The festival of Dovzhenko's films was organized with help from the
Ukrainian government, which has taken an active role in championing
Dovzhenko's work outside his native country
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, December 3, 2002; Page C01
Ukrainians would prefer that Alexander Dovzhenko's first name be spelled
with an "o": Olexander. And rather than say that Dovzhenko is the great
filmmaker of the Ukraine, they'd rather you drop "the" before Ukraine, which
makes the independent country sound as if it is still a province under the
hegemonic thumb of Mother Russia. Small details, but significant signs of
the ongoing process of cultural reclamation in the fiercely independent
countries that emerged from the Soviet Bloc.
A festival of Dovzhenko's films at the National Gallery, which begins
Saturday, is part of the same process. The series is organized with help
from the Ukrainian government, which has taken an active role in championing
Dovzhenko's work outside his native country. Nine of his 11 finished films,
most of them in new prints, are included in the series, from his
ecstatically naturalistic early silent works, "Zvenigora" (1928) and "Earth"
(1930), to his more problematic sound films, such as "Shchors" (1939), made
when the chill of Stalin was a stronger and more menacing presence in Soviet
Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi, a minister at the embassy, calls Dovzhenko "an
ambassador of Ukraine, a cultural ambassador." The remark comes at time when
Ukraine could use all the good diplomacy it can muster. The country's
president has been accused, by opponents, of ordering the murder of a
journalist; and the government is under suspicion of selling a radar system
to Iraq. Promoting Dovzhenko, the most deeply personal of the early Soviet
filmmakers, may not be an intentional effort to distract people from the
country's political woes, but it must be a relief, for a diplomat, to talk
film history and the poetics of the peasantry when most of the news
elsewhere is bad.
"He was very Ukrainian, very poetic, very tolerant and very friendly in his
films," says Yatsenkivskyi. All true, and he was also a Bolshevik and very
much within the muscular, modernist tradition of early Soviet films that
gave the world the masterpieces of Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and
Within the tradition, but a very individual voice within it. Dovzhenko's
love of the Ukrainian land and people gave his films a softer edge and a
deeper emotional resonance than his more urbane contemporaries. He was
deeply and emotionally political, but the miracle of Dovzhenko's films is
that they transcend their politics, not just because, like the films of
Eisenstein, they are made with exceptional skill and daring, but because
they are intimate at the same time. He was, like Chekhov, unafraid of
sentiment and humor.
Dovzhenko can film the arrival of a tractor at a collective farm with all
the frenetic hysteria of good agitprop. And then he can show the sun-dappled
field that the tractor will till and make all its richness and fertility
glow on the screen with a magical urgency. When Dovzhenko films the
landscape, or people's faces, one forgets ideology, or at least one senses
the humane aspiration behind the false promises. Dovzhenko (1894-1956) lived
through some of the ugliest decades of human history, and was very much at
the epicenter of the ugliness, yet his films suggest a sensibility still raw
to the power of natural beauty.
Dovzhenko was born to a peasant family, one of 14 children, of whom only two
lived out a full life. Despite the poverty and repetitive tragedy of his
childhood -- death was omnipresent -- he received an education, became a
teacher and (after fighting for the Red Army and joining the Communist
Party) a diplomatic clerk for the new Soviet Union. He was also an artist,
though not a terribly successful one (nor, based on reproductions of his
cartoon work from the 1920s, a very good one).
As an artist, he was influenced by the constructivists and their raw
assemblage of materials, often of industrial origin.
"But like so many of the constructivists who began as painters, he wanted to
bring art to the masses," says Peggy Parsons, head of film programming at
the National Gallery. "And what better way to do it then by bringing art to
With film, he found his calling, and he helped push the rapidly evolving
language of film imagery and editing to such complexity that his films are
sometimes impenetrable without knowing their story beforehand. He indulged
in a very personal free association, both on the small scale (quick cuts
used to bring together visual or poetic rather than narrative connections)
and on the large, episodic scale as well.
His 1929 silent "Arsenal" begins with an extended and terrifying meditation
on the depredations of war, a fantasy of death and destruction still
shocking today. A man with no legs sits uselessly on the floor; a German
soldier's face is twisted by poison gas into a horrifying scene of laughter
and madness; a man walks by a woman on the street and idly reaches out and
grabs her breasts, unhindered by law or decency. Yet all of this is
prologue, like an extended overture to the actual opera to come. His films
veer off into similar asides that last so long they threaten to derail any
clear sense of narrative.
Dovzhenko was well aware that he made difficult movies. He called his
"Zvenigora" (the first film in the National Gallery series) "unusually
complicated in structure, eclectic in form . . . a catalogue of all my
creative abilities." And he knew that a lot of people didn't get it.
"The artistic audience was quite enthusiastic about [the film] when it came
out, but the general public did not accept it because it was difficult to
understand," he wrote in a brief autobiography that has an excruciating
measure of the ruthless self-criticism that Soviet artists were expected to
display (the more craven the better) when analyzing their own work. With
"Zvenigora," a folk tale about about a mysterious treasure horde that morphs
into an ode to industrialization, he said he was still learning his craft.
"I was more like a professor of higher mathematics than an entertainer," he
But he came back a year later with "Arsenal," a drama of war and revolution
at a Kiev munitions factory, which is not very much easier to decipher.
There is definitely a story -- about Bolshevik resistance to the White
Russians -- and there is definitely a hero, the square-jawed, craggily
handsome Timosh, who remains impervious to bullets when he bares his chest
to attackers in the climactic scene. The narrative is not linear, but a
loose weaving of recurring thematic ideas and images. And the filmmaker has
a habit of showing the cause and the effect, without ever showing the event
itself. The viewer can never be passive. Dovzhenko demands powerful skills
of inference and deduction.
That engagement with the active viewer thrilled Dovzhenko's early
supporters. Cultural hard-liners, who believed in simple narratives with
clear ideological messages, were less enthusiastic.
By 1930, the year his masterpiece, "Earth" was released, there was a growing
sense that the great Soviet filmmakers needed to be reined in by the
The poet Demian Bedny, who had Stalin's favor, used a review in Izvestia to
a write a satiric poem directed at Dovzhenko's too-"philosophical" oeuvre.
"Earth" was deemed, by influential Soviet cultural leaders,
And it probably was, despite the glorification of collective farming,
mechanization and modernization. For all the stock Bolshevik imagery, Mother
Earth gleams through the film with a calming sense that human affairs are
ephemeral. The standard travails of life, sickness and death take on a
spiritual power that overwhelms the political trappings. Dovzhenko does for
the film about tractors what Shostakovich did for the heroic worker's
symphony -- he found a personal creative accommodation with hackneyed forms
The National Gallery festival begins with the three great early silents, but
for American audiences, the real curiosities will come later this month with
the rarely screened later films. Under stricter supervision, Dovzhenko's
topics became more predictably doctrinaire: "Michurin" is about a Soviet
horticulturist; "Shchors," a subject dictated by Stalin, is about a
Ukrainian partisan. The series concludes with two documentaries produced
during the Second World War. The standard critical line on Dovzhenko's later
work is that it suffers, reflecting his growing personal disillusionment and
an ever greater sense of obligation to political masters. The festival gives
American audiences a rare chance to accept or reject that verdict.
Landscapes of the Spirit: Alexander Dovzhenko opens at the National Gallery
of Art with "Zvenigora" and "Arsenal" on Saturday at 2:30 p.m and continues
weekend afternoons through December. For more information visit www.nga.gov
Two photographs with the article: (1) A scene from the 1930 film "Earth,"
part of the Alexander Dovzhenko retrospective at the National Gallery (2)
A scene from Alexander Dovzhenko's 1928 film "Zvenigora." (Courtesy Of
The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
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