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Ukrainian Pastoral
How Alexander Dovzhenko brought the Soviet avant-garde down to earth
by Vance Kepley, Jr.

above: earth

Alexander Dovzhenko's revolutionary epic Arsenal ends on a hyperbolic note. The setting is the Soviet Civil War in 1918, and the film's Bolshevik hero makes a last stand in a desperate battle against counterrevolutionary foes. They overrun his position, and he stands ready to face certain death as they train their weapons on him. He turns toward the camera and pulls open his tunic, exposing his chest. The enemy bullets bounce off his body without harming him. "There is something here you cannot kill,"the hero says, in a declaration directed as much at the audience as it is at the enemy. Those enemy soldiers then literally disappear from the screen in the face of the Bolshevik's invincibility.

The scene has several striking elements that tell us much about Dovzhenko's complex aesthetic. Its dramatic hyperbole shares common ground with other works of Soviet didactic art, and its abrupt shift from a realist to a fantasy mode owes something to the disjunctive mixes of the Twenties avant-garde. So does the scene's romantic treatment of the revolutionary ethos, the ineffable "something"that cannot be killed. But if those features evoke a modern sensibility, it is also important to know that the episode draws on a decidedly old-fashioned source: the legend of a Ukrainian peasant who led an 18th-century serf uprising. As in various folk tales, its hero is depicted as invincible, invulnerable to his enemies' attack. As he did so often in his films, Dovzhenko took a time-honored peasant motif, one indigenous to his native Ukraine, and recast it in a modernist work that contributed to Soviet revolutionary culture. Dovzhenko is best known in the West for his epic silent films on the Soviet revolution - his "Ukrainian trilogy"of Zvenigora (28), Arsenal (29), and Earth (Zemlya, 30). These films are firmly established in the silent cinema canon, ensuring that Dovzhenko continues to be mentioned in the same breath as his Soviet contemporaries Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov (their considerable stylistic differences notwithstanding). His Ukrainian national identity and his peasant origins also figure in our appreciation of him as a kind of rural bard, one whose work drew on peasant lore and a pastoral tradition.

Dovzhenko was the most prominent of a lively avant-garde artistic cohort to emerge from Soviet Ukraine in the Twenties. Along with several writers and artists, he tried to formulate a Ukrainian national voice in the context of Soviet artistic culture. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union - and it's been over a decade now - the various Soviet republics have not only reformulated autonomous national identities but have worked to recover their cultural heritages from Soviet history. This mission was undertaken with particular urgency in the new Ukraine, offering at least one way to redress a record of subordination both to the old Russian Empire and to the Communist regime. Dovzhenko and his contemporaries in the Ukrainian avant-garde, including those who fell victim to the Stalin purges, could now be "re-remembered"as distinctly Ukrainian rather than Soviet artists. Certainly new archival material made available in the past decade confirms the resentment Dovzhenko felt over the interference he endured from the ussr's Moscow-based Party apparat. But to portray him solely in national terms, as a kind of filmmaker-laureate of Ukraine, is to miss the most important quality of his work. That is precisely the tension between his indigenous Ukrainian sources and those modernist (and modernizing) influences that were activated by the Bolshevik Revolution. Throughout Dovzhenko's career two antagonistic pressures shaped his films: to celebrate the possibilities of Soviet-style revolution and the new Communist order, and to honor the tradition-based peasant heritage of Ukraine. The aesthetic richness of Dovzhenko's films results, in no small measure, from his effort to reconcile these antinomic goals. Thus, Arsenal concludes with a didactic passage that supports the modern Bolshevik cause, but it does so with an homage to a centuries-old Ukrainian folk tale.

Dovzhenko's background offers some indication of how he came to formulate such mixed creative ambitions. He was born into a peasant family in the fertile Desna River area in northeast Ukraine in 1894. His own written accounts of his early years recall the pleasures of childhood in a pastoral setting and the delights of hearing lyric tales "about the Desna, the grass and the mysterious lakes."This idyll was troubled, however, by the Russian Empire's repressive treatment of Ukraine; Dovzhenko remembered with bitterness being required to speak Russian rather than Ukrainian in his rural elementary school.

When the revolutionary movement spread through the empire in the 1910s, many Ukrainians greeted the moment as the chance to overthrow the tsar, expel Russian colonial authorities, and create an independent Ukrainian nation. Some Ukrainian Marxists, however, envisioned a full-scale workers' revolution rather than a nationalist uprising, and that meant affiliating with the Russian Bolshevik Party and anticipating the continued alliance of Ukraine and Russia in a multinational socialist system. An array of leftist and nationalist parties took shape in this climate. A young man coming of age in such turbulent times would be hard-pressed not to fall in with one political movement or another. Dovzhenko may have affiliated for a time with the nationalists - his later memoirs are intentionally murky on this point - but he was certainly radicalized by the dramatic events of 1917 - 18. He eventually became a Communist and served with the Red Army during the Civil War.

As a reward for Party service, and perhaps to discharge new services, Soviet authorities sent him to Berlin in the early Twenties. There he had the chance to pursue his growing interest in painting. While studying with Erich Heckel of the German Brücke group, Dovzhenko immersed himself in Berlin's rich avant-garde artistic and literary environment. By the time he returned to Ukraine, his newly acquired taste for artistic modernism balanced his earlier exposure to peasant folk art and lore. He was able to nurture both creative impulses as a painter and caricaturist in the mid-Twenties in Kharkov, a city with an active avant-garde art community of its own. There Dovzhenko worked as a political cartoonist while interacting with members of the vaplite literary movement, a circle of leftist writers that set out to connect traditional motifs from Ukraine's indigenous literary heritage with the modern forms and revolutionary messages of Soviet artistic practice. Dovzhenko would carry that dual mission over to his films in later years, along with a heightened interest in contemporary public affairs acquired as a result of the topical commentary in his political cartoons.

His entry into filmmaking in 1926 was an apparent by-product of his interest in the graphic arts. Ukraine was able to develop a thriving national cinema in the mid-to-late-Twenties, during the period of Bolshevik leniency toward the nationalities. Dovzhenko enjoyed the freedom to work on six films in a variety of genres from 1926 through 1930. He started with comedies on contemporary social conditions with the now-lost Vasya the Reformer (Vasya-reformator, 26) and Love's Berries (Yagodka lyubvi, 26). He then made an espionage thriller, Diplomatic Pouch (Sumka dipkuryera, 27), that betrayed a stylistic debt to German Expressionism. With Zvenigora and Arsenal, his epic accounts of revolution in Ukraine, Dovzhenko adopted the highly elliptical montage style that would become his trademark and that carried over to Earth, his treatment of rural collectivization in Ukraine.

That 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. The film's narrative combines an ancient legend about the mystical mountain "Zvenigora"with a modern story set in revolutionary Ukraine. The plot moves back and forth across the centuries, and the temporal leaps juxtapose arcane references to Ukraine's distant past with commentary on the nation's progress under the Soviets.

Dovzhenko's montage achieved particular rigor in Arsenal and Earth. As opposed to Eisenstein and Vertov's rapid, dynamic montage, Dovzhenko's editing has a more measured pace. But the cuts often involve substantial gaps in time and space. Viewers must find a logical connection from one shot to the next that isn't always provided by narrative continuity. In the opening of Arsenal, for example, a highly discontinuous shot sequence juxtaposes images of World War I with vignettes of Ukrainian home-front life during the war: abject peasants in an impoverished village, a maimed soldier, a peasant woman trying vainly to sow a field, Tsar Nicholas II making a diary entry. The shots advance no appreciable narrative information, offering instead a reflection on the causes (Tsar Nicholas) and consequences (maimed soldier) of the war. It devolves upon the viewer to trace out this rhetorical logic in lieu of a narrative thread. Likewise, the opening of Earth does little to move the narrative forward, but suggests a wealth of montage associations. The only story event in the entire first reel is the death of an elderly peasant. Dovzhenko edits the passage so as to take us repeatedly away from this incident to the details that seem to reside in some uncertain space around it: family members keeping vigil, children playing, the natural environment of trees, fruit, flowers, grain, and even clouds. The montage offers up subtle graphic associations between man and nature instead of narrative exposition.

Such practices often taxed the patience of official Soviet critics, especially during the period of the Stalinist backlash against avant-garde art. Earth, in particular, earned the ire of Communist Party spokes-critics for being unduly abstract and for showing dangerous signs of "Ukrainian nationalism."That latter judgment coincided with the Kremlin's crackdown on "nationalist deviation"in the USSR's member republics. Dovzhenko felt this when his Kiev studio lost its autonomy in 1930 and was absorbed into the heavily bureaucratized Soviet film apparatus of the Stalin era. All the Soviet montage directors suffered under Stalinist constraints over the next decade, but Dovzhenko had the special burden of being labeled both a "formalist"(i.e., montage) and a "nationalist"(i.e., Ukrainian) filmmaker. Many of his associates in the Ukrainian intelligentsia, including the vaplite writers, disappeared in the purges, and Dovzhenko was able to survive by tempering his experimental style. With some difficulty, he adopted the sanctioned norms of Soviet socialist realism - linear narratives, continuity practices, optimistic plot formulas - and he even relocated from Kiev to Moscow later in his career to diminish the perception that he was a Ukrainian nationalist.

Nevertheless, during this second phase of his career Dovzhenko still produced brilliant work that engaged an avant-garde sensibility. In Ivan (32), his first sound film and a treatment of Soviet industrialization in Ukraine, he applied his montage aesthetic to the soundtrack with impressive experiments in sound-image counterpoint. And his two films from the period of "high Stalinism,"Aerograd (35), an adventure story set in the Soviet Far East, and Shchors (39), another Civil War epic, still contain any number of reflexive moments; characters often address the camera, for example, and when the treasonous villain is exposed in Aerograd, he actually turns and shields his face from the camera as a mark of shame.

The war years found Dovzhenko doing propaganda work for the cause, including supervising two patriotic documentaries on the USSR's desperate struggle against Germany, Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine (Bitva za nashy Sovetskuyu Ukrainu, 43) and Victory in Right-Bank Ukraine (Pobeda na Pravoberezhnoi Ukraine, 45), both of which contain moving tributes to the sacrifices made by Ukrainians under Nazi occupation. Dovzhenko's only completed feature film in the postwar years, when Stalinist censorship was at its harshest, was Michurin (49), finished after years of script development and countless Party-mandated revisions. The result is a predictable panegyric for the Soviet system in the form of a biopic of the Russian biologist Ivan Michurin. Nevertheless, Dovzhenko still found ways to marry a pastoral sensibility to an interest in modernization with his account of Michurin's efforts to improve on nature's bounty through scientific research.

Dovzhenko died in 1956, after two decades of frustration with Stalinist oppression and before he could experience the benefits of Nikita Khrushchev's more tolerant "thaw"policies. He left behind several scripts and unfinished projects, most of which had been banned by Soviet censors. His wife and creative partner, Julia Solntseva, eventually produced some of these, including Journal of the Flaming Years (Povest plamennykh let, 61), a war story, and the autobiographical Enchanted Desna (Zacharovannaia Desna, 65). And the Cold War propaganda-drama Farewell America (Proshchai, Amerika), which Dovzhenko undertook reluctantly in 1950, was posthumously restored over 40 years later.

If that last film seems to betray Dovzhenko's oeuvre rather than fulfill it, this isn't just because he was uncomfortable with its harsh, anti-American rhetoric. The more important problem is that the project fell outside the creative mission that had guided Dovzhenko's entire career. He often engaged this problem through a machine-in-the-garden juxtaposition, when a modern technology enters a pristine setting: the peasants' first tractor in Earth, the hydroelectric dam in the river valley in Ivan, the airplane in the Siberian wilderness in Aerograd. Each new technology in this film cycle anticipates a changing social order that the film's tradition-bound characters must learn to accommodate. That troubled learning process provides the film with its narrative conflict, just as the clash of old and new motivates Dovzhenko's practice of installing traditional motifs into modernist aesthetic vehicles.

More complicated was Dovzhenko's parallel mission to negotiate the relationship between his Ukrainian national identity and the transnational, class-based ideologies promoted by the Soviet regime. During that final scene of Arsenal, when the Bolshevik hero confronts his attackers, he describes himself as a "Ukrainian worker,"as though to fuse both strains under one larger, composite label. That transcendent identity apparently helps give the character the power to repel those troublesome bullets. If only it had proven that easy for Dovzhenko.