Dovzhenko: Folk Tale and Revolution

by Gilberto Perez

from Film Quarterly Summer 2011, Vol. 64, No. 4

Like Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) is an amazing early work that dropped out of sight for many years. It was Potemkin (1925) and October (1928), Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930), that won Eisenstein and Dovzhenko their international renown in the heroic period of Soviet cinema; and it was not until the Khrushchev Thaw, after they were both dead, that Strike and Zvenigora began to be shown again. Eisenstein seems to have disowned Strike—in his 1934 essay “Through Theater to Cinema” he wrote that it “floundered about in the flotsam of a rank theatricality”—but Dovzhenko said in his 1939 “Autobiography” that Zvenigora “has remained my most interesting picture for me. I made it in one breath—a hundred days. Unusually complicated in structure, eclectic in form, the film gave me, a self-taught production worker, the fortuitous opportunity of trying myself out in every genre. It was a catalogue of all my creative abilities.”

While Eisenstein theorized the “montage of attractions,” Dovzhenko was arguably the better practitioner. Eisenstein started in the theater, and montage, though central to his theory of film and usually taken as a theory of film editing, started as a theory of theater, the “montage of attractions” he expounded in a 1923 essay—attractions as in a circus or variety show, different sorts of performance assembled together, different ways of engaging and affecting the audience arranged in succession to produce a composite effect.1 In its mix of documentary realism and caricatural stylization, Strike exemplified the “montage of film attractions,” but Eisenstein apparently felt that the stylization was too theatrical and went on to make the more consistently realistic Potemkin. In the theater Eisenstein saw himself less as a director of actors than of spectators he endeavored to sway, and he was no different as a film director: he remained chiefly concerned with making an impact, eliciting a response. All his films are highly rhetorical, all theatrical in the way they play to the audience. But none after Strike combines dissimilar modes of representation so markedly: if Potemkin adopts a more consistent semi-documentary mode, Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) adopts a more consistent semi-operatic mode. Except for Strike, montage in Eisenstein’s films is not so much montage of attractions as the quick, assertive editing of shots.


Zvenigora. DVD: Mr Bongo Films (U.K.).

Dovzhenko was born in a Ukrainian village, the son of illiterate peasants, their seventh child but, by the time he was eleven, the oldest surviving one. He went to school and became a teacher, which exempted him from fighting in World War I. In the complicated strife following the Soviet revolution he was with the Borotbists, a faction of Ukrainian nationalists espousing a home-grown, peasant-based Communism. He served as a Soviet diplomat in Warsaw and Berlin, but his mediating position between Bolsheviks and nationalists was made untenable when the Red Army slaughtered nationalist prisoners who refused to join its ranks, and his diplomatic stint came to an end. He turned to the arts—he studied with George Grosz in Berlin—and found a congenial atmosphere among artists and writers in the flourishing Ukrainian culture of the 1920s; he published caricatures and had aspirations as a painter before he started on his career as a filmmaker.

Zvenigora was his breakthrough film. It boldly mixes the legendary and the contemporary, the traditional and the experimental, the manner of Ukrainian folk poetry and the methods of avant-garde theater and cinema. The administrators at VUFKU, the Kiev studio that produced it, didn’t know what to make of it and sought the opinion of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, who were invited to a screening in Moscow. “Zvenigora leaps!” Eisenstein wrote in his account of the occasion. “As the film goes on it pleases me more and more. I’m delighted by the personal manner of its thought, by its astonishing mixture of reality with a profoundly national poetic imagination. Quite modern and mythological at the same time. Humorous and heroic.” The film opens with mounted Ukrainian Cossacks from the seventeenth century riding into view in magical slow motion; an old grandfather joins them as they shoot Poles down from trees and search for a treasure reputedly buried in the Zvenigora hills. But the grandfather also lives in the present, the time of world war, revolution, and civil war, and he has two grandsons, one a revolutionary who extends his hand to German soldiers in the trenches as fellow workers, the other a reactionary who puts on a suicide act before a paying bourgeois audience in the West, all eager to watch him shoot himself on stage, so that he can raise funds for an expedition back to his native land in quest of its buried ancestral treasure. More than any Eisenstein film besides Strike, Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora has the stylistic diversity, the bent for disparity, of the montage of attractions.

The Cossacks on horseback, one of them carrying a bandura, invoke right at the start, as Ray Uzwyshyn observes, the Ukrainian tradition of bardic song. Laying stress on the Dada connection, Uzwyshyn sees the slow motion as a mockery in the vein of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) and takes the whole sequence as a burlesque of the Cossacks and their bardic tradition similar to Duchamp’s mustache on the Mona Lisa. But Dovzhenko’s slow motion lends the opening a strange, entrancing sort of majesty—more akin to Jean Vigo than René Clair—and the jokes about such things as shooting down Poles perched on trees blend laughter with a fairy-tale wonderment. “Humorous and heroic,” as Eisenstein said, the humorous accompanying the heroic as often in epic poetry, the humorous qualifying but not ridiculing or repudiating the heroic. Dovzhenko brings to the bardic tradition a modernist sensibility—he was certainly aware of the international avant-garde, Dada and Surrealism as well as Cubism, Constructivism, and the rest—and he does a kind of parody of Ukrainian folk poetry, but in a fashion essentially serious. And he doesn’t so much parody the legendary as level it with the contemporary, put it incongruously together with the actual. Like Manet in Olympia, he gives an old form a new content.

When it shifts from the legendary past to the present time, the film goes into its most lyrical passage of Ukrainian folklore. We may think we are still in the realm of legend when maidens in festive peasant garb, one named Oksana singled out among them, perform the Midsummer ritual of Ivan Kupala and send wreaths of flowers with lit candles floating down the river. “Destiny flows by,” the intertitles read. “Oksana watches it.” Time-honored belief has it that a maiden’s wreath caught by a young man signifies marriage, while an overturned wreath or a candle blown out by the wind foretells misfortune. Oksana is alarmed to see that the old grandfather catches her wreath and throws it back into the water after blowing out the candle. Between these two figures of traditional Ukraine there seems to be a split, and in the next scene we are introduced to the two grandsons personifying a split, Pavlo the reactionary and Tymishko the revolutionary. Then comes another lyrical passage, a bucolic celebration of the land, its fruits and its beasts and its people, the growing of wheat and of children: a poem of fertility expressing in material terms much the same sentiments that the Midsummer ritual expressed in mystical terms. Thus Zvenigora proceeds, as a montage of scenes, of whole sequences more than of shots within a sequence, scenes linked together in their diversity by a play of correspondences and cross-references.


Zvenigora. DVD: Mr Bongo Films (U.K.).

The idyll of the land is interrupted by a bell calling the men to the world war. Pavlo stays home with the grandfather and the two go digging for the Zvenigora treasure, but a fat general stands above them and tells them digging is forbidden. Tymishko becomes a soldier, though he shakes hands with the enemy in the midst of battle and challenges the authority of a frail old general who orders his execution to no avail and then just topples over. The actor who plays the old grandfather also plays the frail old general, and even if we don’t recognize him in this other role, at some subliminal level we register the parallel. The digging for a national treasure, the gesture of solidarity with the enemy, the fat and the frail generals, the collapse of old authority: like much else in the film, these are symbolic, theatrical, frankly unrealistic representations of reality—reality in the mode of legend, of bardic song, but still reality rendered with the physical directness, the documentary immediacy peculiar to the film image.

On a horse painted white Pavlo leads nationalist troops in the civil war, and Tymishko and the Communists retreat from the village. The revolution fights back, as the film represents it, armed with the pick digging in the mines, the hammer at work in the factories and the sickle in the fields, the industry and agriculture that are the real treasure of Zvenigora, as Tymishko learns. Pavlo goes abroad and, after his profitable suicide act, returns and persuades the grandfather to sabotage the advancing train symbolic of revolution. But Tymishko is on that train and Oksana is with him—the old man caught her wreath, it seems, for the benefit of his good grandson—and the grandfather joins them on board. Pavlo faces us as if we were the audience for his suicide performance, and now actually puts a bullet through his head. Zvenigora is a complex national allegory. If the grandfather personifies old Ukraine, so does young Oksana, who is doubled in the legendary Roksana, heroine of a story related by the grandfather and visualized in misty, layered images like pictographs excavated from the distant past. The grandfather is the old fixated on tradition, Oksana the old with its eyes on the future; he is the old set in its ways, she the old that is continually renewed. In the original em>Zvenigora folk tale (as outlined by Uzwyshyn) a poor peasant discovers a treasure in a cave and, warned that it is cursed, takes only two gold coins from it, which are enough for him to prosper; tempted to go back for more, he finds snakes and vipers in the cave, and the wind howls: “Take only what you need.” The grandfather’s digging may be construed as the desire to hoard, to accumulate riches selfishly, but the treasure he dreams of is real and can be made to yield riches for all. He belongs on the train with Oksana and Tymishko in a final alliance of old and new.


“There was a mother who had three sons,” Arsenal begins. A peasant woman is alone at home in a held posture of distress. “There was a war.” Soldiers on a train travel to the front, and in village streets women stand still and a onelegged veteran walks on crutches with a child following. “And the mother had no sons.” A woman trying to sow a large field all by herself totters and falls to the ground. The intertitles assume the manner of folk poetry, and the images are stylized in kind, theatrical, hieratic, with a distinctive use of immobility as a way to counterpoint and crystallize movement, and at the same time real. A soldier in the trenches under the influence of laughing gas confronts the audience like an actor on a stage. A woman beating her hungry children in frustration is intercut with a disabled veteran beating his horse in a field lying fallow, and the horse tells him he’s hitting the wrong target. Horses speak in Arsenal as in any folk tale.

The bardic mode, as Uzwyshyn notes, tends in Zvenigora toward “comedy and Menippean satire” and in Arsenal toward “lament and tragedy”. Zvenigora ends happily with the hero and heroine together and the old man reconciled to the new order; Arsenal ends with the hero, also named Tymishko and played by the same actor, indomitably baring his chest before gunfire in the rebel Arsenal‘s last stand, symbolically defying yet actually meeting his death. To a greater extent than any other Soviet portrayal of revolution, Arsenal is tragic, terrible, sorrowful. Its most dynamic depiction of revolutionary action is a rush to the grave. A dying Red soldier asks to be buried at home, and his comrades, together with speaking horses “flying with all the speed of our twenty-four legs,” hurry him across a wintry embattled landscape to his final rest. Dovzhenko’s mastery of the rhythms of motion and stillness is manifest in this dazzling fast-cut sequence in which militant excitement joins hands with mournful sadness. If Zvenigora mixes genres and styles more diversely than Arsenal, is more of a montage of attractions, Arsenal cuts more disjunctively than Zvenigora, is more of a montage of shots. In Arsenal more than in Zvenigora, and in Earth more than in Arsenal, Dovzhenko treats shots as self-contained units, each holding the screen on its own and carrying equal weight, the ensemble forming an aggregate space like a medieval altarpiece or a Cubist painting.


Arsenal. DVD: Mr Bongo Films (U.K.).

Cinema is both theatrical, a medium of actors performing for an audience, and documentary, a medium of images recording actual appearances. Like Jean-Luc Godard, like Ousmane Sembène, like Andy Warhol, like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Dovzhenko pushes in both directions at once, and his films, like few others of his time, combine overt theatricality with vivid documentary imagery. Take the great love scene in Earth, the sole scene in the movies that portrays not just love’s intimacy but also its commonality, not just its personal but also its sacramental quality: a sequence of lovers standing immobile in the country moonlight after a day’s work, one peasant couple after another posing theatrically for the camera and yet exhibiting, in a steadfast gesture of solemn bliss, the subjective as well as shared reality of love. Or consider the way that, in Ivan (1932) or Aerograd (1935), the documentary rendering of a massive hydroelectric dam being built on the river Dnieper, or of the Siberian frontier with its vast ancient forests and its airplanes in the sky heralding the future, is punctuated by the theatricality of characters looking at the camera and addressing us in the audience, implicating us in their struggle, facing our judgment, acknowledging their shame, asking us to witness their grief, reciting poetry to us in summation of their experience.

Earth was Dovzhenko’s last silent film and is generally —and justly—regarded as his masterpiece. It is a marvel, a poem of change and of permanence, of death and of life, epic and lyric, tribal and revolutionary, passionate and imperturbable. But it was not a lone masterpiece: worthy to stand beside it are Zvenigora and Arsenal, which compose with it a kind of trilogy, Ivan, which augments that into a tetralogy, and Aerograd, for once made outside his native Ukraine. Mr. Bongo released last year a new DVD of Earth and has now brought out DVDs of Zvenigora and Arsenal that are fuller and of better visual quality than any previously available. (The English subtitles could use improvement, however. They are often rather flat and at times unclear. The lines about the woman and the war and the three sons quoted above are from the old version of Arsenal; the new subtitles weaken the bardic tone. “It’s not me you want to Strike at, old man” is what, if memory serves, the horse tells the man in the old version; what we get now is “You’ve lost your touch, Ivan,” which misses the point.) It is to be hoped that there will soon be DVDs, if not of the whole Dovzhenko corpus, at least of Ivan and Aerograd.

1.S. M. Eisenstein, “The Montage of Attractions,” in Writings, 1922–34, vol. 1 of Selected Works, ed. and trans. Richard Taylor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 33–38. See also “The Montage of Film Attractions,” 39-58. Tom Gunning borrowed the term “attractions” for his theory of early cinema.

Gilberto Perez is professor of film history at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

DVD DATA Arsenal. Director: Alexander Dovzhenko, 1929. Publisher: Mr Bongo Films
(U.K.). £17.99, 1 disc.
Zvenigora. Director: Alexander Dovzhenko, 1928. Publisher: Mr Bongo Films (U.K.).
£17.99, 1 disc.