Zemlaya (Earth) (1930) Director: Alexander Dovzhenko
Zemlaya is silent Soviet propaganda film, and it is generally considered Dozhenko’s best regarded film in the West. Zemlaya is part three of his Ukraine trilogy (he only personally directed seven films during his lifetime, before deciding to focus on writing novels instead). Zemlaya is an impressive movie in my view, primarily for its beautifully extensive shots of the rolling, wind-blown wheat fields of Ukraine, or the closing shots of rain gently falling on fruit. However, the quality of the film has unfortunately deteriorated and the plot is difficult to engage with. It is remembered for its controversy, and as for its blatant use of propaganda at the behest of an authoritarian regime, though the film is very different from some of the Nazi propaganda films.
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 era of Stalin, 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 effort, showing the old ways to be decaying 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 growing while rain beats down from above.
Along with The Battleship Potemkin (1925), Zemlaya is broadly considered one of the finest and most important Soviet propaganda 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 a 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 where he worked as 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.