Like my column on German cinema from last month, narrowing Russian cinema down to just five films is difficult bordering on impossible. Russia has a cinematic tradition that spans over one hundred years. Many of its films are not merely influential, but actually defined what cinema would become.
Yet, for all of the recognition and attention Russian cinema receives, it remains unapproachable for many. Some of its greatest masterpieces are written off as mere Soviet propaganda; the nation’s melodramas are stereotyped as being hopelessly depressing; the films of one of the country’s greatest arthouse filmmakers are often dismissed as being slow to the point of coma-inducing. The end result is that Russian cinema becomes films to be studied in Introduction to Film and then ignored. To paraphrase a Mark Twain quote about classic literature: they are films that we praise, but don’t want to watch. It is my hope that this column will create a bit more enthusiasm for exploring Russia’s cinema, which can be both rewarding and quite enjoyable.
Before I begin the list, it is important to remember that the history of Russian cinema is not the history of one nation’s cinema, but three: the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the current Russian Federation. Because there was continuity in film production, studios, and even artists between the three governments, it makes sense to consider it one national cinema. For Soviet entries, I restricted myself to only those films created in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, i.e. the geographical region of Russia proper. So while some of the other Republics that made up the Soviet Union produced excellent films as well, such as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Ukraine SSR, 1965), The Color of Pomegranates (Armenia SSR, 1968), and Revenge (Kazakh SSR, 1989), I did not consider them eligible for this list.
1. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Every film buff has seen at least part of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. If you look up “Best Russian Films” on Google, it will appear somewhere on every list you find. Every book you read on Russian cinema will include it; every book you read on film period will include it. Its inclusion here needs no explanation and would not be challenged by anyone.
And still, all this praise and recognition paradoxically makes the film seem lesser than what it is. We view it as a film to be studied rather than enjoyed, a piece of political propaganda to teach us about its time. But if we look past its legacy, we find a very engaging, emotionally powerful story.
The story follows a group of sailors who mutiny against the officers who have been abusing them. Eventually the crew speaks up and the officers try to have the men executed. The crew revolts and takes over the battleship, eventually finding refuge in the friendly port city of Odessa before Czarist forces counter-attack.
Eisenstein was a master at using montage to tell a story visually; he helped to invent the concept of montage. The film’s Odessa Steps sequence, which shows a group of Cossacks massacre the city’s civilian population, is one of the most famous uses of montage in cinema. Eisenstein uses editing to build suspense and draw out the horror of the massacre. Watching it today, the images still pack a punch, and one does not have to buy into Soviet propaganda to feel outrage at a militarized group oppressing unarmed, defenseless civilians. It is an image that sadly still resonates with many around the world. The film is worth watching for this sequence alone, but much of it is equally moving.
The early era of Soviet filmmaking is in some ways the Golden age of Russian cinema. Some honorable mentions include the other two films in Eisenstein’s Revolution trilogy, Strike (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928), and his historical epics Alexander Nevsky (1938) and the two-part Ivan the Terrible (1944 & 1958). Dziga Vertov’s experimental film Man With a Movie Camera (1929) is also essential viewing, and was extremely influential to the development of world cinema.
2. The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying falls within the Soviet genre of Great Patriotic War (or World War II) films. The story follows Veronika and Boris, a young couple that is separated when Boris volunteers for military service. Veronika stays with Boris’s family while waiting for his return, fighting off the advances of his cousin, Mark. While we have some scenes showing Boris fighting in the war, the vast majority of the film is concerned with Veronika waiting and serving on the homefront.
The film was released four years after Stalin’s death, and signaled a break from the traditional depiction of women on the home front. Under Stalin, women had been portrayed as either flawless, patriotic servants of the state or as selfish villains. Veronika, however, is a complex heroine, not a propagandistic caricature. Her character is greatly helped by Tatyana Samojlova, who turns in a powerful, sympathetic performance that earned her international acclaim. She became one of the Soviet Union’s first international stars, earning comparisons to Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn.
Visually, the film is stunning. It is supposedly a favorite of Martin Scorsese’s and you can see the similarities to his style. Like Scorsese, Kalatozov has the ability to make the mundane seem remarkable. One of the film’s first sequences involves a crane shot of Boris and Veronika getting splashed by a street cleaner; the shot is simple in its content, but striking. A later shot following Veronika up the staircase of a bombed-out apartment building ends with the heart-stopping shot of a ticking clock standing alone in the rubble. Even if the narrative did not work, the film would be worth watching for its cinematography.
3. Andrei Rublev (1966)
Unquestionably Russia’s greatest art film director, Andrei Tarkovsky is often associated with slow-paced, boring cinema. Even critics who love his work frequently joke about how dull his films are, but this view is largely unearned. While his films tend be long and not exactly filled with action, I have never felt bored while watching a Tarkovsky film. They engage me from beginning to end, though in a way that we aren’t necessarily used to engaging with cinema.
Andrei Rublev is probably his best film. A biopic about the life of Andrei Rublev, a 15th-century Orthodox monk and painter of religious idols and frescoes, the film is divided into seven parts and loosely follows the travels of Rublev as he practices his craft. Eventually, he commits a sin (to his mind, anyway), and takes a vow of silence, forsaking his work as penance.
While I summarized the plot in a couple of sentences, the film is more of a philosophical meditation on art and the obligations of the artist than an actual story. Tarkovsky was interested in how cinema could represent and use time to create meaning; his book on film is even called Sculpting in Time. To that end, he uses longer takes to allow the viewer to sink into philosophical contemplation.
The film’s final segment, “The Bell,” illustrates Tarkovsky’s use of time to create moments of both suspense and contemplation. The sequence shows a young con artist deceiving wealthy patrons and crafting a bell, and ends with the bell being swung for the first time. Tarkovsky takes his time before letting the view know if the bell will ring or not, creating a truly suspenseful and rewarding final moment. The segment’s slow pace allows us to consider what makes an artist and what gives his or her work value.
Regardless of what is happening, the film is always beautiful, as is the rest of Tarkovsky’s work. After seeing Andrei Rublev, you should check out The Mirror (1975) and his science fiction masterpiece, Stalker (1979), which was a major influence on this year’s Annihilation.
4. Come and See (1985)
From time to time, critics debate whether or not a film can ever be truly anti-war. The argument goes that even a film critical of war will still end up glorifying it because the cinema needs to entertain the viewer. To those critics, I would suggest Elem Klimov’s masterpiece, Come and See, which is a difficult, harrowing watch that portrays war as a hellish nightmare from beginning to end.
The film tells the story of Flyora, a boy living in Belarus during World War II. It opens with Flyora digging up a gun so that he can join the resistance, who are fighting the invading German army with seemingly no support from the Soviet military.
Klimov borrows techniques from the horror genre to portray the battle against the Germans as hellish rather than heroic. Like in many horror films, the sound design is discomfiting and makes viewing the film an uneasy experience. The visuals are no less upsetting. Klimov relies on long close-ups of his characters to allow their horror to sink in with the viewer. Close-ups of the resistance’s leader make him look tired and beaten rather than heroic; Flyora, a boy of about 14, looks ancient in his close-ups during the final sequences of the film, the horrors he has experienced having aged him horribly. There are no brave, patriotic heroes here, only victims left in a numb, zombified state.
If it is not clear already, I must warn you that while it is brilliant, the film is extraordinarily difficult to watch. But it is certainly one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.
5. Leviathan (2014)
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation has continued to produce several noteworthy films. One of the best of these is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s recent Leviathan.
Set in a small community in Northern Russia, the film is about a man, Kolya, who is refusing to sell his home to a local corrupt politician. The film explores Russia’s current political climate and is critical of corruption in both politics and the Orthodox Church, but apart from the politics it is also an engaging character drama. Aleksei Serebryakov gives a powerful, complex performance as Kolya, making you sympathize with him as his life and family begin to fall apart, even as you recognize he is responsible for much of his own suffering.
The film is also gorgeous. Zvyagintsev uses the stark beauty of the northern landscape to emphasize his characters’ internal isolation. The film opens and closes with montages of shots showcasing the coastal landscape, with frequent shots of a washed-up whale skeleton serving as a reminder of just how harsh this environment is, both naturally and socially. Zvyagintsev is equally adept at giving life to the bureaucratic environment. During Kolya’s first hearing, the camera slowly zooms in on the judge reading off a litany of legal reasons for refusing his appeal. The slow shot centering the judge emphasizes the relentless, yet somewhat disinterested power of the local government. It is a haunting, engrossing film well worth your time.
Some other post-Soviet Russian films to check out include the experimental Russian Ark (2002), Mother and Son (1997), and the truly fascinating documentary on North Korea, Under the Sun (2015).