(5/10) A daunting, but visually stunning, piece of bolshevik propaganda, Alexandr Dovzhenko’s 1935 film Aerograd is basically an operatic Soviet version of a John Wayne frontier film. Not much sci-fi in this vaguely futuristic tale, but a treat for lovers of poetic cinematography.
Aerograd. USSR, 1935. Directed by Alexandr Dovzhenko. Written by Alexandr Dovzhenko, N. Simonov. Starring: Stepan Shaigaida, Sergei Stolyarov, Stepan Shkurat, Evgeniya Melnikova. Produced by GUKF, Ukrainfilm, Mosfilm. IMDb score: 6.2
Of the many subtle sci-fi films I’ve reviewed on this blog, Aerograd is without doubt the one that’s come the closest to getting the axe. Despite the Metropolis-sounding name, anyone who is expecting a thirties version of Cloud City will be utterly disappointed to find Russian bear hunters chasing Japanese spies in the Far Eastern forests of the USSR while engaging in long monologues about the socialist creed. But still the film did make the cut, since it can very well be interpreted as a futuristic take on the frontier myth, all leading up to the construction of a new utopian city on the western shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Let’s first get with the plot. The film opens with a great aerial sweep over the impressive pine forests of the eastern reaches the Siberia, reminiscent of the grand opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. We come upon Stepan Gulshak (Stepan Shagaida), a stocky, bearded man clad in leather, furs and coarse clothes, chasing down a number of Japanese soldiers, which he promptly guns down without even aiming, John Wayne-style. Two get away, but Stepan manages to find one eventually – and he is a pitiful sight. Small and wily, with bulging eyes and spectacles, sweating and panting he starts tearing at his clothes when he is cornered, like a wild animal, informing Stepan that he does not care if he is killed, since he has planted dynamite in a mine.
– I have hunted you for eight workdays, and now I see that it was worth it, Stepan muses.
– And you are right about your death penalty, he then informs him, his bearlike, collected Soviet masculinity in stark contrast to the despicable gook.
The Japanese asks if he can say something before his death, to which Stepan agrees, and he starts raving like a madman about the riches of the land. Frothing and spitting he pulls out a notebook and starts laying forth all the numbers of beasts, minerals, gold and wood that is contained in the area. And then he curses the bolsheviks for claiming the land for themselves – and their stupid ideas of ”equality” and ”the people”.
– Give it to us! Give the land to us, the Japanese shouts while wildly flailing his arms like a crazed lunatic.
Needless to say, Stepan does not give the land to the Japanese, but instead tells the man to calm down so he can die with some dignity, and promptly shoots him.
This sets the tone of the film, and the rest of the plot really can be skimmed through. Stepan ”the tiger killer” is the toughest guy and the greatest sharpshooter of the eastern Siberian forests, and along with his bolshevik frontier guards he is protecting the wild area from Japanese spies trying to grab it – so that the Soviet machinery can arrive with an armada of airplanes to build the utopian city and landing strip Aerograd at the easternmost tip of the undeveloped lands bordering on the Pacific Ocean. They live in a small village, peacefully side by side with the the indigenous Asian Chukchi people – Stepan’s son has even taken a Chukchi woman as his wife – thereby showing the multicultural nature of the great Soviet Union. But dissent brews within the community, which also consists of a group of ”Old Believers”. The Old Believers were a group of Christians who refused to accept the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century and were often forced out of societies to make their homes away from religious centers. The Old Believers are here portrayed as enemies of the Soviet Union, conspiring with the evil Japanese to prevent the building of Aerograd.
Stepan’s son, the handsome pilot Vladimir (Sergei Stolyarov) comes visiting, telling about the wonders of the city of Aerograd, so rousing a young Chukchi lad, that he declares that he will set out on an epic trek to get to the place where it is going to be built so he can study there.
In search of the last Japanese spy, Stepan to his utter disappointment discovers that he has been harboured by his oldest and best friend, the old fur farmer Vasili (Stepan Shkurat). When confronted with the betrayal, Vasili calmly follows Stepan through the deep forest until they reach a beautiful opening.
– Here, he says, and stops, reassembling his clothes, preparing to die with dignity.
– I am about to kill a traitor to the people, my old friend, Vasili Khudyakov. Witness my sorrow.
Later the last Japanese is found, and proves to be just as cowardly as the first one, and is promptly done away with. In a marvellous montage we then follow the young Chukchi as he travels by foot and skis through the magnificent Siberian forests, singing a hypnotic Chukchi song, until he finally reaches the spot of Aerograd, only to meet with a military parade and Stepan making a noble speech about the wonderful city that will be built there for the glory of the Soviet people and a bright future. Then follows an absurdly impressive aerial sequence with hundreds of airplanes coming in, flying in formations, great aerial photo, beautiful filming (by the great Eduard Tisse) and editing, soldiers parachuting out to aid the building effort, all to the sound of a blaring propaganda song sung by what sounds like the red army choir about the magnificent Aerograd. The End.
Propaganda, you say? Well most certainly. But before dismissing it, it is worth trying to understand it and the circumstances around its making. And for that one must understand a bit about the director Alexandr Dovzhenko and about how the Soviet propaganda machine worked.
The thing is that the film was commissioned by the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin. In 1935 the Soviet Union was involved in a number of border clashes over the territories in and around Manchuria on the east coast. USSR was also trying to lay claim over the north-eastern territories, which had been successfully defended by the warlike Chukchi and other indigenous people during the tsarist period, even though a peaceful trade pact had later been signed. The job of now making a film of this glorious expansion went to Alexandr Dovzhenko.
The thing is, like so many other of the great filmmakers, authors and artists during the Soviet era, Dovzhenko wasn’t a stalinist. He wasn’t even Russian, but Ukrainian, and a Ukrainian nationalist, at that. This does not mean he wasn’t ideologically a socialist, and he even fought on the side of the bolsheviks in the Ukrainian war in 1919 against the Ukrainian government. But he wasn’t very fond of Stalin, and Stalin probably regarded him as “a trotskyist – if not worse”, as he did another great Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. But because of his enormous talent, the Soviet establishment tolerated him, as long as he continued to keep his mouth shut in public and do as he was told, producing stunning films that celebrated the USSR. Up until this point in his career, Dovzhenko had made his films in Ukraine, and infused them with Ukrainian history and folklore. Along with Lev Kuleshov, (The Death Ray, 1924, review), Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), he was considered as one of the pioneers of the Soviet montage theory, and often laborated with quick, hypnotic editing, bold camera moves and unusual angles. But Aerograd was everything but his usual fare, for many reasons.
Stalin loved film – he was crazy about film. Not only did the government take control of the film industry, just like in Nazi Germany. But Stalin took complete personal control of the movies in the thirties. Adolf Hitler was also a big movie fan, but he had his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to deal with the day-to-day business. Joseph Stalin, on the other hand, considered himself not only the greatest film critic ever born, but also the greatest movie maker ever born. He would often invite directors and screenwriters to discuss their ongoing as well as future and past projects. Everybody who was somebody in the Soviet film industry had to sit around and listen to the judgement from the supreme leader, eagerly taking notes. Stalin would describe how he would make the film, what needed to change in a script, and often even rewrote parts of the script himself. He didn’t just like neorealistic Soviet propaganda pieces – he also produced a whole number of jazz comedies. Historians have found Stalin’s handwritten notes where he has himself written cute little lyrics about how a happy melody cheers the soul for some of these films. And most of all he loved westerns – especially those by John Ford starring John Wayne. If Stalin was in a bad mood, the culture minister would always screen him a western. And now he was in the mood for a frontier western film, but set in the eastern territories, and made as a propaganda piece, not for American manifest destiny and libertarianism, but for Soviet manifest destiny and socialism. John Wayne was replaced by a Russian tiger hunter, the Indians were replaced by Japanese, and the prairie was replaced by the mighty Siberian forests. In one of his discussions he ”suggested” that Dovzhenko get his ass out of Ukraine and into Siberia and make this film, and ended the discussion as he usually did.
– It is just a suggestion, and of course you are free to do whatever you want, I don’t wish to pressure you.
As any filmmaker in the USSR who wanted to keep working, Dovzhenko figured he either get his ass out to Siberia to make a film, or soon find himself a permanent resident of the area.
Dovzhenko was by this time regarded as ”the poet of the screen”, and his Ukraine trilogy consisting of Zvenigora and Arsenal (1928), as well as Earth (1930), had made him famous outside the Soviet Union as an artist on par with masters like Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin (Mother, 1926) and Dziga Vertov. All three films drew heavily on Ukrainian history and folklore, and although they did fall into the vein of Soviet propaganda, they added a healthy dose of system critique and Ukrainian nationalism to the pot. Zvenigora recaptured the history of Ukraine, and explored the relationship between the human being and nature, a strong theme in many of his films. The pacifist epic Arsenal questioned Stalin’s violent methods in Ukraine, and Earth was – at least superficially – a love song to the collectivization of agriculture. But so critical was he of the process (if not the idea), that his father got thrown out of a farm collective after its premier.
Aerograd was not a film of his choice, and the Siberian setting saw Dovzhenko out of his comfort zone. Neither did he see that a propaganda proclamation like this was suitable for film at all – in his mind it was the fodder of opera. So he decided to make an opera without the singing (although like in many propaganda pieces there is some singing). Instead of the furious editing we get long, uninterrupted, static shots of man dwarfed by the immense forest. Some tracking shots of people moving speechlessly through the woods go on for an eternity. The lines spoken are Shakespearean, poetical proclamations, sometimes spoken directly to the camera, which lends the film its overtly propagandistic tone. So blatant is the unquestioning praise for the flawless stature and moral of the Soviet partisans, and the utterly demeaning portrait of the Japanese, that knowing Dovzhenko’s past, the film almost seems like a satire of propaganda films. It is also in these surreal moments that the beauty of the film lies. No matter how much one takes a stance against the political content of the film, it is impossible not to be swept away by the utter magnificence of the photography. Like in his previous films, the composition of the shots are simply sublime, and many frames look like artful still photos. The long, uninterrupted forces the viewer into contemplation, and one almost feels like falling into the lush, majestic forest, that becomes a character of its own in the movie.
Combined with the bizarre proclaiming style of the film, another point of interest regarding cloaked criticism of stalinism is the idea of Aerograd itself. The fact is that we never see the damn thing getting built. It is like a fantasy, a utopian dream, that people fight over, that the protagonist kills his best friend over, that nations and people kill each other for. And in the end the young Chukche idealist travels for ”eighty sunrises” to get to this city of his dreams, and upon reaching the empty spot, now filled with dignitaries, he proclaims:
– What? Isn’t it built yet?
There are many instances in the film where you question whether Dovzhenko was really trying to do his best with the propaganda or if he was merely taking the piss out of it. Like the aforementioned portrait of the Japanese, the picture painted of the Old Believers is similarly off the wall, and might just as well be a satire of the way the bolshevik propaganda slandered all religious people. The scene where Stepan kills Vasili does on one hand say that the communist ideal is such a noble cause that it is worth killing your oldest and best friend over. But on the other hand, Vasili’s death is played out with such a sadness that you can’t help but feel frustrated over the pure radicalism of Stepan’s political conviction – is any political cause really worth killing your brother over? Again, Dovzhenko seems to be inducing a dual morality into the scene.
As a film it is very slow-moving and as mentioned before, anyone looking for any sort of big science fiction splash shouldn’t bother to watch it. Also, if you don’t speak Russian and can’t find a subtitled version, the watching may be fairly dull, as there are a lot of talking heads and long monologues. But all this proclaiming, the occasional breaking of the fourth wall and the long, persistent shots are also what ultimately makes the film a success. With a script like this, any director trying to make a modern – even by the standards of the day – film would have failed disastrously. The way it is filmed makes it feel not like reality, but like a fable, a parable, an opera – or indeed like a satire, if one views it that way. The beauty of it is that since it is played with such a straight face, never flinching from the operatic quality of the heavy-handed propaganda, it can really play both ways. Stalin, it would seem, chose to look at it as a good piece of propaganda, since he reportedly liked the movie – and since Dovzhenko was allowed to continue filming his cloaked pro-Ukrainian films, including Shchors (1939), about the Ukrainian bolshevik hero Nikolai Shchors, who fought against the Ukrainian government in the 1919 revolutionary war. His last highly revered film was Michurin (1949), about the Russian agricultural scientist Ivan Michurin, one of the fathers of the science of genetics. It was co-directed by his wife Yuliya Solntseva.
But then again, despite all the subtleties, the Aerograd is still quite a mouthful. No matter how you look at it, it is a daunting, slow and grinding propaganda film with racist undertones. Few shots of the forest carry quite the same poetic quality as did those in Earth, and Aerograd lacks all the pace and dynamism of for example Arsenal. It shows Dovzhenko unhappily out of his elements, presumably working on a film he didn’t want to be working on. It is an interesting deviation from form, and as such a curiosity, and, as said, has its merits. But is in no way Alexandr Dovzhenko’s best film, or even in the top 5.
The director of photography on Aerograd was none less than Eduard Tisse, perhaps the most celebrated cinematographer in Soviet history. He was the go-to-guy for Sergei Eisenstein, and worked on practically all of his most renowned films, including Battleship Potemkin, October, and Ivan the Terrible.
Sergei Stolyarov (the pilot) would actually return to a ”real” sci-fi movie when the genre was again out of the cupboard in 1967. The film in question was the rather influential The Andromeda Nebula, where Stolyarov played the heroic character of Dar Veter – sometimes credited for inspiring George Lucas to name his Star Wars (1977) villain Darth Vader. Although no hard evidence of this seems to exist, it does seem to be a strange coincidence.
Elena Maximova, one of the Old Believers, would also turn up in a sci-fi, but unlike the propagandistic and moody The Andromeda Nebula, her film Eta Veselyaya Planeta (This Merry Planet, 1973) was a musical comedy aimed at children, about aliens visiting Earth for New Year’s celebration. Vladimir Uralsky, in a prominent supporting role as one of the partisans, also had a small part as a soldier in the 1924 sci-fi classic Aelita (review). The lyrics for the film’s patriotic songs were written by the renowned poet Viktor Gusev, and the music by opera and symphony composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, also well known within Western music circles, especially for his piano suites.
Dovzhenko’s wife Yuliya Solntseva is best known to friends of Soviet sci-fi as the titular Queen of Mars in the 1924 film Aelita (review). In the thirties she started co-directing films with her husband, and later went on to become a prominent director in her own right. After Dovzhenko’s death in 1956, she completed many of his films from screenplays and notes.
Aerograd. USSR, 1935. Directed by Alexandr Dovzhenko. Written by Alexandr Dovzhenko, N. Simonov. Starring: Stepan Shaigaida, Sergei Stolyarov, Stepan Shkurat, Evgeniya Melnikova, G. Tsoi, N. Tabusanov, L. Kan, I. Kim, Boris Dobronravov, Yelena Maximova, Vladimir Uralsky. Cinematography: Eduard Tisse, Mikhail Gindin, Nikolai Smirnov. Sound: Nikolai Timartsev. Production design: Viktor Panteleyev, Alexei Utkin. Music: Dmitri Kabalevsky. Song lyrics: Viktor Gusev. Produced by GUKF, Ukrainfilm, Mosfilm.