Aleksandr Dovzenko


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

7.4 Zvenigora (1928)
7.0 Arsenal (1929)
6.5 Zemlja/ Earth (1930)
Yuliya Solntseva:
6.7 Poem of the Sea (1958),
6.5 Chronicle of Flaming Years (1961)
6.9 The Enchanted Desna (1964)
Links:

Aleksandr Dovzenko was the poet of Russian futurist cinema, influenced by dadaists, surrealists, futurists and constructivists.

Aleksandr Dovzenko nacque in un villaggio ucraino in una famiglia estremamente povera e analfabeta. Lavorò come contadino e al ritorno dalla Grande Guerra come insegnante finchè completati gli studi universitari a Kiev, ottenne un posto di diplomatico a Varsavia; ne approfittò per iniziare gli studi di pittura a Berlino con George Grosz, e al ritorno in patria sbarcava il lunario facendo il caricaturista. Frequentava l'influente poeta futurista Mykhail Semenko (fondatore del gruppo futurista Kvero nel 1914 e della rivista d'arte Nova Generatsiia nel 1927), il romanziere Yuri Yanovsky e il critico cinematografico Mykola Bazhan (chief editor della rivista Kino dal 1924), ed era membro di VAPLITE (un gruppo di letteratura proletaria fondato nel 1926 da Mykola Khvylovy che si riuniva negli studi cinematografici di Kharkiv e da cui nacque la rivista letteraria Literaturnyi Iarmarok). Scrisse anche alcune sceneggiature per il cinema, ma soltanto a trentadue anni scelse la strada della regia. Sposò l'attrice Yuliya Solntseva.

Zvenigora (1928), il complesso film che lo rese famoso, era un omaggio alla sua patria, un riassunto della storia millenaria della nazione ucraina e un affettuoso ritratto del suo popolo.
The film spans centuries of Ukrainian history, from medieval times to the 1917 revolution, mixing historical events and folk legends, jumping back and forth in time. The starting point is the mythical age of the haidamakas, the subject of Taras Shevchenko's 1841 epic poem that had been restaged in 1920 as an avantgarde and agitprop play by Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas, with stage designs by constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin, who since 1925 was head of the faculty of Theatre, Cinema and Photography at the Art Institute of Kiev. The film falls in the footsteps of "the montage of attractions" preached by Eisenstein with Strike, but is mainly a complex multi-layered allegory. The symbolic message of the film is not so much about the conflict between capitalists and proletarians but about the conflict between the superstition (represented by the old man who is searching for a mythical treasure) and the realism (the grandson who understands that the real treasure is represented by the workers and the peasants).

The film opens in the 17th century with slow-motion images of mounted Ukrainians (known as "haydamakas") followed by the slow-motion images of an old peasant pulling a horse that is pulling a cart. The old man meets a large group of haydamakas who are searching for Poles, suspecting that the Poles are stealing Ukrainian treasures from the Zvenigora mountains. They draft him as a sort of scout and he abandons his cart to become a haydamak like them. He proudly leads the group through a detour The Poles hide on trees. One is discovered when he sneezes and immediately shot by the leader of the band. Other Poles hiding on the trees are mercilessly shot down by smiling Ukrainians. The old man himself comically kills two with one bullet. Searching for the treasure, the old man stumbles into a trap door from which a ghostly monk emerges. The fearless haydamakas flee terrified but their leader forces them to face the ghost. The ghost however uses his magic to put all of them to sleep. When they wake up again, they are unharmed. They ask the old man where the treasures are, but his answer is cryptic. The film then moves to a river where some girls in traditional costumes are preparing for a midsummer pagan fertility ritual called Ivan Kupala. The old man is spying on them, hiding in the reeds. He sees one of them, Oksana, laying in the river current the traditional wreath of flowers with lit candles, but he grabs one and blows the candles. (According to legend, if the wreath is caught by a young man, she will get married, but if the candles are blown off by the wind it's a bad omen). The old man then returns home and takes a nap. We are introduced to his two grandsons Pavlo and Tymish. Pavlo is blowing bubbles and staring at them in the sky like an idiot while Tymish is hard at work. The old man wakes up terrified when he dreams the ghostly monk. He calls on his grandsons to perform traditional exorcisms against the devil. Pavlo obeys but Tymish ignores him and continues his work. The film then moves on to the onset of World War I. Women cry for the departing soldiers. Men sing and dance as they leave the village. The old man and Pavlo search for the treasure in the mountains, praying to the icon of a saint for inspiration, while Tymish fights in the war and joins the Bolsheviks. While the old man and Pavlo are digging a hole and finding only dust, a group of soldiers stop by. Digging is forbidden and the old man is arrested. Tymish is sentenced to death by an old frail general (a sort of doppelganger of his grandfather) but asks to be allowed to be in charge of his own execution. He orders the execution squad to shoot but they refuse. The general comically faints realizing that he has been abandoned by all his soldiers. The old man is still dreaming of the treasure in the mountains. Now he can hardly walk. He tells Pavlo the legend of a heroine named Roksana. We see a procession of symbolic images, even a ship, and a battle, evoking a pre-Christian era during which foreign invaders (looking like Turks) subjugated Roksana's people. He himself is part of the flow of images as if he lived back then and fought alongside Roksana. Roksana, defeated, became the chieftain's concubine while her people were enslaved, but one day she poisoned him and incited her people to rebel (the old man is among them and he gets beheaded). The rebellion failed and the treasure was buried by waters in those mountains. When the story ends, we see an idiotic Pavlo painting a black horse white. Pavlo joins the army that is fighting the Bolsheviks in the civil war. Pavlo defeats Tymish's band and Tymish and the other revolutionaries have to flee the village. He leaves behind a desperate lover. The revolution however triumphs: we see a parade of images about miners, factory workers and peasants. Tymish becomes a student who studies science at the university, immersed in formulas while the country is reconstructed (we see the camera climbing a high-rise building, and then trains, steel works, mines, agricultural machines, factories). Pavlo, instead, flees the country and in Paris he becomes a performer. An excited bourgeois crowd flocks to the theater where Pavlo, now disguised as a Ukrainian prince, talks about the Russian revolution and then promises to shoot himself with a pistol. The audience is amused and thrilled. When he hesitates, they encourage him. As he's about to pull the trigger, the police stop him. The audience protests angrily that they are denied of the suicide. After the show, Pavlo counts the profit of the evening. He now has enough money to finance another expedition to find the mythical treasure: he still believes in his grandfather's story. Pavlo returns to his native village and finds his grandfather much weaker. Pavlo convinces the old man that the Bolsheviks are a threat to the treasure. Pavlo arms the old man with a bomb to sabotage a railway. The old man crawls at night to the tracks to bury the bomb but goes crazy when a train approaches, thinking it is a monster. He faints on the tracks but the train stops in time. Tymish and Oksana are among those who were on the train and who find him. Tymish realizes that his grandfather was holding a bomb. Pavlo commits suicide for real. The train resumes its journey.

Il tema principale, la contrapposizione fra superstizione e materialismo, passa in secondo piano davanti alla perizia tecnica del regista, che sfrutta flashback, sovrimpressioni, montaggi paralleli, con grande disinvoltura, attingendo a Meliès, Griffith e Lang.

Arsenal (1929) narra della miseria nel periodo della Grande Guerra; inizia mostrando scene atroci di un campo di battaglia, di un villaggio miserabile di vecchi, dello zar pasciuto, dei reduci provati dalle sofferenze.

At the beginning the film employs many still images that look like realistic photographs, or posters, or statues. For about 30 minutes it is visually a more refined film, thanks largely to cinematographer Danylo Demutsky. Some scenes are viewed at a 45 degree angle. Some still images derive from the tradition of religious icons, Andrei Rublev's icons in particular. In fact, all the characters can be viewed as mere icons: only the protagonist has a psychology, everybody else is just a face or a maimed body, a dramatic portrait, sometimes a caricature. Others are geometric silhouettes more typical of the French avantgarde (Fernand Leger's La Partie des Cartes). The city too is painted in a manner influenced by the French avantgarde (Rene Clair's Paris Qui Dort and photographer Eugene Atget). To describe the action, Dovzenko borrows the style and tone from the folk ballad, perhaps aiming for a modern version of the "Song of Igor's Campaign". The acting reflects the influence of Les Kurbas' theater, and the sets were designed by two of his Berezil Theater's set designers, Iosef Schnipel and Vadym Meller. Chronologically, this film begins where the previous one ended: it deals with the mass defections of Russian soldiers in World War I, the proclamation of an independent Ukraine in 1918 by a nationalist government, and the failed arsenal uprising of January 1918 to overthrow the nationalists. It was a brief period during which Communists/Bolsheviks (mainly supported by railroad workers) fought both Ukrainian nationalist (supported mainly by students and by the Black Sea Fleet) and White Russians/ Mensheviks. Unfortunately the plot is a mess and the montage confused, which makes it very hard to decipher what is going on even knowing the historical events, and soon the virtuoso visuals are abandoned to deliver the propaganda message. Abstract symbolic scenes need to be interpreted poetically, not literally. Dovzhenko's Arsenal presents an ambivalent and often depressing chronicle of the events, mainly focused on the madness of war. The protagonist introduces himself as "a Ukrainian Worker", never as a Bolshevik. The avant-garde criticized this film.

The film opens during World War I. A derelict woman is staring at the floor: she is a mother who had three sons and they are all gone to war. We see them sleeping on a train that is taking them to the front. There is heavy smoke on the front lines . We see tableaux of ordinary life in the village, with people who don't seem alive. A police officer even touches the breast of a woman who is leaning against a post and she doesn't react. A man without a leg hops to the house of the mother. She is outside working in the fields. Exhausted, she collapses to the ground. Meanwhile, inside a palace, an officer writes his diary. He signs it Niki: he is the czar Nicolas. The peasant woman lies motionless on the ground. A giant machine is producing bullets and cannonballs at the arsenal factory. A one-armed man slowly pulls a horse through the field. Two children cry and beg the mother. The one-armed man picks a blade of grass, desperate that the field is useless. The one-armed man starts beating and kicking the horse, and then falls to the ground, sobbing, while at home the mother starts beating the children. The horse mocks the one-armed man, Ivan (yes, the horse speaks, or, at least, we read its thoughts). The man slowly gets up and begins to pull the horse again through the barren fields. We see bombs exploding in the trenches and enemy soldiers (Germans) attacking. A German soldier starts laughing hysterically because he has been hit with laughing gas. A hand is sticking out from the sand. Another soldier lies dead, his face grinning. A German soldier stops and wonders where is the enemy: the trenches are empty. The Russian soldiers are actually on the roof of a train. The German soldier stops moving. His commander threatens him with a pistol but the soldier doesn't move, like a statue. The commander kills him.
A train filled with soldiers is returning from the front. A group of Ukrainian haidamaks attacks it. The doors of the train open and dozens of cannons appear. The haidamaks retreat and the train resumes its journey. The engineer however warns that the brakes need to be fixed. The soldiers decide to continue anyway and dump the engineer who runs in vain after the train on the tracks. A soldier plays the accordion and entertains the soldiers. When the tracks go downhill, the brakes don't work and the train runs away at dangerous speed. Many soldiers jump out of the train before it crashes, others are killed. One of the survivors, Tymish, decides to become an engine operator. He arrives at the city and looks for job at the arsenal factory. The manager asks Tymish whether he is a deserter. Tymish answers that he is a demobilized soldier and proudly affirms that he is a Ukrainian worker.
We see the still image of a woman holding a baby (in a pose reminiscent of icons about the Madonna and the newborn Jesus). We see several mothers holding babies and returning soldiers asking them: "who?" (maybe implying "who is the father?") A man with no legs is lying in the street. Tymish mingles with Bolsheviks. They instruct him to go back to the barracks and wait to be called for the revolution. A religious procession takes place in the streets amid a huge crowd. The priests pray for the free Ukraine after 300 years of being a province of Russia (since Bohdan Khmelnytskyi's treaty of Pereiaslav of 1654): just like Jesus resurrected, so Ukraine is now independent again. The religious holiday becomes a collective display of patriotism, and many demobilized soldiers enroll in the new national army. Tymish does not enroll. At a political rally, Tymish pushes away the nationalist orator and addresses the crowd on behalf of the Bolsheviks.
Tymish leads a band of armed workers and they join a large army. We see many symbolic images and a general sense of uprising. A wheel turns slowly and then a man turns his head slowly. We see armed men running in the night and bourgeoises panicking. In the morning men and women on a hill stare terrified at the city. We see more still images of people. A nurse writes a letter on behalf of a dying soldier but the soldier dies before he can give her the address. After she reads aloud that it is ok to kill bourgeoises, we see a fierce battle in the streets. Then men on horseback riding through a snowy landscape littered with dead bodies. We see women standing still and watching. And more dead bodies along the railway tracks. A soldier is dying observed by both horses and men. He begs his fellow soldiers to take him home before he dies. They load him on a cart driven by six horses and ride at maximum speed through the snowy plain (the six horses hear, understand and hail the hero). We then see a woman praying on a humble grave and more battle scenes (between Bolsheviks and nationalists) alternating with the cart rushing towards the dying man's house. They reach the praying woman and lay down the dying man to her feet. Then they rush back to the battlefield. A tank of the nationalists is driving around the city. A man lies down in the street pretending to be dead but jumps up and bombs the tank. We see a strange execution in a room (possibly the most symbolic scene of the film): an old teacher points the gun at his Bolshevik student and demands that the student faces the wall so that he can be shot in the back; the student walks towards the old teacher who is aiming the gun at him and disarms him; the teacher moves his fingers to pull the trigger but doesn't have a weapon anymore; next we see him lying dead in front of the Bolshevik student. Then we see dead, wounded and exhausted fighters at the arsenal. Then the battle resumes in the middle of the night. We see nationalist soldiers smiling and dancing while workers are being taken prisoners. The surrendered worker are shot dead against a wall and we see women asking where husbands and sons are while the nationalist commander keeps killing prisoners. Tymish is manning a machine gun but the machine breaks down. He kicks it in vain. The nationalists surround him and demand that he surrenders. Asked for his name, he replies that he is a Ukrainian worker and proudly stands up. The nationalists shoot him but he doesn't fall and doesn't move as if invulnerable. They think that he is wearing a bulletproof vest but he bares his chest to prove that he is not (another symbolic scene).

La metafora dell'ideale rivoluzionario, che si cimenta col sacrificio di eroi umili ma fedeli fino in fondo, non solo ha toni romanticamente lirici, ma rifiuta anche il facile ottimismo di tanti film rivoluzionari. L'esistenzialismo di Dovzenko è centrato soprattutto sulla morte, vista nel suo aspetto grottesco e nel suo aspetto terribile. Dovzenko cita anche in questo film motivi ottenuti da generi contemporanei: dal futurismo (il deragliamento del treno) al western (l'assedio) e all'espressionismo (il gigante soprannaturale e il mostro capo nazionalista). Dovzenko si serve anche di una curiosa tecnica semifotografica, che consiste nel fissare un'immagine ferma (dei vecchi, una madre) in un atteggiamento, esprimendo con quell'immagine lo stato di tutto un ambiente (la miseria, il lutto).
Zemlya/ Earth (1930) e` un mediocre melodramma di propaganda. Un vecchio contadino sta morendo placidamente, adagiato su un mucchio di mele e circondato dai suoi cari. Si spegne dopo aver mangiato un'ultima mela. Nel frattempo nel villaggio sta succedendo qualcosa di rivoluzionario, che mette in crisi la vecchia società dominata dai kulak e dal pope: arriva un trattore in tempo per la mietitura.

Zemlya/ Earth (1930), the shortest and the most ideological of the trilogy, is set in a small village of Ukraine and focuses on the conflict between generations, the old ones reluctant to accept change. At the beginning it feels like a propaganda documentary of the era. It takes 48 minutes to get some action, and then the rest is just communist indoctrination. The film is also too slow and conventional to create any pathos. It feels like a cold essay on the benefits of communism.

The film begins with the wind sweeping the prairie, the face of a girl, a sunflower, pears hanging from a tree. Then we see an old man, Semion, lying peacefully on the floor, surrounded by pears. The old Petro asks him if he is dying and he replies that he is. Children are playing with the pears. Petro laments that there is no medal for a peasant who spent his life plowing the fields. Semion's grandson Vasil laughs. Semion gets up to eat some pears with the children, then he puts his arms on his chest and dies. Then we see old people arguing hysterically in the newspaper that a kulak named Belokon is sabotaging the village with his selfish actions. Belokin is opposed to collectivization and would rather kill his horse than giving to the commune. Semion's grandson Vasil tells his father that the age of kulaks is over and that they will soon have machines. His father is skeptic. Vasil accuses him of being ignorant and obsolete. Other young men support collectivization. Vasil's father is plowing with the oxen, the same way that his father did, when Vasil leaves for the town to pick up a tractor. Many people assemble by the road and on the roofs, and wait eagerly. Vasil arrives with the first tractor ever seen in person by the villagers. They are so inexperienced that they don't know what to do when the tractor stops. It takes them a while to realize that there is no water in the radiator. The men solve the problem by peeing into the radiator. Then Vasil plows the land with the tractor. The whole village runs after the tractor to witness the show. Then Vasil shows his father how to harvest the grain with the tractor. We see the various stages of the production of bread with the use of different machines: the whole process is largely mechanized. However, a young man panicked when he saw the tractor at work and runs to tell Choma, the son of kulak Belokin. We see couples standing still and staring in the distance (not clear what it means). One such couple is Vasil hugging his girlfriend. Vasil then walks alone, happy and satisfied, even dancing in the street, raising a lot of dust. But then we see him falling down and a a mysterious man running away: Vasil has been killed. His father confronts Choma, who has the look of a remorseful killer, but Choma denies having killed Vasil. We see for a long time the faces of Vasil's father, his mother and his fiance. The old Russian Orthodox priest (the pope) knocks at the door but Vasil's father refuses to open. When he finally opens, he stares silently at the old man and then tells him that there is no God. Vasil's father asks Vasil's communist friends to bury Vasil with no priest. The whole village joins the funeral procession (ironically many women make the sign of the cross, which is clearly religious). The pope prays in his church that God may punish them. In one of the houses a woman is giving birth. Vasil's girlfriend is home, she cries naked, squeezes her breast and punches the icons hanging on her walls. The procession advances in a field of sunflowers. Horses run wild. The pregnant woman gives birth and smiles. Belokin's son Choma is running around insane, screaming that he owns the land and won't give in. At the cemetery a Bolshevik friend of Vasil delivers the eulogy in front of a huge crowd. Choma tries to interrupt him by shouting that he is the killer but nobody listens to him. Nobody pays attention to his confession. Choma starts dancing among the crosses of the cemetery like Vasil was dancing before being killed. A storm is approaching. It starts raining on the pears. We see rain for the last three minutes. When the rain stops, we see Vasil and his girlfriend hugging in a sort of communist version of the Christian resurrection. Commovente affresco umano e naturale, il film è il capolavoro del realismo lirico di Dovzenko. Il regista prende lo spunto da un fatto d'attualità (la formazione dei primi kolchoz e la resistenza dei kulak) ma si concentra su temi universali: l'alternarsi della vita e della morte, il significato naturale della morte, il significato naturale della morte, la gioia e il dolore che provoca l'amore, la natura benigna che presiede a tutte le vicende umane (pianure sterminate sotto un cielo immenso, cascate di fiori e di frutti). Immagini di morte e immagini di vita si fondono armoniosamente in un poema lento e poderoso che trascende il futurismo e il realismo, di una religiosità atea, che supera i naturalisti svedesi nella fusione di uomo e natura.

Il film e` pero` guastato da una generale esagerazione dei sentimenti e dall'esplicito intento agit-prop. Per esempio, il trattore viene presentato come se si trattasse di una specie di divinita`.

Il film segnò l'inizio di una crisi di rapporti fra Davzenko e Stalin, che non vedeva di buon occhio il suo cinema umanistico e panteistico (che a volte degenerava in folkloristico e impressionistico, a causa e del suo amore per la madrepatria e per il suo spirito di pittore).

Le opere sonore, a partire da Ivan (1932), sulla costruzione di una diga sul fiume Dnepr, portarono sempre i connotati di una nobile e partecipe visione dell'uomo di tutti i giorni e di un fresco amorevole disegno della natura (la taiga siberiana di Aerograd), anche quando si lasciò influenzare dalle direttive del regime. Aerograd (1935) descrive la costruzione di una città in una regione selvaggia, mito staliniano degli anni '30, contrapponendo partigiani rurali e sostenitori del vecchio ordine, e scagliando invettive razziste contro un Giapponese che vive nei boschi.

Shchors (1939) canta le gesta di due bolscevichi, un exufficiale e un vecchio mastodontico contadino, che combattono contro i menscevichi; grazie alle loro imprese le città cadono ad una ad una; il rozzo e coraggioso contadino viene ucciso in battaglia, ma Scors non si può fermare, deve continuare a combattere.

Il vero protagonista non è l'impettito eroe staliniano Scors (una specie di Capaev ucraino), bensì il contadino leone e indisciplinato, carico di umanità, che rappresenta una forza della natura.

L'ira di Stalin si abbattè su Dovzenko, che, mentre girava documentari di guerra, fu oggetto di una violenta campagna diffamatoria.

Nel 1948 diresse il suo ultimo film, Michurin, ed ebbe la soddisfazione di poter dipingere a colori il suo cinema lirico; la biografia dell'omonimo biologo che creò nuove specie di alberi da frutta, è un pretesto per comporre un appassionato canto alla giovinezza, evocata in flashback dal vecchio ricercatore

Alla morte di Dovzenko la moglie Yuliya Solntseva, che aveva collaborato a tutti i suoi capolavori, prese in mano i suoi appunti e continuò la sua opera con una fedeltà impressionante, avvalendosi dei nuovi strumenti (dal colore alla stereofonia) che ben si adattavano alle epopee di Dovzenko: Poema o More/ Poem of the Sea (1958), Povest Plamennykh Let/ Chronicle of Flaming Years (1961) e soprattutto Zacarovannaja Desna / The Enchanted Desna (1964).

Poema o More/ Poem of the Sea (1958) è dolorosamente legato al tema della terra: un villaggio deve essere smantellato perché sarà sommerso dal bacino di una diga. Si scontrano due sentimenti radicati nell'animo di Dovzenko: l'amore per la terra e la fede nel comunismo. I contadini sono colti con tenerezza nel loro dramma sentimentale, messi a confronto con una realtà crudele seppure giusta che non si può combattere; ma il film pullula anche di una strana fauna umana: un presidente di kolchoz che vive le proprie vendette in sogno, un generale fiero del suo passato che rievoca le battaglie contro i nazisti, il suo cinico e brutto figlio che vuol studiare legge per poter condannare la gente, un arrivista senza scrupoli che seduce la figlia del presidente e davanti al suo suicidio si giustifica perché in fondo è un costruttore del comunismo.

Questo groviglio di meschinità ufficiali fa da contrasto al dolore puro e sincero dei contadini, che per il comunismo rinunciano alla terra in cui sono nati e cresciuti.

Povest Plamennykh Let/ Chronicle of Flaming Years (1961) e` un film monumentale sull'invasione nazista, in cui, fra inumane battaglie di eserciti giganteschi, emergevano le speranze di un soldato semplice.

La tattica di Dovzenko era sempre la stessa: trovare un pretesto impegnato per poter svolgere la sua lode estatica all'amore, alla terra, alla vita; nell'epopea collettiva vedeva una manifestazione d'amore di massa per un ideale, e un fenomeno naturale. Il tipo su cui si concentrava l'attenzione era il campione di una comunità, i suoi problemi erano scelti in rappresentanza anche di quelli degli altri.

Non a caso nei suoi film compaiono spesso dei frutti, simbolo di fecondità, di amore, di vita che si ripete all'infinito.

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