Zvenigora / Звенигора [SU 1928]

Info: I embedded the full movie with English subtitles below.

International title: The Enchanted Place

THE PLOT

Zvenigora is an epic with fantastical elements set in the Ukraine and spanning about 1000 years of the country’s history. The movie follows an old man and his two grandsons during various phases in the history of the country, trying to find a legendary treasure buried in the mountain Zvenigora. The episodes include, among others, an ancient war with the Rus’ people in the 11th century, the Polish occupation in the 18th century, and the October Revolution in 1917.

WHAT I LIKE

Even though the cinematography is a bit uneven, many scenes are nicely photographed and the framing is often decent. Not all artistic choices feel necessary, e.g. the slow motion at the beginning or in the war of the Vikings, but there are several great examples of montage editing in the latter half of the movie that support the hectic plot elements. Some moments look truly stunning, e.g. when hundreds of soldiers ride on top of a train or when the Ukrainian prince delivers an emotional speech during the end. Thanks to the cinematography, these moments have an eerie atmosphere to them. The movie is not only visually impressive but also technically competent, especially regarding its age. There are some fine visual effects, like using multiple exposures for image superimposition, e.g. in the whole Viking scene. Although the black and white contrasts are not really sharp, these effects still look pretty convincing and add to the surreal quality of some episodes.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Zvenigora is an epic that covers many historical events specific for the Ukraine in its short runtime. Thus, the plot and central characters aren’t well explained and remain largely opaque, especially for people unfamiliar with Ukrainian or Soviet history. Although in the first act, the movie introduces the central plot device thoroughly (i.e., the treasure symbolizing the country itself), the dialogues are lacking in substance and are often symbolic. This results in the different historic episodes feeling disjointed. In addition, it doesn’t help that the characterization is generally lacking. Most characters symbolize ideas rather than clearly individualized persons, making their motivations unclear and some actions cryptic, e.g. why Pavlo is sometimes depicted as a villain. Lastly, the score is of an uneven quality throughout the movie. The most common version is the 1973 restored film, which used the original music sheets. In several moments, the score feels too somber or even uplifting, giving the more serious moments a borderline comical quality, e.g. during the fight against the Poles at the beginning or in the entire Viking scene.

THE VERDICT

Zvenigora is a Soviet silent black and white drama about a mysterious old man who spends centuries to find a legendary treasure buried in the middle of the Ukraine. The movie is essentially an epic fictionalized retelling of the country’s history. Using recurring characters, who should be seen as symbols or embodied ideologies, several historical struggles are retold (e.g., the invasion of the Poles in the 18th century or the October Revolution in 1917). However, as there is no real plot to tie the several episodes together, the movie all too often feels fragmented and disjointed. Together with the symbolic dialogues and that at least some basic knowledge of Ukrainian and/or Soviet history is needed to understand certain scenes, the overall movie alienates many viewers. And while the production values and the cinematography are often impressive and the mix of historical events and surreal elements is ambitious, Zvenigora falls short in presenting a coherent journey.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The script was originally written by Maike Johansen and Yuri Tiutiunnyk, but the director Alexander Dovzhenko heavily rewrote the original draft and removed the names of the original authors. It would be the last time, Dovzhenko adapted another screenplay.

– Together with Earth (Земля) [1930] and Arsenal (Арсенал) [1929], Zvenigora marks Dovzhenko’s Ukraine Trilogy. He wanted to become a member of the Soviet party and saw this movie as his entry card. However, in the Soviet Union, the movie was at the time criticized for its unusual visual aesthetics, while in other parts of the world the movie was seen as Soviet propaganda. This lead to the movie being removed from distribution in 1928, shortly after its release. In more recent years, the movie has been praised by critics for its wildly ambitious plot and use of surreal elements.

 – In his autobiography, Dovzhenko regarded Zvenigora his best and most creative movie, although even he admitted that the plot was “complicated in structure”, “eclectic in form”, and that the characters were more embodiments of ideas, rather than actual individuals.

 – Although today most commonly known by its original name, Zvenigora, some translations of the title hint at the fantastical aspects of the plot, e.g. the seldom used English title “The Enchanted Place” or the Italian (“La montagna incantata”) and German translations (“Der verzauberte Wald”).

Further reading about Zvenigora, Dovzhento, and his relation to the Expressionist/Dada movement: http://rayuzwyshyn.net/dovzhenko/Zvenyhora.htm

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