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Alexander Dovzhenko

Alexander Dovzhenko
Alexander Dovzhenko.jpg
Alexander Petrovich Dovzhenko

(1894-09-10)September 10, 1894
DiedNovember 25, 1956(1956-11-25) (aged 62)
Resting placeNovodevichy Cemetery, Moscow
OccupationFilm director, screenwriter
Years active1926–1956
Spouse(s)Yuliya Solntseva

Alexander Petrovich Dovzhenko or Oleksander Petrovych Dovzhenko (Ukrainian: Олександр Петрович Довженко, Oleksandr Petrovych Dovzhenko; Russian: Алекса́ндр Петро́вич Довже́нко, Aleksandr Petrovich Dovzhenko; September 10 [O.S. August 29] 1894 – November 25, 1956), was a Ukrainian Soviet screenwriter, film producer and director. He is often cited as one of the most important early Soviet filmmakers, alongside Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin, as well as being a pioneer of Soviet montage theory.


Olexandr Dovzhenko was born in the hamlet of Viunyshche located in the Sosnitsky Uyezd of the Chernigov Governorate of the Russian Empire (now part of Sosnytsia in Chernihiv Oblast, Ukraine), to Petro Semenovych Dovzhenko and Odarka Yermolayivna Dovzhenko. His paternal ancestors were Ukrainian Cossacks (Chumaks) who settled in Sosnytsia in the eighteenth century, coming from the neighbouring province of Poltava. Alexander was the seventh of fourteen children born to the couple, but due to the deaths of his siblings he was the oldest child by the time he turned eleven. Ultimately, only Alexander and his sister Polina, who later becomes a doctor, survived to adulthood.

Although his parents were uneducated, Dovzhenko's semi-literate grandfather encouraged him to study, leading him to become a teacher at the age of 19. He avoided military service during World War I because of a heart condition, but during the Civil War he served a year in the Red Army. In 1919 in Zhytomyr he was taken prisoner and sent to the prison . In 1920 Dovzhenko joined the Borotbist party. He served as an assistant to the Ambassador in Warsaw as well as Berlin. Upon his return to USSR in 1923, he began illustrating books and drawing cartoons in Kharkiv.

Dovzhenko turned to film in 1926 when he landed in Odessa. His ambitious drive led to the production of his second-ever screenplay, Vasya the Reformer (which he also co-directed). He gained greater success with Zvenyhora in 1928, the story of a young adventurer who becomes a bandit and counter-revolutionary and comes to a bad end, while his virtuous brother spends the film fighting for the revolution, which established him as a major filmmaker of his era. His following "Ukraine Trilogy" (Zvenigora, Arsenal, and Earth), are his most well-known works in the West. Arsenal was badly received by the communist authorities in Ukraine, who began harassing Dovzhenko - but, fortunately for him, Stalin watched it and liked it.


Dovzhenko's Earth has been praised as one of the greatest silent movies ever made. The British film director Karel Reisz was asked in 2002 by the British Film Institute to rank the greatest films ever made, and he put Earth second. The film portrayed collectivization in a positive light. Its plot revolved around a landowner's attempt to ruin a successful collective farm as it took delivery of its first tractor, though it opened with a long close-up of an elderly, dying man taking intense pleasure in the taste of an apple - a scene with no obvious political message, but with some aspect of autobiography. The film was panned by the Soviet authorities. The poet, Demyan Bedny, attacked its "defeatism" over three columns of the newspaper Izvestia, and Dovzhenko was forced to re-edit it.

Appeal to Stalin

Dovzhenko's next film, Ivan, portrayed a Dneprostroi construction worker and his reactions to industrialization, which was then summarily denounced for promoting fascism and pantheism. Fearing arrest, Dovzhenko personally appealed to Stalin. One day later, he was invited to the Kremlin, where he read the script of his next project, Aerograd, about the defense of a newly constructed city from Japanese infiltrators, to an audience of four of the most powerful men in the country - Stalin, Molotov, Kirov and Voroshilov. Stalin approved the project but 'suggested' that Dovzhenko's next project, after Aerograd, should be dramatized biography of the Ukrainian communist guerilla fighter, Nikolay Shchors.

In January 1935, the Soviet film industry celebrated its fifteenth anniversary with a major festival, during which the country's most renowned director Sergei Eisenstein, who was in trouble with the authorities, and had not been allowed to complete a film for several years, gave a rambling speech that jumped from one esoteric topic to another. Dovzhenko joined in the criticism, raising a laugh pleading: "Sergei Mikhailovich, if you do not produce a film at least within a year, then please do not produce one at all... All this talk about Polynesian females, I will gladly exchange all your unfinished scenarios for one of your films." At the end of the conference, Stalin presented Dovzhenko with the Order of Lenin.

Later, Dovzhenko was summoned to the Kremlin again, and told by Stalin that he was a "free man", who was not under "any obligation" to make the film about Shchors. He took the hint, and paused work on Aerograd to follow Stalin's 'suggestion', and sent the dictator a draft of the screenplay for Schors. He was then summoned in front of the boss of the Soviet film industry Boris Shumyatsky to be told that the script contained serious political errors. His request for another meeting with Stalin was ignored, so he wrote to the dictator on 26 November 1936, pleading: "This is my life, and if I am doing it wrong, then it is due to a shortage of talent or development, not malice. I bear your refusal to see me as a great sorrow." Stalin's response was a brief note to Shumyatsky, in December, listing five things that were wrong with the script, including that "Shchors came out too crude and uncouth."

Later work

Dovzhenko completed Aerograd in 1935. Before its release in November, Dovzhenko had begun work on Shchors. According to Jan Leyda, who was employed in the Soviet cinema industry at the time:

Shchors taught him the new difficulties of executing a suggestion from Stalin. In the three years before its release, Dovchenko had to submit every decision and every episode to a seemingly endless series of people 'who knew what Stalin wanted'. There were nightmare interview, some bitter, with the Leader himself, who was beginning to show signs of megalomania and infallibility...Dovzhenko later told friends about one frightening arrival in Stalin's office, when he refused to speak to Dovchenko, and Beria accused him of joining a nationalist conspiracy.

Several of Dovzhenko's colleagues were shot or sent to labour camps during the Great Purge, in 1937–38, including his favourite cameraman, Danylo Demutsky, who worked with him on Earth. But when, at last, he had completed Shchors, which was released in January 1939, he was paid a huge fee - 100,000 rubles - and awarded the Stalin Prize (1941).

During the war, Dovzhenko wrote an article and a screenplay Ukraine in Flames, which was denounced by Nikita Khrushchev and other Ukrainian communist officials for having 'veiled nationalistic moods'. According to a report sent by the head of the NKVD Vsevolod Merkulov to Andrei Zhdanov, the party secretary in charge of culture, Dovzhenko resented the criticism, saying "these people cannot guide the war and the people. This is trash." After being hauled in front of the Central Committee, Dovzhenko was excluded from various official organisations, cut himself off from fellow artists and applied himself to writing a screenplay about the biologist, Michurin. The film Michurin earned him another Stalin prize, in 1949.

After spending several years writing, co-writing and producing films at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow, he turned to writing novels. Over a 20-year career, Dovzhenko personally directed only seven films.

He was a mentor to the young Soviet Ukrainian filmmakers Larisa Shepitko and Sergei Parajanov. Dovzhenko died of a heart attack on November 25, 1956, in his dacha in Peredelkino. His wife, Yulia Solntseva, continued his legacy by producing films of her own and completing projects Dovzhenko was not able to create.

The Dovzhenko Film Studios in Kyiv were named after him in his honour following his death.


*codirected by Yuliya Solntseva

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