Yuliya Solntseva: the hidden history of the Soviet Union’s original queen of film

Yuliya Solntseva in Aelita: Queen of Mars (dir. Yakov Protazanov, 1924)

When you start your career playing one of the most iconic roles in Soviet cinema – a Martian queen, no less – where do you go from there? For Yuliya Solntseva, the answer was to stop acting altogether. From the 1930s onwards, Solntseva moved into filmmaking, initially working in close creative partnership with her husband, Oleksandr Dovzhenko. After Dovzhenko’s death, she dedicated herself to completing the projects he left behind, a unique cinematic mission which would take her all the way Cannes, where in 1961 she become the first woman to win the prize for Best Director. Yet despite this conspicuous success, Solntseva’s story is not straightforward. Like the best Soviet films, her life raises complex questions: about collaboration, sacrifice, and the sublimation of self to a greater cause.

Yuliya Solntseva was born in Moscow in 1901, where she studied at the State Institute of Music and Drama. In 1924, she rocketed to prominence in her film debut, playing the title role in Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars. Often credited as the first Soviet sci-fi, Aelita mixes lavish fantasy and modernist design with a depiction of harsh life in post-Civil War Russia. A century after it was made, Aelita remains a magnetic oddity and a key aspect of the film’s left-field success lies in Solntseva’s fiercely charismatic presence at its heart. It’s not a coincidence that every iconic image of the film centres on Solntseva, her stern, heavy-browed beauty offset by artist Alexandra Exter’s dramatic costumes (Exter used aluminium, glass, acrylics, and steel to construct the outrageous Cubo-Futurist outfits). The release of Aelita was a huge event – leaflets announcing its premiere were dropped from planes over Moscow, a publicity campaign boasted that 22,000 metres of film had been exposed during production – and despite the scepticism of contemporary critics, the film was a box office hit, establishing Solntseva as an immediate star.

despite conspicuous success, Solntseva’s story is not straightforward. Her life raises complex questions: about collaboration, sacrifice, and the sublimation of self to a greater cause

In that same year, Solntseva followed her dramatic debut with a more down-to-earth performance in Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky’s light-hearted The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924). Here, Solntseva again takes on the titular role as charming tobacco seller Zina, who unwittingly attracts the romantic attention of three different men, a bookkeeper, an American businessman, and a cameraman. Despite sharing some key creative team with Aelita (Zhelyabuzhsky for instance was cinematographer on the earlier film), The Cigarette Girl steers clear of political allegory, instead offering a relatively fluffy romantic caper. Solntseva is winning as the free spirited, inadvertently flirtatious Zina, a role which is miles away from the ethereal Aelita. In an endearingly meta-twist, Zina falls for the cameraman, who casts her in a film. Back in the real world, life would swiftly imitate art. By 1929, Solntseva had herself married a brilliant filmmaker, setting into motion a fateful partnership.

By the time of their marriage, Ukrainian-born Oleksandr Dovzhenko had already started to carve out a reputation as a bold filmmaker, but also one whose experimental sensibility often brought him into conflict with Stalinist tastes. His controversial fourth film Zvenigora (1928) had propelled Dovzhenko to wider recognition, and solidified some key hallmarks of the director’s work, including epic man vs. nature narratives and a deep engagement with the landscape, mythology, and history of Ukraine. Much of his subsequent output would revolve around these ideas, and most of those films would be made in collaboration with Solntseva.

Yuliya Solntseva in Earth, directed by her husband Oleksandr Dovzhenko (1930)

Soon after their marriage the couple worked together on Earth (1930), a mythic tale of life and death on a Ukrainian farm often described as Dovzhenko’s masterpiece. The bare bones plot, about a group of peasants navigating the transition to collective farming, is elliptically relayed through arresting images – fields of rippling wheat, an old man dying on a mound of apples, an open coffin wheeled past rows of sunflowers – which combine through montage to convey a reflection on the cycle of life and death. Earth features both Solntseva’s final appearance as an actor – she plays the granddaughter of a dying peasant farmer – and her first as assistant director. Despite (or perhaps partially because) of its virtuosity, Earth had aroused the suspicions of state officials, who deemed the film both too “Ukrainian” and too avant-garde. In order to continue working, the filmmakers had to walk the fraught line between art and politics. In films such as Aerograd (1935) and Schors (1939), propaganda and poetry lie side by side, as the filmmakers balance party imperatives – both of these films were made with Stalin-approved scripts – with characteristically striking imagery, elliptical storytelling, and monumental themes.

The death of Stalin in 1953 brought with it new possibilities, and in quick succession Dovzhenko wrote three deeply personal, loosely autobiographical scripts. In 1956, shortly before production began on the first of these films, Poem of the Sea, Dovzhenko died suddenly of a heart attack. Abruptly severed from both her husband and her creative collaborator of 27 years, Solntseva must have been devastated. Despite this, she saw it as her duty to continue the work her husband had started.

severed from both her husband and her creative collaborator of 27 years, Solntseva must have been devastated. Despite this, she saw it as her duty to continue the work her husband had started

In the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death, Solntseva pushed ahead with the production of Poem of the Sea, drawing on the extensive notes and sketches left behind by Dovzhenko alongside two years’ worth of pre-shot documentary footage. The final film, which was released in 1958, depicts the construction of the Kakhovka Dam, a major state infrastructure project and a symbol of Soviet engineering superiority, as seen from the perspective of a group of people from a local village due to be drowned by the redirected water. The film channels the heightened artificiality of Socialist Realism, but in keeping with the spirit of Earth it also imbues this story of human sacrifice in the face of industrial progress with a mythic resonance. Solntseva was assisted during the shoot by Dovzhenko’s former student Larisa Shepitko, another often-underestimated woman filmmaker of the period.

After Poem of the Sea, Solntseva continued to dedicate herself to completing Dovzhenko’s unfinished projects. The next two films in the “Ukrainian trilogy,” The Story of the Flaming Years (1960) and The Enchanted Desna (1964), bear many key Dovzhenko hallmarks – sunflowers, rain, apples, mist – drawing on his experience growing up in Ukraine, in a non-linear, almost stream-of-consciousness series of dreams, nightmares, and visions. Yet in these films we can also sense Solntseva’s own developing style. Her influence is clearly felt in the use of sound – for example, in the way she uses voiceover to convey the spiralling and sometimes contradictory inner thoughts of her characters – and in her visual flourishes. The Story of the Flaming Years, which follows the superhumanly patriotic solider Ivan as he fights against Nazi invaders, is a particular showcase for the latter. Solntseva, working in collaboration with cinematographer Aleksei Temerin, captures the horrors of war through the use of rear projection and horizontal panning shots. In one early scene, a screaming woman runs through her burning village as the camera swoops above like an avenging angel. In another, a disorientating transition takes us from a severely wounded Ivan, lying amidst smoke-filled trenches, straight to a mist-drenched stream, along which a boat floats like an open coffin. The Story of the Flaming Years is packed fill of heart stopping moments such as these, and its success at Cannes was richly earned. In its full-throated depiction of humanity at its worst, it deserves to be bracketed alongside more canonical Soviet war films like Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985).

The Enchanted Desna (dir. Yuliya Solntseva, 1964)

The Enchanted Desna is less hectic and attention grabbing, but in its own way it is just as astonishing. Built around Dovzhenko’s memories of growing up on the banks of the Desna River, the film depicts rural Ukraine as seen through the eyes of a Red Army colonel who finds himself in charge of liberating the village where he grew up from Nazi occupation. Less epic than some of the filmmakers’ other work, The Enchanted Desna is perhaps the high point of Solntseva and Dovzhenko’s vision of poetic cinema. It is gorgeous even by their high standards, full of drifting mist, arresting sunsets, and, of course, sunflowers.

After completing the trilogy, Solntseva continued to make work immersed in the spirit, and the material, of her dead husband, almost up until her death in 1989. Both Unforgettable (1968) and The Golden Gates (1971) draw on Dovzhenko’s writing, and while some later films, such as Some High Mountains (1974) show Solntseva moving away from that heavy legacy, the films she left behind are inevitably defined by that relationship. This creative co-dependency, combined with unclear crediting and the inevitably fragmentary nature of feminist history, makes it difficult to unpick how this collaboration, which spanned both life and death, worked in practice. Solntseva is a peripheral figure in many studies of Dovzhenko and sometimes written out completely. Where she is acknowledged, she is often described as an assistant, and her subsequent solo-directed work is diminished as simply the continuation of Dovzhenko’s legacy and without independent creative agency. Solntseva herself in many ways encouraged this interpretation, publicly describing herself as the “translator” of her husband’s visions and once claiming that “if Dovzhenko had lived, I would never have become a director.”

Solntseva is a peripheral figure in many studies of Dovzhenko and sometimes written out completely. Where she is acknowledged, she is often described as an assistant, and her subsequent solo-directed work is diminished as simply the continuation of Dovzhenko’s legacy

Yet that statement in itself feels revisionist; before Dovzhenko died, Solntseva was already an active filmmaker, working not just as a co-director on his films, but also as solo director in the theatre and in other collaborations with filmmakers – for example with Yakiv Avdiienko’s on the found footage documentary Ukraine in Flames (1943). Realising so many of Dovzhenko’s unfinished projects across the decades after his death represents a spectacular technical and logistical achievement, but looking back on these films as an oeuvre also reveals how far Solntseva’s own style developed over time. Like the moss that grows on a tree trunk, these two artists became deeply entwined symbiotic forces; over time it becomes impossible to discern where one ends and the other begins.

Thanks to Solntseva’s dutiful work and impressive vision, these films have become essential works of Ukrainian cinema. It’s inevitable then when we revisit them today, the weight of recent history hangs heavy. The Kakhovka Dam, which lies at the centre of Poem of the Sea, was destroyed in 2023 during the Russian invasion, unleashing catastrophic floods. The images of refugees running through the burning ruins of their villages that fill The Story of the Flaming Years have likewise become imbued with a fresh power. Fittingly, for a filmmaker who dedicated her career to keeping alive the vision of her dead husband, Solntseva’s films remain, even in the present, full of ghosts.

Rachel Pronger is a freelance writer and curator, currently based in Berlin. Her writing has been published by outlets including Sight & SoundThe GuardianMUBI Notebook, Art MonthlyElephant Art and BBC Culture. Rachel is also co-founder of archive activist feminist film collective Invisible Women.