Formative coursework

Sequence Analysis: Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928)

In this post, you will read an analysis of a key sequence from Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s film Arsenal (1928). The aim of this post is to examine how the filmmakers create meaning by using the cinematic resources available to them at the time. Relevant context will also be touched on. The word limit is 750-1000 words. The post’s author is Layla Guest (BA Russian Studies).

Sequence Analysis: Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928)

Dovzhenko’s Arsenal’ (1928) depicts the Ukrainian Civil War and was commissioned by the USSR as part of a trilogy, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. It is important to regard Arsenal as a unique, avant-garde work of cinematic art in its stylization of plot, characterization and aesthetics. Dovzhenko’s use of slow, static montage and construction of faceless, two-dimensional characters symbolizes the civilians harmed by Tsarism. Whilst Arsenal is evidently pro-Bolshevik in its nature, the presence of Ukrainian national pride within the film reflects Dovzhenko’s personal struggle to ‘negotiate the relationship between his Ukrainian national identity and the…ideologies promoted by the Soviet regime’.[1] This is illustrated through Dovzhenko’s integration of rhetorical questions in the intertitles that challenge the morality of Soviet ideology.

In this sequence, Dovzhenko depicts the aftermath of the Civil War through montage that humanizes the aftermath of Imperial Russia’s involvement in the First World War. Dovzhenko’s integration of a deep-space shot and the sliding movement of the amputee across the bottom of the shot reflects the suffering of the ordinary people and how they are disregarded by society through the scale of the man in relation to the frame. Both the lack of characterization of the amputee and the lack of audience address are highly poignant as the figure serves as a symbol for all civilians injured in the First World War. Dovzhenko further explores this theme later in the sequence in the hospital. The combination of the close-up, gawking shots of the nurse and the dissolving camera shots of the mountains of human bodies is crafted to illustrate the overbearing post-war trauma. Thus, the intertitle ‘Can one can kill bourgeois people and officers if one comes across them in the street?’ could resonate with Dovzhenko’s contemporary audience as many would have had relatives killed, displaced or injured during the First World War and feel a similar, tormenting desire for retribution. This is further developed through the nurse’s slow movement and camera stasis to reflect her moral questioning, allowing the audience to challenge their moral compass. The following imperative intertitle ‘You can!’, has been utilized by Dovzhenko as a catalyst provoking action both in the film, as shown through the subsequent cutting to a fast-paced clash of soldiers, and action against the bourgeois members of society in real life.

The recurring figures of bourgeois men, present both in the sequence and throughout the film are integrated to create a class enemy- ‘a person or social group of people who are “enemies” of the revolution’.[2] Dovzhenko’s positioning of the bourgeois officers, with their bodies uncomfortably posed and angled partially away from the camera, has been intentionally portrayed as awkward and unnatural to the spectators to reflect them as inhumane, twisted individuals. The presentation of the Tsarist officers in contrast with Timosh, the film’s Bolshevik protagonist, allows the audience to build rapport with

[1] Kepley, V., Jr, ‘Ukrainian Pastoral: How Alexander Dovzhenko Brought the Soviet Avant-Garde Down to Earth’, Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, N. Y., 2002, P.61

[2] http://liberapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Class_enemy

 

Timosh as his costume is the same as the proletariat collective, making him more relatable and likeable in comparison to the bourgeois officers in uniform. Thus, the audience would regard Timosh as a proletariat hero[1], as he defies death at the end of the film and is invincible to the counterrevolutionaries’ gunshots. In addition, Timosh’s characterization is also symbolic as his character is based on the 18th century Ukrainian folk hero Oleska Dovbush; a member of the Opryshok (brigand) movement that stole property and money from the rich to redistribute to the poor.[2] Dovzhenko’s two-fold crafting of Timosh as the immortal Bolshevik and a reminiscent of Oleksa Dovbush is significant as it combines elements of Soviet ideology, whilst glorifying the mythological Ukrainian outlaw. Not only does this create the idealistic class warrior popular in 1920s Soviet film, but it simultaneously reflects Dovzhenko’s own political philosophy and Ukrainian pride.

In conclusion, Dovzhenko’s avant-garde stylistic approach makes Arsenal a powerful, poignant memoir through its use of montage to convey the causes and effects of the Revolution in society. Thus, it is limiting to view ‘Arsenal’ as focused solely on pro-Soviet propaganda as its shocking scenes of destruction can still be appreciated by a modern audience as an anti-conflict film.

Bibliography

  • Harte, T, ‘Fast Forward: The Aesthetics and Ideology of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture, 1910–1930’, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 2009.
  • Kepley, V., Jr. ‘Ukrainian Pastoral: How Alexander Dovzhenko Brought the Soviet Avant-Garde Down to Earth’, Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, N. Y. 2002
  • Kohut, Z., Katchanovski, I., Nebesio, B. and Yurkevich, M, ‘Historical dictionary of Ukraine’. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc.Ukraine’, Lanham, Scarecrow Press, 2013
  • Author, Unkown., Article: Librapedia, http://liberapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Class_enemy. Date of publishing, unknown, last accessed 17/11/17

Filmography 

  • ‘Arsenal’. Alexander Dovzhenko (1928)

[1] Harte, T, ‘Fast Forward: The Aesthetics and Ideology of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture, 1910–1930’, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 2009, P. 216

[2] Kohut, Z., Katchanovski, I., Nebesio, B. and Yurkevich, M, ‘Historical dictionary of Ukraine’. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc.Ukraine’, Lanham, Scarecrow Press, 2013, P.141

 

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