Arsenal (Aleksandr Dovzhenko / Soviet Union, 1929):

Like Rousseau or Malick, Aleksandr Dovzhenko sees war as a disfiguring intrusion into Nature, in the opening shot he sketches a landscape in silhouette (tree stump, barbed wire, heavy gray sky) and then blows it up. The structure is symphonic, but symphonic in the way Stravinsky is symphonic, with jabbing, disparate notes moved about and linked in the viewer’s eye. The stupefying first half kicks off in 1918, men march and collapse in the front (mist creeps over the trenches, or is it artillery smoke?), back home in the village a bereft matriarch stands in the center of the frame, still and contorted like a scarecrow. Horses speak up in a Gogolesque vision, the Tsar jots down absurdities: "Today I shot a crow." An emaciated peasant keels over in the fields, then a thoughtful pause before the stark punchline: "Splendid weather." Helmets obscure the faces of soldiers, once removed they reveal the maniacal laughter of the dying and the frozen grimace of the dead, assuredly a bedrock for Klimov's Come and See. Keaton figures in the Train of Revolution, canted angles send the locomotive rushing diagonally across the screen while accelerating editing visualizes each doomed heartbeat on board, the brakeless ride concludes on a discarded accordion slithering over the wreckage. The second half pivots on the collision of Ukrainian nationalism and Soviet power, most evocatively on the glance of weary suspicion cast by Tymish the munitions worker (Semyon Svashenko). The Reds and the Whites, the Kiev strike, massacres and executions, religious processions with serpentine banners and mighty, bushy mustaches in extreme close-up. Amid all the montage madness, a dash of depth-of-field lyricism as a fallen comrade is rushed to be buried in the snow. In this work of a thousand images, which blends the historical and the mythical along with the raw and the formalized, Dovzhenko is a good two or three decades ahead of just about everyone else. James Joyce’s "bulletproof dress" is absorbed into the final parable, Earth resumes the elegy. Cinematography by Daniil Demutsky. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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