Alexander Dovzhenko, “Arsenal” (1928)
Notable for its skilful use of montages of images to create and build tension, excitement, urgency and other moods, “Arsenal” revolves around an incident during the Russian Civil War: a group of workers at an arsenal factory in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine then as now, rebelled in late January 1918 against the revolutionary parliament of Ukraine that had just declared the country’s independence from the Russian empire. The workers declared a strike and joined a group of invading Bolshevik soldiers to fight the Ukrainian forces. Under the leadership of politician Symon Petlyura, the Ukrainians crushed the factory workers’ rebellion, killing many people, and drove out the Bolsheviks on 4 February 1918. A few days later Bolshevik forces returned and captured Kiev.
“Arsenal” isn’t clear on the actual historical details and it ends when the workers’ revolt is suppressed violently and with much bloodshed; leader of the revolt, ex-soldier Timosh (Semyon Svashenko) bravely faces off against three armed men trying to kill him. Whatever plot exists – the story of the factory revolt actually begins 30 minutes into the film – is very sketchy and is carried mainly by Dovzhenko’s montage arrangements into which inter-titles carrying dialogue are inserted. The overwhelming impression I have is that, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the use of violence can’t be justified however necessary it seems t people at the time and there appears to be a pacifist thread throughout the film. Violence and bloodshed lead to too many personal tragedies: families are torn apart, widows and orphans face hardship, starvation and poverty.
The film’s main assets are the editing, montage that combines several parallel strands of plot or sub-plot, and cinematography which often features impressive montages of images, many of which are shot at unusual angles or with characters and objects silhouetted against the sky. Particularly memorable are close-ups of factory machines at work, giving the film a near-abstract / futuristic edge in parts. There are some scenes in which the camera tracks along as though riding a train, taking in scenery through a window. The first 30 minutes of the film feature some very riveting set pieces: one series of montages set in the country, demonstrates with searing intensity the poverty and hardships endured by depressed peasants in a village and the sudden bursts of violence two of the villagers engage in against small children and a horse. A war episode follows in which a soldier inhales laughing gas and laughs uncontrollably; the film flicks back and forth between this man and another soldier, silhouetted against the sky, preparing to shoot him, then throwing away his rifle. For this act, he is punished by his senior officer. A third set piece, using quick editing to flash back and forth among images, close-ups and parallel viewpoints of the same incident, chronicles the last trip of a speeding train packed with soldiers returning from war in central Europe; one of the soldiers entertains his pals by playing his accordion. The passengers realise the train is about to crash and soldiers escape while they can. The crash is very severe and the accordion is flung off the train without its owner.
The acting can be florid and overdone and some scenes, such as the Mexican stand-off between a worker and a faltering capitalist in the last quarter of the film, are milked for what they’re worth for tension and emotion.
First-time viewers should familiarise themselves with some of the history of Ukraine between 1917 and 1921 when the country enjoyed a very brief independence before being forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union, so they can make sense of the film. They don’t have to know all the details of the Arsenal factory revolt – Timosh and several other characters appear to be fictional – but just enough about when it happened, the groups involved, who put down the rebellion and what consequences it had for the future of Kiev and Ukraine generally. As a native Ukrainian and wanting to appear loyal to Communism, director Dovzhenko must have trodden a fine line indeed between supporting his country’s aspirations for freedom and being in the Stalinist government’s good books so as to continue his directing career without too much political interference. As a story “Arsenal” can be haphazard with different incidents occurring at once and the film ducking from one line of events to another and back again so viewers should just concentrate on the imagery and see how editing and montage can be used to suggest or generate tension and passion. The pro-Communist stand is very strong, so strong that an element of fantasy creeps in when Timosh resists being shot; it’s an awkward and wryly laughable moment coming after numerous scenes of brutality and death but the obvious alternative might have put Dovzhenko in trouble.