Early on, the movie is doing those things I’ve seen Dovzhenko do before – have actors pose, standing stock still, having the camera do crazy stuff with the horizon line. Movie is divided into sections, and seems to be the same tiresome Russian plot about how work is so wonderful and the shock workers are greatest of all, and everyone spends their spare time in union meetings.
I didn’t follow all the story or characters, hence all the heavy quoting below, but I got that there’s a good-looking shock worker named Ivan with a slacker father named Stepan (S. Shkurat, Uncle Opanas in Earth). While Ivan works on building a giant dam, Stepan fishes from a scaffold platform. I loved this guy – not because I’m in favor of laziness, but he seemed less brainwashed and adds a welcome comic touch to the propagandistic proceedings.
Ivan and Aerograd aren’t just silent films with music and sound effects. The first resembles an orchestral suite divided into six sections
Ivan got Dovzhenko into plenty of trouble as well. There are three separate characters named Ivan in the film, a celebration of the building of a huge dam on the Dnieper River that doesn’t bother to show us the completed dam. One of these Ivans has a gruff, illiterate father who’s an unapologetic slacker and a hilarious bullshit artist. He spends his time idly fishing at a construction site where the rest of the people are working their butts off; he boasts directly to the camera that he’s contemptuous of the very notion of labor, brandishing the back of his neck for all to see. Without question, the film adores this old coot more than anyone else in the picture. And when we later see a Soviet army marching, the sky is so vast and the soldiers so tiny, crawling across the lower edge of the screen like bugs, that it’s hard to know exactly what’s being extolled. If this is propaganda, we need to ask on behalf of what.
The regime began to settle its accounts with Dovzhenko. It forced him to apologize by shooting a film (Ivan) on industrial expansion in Ukraine. From the purely technical viewpoint, it is another product of Dovzhenko’s cinematic genius. For example, the image of the Dnipro, a powerful and beautiful river, is absolutely otherworldly. But the rest is just fake – an industrial landscape and no word on what takes place beyond. Dovzhenko is silent on what Ukrainian peasants, who did all the construction work, thought and felt. He worked on the film under the sword of Damocles – all of the party bureaucracy… wanted to destroy him. They had no need for a brilliant Ukrainian director, so even Ivan with its half-truths was pronounced a harmful and reactionary ideological product.
The central character is an unschooled teenaged farm boy. He and his father, along with numerous others there, must leave, for the success of their farm work — in retrospect, a grim inadvertent irony — makes their agricultural tenure superfluous… In a marvelous subjective-expressionistic montage we see the boy, aglow, drinking in the applause that he imagines his labor entitles him to. But his work is deemed “sloppy” by the foreman, deflating the boy, who resorts to another adolescent fantasy — but this one, instead of preening, anxious: himself, standing, explaining to a seated committee that the foreman hadn’t even inspected his work. The film patiently tracks the boy’s progress as he himself comes to realize his need to submit to the discipline of training and education. At the end, we see him, along with countless other youth, in a huge lecture hall — a scene that indicates the “book-learning” that must precede his becoming a responsible crane operator. Thus Dovzhenko, a former science teacher, is able to end Ivan on a note celebrating education and the trainability of youth.
The third brilliant passage begins with a mother covering the corpse of her young son, who has just been killed in a construction accident. The boy’s name is Ivan, like that of the hero (who as easily might have been the casualty), and it’s the name, also, of another, studious boy — an image of the kind of boy that the hero will eventually become. (Both living Ivans have fathers but no mothers; by the end of the film, the deceased Ivan’s mother has evolved into a transcendent figure: the Mother of the Working Class.) This woman tears from her son’s body on the ground and starts running; amidst noisy industrial machinery, dodging cranes and other devices that are shot from the vantage of low, upwardly facing cameras in order to suggest their attacking her, she keeps running, running. Her destination: the office of the man in charge of the dam-building operation. He is speaking on the telephone. Having heard of the boy’s death, he is instructing that safety precautions be instituted to minimize the risk to workers. Now he notices the woman standing silently in his office. He asks her what she wants. Satisfied with what she has just overheard, she replies, “Nothing!”