Monday, September 26, 2011

A Ukrainian Alamo

"But you are Ukrainian aren't you?" "Yes, [but] a worker."

Without commentary from Vance Kepley, noted film historian, Alexander Dovzhenko's Arsenal, a film that depicts a heroic encounter between doomed Bolsheviks and their Ukrainian nationalist opponents, is a difficult film. Created in honor of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Dovzhenko's silent film--which Kepley tells us met with critical acclaim despite its sometimes bleakly neutral depiction of the human cost of civil war--intentionally departs from conventional narrative film-making strategies in favor of allusion, ellipse, and montage. The film has a proletarian hero, Timosh, who realizes that the Bolshevik Party is his friend and soon decides to help that cause. But Dovzhenko often strays from that hero's journey of understanding in favor of interesting if confusing visual and narrative digressions.

The film's story isn't impossible understand. Dovzhenko, who originally supported the nationalist cause, explains the Bolshevik cause in the following way: World War I decimated the country--wounding or killing millions--and clarified the class warfare that pitted peasants, proletarians, and ordinary soldiers against tsars, officers, churchmen, and the bourgeoisie. (In one scene, the director contrasts the difficult life of a munitions worker with the frivolity of Nicholas I who, notwithstanding his supreme authority, is lazily writing in his journal: "Today I show a crow.") After the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Ukrainian nationalist party cynically attempted to use national and religious sentiment to prop up a regime of bourgeois exploitation. Finally, the workers--led by party workers and proletarian martyrs like Timosh--take a stand against capitalism's apologists and die in the process, only a short while before red partisans might have come to their rescue.

Dovzchenko's artistic vision fell into disfavor soon after this film. Vance Kepley reminds us that his next film, Earth, was harshly critiqued for ideological and aesthetic reasons. Who could ever hope to keep up with the Party's erratically shifting positions? Neither its political message, not its non-narrative style, were quite correct in the context of unmitigated Stalinism.

But even in this film Dovchenko's propaganda film featured some moral ambiguity. One understands from this film that revolution is made from the ground up. It's not party leaders that play a part in Red Ukraine's Alamo. Indeed, none of the Party's leaders warrants even a cameo in this film. Moreover, war, and the Civil War in particular, has obviously destroyed men and women, despite the Red Victory. Men are maimed, machinery falls into disuse, women are listless, and the economy in general is clearly decimated. Kepley tells us that this lack of clarity may mirror the political history of Dovchenko and countless other Ukrainians, who vacillated and switched sides in the shifting and chaotic political landscape that emerged at the end of the First World War.

The film's mythical was more acceptable to the Bolsheviks. The worker hero Timosh takes on the marauding nationalists and, echoing Cossack folklore of the seventeenth century, the bullets bounce off his chest.

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