Zemlya (Earth)

Zemlya (1930): Soviet Union – directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko

Not rated by the MPAA – contains brief nudity and peeing in a tractor

And now for something that almost no one will have any interest in.  Zemlya is a bit of an older movie.  It’s silent, was made in 1930, and is Russian.  It’s about some old timey Russian farmers and how their lives change a little bit with the introduction of technology.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s exactly what it’s about.  Here’s the story: we start with the death of an old man.  He’s been plowing the fields for 75 years with his oxen.  His son and grandson are standing by as he perishes.  Shortly after this the government sends the village a tractor.  It’s a great cause for celebration and soon it’s tearing through the earth like the oxen could never imagine.

There’s a funny scene when the tractor stops working on its way to the village.  It has run out of water for the radiator and the men are starting to panic.  Pretty soon it hits them: urine is mostly water!  So a couple of them supply the tractor with their extra fluids and it goes on its merry way.

After the tractor starts doing its thing there’s a long montage showing vast improvements in farming techniques and technology, all the way up to sorting machines.  Then the film returns to the village, where the old man’s grandson is happy, but then dies.  His father curses God and declares that there shall be no priests at the funeral.  As the villagers march to bury the young man themselves, singing songs about the new life, the priest asks God to punish the sinners.  Then we see one man running around like a crazy person, even pushing his head into the dirt and running around it in circles.  There’s also a woman (I think the young man’s wife) who is naked and goes crazy in her room, beating on things.  Yes, they had nudity back in 1930.

Being a silent film it’s sometimes a bit hard to tell what’s happening.  I have to confess that I have a great deal of trouble making it through many silent movies.  This one is under 80 minutes long and I still struggled.  It’s built more like a series of photographs or paintings.  Each shot is set up nicely, and some are outright gorgeous.  There are a lot of themes in the film, mostly about life and the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  I probably didn’t pick up on most of it, and I resisted the temptation to read other people’s analyses before writing this.  I’m sure there are many people out there who are more educated and better writers than I, and I’m sure they’ve spent a lot more time on this film.

I’m not sure how wide an audience would be interested in Zemlya in this day and age.  Fans of early Soviet cinema will be interested, primarily as it contains a lot of the famous Russian montage that Eisenstein clarified for the world of film.  It’s a good movie, well put together with some very impressive images, but it still takes some patience and perseverance to get through.  It’s also not a traditional film with a clear narrative structure, but more like a cross between a standard film and a documentary.  People interested in the history of cinema might want to take a look, but I’m not sure Zemlya contains enough modern elements to engage the modern casual film-goer.

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