Arsenal deals with the civil strife that occurred in the Ukraine following the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II in 1918. Returning to Kiev from the frontline, a disenchanted soldier called Timosh adopts the Bolshevist cause and seeks to protect the city’s newfound freedom from anti-revolutionary forces. But the unrest comes to a violent head when, outnumbered and holed-up in a munitions depot, Timosh and his followers face the advancing nationalist White Army.
This is a very bleak picture about war and its aftermath, but Dovzhenko uses his expert skills as an avant-garde poet and artist to fuse Soviet propaganda (as desired by his masters) with his own passion for Ukrainian national identity. This is most telling in the film’s gripping climax that pays homage to a centuries old Ukrainian folk tale, in which our Bolshevik hero becomes impervious to his enemies bullets.
Dovzhenko’s nationalist voice is also heard in Zvenigora, the first part of his trilogy, as is his trademark montage style that would carry over to Earth. Zvenigora’s narrative combines an old legend about lost treasure on a mystical mountain called Zvenigora with a modern story set in revolutionary Ukraine. Moving back and forth across the centuries and juxtaposing the country’s distant past with a commentary on the nation’s progress under the Soviets, the film is very early example of cinematic surrealism. It’s hard going, but Dovzhenko’s editing (Sergei Eisenstein was particularly impressed) makes it an eclectic, visual feast for the eyes and the soul.
Anybody with a passion for the 1920’s avant-garde art movement, modernist experimental cinema or Soviet history would do well to see all three of Dovzhenko’s cinematic masterpieces one after the other. Revolutionary, indeed!