Oxford scholar Yuval Noah Harari popularized the idea that humans did not domesticate wheat, but rather, the grain tamed us. In his 2015 book Sapiens, he notes that wheat required backbreaking labor to plant and collect. Yet because it allowed for accumulation, evolutionary forces persuaded its cultivators to settle next to it, soldier on—and multiply their pain. The Agricultural Revolution, he argues, enclosed humans in unhappy homes while the humble, once-regional wheat seed spread across the globe and roamed free.
Wheat is a central character in Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent, Earth, and, as blowing stalks sway over acres and into the horizon in this marvel, appears just as wily a master as Harari describes it.
Unpredictable, like the planet it’s named for, Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya) burns a number of arresting images into our retinas about human-nature interaction—including the iconic female face matched with a sunflower’s wide openness against the big sky. There are brilliant juxtapositions, like the elderly man savoring one final, fulsome bite of apple* before reclining to his death on a bed of composting fruit. There’s physical humor: Sunburned and grease-smeared farming men urinate into a tractor’s radiator to resolve its overheating (as no water can be found). There’s the raw power of bodies: a pack of we-don’t-know-whose muscled horses stare into the distance regally, curiously; and a naked woman in a state of pure rage thrashes in an empty bedroom. There is surreal magic as our protagonist, an otherwise pragmatic young man introducing machine efficiency and cooperative ownership to the community, begins a fantastically lit solo folkdance through town that grows more zealous step by step.
If the collective farm story for the early Soviet state is anchored by simplicity—a poor peasant and local Communist youth leader attempts to reallocate land to the people with the help of a tractor brought in from HQ—Earth untethers itself with a series of whimsical directorial choices. One loopy sequence projects into the farm’s future, where the abundant wheat is happily harvested by smiling faces and milled with the help of choreographed machines then formed into delicious loaves that roll off the assembly line and onto bakers’ shelves. At other moments, Dovzhenko’s characters focus their gazes out of frame—but viewers are never given an image that shows what they might be looking at. At still others, characters’ lips move at length but no speech is reported in intertitles. Are these a result of cuts and compromises? Or by directorial design as scholar Elizabeth A. Papazian argues in “Offscreen Dreams and Collective Synthesis in Dovzhenko’s Earth,” her 2003 article in The Russian Review.
Dovzhenko is certainly at full potency as a director when he unleashes powerful passions in the sui generis twelve-minute cross-cut funereal finale, where the wails, cries, and whimpers of the angry priest, the mourning wife, the birthing mother, the farm-collective eulogizers, and the mind-blown murderer all compete for our sympathies. It’s the atheist new order versus religion, political change versus (or as) the cycle of life, personal pain versus collective enlightenment. Which one wins?
“There is mad logic to its imagery,” wrote Judy Bloch for the Pacific Film Archive in 1992. The program for the National Film Theatre in London in 1991 noted the film’s “pantheistic phosphorescence.” That Earth was—and is—on the edge stylistically, critics agree. Its intent is another story.
As a piece of cinema, Earth was the result of a fairly autonomous Ukrainian film production scene that reached its apex in the years 1927–1930, according to Ivan Kozlenko, director of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, before being dismantled and united with Soviet production. It was a filmmaking world influenced by regional currents and international pulses: the Ukraine’s own “romantic vitaism,” as well as Expressionism, Constructivism, and the avant-garde. In those final three years, the quality of Ukraine’s film unit (VUFKU) peaked, according to Kozlenko, producing Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Nikolai Shpikovsky’s Bread, as well as the second in Dovzhenko’s Ukraine trilogy, Arsenal, about a factory uprising (the first, Zvenyhora, covered two thousand years of Ukrainian history), and, of course, Earth.
They were cinematically productive times but tragically complicated ones that historians are still sorting through today. Joseph Stalin’s first Five Year Plan was being initiated and the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Ukraine led to protest and mass starvation. The deaths of millions of Ukrainians under Stalin’s reign in a man-made famine—the Holodomor—wasn’t spoken of openly in the USSR until the glasnost era.
Was Earth supporting the Soviet Union’s efforts? Censors didn’t think so. Released on April 8, 1930, Earth was banned nine days later, and dismissed by Soviet authorities with labels of “biologism” and “naturalism.” Papazian states that early reception of the film praised its formal mastery but found ideological failures for emphasizing natural processes over political change. She notes that one detractor at the time, “Kremlin poet,” called it a “counter-revolutionary obscenity!” and “a Kulak cinema-film.” It was only embraced by the Soviet Union two years after Dovzhenko’s death, in 1958, and that same year was named by European critics as one of the twelve most important films in world cinema.
By the 1990s, a different interpretation took hold: critics argued the film used biological life cycles and flora-fauna imagery not to resist but to support and naturalize the idea of changes in social structure, that is, collectivizing farms. On the body of a fallen hero, a movement grows.
As Kozlenko wrote for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2013: “Dovzhenko is probably the most prominent and the most controversial personality in Ukrainian Soviet culture … He developed his own philosophical system, a political and cultural project of Ukraine far removed from dogmatic Communism … he embraced Futurism and traditionalism, utopianism and conservatism.”
He contained multitudes. As does Earth. From this juncture, it’s not synthesis, but dissonance that propels the film from its moment ninety years ago to our very present day. Papazian argues that all of those characters looking elsewhere—not at the camera, not at us, but off-screen, into the distance—are looking toward a utopia, the hopeful promise of the future in a very troubled present. Those of us from the newly troubled present are gazing out at visions of a better future as well, wondering if any such thing will ever arrive.
It’s easy to laugh at one of the film’s most earnest lines, during the eulogy for Vasyl, who died for bringing a tractor to his people. The orator speaks of how his glory will “fly all around the world,” like, he says, “that Communist airplane of ours up there!” He points. The camera follows the faces looking upward in unison, then up at the sky, but doesn’t find the airplane itself at all. Was it really there? Cut to moist, resplendent apples on trees. Is it all part of Dovzhenko’s brilliant plan?
“One does not want Dovzhenko to be advocating collectivization,” writes Papazian, “which in Ukraine became a synonym for genocide; one would prefer Earth to resist a plan that was going so wildly awry just as the film was being released in the Soviet Union and internationally.” But perhaps he was actually doing that, and—importantly, she suggests—more. “Instead of resisting the Soviet utopian ethos,” she writes, “Dovzhenko’s film resists interpretation.”
Whether you find it opaque or transparent, believe it promoted USSR policy or was a paean to his people and their traditional way of life, Earth is, in the year 2019, a wonder to watch. Its animals, humans, and plants—including wheat, that staple that’s subjugated our species—burst off the screen. In the same way that a mountain range is geographic evidence of the mighty moving plates always at play underneath us, Dovzhenko’s Earth is a physical record of cultures in collision—a monument, any way you look at it.
* Though “pears” are mentioned in a film intertitle, the fruit eaten is actually apple. Dovzhenko had a deep fondness for apples in both their metaphorical and physical forms—even planting trees at the film studio where he worked.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble