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Making Idiosyncratic Art in a Totalitarian Society

Friday, March 3, 2017 13:18
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Alexander Dovzhenko, a Ukrainian filmmaker, is best known today for a series of political pictures he wrote and directed in the early Stalin years, movies that kept drifting in directions that risked the wrath of the Soviet authorities. Arsenal (1929), set in the Russian Civil War, had hints of pacifism. Earth (1930) was supposed to be a celebration of the collectivization of agriculture, but the picture he actually produced is lyrical, funny, and more surrealist than socialist; the propaganda parts play like tongue-in-cheek interludes. The government reacted to it by kicking Dovzhenko’s father off the farm where he worked and telling the director to make a movie about building the Dneiper Dam. The result was the deeply bizarre Ivan (1932), which isn’t as well-known as Arsenal or Earth but should be. It builds to the required propaganda ending but sure takes a lot of strange turns getting there; it’s arguably as subversive as Earth is.

I get the impression that Dovzhenko’s work became more straightforwardly propagandistic after that. (That’s certainly true of the one post-Ivan film of his that I’ve seen, a semi-science-fiction story from 1935 called Aerograd.) But I don’t want to dwell here on the ugly compromises required to work in the Stalin era. Instead, let’s enjoy a film he made before his produced his best-known pictures.

Love’s Berry (1926) plays like a Harold Lloyd movie from an alternate universe. A cheerful little comedy about a man trying to dispose of a baby, it has no propaganda content at all; if you’re looking for politics in it, your main takeaway will probably be its permissive attitude toward sex. And it’s pretty damn funny:

That was Dovzhenko’s first film, and it suggests a whole other career he could have had in another social context.

A bonus for Hit & Run‘s regular readers: One of the characters sure looks like Reason‘s Robby Soave. Seriously, I think Robby might be a time-traveler. Check it out:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)


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