“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.”
‘Arsenal’, directed in 1929 by Alexander Dovzhenko, is a Soviet avant-garde war movie. Set during the Russian Civil War of 1918, the film abstractly plays with imagery and expectations to create a montage of poignant, but politically subversive motifs. It’s a difficult film to assess and to watch. My main challenge was a lack of knowledge of the history and politics of the time, but Dovzhenko’s movie also doesn’t pander to the expectations of the audience. As a piece of cinema, it’s complex, at times beautiful, but obscure and, in terms of meaning, labyrinthine. I loved the juxtaposition of still and moving images, at times actors are posed as static statues, not performing but rather adding to the mise-en-scene in much the same way that the actors in Miklós Jancsó’s expressionist films, such as ‘The Red and the White’ or ‘Red Psalm’ do. The directors turn people into choreographed patterns or frozen monuments, appropriately for the militaristic nature of the subject matter. In ‘Arsenal’, this depiction of humanity seems to be part of the political subtext, for a movie made in such a culturally authoritarian state, one that is surprisingly balanced. Dovzhenko mixes formalist montage and the style of realist cinema, with a playful, almost surreal, sense of abstraction, ‘Arsenal’ is also full of unsettling moments, most notably the depiction of a laughing gas attack on a trench, the dead and dying soldiers fixed with rictus grins.
Would I recommend it? Maybe – it’s a difficult film to get under the skin of, and Eisenstein is more accessible, but watched in a double bill with ‘Red Psalm’ not only provides a great overview of abstract cinema, but also gives a sense of how films made under political pressure, or in rebellion, can play out.