Still from Karel Plicka's film The Earth Sings

Artwork of the Month, May 2022: The Earth Sings by Karel Plicka (1933)

In 1934, two Czechoslovak films were sent to the Venice Film Festival. The first was Gustav Machatý’s Extase from 1933, which not only brought its protagonist, the young Hedy Lamarr, to fame, but also caused outrage for its explicit presentation of female sexuality. The second film was altogether different: it had no stars, no dramatic narrative arc, no great love story. It was not even a box office success, though critics lauded its artistic value as a ‘film poem’ that, as museum director Josef Polák claimed in the Prague daily Lidové noviny, exemplified ‘what cinema could be when the moving shadows are not simply a commodity’:[1] The Earth Sings (Zem spieva, 1933), written and directed by Karel Plicka (1894–1987), interwar Czechoslovakia’s most influential artist­­-ethnographer.

At approximately an hour in length, it is the first feature-length sound film produced in Slovakia, composed as a monochromatic, lyrical portrait of life in the Slovak countryside. The film’s technical achievements and highly innovative viewpoints, meanwhile, also tie it to interwar  avant-garde filmmaking, with comparable films such as The Disappearing World (Mizejíci svět, 1932) by Vladimír Úlehla (1888–1947).[2] By Plicka’s own accounts, his main inspiration for making a film which showed rural life in an aesthetic light through montage techniques came from the film theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953), and in later years, he emphasised his kinship with the Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Dovženko (1894–1956), whose film Earth (1930), about collectivization, also drew on montage techniques to forge idealised images of peasant life.[3]

In an interview from the late 1960s, Plicka explained: ‘I came to Slovakia as a musician, but I could not just stick to music. At that time, Slovakia was a multi-faceted world of ancient, high folk culture. Its artistic strength and beauty literally conquered me.’[4] This fascination with the beauty of Slovak folk culture was significant for The Earth Sings and its circulation, as well as Slovakia’s place within Czechoslovak ideology and consciousness. While Slovaks represented one of the state-forming nations of the country, together with the Czechs, the relationship between them was anything but equal, and the two nations were seen in rather different ways. Because Slovakia was largely an agrarian country, it was often presented to be at an earlier stage not only of economic development, but also of cultural maturity, represented predominantly through folk culture.[5] Thus, while the Czechs represented the urban educated elites of the country, Slovaks were often portrayed as shepherds and peasants, whose lives could offer insight into a vanishing folk culture. As a film about Slovakia by a Czech, these imbalances play an important role in the production and reception of The Earth Sings. This Artwork of the Month introduces the local, national and international repercussions of the film, as well as its wider positioning in interwar central European culture. Ultimately, it argues that the exoticisation of rural Slovakia that lay at the film’s core still has to be unpacked– both in terms of what it showed and what it omitted.

A Czech as Slovakia’s national artist

The Earth Sings builds on Plicka’s multiple interests as a pedagogue, ethnographer, musicologist, photographer and filmmaker. Born in Vienna to Czech parents, Plicka studied music in Berlin and Prague with a specialism in the violin and, in 1913, graduated from the Teacher’s Institute in Hradec Králové. He worked as a teacher until the beginning of the First World War, during which he was an opera singer in Vienna. After the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, he was involved in the founding of several choirs in the new Czechoslovak state, most significantly, the choir of the Czech Philharmonic. Upon recommendation by the composers Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) and Vítězslav Novák (1870–1949), he was employed as a music researcher for the Slovak cultural organization Matica slovenská in Bratislava in 1923, soon beginning to extend his interest in Slovak folk culture beyond music. During the course of the 1920s, Plicka would not only collect thousands of folk songs, melodies and children’s games, but also begin to capture folk life with a camera, which he understood as a complementary practice: his photographs recorded the environment in which the music originated.

While the artist’s research into music was dedicated to the efforts of preserving national heritage for Matica slovenská, his photographs quickly transcended simple notions of documentary record. On postcards, Plicka’s compositions of serene landscapes, shepherds and children in elaborate folk costume supported the creation of a popular image of Slovakia as a timeless cradle of folk culture. Merging ethnographic interests with idealised views of the countryside, financially backed by the Matica slovenská, Plicka’s work offered an ideal photographic version of ‘Slovak modernism’, the nationally inspired modernisation of Slovak culture that took hold in the early 1920s.[6]

Up until today, Plicka’s oeuvre is synonymous with the ‘invention’ of a beautiful rural Slovakia in modern photography, dominantly represented by his work for Matica slovenská.  In fact, Plicka produced a much wider body of work, which not only included a photo book about Prague (1940) and contributions to different travel guides, but also a more critical social photography of Roma camps and impoverished communities in Subcarpathian Ruthenia.[7] These, however, have only rarely been published. Based on his idealised images of Slovak folk culture, the reception of Plicka’s work has found a wide range of interpretations: while some scholars have pointed out the exoticist flavour of his images, others have discussed his idealisation of rural scenes as an example of so-called Heimatphotographie, for example.[8]  The Earth Sings relates to all of these points and represents a culmination of all the different elements that made Plicka’s work stand out in the interwar years.

A Modernist Czech/Slovak Film Poem

By 1928, Plicka began to expand his interest in the use of modern technology for artistic documentation into filmmaking. His first film two films, About the Slovak Folk (Za slovenským ľudom, 1928) and Over Hill and Dale (Po horách, po dolách, 1929) were shorter documentary features with a focus on folk traditions in rural Slovakia. Both were critically acclaimed and Over Hill and Dale won a Palm D’Or in Venice in 1930. The Earth Sings extended the concepts developed in Plicka’s earlier films. It opens with an introductory sequence in Prague, first giving an oversight of its historic sites and before blending over into the streets, filled with cars, pedestrians and the hustle and bustle of a modern metropolis. By starting in the Czechoslovak capital, the film’s narrative arc not only moves from modern to traditional life, it also reflects on the viewpoint of its audiences: the film was primarily made for urban viewers. In line with the ideological positioning of urban Czechs and rural Slovaks, The Earth Sings might, thus, also be interpreted as taking an ostensibly ‘Czech’ point of view.

Production photograph of The Earth Sings

The Earth Sings, production photograph © Slovenský filmový ústav – Národný filmový archív

Indeed, the division between ‘Czech’ modernity and ‘Slovak’ tradition is a theme that informs not only the film’s framing through the opening sequence, but its overall production: between 1929 and 1932, Plicka travelled to different rural locations from the Valašsko region in eastern Moravia to the Carpathian Mountains to record scenes for the film. In October 1932, the material was edited and cut in Prague’s famous Barrandov film studios by the young avant-garde filmmaker Alexandr Hackenschmied (1907–2004). He has been mentioned on this blog before as one of the makers of the Bat’a company’s commercial The Highway Sings (1937). Hackenschmied’s own films from this time included works such as Aimless Walk (Bezúčelná procházka, 1930), an avant-garde project recording a surrealist- inspired walk in the modern city. His contributions to The Earth Sings, then, significantly added to the film’s modernist framing, once more enforcing the filmic production of Slovak ‘authenticity’ through the lens of the Czech city.

A similar process was also established for the film’s music: rather than being set to Slovak folk songs that Plicka recorded, the music was composed by Frantisek Škvor (1898–1970) and performed by the orchestra of the National Theatre in Prague. While the film was financed – at a loss – by Matica slovenská, therefore, it might overall be best described as a ‘Czechoslovak’ project, relying on a combination of Slovak film material and Prague-based production. Slovak cities such as Bratislava and Košice, were left out of the picture altogether – until, that is, when the starting sequence in Prague was replaced with a similar one from Bratislava after the establishing of the Independent Slovak Republic in March 1939.

After the opening sequence, the remainder of the film focuses exclusively on rural Slovakia. The film is a montage of close-up cropped portraits of old men and women and children in folk costumes, fast and dynamic sequences of dance and games, as well as dramatized landscapes shot from steep angles and in diagonal perspectives with a quick succession of images: rural life, framed by a modernist gaze. Different locations in the countryside are visited from spring to harvest season, recording the work cycle of farming communities and folk traditions. When scenes move to a different place, subtitles by Ján Smrek (1898–1982) – editor of the Prague-based Slovak magazine Elán – indicate with brief lyrical descriptions approximately where in the country the scenes are located (in the Tatras, to the east, etc.). Altogether, however, the focus lies on montaging a harmonious cycle structured by the seasons, rather than individual locations: instead of the linear time of modern life, The Earth Sings presents Slovakia as structured by ancient cyclical flows of time.

Still from Karel Plicka's film The Earth Sings

The Earth Sings, film still © Slovenský filmový ústav – Národný filmový archív

The main thing directing people’s lives is the change of seasons. These are introduced in a quick succession of landscape views – mountains, fields, rivers – which set the scene before the flow of images slows down to focus on the people inhabiting it. With the arrival of spring, for example, a group of young girls is shown carrying the Morena, the effigy of a woman symbolizing death. Traditionally, she is carried out of villages and set on fire to hail the beginning of spring. The scene is orchestrated as a highly dramatic event, shot from a frog’s perspective and with fast moving images. After the burning, the girls drop the figure into a river and watch it drown while sitting on steep rock formations. The effigy, still burning, is drawn away by the current, the forces of nature dramatized with a focus on the strength of the river, as well as the steep rocks towering above them.

Other moments of celebration that follow are Easter and other religious holidays, as well as a busy village fair. In between these moments of celebration, the scenes follow workers on the field, ploughing, sowing, harvesting. While the basic tools and lack of technology in these scenes hint at difficult working conditions, even here, life looks theatrical and idealised: workers appear on the field in their gleaming white Sunday best, not a sprinkle of mud on their naked calves even while they draw a plough through the earth. As old women in folk costumes stack bales of hay and weave rugs in large groups, men perform traditional highland dances, and children play games on the rolling hills: a paradisiacal image of Slovakia, where people lead primitive but fulfilled lives.

A land of biblical times or homegrown exoticism?

Even though people play a significant role in the film, they merely appear as anonymous performers with a focus on traditions and costumes rather than actual livelihoods. The actors were mainly people from local communities, represented mostly by children, women, and the elderly. There is a notable absence of young men, and even the scenes following agrarian labour mostly show women in folk costumes. An explanation for this might be found on a practical level: in impoverished communities in eastern Slovakia, it was not unusual for men to work away to earn money – especially during the months in which the filming took place. However, the gender imbalance is also significant in light of Slovakia’s positioning as a ‘less mature’ culture than the Czech one: with a notable absence of men, The Earth Sings positions Slovakia as a land in need of protection – implicitly, by a more mature, masculine Czech culture.

Still from Karel Plicka's film The Earth Sings

The Earth Sings, film still © Slovenský filmový ústav – Národný filmový archív

The presentation of Slovak peasants in the film overall is one of happy, small communities, who live in large collectives, are good-natured and keen musicians and dancers from an early age. Young girls already help with childcare and craftwork, while the boys play in the hills, preparing them for a life as shepherds. Just as limited as the Slovak landscape is as an archaic paradise, therefore, its inhabitants are exoticized as a simple society, which lives outside modern time. This presentation was widely accepted as a beautiful and highly artistic presentation of Slovakia in the local and the international press.

Production photograph of The Earth Sings

The Earth Sings, production photograph © Slovenský filmový ústav – Národný filmový archív

After the film premiered in 1933, it was shown in Prague and Bratislava, as well as in Vienna, Venice, and to Czech and Slovak émigré communities in the United States. Thus, its reception was predominantly among urban, educated audiences who were promised a filmic journey ‘back in time’. One review, published in the magazine Venkov in 1933, for example, noted that ‘the film wants to represent the illusion of a lost paradise, which will never return in its purity’.[9] Karel Čapek, meanwhile, celebrated The Earth Sings for its presentation of Slovakia as ‘a land of shepherds’ reminiscent of truly ‘biblical times’.[10] In Austria, where the film was shown at Vienna’s Urania cinema in late 1934, the naivety and innocence of the population is affirmed in an article by Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1888–1961) in the Viennese daily Der Tag titled ‘Adventures on set’.[11] Here, the author describes people’s distrust towards the filming equipment. As if to affirm this alleged naivety of the local population, the article features images of shepherd children inspecting the camera, emphasizing the asynchronicity between modern technology and peasant life.

In these reviews, the rural idyll appears to be populated by communities of noble savages, who have their first encounter with modernity through Plicka. Unsurprisingly, this fashioning of the ‘Slovak pastoral’ was also met with criticism, especially by young Slovak intellectuals. In the leftist magazine DAV, an article by the communist critic Vladimír Clementis (1902–1952) asked: ‘Is Plicka’s film folkloristic kitsch?’, while, in the same magazine, Josef Rybák (1904–1992) missed the lack of suffering, pain and poverty as other central elements in Slovak folk culture.[12] Similarly, a reader’s letter published in Nástup complained with reference to the world economic crisis:

When we think about the economic ruin of our devastated Slovakia, about the misery of our Slovak people, the overwhelming question mark that stands before our Slovak intelligentsia is about misery and scarcity at every step, and yet on the other hand, we are making our sole Slovak film ‘The Earth Sings’, and between these two, we clench our teeth and deeply sigh. Yes, we sing! But the stomach doesn’t sing, it whines.[13]

In the US, too, a younger generation of Slovak emigrants was unhappy with this idealised vision of Slovakia. They criticised its unified presentation as a rural place, notwithstanding the fact that some areas of the country – most notably Bratislava – were much more urbanised and home not only to all amenities of a city, but also places of education, culture and technological innovation. This criticism is even more significant because the film’s presentation abroad was often tied to the promotion of Czechoslovak unity. Beyond the film’s artistic achievements, which were unequivocally praised, its presentation of Slovakia as a timeless pastoral reinforced a sharp contrast to the international positioning of the Czechs as a modern, highly cultured nation. The ‘Slovak pastoral’ thus also visualised the imbalances at the core of Czechoslovak state ideology.

Absent presences beyond the single nation

Based on the social and political inequalities that the film implicitly made visible, The Earth Sings represents a tendency in interwar modernism to ‘harvest’ and idealise folk culture for artistic experimentation. In the case of The Earth Sings, this could be framed to fit both the requirements of Slovak modernism, as well as Czechoslovak state ideology, in which (Czech) modernity and (Slovak) tradition became entwined. What these interpretations and the film itself betray altogether, however, is the fact that Slovakia was not at all a homogenous country. Indeed, it was one of the most multi-ethnic, multi-national parts of Czechoslovakia, where over one third of the population did not identify as Czech or Slovak. Aside from German and Hungarian minorities, who made up a large part of this number, Slovakia was also home to several thousand people identifying primarily as Rusyn or Jewish, not to forget the country’s most ostracised minority – the Roma.[14] Many of these communities lived in Slovakia’s rural areas. Thus, aside from the fact that rural life was much more difficult than The Earth Sings suggests, it was also significantly more diverse.

As a ‘typical’ national place, continually repeated and reframed in the light-hearted, beautiful set-up of the film’s scenes, The Earth Sings thus coded notions of belonging in ethnic terms and tied them to the landscape. Circulating in Czech and Slovak cities and abroad and lauded as an ideal combination of film and music to show Slovakia from its best side, the film represented a highly visible record of the country, while erasing the diversity that defined its everyday realities. In the end, The Earth Sings not only suggests that how Slovakia was presented in interwar film reflected the imperatives of Czechoslovak state-building. Its erasure of difference also calls for an assessment of Czechoslovakia’s position as a multi-ethnic country in light of what remained hidden beneath its veneer of rural bliss.

Julia Secklehner

[1] Josef Polák, ‘A ještě Plickův film,’ Lidové noviny, 8 December 1933, p. 14.

[2] Jonathan Owen, ‘Old Worlds and the New Vision: The Ethnographic Modernism of Karel Plicka’s The Earth Sings (1933)’, in Reader in East-Central-European Modernism 1918–1956 edited by Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch and Jonathan Owen, Courtauld Books Online (London, 2019) online publication.

[3] Karol Plicka, ‘Poznámky o filme,’ Slovenské pohľady, 48.9–10 (1932) pp. 594–595.

[4] Conversation with director Martin Slivka, printed in Marián Pauer, Karol Plicka (Bratislava, 2016) p. 22.

[5] Marta Filipová, ‘Highly Civilized, yet Very Simple’: Images of the Czechoslovak State and Nation at Interwar World’s Fairs,’ Nationalities Papers, 50.1 (2022) pp. 145–165.

[6] Aurel Hrabušický, ed., Slovak Myth (Bratislava, 2006).

[7] See Simona Bérešová, ‘Die Slowakei in der Fotografie von Karel Plicka,‘ MA Diss. (University of Vienna, 2014) pp. 22–23; Pauer, Karol Plicka, pp. 58–59.

[8] Bérešová, ‘Die Slowakei in der Fotografie von Karel Plicka,‘ pp. 20–24; Matthew S. Witkovsky, Foto: Modernity in Central Europe: 1918–1945 (New York, 2007) p. 169; Owen, ‘Old Worlds and the New Vision’.

[9] Pauer, Karol Plicka, p. 49.

[10] Karel Čapek, ‘Dva neznámé světy,’ Lidové noviny, 5 November 1933, p. 7.

[11] Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski, ‘Erlebnisse beim Filmen: Mit Professor Plicka in der Slowakei,’ Der Tag, 23 November 1934, p. 6.

[12] Vlado Clementis, ‘Je Plickov film folkloristickým gýčom?’ DAV 6.10 (1933) p. 149; Pauer, Karol Plicka, p. 50.

[13] Nástupista od Zvolena. [pseudonym], ‘Zem spieva…’ Nástup. March 15 1935, p. 10. English translation in Nicholas Hudac, ‘Picturing the Nation: Slovak National Identity in the Age of the Mass Produced Image,’ PhD Diss. (Charles University, Prague, 2020) n.p.

[14] Dušan Slačka, ‘Czech Republic,’ .

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/M5AB8

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