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"arsenal" (1929) - aleksandr dovzhenko
posted on 16-Jan-2003 by anton
to me dovzhenko has always been one the pillars of soviet cinema, one of those names that are well-known, and yet not that many people have got to see his work.

dovzhenko's ukranian roots reveal themselves in folk motives (the scene in ARSENAL with a talking horse and another one, where the hero could not be killed with bullets), as well as in the subject of his films (ARSENAL takes place in kiev, where in 1918 bolshevik workers struggled against anti-revolution troops), not to mention the fact that in ARSENAL's finale the hero characterizes himself as "ukranian worker."

dovzhenko's aesthetic were formed during the most exciting time in the 20th century when political changes unleashed an enormous creative power in the artistic world, providing not only the means to create new works, but a source of inspiration in the form of communist utopia. taking further eisenstein's experiments with montage and camera work, dovzhenko creates his own visual style that breaks usual narrative conventions, the nature of silent cinema only supports these completely self-contained works (sound or color would have been excessive).

although dovzhenko's films were funded by the state and were intended to be propaganda machines for the communists, one immediately notices that his approach puts visual poetry first, delivering political issues from the essentially romantic standpoint, which results in quite a mixed message, considering his portrayal of war.

I could not believe the film was shot in 1929 - the intensity of visuals is unbelievable - those bold impressionist images, long stills, lingering on the villages torn apart by war (so reminiscent of tarkovsky's style who has always highly regarded dovzhenko for his poetic pantheism in portrayal of nature) and then hyperkinetic cuts of action sequences (an unforgettable train ride or attack scenes). the fascination with machinery goes back once again to the mood of the times, and the stark visuals, the juxtaposition of man-machine often bears a photographic quality.

the range of emotions portrayed in ARSENAL is extraordinary - from gentle humor, to utter realism, from poetic minimalism to heated fight episodes, from pastoral serenity to incredible violence in industrial settings.

I often envy those times, since it was the beginning of the exponential curve of art evolution, when there was still so much to try, so much has not yet been "claimed" in terms of innovation. I am continuously fascinated by the artistic thought behind every original idea, and in case of ARSENAL this is an incredibly gratifying experience, as one recognizes the elements used again and again later on (and even nowadays). dovzhenko was truly a poet - his pathos and romanticism are genuine, they come across as a part of a complex aesthetic. what today might have been perceived as a "classic" arthouse cinema example with all its flaws and merits, back in 1929 was a landmark of filmmaking, and it is truly a remarkable experience to be able to place it in that context while watching it on a newly restored 35mm print.

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