Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956), a Ukrainian of peasant stock, first became a schoolteacher and then, after joining the Communist party, turned to diplomacy, working at the Soviet embassies in Poland and Germany. He then became a newspaper cartoonist back in the Ukraine before finding his metier as a film-maker and becoming the most acclaimed poet of the Russian silent cinema. His most celebrated movie, Earth (released by Mr Bongo last year), is a tough, lyrical, unsentimental evocation of rural life, which provoked Soviet censors through its alleged pessimism. Earth completed an informal trilogy of silent classics about Ukraine that began with Zvenigora and continued with Arsenal.
Merging fantasy and realism, Zvenigora uses the rambling story of a search for a lost treasure to journey through Ukraine's distant past and revolutionary present. Arsenal, Dovzhenko's most complex, avant-garde work, is as revolutionary in its politics as in its style. It's a dense, symbol-laden account of the last days of the first world war on the eastern front followed by the civil war in the Ukraine. This ambitious film has evoked comparisons with Picasso's Guernica for its angry, compassionate, complex depiction of war and is full of unforgettable images such as the gassed German soldier and the portrait of a celebrated poet coming to life and blowing out the candle placed beneath it. It is best seen after a little reading about the historical background and Dovzhenko's aims and aesthetic.
Fragment from Dovzhenko's film "Zvenigora" (1928)