Sunday, April 21, 2013

Earth (Zemlya)

Earth (Zemlya)
Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Starring: Nature and a tractor and Ukrainian farmers, in that order.

I don’t know.  I just don’t know about this movie.  It’s… I don’t know.  According to 1001 Movies, this is Dovzhenko’s “ode” (their word, not mine) to the beginning of collectivization in Russia.  Sure it is, that’s totally the message I got from this one, whatever you say.

So this is what I could make of the plot: a small village of Ukrainian farmers celebrates life and death and tractors.  People die, babies eat watermelons, the rich farmers battle it out with the poor farmers, and tractors.  Something about a son dying, which is different from the old guy dying at the beginning of the film, and there naturally is a scene where the men are rallied into a political frenzy.  And then tractors.  And awesome Russian beards.  And apples.  Because, y’know, they’re apples.

My favorite parts of this movie were, in no particular order:

  1. How Simon, apparently on his deathbed, sits up with zero effort, demands something to eat, has an apple, then says “Well goodbye, I’m dyin’.”  And then lays down and dies.  That was awesome.
  2. How a man is argued to about politics for five minutes, but we have no intertitles about what the political guys are saying.  They just yell and yell and yell and he listens.  Then they leave, and he says, with intertitles, “Well I’ll be a sonuvabitch, them fellows are real class!”  I bet they were, after yelling at you for five minutes straight.
  3. Simon’s epitaph.  Right after Simon dies, the only thing anyone says about him is “He liked pears.”  That’s a good epitaph.  I want my epitaph to be “She liked pears.”
  4. The utterly ridiculous “bumpkin-izing” of the English translation of the intertitles.  I watched this off of Netflix streaming, and Kino popped up at the beginning of the film, so I imagine this is the Kino edition.  That being said, great effort was made to turn the Russian intertitles into country rube speech.  “Let ‘er fly,” “There ain’t no god,” “You dyin’ Simon?” “Where ye be down there?”  Nothing like silly intertitles to make you laugh.
  5. The apology that came at the beginning of the film.  Before the movie even started, I had to sit through several minutes of an onscreen essay explaining why this was an “important film.”  Here’s a hint: this does not bode well for me if the distributors of the film feel the need to justify the film’s place in history.  The film should speak for itself.  If I want to research the history and politics that surround this film, which I usually will to some extent, then I will do so on my own.  The essay felt like a thinly veiled apology for the silliness of the movie, a weak attempt at justification.
  6. How the filmmaker actually got a horse to nod his head in agreement with the farmers.  That’s doesn’t feel like Mr. Ed at all, oh no, and it certainly helps make the movie more serious.
  7. The tractor is the real star of the film.  People talk about it with the same verve and excitement as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  So when the tractor goes kaput on the way to the village, the men naturally piss on it to make it go.  And then it does.  That was awesome.
  8. The five-minute long walk this guy takes down a dirt road and then he randomly breaks out in a dance.  And then he gets shot or something.  The best part was I wasn’t able to tell which character he was for his long, slow, and ridiculously drawn out nighttime stroll.  You want me to feel sympathy for this, Dovzhenko?  Then you need to do a much better job making it clear exactly who it is walking down the road.
  9. The never-ending funeral dirge.  That was fun.  Because I need to see every step of a five-mile-long march played out in real time.  That makes for good cinema, oh most definitely.
I like apples.

The theme of life and death and nature is clearly Dovzhenko’s main point, pouring on a little bit of politics as well.  When Simon dies at the beginning, he is (rather inexplicably) surrounded by piles of apples, and we keep on cutting to blowing fields of wheat.  Dovzhenko is definitely making the point that death is simply a part of nature.  We get similar cuts to nature throughout the film, always reminding us that we’re part of the great Circle of Life. 

The politicking, though, is a bit odd, especially as everyone in the film are farmers.  There are good farmers and bad farmers, and little reason given for their differences.  I will give the film the benefit of the doubt and lay it on my ignorance.  I am willing to bet that if I was watching this movie as a member of 1930s Russia, I would have a much better idea what was going on with the politics of the time.  All I get from this go around, however, is that the rich farmers are evil bastards because they’re evil.  And that’s about it.

The sequence where wheat is harvested was actually the most exciting part of the film, and where Dovzhenko managed to make a pretty darn good montage.  Helped along (greatly) by a frenetic soundtrack, we follow along from the beloved tractor pulling up the wheat to it being carted off to a factory and eventually turned into loaves of bread.  It wasn’t a story, per se, but it was a neat little bit to the film.  And god help me, it honestly was more exciting than anything else in the movie.  Isn’t that a little sad.

Yay wheat!

Quite frankly, if I’m going to submit myself to a Russian propaganda film, I’d pick something else entirely.  I’d want Eisenstein.  At least Eisenstein has the ability to conjure up some propaganda-fueled anger.  This film is curiously emotion-free.  It’s just trees and fields and villagers running and tractors.  And because it’s emotion-free, holy crap but it feels long, which is a very bad sign because it’s not long, not at all. 

Should you watch it?  Sure, if you like tractors.  Or wheat.  If not, though, take a pass.

Arbitrary Rating: 3/10.


  1. This is on the list because of who it was made by, when it was made, and what it was about, but not because it has anything remotely resembling an interesting narrative. It didn't do much for me when I watched it, other than the fact I could check it off the list.

    1. Yep. That's about it. This... no... nope.

  2. Your review expresses my feelings about Earth better than I ever could. I feel just the same way except that I couldn't stand the score.

    I always thought something was wrong with me. Critics have called this a masterpiece. Not only that, but per Wikipedia: "The film was voted one of the ten greatest films of all time by a group of 117 film historians at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair and named one of the top ten greatest films of all time by the International Film Critics Symposium. It was named #88 in the 1995 Centenary Poll of the 100 Best Films of the Century in Time Out magazine."

    1. The score was only alright, but I liked it in the wheat montage part the best. As a whole, it wasn't terribly memorable.

      I admit to being a little high falutin' in my taste in film sometimes, but even I have my limits. I don't understand why this is a considered a masterpiece one bit.

  3. All I can say is that the arrival of the tractor brings so much excitement that I was expecting it to be 30 feet high, have nitro tanks and spoilers, and to be fueled by the blood of Jesus. How sad is your world when having a tractor is depicted as being a cause for this much celebration.

    Yeah, I was pretty much dumbfounded by this one.

    1. This whole movie is sad. And not intentionally. Tractors and apples - that's what I got out of it.

  4. At least we get a good laugh. Read your nine bullets again and try not to chuckle. It is impossible. This film is so ridiculous that it is actually fun... afterwards.

    I saw this with a friend who is really into Russian films. We were looking forward to the highly anticipated scene where they are pissing on the tractor and lo and behold, they are doing it! I think if you have a tractor fetish then this film must really be the thing. Imagine that a tractor can make so many people so happy. I almost felt happy too about that tractor. It is so... beautiful. Oh my!

    I am still chuckling at your bullets... He really liked apples...

    1. "It is actually fun... afterwards."

      YES. It is not fun while you watch it. But looking back on it, it's so incomprehensible, it is rather fun.

      I should go make some fruit salad now... all this talk about apples and pears... and then I'll bake some bread with wheat made from the tears of Soviet farmers.

  5. Replies
    1. ha ha, thanks! Bad movies bring out my sarcastic side.