Thematically, Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s stunning Aerograd (Frontier) is a sequel to his staggering Earth (1930). The connection is this: both films assault kulaks, “Old Believers”—Christians—whose selfish desire to maintain private ownership of land contests the Soviet people’s right, by virtue of the Bolshevik Revolution, to claim this land as theirs. Of course, in Earth “land” specifically refers to farmland, and the state’s structuring of shared ownership is collectivization. Aerograd refers instead to the Soviet Union’s eastward drive. The “land” in question here has been subject to conquest; the goal isn’t to set up a farm but to build a whole new city, Aerograd—the city of the future. This venture is the Soviet Union’s nationalist right, its (to use the U.S. term) manifest destiny. (Coincidentally, the Soviet push, like ours, is to the Pacific Ocean.) Contesting this advancement of a nation’s glory are the Japanese, who have their own territorial designs on the Asian continent, and those Old Believers who spitefully rabble-rouse to keep this land out of Soviet developmental hands, self-pityingly hoping it for themselves as compensation for the western land of which collectivization has (they believe, unfairly) divested them.
Clearly, no Dovzhenko film is so stuck in the Stalinist camp as this one is. The great visual poet of the Ukraine, Dovzhenko in this instance draws not a jot on Ukrainian folklore; on the contrary, there isn’t even a single Ukrainian character in the film! With the loss of this connection to his own people, Dovzhenko has made an uncharacteristically cold film. The film often seems, as well, uncharacteristically hasty, sloppy, hollow, lacking in conviction. It is a wonder, then, that Aerograd is as brilliant as it is. The wonder is, of course, Dovzhenko himself, a peerless film artist and modernist even in the midst of a project largely alien to him and imposed on him by a propagandizing state.
There are three main characters in this conspicuously masculine—let me pun: Moscowline—and virile film. (After all, what is this film about but a nation’s hard cock extending as far and mightily as possible? And the center of that nation, recall, is not anyplace in Dovzhenko’s Ukraine but, instead, Russia’s Moscow.) One is the young soldier who is the human embodiment of the “air city” to be built in the Siberian East; he is the guardian of the Soviet future. The two others are old comrades now divided by the Communist state; one is a frontier guard protecting the land from the infiltration of spies and the machinations of traitors, while the other is a hunter who is both spy and traitor. Slow to believe that the hunter is his enemy, the frontier guard is eventually faced with the heartrending duty of dispatching this old friend. Their walk in the woods to the spot where the hunter says, “Here,” finds the hunter honorably, graciously, bravely assisting his friend in his own execution. The psychological underpinnings of the scene are not difficult to locate. In some sense, the two old friends—the New (Soviet) Russia and the Old (Tsarist) Russia—are but a single conflicted entity; and this in turn refers to Dovzhenko’s own history. Dovzhenko joined the Reds, fighting in the Russian Civil War, largely because he felt, along with many other Ukrainian Marxists, that such an alliance with the Russian Bolsheviks was necessary to overthrow the tsar, cast out colonial authorities, and secure Ukrainian independence. The hope had been that a workers’ revolution would result in an equitable socialist state in which Ukraine would participate as fully as Russia. That spot in the woods where the Soviet guard executes the Old Believer, the friend he dearly loves: haphazardly arrived at, it is the crossroads of regional history, and one reason why the scene is so tremendously moving is that (at his Ukrainian remove) Dovzhenko is complicit in both sides of the conflict, not of course between tsarist and Soviet but between an equal sense of betrayal on either side. Dovzhenko, too, felt betrayed—keenly. It is this bleedingly personal chord in an otherwise largely impersonal piece that accounts for much of Aerograd’s greatness.
Two more elements of the film contribute just as resoundingly to its achievement. Indeed, these are the two features for which Aerograd is most celebrated. One is the film’s breathtakingly beautiful visual description of the Siberian taiga, especially the shimmering forests beneath incandescent skies. This isn’t irrelevant scenery—travelogue stuff; it is essential to the film’s theme. For the gorgeous images of unspoilt nature that Dovzhenko and his cinematographers—Mikhail Gindin, Nikolai Smirnov and, above all, the great Eduard Tissé—have conjured convey the new Soviet beginning, the unvarnished Soviet future, to which the film looks ahead. Thus the film precedes Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), with its wooded resort where young Calcuttans shed their workday woes and Western mimickry, and Jan Troëll’s The Emigrants (1971), with its portrayal of America as a fresh start for Swedish farmers in the 1850s, in powerfully imaging nature as a pristine realm of human opportunity and possibility.
The film’s other outstanding feature accounts for an even greater share of its fame. In the whole history of cinema no other film has even remotely approached this one in the spectacular and stirring nature of its airborne scenes. Aided again by his cinematographers and by Aleksandr Ptushko, who devised the visual effects, Dovzhenko throughout, and especially at the close, creates visual symphonies of airflight that knock the legs out from under one and send the spirit soaring—this, his visual and aural metaphor (for the sounds of planes are as important here as their look and formations) for Soviet aspiration, her looking to the future.
Against all odds, because working with some pretty dubious materials, Dovzhenko has made a masterpiece—one all the more poignant, now that the dismantled Soviet Union has no future to look ahead to.
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