Zvenigora was Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s fourth film, but his first outside of the Russian studio system. This meant that it was still open to censorship from the Stalinist regime of the time, which necessitated more abstraction and less of a reliance on traditional narrative techniques, to confound the censor. Dovzhenko was also free to concentrate on telling a Ukrainian story, whch allowed him some leeway with regards to criticism of the authorities of the time, in the way that sci-fi allows authors to make criticisms of modern society without anybody taking offence.
This film, originally released in 1928, forms part of an informal series alongside two other films – Arsenal (1928), and Earth (1930) known as the “War trilogy”, which has been re-released by Mr. Bongo films on Blu-ray. The classic standing of other soviet films from around the same time, such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Dziga Vertov‘s still stunning Man With a Movie Camera (1929), has increased interest in exploring this era of cinema that has become neglected in recent years, with (some might argue) good reason.
The problem with Zvenigora is that its images, while beautiful, are often baffling to Western eyes. They are so reliant upon and imbued with Ukrainian cultural touchstones that for the average young handsome man living in the 21st century, it’s difficult to care. With the beauty of the images on show, however, it feels important to try and connect with on some level. It’s not lazy filmmaking, far from it. It’s our own hubris and ignorance of the past that has allowed this film to fall out of favour, so try we must.
Zvenigora attempts to tell the story of the history of Ukraine through a parable about treasure being buried in a mountain. The tone of the film is a strange mix between the mystical and the social-realist (predicting a style that would become popular in the 1930’s) as it presents brutality and agony alongside elegiac scenes of the stoic harmony of peasant life.
The film is divided into seven rough episodes, each providing a little glimpse at peasant life. These range from a bizarre sequence involving a face-off between a vanishing monk figure and a marauding band of men to very realistic scenes at home, of a different kind of conflict between father and son. Even to our jaded eyes, it’s clear from the pure emotion that runs through every frame of Zvenigora that we’re watching something with a message, even though that message isn’t always clear.
Dovzhenko’s fate has become intertwined with the history of the various artistic movements within the Soviet union, to which Tarkovsky, Vertov, and others like them belonged. In the face of such monumental talent, he was bound to be lost in the shuffle. Zvenigora is definitely worth seeking out, on its own or as part of the War trilogy re-release, even for those souls without a fetish for Soviet-era images and technology. Just work at it, and don’t expect to understand everything.