#171 (tie) – Earth (1930), dir. Aleksander Dovzhenko

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This land is our land. Agrarian subject matter, striking closeups, and beautiful photography combine with Soviet ideology in the visual verse of Aleksander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930)

Get ready for some hot agricultural action! Earth (Zemlya, 1930), like many films coming out of the early days of the Soviet Union, is unabashedly a piece of communist propaganda. While Battleship Potemkin and Man With a Movie Camera tackled the military and urban life in their paeans to the Soviet state, Earth turns its attention to agrarian society as it looks to promote the collectivization of farms. And so, a community of poor, hardworking farmers are pitted against greedy yeomen who try to control the land and its agricultural wealth while being supported by sadistic clerics. It’s a heady collection of themes that the movie attempts to address in its relatively short running time — collectivism, the promise of technology, sex, class struggle, the existence/relevance of God, generational conflict — and it does so through the simple story of a young man who pushes for collectivism and the use of technology, only to be killed by the landed classes. The young man’s father, initially dubious of his son’s communist fervor, takes up the cause after the murder and unites the village under the banner of advancement through socialism. And fortunately Earth boasts some astounding cinematography as a spoonful of sugar to help the bourgeois oppressors fall down. (69 min.)

J. – OK, I may as well get my one real gripe with this film out of the way first, because there was quite a bit to appreciate in Earth and I don’t want to dwell on the negatives. So here it goes: sometimes I was confused.

I in no way demand that a film spell everything out. Indeed, I typically loathe it when a movie does so, but I felt like there were times when Earth just did not make its intentions and plotting clear enough. Certainly, it presents an extra challenge within silent cinema to make things clear without resorting to a barrage of intertitles, but the best silent films we have seen so far have managed to do so quite excellently. Heck, The Last Laugh had no dialogue intertitles whatsoever and still managed to be clear and compelling. About halfway through Earth I thought I had finally worked everything out concerning the plot and the motivations of the different characters, but I lost a few threads again during the final montage surrounding the funeral. Certain aspects were clear enough and the emotional punch of the different strands was quite vivid, but I was unable to unpack what Dovzhenko was trying to say by the naked wailing of the dead hero’s fiancé or by the woman who went into labor while crossing herself as the funeral procession went by. The ending was overstuffed with symbolism and powerful imagery and emotion, and managed to cut among (I think) five different narrative threads — but I didn’t really grasp two of the five.

S. – I was astounded by the passion of this film, I felt smacked in the face by it. The Soviet films we have seen have a distinctive energy to them that is rousing but in this case also unsettling. Earth is soaked in purpose, it wasn’t created for entertainment but rather to educate and inspire the watcher to embrace the “new ways”. That’s not to imply that it lacked entertainment value, it is a compelling film packed with activity. There are good guys and bad guys all interspersed among some stunning scenery and creatively constructed sequences that are mesmerising at times. But it was confusing. It is hard to believe that the rapid cutting between characters through the climatic funeral procession was random but the nuances of the message went over my head. I have read the movie described as a poetic film and given the glorious visuals, the intense characters and my inability to fully grasp what is going on that seems like an appropriate description.

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Dovzhenko’s visual poignancy elevates scenes like a critical funeral procession to poetic levels of metaphor and beauty. But at least to us, there was a cryptic element that was difficult to overcome in places.

J. – It is certainly a poetic film, although I’m not willing to give it that credit because of our befuddlement. I don’t think I would have minded the confusion had it not been a propaganda film. Movies with a political/social message or directive pretty much by definition need to be clear, so either this represents a failure on the filmmakers’ part or (and this is perhaps more likely) you and I just don’t know the cultural cues that would have made things obvious to a Ukrainian viewer. I hate to think that I was missing out due to ignorance.

But back to the poetry. Earth absolutely is a visual poem. In many ways it felt like a Soviet peasant version of The Passion of Joan of Arc, with its heavy use of close ups and the intense examination of emotion in actors’ faces. It even frequently mirrored the austere staging of Joan, but instead of using whitewashed walls the camera frequently was angled upward to place the actors in front of a swath of sky. It was a very powerful effect, and made man and beast alike seem like towering figures of power, almost like colossal statues — a perfect way to idolize the common laborer in a communist system. By using the sky as a backdrop it also drove home the connection of the people to the natural world. Very few scenes are shot indoors, and the photography of the fields, the clouds, and agricultural products is exquisite — Wordsworth on celluloid. Earth certainly earned its title.

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The characters in Earth are frequently shot from low angles, making them majestically tower over the viewer. Even the livestock gets in on the act, as there are numerous scenes in which the animals seem as expectant and keyed in as their owners.

S. – I was also reminded of Joan during the film for the reason you mentioned, although at times the repetitious flickering between faces gave it the feel of a creepy carnival ride where you can’t get off. The outdoor cinematography was the outstanding element of Earth for me, the lush bucolic scenes shot from angles that seemed to weave the labourers into the landscape. It was clear to see that these people toil in harmony with the land bringing out the best it has to offer. Some of the imagery could have come directly from 17th century oil paintings with the abundance of billowing cloudy skies and fertile fields. Yet even these calm scenes still had energy and movement to them, a sense of industry pervaded. This film is beautifully shot.

I thought it was interesting how youth was used in the film to symbolise the positive change that was coming. Some of the older people in the film were demonised (priest), others are portrayed as superstitious or quaint but no longer useful. The youth are strong, healthy and sure that change in the form of modern technology is needed. The moral focus is a middle-aged man who first is dubious of his vibrant son’s insistence on change but eventually sees the error of his ways. However, once again a martyr is required to galvanise the people.

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Even with the somewhat poor quality copy of the film that we watched, the painterly composition and feel of Earth‘s visuals remained striking in the extreme. The long shots of the fields, orchards, and roads are generally exquisite and often rather unorthodox in their framing.

J. – I do rather like how a line was drawn early on between the young and the old only to have that divide be largely eradicated through the “martyrdom” of Vassily (the anti-communist holdouts are all bad guys). But before that happens the combination of youth and industry you mention is really what prompted me to write the ridiculous sentence that starts this yammer. The intense buildup to the community receiving its first (state-issued) tractor turns into pretty much an orgy of farming and bread production all made possible by the miracle of modern technology. And I use orgy quite deliberately, the frantic cutting within the farming montage cuts back between smiling strong jawed men, pumping machinery, plowed furrows, the bare legs of the farm girls really sexualizes the whole enterprise. (Or am I reading way too much into this?) Of course it then turns into a glorification of industrial production that may be dynamically shot and cut together, but still tends to remind one of the educational film strips from the 1950s. (Communism, whatcha expect?)

You mentioned above the demonization of the spiteful priest, but you also made the excellent point right after we watched the film that the newly empowered farmers, spurred on by Vassily’s death, act rather like a religious cult themselves. How effective did you find that to be?

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What’s so cultish about people singing?

S. – There is a sense of trading one religion for another with a charismatic leader championing a new way to live to the masses. The cultish vibe is reinforced by the enlightened youth frequently filmed as a cluster of healthy, tanned, smiling faces all dressed alike and all having an awesome time working together in the fields. There is no sense of the individual among the followers. I also found the premise that new technology as the answer to overcoming the labourers hardships incredibly naive, I mean wouldn’t it put a lot of them out of work? The very work they identify so strongly with! No doubt it is my cynical Western mind warping the ideals of this rural community that is to blame. I’m sure they all lived happily ever after. I did enjoy the early 20th century display of atheism though, there isn’t enough of that in the movies, but I shall resist buying tractor shares anytime soon.

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Oh… yeah… that is rather cultish.

J. – I don’t think a tractor is going to put them out of work, it should boost their productivity. But yeah, the overwhelming faith that Soviet leaders had in the power of technology to do away with the ills of man was very naive, or at least a few centuries too early. So the birth of a new secular religion as shown in Earth seems singularly appropriate. But more importantly it added a measure of soaring resolve to the ending that played nicely as a juxtaposition to the elements within the village who were being driven insane by clinging to the past. I love that the mourners don’t even acknowledge the crazed confession of the murderer; they are beyond feeling threatened by the landed classes and all the former traditions. So even if elements confused me, the ending (and indeed the whole movie) was very satisfying and rose well above its propagandistic intentions.

I notice the sarcasm dripping from your “happily ever after”, and certainly the collectivism advocated by this movie was utterly disastrous and led to the deaths of many thousands. But the horrible, totalitarian policies of Stalin’s regime were also to have a profoundly debilitating effect on the arts. There are 19 silent films on the Sight & Sound list and three of them — including the #8 and #11 films — are from the Soviet Union. Between 1931 and 1965 (a total of 127 films) there is just one Russian movie. From innovators to also-rans in the span of one autocrat; it’s a trend we are going to see again soon.

Related yammers:
#11 – Battleship Potemkin (1925), dir. Sergei Eisenstein
#9 – The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
#183 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940), dir. John Ford
#8 – Man With a Movie Camera (1929), dir. Dziga Vertov
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