The film begins with the final moments of grandfather Semyon (Simon) Opanas beneath a pear tree. Next local kulaks, including Arkhyp Bilokin, contemplate the process of collectivization and declare their resistance to it, while elsewhere Semyon's grandson Vasyl (Basil) and his komsomol friends also meet to discuss collectivization, although his father is skeptical.
Later, Vasyl arrives with the community's first tractor to much excitement. After the men urinate in the overheated radiator, the peasants plow the land with the tractor and harvest the grain. A montage sequence presents the production of bread from beginning to end. That night Vasyl dances a hopak along a path on his way home, but a dark figure attacks and kills him.
Vasyl's father turns away the priest who expects to lead the funeral, declaring his atheism. He asks Vasyl's friends to bury his son in a new way without priests and "sing new songs for a new life." The villagers do so, while Vasyl's fiancee, Natalya, mourns him painfully and the local priest curses them as impious. At the cemetery, Bilokin's son Khoma (Thomas) arrives in a frenzy to declare that he will resist collectivization and that he was the one who killed Vasyl, but the villagers pay him no attention. One declares that Vasyl's glory will fly around the world like a new communist airplane. The film ends with a downpour of rain over fruit and vegetables.Stepan Shkurat as Uncle Opanas
Semen Svashenko as Vasyl
Yuliya Solntseva as Vasyl's sister
Yelena Maksimova as Natalya, Vasili's fiancee
Mykola Nademsky as Semen "Simon"
Ivan Franko as Arkhyp Bilokin (Whitehorse), Khoma's father
Petro Masokha as Khoma Bilokin (Whitehorse)
Volodymyr Mikhajlov as Village priest
Pavlo Petrik as Young party-cell leader
Luka Lyashenko as Young Kulak
The political and historic events of Earth and the agricultural developments of Dovzhenko's home country Ukraine was a hot topic during the film's production and laid the foundation of the controversy that the film's release caused. In 1906 the Tzar had allowed peasants to own private land, which they then passed down through the generations. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, these peasants in Ukraine wanted to keep their family land and farms and the Soviet government tolerated them. After the grain shortages in the late 1920s, Joseph Stalin decided that it was necessary to eliminate "rural capitalism" in these regions and take control of the farming industry in 1929. Stalin stated "We must smash the Kulaks, eliminate them as a class." Some of the land-owning peasants fought back and began to sabotage agricultural machines. The local Kulaks were more militant and committed violent acts against Soviet officials. Most Ukrainians wanted to keep their private land, especially since compared to many other parts of Russia their land was agriculturally rich and fertile. In the middle of the political conflict surrounding this topic, Dovzhenko made a lyrical and poetic film depicting the lives of Ukrainian farmers that many Soviet officials considered completely inappropriate.
Dovzhenko wrote the original scenario for Earth in 1929 in response to the newfound collectivisation of small villages in Ukraine, which he described as "a period not only of economic transformation but also of mental transformation of the whole people." He based the character of Semen on his own grandfather and the murder of Vasyl on the assassination of a Soviet agent by Kulaks in his own home district.
This was Dovzhenko's first film with Kiev Studios after having impressed both critics and the Soviet government with his first two films. He once again used cinematographer and collaborator Danylo Demutsky on this film. Dovzhenko later adapted the film into a novelization and published the completed scenario in 1952. In Ukrainian and Russian, the title "Zemlia" translates to "earth" in the sense of soil, land or ground.
Earth received very positive reviews. Earth was simultaneously lauded and derided by Soviet authorities due to its fairly ambiguous political message on such a controversial political subject. It first premiered in Kharkiv, Ukraine in the spring of 1930 during an event held to honor the local Dovzhenko. The film was an immense success and received a standing ovation. This was the only occasion during its initial release that Earth was praised and afterwards it was criticized by Soviet journalists. One critic called it "ideologically vicious" and some Communist Party officials accused Dovzhenko of wasting public funds on the film. Pravda praised the film's visual style but claimed it had a false political message. The official spokesman for the Red Army officially endorsed the film. Soviet communist artist Demyan Bedny called the film "counterrevolutionary" and "defeatist". Bedny was known as "The Kremlin Poet" and was also a personal friend of Joseph Stalin. He publicly criticized the film in the form of a satirical poem that appeared in Izvestia in which he stated that the film naively took a philosophical attitude towards political reality. The film was severely cut by the Soviet government. Dovzhenko was so upset by the negative reaction to the film that, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he left Ukraine and traveled throughout Europe screening his films and experimenting with newly developed sound equipment available in western Europe.
Film critic C. A. Lejeune praised the film's main section, saying that it "contains perhaps more understanding of pure beauty in cinema, more validity of relation in moving image, than any ten minutes of production yet known to the screen." Lewis Jacobs compared Dovzhenko's work to Eisenstein and Pudovkin, stating that Dovzhenko "had added a deep personal and poetic insight...[his films] are laconic in style, with a strange, wonderfully imaginative quality difficult to describe." Film director Grigori Roshal praised the film, he wrote "Neither Eisenstein nor Pudovkin have achieved the tenderness and warmth in speaking about men and the world that Alexander Dovzhenko has revealed. Dovzhenko is always experimental. He is always an innovator and always a poet."
The film was voted one of the twelve 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.
Earth is usually considered Dovzhenko's best film, and is often cited alongside Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925) as one of the most important films of the Soviet era. Dovzhenko's biographer Marco Carynnyk lauded the film's "passionate simplicity...which has made it a masterpiece of world cinema" and praised its "powerful lyric affirmation of life." It was ranked #88 in the 1995 Centenary Poll of the 100 Best Films of the Century in Time Out magazine. The work also received 10 critics' votes in the 2012 Sight & Sound polls of the world's greatest films. In the British Film Institute page for Earth, it is noted that the plot "is secondary to the extraordinarily potent images of wheatfields, ripe fruit and weatherbeaten faces […] Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) is in a similar rhapsodic tradition."
Earth is the first film in a double-feature which Woody Allen's character goes to see in the movie Manhattan.