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ARSENAL

Review by Ed Ngyuen

Stars: Semyon Svashenko, Amvrosi Buchma, Georgi Khorkov, Dmitri Erdman  
Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Audio: Mono
Subtitles: Russian intertitles with English subtitles
Video: full-frame, Black & White, non-anamorphic
Studio: Image Entertainment
Features: feature-length commentary track
Length: 73 minutes
Release Date: February 11, 2003
 
"And the whole army shot at him, but the bullets bounced off of him as if off a cast-iron slab." - Ukrainian folklore
 
Film ***
 
In this modern motion picture era of mindless action sequences, CGI effects, and booming Dolby 5.1 sound effects, it is nice to know that some people still care about films from an earlier age in cinema.  The people at Image Entertainment are such folks, and they have reached deep into their film vaults to bring back a forgotten masterwork from the silent era: Arsenal (a.k.a. January Uprising in Kiev in 1918).  The film's director, Aleksandr Dovzhenko (1894-1956), was a Ukrainian and a contemporary of such great Soviet film directors as Sergei Eisenstein and V.I. Pudovkin.  Like his compatriots, he was an acknowledged master of montage (thematic editing).  However, Dovzhenko is hardly remembered at all today beyond the world of film school classes.  Nonetheless, his artistry and cinematic vision have continued to influence many later Soviet directors, including Andrei Tarkosvky (Solaris).
 
Arsenal (1928) is one of Dovzhenko's earlier works and was made towards the end of the silent era.  It was a remarkable film in its day for the boldness of its experimental montage and symbolism.  The film depicts an actual incident that occurred in Ukraine during the Bolshevik revolution.  With the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, civil war broke out in Ukraine between two main opposing factors.  Nationalists wanted an independent Ukraine free from Russian rule, while Ukrainian Bolsheviks favored a re-unification with the new Russia.  One conflict that arose during this civil war involved a munitions factory in Kiev.  Arsenal focuses upon this conflict, in which Ukrainian Bolsheviks seized control of the munitions factory but were ultimately defeated by the Nationalists.
 
From history, we know that the Bolsheviks were the eventual victors, and Ukraine did indeed re-join the new Soviet Republic.  Arsenal, then, is about a Soviet Alamo, where the battle is lost but the cause prevails.  As with many Russian films of this period, Arsenal is a decidedly political film (Dovzhenko was commissioned to create this film for a 10th year anniversary of the revolution).  Though the film does not have a true central protagonist, one recurring soldier comes to embody the undying spirit of the Bolshevik revolution by the film's conclusion.
 
Arsenal is highly abstract at times and uses a lot of cinematic metaphors to communicate its themes.  At the beginning, we see a war-ravaged Ukraine, its people dispirited and desperate.  Peasants beat their horses in frustration, and soldiers laugh while they slowly die.  All the while the Russian czar writes meaningless diary entries about the nice weather, so far removed is he from his people's suffering.  Deserters from the Russian army travel through the Ukraine via train, encountering hostile revolutionaries along the way.  It is a harbinger of things to come.  We are witness to a horrible accident when the train crashes in an impressive montage sequence.  Out of the wreckage, one soldier has survived.  We follow this soldier, who identifies himself as a worker, as he wanders, first to a Nationalist parade then as he observes an inaugural Congress for Ukraine.  The meeting does not go well, and the soldier departs angrily, amassing about himself a band of working-class supporters.  These partisans eventually march to the munitions factory in Kiev, where they unite with strikers to seize the factory for the working class.  By now, the film suggests that the soldier symbolizes a Bolshevik ideal, and his continual referral to himself as a worker stresses this point.  Scenes of civilian death and suffering ensue in the midst of a Nationalist siege upon the factory.  There is a stunningly-edited horse race that serves as a metaphor for the Russian army as it races in a futile effort to liberate the factory in time. 

Inevitably, the film concludes as the Nationalist army storms the munitions factory, killing all the Bolsheviks, save for our one soldier.  Thus, Dovzhenko, who was initially a Nationalist but eventually became a Bolshevik, ends the film on a note of hope - that the Bolshevik ideal could not be destroyed.

 
Video ** 1/2
 
For a film well over 70 years old, the image holds up fairly well.  Dust and scratch marks do appear throughout the film but are not a great distraction.  The image also remains clear and is nicely detailed in many shots.  This will be a relief to silent film fans who all too often must tolerate the dark-blotches-in-motion that define many silent film images.  While the video presentation cannot begin to compare with that of recent films, it is acceptable enough for a silent film.
 
Audio **
 
An orchestral score accompanies this silent film, and it is quite effective.  The score complements the action and emotion of the imagery very well.  However, the audio is monophonic.  Furthermore, the sound quality is somewhat thin at times, especially during the Congress and rally sequences.  Suffice it to say that your speakers will not be given a strenuous work-out.  Still, the audio is sufficient if not very impressive.
 
Features *** 1/2
 
Unfortunately, there is only one extra.  Fortunately, it is an excellent feature-length commentary track by film historian Vance Kepley, author of In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko. Mr. Kepley is quite an authority on the director, and his commentary provides a lot of background information that helps us to understand the background for the film.  This is often quite invaluable because Arsenal was an avant-garde film for its time and remains quite obtuse today if the viewer is not somewhat familiar with Soviet history.
 
Summary
 
Arsenal, along with Earth (1930), represents the peak of Dovzhenko's achievements as a director.  Silent film fans can cheer because Image Entertainment has done a solid job here.  Appreciating Arsenal to its fullest may require some concentration, but viewers who make the effort will be rewarded with the satisfaction of having experienced a masterwork long out of circulation.