On Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth and the Brink of Communism

Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (ЗЕМЛЯ, 1930), which came out five years before Sergei Eisenstein’s better-known, and less politically ambiguous Battleship Potemkin, is as technically innovative and impeccably crafted as the latter film, with way more heart and thematic complexity to ensure its spiritual longevity beyond sheer technical spectacle.

Earth is one of those rare movies that is significant for what it has become, and not necessarily what the director intended it to be, though this is not so much the result of incompetency as it is of overanalysis and deep sensitivity on the subject matter.

Portrait of Alexander Dovzhenko (Courtesy of IMDb)

Essentially it is about the lives of some Ukrainian villagers and how they were transformed by the process of collectivization which followed the Communist Revolution. The peasants who worked the land supported this process, while the kulaks (or wealthy landowners) opposed it. A life was unjustly taken, and this prompted a revolutionary reaction. Sounds black and white enough for the plot of a propagandistic state-sponsored film.

However, this is where the philosophical and empathetic approach taken by Alexander Dovzhenko, its visionary director, ended up backfiring. The supposedly empowering tale about the abolishment of social classes in early days Soviet Union instead became a contemplative tale about humanity’s runty stature in the face of radical force of change; its concluding imagery instilling fear rather than awe at the rapid dehumanization of the adherents of Communism.

Dovzhenko defended his film’s intent to the very end. He was heartbroken, on the verge of depression when the state media publicly lambasted and heavily censored Earth upon its public release. This prompted Dovzhenko to leave his native Ukraine for western Europe, where Earth found a new life among the critics. Years later, Dovzhenko was able to get an appeal and return to Soviet Union to make state-approved propaganda films, though Earth remains his most notable achievement.

It is easy to see why Earth was so taunted in the Soviet Union. Dovzhenko tried to do too many perspectives justice, a far cry from the stark black-white dramatization the Soviet authorities would love to propagate. The supposedly villainous bourgeoisie came across as well-to-do and vulnerable as much as the rallying proletariat did. It is only at the end of the film that their ‘villainy’ truly shone, though not in the face of justice, but the ignorance and blind fanaticism of the proletariat. Ironically, this villain, however cowardly and unjust, appeared to be the most ‘human’ character of all in that haunting final sequence of the film.

A scene in ‘Earth’ (1930) depicting subtle rejection of beliefs

At the end, Earth failed to celebrate the collapse of the old regime and emergence of the new one. What it succeeded in doing was lament the passing of a simpler, more innocent time while forewarning the intolerance and ruthlessness that would come with a vain, new regime. Think of the shot where a mother, upon seeing her son’s funeral procession carried out without a priest, concernedly made a sign of the cross with her hands. Doesn’t this illustrate the rejection of religion, a common cause of celebration in the Soviet Union, as one that is worthy of solicitude?

Or think of the shot where a villager urinated on the overheated radiator of a newly arrived tractor that had come to replace animal labor. When the tractor’s engine fired back up again, everyone around him celebrated, but was this scene meant for laughter or empowerment? Could it mean that the foundation of the Soviet Union was built upon the piss of the common man?


SPOILER ALERT:

Themes aside, Earth was a significant artistic and technical achievement. The ensemble of supporting characters were often framed in the same kind of singular and ennobling closeup that its central characters also shared, indicating that this was a story about a group of people rather than an individual, an argument that Dovzhenko could use to back up his claim that his film was meant to support the state’s agenda. It is unfortunate however that he also applied this same style of framing to depict the not-so-villainous bourgeoisie, perhaps instilling them with too much humanity than desired.

Personally, I really like the recurring imageries of characters shot from the back when they were shown to be hiding their feelings, a technique that I grew acquainted with via the films of Andrei Zvyagintsev (a contemporary Russian director of note whose artistic stamps are clearly reminiscent of Earth), and which I have come to associate heavily with the ‘repressed guilt’ of societies that have chosen to shut off its crime.

A scene in ‘Earth’ (1930). Courtesy of MUBI

The funeral procession at the climax is stirring and haunting, like watching the scene of the youth Nazi rally in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. We no longer see the characters in individual closeups, but as a group from a distance with telephoto lenses. The father of the murdered man, perhaps the film’s most central character, led the march with undeterred passion. His eyes looked so melted down and washed out, that I had to look very closely to make sure that his pupils were still visible. At times I wonder if it was the byproduct of aged and worn out film stock or something the director subtly intended.

Politically awakened and spiritually enlightened, Earth is a peerless cinematic achievement, a masterpiece that was way ahead of its time and continues to stand the test of time. It is a must-see for any film enthusiasts and film practitioners out there.


Yusgunawan Marto, Jakarta Cinema Club

Yusgunawan is a Director/Cinematographer and senior writer at Jakarta Cinema Club

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