“Are you dying, Semion?”
“Yes, I’m dying, Petro.”
“Well, die then.”
From the very beginning – alternate shots of farmland, each time taking up more of the camera’s field of vision, the horizon getting higher until the earth covers the whole frame – which follows to this exchange by two old men, I was captured by the movie. But, reading the below description, I realize I wasn’t following its story closely enough. As usual with these revolutionary Russian silent films, knowledge of the history is important, and I come bearing none at all.
This final scene takes place just as the funeral of Vasyl, the slain Bolshevik, evolves into a fervent demonstration extolling the Communism for which young Vasyl died. Even Vasyl’s father, who had up to this point been skeptical about Communism’s plan to collectivize the farmlands, joins the struggle. But the kulaks, the landowning peasant class from whom the farms are being expropriated, are going down swinging. Khoma Bilokon (Pyotr Masokha), the eldest son of the area’s dominant kulak family, has already committed murder, having shot Vasyl in the back. Khoma confesses, but Earth is not a crime procedural, and Dovzhenko’s final scene is both politically sharp and poetically evocative.
Using an odd form of cross-cutting that makes Khoma’s spatial relationship to the funeral extremely ambiguous, Dovzhenko moves us between the guilty individual and the burgeoning collective, the past and the future. Khoma shouts out to the mourners that he shot Vasyl, in the back, under cover of night. The crowd completely ignores him. Hysterical, Khoma exclaims that the land belongs to him, and he even goes so far as to plant his head in the dirt and run in circles. However, both within the diegetic world of the film and within Dovzhenko’s cinematic syntax, Khoma and the kulak class are marginal, almost nonexistent. Although this image is compromised by the truth that Dovzhenko cannot depict – that of Stalin’s mass extermination of the kulaks – its representation of what it feels like when history passes you by remains unequalled.
Introducing the kulaks with my favorite edit in the film:
So it didnt bother me while watching that I don’t know what a kulak is. I got that Vasyl (Vasili in the subtitles) is excited about technology, that he plows an entire field (which did not belong to him) with the town’s brand-new tractor and is killed for it. The black-bearded man from that early scene in which Semion was dying is apparently Vasyl’s father Opanas, goes asking the townspeople who killed his son and comes across a priest.
Uncle Opanas gets intense:
“There is no god. And there are no priests either.” (the priest lowers his head) “Just like Vasili died for the new life, I’m asking you to bury him according to the new ways, neither priests nor church servants beyond the grave.” It’s an intense thing to say before a priest, and in a movie that opens with discussion of the afterlife between the elders. Vasyl’s sister or wife or somebody goes naked and crazy as he’s buried near the sunflowers, and one of V’s comrades gives a comforting speech to Uncle Opanas and everybody, as the kulak Khoma dances in the graveyard trying in vain to attract attention to himself.