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.

J. Rosenbaum:

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.

Ukrainian Week:

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!”

“Are you dying, Semion?”
“Yes, I’m dying, Petro.”
“Well, die then.”

From the very beginning – alternate shots of farmland, each time taking up more of the camera’s field of vision, the horizon getting higher until the earth covers the whole frame – which follows to this exchange by two old men, I was captured by the movie. But, reading the below description, I realize I wasn’t following its story closely enough. As usual with these revolutionary Russian silent films, knowledge of the history is important, and I come bearing none at all.

M. Sicinski:

This final scene takes place just as the funeral of Vasyl, the slain Bolshevik, evolves into a fervent demonstration extolling the Communism for which young Vasyl died. Even Vasyl’s father, who had up to this point been skeptical about Communism’s plan to collectivize the farmlands, joins the struggle. But the kulaks, the landowning peasant class from whom the farms are being expropriated, are going down swinging. Khoma Bilokon (Pyotr Masokha), the eldest son of the area’s dominant kulak family, has already committed murder, having shot Vasyl in the back. Khoma confesses, but Earth is not a crime procedural, and Dovzhenko’s final scene is both politically sharp and poetically evocative.
Using an odd form of cross-cutting that makes Khoma’s spatial relationship to the funeral extremely ambiguous, Dovzhenko moves us between the guilty individual and the burgeoning collective, the past and the future. Khoma shouts out to the mourners that he shot Vasyl, in the back, under cover of night. The crowd completely ignores him. Hysterical, Khoma exclaims that the land belongs to him, and he even goes so far as to plant his head in the dirt and run in circles. However, both within the diegetic world of the film and within Dovzhenko’s cinematic syntax, Khoma and the kulak class are marginal, almost nonexistent. Although this image is compromised by the truth that Dovzhenko cannot depict – that of Stalin’s mass extermination of the kulaks – its representation of what it feels like when history passes you by remains unequalled.

Introducing the kulaks with my favorite edit in the film:

So it didnt bother me while watching that I don’t know what a kulak is. I got that Vasyl (Vasili in the subtitles) is excited about technology, that he plows an entire field (which did not belong to him) with the town’s brand-new tractor and is killed for it. The black-bearded man from that early scene in which Semion was dying is apparently Vasyl’s father Opanas, goes asking the townspeople who killed his son and comes across a priest.

Uncle Opanas gets intense:

“There is no god. And there are no priests either.” (the priest lowers his head) “Just like Vasili died for the new life, I’m asking you to bury him according to the new ways, neither priests nor church servants beyond the grave.” It’s an intense thing to say before a priest, and in a movie that opens with discussion of the afterlife between the elders. Vasyl’s sister or wife or somebody goes naked and crazy as he’s buried near the sunflowers, and one of V’s comrades gives a comforting speech to Uncle Opanas and everybody, as the kulak Khoma dances in the graveyard trying in vain to attract attention to himself.

“Can we knock off the capitalists and officers in the street if we find any?”

Features the most depressing opening 10 minutes of any movie ever. “There was a mother who had three sons. There was a war. The mother had three sons no more.” Actors stop, freeze in mannequin poses. A man beats his horse, as a woman beats her children. Laughing gas is released on the battlefield. A man with small round glasses has fits of hilarity. In silhouette, a soldier won’t shoot, drops his gun frozen, gets killed by his commanding officer. A Russian troop train is ambushed by Ukrainians, and after revealing its defenses is permitted to roll along, out of control since the driver has left, crashing, some men having leapt to safety, others not – a dying man’s arm cross-cut with an accordion thrown from the wreck. A woman reads a letter straight into the camera. Horses respond verbally (via intertitles) to shouted commands.

Real dissonant music, and editing to fit the scenes – lingering at the start, then all quick and exciting leading up to the train crash.

Ukrainian workers return to The Arsenal after fighting for years, first in WWI then to free their country from Russia, then as far as I can figure out the storyline, there’s internal conflict to decide whether they will join the Soviet Union. Quoth Wikipedia “The civil war that eventually brought the Soviet government to power devastated Ukraine. It left over 1.5 million people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.”

But wait, Wikipedia can explain the movie’s plot as well.

The film concerns an episode in the Russian Civil War in 1918 in which the Kiev Arsenal January Uprising of workers aided the besieging Bolshevik army against the Ukrainian national Parliament Central Rada who held legal power in Ukraine at the time. Regarded by film scholar Vance Kepley, Jr. as “one of the few Soviet political films which seems even to cast doubt on the morality of violent retribution”, Dovzhenko’s eye for wartime absurdities (for example, an attack on an empty trench) anticipates later pacifist sentiments in films by Jean Renoir and Stanley Kubrick.

Whatever specific historical events it may be illustrating, and wherever exactly it may be taking place, I loved every scene. It’s got all the brilliant camerawork and crazy heightened atmosphere of the great Dura Lex, and more. Closes with a firing squad discovering a Ukrainian worker who cannot be killed, baring his chest to reveal no hidden armor or wounds.