In recent years, Russian cinematography has overwhelmed the international film scene with the raw energy and innovative ability of its film industry. From art house films and independent docu-films to mainstream blockbusters, beautifully shot contemporary masterpieces provide spectacular glimpses into the condition of the modern Russian state and the essence of its culture. Increasingly it has become clear that Russian filmmaking is an outstanding force not to be reckoned with – we profile 10 essential films you need to watch.
Burnt by the Sun (1994)
Nikita Mikhalkov directed this film, in he which also stars as Red Army officer Sergei Kotov, the head of an elite family during Stalinist Russia. Burnt by the Sun opens on the revolutionary’s idyll in the countryside where he General is spending a lazy summer with his young family, far from the terrifying struggles and purges of the period. Unsurprisingly, the film received an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994.
With close links to the American gangster genre, Brother is Russia’s answer to crime film. Largely considered to be a breakthrough in Russian cinematography, the film exposes the cruel reality of the nation following the fall of the Soviet Union and the lawlessness of the underground criminal movements gripping the vast country. For an insight into the damp and gritty reality of St. Petersburg’s underworld, this is a must-see.
The Barber of Siberia (1998)
Screened at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, The Barber of Siberia is a co-production of award-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov and Michel Seydoux. Set against a backdrop of Tsarist Russia, the story follows a flashback of an American woman’s travels to Moscow. Ultimately, this is a great costume drama about the tragedy of romance and the determination of the human condition in spite of individual transgressions and the ferocity of the surrounding Siberian landscape.
Russian Ark (2002)
Russian Ark is Alexander Sokurov’s most ambitious project to date. Filmed exclusively in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, the historical drama succeeds in condensing three centuries of history into a single, uninterrupted 96-minute shot. Combining the experience of a museum tour, an insight into Russian history and the richness of the nation’s performing arts, Russian Ark is an extraordinary cinematic achievement.
The Return (2003)
In the remote wilderness of contemporary Russia, two young brothers set out on a journey with their father. For years, the boys only knew him from a single photograph in the possession of their mother and when he resurfaces after an absence of 12 years, together they embark on a fishing trip with disastrous consequences. Deeply unsettling and captivating in equal measure, this psychological thriller is modern Russian cinematography by Andrey Zvyagintsev at its best.
Night Watch (2004)
A fantasy thriller set in modern day Moscow, Night Watch explores the boundaries of darkness and light to a backdrop of astonishing CGI visuals. Timur Bekmambetov’s horror feature is set in the city’s backstreets, abandoned warehouses and gritty subway stations, in which vampires, changelings and urban heroes all come alive. Ultimately, the viewing experience will ensure that audiences will remain on the edge of their seats as they try to make sense of the jigsaw puzzle unfolding before their eyes.
The Island (2006)
The Island closed the 2006 Venice Film Festival with its spectacular portrayal of a small Russian Orthodox monastery in the depths of rural Northern Russia on the shores of the White Sea. This masterpiece humbly focuses on Father Anatoly’s spiritual development and profiles his bizarre conduct, which both frightens those around him but also sparks the belief that he has the power to heal and foretell the future.
How I Ended This Summer (2010)
How I Ended This Summer focuses on a polar station on a desolate island in the Arctic Ocean where a young intern named Pavel is spending his summer alongside Sergei, a grumpy professional meteorologist. One of the most intriguing films of the past two decades, Alexei Popogrebsky’s movie was rightly nominated for a Golden Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.
Hard to Be a God (2013)
Alexei German’s science fiction film Hard to Be a God premiered posthumously at the 2013 Rome Film Festival and depicts a medieval nation in outer space. A project that has been in the making for over 30 years, this is a film like no other – visually dense and thematically brutal, this legendary picture fully showcases German’s unique method of storytelling. The feature brings up questions of universal hierarchy and the essential dilemma: what would you do in God’s place?
The Postman’s White Nights (2014)
A film by Andrei Konchalovsky, The Postman’s White Nights is one of the most memorable films of 2014. Set in an isolated village in the far north of the country, the feature provides a glimpse into the harsh reality of those living so cut off from the mainstream of 21st-century Russia. One of the most ephemeral additions to Russia’s modern film scene, Konchalovsky’s feature is most definitely worth your attention.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 film Leviathan received both critical and popular acclaim, winning the Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.