Mr. Bongo Films in the UK is releasing a DVD of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) “fully restored and in its full-length version” next month, and it’s a beauty to behold. Appreciating a silent film sometimes requires that we adjust our modern reflexes to engage it on its own terms, but this monumental and passionate work is one of the exceptions, the last and most poetic entry of Dovzhenko’s loose silent trilogy about the violent social forces sweeping through peasant Ukrainian lives in the first decade of the Soviet Union. Rhapsodic and intensely lyrical, the film dramatizes the deep tensions that erupted in farming communities between kulak private interests and the industrialized, collectivist efforts following Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan in 1928.
According to Russian historian George O. Liber’s informative 2002 biography, Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film, the filmmaker, himself the son of Ukranian peasants, began making Earth–which clearly supports the dreams of collectivization–in the summer of ’29, some months before the Soviet authorities ordered “the liquidation of the kulaks as a class” and began rounding them up and shipping them off to Siberia. Yet the film was far from politically correct; Dovzhenko was harshly criticized for emphasizing the eternal beauty of nature rather than stoking class fury, and indulging in poeticism (a Stalinist shift from the Soviet experimentation of the ’20s). Liber writes:
“When Dovzhenko began to shoot Earth in 1929, his political message conformed to the Communist Party’s interpretation. By the spring of 1930, however, this same message had become suspect. In reaction to his search for harmony in an increasingly violent and brutal environment, Dovzhenko’s critics began to question his political motivations.”
The censors demanded that he cut three scenes from the film: farmers urinating in a radiator to keep a tractor moving; a woman ripping off her garments in grief; another woman grimacing as she gives birth to a child. Dovzhenko refused, but the cuts were made anyway. The film was restored years later, and although Kino’s current DVD in the US (taken from a 1971 Mosfilm print) includes all three scenes, it suffers heavily from a dark, grainy transfer, an incorrect (speedy) projection rate, and dramatic cropping of the frame. This latter problem is most severe given Dovzhenko’s penchant for compositions emphasizing majestic skies and low horizons. Below are a number of comparisons I’ve made between the Mr. Bongo DVD (apparently a port of the German absolut Medien Arte edition) and the Kino DVD:
This last comparison illustrates how a gorgeous shot of moonlight streaming down from the clouds has been rendered virtually unrecognizable in the Kino edition. Dovzhenko shot the film with his longtime cinematographer, the brilliant Danylo Demutsky (who was arrested and exiled to Kazakhstan soon after the duo’s subsequent 1932 film, Ivan), and the bucolic imagery of later filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick is almost unthinkable without their precedent.
The Mr. Bongo DVD trumps the Kino edition (originally produced on a microbudget in the ’90s as part of its “Red Silents” series) on every count: it runs 78 minutes (presumably at the correct projection rate) compared to Kino’s 73 minutes (including its custom text preface). The Bongo DVD subtitles the original Russian intertitles, whereas the Kino adds new English intertitles (and exhibits slightly different editing of the intertitles at times, wrecking havoc with Dovzhenko’s rhythms). And the Bongo contains a very impressive high-fidelity score that is clearly tailor-made for the film; my only complaint is that the review disc I received doesn’t contain any documentation or even credit the score, which is presumably by Alexander Popov and originally recorded for the German release.