Revolutions do more than smash the old order, they transform culture and change the way we look at the world.
Nowhere was this truer than in Russia after 1917.
In the years after the revolution, avant-garde artists put their skills to producing everything from propaganda posters to sculpture and opera—all celebrating the new possibilities.
The revolution particularly flourished in film.
Alexander Dovzhenko was a poet and artist from the Ukraine, which became part of the new Soviet republic.
Alongside directors like Sergei Eisenstein, Dovzhenko is an early master of Soviet cinema.
In film he saw the potential to tell stories of the old world that had died, and the new one still struggling to be born, to a largely illiterate population.
War and revolution form the backdrop to his silent Ukrainian trilogy. Completed in 1929, the way they were filmed—and in particular, the way they were edited—were as exciting and new as the era they were made in.
Arsenal, to my mind, is the most powerful of the three.
In it, Tymish, a disenchanted soldier, returns to Kiev from the trenches of the First World War. He was witnessed senseless barbarity at very close quarters.
Dovzhenko’s depiction of a poison gas attack is particularly harrowing.
It cuts quickly between the twisted face of a soldier laughing as he suffocates, and officers pointing their pistols at those who refuse to fight.
This “montage” method of editing was designed to help audiences combine two different narratives, creating in their minds a “third story” that mingled with their own experiences.
The drama develops as news of the Russian Revolution sweeps the Ukraine, and Kiev becomes a battleground.
The more Tymish is exposed to the barbarity of the old order, the closer he moves to the Bolsheviks.
Eventually we find him and a small group of comrades holed up in a munitions factory—surrounded by the advancing counter revolutionary White Armies.
Will they survive to drive the revolution forward? You’ll have to watch to find out.
The Ukrainian trilogy: Earth, Zvenigora, Arsenal
Directed by Alexander Dovzhenko
DVDs from Mr Bongo films, £17.99
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