Communism is great. At least, that’s what Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth appears to argue on the surface. Reviled in some quarters as little more than Stalinist propaganda, and dismissed by Stalin himself as not being Stalinist enough, Dovzhenko’s stirring paean to the natural world has found itself the victim of libellous and slanderous claims ever since its controversial release some eighty years ago. Credit the director then, for crafting a film that sustains such accusations despite conforming to its preordained function (a celebratory brochure for the collectivisations that were a crucial component in the First Five-Year Plan). Earth‘s threadbare narrative completes its designated task with aplomb: a straightforward tale of heroes (socialist peasants) vs. villains (capitalist kulaks) that features a solid dose of class warfare and concludes with a triumphant affirmation of communism as an instigator of positive, radical change. The problem therefore lies with Dovzhenko’s presentation of this material, which restyles the text’s Soviet proselytism into a universal, philosophical treatise that ruminates upon the transience of mortality. The director subsequently incorporates the fervent ideological conflicts of his era into a wider, pantheistic framework that exalts Mother Nature as society’s pre-eminent driving force alongside – or, perhaps even above – the Party itself. Today, the film’s propagandistic tendencies threaten to render it an intriguing historical relic, but its numerous aesthetic and thematic nuances offer an alternative outlook: that of Earth as a timeless, essential work of art.
There exists within the discussion of cinema an understandable tendency to lump Dovzhenko’s oeuvre alongside those of his Soviet contemporaries; the formalist inclinations of Eisenstein and Vertov presumably offering an easy point of commonality to complement their shared ‘nationality’. But whilst Dovzhenko certainly utilises the theoretical frameworks advocated by his estimable peers, his Earth finds itself prone to sentimental impulses that enervate such comparisons. Consider the film’s bookending sequences, ripe with images of outstanding beauty: flocculent cloads, rain-drenched apples, windswept wheat-fields – simple, evocative tributes to the wonders of nature that nestle themselves firmly inside the viewer’s psyche. The director draws from the organic allure of such visuals, using them to reorient the film’s introductory death scene to the point of exquisite absurdity: a village elder ends up confronting his fate on a bed of wild fruit, bathed in the gorgeous radiance of the morning sun. Nary has the act of dying seemed so beguiling, viewed here as an opportunity to be absolved directly by Gaia herself. And therein lies the deviance of the Earth‘s approach, for where his compatriots chose to electrify their audiences with the kinetic furore of their editing, Dovzhenko spends much of his time actively tempering the ferocity of this revolutionary spirit, preferring instead to embed his own montages within the cyclical, apolitical revolutions of the cosmos (just as it begins with a death, the film concludes with a birth).
Not unexpectedly, Dovzhenko embeds some Party policy within this spiritual roundelay in an attempt to appease the powers that be. Accordingly, the emergence of the kolkhoz is viewed through a near-Darwinian lens; an evolutionary necessity, born to nudge humanity further along the road towards enlightenment. Evolution however, can be a painful and elongated process – something which the director explores with surprising depth thanks to the generational conflicts that intensify his subtexts. From the aforementioned opening sequence (which posits the old man’s death against the indifference of youngsters playing in the fields) to the weight that’s afforded to the ideological tensions between a father and son (the former is initially sceptical of collectivisation, whilst the latter is one of its strongest proponents), Earth is brimming with friction between past and present, tradition and modernity. These differences brew to an ire and, erred on by the Marxist doctrines upon which the entire conceit is built, overflow into an obstreperous dismissal of the religious orthodoxy that enfeebled yesterday’s peasantry. The director’s denunciation steers clear of outright hostility however – religion is merely another of those archaic afflictions weaned out by the eternal cycle of natural regeneration. In a society on the verge of industrialisation, the maledictions of hysterical preachers (“Punish them, God! Punish them!”) eventually fade into obsolescence behind a vociferous congregation of class unity.
Acting as the agent for all this development is an unassuming tractor. Cast alternately as a saviour by the farmers and an adversary by the kulaks for the very same reason (its potential to erase social inequality between the two groups), its messianic arrival is captured in a frenetic montage where the entire agricultural community – livestock included – awaits in fervent anticipation as the vehicle (a surrogate for modernisation) makes its painfully slow encroachment upon the village. In a new, mechanised age, man-made creations assume a disproportionate significance in relation to their masters: “WE WILL PROSPER WITH MACHINES!”, exclaims a villager; “This is the end!”, mourns a kulak. The question therefore arises as to how Dovzhenko himself views all this commotion. Although the jubilation of the peasantry proves well-founded as a result of the increased productivity engineered by their new acquisition, the director’s montages provide scope for ambivalence. For all its anti-clericalism, Earth remains a curiously metaphysical film: a pastoral cine-poem whose rural landscapes are infused with the palpable presence of paganistic wraiths (wheat-fields have never seemed so alive). Dovzhenko, moreover, isn’t above taking discreet potshots at his government, with an early dialogue exchange appearing to query the validity of the Soviet Labour Medal. Thus, the extended sequence in which he charts the tractor’s gargantuan capability to plough offers a cause for alarm, particularly given that it’s contrasted against a farmer wielding his primitive (but comparatively innocent) sickle. The director’s rhythmic editing focuses on the destruction that these new machines can wreak upon the serene, diffident earth, and overtly questions man’s abuse of his symbiosis with nature. An early precursor to current ecological movements this could well be – especially during an extraordinary funeral procession where the branches of apple trees and the leaves of sunflower plants actually caress an embalmed corpse in a credible act of grief – but Dovzhenko’s text is unavoidably as dialectic as it is bucolic: he reveres and yearns for the modest past, but he recognises that a new future must be forged if his comrades are to progress.
Riddled with ambiguities and complexities that belie its citizenship, Earth is at its most galvanising as an affirmation of the human spirit. “Propaganda” is a slur that befits, but one that refuses to account for the uncharacteristic warmth that heartens the work. Dovzhenko’s socialist anger has a winning sense of humour: consider the peasants who feel compelled to urinate into the tractor’s radiator, or the ridiculous graphic matching that attempts to twin cows with kulaks. Throughout the film, the director displays a commitment to emotional matter that invigorates his class-conscious lyricism; dispensing entirely with establishing shots and relocating his narrative’s momentum to the forthright, honest close-ups of isolated faces. Always, Dovzhenko spares time to outline the human costs of his drama, and never more so than in his corybantic finale which interweaves birth and death, politics and religion, despair and ecstasy into a stupefying montage that belatedly unleashes the revolutionary zeal that he’d previously repressed. It’s a perfectly-executed climax, and a resounding tribute to the potential of cinema itself. Yet the honour of Earth‘s greatest montage must surely go to that which is also its simplest. After nightfall, the narrative’s nominal hero opts to take a casual stroll through his village following a day in which his dream of mass production (and consequently, class parity) became a reality. Brimming with joy and pride, he spontaneously begins to substitute walking for dancing, and then proceeds to caper into the surrounding fields, his feet restless with sheer elation. Dovzhenko captures this impulsion and, in an inspired move, refuses to let go – engulfing his audience in his protagonist’s euphoria, and following his sentimental journey through to its complete realisation; all the while cutting to increasingly distanced vantage points that memorialise his surrounding homeland. This apparent divergence serves as a reminder of the bliss that progressive change can offer, yet it draws its poignancy from the benefit of our hindsight: Earth was filmed in the director’s native Ukraine – once the “breadbasket of Europe”, and the republic which suffered most of all under the Holodomor, an event that occurred as a direct result of the policies that the film exalts. The bitter irony of life after the film’s closing frame is devastating, but rather than detracting from Dovzhenko’s central message, history has done him a favour and movingly eulogised it: once upon a time, there was hope.