Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Cast: Semyon Svashenko, Amvrosi Buchma, Georgi Khorkov
Synopsis: Set in the bleak aftermath and devastation of the World War I, a recently demobbed soldier, Timosh, returns to his hometown Kiev, after having survived a train wreck.
I have to admit to not being a great fan of the early Russian filmmakers who seem to be held in such great esteem by so many. I can appreciate the technical brilliance of their montage sequences, and admire the often striking and dramatic images, but pretty much everything else about these movies leaves me cold. It’s as if their makers can only speak to their audience on a cerebral level without connecting with it emotionally. No doubt it’s in keeping with the collective ideology of the Communist states that their movies focus less on the personal and lean more towards the epic, with more attention paid to the struggles of the group than the individual.
Arsenal opens with a stark depiction of both the deprivations suffered by the people at home and the soldiers at the front during WWI. With young men fighting in the war it fell to the women to farm the land if they were able, but food is scarce and the people are starving. While this first twenty minutes is by far the strongest part of the film, the imagery employed by director Alexandr Dovzhenko borders on the comical at times, with people standing immobile, shoulders stooped, staring at the ground. To demonstrate the utter sense of defeat of these people, he has a smug police official pause on his stroll to casually fondle the breast of a peasant woman who accepts his assault without response. We then see scenes of a mother, surrounded by her starving children, intercut with a farmer faced with a stubborn horse who refuses to move. Each seems to placidly accept their situation, but suddenly they snap and the mother viciously beats her child while the farmer does the same to his horse. While this symbolism relating to the exhausted patience and tolerance of the people is a little obvious, it’s nevertheless impressively powerful.
The soldiers suffer even worse fates on the front. Fighting an enemy they can’t find, dying from laughing gas which contorts their faces into grinning defilements of death, those who realise the futility of war find themselves at the end of their superior officer’s artillery, suggesting the real enemy isn’t from outside the country but from the ruling classes within.
The film ostensibly follows Timosh (Semyon Svashenko), a Ukrainian soldier. A typical Soviet Superman, Timosh survives a brilliantly edited train crash on his return from the front and returns home in time to witness a celebration marking Ukrainian freedom and the end of the war. However, war has shed the scales from Timosh’s eyes, and at the All-Ukrainian Congress he urges the country to adopt the Soviet system of government.
The story, such as it is, feels disjointed and slapped together, and is subordinate to the message, which Dovzhenko feels can be better relayed through those striking images. As with most Russian propaganda, this symbolism is about as subtle as a house brick to the head and quickly grows tiresome. Keeping with that Superman image, the movie ends improbably with Timosh ripping apart his shirt and baring his chest to show just how useless the counter-revolutionaries bullets are against him, and you have to marvel at how the strictures of heavy censorship, while reducing the content of Russian movies of this period to utter drivel, failed to contain the technical genius of the likes of Eisenstein and Dovzhenko.
I wouldn’t watch it again, though.
(Reviewed 6th December 2013)