Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 31, October 2003

 

 

John Riley

 

A (Ukrainian) Life in Soviet Film:

Liber's _Alexander Dovzhenko_

 

 

George O. Liber

_Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film_

London: British Film Institute, 2002

ISBN 0-85170-927-3

309 pp.

 

In the pantheon of Soviet film directors the Ukrainian Alexander Dovzhenko often takes the role of poet, and it is never long into any discussion of him before the word appears. [1] But he was a far more complex character than that, divided in many ways. Though his films are often lyrical, leading to the 'poet' tag, they were also deeply political, as he attempted to respond appropriately to the Soviet government's policies of the day. But the stresses of satisfying class and national politics and his own artistic vision left him riven, providing a cue for at least one martyrology. [2] Raised in a religious family, at the age of seventeen he 'stopped believing in God' (221) but returned to the fold thirty-five years later. Born into a peasant family, he pursued a series of careers that in the West would be viewed as bourgeois. Soviet policies were dictated from the Russian capital of Moscow, and when 'anti-Soviet' thinking was deemed to include 'nationalism', Dovzhenko denied the charge even while reaffirming his Ukrainian pride. He tried to make his films politically acceptable, but told colleagues not to compromise, nor rely on Aesopian language, while in his diaries he let rip into the regime and its representatives.

 

One problem in writing about Dovzhenko is that the source material is rare or needs to be dealt with carefully. Liber quotes Marco Carynnyk's observation from 1973:

 

'We cannot view his films or read his writings in the form in which he left them. His major films have been cut; his minor films lay buried in archives; some of his most cherished projects never made it to the screen; his film scripts have been censored; his correspondence, diaries and notebooks continue to be published in bowdlerised versions.' (4)

 

The situation was slightly improved when I recently needed to see Dovzhenko's last completed film, _Michurin_ (1949), with a newly restored print being available in Kiev to supplement the faded nitrate one that sat in a German archive. Nevertheless, for such a major figure, Dovzhenko's films -- even those accepted as masterpieces -- are surprisingly rarely shown, and though polyglots, especially those with Russian, are fairly served with studies (bearing in mind the bowdlerisations and the fact that they have been written over the last forty-odd years), George O. Liber's _Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film_ is the first English-language biography.

 

Dovzhenko was born in 1894, the seventh of fourteen children, but by the age of eleven his six older siblings were dead, and he was one of only two to survive into adulthood. Thus death, and how to make sense of it, became a recurrent theme in his work. Meanwhile his father instigated a programme of de-peasantification and education leading to Alexander progressing through a series of jobs including teacher, diplomat, journalist, and cartoonist before almost falling into cinema. He would occasionally invoke these humble beginnings to prove his credentials, but like some other Soviet artists he sat uneasily between the two classes. Though this period still has some mysterious gaps which, despite the ongoing opening up of post-Soviet archives, are probably unfillable, Liber goes a long way towards clarifying the events of the director's early life. However, following this, he only briefly discusses the first three films. In 1926 he made _Vasia the Reformer_ (a satire on the New Economic Policy) and _Love's Berry_ (a farcical comedy), and the following year produced the 'Red Detective' thriller _The Diplomatic Pouch_. As prentice works which do not deal with specifically Ukrainian themes, they prove of less interest to Liber, and it was only with _The Diplomatic Pouch_ that Dovzhenko achieved popular and critical success. True enough, Dovzhenko was inexperienced, and comedy was never one of his strong suits -- he only later learned that, as Liber points out, 'funny screenplays do not necessarily make funny films' (78). But this was would-be populist fare, aimed squarely at the public. Though _Vasia_ is now lost, it would have been useful to ask why this and _Love's Berry_ failed, and look at them more fully in the context of popular Soviet films such as Komarov's _The Kiss of Mary Pickford_ (1927) or Zheliabuzhsky's _The Little Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom_ (1924) (starring Dovzhenko's future wife Julia Solntseva).

 

It was only with his next three films -- _Zvenyhora_ (1927), _Arsenal_ (1928) and _Earth_ (1930) -- that Dovzhenko grew to artistic maturity. They also show the beginning of his fascination with 'good' and 'bad' deaths, a theme that is reflected in his distaste for sickness which contributed to the troubled breakdown of his first marriage as his first wife suffered tubercular paralysis. 'Good' deaths are exemplified by that of the grandfather in _Earth_, and Dovzhenko saw in this another recurring theme in his work: 'I cannot create films without grandfathers. I am lost without a grandfather. A grandfather is the prism of time' (91). Nevertheless death was for Dovzhenko merely a part of the process, echoing the natural decay and renewal in the cycle of the seasons, and thus something to be ultimately welcomed as a natural phenomenon. He was also beginning to assert his Ukrainian nationalism; for a full understanding, _Zvenyhora_ demands a knowledge of Ukrainian history and folklore, implicitly underlining the stresses between the Soviet Union and its constituent countries, and arguing for nationalism, whether as some degree of self-determination or a simple respect for their traditions. But as my Russian teacher once told me when I expressed bewilderment at the films of Paradzhanov (the Georgian who often worked out of Kiev), 'Don't worry; *no-one* [i.e. no *Russian*] understands his films'. Dovzhenko had already had political run-ins and his first films had not been universally hailed, but the Ukrainian films brought together artistic and political problems. Repression was increasing and the purging of some of his collaborators made it expedient a few years later to play up his ideological disagreements with them, the better to prove his own credentials.

 

With _Zvenyhora_, Dovzhenko unequivocally took the stand as a Ukrainian filmmaker, but tensions between Kiev and Moscow meant that he also had to find a way to satisfy the Soviet capital, and _Arsenal_ moves towards that. However he faced two problems: firstly, his desire to reinterpret history from a Ukrainian perspective, and secondly his ambivalence about violence, leading him on one hand to enthuse about the Revolution, and on the other express doubts about the misery brought about by the force involved. Yet, epitomising Dovzhenko's ambivalent relationship to the state, it climaxes with a Bolshevik shooting a Ukrainian nationalist from point blank range, raising the question of how far it is legitimate to go in pursuing a political end. If the Bolsheviks' actions are valid, then surely the Ukrainians would also be justified in such cold-blooded assassination.

 

_Earth_, the last of these three films is the one that is most frequently used to prove Dovzhenko's lyricism, yet as Liber points out, all three present a 'poeticised, ideological vision increasingly at odds with the Stalinist vision now consolidated in Moscow' (113). Though seen as Dovzhenko's testament, all three endured just as much scrutiny and criticism as the rest of his output, and around this time the director described himself as 'the most exhausted and the most down-trodden person in the country' (112). Part of the problem for _Earth_ was that it was conceived during voluntary collectivisation, and reflected that policy, but it appeared as the policy was being harshly enforced, leaving the film out of joint with the times. It was a fate that would repeatedly befall Dovzhenko (and other Soviet filmmakers). A public apology was demanded, and though Dovzhenko evaded it, the film was taken from his hands and three excisions made: the notorious 'refilling the tractor radiator' scene, Natalia's naked rampage when she breaks down in response to her fiance's murder, and an inexplicit scene of a woman in labour. All three are still missing from some prints and though they total only a few minutes, without them the film's range of emotions is reduced.

 

_Earth_ was Dovzhenko's last silent film and is generally seen as his masterpiece, though this attitude may be underpinned by an element of cineastic romanticisation of classic silent films. Liber's claim that with the introduction of sound 'Soviet studios fell behind the American and West European industries' (120) has to be understood on a technical level, as any artistic falling off was often due in large part to political considerations. Certainly Dovzhenko's first sound film, _Ivan_ (1932), was a taxing experience on both levels, as he grappled with outdated equipment while Stalinist centralisation ran head-on against Ukrainian nationalism. In silent cinema the political issues were restricted to what was visible on screen, but the introduction of sound brought questions about what the characters might say beyond the relatively brief speeches that appeared on the title cards. But while Liber is correct to point to the longer political speeches of heroes such as _Chapaev_ (1935) and _Alexander Nevsky_ (1938) as a first response to the new technology, Soviet film sound was poorly advanced and many films used a strange mixture of sound and silent aesthetics. Why Dovzhenko did not take this route is not explained. As centralisation and nationalism clashed, the sound question became even more pointed by the decision as to which language should be used. The choice of Ukrainian was not simply a question of politics, but of audience understanding. The similarity between Russian and Ukrainian led Russian critics to paradoxically complain that this made it harder since the film was half-understood, but one comment that it was 'far worse than our not understanding it at all' (128) can only have been a wild overstatement to make a crude attack on non-Russian language films. Having underlined the film's nationalism through the choice of language, Dovzhenko mitigated the issue by stressing that his hero was working class as much as Ukrainian and included a mass meeting climax -- similar to those featured in the contemporary 'industrialisation' film, such as Ermler and Yutkevich's _The Counterplan_ (1931) -- scenes that would appear in countless later films. But beyond this, and in discussing the rest of Dovzhenko's output, Liber says little about the use of sound, just as he skirts other technical aspects of the films, leaving us with little feeling of what the films actually look or sound like.

 

Moving away from Ukrainian subjects again, his next film, _Aerograd_ (1935), discusses the threat from the East, a recurring danger also covered in the Vasiliev Brothers' _Volochayev Days_ (1938). The titular city is planned as a defensive measure, though oddly the completed project never appears in the film. A major concern at the time was the work of 'wreckers' who were undermining the progress of Socialism, and the film's discussion of loyalty and collaboration may hint at questions about those with nationalist aspirations. As in _Arsenal_ there is an execution, but this time, even more shockingly, the hero shoots a friend, having discovered that he was a collaborator. Unfortunately Liber largely sidesteps the moral issues involved in choosing one's country over one's friends, merely describing the film as 'politically correct' (146), before reporting it as an artistic, critical, and popular failure. Nevertheless it did begin the process of rehabilitation, though he lets this paradox pass with little comment.

 

After this, Dovzhenko's career seemed to spiral further out of his control. Following a 'suggestion' from Stalin he began work on a biopic of the civil war commander Mykola Shchors, groomed by the regime as a great Bolshevik hero, though this necessitated a fair amount of mythologizing. Dovzhenko was aware of how important the film was but his fear left him frozen and he began it three times with three different lead actors. Moreover, as ever, he had to grapple with the changing political landscape, in this case as one of Shchors's colleagues was purged, meaning that the end of the film had to be rewritten. Yet politically _Shchors_ (1939) proved to be his most acceptable film, perhaps this was because the regime saw it as proof of a new-found compliance.

 

Dovzhenko's war-time experience was particularly miserable. Not only was he unable to return to Ukraine until 1943, but his parents were for sometime untraceable and when he did manage to get to Kiev it was only to discover that his father had died of starvation and had lain unburied for six days. There could hardly have been a greater contrast with the 'good death' of the grandfather in _Earth_. In terms of work it was an equally difficult time. After 1943's reasonably well-received _The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine_, he turned to writing fiction, eventually drawing on some of the war stories for the screenplay, _Ukraine in Flames_. Dovzhenko stressed the suffering of Ukraine in all these works, but confusion between Moscow and Kiev meant that while local party boss Nikita Khrushchev was enthusiastic, Moscow was preparing to ban it -- one time when a political misjudgment by someone else impacted on his career. But an equally serious flaw was the (in retrospect correct) implication that the Soviet Union had been ill-prepared for the German attack. The 'yurodivye' -- the Holy Fool -- is a traditional character in Russia, allowed to tell unpalatable truths with impunity. Did Dovzhenko see himself taking this role? There is no evidence that he saw himself as such, but the recklessness of the charges leave one wondering how he felt he could be allowed to say such things. He then compounded it by reworking the screenplay into _The Chronicle of the Flaming Years_, which was also rejected by Stalin. Dovzhenko had often spoken his mind in the past, regardless of the political consequences but he seems to have been driven to breaking point, allegedly describing Soviet democracy as 'the greatest lie and hypocrisy which humanity ever knew' (217). As with the indecision he had suffered in casting _Ivan_, Dovzhenko now hit a writer's block. For Liber 'Stalin stood at the centre of Dovzhenko's paralysis' (219) but no society can function without the complicity of its members. Though Stalin was doubtless the driving force, at the time he managed to persuade many that the bad things were happening without his knowledge while the good things sprang directly from him. Without exonerating Stalin, it is true to say that he was ignorant of the details of many atrocities; he did not need to know *how* it happened, merely that it *did* happen. Suicide had been a way out for many, though for Dovzhenko it would have contravened his idea of a 'good' death, but he did contemplate his own end. Despite the regime's treatment of him, he decided to 'ask *Stalin* that my heart be removed from my chest before cremation and buried on my native soil in Kiev' (219, my emphasis). Perhaps he too thought Stalin to some degree innocent or at least open to persuasion, but at least, as the highest in the land, his functionaries dared not ignore him. If Dovzhenko could get Stalin's agreement, his death would be a good one in the sense that he would be reconnected to his homeland. Tragically it was not to be. But even while he was turning to the regime for support, despite his own injunction, he used Aesopian language in two short stories about his sense of homelessness, without Party and public approval, and outside Ukraine. Perhaps it was these feelings that also led him to return to the Orthodox faith, though he developed his own version that excluded the church in favour of direct contact with a God who resides within man.

 

Khrushchev's later abandonment of Dovzhenko left the director further exposed and embittered. After the unacceptable elements in so many of his other films, this was the last straw; he was demoted to director third class, removed from various committees, sacked as head of the Kiev Film Studio, and, perhaps most seriously given his increasing ill-health, denied access to the Kremlin hospital. Just after the War his Kiev flat was confiscated, leaving him stranded in Moscow. With no recent projects Dovzhenko avoided criticism in the notorious 1946 decree 'On the Film _The Great Life_' which also hit out at the second part of Eisenstein's _Ivan the Terrible_, Kozintsev and Trauberg's _Simple People_, and Pudovkin's _Admiral Nakhimov_. Yet ironically it was at this point that Dovzhenko managed to complete a project that came close to satisfying him. It is doubly ironic that as _Native Land_ is a compilation documentary, Dovzhenko had no control over the photography, only over the selection and editing of material, and the soundtrack, but its celebration of Armenian culture could well be an Aesopian reference, with the Armenian genocide of 1915 standing in for the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33.

 

Dovzhenko's last completed film is another biopic, this time of the agronomist _Michurin_ (1949). The genre was becoming embedded in Soviet cinema but Dovzhenko had enormous problems with the film as, yet again, politics raced ahead of the filmmaker. But Liber gives an incomplete outline of the admittedly Byzantine politics behind the rewriting of genetic theory for Soviet purposes and also bypasses the shot across the artistic community's bows that came with the 1948 Musicians Conference. Gavriil Popov was heavily criticised there and the score that he wrote for the film was rejected before he was replaced by Shostakovich. In biology 'bourgeois Mendelism' was condemned in favour of the theories of Michurin, and Trofim Lysenko rose to terrorise the scientific community as effectively as Andrei Zhdanov had the artists. The 'Michurin-Lysenko path', which denied the existence of genes, became the standard view of genetics. But when the film came under attack it was Zhdanov who defended Dovzhenko. Liber is at a loss to explain why, but it was probably because Zhdanov's son Yuri had criticised the increasingly powerful Lysenko and been forced to apologise, his marriage to Stalin's daughter Svetlana proving no protection. No wonder Zhdanov took the opportunity to undermine Lysenko. This was the period when conflictlessness was increasingly what was desired in art (musical life featured the 'conflictless symphony', though many would consider it an oxymoron). But for Dovzhenko, conflict was at the heart of creativity, just as it was the root of Marxist dialects and, indeed, of film montage. The time that it took to bring _Michurin_ to the screen was probably just as much due to timorous officials who found it easier and safer to reject something than approve what might later be condemned, as the cloud under which Dovzhenko was still operating.

 

The last eight years of Dovzhenko's life proved frustrating. Weakened by his conflicts with the state, and especially those over _Michurin_ which had led to a nervous breakdown and a heart attack, he wrote several unfilmed screenplays, and in late 1950 started making _Goodbye America_, a cold-war project set, like his third film, in the world of diplomacy. But in the middle of filming, with no notice at all, the production was shut down. In 1956 his script for _Poem of an Inland Sea_ was approved only to see him die just before shooting commenced. It was completed by his second wife Julia Solntseva, who not only went on to make several of the films that Dovzhenko had only scripted but in 1970 completed her devotion with _The Golden Gates_, a documentary about him. Not only did she continue his work but she was also careful to preserve his reputation by maintaining the obfuscations and rewritings of history that Dovzhenko, like every other Soviet artist, had been forced to employ, including possibly playing up or down youthful anti-Tsarism and Ukrainian nationalism as appropriate. Given Solntseva's importance in his life (they met in 1928 and she acted in _Earth_) it is a shame that she, a still largely unrecognised figure in Soviet cinema, is so little mentioned, though this would have involved extensive research.

 

Despite his admiration for Dovzhenko, Liber admits that he could be a difficult character, describing him as having 'a prejudiced and intolerant mindset' (177). But is this an artist's stern adherence to his own vision or was it more than that? Liber uses the phrase in connection with questions about Dovzhenko's anti-Semitism but presents wartime comments as stemming from personal antagonism (though his relations with many Jews were amicable), a belief that various Jews were blocking his career, and a desire to reflect the Stalinist line. Dovzhenko could be sensitive to fast-moving changes in the political climate, but though anti-Semitism was outlawed after the Revolution, the centuries old attitude was not constrained by the ban. Such views were probably politically safe, even before they reappeared more openly some time later. Liber uses Soviet mendacity over the Babi-Yar massacre to show how deeply ingrained these lies were, and as late as 1962 Yevtushenko was forced to rewrite his poem on the subject, strengthening Liber's case (though he does not cite it). Dovzhenko's antagonism applied only to Ukrainian Jews and, Liber argues, since Ukrainian culture differs more from Russian than Jewish culture, the comments are more anti-Russian than anti-Jewish. But though the first point is supported by Dovzhenko's diary, and the director was undoubtedly proud of his Ukrainian heritage, it seems to be stretching a point to see it as an anti-Russian attitude.

 

This is one of a surprisingly small number of English-language books on Dovzhenko, and among other notable ones are Marco Carynnyk's edition of Dovzhenko's writings and Vance Kepley Jnr's _In the Service of the State_. Along with Liber's volume, these three sources conveniently complement each other: Carynnyk provides the primary materials, while Kepley Jnr looks only at the feature films but often gives much closer readings at the expense of the biographical detail that Liber supplies. In return Liber discusses the documentaries (though occasionally one suspects that he did not view them all), the unfilmed projects, journalism, and other aspects of Dovzhenko's work, which feature less in Kepley. He also gives a much fuller account of the director's early years, taking advantage of post-glasnost opening of archives and is up-front about the director's difficult personality and political manoeuvring. Liber is particularly strong on the Ukrainian/Russian/Soviet tensions and is more forceful than Kepley in his proposal of Dovzhenko as a *Ukrainian* artist, despite his desire to serve both Kiev and Moscow. However, Liber's ultimate claim may contain a Dovzhenko-ish ambivalence: he may have remained true to his 'self-appointed mission to develop a Ukrainian national cinematography in the Stalinist period' (273), but he was not entirely successful, simply because of the weight of the political system against which he had pitted himself.

 

British Universities Film and Video Council

London, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Apart from the word being used within texts, it is also used in book and article titles; for example, Carynnyk's collection of Dovzhenko's writings, _The Poet as Filmmaker_, and Ivor Montagu's article, 'Dovzhenko: Poet of the Life Eternal'.

 

2. Herbert Marshall, _Masters of the Soviet Cinema_. This gives profiles of Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov.

 

 

Biography

 

Dovzhenko, Alexander, _The Poet as Filmmaker: Selected Writings_, ed. and trans. Marco Carynnyk (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1973).

 

Kepley Jnr, Vance, _In the Service of the State_, (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986).

 

Montagu, Ivor, 'Dovzhenko: Poet of the Life Eternal', _Sight and Sound_, vol. 27 no. 1, 1957, pp. 44-8.

 

Marshall, Herbert, _Masters of the Soviet Cinema: Crippled Creative Biographies_ (London: Routledge, 1983).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

John Riley, 'A (Ukrainian) Life in Soviet Film: Liber's _Alexander Dovzhenko_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 31, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n31riley>.

 

 

Read a response to this text:

George O. Liber, 'Re-examining Dovzhenko's Political Environment: A Response to Riley', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 38, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n38liber>.

 

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