Film: Zemlya (Earth)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
There are films that I put off for a long time. A case in point is Zemlya (Earth), Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film about a Soviet collective farm, rich farmers, and a tractor. Since we started our NetFlix account a year or so ago, Zemlya has been in my queue, but I haven’t really done anything about that until tonight. It was finally time to sit down and bull my way through the film, like it or not. “Not” is the operative word here.
Let’s start with the positives, which can be counted on a single hand. The primary good thing about Zemlya is that it is extremely short, clocking in at just over an hour. And, if you press me on this, I’ll grudgingly admit that it is an excellent example of the Soviet montage style of the silent era. Dovzhenko had an eye for composition and visual effect, and that is evident in this film. Despite its age and the fact that the print I watched is not in the best of shape and could use remastering, there are a number of visual moments here that are quite striking and lovely.
Sadly, this can’t make up for the fact that Zemlya is staggeringly dull. Seriously dull. Dull as a beige room. Dull as a lecture on cheese enzymes. Dull as processed American cheese food slices on white bread. For a good ten minutes or so at one point, we see grain being harvested, sorted, tied into sheaves, ground, and made into bread. It almost plays in these moments like a documentary film about agricultural production, narrated by someone with a deep and authoritative voice. You can almost hear someone saying, “Grain falls through these hoppers and is conveniently and accurately sorted by size and weight. From here, it moves to processing to be separated from the chaff, ground, and turned into delicious bread flour for the glory of the Soviet proletariat.”
Here’s the entire plot, or at least as much as I can say without giving away the whole shebang: peasants in a small Ukrainian village pool their money together and buy a tractor to benefit everyone. When the tractor is on its way, people stand around shouting that the tractor is coming (and based on the length of this scene, it’s evidently critical that everyone in the area shout about the coming tractor. Seriously, the build uo for the reveal of this magical piece of farm equipment is so long that I was expecting something plated in gold and fueled by the blood of Christ). The tractor is used to bring in a big harvest for the peasants, which threatens the kulaks, or wealthy land owners. One of the kulaks shoots the guy who drove the tractor, which causes the peasants to get their underpants in a twist and go a-marchin’.
It’s evident that Dovzhekho was a lot more concerned with the visuals than he was with such niceties as plot and script. The opening of the film shows a man under an apple tree dealing everyone that he is going to die, and is simply waiting around for death to strike him. Told by another character that he should just die then, he promptly does, almost dutifully. This is accompanied by such lines of immortal dialogue as “I’m going to die now.”
There are a few weird moments, such as a nude woman doing a full-on vice lock of her boobs at one point, and the killer of the young man driving his face into freshly plowed ground and running in a circle like Curly Howard. Great for a little WTF action toward the end, but even these moments of surreal goofiness can't stop this from being a real plodder.
Silent dramas are a hard watch in this day, and Zemlya ranks pretty high in terms of being a difficult film to get through. It’s equally interesting that film obviously made with a specific propaganda plot (get Soviet farmers to give up their own farms and work communally), but it also goes against its own message. It’s ambiguous in that it would be very easy to suggest that the true message of this film is nothing like a celebration of soviet collectiveness, but a condemnation of the same—the farmers’ way of life must now change in new and exciting ways to accommodate the reality of the tractor over the slower, more traditional ways of harvesting.
And so, Zemlya is about a tractor, and Soviet collectivism, and life and death. It could also easily be pared down into a film about half this length. Zemlya feels important because it is important, but I can think of no earthly reason other than it being a required watch for The List that anyone would want to watch this piece of slow, tractor-fueled somnambulism.
Why to watch Zemlya: You like watching Soviet farmers yell at each other.
Why not to watch: It’s a soporific on film.