Sitting somewhere between the directly politicised launch-pad of Sergei Eisenstein and the lyrical, poetic experiments of Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko’s films are a strange mix of Soviet Montagist editing, political polemic and filmic poetry. His films are lesser-known than either Eisenstein’s or Vertov’s, whose works continue to be pored over by many film writers the world over. Dovzhenko’s greatest and most well-known film, Earth, is about, of all things, agriculture; it works because of its intensely poetic nature, which, when combined with its political message, produces a film of a strange atmosphere, the sort that refuses to leave one’s mind for many a week after its viewing.
Arsenal too has many moments which refuse to leave the mind for long after the film has finished. It too has intensely lyrical and almost surreal moments of fancy which seem to have landed into the film from a Bunuel picture: a horse berating its owner for beating it, a man physically unable to shoot another man head on, and most famously, a soldier sent crazy by laughing gas – these are images and sequences of great power and beauty, creating a powerful anti-war message. Sadly, these moments of beauty and strangeness are too far and few between, and too disconnected from the rest of the film, for Arsenal to be successful, something Earth would manage to do with grace and ease.
The film tells of a group of Ukrainian Soviets and their exploits in the Civil War in the Soviet Union. Or at least, I think it does. It’s quite hard to tell. Perhaps I was watching a mutilated copy – I understand that the longest known version of this film is 90 minutes long, the version I watched just over 70 – but a vast majority of the story made absolutely no sense to me. The political purpose was clear; there are Ukrainian nationalists and Orthodox Christians and they are bad, Soviets and Communists are good. Beyond this however, Arsenal lacks the directness and clarity of say, Battleship Potemkin to help us understand what the ever-loving fuck is going on. The narrative is utterly disjointed and even nonsensical, jumping from one location to another with all the direction of a blind man in a cave. This is Arsenal‘s biggest issue. Amidst all those moments of beauty and visual innovation I mentioned earlier, it simply doesn’t bolt these onto a coherent narrative; indeed it seems to just be a mish-mash of plot developments and poetry.
Yet this disjointedness does not kill the film. Those moments of filmic beauty, when they do come, have stood the test of time almost 9 decades on. The handful of scenes in the film that work on this level are staggeringly beautiful. They etch themselves into the mind’s eye, like streaks of colour upon a grey brain. They are not quite plentiful enough to make Arsenal worth watching for anyone with less than a genuine interest in Soviet cinema, though they do greatly brighten what would have otherwise been a rather dull work.