Saturday, May 24, 2014

Alexsandr Dovzhenko | Арсенал (Arsenal)

where is the enemy?

by Douglas Messerli

Alexsandr Dovzhenko (screenplay and director) Арсенал (Arsenal) / 1928


Depending upon which side of the fight you stood in the early 20th century between the nationalist, Petliura-led Ukrainians, the Russian Reds who had ruled Ukraine for hundreds of years and were desperate to keep it within the Russian borders, and the new-developed Ukrainian Bolsheviks, Ukrainian workers who sought some of the values of Russian politics but also fought for an independent Ukraine. The boundaries between these three battling forces were not always clear and, the Bolshevik position, in particular—the position from which Alexsandr Dovzhenko’s important film, Arsenal seems to be arguing—was seen by the nationalists as traitorous, and in fact probably did help in weakening the nationalists and helping the Russians to overtake Petliura’s troops.

      Perhaps we should simply say that Dovzhenko tells his story of the 1918 uprising of Bolsheviks at the Kiev Arsenal features a hero, Tymish Stoyan, who seemingly supports the Bolshevik position. But the complexity of Dovzhenko’s work, particularly its use of the classical Ukrainian literary form, “the duma” (an oral lament), makes it difficult to characterize, just as in in his Earth, as a simple embracement of new Soviet values—despite the fact that the Russians themselves saw Dovzhenko’s “Historical-Epic” in that way, and, particularly in the Red-Russians’ charge across the Ukrainian landscape in Episode Six, the director tells the tale through the methods of the older tradition.

In fact, Dovzhenko makes his case for a far-more pacifist view in the very first of his seven episodes as the warring World War I troops attack an empty trench, while Tymish (Semen Svashenko), as a young soldier, arrives to find no one there, crying out as he tosses away his rifle, “Where is the enemy?”

      Half-embedded corpses are scattered throughout the landscape; in another short sequence we see a German soldier, suffering from laughing gas, slowly going insane. Despite the continued assaults, the battles we observe are already over. But before they soldiers can even assimilate that fact, new battles are being plotted as Tsar Nicholas, writing a letter in St. Petersburg, seems to have no perspective of larger issues, writing instead of a hunting expedition and the weather. So devastated are the surviving members of the populace who some simply stand in a stupor, one not even registering the sexual assaults she suffers by hands of a local official; a mother who has lost her three elder sons, beats her young boy and daughter; a seemingly docile village man beats his own horse before reclaiming it and pulling it off.

       The soldiers from the front have not even returned home before they are rounded up and forced to sign up for service in Petilura’s forces; of his peers, seemingly only Tymish refuses to sign up. Asked who he is, he describes himself as a “demolished soldier. An Arsenal worker.” When asked whether is a Ukrainian (i.e. a nationalist) or a worker (i.e. a Bolshevik), Tymish cannot comprehend separating the two. He is unable, as the insightful on-line critic Ray Uzwyshyn points out, to divide himself into two opposing beings. As Dovzhenko makes quite clear, however, the Petliura forces do not represent the workers as much as they do the Ukrainian capitalists; the director insists on bringing up the question that few loyal Ukrainian’s of the day could ask themselves: are we better off as a free nation of landowners or a free nation of workers?

       Going even further, as Uzwyshyn observes, the holy trinity of the nationalist forces are represented not only by General Petilura and a supporting “Petliurite” from the “Haidamak Kish” (dressend in a cossack’s sheepskin cap) , but also by a far more surprising, a sailor with a cap that cannot but remind one of a sailor from the Black Sea Fleet of the Battleship Potempkin as portrayed in the posters of that Eisenstein’s film, Bronenosets Potemkin by Rodchenko and Lavinskii, images that by the time of Dovzhenko’s film had become so iconic that everyone might identify them, and were certainly known by the Ukrainian director.

     In short, Dovzhenko asserts, at least subliminally, that the Ukrainian nationalist’s forces were in tandem with the Soviet-led Black Sea Fleet, which would ultimately, of course, abandon the Ukrainian cause to support the Soviet domination.

      When Tymish joins the Bolshevik strike of the Arsenal, moreover, it is with less political commitment and zealotry than out of a sense of his identity with the working class, which throughout the film, Dovzhenko dramatically represents in dichotomy to dithering, confused capitalists who throughout the film shout out unheard speeches that demand total allegiance to their blather. As most critics have observed, Arsenal is less about the actual uprising that a singular battle between Tymish, as representative of the workers. Indeed, nearly all the figures of Dovzhenko’s film are types, symbols of their positions rather than realist figures who act out deeds of psychologically-perceived values. And Dovzhenko’s style and methods are far closer to the late 20th century director, Sergei Paradjanov, who, also using traditional narrative story-telling methods, created films that relied on a series of emblems, short scenarios dependent upon the visual more than action.

       In the end of Dovzhenko’s film, as Tymish, attempting to battle the nationalist forces, finds his gun in empty, the character ceases almost entirely to be a “real” human being, and is transformed into an image that stands for all of the insane destruction which the country, and by extension, the world, has been forced to face. The attackers’ guns no longer can kill him, as he tears open his shirt, rising up—as Uzwyshyn argues—as a visual icon of Edvard Munch’s 1910 painting The Scream. Whether or not Dovzhenko was actually thinking of the painting or not, the image represents that emotion and reveals that the director perceives his “character” less as a figure who stands for a political point of view than as a symbol of the oppression such views impose upon their populaces. In the end, both the reactionary Ukrainian critics of the director’s own time, nearly all of whom damned the film, and the Soviets who saw in this director’s work a viewpoint close to their own, missed, it seems to me, the true message of Dovzhenko’s  stunning cinema-making. Making films when he did, Dovzhenko had always to carefully balance seemingly political statements with his own, often avant-garde, film-making procedures. It meant that often he could not make the films he might have desired to shoot, but it also meant that he survived the years of Stalin’s purges without completely abandoning his own values in art.

Los Angeles, May 23, 2014

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