By Louis Bayman
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Zvenigora / Arsenal

This article is over 10 years, 10 months old
Director Alexander Dovzhenko. Out now, £12.99
Issue 356

Two key works of Soviet cinema are newly available with the DVD release of Zvenigora and Arsenal. They are the fruit of silent cinema’s final maturity before an imminent eclipse ushered in by the talkies and (with graver finality) Stalinism.

Zvenigora and Arsenal are the first two of Alexander Dovzhenko’s trilogy about his native Ukraine. Ukraine was hard won by the Bolsheviks, having been subjugated by the Russian Empire. It was a bitter stage to the civil war and subject to grain requisitioning to feed the distant revolutionary centres of Moscow and St Petersburg.

In the mountain of Zvenigora treasure is hidden deep below ground. An unusual way to exhort workers to the barricades, the legend of the treasure inserts a sense of eternal peasant tradition and raises the question of who enjoys the earth’s wealth. A self-styled “cinematic poem”, the film’s images are emblems of suffering and defiance that recall religious iconography to create a fantastical experience in tune with popular peasant culture.

But decisive in historical change are electrification and industrial production. The climactic moments of the film lie in the disorienting rush of a dizzying and overwhelming modernity. Iron girders are rarely thought the stuff of cinema (and odes to tractors were to become the parody of Communist propaganda) but the new powers, social relations and experiences of life brought about by technological advance were central concerns of European modernism.

Superimpositions of steel structures and rapid cuts edit together an array of perspectives at breakneck speed. This tumbling clash of images is known as montage editing, which for Soviet filmmakers captured the dynamics of social change. Meaning comes from the collision of opposing forces, and not from objects in isolation.

This is intellectually Marxist, and yet montage is an incredibly exciting form of filmmaking. Now used by advertisers and Hollywood blockbusters, in the hands of Soviet filmmakers it was a revolutionary cinematic experience.

The artist’s eye of Dovzhenko combines multiple styles – folkloric and iconic emblems, striking imagery and montage’s re-creation of capitalism’s rush towards its own overthrow. These reach perfect unity in Arsenal, in which the smoke and fury of war’s explosions occur amid the clamour of counterrevolutionary pretenders to power in civil war Ukraine. This is not the action cinema of Rambo or Terminator that modern audiences are used to. Here the muscularity is that of a class of workers made powerful by their very conditions of exploitation – conditions which the mass movement will in turn smash.

Together the films show revolution as a process that flows from the immense disorder that capitalism unleashes. Whether in representing magical fantasy or the rapidly advancing structures of mass industry, the films illustrate power and the fact that workers’ endurance holds the balance between catastrophic defeat and the victorious progression of humanity.

They are at odds with the perverted appropriation of the word “revolution” by 2004’s US-organised coup in Ukraine, but not its rescue in the streets of Egypt. In Arsenal power is a question decided within the army, as the very bullets that fly from a firing squad’s rifles towards a Bolshevik soldier refuse to hit their mark. The speed of historical change means that when you read this anything I write now about North Africa will be outdated; but what remains is that there, as in the work of Dovzhenko, the forces of class and revolution are those that move history.

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