Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Arsenal (1929)
Episode 1

Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929) is one of the great classics of Soviet avant-garde cinema, and perhaps the most candid depiction of the violent struggles in Ukraine one hundred years ago. It tells the story of the Kyiv Arsenal Uprising of 1918, when workers rebelled in support of the Bolsheviks and against the Central Council of Ukraine. Dovzhenko himself fought as a soldier on the government’s side, and his film is not at all heroic. Soviet critics accused him of pursuing a nationalist agenda. From the Ukrainian side, Dovzhenko was later seen as having tragically yielded to a pro-Moscow narrative of the so-called Civil War, in which the brave Bolsheviks are always in the right. The director’s position was more complex. He meditates on the constant eroticization of violence and the seductive and toxic sweetness of revenge. The film’s first episode shows the effects of World War I in Galicia and Ukraine, with Austrians and Germans (and not like now, Russians) playing the role of imperial occupiers. This part of Arsenal is famous for a gas attack scene, in which a soldier’s agony appears as a strange and uncanny form of pleasure. Today, Dovzhenko’s film reads like a prophecy of the violence in current Ukraine, which replays all the elements of older wars: starvation, sexual assault, meaningless battles, and the fear of chemical attacks.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko (1894, Sosnytsia, Russian Empire [present-day Ukraine]–1956, Moscow, Soviet Union) was a Ukrainian Soviet screenwriter, film producer, and director considered to be one of the pioneers of Soviet cinema. His Ukrainian trilogy Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930) is well-known for its candid depictions of war and hunger. His work was heavily criticized and accused of Ukrainian nationalism by Joseph Stalin and his associates. Following two further films made in the 1930s and 40s, Dovzhenko quit filmmaking and wrote novels. At the end of his life, he became a mentor to younger Ukrainian Soviet filmmakers Larisa Shepitko and Sergei Parajanov. He made only seven films in total.

HD video, excerpt: 17 min. (full length: 93 min.)

VUFKU (Odesa)
Director, script: Oleksandr Dovzhenko
Cinematography: Danylo Demutskyi
Scenery: Volodymyr Miuller, Yosyp Shpinel