Zemlya is boring as hell but it’s very artful, very pretty, and even though it’s basically just Leninist propaganda in the same box with Eisenstein’s hellish menage (Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October) it does, unlike that latter batch, feel kind of warm. It doesn’t do much with its characters, and the story’s kinda meh, but it’s there’s definitely an emotional core to it. I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it sounds right.
I paused the movie about halfway through, when I felt like I wasn’t getting anything out of it, and started reading blog posts and essays that might gimme some sense. There wasn’t much. The few pieces I read were all in apparent consensus that Zemlya is a movie of its time that needs to be seen in a historical context – otherwise it’s kinda baffling.
So here’s what I found. I’ve got just a tenuous grasp on this, so be gentle with corrections: the Bolsheviks, who took power during the October Revolution, were led by Vladimir Lenin for the few remaining years of his life. When Lenin died in 1924 he was succeeded by Joseph Stalin. One of Stalin’s early projects was to have independent farmers give up their land, pool their efforts, and work on state-owned farms that – from how they’re often described – seem to have basically been factories. Alexander Dovzhenko, the director, was tasked with making a propaganda film (this one) that endorsed this collective farming practice. Hence, Zemlya is about a bunch of farmers pooling their resources to buy a tractor. The reason this movie resonates as a political document is because it isn’t so nakedly in favor of the government like other bits of propaganda from that era. Ballsy. The movie shows a montage of the tractor in action, and of the farmers all gleeful at the phenomenal productivity, but the movie is also clearly about a celebration of the old ways of doing things. It’s kind of elegiac.
So that’s the story behind the movie, best as I can tell it. The morbid but illuminating historical postscript is that the country’s shift toward this collectivized farming was a disaster that opened the gates for what I’ve seen writers calling “controlled famine” – so genocide, basically. The independent farmers who refused to get on board with it, to surrender their lands and start working for the state, were labeled Kulaks. When it became hard to deny that the collective farming was a failure, Stalin was like, “Well that’s because the Kulak’s keep sabotaging our business.” So now Kulaks were criminals. And what was a Kulak? Well, the government pitched them as being prosperous farmers. Still peasants, yes, but prosperous peasants. They owned livestock and could afford to hire help. So the government officials, while generally just raiding people’s houses to rob them of whatever grain they might have, confiscated everything these Kulaks had, their crops and livestock and land, and then either shot them or put them on trains to random desolate places. Siberia and the like. Those who survived the journey seldom fared much better where they landed.
Zemlya would sit well beside Man with a Movie Camera as a movie that asks a modern viewer to adopt a new perspective in order to appreciate it, and then rewards that effort. It wasn’t fun, but it was definitely a gateway toward learning some stuff that’s pretty far outta my element. So I feel good about that. This has been one of the Project’s most surprising perks: finally shoehorning me into an understanding, however slim, of world history. Kinda like all these dudes working together to buy a tractor, every movie steers me toward reading something new, something informative, that hopefully, with time, will sow something like intelligence.