For so many years an automatic choice in the critics’ polls of the 10 best films, does Dovzhenko’s Earth really live up to that hype? I finally got the chance to view it on 23 May at the NFT and it came across as a weird blend of the lyrical, the portentous, the queasy and the ludicrous. Majestic long-shots of oxen and horses mix with an acting style unchanged since the days of Bauer. People strike poses and orate in good Socialist Realist style – as long as they are Socialists. The Kulaks cringe. Little children play with apples; the Komsomol drive tractors at improbable speeds. When Vassili either dies or is killed – it is not entirely clear in the film – Natalka runs around naked in her grief. A peasant runs circles in the cornfields. Lyrical shots of the wind in the corn give way to rug-chewing oratory.
Vassili is the authentic young Socialist hero, standing tall and proud with a lock of hair falling into his eyes – rather like Mayakovsky in The Young Lady and the Hooligan. How far Dovzhenko is to blame for the film’s short-comings is anyone’s guess. However, I do not think that I ever knew that it had been subjected to censure or maybe censorship – I am fairly sure that no Western critics or idolators of Soviet cinema that I read in my youth ever mentioned that fact. Even in the form in which it survives, though, it is easy to see why the Party did not like it. It is not dogmatic or didactic enough. It is not easy to distinguish Kulaks from the other peasants although, ironically, the Komsomol are clearly distinguished by their arrogant, assertive body-language. A few title-cards convey anti-Kulak feeling but it does not arise very clearly from the images. If anything, you suspect that Dovzhenko is being lyrical, almost mystical, about the bond between men, beasts and the land – a bond that is broken by mechanisation. The benefits of mechanisation are far from being celebrated here. The most completely realised sequence is right at the start with toddlers playing with the apple harvest while Stepan talks with his father, who is dying amidst his family and the harvest. A girl looks on, standing beside a giant sunflower as tall as she is. It is as strange as an illustration from a science fiction magazine – but with suitable embellishments it could make a Socialist Realist poster, although ante-dating the style by a few years.
So, while it is less objectionable than an Eisenstein film, it is hard to see why Earth has been so feted. Was the strange conflation of styles intended by Dovzhenko or is it a result of meddling by the Party?