Between Realism and Imagination

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

Should film construct a reality for us to inhabit, or reveal the world we live in? A perceived division between the two has haunted film criticism for nearly a century. In 1951, Andre Bazin’s The Evolution of the Language of Cinema defined the opposition: on one side was montage film, which reorganized snippets of life to create powerful political juxtapositions, as epitomized by Soviet filmmakers; on the other side was realism, which lingered on images for longer periods and made its artistic or political agenda more ambiguous, epitomized by Western and Central European filmmakers. Between the montage filmmakers who “put their faith in the image” and the realist filmmakers who “put their faith in reality,” Bazin preferred the latter. Meaning was simply more powerful when it resided in objectively filmed reality. Bazin believed that the invention of soundtrack and depth of field sounded the death knell of the didactic montage school, and that realist style would define cinema’s future, fulfilling film’s essential role—the portrayal of an ambiguous world which the viewer must interpret for themselves. 

Although Bazin is no longer widely read, the influence of his realist sentiment continues to resonate in modern cinema, reproduced each time someone criticizes a film for being too didactic and not realistic enough. Yet such a preference for realism faces a political problem: it leaves little room for political imagination. Bazinian realism is almost entirely incompatible with communist cinema, which imagines a communist society and tries to usher it into being (versus  Marxist film, which may offer a class analysis of society without proposing a remedy). Since communist reality was never built, communist filmmakers attempting to participate in its construction were forced to depart from realism into the world of the future. Bazin’s account of important developments in realist cinema from 1930-1940 entirely excluded Soviet films, which is understandable if one takes communist film to be inherently didactic. Yet if Bazin had seen Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), a film which adheres to many of his realist tenets while engaging with the offscreen world of future communism, I believe he may have changed his mind about the incompatibility of these two tendencies in cinema. Earth’s fusion of realism with political imagination challenges the division between contemplative and Marxist cinema which has haunted film theory since Bazin. 

The narrative of Earth falls under Bazin’s category of didactic cinema, portraying a conflict between a young communist named Vasyl and his anti-collectivization father Opanas. When the communist party provides the town with a tractor, the people rejoice in the newfound speed of their collective harvest and overturn markers delineating individual property, including that of kulak Khoma Bilokin, who lashes out by killing Vasyl. Vasyl’s death awakens proletarian consciousness in Opanas, who arranges an atheist funeral for his son in which religious rites are replaced with young people singing “new songs about the new life.” As in Eisenstein, Earth’s portrayal of young collectivists’ sacrifices and eventual victories over counter-revolutionary kulaks demonstrates the inevitable triumph of the collectivist social order, aided by machinery, over the perversion of private property.

Despite its political project, however, Earth falls stylistically closer to Bazin’s exemplary realists than to the Soviet avant-garde. Dovzhenko uses plastics and editing sparingly, primarily composing Earth with wide, long shots; the film opens with a 40-second long sequence composed of only four shots of wind blowing through wheat fields, reaching an extreme of slowness in a later four-minute sequence in which Vasyl does nothing but walk down a street at night, see a horse, and dance. As Bazin predicted, this preservation of spatiotemporal unity  “brings ambiguity back into the structure of the image,” tasking the viewer with the job of interpretation which rapid editing would have done for them. What distinguishes Dovzhenko from classic realism, however, is that Earth’s ambiguity is not entirely undirected, but rather guided toward a political imagination of a communist future. 

The tension between political aims and realist aesthetics is resolved in Dovzhenko’s use of offscreen space. Dovzhenko frequently shows close-up gazes without an eyeline match, views without corresponding gazes, and characters speaking without title cards clarifying speech; all unresolved images necessitate completion by the viewer’s imagination. At times the images are relatively realistic—for instance, we see a woman giving birth but are never shown her baby, forcing us to imagine him—but at times they are politically charged, compelling us to imagine the collectivist future. The young communists’ explication of communism during their argument with Opanas is unreported, and a number of images signifying communism are implied but not shown, most notably a “Communist airplane overhead” described by Vasyl’s friend during his funeral oration but never actually displayed on screen. “Meaning within the frame” and “meaning outside the frame” not only cohabitate, but actively reinforce each other. The scenes which engage with offscreen space are able to do so precisely due to their realism, which emphasizes the incompleteness of their frames and forces the viewer to resolve the image by projecting a communist future. 

Earth demonstrates that realist style does not contradict the imaginative component inherent to communist cinema, but can instead fuse with it to create a progressive contemplation, a political indeterminacy. This dialectical synthesis of two opposing styles speaks to Earth’s overarching project; during a time of conflict between the religious peasantry of the Soviet countryside and the utopian machine-driven project of communism, Dovzhenko tried to pave the way for a fruitful fusion of old and new lifestyles. We should not forget that the actual impact of this attempted fusion was a brutal campaign resulting in millions of deaths by starvation. Nonetheless, for any viewer who is unwilling to ascribe realist or slow-moving films the purely apolitical task of depicting ambiguous images, Earth is a must-watch, a stunning pioneer of politically imaginative ambiguity.

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