Earth (Zemlya)

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Produced in 1929 and released in 1930, Earth is a Soviet silent film directed by Alexander Dovzhenko. It was the third film in his ‘Ukraine triology’, following Zvenigora and Arsenal.

Earth was made at a time of great change in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s rise to power and the end of the Lenin’s New Economic Policy. In late Tsarist times peasants had been allowed to own private land and following the Revolution many Ukrainians wanted to keep their farms, particularly the more affluent Kulaks. This was tolerated by the Soviet government until low grain production lead to food shortages in the cities. Collectivisation of farms was imposed in the late twenties, Stalin declaring his intent to smash the ‘Kulak class’. This lead to revolt and attacks on soviet officials by more militant peasants.

Dovzhenko’s film is a poetic and romanticised depiction of the lives of Ukrainian farmers. Despite having impressed with his first two films, Soviet officials deemed Earth unsuitable and subsequently censored it heavily. To the untrained eye such as mine, the film’s message seems ambiguous at best and certainly not favourable to the Kulaks. Perhaps it wasn’t sufficiently in keeping with the socialist realism of the time. Regardless, Dovzhenko took the criticism to heart, leading to long term self-censorship and short term a jaunt around Europe, similar to his contemporary Eisenstein.

The film focuses on Vasyl (Basil), his family and friends. They discuss the coming collectivisation and there is much joy when the village gets a tractor, making their labours easier. Meanwhile, the nearby Kulaks vigorously object to the imminent changes. Seemingly thrilled with the new-found efficiency brought by the ‘iron horse of Bolshevism’, Vasyl dances a merry jig at night and is killed by a mystery figure, later revealed to be a Kulak.

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Vasyl’s father rejects the overtures of the local priest, calling for the young folk to bury his son in a new way and ‘to sing new songs about the new life!’ The irate clergyman spends his time cursing the locals whilst the guilty Kulak’s feisty confession is ignored by the villagers. Vasyl is lauded and his family assured that his ‘fame will fly around the entire world’ like a Bolshevik aeroplane.

The film is visually striking with fabulous shots of cornfields blowing in the wind, hard soil and ripe apples in the orchard. At times it’s languid and dreamy, with the soft focus of old black and white movies framing long shots of old men, fruit and babies. Clever edits splice animals and humans together mimicking each other’s postures and there is much mirth when the tractor breaks and the men heroically and pragmatically piss in the radiator.

The film was voted one of the greatest movies of all time by film historians at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and was named one of the top ten greatest films of all time by the International Film Critics Symposium. Worth a look if you like Soviet art history or just old cinema in general.

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Zemlya (Earth)
Directed by: Alexander Dovzhenko

I watched Earth at Liverpool Small Cinema 🙂

 

 

There is no God.
And there are no priests either.
Im asking you, just like Vasili died for the new life,
I’m asking you, to bury him according to the new ways…
Neither priests nor church servants beyond the grave…
It has to be our boys and girls themselves…
And they are to sing new songs about the new life!

Father Opanas, Vasili’s father (Zemelya)

Further reading

I don’t know who wrote it but here is an essay about the film:
Philosophy, Iconology, Collectivization: Earth (1930)

Watch online

You can watch the entire film free on YouTube:

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