Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Olexander Dovzhenko: Poet of the Seventh Art

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Olexander Dovzhenko: Poet of the Seventh Art

Article excerpt

The pioneering film-maker once dubbed "the Homer of the cinema" dominated the Ukrainian cinema for three decades

OLEXANDER Dovzhenko was one of the giants of Ukrainian cinema. He was born in the town of Sosnytsia on 30 August 1894, shortly before the invention of the cinema. After teaching for a while at a primary school, then studying economics at the Kiev Institute of Commerce, he was caught up in the maelstrom of civil war in 1918.

Once the Soviet regime had been established, Dovzhenko took up various responsibilities in education and the fine arts. In January 1920, he chose his political camp by joining the Borot'bisti, a Ukrainian peasant party in favour of independence. When it was dissolved he found himself, almost reluctantly, a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

After a spell with the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, which took him to Warsaw and then Berlin, where he took lessons from the Expressionist painter Erich Heckel, Dovzhenko settled in Kharkov, then Ukraine's administrative capital, and took up painting. He contributed illustrations and cartoons to several newspapers, and designed film posters.

After half-heartedly toying with the idea of a theatrical career, Dovzhenko ended up joining the Odessa film studios. He had earlier decided to give himself ten years in which to master the art of painting, and now assimilated cinematic technique within a year. The next step was to make his mark on the screen.

Dovzhenko's first film efforts in 1926 were minor works: a satirical comedy, Vasya the Reformer, and a burlesque short, Love's Berry. Then he directed his first successful film, a thriller called The Diplomatic Pouch (1927), in which he himself played the part of a stoker, his first and last screen role.

A year later, Zvenyhora secured Dovzhenko a place in the pantheon of great directors. It is an eclectic but spontaneously original work, a sweeping poetic pageant that encompasses ten centuries of Ukrainian history. The linking thread of this visual symphony in twelve cantos is the figure of an old man who embodies the patriarchal peasantry, and who is attached to the values of the past and indifferent to those of the Revolution. The film marked the beginning of Dovzhenko's own personal tragedy.

A deeply patriotic artist, Dovzhenko ran up against the ideological and aesthetic constraints of a totalitarian regime throughout his career. He was forced to make concessions to those in power and to praise them in sometimes overblown terms. He stated, for example, that his aim in Arsenal (1929) was to destroy nationalism and chauvinism and glorify the working classes. The film, which describes the workers' uprising against the Rada (central council) of Kiev, exaggerates the Bolsheviks' achievements. Arsenal, which bristles with didactic symbolism, is the most expressionist work produced by Ukrainian cinema.

That did not stop Dovzhenko campaigning actively for the recognition of national minorities. He championed above all the cause of his native land. Earth (1930), made at the watershed between two eras and a harbinger of great upheavals to come, is a hymn to the glory of nature and its perpetual confrontation with man. The shots showing the first tractor flattening the boundary markings in the fields and turning the peasantry into a collectivist society were much imitated in later Soviet films.

An epoch-making work that carries an extraordinarily powerful emotional charge and produces an almost physical effect of revelation, Earth was violently criticized for its pantheistic view of the world and its excessive naturalism. It was also denounced as nationalistic. Almost thirty years later, a jury of 117 historians meeting in Brussels in 1958 rated Earth one of the twelve best films of all time.

Exiled in Moscow

Labelled a reactionary and banned from lecturing at the Kiev Film Institute, Dovzhenko was forced to stay in Moscow and had to pay a high price for his professional survival. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.