Arsenal, the second of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s War trilogy (along with ‘Zvenigora’, and ‘Earth’), further explores the process that the Ukraine underwent in its journey from egalitarian agricultural idyll towards industrialisation and Stalinist rule. Much more artistically shot than Zvenigora, Arsenal has a more focused composition and is also less chaotic than the former film. It’s relatively sedate tone lends it less of an air of polemicism than the rampant, raging Zvenigora, which absolutely works in its favour.
Arsenal uses the same seven episode structure employed by Zvenigora, to show elliptical narratives that, when combined, give an impression of a certain time and place. The very first episode sets up the tone of the film, that of quiet but definite rage, as a soldier molests a woman who, with head bowed, allows him to carry on. This cuts to shots of a mother and a peasant both patiently, seemingly, coping with a crying child and an unwilling horse respectively, until they both break and start beating their respective dependent. The episode ends with scenes of German soldiers driven mad by laughing gas.
What is it all supposed to mean? The imagery is certainly less peculiarly Ukrainian, and as such it’s pretty easy to understand what’s going on – the film is about a country losing its temper, reaching breaking point, paralysed for the moment before breaking into a fit of rage. Presumably this is what Dovshenko wished would happen in his beloved Ukraine and its Stalinist overlords. While he seemed to have supported the taking back of Ukraine, he suggests in one oft referred-to moment – soldiers charging on an empty trench and asking where the enemy is – that war is rife with absurdity, prefiguring the pacifist sentiments of Kubrick with his films Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket et al. The fact that he does all of this while paying lip-service to those same Communists makes his skill as a film-maker all the more impressive.
The film moves on, through different times and places, like Zvenigora before it mixing brutality and banality as facets of every day life. The more universal imagery used in this film allows modern viewers to become absorbed much more easily into the film, to empathise with the events on-screen.
As mentioned previously, Arsenal is much more impressively composed than Zvenigora. While it is less chaotic, it is more militaristically-minded than the former film, and more concerned with violence and its effects on the society of the time; how it destroys friendships, families (countries?) and so forth. It might just be that Arsenal seems more impressive because it is shot in a more “modern” style, with lots of static cameras and tracking shots. Zvenigora applied much more handheld footage (or as handheld as the times would allow, with their giant moon-sized cameras) and more amateurish framing, while Arsenal is more classically framed. It is truly, truly phenomenal, and genuinely affecting.