19:00 Presentation: Santos Zunzunegui
20:00 Proje: Shchors, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, URSS, 1939, 92'


Some years ago, the great Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman wondered about the role of the film-maker at the end of the millennium. In a world buried by insignificant and repetitive images and anaesthetised by the banality of mass consumption, where narcissism is an accepted pattern of behaviour, in which the technique and aesthetics of audiovisual communication seem increasingly subject to the guidelines of advertising, the task seemed obvious: not to contribute to an increase in the flow of banal, irrelevant and indifferent images. And she encapsulated this idea with an irrefutable statement: one should not make idolatrous images.


It seems to me that this simple proposition can be used to explore some of the many problems and contradictions that people lived through in the USSR in the ominous decade of the nineteen-thirties when the omnipotence of Stalin was consolidated and the cult of the personality of the omniscient leader, in which the sense of history becomes flesh, developed. And it also seems to me that one of the most interesting figures through which to understand at least some aspects of the very complex intricacies of the cultural (and political) debate that was under way in those days (for a brief time explicitly, and later, as we will see, implicitly without being less relevant, at least for a present-day observer) between the political power and its requirements for the construction of what was later to be labelled with the euphemism of “real socialism” and what might (immediately replaced by “must” ) be the role of artists in this task, is none other than that of Alexander Dovzhenko (Viunyshche, present-day Ukraine, 1894-Moscow, 1956).

A superficial review of the history of Soviet cinema will quickly reveal the “martyrdom” (self-criticism included) to which the outstanding figure of Sergei Eisenstein was subjected for his alleged deviations from the “correct line” marked by the CPSU after his first film successes. In contrast, the same superficial glance would confirm that a great film-maker like Dovzhenko (perhaps, seen with perspective, the greatest author of that cinema along with “His Majesty”) – even if he did not completely avoid clashes with the system in force at the time (of which, it should be noted, he considered himself a fervent servant) – knew how to manage them in such a way that the price he paid for his “uniqueness” was less severe than was the case for the maestro from Riga. And it was, of course, very much lower than that paid by the film people who directly experienced the delights of the GULAG if not the “revolutionary justice” of the firing squad or the disdainful shot in the neck. It is precisely the way in which Dovzhenko managed the relationship between his pretensions and achievements as an artist (at the service, let us never forget, of the Revolution) with the commitments he had to adopt which interests us here, without allowing this to prevent us from reviewing some common themes (the accusations of “Ukrainian nationalism” or “pantheism”) which play their part in what could be described as tragicomedy if it were not raised on a pyre on which innumerable shattered lives are also piled.



From this point of view a film like Shchors is important. It is also important, of course, for its intrinsic cinematic qualities (of which it has more than a few). But, most important of all, it marks the end of a journey that begins with the artist’s third film (Zvenigora, 1928, which was enthusiastically greeted by Eisenstein and Pudovkin) and that reaches a certain end of the road in the film in question.[1]

Dovzhenko made Shchors after completing what was, up to that point, one of the works that seemed most to satisfy the Soviet authorities, Aerograd (1935), shot after a three-year interruption to his career after Ivan (1932) ), a film made to pay tribute to the figure of the udarnik, vanguardist workers of the new Soviet proletariat. The doubts that Ivan (we will return to some aspects of this film later) raised among those responsible for Soviet cinema led our film-maker to request the protection from none other than Stalin. Without thinking twice, the autocrat summoned Dovzhenko, who had the opportunity to read his new script to an audience formed by Stalin himself, Voroshilov, Molotov and Kirov. In his autobiography[2], Dovzhenko explains that he realised that the Georgian “was not only interested in the content of the film, but also in the professional and practical aspects of its making”.

As Guido Aristarco wrote, “Stalin provided Dovzhenko with the help needed to finish Aerograd, but, in a fatherly way, he suggested the plot for his next film.” Having reached this point, we must pause to return to 1934, the year in which the transcendental First Congress of Soviet Writers took place, where Stalin, speaking through one of his fervent followers, Andrei Zhdanov (a member of the secretariat of the Central Committee of the CPSU, to which he would delegate the ideological and political control of the cultural sector), coined the expression “artists are engineers of the human soul”. These “engineers” were called upon to break with the romanticism which, in its old incarnation, had dealt with life and non-existent heroes, and to replace it with a “revolutionary romanticism” which knew how to look to the future and show the new heroes of the proletariat. The proposal was simple: it was not a question of representing life as an objective reality but as a reality in its revolutionary development. Thus, Zhdanov would argue, “the veracity and historical correctness of artistic representation must be combined with the ideological duty of reforming and educating workers in the spirit of socialism. This method applied to literature and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism[3].” In other words, “socialist realism” (the expression is attributed to Maxim Gorki) should be geared towards the artistic creation of the “new myths” of the “new society” that was being born, idealising the “new Soviet man” that the State wanted to mould.



And that same year, precisely in the field of cinema, saw the appearance of the work which, from the very first moment, became a guide for later works: the film Tchapaiev, made by the brothers Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev which told of the fighting of a partisan leader in his struggle against the “white” armies during the years of the civil war. Adopted from the outset as a cinematic model for Soviet film-makers, it is not surprising that Stalin suggested Dovzhenko make an equivalent film “about a Ukrainian Tchapaiev”. Stalin himself invited Dovzhenko to watch the Vasiliev film in his company and the film-maker recounted that “he made comments out loud, and I realised that through them he tried to make me discover, through his own sensibility, the rules of artistic creation”.

Naturally, Dovzhenko agreed to take on the project. The real character chosen to be the star in the film (and represent a clear surrogate of Stalin) was Nikolai Shchors, a young military leader who had gathered around him a brigade known as the Boguns in tribute to the old Cossacks of the Ukrainian steppes and who, in the company of the Tarashchanks Regiment mobilised by the peasant Vasil Bozhenko, fought first the German and Austro-Hungarian invaders and their puppet government colleagues maintained in those lands by the occupiers of the Ukraine of 1918, and then later fought in the civil war that set the supporters of the Bolshevik revolution against the reactionary forces of the White Army. The writing of the script took eleven months (during which the intrusions of both Stalin himself and his inner circle were constant). And the filming lasted for twenty months, affected not only by a poor choice of actor to play Shchors who had to be replaced during production by Yevgeny Samoilov, who gave the character the statuesque dimension that seemed to suit him, but mainly by the fact that in those final years of the decade the “purges” that were to decimate Soviet society were reaching their peak and affecting all strata of society and devastating a country in which the Stalinist paranoia of the suspicion of treason established itself in the conscience of all Russians.[4] For example, the purges that “cleaned” the army corps of Ukrainian officers (accused of nationalism, a suspicion that always hovered over Dovzhenko[5]) coincided with the shooting of Shchors, and a case that directly affected the film and its director was the arrest and subsequent execution of Ivan Duboi, a lieutenant in the Shchors army, who was forced to sign a suspicious confession that he had killed his commander twenty years earlier. The fact was that Dovzhenko, an old acquaintance of Duboi, had hired him to advise on filming as an expert on the events represented with first-hand knowledge. Everything seems to indicate that this event is at the bottom of one of the main interruptions of the filming, caused by a serious heart attack suffered by its director.



What can we say about Shchors, specifically? The first obvious point is to affirm that the film shows what it shows and how it shows it as a visible result of the tension within it. Because Shchors is a film in permanent tension: tension between the “programme” proposed by those exercising political control and the way in which the film-maker and his team complied with this; tension between the rules of the recently established “socialist realism” and Dovzhenko’s particular style, which was still very visible despite the corset in which he was forced to operate; tension between the historical dimension of the character (of the characters) and the moment in which his past actions were presented to the Soviet spectator of the time; tension between Dovzhenko’s first-hand knowledge of the environment in which the story takes place and the needs to describe the stereotyped “positive hero” that he was obliged to portray; tension, in short, that runs through all the work of the Ukrainian film-maker, between the political discourse (to which it must be remembered Dovzhenko fully subscribed) and his unique way of stretching the boundaries of an increasingly limiting “realism”.

The result of all these tensions and Dovzhenko’s very personal cinematic talent are what make the film so particularly interesting. These tensions had been revealed already in 1932 in Ivan when, in the Dnieper River basin in Ukraine, with an epic and lyrical style, the film-maker honed his skills through the portrayal of the workers who undertook the task of building a large hydroelectric power station, within the context of the First Five-Year Plan orchestrated by the authorities of Soviet Russia. As always with its author, in this film we will encounter the extraordinary pantheistic power of the film-maker allied to his undoubted propagandist desire to promote the exemplary values of communism. In this film – “heterodox and not naturalistic which caused distrust in the Soviet critics” according to Jay Leyda – one of the central sequences shows an accident at work which involves one of those popular heroes who was committed body and soul to the cause of the proletariat (the so-called udarniks). Torn apart by the pain, after contemplating the body of the worker, the dead man’s mother starts to run through the length and breadth of the quarry followed in long travelling shots by Dovzhenko’s camera. She enters the administration building and, after passing through no less than ten doors that seem to open on their own from within because of some force of hers, she stands before the person who has political responsibility for the work. The woman listens in respectful silence to the conversation that the Party leader is currently having on the phone, urging the collaborators to combine productive effort with maximum safety for the workers, in response to the fatal accident. After the conversation, the official kindly asks the woman what she wants. The answer summarises the complex political sense of the scene: “Nothing.”

What interests me in highlighting this scene is precisely the ambiguity resulting from the friction between a historical juncture and a way of staging and assembling the images. For example, what meaning must we attribute to those ten doors that the woman must pass through to reach the man in charge? What if we were to take them as a non-verbal (cinematic) criticism of the distance that separates ordinary workers and bureaucracy? And does the dialogue between them imply recognition that it has been noted that working conditions must be modified or that, on the contrary, their final mutism is due to the fact that the female character has understood the insurmountable distance that separates her individual tragedy from the world in which politicians live?

In Shchors this ambiguity works in a similar way, aided by the generally “unconstrained” narrative construction of the film-maker. The difference is that unlike what happened in Ivan, in Shchors the main character is always “counterbalanced” by the emotive character of Bozhenko, representative of all the virtues (and contradictions) of the Ukrainian peasantry. Where Shchors offers the grandiloquent gesture, the hero’s narcissistic self-consciousness and his pedantic intellectuality, Bozhenko lives only in the present; where Shchors is shown as a superhero (who does not drink, does not sleep, writes to his wife merely to cram the letter with military data, has encyclopaedic knowledge and if he ever lacks information can always refer to Lenin’s authority), Bozhenko (known by his faithful followers as Batko/Father) reacts with humanity to the murder of women and substitutes his lack of education with an unparalleled intuition; where Shchors is fanatical about discipline and willing to sacrifice everything to that cause, Bozhenko follows his own impulses. Dovzhenko was quite clear about it: “I found it much easier to create the character of Bozhenko than that of Shchors”, among other reasons because it reminded him of his grandfather who had already served as a source of inspiration in Zemlya (Earth, 1930).

And hence the reasons for changing the circumstances of the death of Shchors, who actually died in combat in August 1919, but who is shown at the end of the film at a window, with his gaze lost in the distance, reviewing the young Red Army soldiers that have been trained in the military school he has inspired: they are what they are and spring from the political needs that lie behind the conception of the project, the real leaders have the ability to see and shape the future, and to illustrate this they faithfully adhere to the most banal rhetoric of “socialist realism”. However, if we are to define the scene showing the death of Bozhenko (who, like Shchors, also died in combat just a few days before his chief and companion) it is worth highlighting the way we are transported to another dimension, the film-maker’s different involvement in this being made clear, as he constructs a poetic way in which individual life, the drama of war and non-indifferent nature (to use Eisenstein’s words) adopt an elegiac disposition that is significantly distant from the dryness and conventionality of the artistic formulas promoted by the cultural bodies representing the Soviet power.

This is how Jay Leyda sums up the most outstanding scenes of the film (to which one could add the opening scene – which might serve as an emblem of Dovzhenko’s cinema – showing sunflowers standing out against the smoke of explosions) and where there is an obvious reference to the one that brings it to a close in cinematic if not political terms:

“Shchors leaves burning images of death and passionate life in the memory. To take us from the ruthless ferocity of the beginning to the tragic lament of the end – both presented in the same devastated fields – he gave the film a broad form capable of absorbing any speechifying. But all the rhetoric of the film is surpassed by the ‘cinematic’ details: smoking ruins of homes and destroyed lives, a bustling bridal procession that is heard in the middle of a bombardment[6], the cavalry through the snowy meadows, the military bands that turn up for any winner, hand-to-hand fights, horses without riders, all of them pictures that rain over the screen[7].”

None other than Viktor Shklovsky (quoted by Leyda) noted that “just as Eisenstein infinitely deepened the screen with Alexander Nevsky, Dovzhenko enlarged it”. Life and destiny.


Santos Zunzunegui




[1] It was a journey that would involve a double coda, first with the making in 1948 of Michurin and, later, in the situation that arose when, after the Second World War, Beria tried to “co-opt” the film-maker to become an agent of his in the bloodthirsty plans he had drawn up for Ukraine. This instructive story can be read in Nikita Khruschev’s Memoirs (Barcelona, Ed. Euros, 1975).

[2] An English translation of it can be read with key notes by Marco Carynnyk in “Alexander Dovzhenko’s Autobiography 1939”, Journal of Ukrainian Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1994, pages 9-28.

[3] You can see the complete discussion in Crítica, Tendencia y Propaganda. Textos sobre Arte y Comunismo, 1917-1954 (Juan José Gómez, ed.), Seville, Ediciones ISTPART, 2004

[4] The 1st of December 1934 is usually cited as the beginning of this time of terrible political repression, being the date of the murder of the Politburo member Sergei Kirov in Leningrad, an event that provided the pretext for a period of mass purges that continued until 1938, with March of that year seeing the last act of a terrible farce with the “third Trial of the Great Purge” in which around twenty people were accused of belonging to an alleged block of “rightists and Trotskyites” led by Nikolai Bukharin, former member of the Komintern, and former Prime Minister Alexei Rykov. Like so many before them, all were found guilty and executed.

A quick panoramic overview of Soviet cinema during those years is found in the chapter entitled “El Hollywood soviético: sobre milagros y monstruos”, from the book by Karl Schlögel, Terror y utopía. Moscú en 1937, Barcelona, Acantilado, 2014.

[5] And since I am later going to talk about “ambivalence”, I would note here that we cannot rule out the possibility that Stalin commissioned the film from Dovzhenko as much to demonstrate to himself his equanimity and indifference to the insistent comments about the Ukrainian artist by the clique that surrounded him as to test the director’s “nationalist” temperament.

[6] The peasant wedding scene, in its two parts, might synthetically represent the two poles between which the film oscillates – its radical ambivalence.

[7] Jay Leyda, Kino. Historia del cine ruso y soviético, Buenos Aires, EUDEBA, 1965, page 447.