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.


February 11, 2009

Don’t Move, Die and Rise Again (1989)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:25 pm
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Soviet Union

Director: Vitali Kanevsky

105 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Siberia, 1947. Valerka, a young boy, sells tea to the miners in his local village. Galia, a young girl, is a rival tea vendor.  Valerka undermines her business by claiming she uses dirty water for her tea, but claims he uses fresh spring water. The two becomes friends. Valerka’s mother, a prostitute, accuses Valerka of stealing when he purchases ice skates but Galia tells her how he came by the money. One night Valerka is robbed of his skates by two local boys. He lies to his mother about this robbery and eventually retrieves his skates from the boys who stole them.

Valerka is discovered pouring yeast down the school toilets, making them overflow. He is expelled from school despite the best efforts of his mother. Valerka then derails a train on the way to the mines. Escaping the police, he visits relatives in Vladivostok. Valerka becomes involved with a group of local thieves and he is caught trying to steal from a jewellery store. Again, he escapes the police. Galia finds him, informs him that he is not suspected of causing the train derailment and they return home. It is implied that they both die in an offscreen accident.


Regarded as one of the finest films produced during the glasnost era, ‘Don’t Move, Die and Rise Again’ is a powerful and part autobiographical but relentlessly grim account of post-war life in a remote mining community, as observed through the eyes of two young children, Valerka and Galia. Films such as ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ and ‘Come and See’ demonstrated the horrors of war with children as their central protagonists, but Kanevsky uses this device to show domestic horrors in the aftermath of war. From the opening shot, we’re made perfectly aware of the hardship that’s about to unfold; a number of men emerging from a coal mine, whilst children play excitedly, oblivious to their own desperate circumstances.

How this community came into existence is left deliberately vague. One imagines it’s a gulag, based on forced labour. There are hints to suggest that it’s a village where dissidents or those punished for other crimes have been sent. There’s “Crazy Abram”, the Moscow professor who’s ‘lost his mind’ and Japanese POWs who are the subject of Valerka’s curiosity but the resentment of the locals who declare them “Samurai bastards”. The most heartbreaking scene to demonstrate the desperation that people find themselves in is when a fifteen year old implores a similarly aged boy to make love to her, in the hope that she might become pregnant. She believes that carrying a child would result in her being resettled.

Whether the adults were sent to this village because of political crimes or not, there’s plenty of “re-education” taking place with daily pro-Stalin songs and marches. The first instance we hear the spoken word is when a child shouts “Thanks to Stalin, the Georgian, for our rubber boots”. Interestingly though, the children frequently misbehave during these processions, not through defiance but ignorance of consequences, their own situation and the purposes of propaganda.

Kanevsky places great emphasis on observing the dynamics of this community, which is certainly not unified in its hardship. When a thief is caught, there is no sympathy for his plight. He is beaten mercilessly before being passed onto the authorities. Valerka is robbed for showing signs of extravagance with his skates, whilst villagers push in at food queues. In a world where it’s hard to survive, selfishness is practically a way of life. This feeds its way down to the children who all compulsively lie, cheat and play pranks on each other. In her own desperation, Valerka’s mother has become a prostitute, throwing her son out of the family home when she has a customer.

However this almost seems lost on the children, whose games and antics are a world away from what their parents experience. Take for instance how Kanevsky establishes his film, immediately shown from Valerka’s point of view. As he observes the village “centre”, he hears a confusing set of overlapping voices – this is something he can make neither head nor tail of. The world of adults is more than he can comprehend. Valerka too is unaware of the consequences of his actions. His behaviour begins harmlessly enough, telling the village that Galia’s tea is poisonous but gradually it escalates; stealing a pen, flooding the school toilets, then ultimately derailing a train. Ironically though, Valerka is never wanted for this crime, even if precipitates his swift departure from the village. Galia is at least more mature and able to guide Valerka, encouraging his return from Vladivostok and is dedicated to their friendship in spite of Valerka’s increasingly dangerous pranks. It’s a tender and touching relationship that contrasts sharply to the ugliness of the world around them.

Kanevsky was originally afforded funds to make a ten minute short but utilised this to make a full length feature which was rewarded with the Best First Film prize at Cannes in 1990. Some have suggested this was more for political reasons than artistic merit and there’s probably more than a grain of truth in this assertion. At the heart of the film however is a remarkably sympathetic but honest account of how tough life was in the labour camps of Stalin-era Soviet Union. The grainy monochrome cinematography adds to the effect as do the frequent intense close ups of many of its suffering protagonists.  However it’s mission of showing “Hell on Earth” is so intense and asks so many demands of the viewer than most would find the film pretty hard going.

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