Zemlaya (Earth) (1930) Director: Alexander Dovzhenko
Zemlaya is silent Soviet propaganda film, and is Dozhenko’s best known film in the West. It is part three of his Ukraine trilogy (he only personally directed seven films during his lifetime, before focusing on novels, instead).
The story loosely follows a family of farmers in Ukraine, during the controversial process of Soviet collectivization. After the October revolution that brought the Bolsheviks into power, the Soviet Union underwent a thorough process of de-privatization of all business, however a group of farmers in Ukraine, called the Kulaks, resisted and were allowed to keep their farms until the Stalin era, in which the “rich farmers” were wiped out. The film portrays the story of a Kulak peasant family – the elder generation opposes the collectivization, while the younger generation embraces the new ways. The film gives a positive view to the new collectivization, showing the old ways to be dying and insufficient. This film was released during the height of the conflict between the Soviet government and Ukrainian peasants over their rich, fertile land. Thus, it was criticized by the Soviet government, despite its supportive views of collectivization. The transliterated Russian word “Zemlaya” can also be translated as “soil” or “land”. The most celebrated scenes in the film occur when the new tractor arrives in town, and new machinery like airplanes are praised by the crowd. The movie closes with beautiful and simple scenes of fruit with rain beating down on them.
Along with The Battleship Potemkin (1925), the film is considered one of the finest and most important Soviet films. The film was later alluded to in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, as the first in a double-feature that his character goes to see at the theatre.
Alexander Duvzhenko (1894-1956) is one of the most enduring Soviet filmmakers, along with Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov. He was raised in Ukraine. He was a teacher and then served in the Red Army until his capture as a prisoner-of-war. He directed only seven films and became a novel writer when he returned to the USSR. He died in 1956 of a heart attack in the Soviet Union.
Zemlaya is a good movie, primarily for its beautiful extended shots of the rolling, wind-blown wheat fields of Ukraine, or the closing shots of rain gently falling on fruit. The quality of the film has unfortunately deteriorated and the plot is difficult to engage with. It is remembered for its controversy, and as another example of blatant propaganda from an Eastern European authoritarian regime, though the film is very different from some of the Nazi propaganda films. It can be avoided, except by true devotees of the cinematic craft.