Eastern Blokh is a monthly column by Danya Blokh about Eastern European art and culture.
Early Soviet cinema is where film became an artform. This era’s experiments in montage pushed cinema beyond the recreation of reality and toward the suturing of its disparate parts into new intellectual composites, a technique which remains central to film today. Most film schools still require students to study these early practitioners: Lev Kuleshov, who theorized the capacity of montage to impose new meanings onto juxtaposed material; Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, who explored this technique in their films with their respective methods of collision and addition; and Dziga Vertov, who applied montage to documentary in order to expose hidden economic relations.
Throughout my study of Soviet film, I’ve heard another name listed along with the others: Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Yet when I searched through academic texts for more information about him, I found a vacuum. Very little has been written about him compared to the tomes of critical work about Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Dovzhenko’s own theoretical texts were available in only one absurdly priced academic publication. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum attributes the dearth of scholarship to Dovzhenko’s “hillbilly” origins in rural Ukraine, which led critics to treat him less seriously than his metropolitan Russian peers. What little writing exists tends to portray Dovzhenko as a covert anti-communist who left a breadcrumb trail of Ukrainian nationalist sentiments throughout his work. Considering mainstream Soviet culture’s embrace of Dovzhenko as a legend of communist cinema, the possibility of his harboring a nationalist agenda rang a false note.
If the critical silence surrounding Dovzhenko in Western academia piqued my interest, his veneration by Soviet film legends caught my full attention. Eisenstein and Pudovkin praised Dovzhenko as a legend of Soviet cinema; Andrei Tarkovsky stated, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone, it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” His influence is most apparent in the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema school, a movement of filmmakers who drew narrative and aesthetic inspiration from regional folklore. The celebrity of this school was Armenian director Sergei Parajanov, whose psychedelic film-poem The Color of Pomegranates (1969) is regarded as one of Soviet cinema’s masterpieces. While producing and marketing their films, members of the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema school invoked Dovzhenko as a patron saint whose cinematic legacy justified their aesthetic experimentation. Overall, it seemed hardly an overstatement to say that Dovzhenko influenced those Soviet directors who have shaped world cinema as a whole.
I sat down with Dovzhenko’s work to puzzle out his legacy for myself. I quickly understood why few critics had successfully deduced a Dovzhenko signature; his oeuvre was incredibly eccentric. His first three notable films varied in style: Zvenigora (1928) was a folk tale about buried treasure, Arsenal (1929) was a harrowing depiction of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Ukraine, and Earth (1930)—which I’ve previously written about for the Herald—was a lyrical portrayal of rural collectivization. His later films ranged from the Far East sci-fi narrative of Aerograd (1935) to the horticulturist biopic Michurin (1948).
Across these many styles and stories, however, I noticed Dovzhenko’s striking tendency to slip from the realistic portrayal of events into a folkloric mode. Through painterly composition, hypnagogic camerawork (specifically his specially constructed soft-focus lenses), and emphasis on moments of stasis, Dovzhenko imbued these folkloric scenes with a slow, dreamy temporality. These scenes either existed entirely outside the narrative or transformed a diegetic moment into a suspended, symbolic one. In Earth, for instance, the shift into the folkloric mode occurs at a crucial caesura in the narrative; the young Bolshevik Vasyl has just successfully brought a tractor into the village, which will spur the anti-communist reactionaries to gun him down at night. However, a sequence of portraits depicting peasant couples from the village separates these two plot points. The couples stand still and stare into the distance, often in different directions; their posed stiffness and the surreal cloudiness of the camera breaks the illusion of narrative which stands between the audience and the filmed reality. In this moment, the diegetic narrative, and the teleology of communist collectivization which it represents, brushes up against a different teleology: the eternity of national space, in which characters blur into folkloric archetypes and objects shed their materiality to become national symbols. In these scenes, time is held still; its constant change is replaced by the stasis of space.
It is crucial that this space is that of Ukraine. The folkloric mode collapses time onto itself to suggest the continuity of location, but specifically the location of the Ukrainian people. This constancy of national history is suggested by Dovzhenko’s choice of iconography, from symbolically Ukrainian objects (such as sunflowers) to characters (such as the archetype of the old Ukrainian man throughout his films) to fables (such as the buried treasure of Zvenigora). Furthermore, the attention given to the Ukrainian landscape in Dovzhenko’s long, pastoral stills suggests its narrative centrality; Dovzhenko himself once claimed that he never preplanned his images, stating that “the harmony of particular images is perhaps explained by their close integration with the land.” This emphasis on the continuity of Ukrainian national consciousness departed significantly from other Soviet filmmakers’ clean division between past and present. Working from the Marxist tenet of mankind’s transformation through the dialectic of social organization and productive forces, filmmakers like Vertov and Eisenstein focused on the fundamental differences between pre- and post-Revolutionary society; their work was concerned with the historical emergence and self-realization of proletarian self-consciousness. Dovzhenko’s folkloric mode, with its sense of an extra-historical continuity of Ukrainian consciousness, seems incredibly unorthodox by comparison.
In light of this contrast, it is easy to understand why Western critics have interpreted Dovzhenko’s work as nationalist and anti-communist. Bohdan Nebesio writes that Zvenigora “pays far greater attention to the romanticized notion of history embraced by the nationalists than to the revolutionary Marxist agenda.” Similarly, Romana M. Bahry asserts that Earth subverts the socialist realist ‘master plot’: “The linear socialist realist narrative remains vague and eventually breaks down, and is overshadowed by poetic themes such as nature, the cycle of life and death, the traditional family and the traditional peasant farm, and Christianity.”
Yet these analyses overlook the dialectical relationship between Ukrainian national continuity and communist historicity which strikes me as central to Dovzhenko’s work. After all, the Bolshevik revolution in Ukraine occurred after the country had been colonized for centuries. In the pre-revolutionary era, the majority of Ukrainian property was in the hands of Russian, Polish, Hungarian, and Lithuanian landowners, as well as cossacks who acted on behalf of the tsarist state. The idea of seizing property from these landowners appealed to a great number of the disenfranchised Ukrainian peasantry, spawning a preponderance of national-communist groups whose history has largely been erased. Dovzhenko belonged to one such group, the Borotbists, who called for the socialization of agriculture as well as the autonomy of Ukraine, and who dissolved into the Bolshevik party of Ukraine in 1920.
Consequently, Dovzhenko’s folkloric mode shouldn’t be seen as expressing chauvinistic nationalism. Rather, it depicts a national consciousness which has been suppressed by colonialism, and which can only be regained through the destruction of private property and the un-alienation of people from the land. Soviet rule ultimately failed to deliver this un-alienation; Stalin’s purging of many former national communists, forced collectivization of the countryside, and Russification of the Soviet republics would destroy the synthesis of national consciousness and communist government envisioned by Dovzhenko. Yet it is this vision of an extra-temporal consciousness, of a connection to land that transcends time, which made Dovzhenko’s work a wellspring of inspiration for the generations of filmmakers that followed.