The film that preceded Earth in Alexander Dovzhenko’s filmography, Arsenal, was an awkward mashing together of poetic montage and narrative befuddlement. The two rarely seemed to coalesce together in the earlier film; with moments of exquisite visual imagination frequently broken up by an especially confusing story that drove one’s attention away from the image itself. Earth however, represents a massive step forward. Here the poetic and visual lyricism of Dovzhenko’s style plays an inextricable part of the film’s overarching narrative and its political message – or what little there is of it. These elements are seamlessly combined in a film of rare cinematic power.
Made in 1930, Earth was ostensibly a propaganda film to promote Stalin’s policy of agricultural collectivisation, in conjunction with the extermination of the kulaks (rich peasants) as a class. The film is about a poor peasant village somewhere in Ukraine. They obtain their first tractor from the state to much rejoicing and proceed to uhm…piss in the radiator when it breaks down due to overheating. Naturally, the evil kulaks, who in the years after this film would die in their millions due to Stalin’s policies, do their best to stop the poor village from increasing production despite its newfound radiator-pissing tractor power, culminating in the murder of Vasily (Semyon Svashenko, a regular in Dovzhenko’s films), the village’s most fanatically Soviet and important figurehead. In outrage they march against the neighbouring kulaks.
However, the film’s propagandistic nature is fairly irrelevant to the overall feel of the film. Dovzhenko’s heart isn’t really in depicting the glories of collectivisation and the desperation and exploitation of the kulaks. Instead, the film focuses on surreal imagery and an ecstatic beatification of the countryside. We see the wind rolling through the Ukrainian wheatfields. We see rain-drenched apple orchards. We see the peaceful, tired faces of sleeping peasants. The final 15 or so minutes of Earth are a simply astonishing feat of filmmaking, as Dovzhenko combines about five or so different strands of the story – from its anti-ecclesiastical depiction of a priest praying fervently to no avail, to a naked woman mourning in sorrow and agony – in an absolutely seamless and clear manner. It is a feat of cinematic poetry that is absolutely attention-grabbing, a wonder of the cinematic image.
It is this final section of Earth that raises it from another solid but ultimately dull example of Soviet Montage to a work of exquisite art. The film is not an easy one to sit through; I’ve always found the works of other Soviet Montagists, even the great Sergei Eisenstein, to be somewhat dreary and overly focused on the political polemic, something that Dovzhenko forgoes in favour of striking, anti-narrative imagery. The miracle in Earth is that this imagery transcends the need for political propaganda, launching us from dull polemic into a world of poetic beauty.