Oleksandr Dovzhenko: Arsenal

Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 silent film Arsenal. Amazing.

I loved it, it is something that will haunt me I think. I found it intensely moving and powerful — the images, the anti-war message. I didn’t understand much of what else the hell was going on. Which makes its power all the more epic in a way. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.

We saw it at Bristol’s Watershed, Guy Bartell of Bronnt Industries Kapital had composed a new soundtrack for the film. Modern. Evocative. Brilliant. It may have had much to do with the way this film held my heart.

It is the end of WWI. Soldiers fighting. Soldiers returning home.

It is about famine.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalAn emaciated woman stands head down, leaning against a home alongside the street. I saw her standing there, mourned how hunger has stripped her of attractiveness, has reduced her to bones and sagging skin, emptied her of desire. Yet then an officer comes up to casually take her breast in his hand. Everything revolts against it, they way she is thus made into an inanimate sexual object to be dominated by the likes of him.

She does not react at all. He has found her wanting perhaps, he wanders away.

Famine. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. I cannot imagine myself in this.

A woman stands listless and still, her children screaming and pulling at her. They scream. Finally she begins to beat them mechanically. Arm rising and falling.

A man does the same to his emaciated horse. Murderous. Kicking and striking until he falls over in his weakness and rage.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of the hungry. The violence of the powerless against those even more powerless.

This is despair.

The violence of war. Young men. Bright smiles and clean white teeth in rictus grins surrounded by earth and ash.

The survivors have fewer teeth.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalOleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of war, the breakdown of mind, the stripping of humanity. Soldiers travel along trains through these particularly Russian montages of faces and spinning backgrounds. They march and march. They pose against the sky in the poses of toy soldiers, faceless, anonymous, placed and ordered by someone above.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of them. The killing. The bayonets and the rifles, jagged silhouettes.

Women starving, standing, staring at the ground. Until the soldiers come home and find their wives’ carrying their new babies. Kto….who? Rape you think, loneliness, a favour for a scrap of bread.

The violence against women, children, animals, the earth untended, the men…they all give and take. Those behind it all, those responsible for it you never see, only their representatives in health and uniform. For the rest life reduced to fear and pain and hunger. A clinging to dust.

That is what I understood. And against this background a frenzy of soldiers, of crowds, of soldiers’ return and WWI’s end. The good guy:

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalYou follow him and a kind of narrative emerges around his appearances. A worker. That is all he will answer, from the Ukraine but above all a worker. This, then, is a kind of stand against the nationalism burgeoning here, the declaration of the Ukraine. The nationalists portrayed as silly and weak and bourgeois. But one of the guys yelling at the crowds sure looks like Trotsky. Maybe Trotsky just has that kind of face.

Is it all right to kick and kill the bourgeois in the street? a member of the crowd at a political rally asks.

Later on we receive the answer — why yes, yes it is.

I confess, that was one of my favourite bits. But it all gets confusing here, sides and sides and me sitting there trying to piece together everything I know about that time, Nestor Makhno and his guerilla wars against every army that came against him — in alliance with the Bolsheviks until they wanted to annex the Ukraine, and then fighting against them. None of that is in here. Just wealthy nationalists against whom the workers must unite. Made with Bolshevik money, what else could it be?

But really, the story feels so secondary it does not even need to be there, it is complex and patchy. The rebellion at Arsenal? I had no sense what that was all about (though I acknowledge this would be very different for those who knew, who had lived this context). This feels deeper, more poetic, more thematic than that. A meditation on exploitation and violence and the suffering it causes through technique and through image. Women staring at the earth, uncaring. These tableaux of powerful violence and despair. They felt almost like dance, more than a tinge of expressionism.

Amazing to see it on the big screen with live accompaniment.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalOleksandr Dovzhenko: Arsenal

There is a great deal more background, history of the film and of Dovzhenko here on this quite amazing site. Me, I just wanted to capture why I found it so compelling, so powerful. But there I found this, an extraordinary painting from Diego Rivera of Frida Kahlo handing out guns at the Arsenal uprising that I too have to share…

ArsenalFactoryriveraSomething to come back to. And the rest of the trilogy to watch.

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