Arsenal (1929 USSR 93 mins)
Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: VUFKU Prod, Dir, Scr, Ed: Alexander Dovzhenko Phot: Daniil Demutsky Art Dir: Vadim Myuller, Iosif Shpinel
Cast: Semyon Svashenko, Amvrosi Buchma, Georgi Khorkov, Dimitri Erdman, Sergei Petrov, M. Mikhailovsky
Seeing Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (Arsienal) today may prove a strangely impressive experience; it can strike the viewer as both a very remote film – not only for its age, but also because of the ever-growing gulf between its visionary conception of what film should be and what we are now used to accepting as cinema – and, after some thought, a very modern one, perhaps even too modern for us. Not being a classical narrative film, Arsenal is immediately perceived as a quick succession of seemingly unrelated images. Some of its images have the rawness, simplicity and immediacy of documentary or newsreel footage, while others seem quite formalist, even expressionist or exaggerated, playing with the borders of the frame or with inverted symmetries while employing quite varied ways of reaching a state of abstraction.
Several apparently unconnected series of shots are edited as if there was no difference at all in their respective nature, status, or degree of stylisation. Arsenal is, on the one hand, quite primitive-looking and features some striking departures from the principles of socialist-realism supposedly already being enforced by Soviet film/political authorities at the time of its release (such as the horse who speaks, in intertitles of course, as Soviet cinema was to remain silent for several more years). On the other hand, Arsenal is reminiscent and pre-emptive of the associative freedom characteristic of Godard, Straub/Huillet or early Makavejev. The overall effect of Arsenal is quite at odds with other familiar Soviet films made at the same time, such as Eisenstein’s The Old and the New (formerly The General Line, 1929) – even if these may have been to some extent influenced by Dovzhenko’s movie. Part of the fascination of Dovzhenko’s work lies in such contradictions, even though it threatened the continuity of the author’s work as a filmmaker.
Although, at first sight, it may seem quite the opposite of, say, the cinématographe of Robert Bresson, Arsenal clearly belongs to the same kind of cinema (not only because it relies on montage for images to make sense, as this was a common characteristic of silent films). A cinema which regarded itself more as a new writing process than as spectacle or the reproduction of staged dramatic action. It was therefore designed to be read and reorganised in the spectator’s mind, and thus with his/her very active participation. This aspiration became unusual with the arrival of sound but was quite common – albeit usually to a lesser extent than Arsenal – in the silent era when filmmakers commonly used to edit their own films.
To fully appreciate a film like Arsenal nowadays, requires a considerable effort of will and historical perspective just in order to adjust one’s attention to its unusual rhythms, its heterogeneous nature and its truly peculiar “speech”. Otherwise, if we see it the way we watch any current release, we may not properly understand anything other than the rudiments of its plot-line or very simplistic-looking message. If, on the contrary, we regard Arsenal as a carefully constructed artefact which was as original in 1929 as it looks bizarre today, we can begin to approach it and try to fully grasp its meanings and methods.
Many people have suggested in recent years that Arsenal, although certainly very exciting and fascinating, is barely understandable. It is true that the film has hardly any permanent or consistent characters besides the mythical Bolshevik hero Tymish, who is psychologically as “inexistent” as the rest. These other characters are mainly icons, either picturesque portraits of peasants or Groz-like caricatures of Tzarist military officers, representatives of the Ukrainian nationalist bourgeoisie or whatever. They are a “mother”, “peasant”, “worker”, “soldier” or “cop”, rather than individuals. Not much different from horses, since they also speak in the film. These characters don’t move a great deal, much less freely or spontaneously, and are instead caught in static “poses” or driven to furious action. This often occurs through parallel montage, like that which juxtaposes images of the one-armed peasant who hits his horse and the mother who hits her crying (hungry) child – both acting out of despair and impotent anger. When Ian Christie tried to summarise (Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1977) the plot of Arsenal into ten discrete segments, he stressed the uncertainty dominating each assumption we are bound to make in this process. This is certainly not what is supposed to characterise a pamphlet or a propaganda film addressed mainly at Russian (and Ukrainian) peasants of the late 1920s, warning them against nationalism (as opposed to internationalism and class-allegiance) and prepare them for the next move in farm collectivisation and the upcoming change in agricultural policy. That Dovzhenko was commissioned to direct precisely such a film seems, in retrospect, either a test of loyalty (since he was Ukrainian himself and had been an enthusiastic nationalist only a couple of years before, just prior becoming a filmmaker) or a trap on Stalin’s part.
Dovzhenko failed and his problems increased. This was not only because the film was not successful with audiences, and therefore did not come near its aim, but also because it bears the scars of Dovzhenko’s contradictory position. Dovzhenko tried to address and surmount the conflicting feelings he necessarily had on such issues by reverting to a very composite, mainly expressionistic, heterodox style, that allowed him to approach the very ambitious, non-narrative idea of cinema he would have liked to pursue. A practice which is curiously – but not so strangely, after all – not unlike that of Godard, who reproached cinema (both in Deux fois cinquante années de cinéma français  and in Histoire(s) du Cinéma 1989-98]) in more or less the same way as Dovzhenko did in the early 1930s, for its failure to abandon its stone-age.