April 27, 2010

Earth (1930)

Soviet Union

Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko

75 min

Cinema was a vital tool for Communism and no-one understood this better than the ruling elite of the Soviet Union. The early Soviet films and film makers were artistically groundbreaking, demonstrating new, innovative cinematic techniques, but as far as the ruling elites were concerned, these films would act as propaganda to consolidate the revolution and further spread the word of its success. Eisenstein is justly celebrated as one of the great directors of world cinema (‘Strike’, ‘October’, ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ make up part of his early period). Dovzhenko is just as important in Soviet cinema, even if his name and reputation doesn’t resonate quite as much as that of his contemporary. Certainly, there’s a case to be made that ‘Earth’ is every bit the equal of ‘…Potemkin’ in the impact it had, not just socially but also in terms of the development of cinema.

Dovzhenko begins and ends with similar striking scenes. In the first, a man, Simon, peacefully dies in a fruit orchard. Dovzhenko uses a succession of close-ups of the faces of his family, whilst also cutting to shots of sweeping cornfields and the bountiful fruit harvests. This scene is near-reprised at the film’s conclusion. The wind sweeps the cornfields more aggressively, whilst heavy rain soaks the fruit orchard. Whether this ambiguous final scene bears any political message, it’s difficult to say. Certainly it would have to have been very oblique to have passed the censors. In between, Dovzhenko makes reference to the changing political and economic tide in Russia/Soviet Union within a Ukrainian rural environment. In the dying days of the Tsarist regime, an affluent class of peasants (kulaks) were liberated and rose in stature, taking over single, family owned farms. The younger generation encourage insurrection and use new technologies (tractors); the logical conclusion of which is Soviet style collectivisation of farms, as seems to be the trend by the film’s conclusion.

Dovzhenko’s film is a rejection of old values, including religion and class, whilst celebrating more affirmative action and the changes that Stalin, in particular, would introduce for good or ill. ‘Earth’ is a masterpiece of Soviet montage theory, fusing realism and symbolism and achieving a rich sense of visual poetry. It is a high point not just in Soviet cinema, but in silent cinema too.

‘Earth’ is released by Mr Bongo films on 17 May 2010.


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