The film begins with the final moments of grandfather Semyon Opanas beneath a pear tree. Locals, including Arkhyp Bilokin, contemplate the process of collectivisation and declare their resistance to it, while elsewhere Semyon’s grandson Vasyl and his friends meet to discuss collectivisation. That night a dark figure attacks and kills Vasyl. At the cemetery, Bilokin’s son Khoma arrives to declare that he was the one who killed Vasyl, but the villagers pay him no attention. One declares that Vasyl’s glory will fly around the world like a new communist airplane. The film ends with a downpour of rain over fruit and vegetables.
Earth shares several characteristics with many of the most influential Soviet films of its era. It follows the Communist Party line by depicting a proletarian collective as a united and heroic force against bourgeois self-interest, while its formalist experimentation with the effects of montage editing is the film’s primary cinematic technique. On this level, Ukrainian director, Alexander Dovzhenko, stands shoulder to shoulder with contemporary filmmakers, such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein.
However, far from the urban centres of Russian industry that largely inspired his peers, Earth is marked by an overwhelmingly rural sensibility. While it bears a glancing resemblance to Eisenstein’s The Old and the New (1929), the similarities are superficial. Earth’s aesthetic eludes simplistic readings, while its study of the sacrifices its proletarian characters have to make was, in a period of early Stalinism, politically ambiguous. A synopsis reveals a narrative at odds with the usually straightforward tales of Bolsheviks good/Tsarists bad that characterises the work of Dovzhenko’s generation. Usually experimental in form but straightforward in theme, their style often disguises simplicity of narrative structure. They were, after all, propaganda films with an unwavering message of bolshevism at their heart. Dovzhenko’s story is multifaceted and mysterious, circular in construction and in presentation of life and the land.
Following the death of a grandfather, who had dedicated his life to pulling oxen, a collective farming community takes delivery of a new tractor. Their landowning Kulak neighbours express dismay as this greatly increases the collective’s capabilities. Vasili, the community spokesman, is mysteriously killed and his father demands a secular, communist burial. The film climaxes with interlocking sequences running in parallel: the funeral takes place while Vasili’s Kulak murderer madly confesses his guilt, unnoticed by the crowd; Vasili’s lover despairs alone; a priest curses the godless community; Vasili’s mother gives birth.
Dovzhenko strongly diverges from the typically frenetic energy of his peers and Earth frequently dwells on moments of immobility. While individual shot duration isn’t unusually long for the period, there is great emphasis on the lack of physical movement within many of the shots themselves. The critic Siegfried Kracauer (1960) refers to this as ‘nascent motion’, a contrast between movement and motionlessness, producing:
“a shock effect, as if all of a sudden we found ourselves within a vacuum. (But) even though the moving images on the screen come to a standstill, the thrust of their movement is too powerful to be discontinued simultaneously … the suspended movement nevertheless perpetuates itself by changing from inner motion to outer motion.” (in Braudy and Cohen 1999: 295)
Thus, a frequent deferral of what is fundamental to cinema – movement – becomes in Kracauer’s view, a point of extreme tension, affecting the spectator in a manner that becomes at once both poignant and tense. It is as if the film is pausing for dramatic effect before continuing.
However, Kracauer calls these moments ‘stills’, a word that implies that the film stock itself is motionless, rather than the subject being presented. On the contrary, Dovzhenko’s often fixed camera instead seems to scrutinise ‘stillness’ and in doing so observes the tiniest of motions: a blink or a breath from a human subject, a slight movement of leaves in the wind for the many shots of fruit. Thus, a series of dramatic moments result as the tension between rolling camera and motionless subject becomes heightened, as if engaged in a staring contest. Andy Warhol would take to this area of compositional conflict much later in his Screen Test films of the 1960s.
Earth opens with a sequence of images of wheat blowing in the breeze. Dovzhenko dwells on this for some time, asking us to contemplate the beauty of nature. It is this that dominates the characters we are about to meet and, as consistently throughout, we are presented with connections between the characters and the land.1 Further descriptions of an abundant harvest abound before we arrive at the first of many shots of unmoving farmers. The group is waiting for the old man to die. Their motionlessness contrasts strongly with the vivid activity of the crops and completely reverses how life on screen is usually presented. Dovzhenko indicates the overall harvest through singling out fruit as examples of the whole. He then reverses this with the introduction of the human characters, framing each one singly at first, making us gradually piece together the crowd gathered around the dying man from individual shots, emphasising that it is a collection of individuals which forms a multitude.
Throughout, Dovzhenko explicitly connects the farmers to their environment: they are often framed low in the shot at the very bottom of the screen, standing tiny against a vast sky or in different ways allied with the nature that surrounds them. Children eat fruit, mirroring the old man’s final act before dying, emphasising the cycle of life and death and harmonising the group with nature. In one shot, a young woman stands immobile as a giant sunflower by her head bows in the breeze. The gesture of respect to the dying man is unmistakable.
‘Dovzhenko strongly engages the sense of touch in images that vividly render the fullness and self-sufficiency, the rounded steadfastness of solid forms,’ states Gilberto Pérez in a 1998 lyrical analysis of Earth (1998: 172). It is usual to focus on a single thing to illustrate an example of a larger whole, particularly in Soviet cinema of the period where a face singled out in the crowd is an indication of coactivity as a whole. However, Pérez posits that Dovzhenko builds up the sense of a community and their collectivism (and by extension, their wider connection with the earth on which they depend) from the individual upwards. Whether it is a person, an apple or a sunflower, each thing has its own, vivid life and intensity as well as being part of a wider whole. In the sequence where the tractor arrives, the large crowd who eagerly await its arrival is again only gradually constructed from several separate, similarly framed shots of different people. A more typical filmmaker would use an establishing shot of the group as a whole, before picking out individuals.
Dovzhenko’s unusual composition supports the unexpected turns of his narrative. In contrast to the usually limited depth of characterisation found in the work of his contemporaries, the sequence where Vasili holds his Bolshevik meeting in his home shows an interest in wry subtlety. The father’s rejection of the son’s communist idealism leads to a mutual turning of backs. Their conversation is then framed with the actors shot separately and facing away from the camera, linking the physical similarities between the pair. The scene leads neither to a hackneyed conversion of the father or a drawing of ideological battle lines, but to a still sulking father turning his face back to the spectator after the group leave, admitting a grudging respect in their absence. It is this feeling for a portrait of humanity that makes the father’s later demand for his son’s secular funeral rite more powerful.
After some comedy where the tractor runs dry, leading the men to urinate in the radiator to get it going again, we see a sequence that celebrates the process from harvest to baking. This is directly comparable to a sequence from one of Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye newsreels and recalls that director’s method of rhythmic montage that links mechanical action and labour. However, where Vertov transforms manual effort into something modernist and motorised, Dovzhenko makes the machinery seem fluid and human or earthy. The tempo evokes an organic (even erotic, according to Pérez) approach to the rhythms of work (1998: 178).
The film’s most notably unusual sequence comes with the presentation of Vasili’s murder, which follows a montage of shots of different loving couples, all standing in a near-identical, motionless embrace. Dovzhenko largely frames them as individuals, counter-intuitively suggesting separation, at least in thought, during this tender moment. A dark look seems to cross Vasili’s face, unseen by his lover. Next, we see her, also framed separately, her eyes darting as if afraid of something unknown.
Subsequently, as Vasili walks home, he begins to dance, quickly becoming more ecstatic in his joyful expression. This is extraordinary: the character is alone, making this moment of rapturous physical display a striking contrast to the previous static images of him in the arms of his lover. The joy is expressed separate from the moment that prompted it.
What further makes this sequence bizarre is its outcome: Vasili collapses as if suddenly shot. Dovzhenko avoids the development of suspense in this sequence altogether. No cutaway reveals a weapon, nothing is given to suggest a cause for danger; Vasili simply drops dead. We are left to assume that it has been by a bullet, though the silence gives us no clue. This is startling, as if Stanley Donen ended the title song sequence from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) by murdering Gene Kelly. Anticipating another famous screen shock, here Dovzhenko eliminates his lead character halfway through the story a full 30 years before Psycho (1960).
Having begun with the peaceful death of the old man, the film reaches its tragic pinnacle with the sudden death of a man in his prime. The event shocks both characters and spectator and leads Dovzhenko to further invoke the cycles of life and nature. Brushing past the hanging apples during the funeral procession, the branches seem to bow their condolence, linking back to the sunflowers from the opening sequence. As the father buries his son, the mother simultaneously goes into labour, producing new life. Again, there is no clear, socialist meaning to be received here, the juxtaposition of life and death is enough.
Pérez notes that the parallel climactic sequences depicting the guilty man, the grieving father, the anguished lover, the birthing mother and the furious priest do not physically communicate; it is a thematic interaction, drawing on the interconnectedness of all things (1998: 186). Parallels abound: frenzy, loss, anguish, agony and fury all merge in the painful ecstasies of overwhelming guilt, grief, torment, labour and devout wrath. Emotional extremes, unconnected by ideology, intertwine as individual, yet universal, unified.
Subsequent events were to quickly render Earth a period piece: the idealistic representations of collective farming and declarations that the class enemy is doomed are unintentionally chilling given Stalin’s immanent liquidation of the landowning Kulak class. The Soviet authorities were also suspicious of the film’s loyalties, which portray death and sadness, rather than simplistic martyrdom, as part of the process of revolution. Increasing state control of the film industry and the Soviet Premier’s personal suspicion of formalist experimentation would enforce a new regime of Socialist Realism that was to dominate the arrival of sound cinema. Dovzhenko’s own work would henceforth toe the Stalinist line.
The film’s tension between stillness and movement is exploited fully in the film’s final sequence. Here we see a long series of shots of rain falling on abundant fruit harvests. The nascent motion of nature, immobile yet moving, long decayed in time yet captured alive on celluloid in all its earthy fecundity was clearly in Dovzhenko’s soul. With its celebration of renewal and the cyclical, the era of great experimentation that characterises the best of Soviet cinema of the 1920s comes to an end with the release of Earth.
1. The wind in the wheat is acknowledged as having been an influence on Andrei Tarkovsky’s similar shots in Mirror (1975).
Cast & Crew:
[Country: USSR. Production Company: WUFKU. Director, Screenwriter, Editor: Alexander Dovzhenko. Cinematographer: Danylo Demutsky. Cast: Stepan Shkurat (Opanas), Semyon Svashenko (Vasili).]
David Gillespie, Early Soviet Cinema, London, Wallflower, 2000.
Sigfried Kracauer, ‘The Establishment of Physical Existence’, in Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism, New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 41–59.
Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1960.
Gilberto Pérez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Baltimore, John Hopkins, 1998.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.