In Jonathan Rosenbaum’s definitive 2002 text on the Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko, he persuasively argues that Dovzhenko’s cinema represents a form of “heroic portraiture” more than it does a vehicle for storytelling or narrative expression. Comparing Dovzhenko’s work with a more contemporary film by Jean-Marie Straub, Rosenbaum writes that “[Straub’s film] qualifies as heroic portraiture because it’s concerned more with who and where its human subjects are than with what they do as characters. The same thing is true of Dovzhenko’s films, where the low angles are more extreme and generally make the subjects even more monumental. The passage of time is often conveyed oddly and ambiguously… There’s a solidity and fullness to each character filling the screen that arguably annihilates narrative and ideology alike, leaving only poetry.”
This notion of a cinema that’s dedicated to evoking the potency and totality of its subjects, rather than to showing what they accomplish or sequentially perform within the fiction, provocatively situates Dovzhenko’s work within the non-narrative spaces of an avant-garde tradition. It also implies a kind of reverence on the part of Dovzhenko for the workers and farmers that populate his cinema – the kinds of agrarian figures that most films relegate from importance or ignore altogether.
This conception of Dovzhenko’s work as cinematic portraiture can also help us distinguish his style from that of his most famous Soviet contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein has long overshadowed other great filmmakers who worked in the USSR during the silent period: not only Dovzhenko, but Boris Barnet, Mikhail Kaufman, and for some time, Dziga Vertov (who eventually became a perennial thesis subject in his own right). Eisenstein’s popularity stems from his approach toward montage procedures, an approach which has been rightfully celebrated as a groundbreaking stylistic innovation in the medium. But Eisenstein’s dialectical conception of editing, which emphasizes the material relationships between objects and workers within complex social environments, should still be seen as a kind of narration, or a way of narrativizing forms of action within a cinematic mode.
Like D.W. Griffith’s inaugural experiments in parallel editing, Eistenstein’s formal innovations were developed in the service of sequential action, and thus should be seen as a method of rendering action dynamic and kinetic, and of gesturing cinema further away from its origins in theatre. Dovzhenko’s treatment of folk subjects as somehow immobile or frozen in time, somewhat isolated from the demands of narrative, becomes more radical in that it does not take on the contours of narration or any literary device. Rather than resembling literature or monologue (which Eisenstein identified as the basis of his cinematic rhetoric), Dovzhenko’s work more strongly resembles a series of cinematic paintings. In this regard, Dovzhenko offers a completely alternative way of understanding the potentiality of cinema.
While the legacy of Eisenstein can be glimpsed in many strains of kinetic cinema, from the Hong Kong actioners of Tsui Hark to the bold, graphic gialli of Dario Argento, we must cast our nets a bit wider to observe the selective influence of Dovzhenko on later cinematic permutations. Earlier this year, while watching Dovzhenko’s silent war film Arsenal (1929), I perceived what I thought to be an influence on Robert Bresson in the heightened, almost mechanical physicality of the actors’ gestures. But for all his formal control, Dovzhenko (unlike Bresson) was not an austere filmmaker: the methodical and reverent approach he brings to his human subjects becomes tempered by the wildly poetic visions of nature in his films. In Earth (1930), Dovzhenko’s compositions often foreground sunflowers, apple trees, fields of crops, and other forms of flora and fauna alongside its characters, thereby granting the natural world of landscape the same special status as the human world.
Dovzhenko’s films, even more strongly than the work of other great filmmakers, cry out to be seen on a big screen; the monumentality of his great close-ups (of workers, animals, and other natural entities) loses some of its totemic force on a small TV screen. Readers of the blog who reside in or near Bloomington are advised to attend the upcoming screening of Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) at IU Cinema — its expansive and explosive visions of the world might make the rest of cinema and TV seem cramped and faded, but it’s likely to be an experience that will remain with you for some time to come.
Earth screens at IU Cinema on November 4 at 7 pm as part of the series Michael A. McRobbie’s Choice. Chancellor McRobbie will introduce the film and there will be a post-screening Q&A with associate professor and Center for Documentary Research and Practice director Joshua Malitsky and PhD student Stas Menzelevskyi, who is also the former head of the Research and Programming Department at the Ukrainian State Film State Archive/Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.