World Without End
Soviet filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko's poetry in pictures
Of his 13 brothers and sisters, 12 died in his youth. "Whenever I think of my childhood and of my home," he recalled, "in my mind I see crying and funerals." Official censors banned or altered his films prior to public release. In retribution for the son's perceived disloyalty, his father was ousted from the collective farm where he lived.
Nevertheless, Dovzhenko's ideals remained unaltered. In his autobiography, he wrote, "In art, I think one must be moved by positive impulses. I have been both greatly praised and greatly criticized for my films and have come to the conclusion that the measure of progress in creative life must be good, not evil." These positive impulses are evident in Dovzhenko's greatest work, Earth, which will be showing as part of the Austin Film Society's upcoming eight-film retrospective.
In the words of film scholar Gilberto Perez, Earth was made at a time when "a great hope lived and a great brutality ensued." Commissioned to create a propaganda film to paint collective farming in a positive light, Dovzhenko sincerely believed in his assigned task. In one famous sequence from Earth, the head of a collective farm orders a tractor. As the tractor approaches the farm, Dovzhenko depicts the peasants in various poses, idealizing their strength and resilience, intercut with painterly images of the land and the crops. As the tractor approaches the farm, it grinds to a halt. The radiator is boiling. To cool it down, the peasants urinate into it. The sequence lyrically demonstrates the unity of purpose shared by man and machine in Dovzhenko's portrayal of collective farming.
Dovzhenko's romantic vision was destined to seem terribly inappropriate by the time Earth was released: As Dovzhenko cut the film in Kiev, Stalin turned to coercive means (artificial famine and violence) to force propertied peasants, or kulaks, to relinquish their land. The result was disastrous. When the filmmaker learned of these events, he was driven to depression and left the country for months. The suffering and violence that followed its release rendered Earth's sentimental statement ineffectual to its contemporaries, but to a modern viewer they lend the film poignancy and fragility.
AFS will be screening all-new 35mm prints of Dovzhenko's films in the series, dubbed "The Poet as Filmmaker"; local composers Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski will provide live accompaniment.
The series opens with Arsenal, one of the few Soviet films to portray the tragedies as well as the glories of revolution. The film examines the transformation of land by human and machine, by scythe, sickle, or hand grenade, a common theme in Dovzhenko's films. Arsenal begins with an old woman on her farmland, powerless to sow a crop while her sons are off at war, and an old man with a gaunt horse in the same predicament. They are unable to work the land; at the front, the soldiers transform the landscape with bombs. Fountains of dirt are sent up, and the dead are "planted" in the soil.
Also screening are his early comedies, Diplomatic Pouch and Love Berry; Ivan, the story of a peasant who moves from his collective farm to the city to become a factory worker; and Zvenigora, which is recognized as Dovzhenko's first masterpiece. As described by the filmmaker, it is "a legend condensed from all Ukrainian legends, a romance condensed from all romances and the refraction of all this in our times, our constructions, and our materialistic world view." The series winds down with two war films made under Stalin: Battle for Soviet Ukraine, and Shchors, which is thought to be largely autobiographical.
Of all the great Soviet silent filmmakers, Dovzhenko was the one who was influenced least by the mentality of the machine. Trained as a painter, Dovzhenko's visual style owes more to landscape painting than it does to photography. Arranged like pictures at an exhibition, each shot assumes equal importance in his idiom. Earth opens with images of grain fields, the crops extending past the edges of the frame in all directions. They are not background or establishing shots; they stand on equal footing with the other shots in the sequence. These discrete pieces create multiple meanings as they are assembled, and the number of possible interpretations multiplies as the film unfolds. In his films, Dovzhenko creates worlds of open and infinite possibility.
The Austin Film Society presents "The Poet as Filmmaker: The Films of Alexander Dovzhenko" Tuesdays, 7pm, through October. (Love Berry and Diplomatic Pouch screens Sunday, Sept. 15, at 2pm.) All screenings take place at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado). Admission is free. For more info, call 322-0145 or visit www.austinfilm.org.