Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, who is one of the most prolific and pioneering Soviet directors, Battleship Potemkin is often cited as the greatest Russian film ever made. It depicts a mutiny against the Tsarist regime upon the Potemkin in 1905, which led to a brutal crackdown by the Tsar’s soldiers. The film is now perhaps most famous for its sequence on the Odessa steps in Ukraine in which civilians are ruthlessly massacred by Tsarist forces. The scene is celebrated for Eisenstein’s groundbreaking and highly influential experimentation in ‘montage’. A dramatic and powerful piece of national propaganda, this film marks the genesis of Russia’s cinematic tradition.
Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia is the final and most potent of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s silent ‘revolutionary trilogy’, which also consisted of Mother and The End of St. Petersburg. As with Eisenstein, Pudovkin was employed to produce propaganda for the Soviet regime, however he did so by focusing on individual determination and resilience, rather than the glorification of the masses. A lesson in historical manipulation, Storm Over Asia is concerned with the British occupation of Mongolia. In reality this never took place and ironically it was the Russians themselves who were guilty of this invasion. A fascinating relic of the Communist propaganda machine Storm Over Asia offers a bleak insight into the hypocrisy of the Soviet era.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The man behind the birth of documentary filmmaking, Dziga Vertov was a pioneering figure in cinéma vérité. Lacking both characters and a plot, Man with a Movie Camera is a poignant day in the life study of 1920’s Russia. Part of a range of films belonging to the controversial Kinok movement, Vertov had previously declared it his mission to abolish all forms of non-documentary style filmmaking. Disavowing films that were invested in theatricality and literature, the film was a marker of radical ‘experimentation in cinematic communication.’ Masterminding numerous techniques including slow motion, freeze frames, tracking shots, and extreme close-ups, Vertov revealed the apparatus behind the cinematic illusion for the first time.
The first sound film on the list is also a subtle masterpiece which ushered in a new age of cinema. Set in 1914, the film revolves around a German POW camp held in an ambiguous and remote part of rural Russia. Directed by Boris Barnet, it was controversial for its indifferent depiction of the Communist revolution and was attacked by some Soviet critics. Fortunately however, Outskirts was equivocal enough in its meaning that Barnet was not censored too harshly. He went on working in the Russian film industry for another 25 years before sadly taking his own life.
The Cranes are Flying (1957)
Along with the death of Stalin came the demise of the ‘cult of personality’ surrounding the Soviet dictator. Unquestionable constraints on the depiction of certain figures and events gave way to a more relaxed censorship regime. War films no longer had to celebrate Stalin and Lenin as godly figures or champion the glory of ‘Mother Russia’ and the Communist Revolution. Creativity was liberated and The Cranes are Flying emerged fresh faced, wide eyed, and unburdened, into this bright new era. The film represented a new, unadulterated look at the cruelty of war and its psychological effects upon national identity, also allowing audiences to openly mourn the millions of war casualties for the first time. Mikhail Kalatozov’s visionary tale is even more remarkable for its pioneering adoption of a female heroine. Veronika (Tatyana Samojilova) was readily embraced by both Russia and Europe alike; one of the main reasons this is the only Soviet film ever to win the prestigious Palme d’Or.
Ballad of a Soldier (1959)
Although set amidst the turmoil and carnage of World War Two, Ballad of a Soldier is primarily a love story. Directed by Grigori Chukhrai, it is an examination of love’s eternal survival in the face of violence and cruelty. The story follows Pvt. Alyosha Skvortsov (Vladimir Ivashov) a Red Army soldier who becomes infatuated with peasant girl Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) whilst attempting to get home from the front. Both only 19 and with little acting experience, the two leads each give remarkable performances and become the emotional core of the film. Overcoming the Cold War barrier the film premièred in the U.S. at the 1960 San Francisco Film Festival and surprisingly picked up the festival’s top awards, which revealed the triumph of creativity and imagination over partisan politics.
Iconic Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal masterpiece is a study of the psychology of grief and the persistence of memory. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem; who Tarvkovsky had admired for many years. It follows the exploits of a psychologist who travels into space to assess the emotional state of the crew of the space station Solaris, but becomes beset by his own emotional and psychological breakdown. Lem was largely dissatisfied with the deviation from his novel and complained that he did not write about ‘people’s erotic problems in space’. Tarkovsky brought his own independent spin to proceedings and although he came to believe that his film an artistic failure, audiences and critics alike consider Solarisan unabashed masterpiece.
Come and See (1985)
Probably the most horrifying war film ever made, Come and See makes Apocalypse Now look like child’s play. Eight years in production and shot consecutively for nine months straight; Elem Kimov’s final film is famed for its striking realism and graphic depiction of atrocities committed in World War II Belarus. Using real uniforms and live ammunition; Kimov also employed Ales Adamovich; a 14 year old amateur actor to take the lead role. The intended effect being that he would not be able to ‘protect himself psychologically with accumulated acting experience, technique and skill’. As a result the terror on screen is very real, so much so that it wasn’t uncommon for ambulances to be called to screenings.
The Cuckoo (2002)
The Cuckoo is a little gem of dark comic drama set, somewhat surprisingly, in the battlefields of World War II. Light-heartedness is undoubtedly a difficult thing to achieve when set amidst the backdrop of war but The Cuckoo achieves this. The story follows a Soviet soldier (Viktor Bychkov) and a Finnish soldier (Ville Haapasalo) who become stranded in a woman’s farmhouse (Anni-Kristiina Juuso). The three gradually learn to live together despite fate’s mischievous joke that none of them share the same language. Unlike most war films The Cuckoo’s playful wit and lyrical narrative make this an upbeat and heartfelt outing whilst still managing to evoke poignancy in some of the more tragic and gripping scenes. Receiving numerous national awards on release, Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s film is perhaps Russia’s finest art house offering in recent years.
Night Watch (2004)
One of the most high profile big budget blockbusters to come out of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch is the highest grossing national film ever made. The production’s most difficult objective was creating the necessary visual effects that modern audiences had begun to grow accustomed to but had not yet seen on their home soil. Bekmambetov thoroughly embraced the challenge; employing over 16 Russian VFX companies and freelancers to construct the film’s chilling backbone. Dripping in lashings of Gothic paint, the film’s effects are deftly dispatched in animating the forces of good and evil in this supernatural thriller. Flexing its cinematic muscles; Night Watch is a fine example of Russia’s renewed capabilities in bringing its unique brand of filmmaking back to the world stage.