Russian films of cinema’s early history were commissioned for very particular purposes at the hands of politically charged filmmakers and politically motivated backers. But beneath the usual cacophony of manifestos, propaganda, and revolution, Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth emerges and may outlive its revolutionary counterparts of this idiosyncratic epoch.
Earth, as with the case of its comrades, is shrouded in political ideology. The surface depicts the transformation of a once peaceful countryside through the struggle between Kulaks and oncoming collectivism, the depth is the Soviet regime’s desire to encourage collectivisation against private ownership.
Admittedly, this sounds rather unappetising.
But Earth earned itself many long standing high accolades, including a place as one of the twelve greatest films voted by a group of historians during the 1958 Brussels World Fair, and reportedly became one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s favourite movies. This latter accolade is rather interesting as Tarkovsky and Dovzhenko are somewhat reflected in one another.
Both filmmakers indulged in deep intellectual issues or situations, but rationalised them spiritually to create a cinematic experience beyond logic or ephemeral changes of politics. (Also, both are linked by the film school VGIK, one of the oldest and most illustriously populated). In Earth, Dovzhenko liberates his picture from the constraints of ideological propaganda to create something intensely cinematic.
Perhaps this film is so absorbing and honest due to two defining moments in Dovzhenko’s life. The first is his humble origin to a farming family, and the second is his studies in painting prior to turning his attention to cinema in 1926. Earth is therefore decorated with a deep regard for nature and captured in the eye of a landscape artist. Fields of long grass roll like waves in the wind and the harvest is an ultimate triumph.
Dovzhenko imbues these moments with a spirituality, as with the opening, a dying man rests beneath the gentle shade of tree and spends his last breaths indulging in the sweetness of a peach. These moments smack of a prototypical Terrence Malik, and it is refreshing to see vignettes of an unexplored Russia elevated from the black and white of politics.
However, the subject was intensely monochrome for the Soviet regime.
In theory, collectivisation was a plan to vibrate the poor from their oppressors and jumpstart a large scale industrialisation to fuel a Bolshevik economy. These oppressors were Kulaks, originally defined as affluent farmers who had ascended from peasantry. However, when Stalin took power, this definition extended to peasants with a few more cows or acres than their neighbours.
The reality of the plan liquidated the Kulak class by the thousands. Those who escaped murder by the bullet, faced slower extermination in labor camps. Earth balanced on the precipice of these events and was commissioned by Stalin to orchestrate an ode to the wonders of collective agriculture, but instead, Dovzhenko produced a hymnal to Mother Nature and the innocents toiling in her heart.
Earth first premiered in Kharkiv and received a standing ovation. This was the last of its praise. Soviet journalists labeled it ‘ideologically vicious’ and a waste of public funds. Communist artist Demyan Bedny called it ‘defeatist’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ and later satirised it for Izvestia, stating the film naively took a philosophical attitude towards political reality.
But this is the very reason why Earth will survive. Politics are an ever shifting base, instead of precariously balancing on this, Earth takes a stance on unshakeable ground by exploring people, not puppets. And as the location is so natural, and not obsessed with choked factories, it becomes an almost mythical experience with the expertise of a Russian Montage expert. One very intriguing sequence combines a slighted reverend, a funeral march with a guilt stricken assassin, and a wife crying in desperation. There is a resonance in the combination of these images with a purpose deeper than igniting revolutionary flare.
Earth may have intended to be a status update on politics, but instead it is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth for ordinary citizens. Dovzhenko would not see praise for his picture for many years and instead fled to the Ukraine on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, Earth experienced a much deserved rebirth.
Far off in the distance – an ill defined shape emerges on the horizon. All the inhabitants of the agriculture acreage amass. Some shout in triumph ‘It’s stopped!’, others in anguish ‘it’s moving!’. As it approaches, it becomes clear it is the sign of collectivism – the tractor. Purchased by the workers, it will bring an end to the Kulak rule.