|the international federation of film critics|
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In July, as Dovzhenko is scouting locations for his film, an American shipping-company executive completes a ten-week tour of the Soviet Union. "The crop is said to be good and the Government claims that there will be a considerable amount of grain available for export," he reports to the State Department, "but I am safe in saying that the next few months will be very critical.. All Ukrania. has been stripped of everything that could possibly be exported and turned into a cash balance abroad and outspoken dissatisfaction was general." 
And in December, while Dovzhenko is editing his footage, the correspondent of the New York World and Jewish Telegraph Agency returns to Moscow from Ukraine, where he has been investigating the "tsores," as he puts it, of the Jewish and German colonists. "It is a tragedy to see how a piece of mere bread has become the ideal of thousands of people who toil to give this bread to others," he confides to an American diplomat. 
Dovzhenko knows what the businessmen and reporters have seen: he's a country boy himself; he spends months filming on location in a village, and he hears that his father has been labeled "a Ukrainian nationalist who is extremely hostile to Soviet power" and will be evicted from his house and land, until at the last moment, perhaps because of his son's intervention, the government telegraphs orders to leave him alone. 
The Alexander Dovzhenko of Soviet legend, pedestal and outline pounded out by Stalin's propagandists, features refined by Yulia Solntseva's defter hand, was a disciplined Red Army soldier during the revolution and a dedicated Communist afterwards, a genius who devoted his gifts to the Soviet cause. For many in the West the legend was fact. Jay Leyda, the historian of Soviet cinema, wrote that Dovzhenko was "the foremost Communist in Soviet films." He "demonstrated the true magnitude of a political artist's responsibilities." The film scholar Vance Kepley Jr. tried to recarve the legend to make it conform to American business notions. Dovzhenko "drew a paycheck from an industry that operated under state control, and in turn he worked to produce films that spoke to state policy. We surely do him no injustice by recalling that he labored in the service of the state." 
Michael Chapman of the Cato Institute paid a perverse homage to the legend when he accused Dovzhenko of "moral complicity" in the famine of 1933. "Dovzhenko, a Marxist from early on, used his talent to create propaganda first for Lenin and then for Stalin, two of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century, responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million people," he wrote. 
Dovzhenko was more ambiguous, more nuanced, than his critics, either pro- or anti-Soviet, allowed. He was a party member for only three years. He never mastered Marx. He had little to say about Lenin, and even that was a measure of what the party demanded from every writer and filmmaker rather than of his own convictions.
He admired, even revered, Stalin, who had invited him for long walks and taken him into his confidence, and never blamed him either for his own difficulties or for those of the country. If anything was going wrong it was because the khozyain - Stalin's inner circle called him "the master" behind his back - couldn't oversee every detail. 
But he hated the system Stalin had done so much to shape, called collectivization "serf socialism," described Soviet democracy as "the greatest lie and deception that humanity has known," and saw the roots of poverty in the system itself. The country needed, he thought, "not one but several parties, which instead of trying to crush one other would compete in elections." Communism and fascism, he said, were philosophical brothers. "Both are totalitarian regimes." The inchoate socialism Dovzhenko embraced had more in common with early Christian teaching than with Bolshevik practice.
Even as Dovzhenko drew pay from the state and bent his vision to its purposes, he structured his films as series of poetic images that subverted the overt political message.  And even as he mouthed the slogans of the day, the party questioned his loyalty: many of his films caused political furors when they appeared, and the party censored or withdrew them from circulation.
|Dovzhenko as a student in Kyiv in 1917. From the author's collection.|
Worst of all, Dovzhenko had a past that did not fit the legend. In 1918 he had joined the army of Symon Petliura, the socialist journalist who led the army of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) against Lenin's Reds and Anton Denikin's Whites. When Petliura's forces lost the war with the Reds and retreated west, Dovzhenko went with them. But in August 1919 he and two comrades-in-arms turned around and went to Zhytomyr, where Dovzhenko had taught school before the revolution and had met Varvara Krylova. 
A month later the Red Army overran the city. One of Dovzhenko's companions turned himself in to the Cheka, as the Soviet security service was called then. The Cheka threw all three into prison. In December 1919, a Cheka tribunal ruled that they had fought against the Soviet regime and had entered the "Soviet Republic" with forged documents. They were "enemies of the workers' and peasants' power" and would be interned in a concentration camp. Dovzhenko was relieved. He had been lying on a slat bed in a dank cell for three months, preparing himself for the moment when the guards would drag him away and put a bullet in the back of his head.
Then the tribunal suspended the sentences. The leaders of the Borotbists, a small Ukrainian party allied with the Bolsheviks, knew Dovzhenko from his student days in Kyiv and requested that the Cheka release the three young men to them. Protected by the Borotbists, Dovzhenko went to work for the department of education in Kyiv. 
Under pressure from Lenin, the Borotbists applied to be accepted into the Bolshevik party. Dovzhenko didn't qualify for membership — he had fought against the Soviet regime — but the Borotbist leaders pulled strings for their protégé and got him in. He didn't last long. In 1923 the party conducted one of its periodic purges. Party officials told Dovzhenko that he had failed to submit his papers for clearance. He insisted that he had sent them in and that they were later found under a bookcase, but the damage was done. The party threw him out, and he never went back. In 1939, after saying for years that applying to rejoin the party was beneath his dignity, he filled out an application for membership, but then lost his nerve and didn't send it in. Fear that someone would bring up his Petliurite past must have been a factor. 
We don't know why Dovzhenko volunteered for the army of the UNR. Conviction? He had worked, before he joined the army, with the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, who were the mainstay of Petliura's government. A way out of a desperate situation? One memoirist claimed that Dovzhenko enlisted to escape from the hunger and destruction of war-torn Kyiv. Nor do we know why Dovzhenko went back to Zhytomyr. Hope of finding Varvara? Disillusionment with the Petliurites? 
We do know that Dovzhenko paid a price for his freedom. The security service kept him under surveillance and filled his file with denunciations, coerced confessions, and reports by informers. Even one of his best friends reported their conversations to the security service for more than twenty years, and Yulia accused him of installing a tape recorder at his flat to record Dovzhenko's remarks. His ties with the Borotbists didn't help. Bolsheviks thought they were bourgeois nationalists in Marxist masks, and the security service later shot or exiled many of them. 
So when the party told Dovzhenko in 1929 to make a picture about the new life, he went back to his hotel, arranged the table and chair to his liking, and sat down to write. He mumbled to himself; he jumped up and paced about; he sat down, tugged on his ear lobe, and scribbled something; he got up and sat down again; and three days later he emerged with a completed script in hand. He didn't have a title yet, but then it came to him. "Earth and only Earth," he exclaimed. "Clear, precise, and specific." 
|Apples sparkle in the sunlight after a summer shower. Courtesy of Volodymyr Voytenko and KINO-KOLO.|
Dovzhenko showed little of the new life in Earth. Instead he made it his purpose, in the words of Gilberto Perez, his most perceptive critic, to "photograph the essential shape of things, to reveal concrete objects in their enduring aspect." Or as Marcel Martin observes in his history of film, if you haven't seen the close-up of an apple in Earth, you have never seen an apple. And to hold his images together, to turn his flowers, fruits, and stolid peasant faces into a moving picture, Dovzhenko stitched together, as if embroidering a red-and-black ritual cloth, the fantasies of death and destruction, rebirth and renewal, that had haunted him since childhood. 
Films, James Agee observed, "are naïve like dreams and, like dreams, meaningful in ways more complex than the sociologist, the moralist or the esthetician alone (or the psychoanalyst for that matter) alone can discern.. Films are collective dreams." The title that Dovzhenko picked for his film was specific, the story he chose to tell straightforward, but the layers of meaning he packed into Earth make it as dense as a dream.
"Identifying women with apples is a very old conceit," writes Robert Palter in a book about the literary uses of fruit. In Slavic folklore apples are gifts of love, signs of betrothal. They bestow beauty, health, and eternal life on those who eat them. Vasyl puts his arms around Natalka. She presses her breasts against him. Apple, breast, earth. Vasyl is master of all. 
As he walks home from the tryst through the sleeping village, the camera retreating from his steady advance, his feet shod in the thick-soled knee-high boots that Dovzhenko has chosen for the actor, his face powdered with dirt to dim the shine of sweat, Vasyl breaks into a kozachok,the dance the Zaporozhian Cossacks danced the night before they went into battle. Dovzhenko shoots the sequence through a red filter at dawn — the technical term for the trick is day for night — and makes us think we are watching Vasyl move along a country lane in a cloud of moonlit dust. 
And then — the camera has pulled back for a long shot — Vasyl crumples. The film is silent, but we know someone has brought him down with a bullet because a horse that has been grazing nearby raises its head and a shadow flits past.
Morning breaks, and Vasyl is lying in a coffin with a faint smile on his face. His grief-stricken father stands in silence. His mother covers her mouth with her hand.
Natalka runs in. "Vasyl!" she screams.
Opanas Trubenko sets out to find his son's killer. He confronts Khoma Bilokon. "Did you kill my Vasyl?"
Khoma is a young kulak whose family fears it will lose its livestock and land because Vasyl has denounced it in a newspaper. We saw Khoma when his family was reading Vasyl's article, shouting at his sisters and giving one of them a shove. He was dressed in black, and his back was to us: he is, we'll realize later, a shadow self, a dark double.
We saw Khoma again when Vasyl brought back the tractor and the villagers gathered around him. Vasyl climbed up on the tractor and made a speech. "The rich farmers' fields are losing their boundaries!" he declared.
Khoma was standing at the edge of the crowd, jacket over shoulder, cap down over damp hair, face sullen. "Watch out your mother doesn't lose…" he muttered.
Vasyl got down from the tractor and pushed through the throng.
"We'll see about that," he said to Khoma. He was not so much responding to a provocation as ackowledging what was coming.
|(left) Vasyl has been killed during the night, and his father stands in silence beside his coffin. (right) Opanas Trubenko confronts Khoma Bilokon. "I'm asking, was it you who killed Vasyl?" From the author's collection.|
Now Khoma looks up at Opanas.
"I'm asking, was it you who killed Vasyl?"
Khoma averts his eyes. "No sir, it wasn't me."
He's right. He pulled the trigger, but he's not the real assassin.
Opanas goes home and sits in mourning. A knock at the door startles him: the priest has come to offer his services. Opanas sends him away — "God doesn't exist and you don't either," he says — and goes to the village activists. As Vasyl died for the new life, so now Opanas will bury him in the new way, without God or priests.
Dovzhenko had read, as he was starting to write his script, a newspaper item about kulaks who killed a village activist after he plowed his first field. Death wasn't real for Dovzhenko: it was the young man's funeral, not the killing, that fascinated him. "Thought about… his funeral," he wrote in the notes he kept while he worked on the film. "The coffin on the peasants' shoulders. Apples touching his dead face."
And it was to the funeral that he gave the most attention in the film. Vasyl's dying lasted seconds. His funeral, by contrast, fills a third of the film. Dovzhenko cuts up and restitches five scenes into — the quote is from Perez again — "a subtle and mighty tapestry." 
|Apples on a bough caress Vasyl's face. From the author's collection.|
In a series of long shots the villagers run to join the procession. Singing their favorite songs, they carry the open coffin to the graveyard. Apples on a bough — those symbols of love and rebirth! — caress the fallen hero's face. Echoing Freud's thesis that what binds people to each other and to their God is that they killed him, Dovzhenko establishes the unity of the collectivized village on a murder. 
Opanas strides along in the procession, his face a study in grief. He is alone. His wife Odarka has stayed behind because she is going into labor.
The priest is alone in his church. Filmed from above so that he looks small and pitiful, he raises his arms. "Lord, smite the impious!" he prays.
In a little summer house Natalka rips her clothes off, throws herself about, and tears down the icon on the wall.
Odarka lies in bed with a radiant smile on her face. She has given birth. Vasyl's death has lost its sting.
Khoma cowers at home and listens to the singing. Then, barefoot, without the jacket and cap that he affected as a sign of his prosperity, he runs after the procession. "It's my earth, I won't give it up!" he shouts.
No one pays attention to him.
Khoma shouts again. "I killed him in the night, when everyone was sleeping and he was walking along the street and dancing! Like this!"
He breaks into a parody of the kozachok Vasyl performed, then falls down and with his head to the ground twists about as if he were trying to dig himself into the soil. Vasyl is rejoining mother earth; Khoma also wants her shelter and solace.
Surrounded by a vast sky, the horizon almost at the bottom of the frame, cemetery crosses beside him, Khoma runs in circles through the fields and disappears over the horizon.
The film ends with a coda to its themes of sacrifice, crime, death, and regeneration: apples hang on a bough; a summer shower drenches the orchard; the rain stops, the apples sparkle in the sunlight, and another young man, almost a double of Vasyl, almost a resurrection, embraces Natalka. The lovers are standing, the shooting script specifies, beside Vasyl's grave. 
Dovzhenko plays a game with his characters' names. Vasyl, Opanas, and Odarka Trubenko, Khoma and Arkhyp Bilokon: they're all semantically loaded. But the names are more than puns, a tip of his fedora to cognoscenti. They point to a pattern of affinities and identities; they reveal that Dovzhenko has peopled Earth with doppelgängers, doubles, schizoid aspects, as the filmmaker Stan Brakhage put it, of their author. 
The name Vasyl comes from the Greek basileus, "king." Trubenko derives from the word for a trumpet. Vasyl Trubenko is a prophet, a herald, a messiah. As Christ rode into Jerusalem on an ass, so Vasyl drives into his village on a tractor, his disciples behind him, and consummates his marriage with the earth by sinking his plowshare into the soil. But by violating the old order he offends his father. To pay for the crime he offers up his life and is rewarded with return to the maternal earth and resurrection. 
Khoma is the Ukrainian equivalent of Thomas. Bilokon means "white horse." A white horse is a harbinger of death. The biblical Thomas had a second name — Didymus, the Twin. In the Gnostic tradition he was the twin brother of Jesus. When Jesus told his disciples that he would travel to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, they warned him of the dangers, but Thomas said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." 
In the early 1950s, frustrated at every turn by bureaucratic interference in his films, Dovzhenko turned to writing. If he couldn't make films, he would rewrite his screenplays as stories and establish himself as a writer. The "film stories" that he produced in this fashion were quite different from the shooting scripts and films. Dovzhenko dropped scenes, created new ones, and, for the benefit of readers who hadn't seen the films or out of a need to justify himself, added reflections that he could not have conveyed on the screen. Still, even in this revised form the film stories illuminate the obsessions that he brought to the screen in the 1920s.
Vasyl's killer is a case in point. In the shooting script and the film Dovzhenko does not explain Khoma's motives. Critics assumed that he kills Vasyl because of his hatred for the poor peasants. The film story suggests that the matter is not so simple. Dovzhenko says nothing in it about Khoma's feelings for Vasyl, but he does offer several paragraphs about Khoma's father Arkhyp:
His throat was dry with hatred….
If only he were able to get his hands on Vasyl…. Even if the soul had left his body and he lay a lifeless corpse in the courtyard, bewailed by his entire family, even dead, Bilokon would still shudder with rage and send down curses from the other world. 
Arkhyp dashes to the stable and raises an ax to a horse. "He thought he was rushing out to slaughter Vasyl…. Bilokon imagined himself running up to Vasyl and grabbing him by the throat." As he swings the ax, his wife and daughter seize his arm and hold him back. Khoma rushes to their aid. He, too, doesn't want Arkhyp to kill the horse. 
For Dovzhenko, as in so many Ukrainian fables, horses were magical creatures. In his films they race across burning fields; they speak to the audience; they bring a dead soldier to a mother standing beside an open grave. In his autobiographical story "The Enchanted Desna" the young Sashko listens to girls caroling to him about the adventures of Sashko the Bold and his steed. The boy falls asleep, his arms around his dappled horse's neck. "O my horse, my horse, I will never sell you," he promises. "No matter how difficult things may be. I will not part with you for any price."  Arkhyp, whose name derives from the Greek for "senior stableman," is capable of killing his own horse. Khoma is only an agent of a father's anger.
If Khoma and Vasyl are twins, then by the logic of fairy tale and dream their fathers are also kin. As Khoma acts for his father, so Arkhyp is a deputy for Vasyl's father. "Opanas" comes from the Greek Athanasius, "immortal." Dovzhenko depicts him as gentle and loving, but the striking resemblance between the actors who play the two fathers — both dark-haired, bearded, and somber — suggests that Opanas shares Arkhyp's murderous feelings. Feelings that Dovzhenko could not attribute to a character whom he identified with his father.
But Opanas, in the fantasy that Dovzhenko plays out in Earth, is a proxy for an even more powerful persona — his wife Odarka. In the film, Dovzhenko hints that she is indifferent, or even hostile, to her son: she never says anything; she shows emotion, and that muted, only when Vasyl first lies in his coffin; she does not go to his funeral; and she smiles while he is being buried. In the film story Dovzhenko adds an exchange that reveals her omnipotence. Opanas suggests to her that they join the collective. Odarka agrees and then qualifies her answer: she and Opanas will join the collective, but they will keep their oxen and cow. Opanas does not contradict her. "He knew from experience that apart from noise and unpleasantness there was nothing to be gained from arguing with his wife." 
|Odarka Dovzhenko. In the constellation Dovzhenko triangulated in Earth, Vasyl offers himself to a devouring mother. From the author's collection.|
And, most telling detail of all, Dovzhenko names Vasyl's mother after his own — Odarka, from the name of three Persian rulers, by way of the Greek Dareios and meaning "one who has wealth." In the constellation Dovzhenko has triangulated in Earth, the immortal Opanas takes God's place and, as he grieves for his son, oversees his burial and resurrection; Odarka has the wealth — her body, her breasts, her fertile womb, and the livestock and land around her, and Vasyl, herald, messiah, sacrificial victim, offers himself to devouring mother earth. 
Khoma's name both points to the Judeo-Christian allusions that Dovzhenko weaves into the film and guides us to Gogol. Dovzhenko knew him well. Mykola Bazhan recalled that even in his bohemian days in the 1920s Dovzhenko always had "the greenish volumes of his beloved Gogol at hand."  Dovzhenko long dreamed of making Taras Bulba into a film. He got permission in 1940, but the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 interrupted the production he was planning to begin then.
The volume of Gogol that contained Taras Bulba also included "Viy," a Gothic horror story about a young seminarian named Khoma Brut (or Thomas Brutus, if you will). Khoma struggles for his life with a powerful witch who can disguise herself as an old hag or a beautiful young woman. As a young woman she rapes Khoma and then tries to kill him. In the end she summons the demon Viy. He points out Khoma to the monsters who accompany him, but before they can hurl themselves at Khoma he dies of sheer terror — sacrificed, as the Gogol scholar Simon Karlinsky puts it, "on the altar of female power." 
Dovzhenko dazzles us in his films with a kaleidoscope of subjects, settings, and styles. But the eye that frames his images and the hand that splices them together are always his eye and hand. "Who are my heroes?" he once asked in his diary.
Father, Mother, Grandad and myself.
I am Vasyl….
It is my grandad who dies in Earth. Shkurat [the actor who played Opanas] is my father. 
But there was more to it than that. The Opanas Trubenko Dovzhenko patterned on his father is a decent, sober man. In his diary Dovzhenko revealed another side to his father. In 1932 the authorities drove his parents from their collective farm — his film Ivan had raised a storm, and someone was getting back at him by attacking his parents — and they went to live with Polina in Kyiv. Then in 1943 Dovzhenko's now widowed mother came to stay with him in Moscow, and his sister related how their father would attack their mother with an ax or a knife.
When they took the knife away from him, he would sit for a long time, exhausted and pale, and for three days or so Mother would be quiet and cautious.
"And then?" I asked, not believing what I had heard.
"And then it would start all over again and move to the culmination."
And so it was all their lives, I thought to myself….
With every passing day I become more convinced that Father was one of the greatest martyrs I have known.
My God, how much evil has clouded my elderly mother's soul, in what abyss of darkness and evil has she been swimming so long that she has been filled to the brim with unconscionable egotism and deceit?
My distant childhood emerges from time's darkness, and I begin to see many things in their true light: my father's drinking bouts, the cursing, the fighting, the dark disorder. the sadness, the dark witchcraft, the children's curses, and much other evil with which my parents and grandfather were branded.
In their old age, when they have left many things behind on the roads of life, old men become handsome and noble…. Women, as far as I can tell from what I've seen, are completely different. When they grow old, with the exception of a few happy natures, all their limitations, despicable miserliness, disgusting egotism, pettiness, stupidity and avarice — these are the pearls that adorn the old age of the vast majority of women. 
Dovzhenko writes as if Polina's story were a revelation, but he must have witnessed his father's rage as a boy and then repressed the memory: he showed a desperate peasant beating his nag in Arsenal, the film he made just before Earth; he showed a father taking an ax to a horse, the animal he identified with, in Earth, and he echoed the ancient trauma when he described in his diary what Stalin had done to him at the Kremlin in 1944:
I was chopped up into pieces and the bloody scraps of my soul were scattered at every public meeting to disgrace and destroy me.
I held out for a year and then fell. My heart could not bear the burden of lies and evil. 
issue #2 (7.2006)