"The tractor is coming": a classic of Soviet unrealism

Sep 9, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:many striking visual compositions and montages

Cons:static and irremediably dishonest

The Bottom Line: If you are craving silent Soviet propaganda movies, stick to Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

The Ukrainian Aleksandr Dovzhenko (1894-1956) was the third member of the trinity of writer-directors of early Soviet cinema. (In this regard, I am a monotheist, and the only Soviet director/deity was Sergei Eisenstein; the second was Vsevold Pudovkin.) "Zemlya" (titled "Earth" in English-language release) is Dovzhenko's masterpiece.

Although (despite appearances, having just dismissed a picturesque film by Jean Renoir!) I am not on an iconoclastic binge, I have to say that I found "Zemlya" excruciating. I will readily grant that it has some striking visual compositions and that some of these involve movement. That is, that they are not just a succession of painterly stills. There is the movement of the wind on the wheat, the rain on the apples, a surging crowd... though the human movement is generally not very interesting (except for the hero dancing drunkenly down a dark country lane).

There are many people who would not want to watch "Zemlya" because
(1) it is a black-and-white movie
(2) it is a silent movie (no spoken dialogue, but it has a musical score)
(3) it is crude propaganda
(4) it is crude propaganda for a bloody and otherwise very questionable policy (collectivization)
(5) it is exceedingly dishonest about the direction of violence in the social transformation it portrays.

Although the list above has more than three strikes against the movie, and the picture quality is poor (a significant detriment to enjoying the visual excellences of the movie!), they would not have deterred me from examining it. However, it is also uninvolving, undramatic, and boring. The intended audience (Russian and Ukrainian peasants of 1930) rejected it, so it was not even effective propaganda (unlike "Triumph of the Will" or "The Battleship Potemkin"). Dovzhenko managed to outlive Stalin and directed ten more movies before Stalin's death (plus one after it), but his reputation as one of the Soviet masters lies in his last three silent films, especially this one. Obviously, there's no place for him in my pantheon.

The Story

After some sentimental nonsense about an old peasant dying, peasants in some unspecified locale (in the Ukraine) learn that farms are going to be collectivized. Vassily, the grandson of the old man who died, lectures his father on the obsolescence of oxen and the modernization that collectivization will enable. His father is not convinced.

Vassily triumphantly drives a tractor down a dirt road. Peasants crowd around and the tractor breaks down before doing any work. However, the problem is only that the radiator is empty. Once filled (in the original cut, with urine), Vassily is able to get to work and there are shots of the ancient tractor plowing.

I'm not sure how one plows over a fence and it is not shown, but Vassily is said to have plowed over the fence onto the farm of some "kulak" (the pejorative term for non-subsistence farmers, a "class" that the Leninist/Stalinist state set out to exterminate). There are some exceedingly boring discussions, and then a seemingly drunken Vassily is dancing down the deserted country lane. Suddenly, he falls to the ground. Dozvshenko did not show a shooter, and if a funeral had not followed, I might have thought Vassily was "dead drunk" rather than dead.

The montage that follows includes a naked woman almost literally bouncing off the walls of a hut. I guess she is Vassily's widow, but there was nothing about a marital relationship earlier. The scenes are not at all prurient and are intercut (montage being a distinguishing feature of early Soviet cinema, especially championed by Eisenstein).

The funeral is a big production with a large crowd and a communist orator. His rant ends with the claim that the glory of Vassily will be carried aloft like the "communist airplane" overhead. Oddly, there is no shot of this prodigy (unlike the much-photographed tractor), so I don't know how a "communist airplane" differs from other kinds. Counterpoised to the exhortations to a prosperous communist future, Thomas, the "kulak" who shot Vassily (and is also seemingly drunk) produces a counter-rant admitting that he murdered the popular young communist. The funeral-goers ignore him and Thomas recapitulates Vassily's last dance, except that it is a dance of frustration rather than the joy of the happy communist.

Then there is a montage of scenes of rain falling, mostly on apples. Since most of the apples on the ground, this suggests rot to me, but I doubt that this was the propagandists' intent.

I have already noted that violence during the era of forced collectivization was primarily directed at the "kulaks," though "Zemlya" has a "kulak" murderer and a communist victim. The movie also portrays collectivization as voluntary, which is mostly wasn't.

The bottom line is that beyond being a blatantly false propagandistic representation of a policy that decreased agricultural productivity and killed great numbers, "Zemlya" is boring. Striking compositions and not enough, though if movies were judged frame by frame, "Zemlya" might be a masterpiece.

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