Despite often being cited as one of the most important early Soviet filmmakers – primarily for his Soviet montage theory – the name Alexander Dovzhenko has failed to garner the same critical acclaim in the west as his contemporaries. However, thanks to Mr Bongo, his most revered and respected work is again available in the convenient Dovzhenko: War Trilogy box set. Despite being disregarded by Soviet critics on its initial release for its perceived ‘counter-revolutionary’ viewpoint, the three films included remain a testament to the pioneering work of this underrated director.
First in the box set is Zvenigora (1928), described by Dovzhenko himself as a “cinematic poem”. The film is a surreal, politically-tinged depiction of the industrialisation of 1920s Soviet Russia, destroying the peaceful existence of the steppe people of the Ukraine. Disregarding traditional style for an unprecedented avant garde direction, this tale of an old man attempting to preserve the hidden treasure of a nearby mountain is a profoundly lyrical film which imbues the beauty of Dovzhenko’s homeland with a subtly political message. On viewing the film legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisentein summed up the experience beautifully, stating; “As the lights went on, we felt that we had just witnessed a memorable event in the development of the cinema.”
Arsenal (1929) follows suit, set in the bleak and harrowing aftermath of World War I, the film follows the journey of Timosh, a soldier returning to Kiev after surviving a train wreck. Coinciding with a celebration of Ukrainian freedom, Timosh, scarred by the horrors he faced challenges the local authorities in an attempt to adopt the Soviet socialist system. Taking a surprisingly pacifist outlook towards war, Arsenal is a fascinating film which questions the human cost behind the ideological victory of the armed revolution in the Soviet Union.
The final instalment of Dovzhenko’s trilogy is Earth (1930), another cinematic poem where cinematic trickery and visual panache brings to life the experiences of the Ukrainian. Using the presence of a tractor as a larger than life metaphor for the technological advances which accompanied the Soviet movement, Earth is a sumptuous tapestry of mechanical gears and rural serenity colliding to create an expressionist portrait of the demise of the rural spirit of this peaceful community and the beginning of a new, rigid and industrial future.
Essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the advancement of Soviet cinema or a fondness for the bewitching charm of silent cinema, the Dovzhenko: War Trilogy is a spellbinding and poignant example of the power of cinema to educate, enthral and enchant.