(director/writer: Alexander Dovzhenko; screenwriters: Yuri Tyutyunik/Mikhail Ioganson; cinematographer: Boris Zavelev; editor: Alexander Dovzhenko; cast: G. Astafyev (Scythian leader), Semyon Svashenko (Tymishko), Les Podorozhnij (Pavlo), Nikolai Nademsky (Grandfather/General), Vladimir Uralsky(Peasant), L. Parshina (Timoshka’s wife), P. Otawa (Okasana – Mountain Princess ); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alexander Dovzhenko; Mr. Bongo Films-PAL DVD format; 1928-silent-USSR-in Russian with English subtitles)

“The political film’s main problem, which it never overcomes, is that the plot line is so murky.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first film in Russian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ukraine trilogy of “Earth” and “Arsenal.”It’s his fourth film–the first shot outside the studio. This lyrical surreal experimental film is set after the First World War in the rural superstitious Ukrainian town of Zvenigora. It combines folklore and history into a complex story about the rich land of the Ukraine and the part it played in paving the way for Russia’s industrial power during the 1920s. But the railroad built by the central government that runs through the area upsets the simple peasants because superstition has it there is buried in the hillside an invaluable treasure from ancient times and for the uneducated the train is a ‘fire demon’ preventing them from finding their treasure and not a sign of progress for the future. This severe reaction results in the Bolshevik uprising against their Soviet state.

The story line has the search for the fabled treasure buried in the hills of Zvenigora obsessively led by a superstitious old man (Nikolai Nademsky) and his reactionary grandson Pavlo (Les Podorozhnij) and his revolutionary other grandson Tymishko (Semyon Svashenko).

The treasure search story line is interrupted by grandpa’s dream sequences of the glory days of Ukrainian history, which is filled with folklore tales and veers the film away from being realistic to being instead a fantasy film.

It returns to the treasure search by showing the scheming Pavlo give a lecture in a Paris theaterabout the Bolshevik uprisingto get money to carry out the treasure hunt. He draws a full-house when he threatens to kill himself at the end of the lecture, but finds a way to weasel out of shooting himself. Meanwhile Tymishko becomes a ruthless leader of the Bolshevik uprising, willing to kill anyone who gets in his way, and when captured requests permission to give the command to shoot himself to the firing squad.

The Soviet propaganda film has an interesting visual look, like no other film at the time, as it mixes numerous close-up shots of peasants, the hard at work farmers and colorful shots of the Ukrainian landscape with dream-like folk tale sequences. It also pays homage to the advances in Russian industrialization. The political film’s main problem, which it never overcomes, is that the plot line is so murky that it becomes too difficult to completely follow except as a fascinating look at the infant revolutionary society.

Eisenstein and Pudovkin gave it a hearty thumbs up for its aesthetic originality and put the new director up on their pedestal as one of Russia’s great filmmakers.