Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Cast: Stepan Shkurat, Semyon Svashenko, Yuliya Solntseva
Synopsis: In the peaceful countryside, Vassily opposes the rich kulaks over the coming of collective farming.
Oh, those Russians — the filmmakers of the silent Russian cinema weren’t quite as dour as they’re sometimes painted, but Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s films lacked humour or warmth of any description and sitting through Earth (Zemlya) is almost like watching one of those comedy sketches that pokes fun at this kind of thing. It opens with an extended scene in an orchard in which an old man announces he is dying. Everyone stands around looking glum. The old man looks glum for ten seconds, and then we cut to a middle-aged peasant who looks glum for ten seconds. Then we cut to a peasant woman looking glum for, oh, ten seconds I’d say. Then we see a young peasant smiling enigmatically. Then back to the old man while he chews on an apple for a spell before returning to his dying plan. The old man dies. Ten seconds. Ten seconds. Ten seconds. “He liked pears,” says the young peasant.
Although Earth was released in 1930, the Soviet Union was still technologically adrift of the rest of Europe and the United States, and so the film is silent. Visually, it’s very strong and unhindered by the constraints of sound that so badly affected the cinematographers of the day. Dovzhenko and his cinematographer Daniil Demutski intersperse static contemplations of immobile ruddy peasant faces with romanticised images of the wind playing upon rolling fields of wheat, and of plump fruit straining the boughs on which they grow. Some of the images are really quite striking and are complemented by editing which sometimes expresses the emotions of the characters more succinctly than the characters themselves.
The problem is it’s all so dull and gloomy. Retrospective knowledge of the way the dreams and spirit of these people will ultimately be crushed by Joe Stalin means that the film’s high moments — the triumphal arrival in the village of a tractor thanks to the unorthodox collective effort of its menfolk, and a villager’s exuberant dance through a sleeping village — are tinged with a melancholia from which the film finds it impossible to free itself. And those lighter moments are few and far between as it is; most of the time we’re subjected to endless shots of people staring morosely at the camera or at one another, or reciting Communist propaganda. The plot, such as it is, serves purely as a none-too-subtle allegory both for the Revolution itself and the technological means which must be adopted if the (state imposed) collective plans are to be realised and surpassed, which means it’s loaded with a symbolism which the filmmakers felt had to be over-emphasised if it was to be received intact.
(Reviewed 27th August 2014)