The roots of Russian Cinema go back to the times of the Russian Empire, when films traversed many themes – from events told in popular folk songs to anti-German nationalistic ideas during World War I. With the Russian Revolution came a new sentiment in the films – an anti-tsarist one. For much of Soviet Union’s history, film content was heavily subject to censorship and state control. Despite this, Soviet films achieved significant critical success. Even in the years following its dissolution, the Russian film industry remained internationally recognized. New Russian Cinema has found audience in wider shores and has gained much international acclaim. The 8 Russian movies that we recommend as must-watch are:
8. The Cranes are Flying (1957):
This is a Soviet film about World War II. It depicts not just the cruelty contained in the idea of war but also the damage it wrought on the Soviet psyche. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, the portrayal of the protagonist, Veronika, was instrumental in shaping the post-Stalinist Soviet movies by heralding more complicated, multi-dimensional celluloid heroines. And it was not only Soviet audiences that accepted and sympathized with Veronika‘s story, but those in European and other countries too. She helped give a face to the war-ravaged psychology where only a mask existed till now.
7. Russian Ark (2002):
This is a historical drama film directed by, again, Alexander Sokurov. The film is shot in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. An unnamed narrator wanders through the Palace and implies that he died in some horrible accident and is a ghost drifting through it. In each room, he encounters various real and fictional people from various periods in the city’s 300-year history. He is accompanied by “the European”. Critics point out to the effect of the unbroken flow of images as something different and uncanny – an effect which past directors like Hitchcock made use of. The movie spins a daydream around its audience as if to transport them to another era and life. And interestingly, the movie was filmed using a single 96-minute “steadicam” sequence shot!
6. Man with a Movie Camera (1929):
This is a very interesting film, both for its theme as well as for the range of cinematic techniques invented by Dziga Vertov, the director of the movie. It is a silent documentary film, with no story and no actors. Man with a Movie Camera presents the urban life in the Ukrainian cities of Odessa, Kharkiv and Kiev. It shows Soviet citizens at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern everyday life over the span of a day. True to his Marxist ideology, Vertov strove to create a futuristic city that would serve as a commentary on existing ideals in the Soviet world. This artificial city’s purpose was to awaken the Soviet citizen through truth and to ultimately bring about understanding and action. New techniques of film-making and portrayal of modern ideas make this film one of the earliest to touch upon the idea of Modernism. For those who love to know the nitty-gritty of movie making, this is a must watch!
5. Dersu Uzala (1975):
Also called The Hunter is a Soviet-Japanese co-production film directed by Akira Kurosawa. This is Akira’s first non-Japanese language film. The film is based on the 1923 memoir ‘Dersu Uzala’ by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev and is about his exploration of the Russian Far East, over the course of multiple expeditions in the early 20th century. Hence, the film is almost entirely shot outdoors in the Russian Far East wilderness. The film explores the theme of a native of the forests who is fully integrated into his environment, leading a style of life that will inevitably be destroyed by the advance of civilization. It is also about the growth of respect and deep friendship between two men of profoundly different backgrounds, and about the difficulty of coping with the loss of strength and ability that comes with old age. A beautiful movie that will make you wear your thinking caps.
4. Mother and Son (1997):
3. Come and See (1985):
Directed by Elem Klimov, Come and See is a Soviet war drama and a psychological thriller. The movie occurs during the Nazi German occupation of the Byelorussian SSR. This is considered as one of the best and most disturbing Russian War movies ever made. The screenplay by Klimov had to wait for 8 long years for approval, for it was seen as propaganda for the “aesthetics of dirtiness” and “naturalism”. The film was shot in chronological order over a period of nine months only. Its name was changed from Kill Hitler to Come and See. It was finally produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory in WW II and was a large box office hit. And, believe it or faint, the guns used for the movie were loaded with real ammunition, for a realistic effect.
2. Alexander Nevskiy (1938):
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, this is a historical drama film which circles around the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century by the Teutonic knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat at the hands of Prince Alexander, popularly called Alexander Nevsky. This was the first and most popular of Eisenstein’s three sound films. Its popularity rested on one of the commonly used central themes in that period – the importance of the common people in saving Russia, while portraying the nobles and merchants as “bourgeoisie” and foes of the people. There is a scene in the movie which depicts the Battle of Lake Peipus. Now, this scene has been a strong “inspiration” behind numerous scenes in films ranging from Doctor Zhivago to King Arthur. You must watch it!
1. The Mirror (1975):
This is a Russian art film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the best Russian film directors of all times. The Mirror is somewhat autobiographical, and features Andrei’s wife and mother. It enjoys a very unconventional structure and incorporates poems composed and read by the director’s father. The movie will present you with no apparent linear plot, but is a compendium of complex layers of structure which shuffle between childhood memories and contemporary scenes, and even dreams – something like the literary technique called ‘streams of consciousness’ used by well-known authors like Virginia Woolf. Even the cinematography slips from black and white to colored. Yes, it is one of Tarkovsky’s most difficult film, as well as his most personal.