Last 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.
The 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 landowners. 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.
I’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 interpretation.
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 experience 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 propaganda 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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