May 18, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal

Arsenal. 1929. USSR. Written, directed, and edited by Alexander Dovzhenko

Arsenal. 1929. USSR. Written, directed, and edited by Alexander Dovzhenko

These notes accompany the screening of </i>Arsenal, May 19, 20, and 21 in Theater 3.</p>

The triumvirate of great silent Soviet narrative directors is completed by Alexander Dovzhenko (1894–1956). Unlike the other two, Sergei Eisenstein and V. I. Pudovkin, Dovzhenko was Ukrainian and worked mostly in Odessa and Kiev, which allowed him a bit more freedom as he wasn’t constantly under Stalin’s nose in Moscow. Like his esteemed contemporaries, he left behind extensive writings on the cinema. His concern for peasants, a group to which his illiterate father belonged, led him away from urban settings and promoted a lyrical and poetic depiction of Nature. His great rural trilogy (Arsenal in 1929, Zemlya [Earth] in 1930, and Ivan in 1932) seems to move beyond the immediate political concerns of the Revolution into a personal and emotional realm; feeling triumphs over agitprop.

Arsenal is, of course, first and foremost, a war picture, dealing with the civil strife following the overthrow of the Czar. In keeping with his conception of cinema as poetry, Dovzhenko developed a unique style replete with symbols, metaphors, and poetic intertitles, somewhat removed from the conventions of cinematic narrative—even those pioneered by other Soviet filmmakers. The screenwriter John Howard Lawson, a member of the Hollywood Ten, said that, “No film artist has ever surpassed Dovzhenko in establishing an intimate human connection between images that have no plot relationship.” (Lawson, who went to prison in 1948 for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ Hollywood witch hunt, made several films before and during World War II that would later be viewed as pro-Communist propaganda—although he had been nominated for an Oscar for one of them.)

When my friend Sonia Volochova died in 1980, I included a Dovzhenko clip among the films shown at her private memorial here at the Museum. Sonia, a refugee from the Revolution, was neither a peasant nor a Bolshevik, but she had a great passion for and encyclopedic knowledge of Soviet film. Although we never discussed it specifically, I suspected that Dovzhenko would have been her ideal, someone for whom politics was secondary to art and life.

Dovzhenko was no stranger to perseverance against a rising tide of bitter disappointment, a condition endemic to those who carried the Soviet banner. He was able to make only a few sound films (although Ivan, Aerograd, and Shchors can certainly be viewed as major achievements, even if they were not up to the standards of Arsenal and Zemlya) before finally succumbing to the heart ailment that had kept him out of World War I. The beauty of his films belies his lament: “I often think of how my life has been wasted.”