The Dovzhenko War Trilogy (Zvenigora/Arsenal/Earth) Review

Three films from one of the great directors of Soviet cinema, in a box set from Mr Bongo.

Alexander Dovzhenko was born in 1894, in the part of the then Russian Empire which is now the country Ukraine. That’s worth mentioning because, while the country he lived and worked in a twenty-three-year directing career (from 1926 to 1949 – he died in 1956) was the USSR, his films remain Ukrainian, and questions of nationality are important to them.

Dovzhenko worked as a teacher, an assistant to the Russian Ambassador in Warsaw and as a cartoonist and illustrator before entering the film industry in 1926. He later wrote novels and acted as a mentor to younger filmmakers such as Larisa Shepitko and Sergei Paradjanov. After his death, his wife Yulia Solntseva, also a director, completed projects left unfinished by him.

This box set collects three of his key films, which are discussed below in chronological order.

Zvenigora (1928) (90:48)

Timoshka (Semyon Svashenko) is told as a boy by his grandfather (Nikolai Nademsky) that treasure is buried on Mount Zvenigora near to their home. Timoshka and his brother Pavlo (Alexander Podoroshin) go in search of the treasure. From this slender framework, Dovzhenko makes a film that makes no concessions to conventional form, but instead slips easily from past (including the history of the region) to present, from memory to dream, from realism to overt stylisation. The result was hailed by Eisenstein and Pudovkin when it was premiered, and the two men and Dovzhenko celebrated with an all-night drinking session.

Dovzhenko’s work is different from other major Soviet directors of the time, including the two just mentioned. His work is personal and poetic, often emphasising the beauty of nature, rather than the use of montage to convey meaning, often political meaning, that Eisenstein used – though Dovzhenko certainly could and did use montage himself. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that the treasure that the characters are looking for, and that the grandfather is trying to protect, is Ukraine itself: the land, its people and their traditions. Over the centuries it has come under threat from many would-be invaders, right up to contemporary times and the aristocrats displaced by the Russian Revolution. Zvenigora makes the case that it is a treasure worth preserving.

Arsenal (1929) (88:02)

Arsenal is set in the aftermath of World War One. Timosh (Semyon Svashenko, with almost the character name he had in Ukraine, though I’ll leave it to those more Ukrainian-enabled to advise if that’s significant) is a demobbed soldier who returns home to Kiev after surviving a train crash. In Kiev is a festival of Ukrainian freedom, but it is to be short-lived. Timosh challenges the local authorities and calls for the Soviet system to be adopted. Meanwhile, in the local munitions plant, dissatisfaction is reaching a head.

As with Zvenigora, Dovzhenko tells his story by the association of images, and all of it is not immediately clear on a first viewing. But its impact is undeniable, and the war scenes on their own had a huge impact on later filmmakers. It certainly may be propaganda – and would probably never have been allowed to have been made if it hadn’t conformed to the Soviet system’s requirements – but this is up there with the best of Eisenstein.

Earth (Zemlya) (1930) (77:03)

Earth, Dovzhenko’s final silent film, is generally regarded as his masterpiece. From its release overseas (in the UK in 1931) it became a staple of arthouse cinemas and film societies, a textbook classic of world cinema.

The storyline is, as before, quite simple, beginning with the dying moments of Semyon Opanas (Nikolai Nademsky) in an Ukrainian farming community. Semyon’s grandson (Semyon Svashenko)
is an advocate for collectivisation, and his arrival in the village with its first tractor is greeted with much excitement. But then one night, as Vasyl is walking home, is killed by a person unknown.

Earth dramatises what was then a contentious subject. In 1906, the Tsar had allowed peasants to become landowners, known as Kulaks. This continued after the Revolution but in the late 1920s, following grain shortages, Stalin decided that “rural capitalism” must end, but the Kulaks fought back. The lyrical and poetic qualities of Earth – it is full of shots extolling the beauties of nature and also contains a rapturous montage sequence depicting the making of bread – did not sit well with the film’s subject matter amongst the Soviets. The film was cut by the censors: most particularly, a scene where peasants start an overheated tractor by urinating in its radiator and another showing Vasyl’s fiancée’s naked mourning for him, the first nude scene in Soviet cinema. (Both of these scenes have since been restored.) Dovzhenko came under heavy criticism and he spent some time travelling in Europe, showing his films.

Outside the Soviet Union, Earth was considered one of the most important Soviet silent films, up there with Battleship Potemkin


This box set repackages Mr Bongo’s earlier single releases of these films. Each single-layered disc is encoded for all regions.

All three films were shot in black and white and were silent. Zvenigora and Earth is transferred in the correct ratio of 1.33:1, though the latter is slightly windowboxed. Arsenal is presented in a ratio of 1.20:1, which is an early-talkie ratio, caused by a printed soundtrack narrowing the frame (used before the introduction of Academy Ratio (1.37:1) in 1932). Maybe the source of this transfer was such a version. Ascertaining the correct speed of a silent film – not to mention transferring it to a PAL DVD which plays at 25fps – is often a vexed issue, but to these eyes Arsenal is about right, the other two a little fast. More importantly, while there is surface damage aplenty – spots and scratches, some flickering and instability – none of it is too distracting and these films, all over eighty years old, are in remarkably good shape on these DVDs.

As the films were silent, the sole soundtracks are music scores, in LPCM 2.0 Mono for Earth and Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono for the other two. The intertitles are in Russian, but optional English subtitles are available.

There are no extras of any kind, which is par for the course for this distributor. It’s a particular pity in this case, as you can’t pretend these films are immediately accessible and some contextual information would have been useful.


Updated: Nov 07, 2012

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