–69. Awards: Lenin Prize, 1935; Honored Art Worker of the Ukrainian SSR, 1939; 1st Degree Stalin Prize for Shchors, 1941; Order of the Red Flag, 1943; Order of the Red Labor Flag, 1955. Died: In Moscow, 26 November 1956.
Films as Director:
Vasya-reformator (Vasya the Reformer) (co-d, sc); Yahidka kokhannya (Love's Berry; Yagodko lyubvi) (+ sc)
Teka dypkuryera (The Diplomatic Pouch; Sumka dipkuryera) (+ revised sc, role)
Zvenyhora (Zvenigora) (+ revised sc)
Arsenal (+ sc)
Zemlya (Earth) (+ sc)
Ivan (+ sc)
Aerograd (Air City; Frontier) (+ sc)
Shchors (co-d, co-sc)
Osvobozhdenie (Liberation) (co-d, ed, sc)
Pobeda na pravoberezhnoi Ukraine i izgnanie Nemetskikh zakhvatchikov za predeli Ukrainskikh Sovetskikh zemel (Victory in Right-Bank Ukraine and the Expulsion of the Germans from the Boundaries of the Ukrainian Soviet Earth) (co-d, commentary)
Michurin (co-d, pr, sc)
Bukovyna-Zemlya Ukrayinska (Bucovina-Ukrainian Land) (Solntseva) (artistic spvr)
Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Savchenko) (artistic spvr)
Alexander Parkhomenko (Lukov) (artistic spvr)
Bytva za nashu Radyansku Ukrayinu (The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine) (Solntseva and Avdiyenko) (artistic spvr, narration)
Strana rodnaya (Native Land; Our Country) (co-ed uncredited, narration)
(films directed by Julia Solntseva, prepared or written by Dovzhenko or based on his writings):
Poema o more (Poem of an Inland Sea)
Povest plamennykh let (Story of the Turbulent Years; The Flaming Years; Chronicle of Flaming Years)
Zacharovannaya Desna (The Enchanted Desna)
Nezabivaemoe (The Unforgettable; Ukraine in Flames)
Zolotye vorota (The Golden Gates)
By DOVZHENKO: books—
Izbrannoie, Moscow, 1957.
Tvori v triokh tomakh, Kiev, 1960.
Sobranie sotchinenyi (4 toma), izdatelstvo, Moscow, 1969.
Polum'iane zhyttia: spogadi pro Oleksandr a Dovzhenka, compiled by J. Solntseva, Kiev, 1973.
By DOVZHENKO: articles—
Interview with Georges Sadoul, in Lettres Françaises (Paris), 1956.
"Avtobiographia," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 5, 1958.
"Iz zapisnykh knijek," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 1963.
Dovzhenko, Alexander, "Pis'ma raznyh let," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), April 1984.
"Listy Aleksandra Dowzenki do zony," (Letters to Julia Solntseva 1942–52), in Kino (Warsaw), May 1985.
On DOVZHENKO: books—
Yourenev, R., Alexander Dovzhenko, Moscow, 1958.
Schnitzer, Luda, Dovjenko, Paris, 1966.
Mariamov, Alexandr, Dovjenko, Moscow, 1968.
Oms, Marcel, Alexandre Dovjenko, Lyons, 1968.
Amengual, Barthélemy, Alexandre Dovjenko, Paris, 1970.
Carynnyk, Marco, editor, Alexander Dovzhenko: The Poet asFilmmaker, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973.
Marshall, Herbert, Masters of the Soviet Cinema: Crippled CreativeBiographies, London, 1983.
Kepley, Vance, In the Service of the State: The Cinema of AlexanderDovzhenko, Madison, Wisconsin, 1986.
Nebesio, Bohdan Y., Alexander Dovzhenko: A Guide to PublishedSources, Edmonton, 1995
On DOVZHENKO: articles—
"Dovzhenko at Sixty," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1955.
Obituary in New York Times, 27 November 1956.
Montagu, Ivor, "Dovzhenko—Poet of Life Eternal," in Sight andSound (London), Summer 1957.
"Dovzhenko Issue" of Film (Venice), August 1957.
Shibuk, Charles, "The Films of Alexander Dovzhenko," in NewYork Film Bulletin, nos. 11–14, 1961.
Robinson, David, "Dovzhenko," in The Silent Picture (London), Autumn 1970.
Carynnyk, Marco, "The Dovzhenko Papers," in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1971.
"Dovzhenko Issue" of Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), September 1974.
Biofilmography in Film Dope (London), January 1978.
Trimbach, S., "Tvorchestvo A.P. Dovzhenko i narodnaia kul'tura," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 10, 1979.
Kepley, Vance, Jr., "Strike Him in the Eye: Aerograd and the Stalinist Terror," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Winter 1983.
Bondarchuk, Sergei, "Alexander Dovzhenko," in Soviet Film (Moscow), January 1984.
"Dovzhenko Sections," of Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), September and October 1984.
Bernard, J., "Odzak dia a mysleni Alexandra Petrovice Dovzenka," in Film a Doba (Prague), September and October 1984.
Pisarevsky, D., "Radiant Talent," in Soviet Film (Moscow), September 1984.
Navailh, F., "Dovjenko: 'L'or pur et la verite'," in Cinema (Paris), January 1985.
Amiel, Vincent, "Hommage a Dovjenko," in Positif (Paris), September 1986.
Véronneau, P., "Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1889–1968," in Revue de laCinémathèque (Montreal), no. 2, August-September 1989.
Dovzhenko, A., "Drevnik. 1945, 1953, 1954," in Isskustvo Kino (Moscow), no. 9, September 1989.
Filmcritica (Italy), vol. 41, no. 407, July 1990.
"Nikolaj Ščors?legenda I real'nost," in Isskustvo Kino (Moscow), no. 9, September 1990.
On DOVZHENKO: film—
Hyrhorovych, Yevheniya (Evgeni Grigorovich), AlexanderDovzhenko, 1964.
* * *
Unlike many other Soviet filmmakers, whose works are boldly and aggressively didactic, Alexander Dovzhenko's cinematic output is personal and fervently private. His films are clearly political, yet at the same time he was the first Russian director whose art is so emotional, so vividly his own. His best films, Arsenal, Earth, and Ivan, are all no less than poetry on celluloid. Their emotional and poetic expression, almost melancholy simplicity, and celebration of life ultimately obliterate any external event in their scenarios. His images—most specifically, farmers, animals, and crops drenched in sunlight—are penetratingly, delicately real. With Eisenstein and Pudovkin, Dovzhenko is one of the great inventors and masters of the Russian cinema.
As evidenced by his very early credits, Dovzhenko might have become a journeyman director and scenarist, an adequate technician at best: Vasya the Reformer, his first script, is a forgettable comedy about an overly curious boy; The Diplomatic Pouch is a silly tale of secret agents and murder. But in Zvenigora, his fourth film, he includes scenes of life in rural Russia for the first time. This complex and confusing film proved to be the forerunner of Arsenal, Earth, and Ivan, a trio of classics released within four years of each other, all of which honor the lives and struggles of peasants.
In Arsenal, set in the Ukraine in a period between the final year of World War I and the repression of a workers' rebellion in Kiev, Dovzhenko does not bombard the viewer with harsh, unrealistically visionary images. Despite the subject matter, the film is as lyrical as it is piercing and pointed; the filmmaker manages to transcend the time and place of his story. While he was not the first Soviet director to unite pieces of film with unrelated content to communicate a feeling, his Arsenal is the first feature in which the totality of its content rises to the height of pure poetry. In fact, according to John Howard Lawson, "no film artist has ever surpassed Dovzhenko in establishing an intimate human connection between images that have no plot relationship."
The storyline of Earth, Dovzhenko's next—and greatest—film, is deceptively simple: a peasant leader is killed by a landowner after the farmers in a small Ukrainian village band together and obtain a tractor. But these events serve as the framework for what is a tremendously moving panorama of rustic life and the almost tranquil admission of life's greatest inevitability: death. Without doubt, Earth is one of the cinema's few authentic masterpieces.
Finally, Ivan is an abundantly eloquent examination of man's connection to nature. Also set in the Ukraine, the film chronicles the story of an illiterate peasant boy whose political consciousness is raised during the building of the Dnieper River dam. This is Dovzhenko's initial sound film: he effectively utilizes his soundtrack to help convey a fascinating combination of contrasting states of mind.
None of Dovzhenko's subsequent films approach the greatness of Arsenal, Earth, and Ivan. Stalin suggested that he direct Shchors, which he shot with his wife, Julia Solntseva. Filmed over a three-year period under the ever-watchful eye of Stalin and his deputies, the scenario details the revolutionary activity of a Ukrainian intellectual, Nikolai Shchors. The result, while unmistakably a Dovzhenko film, still suffers from rhetorical excess when compared to his earlier work.
Eventually, Dovzhenko headed the film studio at Kiev, wrote stories, and made documentaries. His final credit, Michurin, about the life of a famed horticulturist, was based on a play he wrote during World War II. After Muchurin, the filmmaker spent several years putting together a trilogy set in the Ukraine, chronicling the development of a village from 1930 on. He was sent to commence shooting when he died, and Solntseva completed the projects.
It is unfortunate that Dovzhenko never got to direct these last features. He was back on familiar ground: perhaps he might have been able to recapture the beauty and poetry of his earlier work. Still, Arsenal, Ivan, and especially Earth are more than ample accomplishments for any filmmaker's lifetime.