“And with warm blood he has signed the supreme verdict against our class enemy.”
Earth is an early slice of Soviet propaganda directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, considered one of the ‘great innovators’ of the silent Soviet era. In January 1928, the People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, Anatoli Lunacharsky discussed the need to take “cinema closer to the masses, especially the rural masses” while noting, “boring agitation is counter-agitation.” And Earth is a prime example of Soviet propaganda, meshing together political realities in the country with an idealized storyline. 1928-1932 was a period of industrialization and forced collectivization–two elements of Soviet culture that are clearly present in the film. This 1930 silent film, often labeled a ‘masterpiece’ by film historians was released during the forced collectivization of land and Stalin’s purge against the Kulaks (ostensibly wealthy farmers but in reality anyone who didn’t think Stalin’s policy of collectivization was a good idea). The film’s plot is simple: Ukrainian peasants band together to buy a tractor. The tractor will replace the use of teams of oxen that currently plough the fields. The tractor knocks down the fence of a kulak, and then later, that kulak in revenge murders a peasant. The peasants form a sort of righteous posse and hunt the kulak down. The film, incidentally, was supposedly filmed in a village where a peasant “activist leader was stabbed by reactionary farmers.”
Earth has its good and bad moments. Heavily sentimental, the film begins with the death of an elderly peasant. The death scene is preposterous, with the old man on his deathbed and then changing his mind as he sits up and eats a pear. Then he decides it’s time to die, touches his chest and settles peacefully back down on the bed. While this era heralded in the period of Soviet cinema realism, obviously these sorts of scenes are not exactly realistic. And there are more of these scenes–at one point a naked female peasant rages around in her hut in some sort of ecstatic fit. Earth seems relatively crude when compared to American film from the same time period, and unfortunately, as with so many Russian/Soviet films, the subtitles are abysmal. Here’s an example:
“Well I’ll be a sonuvabitch. Them fellows are real class.”
The realism occurs in the shots of an idealized nature–apples growing on trees, long shots of a sunflower, and clouds moving across the sky. Even the collectivization is portrayed as a naturally occurring event. While cinema historians find value in this film, I thought it was interesting and was glad I watched it, but it was crude, very unsubtle, and downright chilling when considering what lay in store for the poor Ukrainians. 1932-33 brought the Ukrainian Famine, and the number of victims ranges somewhere between 2.6 to 10 million people, depending on the source.
The righteous Kulak hunting posse (and all of its symbolism) is disturbing, and there’s one moment when a peasant glances up at the sky. I half expected to see an image of Stalin amidst the floating clouds, but that sort of thing entered Soviet cinema later. These are still early days…. Anyway, for me at least, there was no enjoyment to be found in the film. Yes, it’s propaganda and so is an interesting relic but the cognitive dissonance between the reality of the dekulakization and this idealized Stalinized version chills the blood.