Category Archives: Russian film

Earth – the weirdly compelling silent classic

dovzhenko earth fruitLast night I watched Earth, a Russian silent film that appears on many lists of the all time greatest movies.  When I read that this film, by the Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko, was about the Russian Revolution, I envisioned a film full of action and Russian humor.  Earth is not that.  Earth is, though, strangely fascinating;  I haven’t seen anything remotely like it before.  It’s like a slowly unfolding, beautiful dream with lingering closeups of faces, bodies, machinery, wheat in many stages of use, fruit, horses, cows, and, yet again, faces.  Horses and cows square off.  Horses race away.  Couples stare at the sky.

dovzhenko earth horsesThe storyline is almost like a joke; at first, I was reminded of that early SNL skit, Bad Playhouse, with Ackroyd’s Leonard Pith-Garnell.  Earth displays a ponderous seriousness about, of all things, the arrival of a tractor in rural Russia. I laughed for about a minute and then found myself sucked in to the point where I was unwilling to stop staring long enough to reach for a glass.  What the hell is this? I kept wondering. Why?  What does it mean?  And the film kept defying my attempts to categorize or historicize it.  It became for me an almost hypnotic series of images, even while I would comprehend that I was seeing Russian peasants, Russian farmers, the onset of the industrial revolution, the ways that the Communists used machinery to draw in workers and to propagandize their work, the reasons that peasants might embrace the revolution and its sweeping change, and the violent reaction of the dovhenko earth skylandowners.  What I felt was a vague sense of joy and doom.  As I watched I kept thinking, you poor guys — you Russians of 1930 — you don’t know what you’re in for.  You don’t yet know that Stalin’s purges are going to kick you in the ass.  You don’t know that the loss of your hands-on, rural life will ultimately devastate you.

earth dovzhenko boys in graveyardI’m uncertain about what the director felt about the situation.  The very long, lingering shots of wheat, trees, and fruit — and of those who harvest — might be read as a celebration of the simple rural way of life before the coming of mass machinery.  On the other hand, the film’s cheering of the mighty tractor seems awfully sincere.  The film seems to tell us that both are simultaneously true.  It defies linear, logical dovzhenko dancer

The allegory of the revolution — the war between the landowning farmers and the workers — was clear to me, yet I didn’t entirely understand it.  Maybe a Westerner in our own time really can’t.  As I watched, though, it was enough to see the images and to wonder where it would all lead.  And at a point, the film develops an absorbing story; there actually is something of a plot, and it is a symbolic one that resonates far more deeply than the simple tale of an idealistic young man killed by his wealthy rival who wants to keep his farm.  I did find it helpful to watch the film more than once; situations that seemed confusing or obscure on first viewing became much clearer, and the dovzhenko earth man and bullsexperience for me became more emotionally moving.

The film’s nature imagery is especially striking, and I felt a personal attachment to it.  I grew up in a rural area, and Dovzhenko perfectly captures the quietness and the slow movement of that.  The juxtaposition of people and animals in a number of montages clearly demonstrates that we are the same.  I very much liked these.  The animals and the humans sense and react to one another, and the humans sometimes inflict a startling cruelty upon them to which the animals seem resigned.  The humans are no less cruel to one another.  Dovzhenko grew up in the rural Ukraine, among the very kinds of illiterate peasants that he depicts, and this lends the picture a lyrical honesty.  He isn’t  judging.  Life is hard and simple.  I felt that I was seeing through his eyes, much as if I were reading a poem.

It is because of its incredible artfulness that the film is still watched today; were it a standard Soviet dovzhenko earth girl with fruit 2propaganda film, we would hardly care.  I was surprised to find that in its day, Earth was controversial, viewed by the government as subversive.  Then, the very art that we so appreciate led to suspicion.  The instances of small rebellions (as with a father who laughs at the younger men’s obsessions with “the party”) got the director in some trouble; he was denounced by the “Kremllin poet” and felt forced to leave the country.  The film’s beauty and its quirky bits (as when a group of men pee into a tractor to put water in the radiator, and some glimpses of full female nudity) were enough to get the film censored.  That these small subversions in what seemed to me to be a strongly Communistic film — a film that denounces religion and embraces technology and the people’s unity — could create controversy shows just how doctrinaire the government had become.  (Not that films weren’t also censored in the States.)  Again, I was reminded that things would only get worse with the growing repression of Stalin’s regime and World War II.  I felt sad for both those thrilled that a tractor would lessen their work and break the hold of the feudal landholding system and for the landowner who tries to literally bury his head in the sand.  Both sides would meet with tragedy, though the director didn’t know this yet.  None of “the people” would win, yet the fruit would return with the season.

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Outskirts – Boris Barnet’s Russia in World War I

outskirts nicolai white flagI first came across Boris Barnet by watching the Russian silent comedy Miss Mend, a frenetic, quirky, episodic tale of a female labor activist and an evil American industrialist.  Miss Mend is a slapstick silly assault on capitalism, and while the lifts from American film are clear, there’s also a specifically Russian kind of dark humor — no matter how bad the situation gets, it can still be funny in the most fatalistic way.

Director Boris Barnet (with camera) in Miss Mend

Director Boris Barnet (with camera) in Miss Mend

Before Miss Mend, I was appreciative of the great Soviet silents, but a bit put off by the Bolshevik weightiness, never quite able to shake my sense that the work was censored.  Miss Mend opened my mind to what else was out there — and it put me on the search for more Boris Barnet. (Barnet is credited only as an actor in the Miss Mend (he plays an American journalist), but film theorist Giuliano Vivaldi believes that Barnet was the film’s co-director.) Unfortunately, very few of Barnet’s films are on DVD with English subtitles.  These are outskirts flying soldiers The House on Trubnaya Square (found in Kino’s Landmarks of Soviet Film set ), The Girl with the Hatbox, By the Bluest of Seas, and the film I’m going to discuss here, Outskirts.

Outskirts, made in 1933, is technically a talkie, but with the subtitles on, I really found that it worked quite naturally as a silent film; the visuals do much to tell the story.

Yelena Kuzmina

Yelena Kuzmina

I loved Outskirts (also found under the titles The Patriots — I have no idea why, as the film is subversively not patriotic — and its Russian title, Okraina).   Outskirts is irreverent, poignant, and disturbing; I was moved by it, and it’s bumped into the top five films I’ve seen about World War I.  Many critics rightfully compare it to Godard’s Grand Illusion.  It’s also my favorite Russian film to date.  There are a number of interwoven story lines, but put most directly, it’s the tale of a pair of brothers and a pair of friends who are divided by the war, of the effects of war on their isolated town.  Two middle aged men, one Russian and one German, play checkers and drink beer together; the war makes them heartbroken enemies. outskirts checkers 2 Two brothers, one smart and one dumb, meet their fates in the stalemate of trench warfare.  And those in the town of shoemakers display their corruption and their compassion when faced with those labeled the enemy.  These situations aren’t presented in any kind of predictable or straightforward manner.  They break the conventions of the war films to which I’ve become accustomed (and I’ve seen many).   There are strange, disturbing twists which I would love to give away, but won’t; I can’t really get them out of my mind, I found them so startling.  There are also some sweet, funny moments, also surprising, as when one brother, Nicolai, has a German soldier practically land in his lap and they rather happily agree that the German ought to now be a prisoner of war.  At this point, the film then follows the story of this German soldier, who goes back as a prisoner to our little Russian town, thus linking the stories again in a new way.  The depiction of the German soldier is deeply sympathetic, as it is with the German friend; this film takes no sides.  (The only side seems to be against pre-revolutionary government and the industrialists who made money from the war.)

Nikolai, played by Nikolai Bogolyubov

Nikolai, played by Nikolai Bogolyubov

All of the stories come together through the setting of the town and through two townspeople: an innocent, knowing girl, and a poor old shoemaker, the brothers’ father.  These characters are consistently the fairest and the least involved in the allegiances of the war.  This is a complex ensemble, with all characters carrying a certain weight, and none of them serving simply symbolic purposes; both the setting and the characters are highly realistic.  Nearly everyone in the film is poor-but-pretty-happy — not in an overly political sense, but in the way that a town full of laborers actually would be.  I wasn’t getting too much of a feeling of These are the Proletariat (okay, just a little, as when a strike is depicted), but I rather found myself thinking, “oh, that’s what a little Russian town was really like in the early days of the revolution.”

The shoemaker father (Aleksandr Chistyakov)

The shoemaker father (Aleksandr Chistyakov)

Every person in this cast was first rate.  No one hogged the limelight.  No one came off as a caricature.  The actors came from a range of theatrical and film backgrounds, and a number of them went on to appear in films for years.  Barnet keeps all of the characters (and the actors) in beautiful balance.  I can’t even say that I liked one actor more than another, can’t give any kind of special credit.  The ensemble was seamless.outskirts nicolai


Though this is considered a war film, the battle scenes were not epic.  They were close up with a focus on the characters.  The action is mostly in the trenches — with the exception of a scene in which the German and Russian soldiers who face one another across the expanse attempt to forge their own ceasefire, and nearly pull it off.  (By the way, this actually did happen in World War I — bored troops, tired of the stalemate, deciding to quit and wait it out by not shooting at one another anymore.  This wasn’t just a symbolic scene.)

Without ever being heavy-handed, the film shows the pointlessness of war.  Nobody has a valiant death.  Nobody is redeemed.  Nobody commits a heroic act (except, perhaps, the innocent girl, Anka).  This isn’t played for melodrama — there’s no “oh, the futility!”.   It’s simply the way it is.  It’s even pulled off with a bit of bitter humor.  And there is a very strange and very Russian ending.

Outskirts has been released with another Barnet film, The Girl with the Hatbox, in a set by Image Entertainment produced by David Shepard.  It’s a bargain.  Everyone who is interested early cinema of all kinds, Russian films, or war films really ought to see this.