Alexandr Dovzhenko

Alexandr Dovzhenko

Ukrainian film director, writer, playwright
Date of Birth: 11.09.1894
Country: Ukraine

Biography of Alexander Dovzhenko

Alexander Petrovich Dovzhenko was a Ukrainian film director, writer, and screenwriter. He was born in 1894 in the village of Sosnitsa, Ukraine, to an illiterate peasant family. At the age of 19, after completing secondary school, he became a rural school teacher. He enthusiastically embraced the revolution and joined the Communist Party. Dovzhenko fought in the Red Army during the civil war and later served as the first secretary of the Soviet embassy in Warsaw and then the secretary of the Soviet consulate in Berlin. However, diplomatic career did not appeal to Dovzhenko, and during his time in Berlin, he pursued his interest in painting and political caricature.

Upon his return to Kharkiv in the mid-1920s, Dovzhenko joined the avant-garde artistic community and worked as a cartoonist for newspapers and magazines. He also became a member of VAPLITE, a literary society of "left" writers who aimed to combine traditional Ukrainian cultural heritage with contemporary revolutionary forms. This period was a crucial moment in his biography, as Dovzhenko would later embody this dual idea in his work, which became a powerful generator of his creative imagination and aesthetics.

In 1926, Dovzhenko felt an irresistible urge to explore the world of cinema and went to Odessa to immerse himself in film production. Despite having no prior knowledge of the profession that would later become his life's work, he was filled with enthusiasm and a belief in the importance of "new art" for the masses.

Dovzhenko's debut in the film industry came at the age of 32 when he directed his masterpiece "Zvenigora" (1927). This was followed by "Arsenal" (1928) and "Earth" (1929), which showcased his unique style. However, the authorities' opinion of these remarkable works was not unanimous, and Dovzhenko was labeled as a "Ukrainian nationalist." Nonetheless, he continued to make films such as "Ivan" (1932), "Aerograd" (1935), and "Shchors" (1939), despite the pressure of censorship. Unfortunately, his later films, "Michurin" (1949) and "Goodbye, America!" (1951), were marred by interference from the authorities.

After Dovzhenko's death in 1956, his wife and assistant, Yulia Solntseva, directed four more films based on his unfinished scripts and sketches. Dovzhenko's genius as a director, screenwriter, novelist, talented artist, and graphic designer has been thoroughly studied, but there are still many aspects of his work that remain unexplored. He often claimed that the secret to his film's success was that he wrote all his characters, including children and the elderly, based on himself and his close relatives. What is certain is that his creativity was deeply rooted in the oral traditions of his ancestors, Eastern Ukrainian peasants who lived along the Desna River. As a descendant of farmers, Dovzhenko had a passionate love for nature, and the best romantic pages of his work are dedicated to the land, which he saw as a nurturing mother.

With this foundation, Dovzhenko created "Zvenigora," a grandiose epic that encapsulates several centuries of Ukrainian history, including Cossacks, haidamaks, Polish invasions, revolution, the civil war, and the establishment of Bolshevik dictatorship. The film was made in honor of the tenth anniversary of Soviet power and was considered Dovzhenko's "party membership card." Dovzhenko was a devoted communist, and his films may seem overly politicized and ideological to modern audiences, but it was the spirit of the time. He fulfilled his party duty, but he did it in his characteristic lyrical and romantic manner. However, the pressure from the party's censorship ultimately broke the filmmaker's spirit and his faith in the transformation of society, leading to the creation of the forced and one-dimensional film "Michurin." After "Michurin," the aging master stepped away from directing and focused on teaching. He passed away in 1956 at the age of 62, without fully realizing his tremendous creative potential. Dovzhenko once admitted that the material he had for "Zvenigora" would have been enough for four films.

Dovzhenko's film "Arsenal" depicts the real historical event that took place in Kyiv in January 1918 when pro-Bolshevik workers of the Arsenal military plant resisted the forces of the Central Rada, which had seized control of the city. The film begins with horrific scenes on the abandoned battlefields with soldiers dying from their own "laughing gas" and continues with the devastating consequences of war in the lives of ordinary people. Dovzhenko's deliberate use of slow-paced and almost static shots allows the audience to deeply connect with the characters and understand the tragic meaning of their experiences. The film highlights the devastating effects of war, hunger, and destruction, which were the result of the blind and shortsighted policies of the Tsarist government. Dovzhenko portrays the soldiers' suffering, the plight of peasant women with illegitimate children, and the desperate struggles of farmers. The film's climax showcases the symbolic scene where the Arsenal workers are defeated, and the leader of the Central Rada brutally executes them. However, one worker, a Bolshevik, survives the execution, emphasizing the immortality of the Bolshevik ideals.

In "Earth," Dovzhenko attempted to visually demonstrate his vision of unity between the old and the new, nature and technology, tradition and innovation. However, the film received harsh criticism from the party, and it deeply affected Dovzhenko. Unlike the chaotic and eventful "Zvenigora" and "Arsenal," "Earth" is logically structured and revolves around the main idea that social revolutions do not have to be destructive; they can be fruitful if they adhere to the laws of nature. The film was made in 1930, during the height of Stalin's policy of mass collectivization, which caused a wave of uprisings among Ukrainian peasants who resisted forced collectivization. Dovzhenko offered his own solution to ease the situation by presenting the concept of a social revolution as a new and progressive order that naturally replaces the old.

Dovzhenko's films, characterized by his elliptical editing style, reached the pinnacle of their expressiveness in "Arsenal" and "Earth." However, "Earth" faced harsh criticism from party officials, including Demian Bedny, who mocked Dovzhenko in an article titled "Philosophers" in the newspaper Pravda. This public humiliation led to Dovzhenko's nervous breakdown and subsequent hospitalization.

While Dovzhenko's films may seem visually less powerful compared to sound films, his work as a whole showcases his exceptional talent as a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist. It is hard to believe that all these films were created by the same person.