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  • Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film
  • James Murray (bio)
Liber, George O. Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film. London: BFI, 2002. 309 pages, $58.00.

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In his newest publication George O. Liber sets for himself the not-inconsiderable task of bringing to light the long-buried story of a filmmaker's struggle to maintain a cohesive artistic vision in a political climate that demanded absolute adherence to the party line. The book, Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film, is the result of countless hours of personal interviews and archival research, and the end product more than justifies the work it required. In setting itself to tell the true version of Dovzhenko's life, Liber's work becomes not only an invaluable tool for any academic or layperson interested in Soviet cinema but a compelling portrait of the struggle between the passions of the artist and the pragmatism of a man who wants to survive.

From a purely scholastic point of view, the most impressive accomplishment of the book is its reconstruction of a history that up until this point had been largely obscured by the self-serving statements of the Soviet government, its officials, and Dovzhenko himself. Liber is wise in his choice to be relatively transparent regarding his research: the book contains a wealth of footnotes and in-text citations, much as one would expect from any academic work of this magnitude, but the text remains eminently readable even for an audience unused to scholarly writing. By carefully and even-handedly walking the reader through the maze of diaries, letters, notes, official dossiers, and interviews that he used to reconstruct the facts of Dovzhenko's life, Liber manages to simultaneously make a compelling argument for his own conclusions (which, of necessity, often fall into the realm of educated guesses) while making readers comfortable with the idea of drawing their own conclusions from the available evidence. The balance between what is quoted in the text and what is referenced with a footnote also does an admirable job of walking the line between allowing the reader to get a sense of the tone and content of the original sources while remaining coherent and readable. Perhaps the most compelling of the information quoted are those that do not support Liber's version of events, such as the state-sponsored histories and Dovzhenko's many "official" autobiographical statements. This "official" version of history is included in parallel with Liber's own conclusions, and in doing so he not only acts to "set the record straight," as it were, but creates a compelling and chilling subtext reminding one of how easily those in power can shape the history of events to conform to their own needs and desires.

The book is logically divided into eleven chapters, each chronicling a different moment in Dovzhenko's life. Every chapter is relatively distinct and self-contained, but taken as a whole they can be seen to work together to paint the formation, growth and development, and frustration of the artist's career. Considering that the subject is remembered in history solely as one of the early greats of Soviet cinema, it is ironic that some of the most interesting chapters are the first three, which chronicle Dovzhenko's life before he tried his hand at filmmaking. Indeed, reading these chapters [End Page 105] it becomes easy to think of the book's title, A Life in Soviet Film, as something of a misnomer, since Dovzhenko was thirty-three before he finally made that fateful jump to the cinema. Liber's account of Dovzhenko's peasant origins in the Ukraine and the facts and speculation regarding his politicization during the Bolshevik revolution form a crucial foundation of one of Liber's most compelling theses: how Dovzhenko's commitment to Soviet and Socialist ideology was always tempered and sometimes superseded by his deeply held belief in Ukrainian nationalism. The accounts of his time spent studying art in Berlin and his work as a commercial artist and cartoonist also make for interesting speculations regarding his development as an artist and form the beginning of a thread that Liber...


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pp. 105-107
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