Ukrainians would prefer that Alexander Dovzhenko's first name be spelled with an "o": Olexander. And rather than say that Dovzhenko is the great filmmaker of the Ukraine, they'd rather you drop "the" before Ukraine, which makes the independent country sound as if it is still a province under the hegemonic thumb of Mother Russia. Small details, but significant signs of the ongoing process of cultural reclamation in the fiercely independent countries that emerged from the Soviet Bloc.
A festival of Dovzhenko's films at the National Gallery, which begins Saturday, is part of the same process. The series is organized with help from the Ukrainian government, which has taken an active role in championing Dovzhenko's work outside his native country. Nine of his 11 finished films, most of them in new prints, are included in the series, from his ecstatically naturalistic early silent works, "Zvenigora" (1928) and "Earth" (1930), to his more problematic sound films, such as "Shchors" (1939), made when the chill of Stalin was a stronger and more menacing presence in Soviet cultural life.
Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi, a minister at the embassy, calls Dovzhenko "an ambassador of Ukraine, a cultural ambassador." The remark comes at time when Ukraine could use all the good diplomacy it can muster. The country's president has been accused, by opponents, of ordering the murder of a journalist; and the government is under suspicion of selling a radar system to Iraq. Promoting Dovzhenko, the most deeply personal of the early Soviet filmmakers, may not be an intentional effort to distract people from the country's political woes, but it must be a relief, for a diplomat, to talk film history and the poetics of the peasantry when most of the news elsewhere is bad.
"He was very Ukrainian, very poetic, very tolerant and very friendly in his films," says Yatsenkivskyi. All true, and he was also a Bolshevik and very much within the muscular, modernist tradition of early Soviet films that gave the world the masterpieces of Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov.
Within the tradition, but a very individual voice within it. Dovzhenko's love of the Ukrainian land and people gave his films a softer edge and a deeper emotional resonance than his more urbane contemporaries. He was deeply and emotionally political, but the miracle of Dovzhenko's films is that they transcend their politics, not just because, like the films of Eisenstein, they are made with exceptional skill and daring, but because they are intimate at the same time. He was, like Chekhov, unafraid of sentiment and humor.
Dovzhenko can film the arrival of a tractor at a collective farm with all the frenetic hysteria of good agitprop. And then he can show the sun-dappled field that the tractor will till and make all its richness and fertility glow on the screen with a magical urgency. When Dovzhenko films the landscape, or people's faces, one forgets ideology, or at least one senses the humane aspiration behind the false promises. Dovzhenko (1894-1956) lived through some of the ugliest decades of human history, and was very much at the epicenter of the ugliness, yet his films suggest a sensibility still raw to the power of natural beauty.
Dovzhenko was born to a peasant family, one of 14 children, of whom only two lived out a full life. Despite the poverty and repetitive tragedy of his childhood -- death was omnipresent -- he received an education, became a teacher and (after fighting for the Red Army and joining the Communist Party) a diplomatic clerk for the new Soviet Union. He was also an artist, though not a terribly successful one (nor, based on reproductions of his cartoon work from the 1920s, a very good one).
As an artist, he was influenced by the constructivists and their raw assemblage of materials, often of industrial origin.
"But like so many of the constructivists who began as painters, he wanted to bring art to the masses," says Peggy Parsons, head of film programming at the National Gallery. "And what better way to do it then by bringing art to the cinema."
With film, he found his calling, and he helped push the rapidly evolving language of film imagery and editing to such complexity that his films are sometimes impenetrable without knowing their story beforehand. He indulged in a very personal free association, both on the small scale (quick cuts used to bring together visual or poetic rather than narrative connections) and on the large, episodic scale as well.
His 1929 silent "Arsenal" begins with an extended and terrifying meditation on the depredations of war, a fantasy of death and destruction still shocking today. A man with no legs sits uselessly on the floor; a German soldier's face is twisted by poison gas into a horrifying scene of laughter and madness; a man walks by a woman on the street and idly reaches out and grabs her breasts, unhindered by law or decency. Yet all of this is prologue, like an extended overture to the actual opera to come. His films veer off into similar asides that last so long they threaten to derail any clear sense of narrative.
Dovzhenko was well aware that he made difficult movies. He called his "Zvenigora" (the first film in the National Gallery series) "unusually complicated in structure, eclectic in form . . . a catalogue of all my creative abilities." And he knew that a lot of people didn't get it.
"The artistic audience was quite enthusiastic about [the film] when it came out, but the general public did not accept it because it was difficult to understand," he wrote in a brief autobiography that has an excruciating measure of the ruthless self-criticism that Soviet artists were expected to display (the more craven the better) when analyzing their own work. With "Zvenigora," a folk tale about about a mysterious treasure horde that morphs into an ode to industrialization, he said he was still learning his craft. "I was more like a professor of higher mathematics than an entertainer," he said.
But he came back a year later with "Arsenal," a drama of war and revolution at a Kiev munitions factory, which is not very much easier to decipher. There is definitely a story -- about Bolshevik resistance to the White Russians -- and there is definitely a hero, the square-jawed, craggily handsome Timosh, who remains impervious to bullets when he bares his chest to attackers in the climactic scene. The narrative is not linear, but a loose weaving of recurring thematic ideas and images. And the filmmaker has a habit of showing the cause and the effect, without ever showing the event itself. The viewer can never be passive. Dovzhenko demands powerful skills of inference and deduction.
That engagement with the active viewer thrilled Dovzhenko's early supporters. Cultural hard-liners, who believed in simple narratives with clear ideological messages, were less enthusiastic.
By 1930, the year his masterpiece, "Earth" was released, there was a growing sense that the great Soviet filmmakers needed to be reined in by the government.
The poet Demian Bedny, who had Stalin's favor, used a review in Izvestia to a write a satiric poem directed at Dovzhenko's too-"philosophical" oeuvre. "Earth" was deemed, by influential Soviet cultural leaders, "counterrevolutionary."
And it probably was, despite the glorification of collective farming, mechanization and modernization. For all the stock Bolshevik imagery, Mother Earth gleams through the film with a calming sense that human affairs are ephemeral. The standard travails of life, sickness and death take on a spiritual power that overwhelms the political trappings. Dovzhenko does for the film about tractors what Shostakovich did for the heroic worker's symphony -- he found a personal creative accommodation with hackneyed forms and gestures.
The National Gallery festival begins with the three great early silents, but for American audiences, the real curiosities will come later this month with the rarely screened later films. Under stricter supervision, Dovzhenko's topics became more predictably doctrinaire: "Michurin" is about a Soviet horticulturist; "Shchors," a subject dictated by Stalin, is about a Ukrainian partisan. The series concludes with two documentaries produced during the Second World War. The standard critical line on Dovzhenko's later work is that it suffers, reflecting his growing personal disillusionment and an ever greater sense of obligation to political masters. The festival gives American audiences a rare chance to accept or reject that verdict.
Landscapes of the Spirit: Alexander Dovzhenko opens at the National Gallery of Art with "Zvenigora" and "Arsenal" on Saturday at 2:30 p.m and continues weekend afternoons through December. For more information visit www.nga.org