by Allan Fish
(USSR 1929 90m) DVD1
There was a mother who had three sons
p Alexander P.Dovzhenko d/w/ed Alexander P.Dovzhenko ph Danylo Demutsky m Igor Belza art Vadim Myuller, Iosif Shpinel
Semyon Svashenko (Timos, the Ukrainian), Amvrosi Buchma (laughing-gassed soldier), Georgi Khorkov (Red Army soldier), Dimitri Erdman (German officer), Sergei Petrov (German soldier), Nikolai Kuchinsky (Petliura), A.Yevdakov (Tsar Nicholas II), Luciano Albertini (Raffaele),
Dovzhenko said about Arsenal in his autobiography; “I wanted to make a film about the revolution. Not the palace revolution, but the revolution of peasants, workers and intellectuals, who made the revolution and then did not get anything for it.” The first thing that comes to mind is that Dovzhenko did well to keep these feelings to himself when he made it, or he may have followed many artists from Ukraine into the black hole of the prison camp purges. It’s a commonly perceived notion that Dovzhenko was a Ukrainian nationalist, and yet at the time of the film’s release he was a committed Bolshevik in favour of Ukraine’s unity with Mother Russia. Even in Earth, his commonly accepted magnum opus, the film comes down in favour of communism, but there are hints of nationalistic ideology not far beneath the surface.
Arsenal was made to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the famous Arsenal Munitions Factory’s destruction during the Civil War against the Ukrainian nationalists. It begins with contrasting images from the last days of the Russian involvement in World War I; a desolate barbed wire fence, a mother mourning her sons, soldiers returning home, another being shot. One such soldier, Timos, returns to find euphoric scenes of Ukrainian independence, but tries to persuade the assembly to adopt the soviet system and ally to Russia. It then proceeds to tell the story of the rise of the Ukrainian national resistance in 1917 and then the uprising of loyal Bolsheviks against them in January 1918.
As with The Battleship Potemkin, Arsenal tells the story of a noble failure on behalf of the Bolsheviks, and sees its victims as martyrs to the cause of communism. It’s a very different piece from Zvenigora and Earth made either side of it, with its almost Eisenstein-like use of montage and symbolic imagery. The first part dealing with the aftermath of World War I and the devastation on the Ukrainian landscape contains many of the most memorable individual images, including a one-armed peasant – obviously a war veteran – leading his tired old horse across a desolate field destroyed by the ravages of war, and a mother bemoaning the loss of her three sons in the conflict. In essence Dovzhenko’s film is in favour of revolutionary fervour and the violence this causes, but nor does he shirk from showing its effect. At first he uses clever cutting techniques to avoid showing the actual moment of various deaths, which only serves to heighten the sense of martyrdom of the victims. The most violent sequences are not actually the shots of the uprising but of its aftermath, with the execution of the Bolshevik leaders. Individual men are placed against a wall and shot in almost metronomic fashion by the same White Russian officer while their families are left to count the cost, machines are left unmanned and services not provided.
The most memorable sequences in the film, however, are not in themselves associated to the violence and spirit of the uprising (which finally is shown to be indestructible and everlasting as Timos is shot by nationalist forces but refuses to fall). One thinks of the horses anthropomorphically showing revolutionary spirit as they respond to their masters’ urgings, or of the portrait of a dead leader spitting on the candle lit under it by nationalist forces, thus symbolically disassociating itself with the Ukrainian nationals. All this contrasted with panoramic shots of the Ukrainian landscape which subconsciously hint at Ukraine’s heritage. Beautifully shot and expertly edited, Arsenal remains, as Georges Sadoul exclaimed, “one of Dovzhenko’s best…a romantic and lyrical masterpiece of the silent era.”