Pantheon Int'l #52: UKRAINE - 'Arsenal'

Pantheon Int'l is a daily blogging project; I'll be watching a movie from a different country every day for the next four months and writing about it.   Click here for a complete list with links to each article.

Arsenal, d. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1929, 71min., Historical Drama

Where is the enemy.jpg

"I won't ask you to turn your face to the wall before shooting you"

Arsenal proved to be a very tough film to get through, and I didn't expect that at all.  The only other film by Aleksandr Dovzhenko - a very important name in Russian silent cinema - that I had seen is his very next film, Earth, which is a simpler film, and a fascinating sometimes documentary-like portrait of rural Ukraine.  Arsenal, on the other hand, tells the tale of Ukraine's Arsenal Revolt, and is both a political statement for Ukrainian-Soviet solidarity, and an essay on the ravages of war.  

I tend to watch films first and do research afterwards, but sometimes that turns out not to be a good idea.  This was one of those times.  I had to watch the whole film over again, because the meaning of so much of the imagery was lost on me, that my mind started to go blank and I couldn't remember very much of what I had seen.  Be warned, Arsenal is an active viewing experience, made more difficult by the fact that it is 85 years old.  Hopefully, I can impart with this article some of the context that helped me make it through my second viewing.

Limbless Farmer.jpg

The most important contributions to film art to come out of the Soviet silent film era had to do with editing, specifically montage (which used to have a slightly different connotation than it does today).  The Soviet artists noticed and wrote volumes about the power of editing unrelated images together to invoke ideas.  For example, Sergei Eisenstein once edited a close-up of an old, fat military general with tons of decorations and medals on his chest, with an unrelated shot of a peacock, and the audience understands that the director is telling us he is vain.  Dovzhenko takes this montage technique to extremes in Arsenal, to something closer to collage.  He purposefully obscures the direct one-to-one correlations by cutting between three or four different ideas at once.  In his opinion, if the audience has to think harder, and there is more room for discussion and debate, then he is creating true film art.

Laughing Gas.jpg

The film opens during WWI.  Ukraine sent many men to war in support of Russia, and once fertile valleys became barren battlefields.  Dovzhenko cuts between many different scenes to illustrate the toll of the war.  A pathetic peasant woman mourns the loss of all three of her sons on the front.  Another woman is so dead inside that when a passing soldier stops and fondles her breasts she doesn't seem to notice or care.  An old woman tries to control a plow over rocky soil.  Another farmer - a man with one arm - beats his horse in frustration at how badly things are going.  An officer at the front shoots one of his soldiers for being too shell-shocked to move.  Another soldier - stricken with laughing gas - laughs at his fallen corpse.  Meanwhile, someone in a highly-decorated military uniform writes a letter, which reads:

"Today I shot a crow.  Splendid Weather."

The uniform and distinctive mustache of this character are supposed to be enough for us to identify Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  This is a parody of his short and banal telegrams to his family during the war - which barely mention the war - and in the context of these images it makes him seem very detached from being able to understand or empathise with the human cost of the war.  Even knowing this context, the way Dovzhenko edits it into the sequence is confusing at first.  The sequence is constructed in a way to present the maximum number of ideas to the audience simultaneously, at the expense of setting up any linear causality in plot developments.

Timosh 1.jpg

After this hectic prologue, the film then introduces a protagonist and a very basic plot.  Timosh is a proud Ukrainian soldier in the Russian army.  The war is over and he is returning home, but his train is almost hijacked by Ukrainian soldiers.  Here, it helps again to understand context.  After WWI, the Russian Empire crumbled under an uprising of the worker class.  The local ruling elite of the Ukraine assumed full control over their country, with the blessing of the Orthodox Church.  But the working class, fed up with being exploited, rallied against their own army and government.  Timosh, returning home and going to work in a munitions factory/arsenal, joins up with these revolutionaries.  This revolt will eventually bring Ukraine under the control of the Russian Bolsheviks, and what would soon become the Soviet Union.

Talking Horses.jpg

Dovzhenko's glorifying of the worker's struggle, and the way he uses montage to suggest a broader picture of the war, is not far removed from what other Soviet directors, like Eisenstein, were doing at the time.  But there are surrealistic touches that are quite extraordinary for their time, and are part of the reason it's so hard to pin the movie down the first time you watch it.  In one of the film's more striking sequences, soldiers have to drive a horse-drawn sleigh at breakneck speed.  Dovzhenko cuts between the two lead horses, and gives them dialogue via interstitial text.  The horses say to each other that they understand that their mission is important and that they proudly fight for the Ukraine!  

Timosh Speech.jpg

The final sequence of the film reenacts an infamous page of Ukrainian history, when Ukrainian soldiers stormed the Arsenal in Kiev, where the workers were on strike and barricaded inside.  In real life, several hundred workers were killed.  In the film, Timosh is fighting alongside the workers and runs out of bullets.  But then finds out he is impervious to bullets.  It turns out this is another reference I could never have hoped to understand on my own; a hero in Ukrainian folklore becomes invincible protecting his homeland.  Although Arsenal tries very hard at the beginning to create a complex narrative about the tolls of war, in the end it doesn't escape devolving into a patriotic, single-minded account of early Soviet ideals about revolution.  

Arsenal is on Amazon Instant and on DVD, and I have to give a lot of credit to this DVD's helpful commentary by Vance Kepley, Jr. of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.