Ranking: #52/111

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko (Ukraine/Russia)

Genre: Poetic Social Drama

Earth is an intense poetic drama which is one of the masterpieces of the Soviet silent era. It forms part of Dovzhenko’s “Ukraine Trilogy” and distils the director’s own experiences of the disastrous policy of collectivisation of agriculture which was part of the Soviet Union’s first five-year plan. Tragically, this policy led to the Soviet famine of 1930-33 in the most important grain-producing areas of the USSR, including in Dovzhenko’s Ukraine. Several million people died during the famine.

The evocative opening shots of the film, set to the music of bells and a flute, show Nature at its beautiful best, especially the distinctive close-up of the sunflower and the wind through the wheat field. Then the director introduces an old man who is dying after 75 years of farming. Interestingly, the old man playing this part was Dovzhenko’s own grandfather, Semen Terasovych Dovzhenko.

In these opening sequences, we’re looking at the eternal cycles of Nature and at the end of an era symbolised by the old farmer’s death, as the framework for the story. The old farmer eats a pear, then says goodbye, lays down in a field and dies.

The viewer knows immediately that Earth itself, as the title indicates, will be the film’s main character. In his autobiography, the director explained that he believed that one could only be an artist if one had a passionate love of Nature. He had once trained to be a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts before switching his artistic interest to filmmaking, believing it was the art form with the most potential for reaching the masses. As a young man, he wanted to serve the people and he came to believe that cinema would be the best medium for reaching them.

Later in the film, we see that collective farms are being created to replace the rich farmers who have fenced off their land as private property. During this painful process of collectivisation, most of the kulaks, or small landowners, resisted the implementation of the Five Year Plan.

Dovzhenko, who wrote his own screenplays, had the knack of telling his stories as much through the facial expressions of his characters as through their actions. The politicisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union is represented by a stern-looking young man called Basil. He is a highly politicised youth, an activist. He is the face of the younger generation who will overthrow the old ways and turn the Republic into a modern industrial powerhouse. The arrival of the collectively owned tractor in the farming community generates excitement amongst the community. There is no water in its radiator, so some men donate their urine to keep the machine going. The tractor is described as the “communist steel horse”.  With this new technology, the peasants plough the land, knocking down the farmers’ fences.  Then they harvest the grain. It is turned into bread for the masses. The land now belongs to all. “I conceived Earth as a film that would herald the beginning of a new life in the villages,” the director has stated (Alexander Dovzhenko – The Poet as Filmmaker – Selected Writings, p.16).

The shots of the different faces of the peasants, kulaks and young Bolsheviks make up the picture of a community facing a huge change to their way of life. The director traces the different emotional responses in their facial expressions. There is tension in the air and many face an uncertain future. “I wanted to show the state of a Ukrainian village in 1929, that is to say, at the time it was going through an economic transformation and a mental change in the masses,” Dovzhenko explained (Alexander Dovzhenko – The Poet as Filmmaker – Selected Writings, p. xix).

Dovzhenko himself was born into the peasant class in Eastern Ukraine. His parents were illiterate. As a youth he saw first-hand the far-reaching impacts of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He was an artist and a painter before he joined a film studio in Odessa. In films like Earth, one can see a painterly approach to film, stressing the visual power of cinema.

Denounced by the Soviet authorities as counter-revolutionary, Earth is his most poetic film. And, yet, it conveys great sympathy for the ordinary workers and is, in reality, a subtle work of socialist realism which glorifies physical labour. For the director, it was not individuals who counted, but the masses.

The movie ends as it begins – with a hymn to the fruitfulness of Nature, as a downpour falls over some fruit and vegetables. The director is saying that the real powerhouse for life is the Earth.

In his movingly candid autobiography, Dovzhenko has this to say about his films: “The few films that I did complete I made with love and sincerity. In those films lies the primary meaning of my life. They are meant to be poetic films, and contemporary life, with the common man at its centre, is their chief subject.” (Alexander Dovzhenko – The Poet as Filmmaker – Selected Writings, p. 21)