Naturally, no list about classic Russian cinematography would be complete without Battleship Potemkin. Almost a century old, Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film continues to be regarded as one of the most gripping pieces of film history. Depicting the tragic naval mutiny of the Potemkin battleship against their Tsarist officers, the film is an overflow of dramatic moments and heart-stopping tension. In particular, the tragic death of a mother and her defenseless child on the Odessa steps is one of the most harrowing and memorable scenes in cinematic history. If audiences could only view one Soviet film, this most stunning piece of Revolution propaganda would be an appropriate choice.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera possesses no real dialogue, relatable actors or even a storyline. Instead, the curious feature is rife with unique camera techniques that are an experimental take on documenting 24 hours of everyday life in a Russian city. Vertov’s industrial eye particularly shines through in his observation of Soviet citizens at work and at play through unfiltered camera lens. Since its original silent release, the film has been watched to the accompaniment of various soundtracks.
The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
The Cranes are Flying is one of the most emotionally intense films out of the Soviet canon. An art house favorite, it is also the only Soviet film to win the revered Palme d’Or at Cannes. The Second World War epic casts light on a young couple who are torn apart by history’s turbulent events. Rife with personal trauma and suffering, this superb drama will pull your heartstrings through the microcosm of a single love story. With stunning visuals, supreme cinematography and passionate performances, it is still considered to be one of the greatest romance films originating from Russia.
Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures (1965)
When it comes to Soviet comedy, native speakers look no further than the slapstick adventures of Shurik, a nerdy student who often finds himself in rather peculiar situations. In particular, Operation Y was a massive hit in the 1960s and is the most popular installment in a three-part series. It focuses on a warehouse director who tries to cover up his embezzlement, employing three crooks to perform the robbery. Naturally, the same night at the location, Shurik is asked by his old lady tenant to guard the warehouse. The result is a hilarious and classic cat-and-mouse chase.
Andrei Rublev (1966)
Andrei Rublev is one of the most important films of the 1960s and portrays the life of the great 15th century icon painter. Depicting a realistic portrait of Russia in the medieval ages is one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s greatest feats as a director. By profiling a turbulent age in which Russia’s religious identity was in flux, it also focuses on the rise of the Tsars in Russian society. With themes such as spiritual repression, artistic freedom and empiricism, today the film continues to be honoured as a crucial addition to the medium. Interestingly, due to its difficult subject matter, the film was not released in the country until 1971 due to censorship. It was only given the green light as tribute to Tarkovsky’s stellar reputation as cinematographer.
War & Peace (1968)
The Diamond Arm (1969)
As a Soviet comedy filmed by Mosfilm, The Diamond Arm has been incredibly popular with the Russian masses. Even today, it retains its cult status and has contributed a myriad of memorable catchphrases to the language. Starring many renowned Soviet actors such as Yuri Nikulin and Andrei Mironov, the plot focuses on the story of smugglers who attempt to transport expensive jewelry in an orthopaedic cast. Despite essentially being a crime drama, the film portrays a bright and honest view of socialist society and explores the everyday lives of the average citizen. Dense with humor, those on the lookout for one of the finest Russian comedies will not go wrong with this feature.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a science fiction classic that focuses on the story of a psychologist sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Upon arriving, he begins to experience peculiar hallucinations. The onset of these lead to a series of complications and highlight the complex issues of religion, humanity and the nature of consciousness. Ultimately, this is a psychological drama that focuses on the human inability to communicate with one and another and its themes and issues continue to be valid today. As one of the greatest science fictions films in the history of cinema, this is a must-see.
The Mirror (1975)
The width and breadth of Andrei Tarkovksy’s cinematic work is immeasurable, (he is better known for the epic ‘Andrei Rublev’) and The Mirror is considered to be one of his most important films. It follows a non-linear auto-biographical structure, capturing the atmosphere and character of the Russian countryside before, during and in the aftermath of the war. With a self-reflective tone mediating on the memory of childhood, the film merges color and black-and-white images that culminate in a hugely complex dream-like state.
Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (1979)
Receiving an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1980, Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears follows the story of three provincial young women who come to the capital city to work, and inevitably fall in love. The film follows their personal and professional escapades, before jumping twenty years later to revisit the ladies in their current state. An accessible and melancholy drama featuring three female protagonists, this film is a delight to watch and gives an insight into Moscow’s character in the 1970s.