Tuesday 1 January 2008

Earth (1930) Alexander Dovzhenko

We're in the Ukraine and some old farmer thinks he's dying. He's Simon and he's apparently been farming for 75 years. His friend Peter wants to know whether he's going to heaven or hell and what it's like there. It's all very civilised, at least until the wailing starts in earnest. He's one of the poor farmers, for this is propaganda and the view of propaganda was simple: in the Russia of 1930 there were poor but honest peasants and rich capitalist kulaks, and the kulaks always win.

Until that is the people and the great Soviet government kick off the concept of collectivisation where privately owed farms are merged into collectives for the benefit of all. It was a very Stalinist concept, though rooted in traditional Russian methods, and one that notably didn't work. The concept, combined with other factors, especially the resistance of the kulaks, caused famine and death on a grand scale. Here in 1930 though it was still the way forward and Earth is very deliberate propaganda to aid the transition, though Stalin apparently felt it too vague and that it didn't quite tow the line.

I'm still reasonably new to early Soviet cinema, or any Soviet cinema for that matter, but I have a number of key Eisensteins under my belt. One thing I discovered in his work, especially in the first Ivan the Terrible film, is that faces are very important indeed and the same seems to be apparent here. We're treated to a huge amount of closeups, where the screen is filled with someone's face, and these faces are distinctive and memorable.

There's very little plot here. Vasili Opanas, transliterated in the subtitles to Basil, who is Simon's grandson, leads the charge to collectivise the village's fields and become a farm collective. However the kulaks fight back and murder him. Plot though wasn't what Dozhenko was really looking for. He was working in 1930 when Russia had not yet adopted sound technology and film was high art that dealt with high themes and emotions. It's paced not according to story but like a symphony, full of peaks and swells.

Visually the film has many sections that are just stunning, whether calm or frenetic. The peaceful scenes are often of people, still and poetic or kicking up dust in the deserted village streets, but there are landscape shots also of mist over water or menacing clouds that are magnetic. The frenetic ones tend towards montages of mechanism, especially a long section that encompasses everything from the tractor pulling the wheat out ofthe ground all the way to it becoming loaves of bread. These feel awesomely ahead of their time for 1930 and are amazing to watch.

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