by Allan Fish
(USSR 1928 75m) not on DVD
Old grandfather time
d Alexander P.Dovzhenko w Yuri Tyutyunik, Mikhail Johansson ph Boris Savelyev ed Alexander P.Dovzhenko art Vasili Krichevsky
Georgi Astafyev (Leader of Skyths), P.Otava (Okasana/Roksana), Nikolai Nademsky (Grandfather/The General), Les Podorozhnij (Pavel), Ivan Selyuk (Ataman), Semyon Svashenko (Timoshko),
There’s something eerily appropriate about the way Alexander Dovzhenko’s first masterpiece has been forgotten by modern critics. Like many such films to suffer such a fate, availability is again the problem. Trying to find this film, let alone sitting through it, is hard enough, and it’s fair to say that it’s an acquired taste eighty years on. Upon seeing the film, his contemporaries Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevelod Pudovkin apparently invited Dovzhenko for an evening’s drinking session to celebrate the arrival of a new comrade, but in truth the very term ‘comrade’ say most uneasy on Dovzhenko’s shoulders. On the surface, there may be things to say about the Soviet way of life, but underneath, in its simplistic essence, it’s really about anything but.
Zvenigora has been called a tone poem by many people, and not without just cause. It begins with a caption; “soaked with blood, sealed in secrecy, shrouded in legend, treasures of the country have been buried for ages in Ukrainian soil.” The action then opens with a prologue sets several hundred years earlier in which Cossack raiders and bandits try to persuade the old legendary guardian of the treasure to disclose its whereabouts. They don’t succeed in getting the treasure, and the old grandfather has the task of protecting it, as if by ageless magic, from future potential thieves. Or, as the film refers to the old man, “the centuries old guardian, preserver of antiquities, a moss-covered grandfather.”
Stalin and his officials would have been contented by the way money leads to greed and unhealthy ambitions, an effective rejection of capitalism, as if subliminally saying that Communism is the way forward. I personally don’t think Dovzhenko gave a hoot about all that, rather like Sergei Paradjanov and his later films about Georgian life, his film celebrates his homeland, the Ukraine, and its traditions. As it turns out, the fabled treasure is of course non-existent in material terms, what Hitchcock might have called the definitive McGuffin. The treasure does exist, but the treasure is the land; the Ukrainian and the land are one, the land cares for the Ukrainian and he must care for Mother Earth so she shall producer her bounty. Just as in his later masterpiece Earth, where the villagers’ pissing into a water cooler in their tractor is seen symbolically, here again we this time have a small naked boy pissing on the ground, replenishing it with his water, as if they are all essentially part of the same being.
Technically, too, the film is dazzling, with memorable use of slow-mo to accompany the opening scene of the galloping Cossacks, shot as if they had literally ridden out of time and into the present. Indeed, time itself is transient here, as we go back, forth and back again at regular intervals, most memorably in the dreamy, multiple-exposure story of Roksana, which is arguably the high point of the film. The editing may lack Eisenstein’s revolutionary speed, but it’s nonetheless remarkably fluid and subtle, none more so in its depictions of simple rural life; never has a simple shot of men sweeping their scythes through the wheat in unison seemed so majestic. Dovzhenko certainly embraces the Eisenstein concept of cinema as a new language, devoid of the theatrics of the stage, with performances not in themselves exercises in acting so much as demonstrations of the director’s vision. It is, as I have intimated, not an easy film to sit through, its narrative will confuse and befuddle many a casual viewer into not sticking the course, but I can only recommend that you try, for this is a film that deserves mention, if not completely beside Earth, then only just behind it, and one of the essential Soviet films of the late twenties. Not a perfect film, but an endlessly fascinating one, long overdue a reappraisal.