Viva Revolution

The great Soviet filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956), subject of a current retrospective at the Walter Reade, was both a sophisticated revolutionary artist and a Ukrainian tribal bard; his name epitomizes a cine-lyricism so passionate as to verge on pantheism.

Dovzhenko, the son of illiterate peasants, became a village schoolteacher, studied economics during the Russian Revolution, and entered the Soviet diplomatic service before reinventing himself as a graphic artist. Breaking into movies in 1926, he made his debut with a short slapstick satire, Love Berry. Compared to his peers Eisenstein and Vertov, Dovzhenko proved to be a man of many genres. His first feature, Diplomatic Pouch (1927), was a spy thriller, as was his 1935 Aerograd; his breakthrough came with the political folk tale, Zvenigora (1927), and was consolidated with the grotesque and frenzied war film Arsenal (1929). Some 15 years later, Dovzhenko was documenting the German invasion of the Ukraine.

Irresistible magic-lantern show: Russell in The Lady and the Duke
photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Irresistible magic-lantern show: Russell in The Lady and the Duke


The Lady and the Duke
Written and directed by Eric Rohmer, from Journal of My Life During the French Revolution by Grace Dalrymple Elliott
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens May 10

Profit and Nothing But!
Written and directed by Raoul Peck
First Run/Icarus

Landscapes of the Soul: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko
Walter Reade
Through May 21

After the critical attacks on his enraptured, startlingly aestheticized tractor-paean Earth (1930) and beginning with his first sound film, Ivan (1932), Dovzhenko was largely constrained to Stalinist bio-pics, including Shchors (1939) and Michurin (1948). But even his most doctrinaire movies are marked by personal eccentricities, including his last, the unfinished and blatantly propagandist Farewell, America (1950). Showing here for the first time, it's stocked with over-the-top imperialist warmongers, including a capitalist toilet manufacturer who has a stroke when he hears the name "Stalin."

Dovzhenko suffered more frustration than persecution during the Stalin period, but his current reputation rests mainly on his last three silent features. Zvenigora is a masterpiece of magic realism made well before the term was invented. Arsenal's powerful use of repetition, cartoonish images, mad angles, fondness for close-ups, and frenzied parallel action suggests a talented Eisenstein follower's attempt to blast his mentor off the screen.

The astonishingly beautiful Earth is unlike anything else in movies. Drafted to make a film on rural collectivization, Dovzhenko produced a myth presenting the creation of the kolkhoz as a natural phenomenon, part of a cosmic cycle of birth and death. Murdered by a crazed kulak (or wealthy peasant), Earth's young hero is a martyr to the fertility of harvest. Released amid the campaign to liquidate the kulaks, Earth is ultimately a pagan myth made to celebrate a tragic social experiment. As exotic now as a Mayan temple or a Sienese altarpiece, it will screen four times this weekend, twice accompanied by the energetic cacophonists of the Alloy Orchestra.

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