I first became interested in Russian films in 1967. It was the 50th anniversary of the revolution, and the NFT were showing silent classics, such as ‘October’, ‘Battleship Potemkin’, and ‘Strike’. These were all directed by the master of Soviet Cinema, Sergei Eisenstein, and are epic in scale, as were many films of that time coming out of Russia. Since then, much of the output of the Russian film industry has concerned their Civil War, and World War Two, or has been historical sagas. I list my usual five recommendations below, trying as best as I can, to offer a mixed bag of interests.
Burnt by the sun. Despite being a hero of the revolution, and leading Bolshevik, Colonel Kotov is aware that his privileged position is under threat, during the time of Stalin’s purges of the 1930’s. The arrival of a cousin from Moscow interrupts the idyllic summer he and his family are spending at their holiday home. Things begin to take a darker turn. This 1994 film, starring and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, won the Oscar for best foreign film the following year, and it is easy to see why. Even if you have no interest in the historical subject matter, you will soon be able to pick up on the political machinations, and the unstable lives, so common in Stalinist Russia. This film is also exceptionally photographed, with the hot summer portrayed so well, you can almost feel the heat. Here is an early scene, with English subtitles.
1612. This film covers a period when Russia had no ruling dynasty in place, and goes into some detail about the different factions that were trying to gain control of the country, from the Polish invaders, to the Russian pretenders to the throne. If that sounds dull, don’t worry, as excellent battle scenes make the viewing worthwhile. Historical period detail is first class, though the leading actors are very much in the Russian style, that is somewhat stilted and old-school. The locations reek of authenticity, as does the portrayal of everyday life in a country torn by war. This is a period rarely covered in historical drama, (The Last Valley is in a similar period, though some years later) so it is worth seeing for this aspect alone. Here is a scene that gives a good idea of the content of this film.
9th Company. This is a full-on, old-style war film, set during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Although made in 2008, it is set some twenty years earlier, on a remote hilltop base, towards the end of the Russian involvement in the conflict. Following the traditional format of war films, we see the young recruits in training, then follow them to the war zone, where they are to defend this isolated hill. It is bloody, violent, and full of action. Unusually, it also portrays the Afghan enemy as brave and resourceful soldiers, not just as fanatical cannon fodder, as in so many films. One for the war film fan only, I suspect, but a good one nonetheless. This is the trailer.
The Return. Winner of numerous awards, and nominated for a Golden Globe, this 2003 film was part of a new movement in Russian Cinema, taking a different path to the traditional films, so often set during war, or conflict. Two teenage boys are startled by the return of their father, who has been away for twelve years. He takes them on a holiday to a remote island, and his domineering ways, and cruel nature, change the lives of all involved. A haunting drama, set amid a dysfunctional family, filmed in unusual, and often startling locations. One for the thinkers out there. This trailer is unfortunately from the dubbed version, in English. I would recommend watching it in the original Russian, with subtitles.
Dersu Uzala. I confess to including this as a personal favourite, though it is also a cinema oddity to some degree. Filmed in Russia, with a Russian cast, this was written and directed by one of the greatest directors in the world, the Japanese film-maker, Akira Kurosawa, in 1975. This film is the simple tale of a Russian military exploration team, and the man they meet in Siberia, Dersu, of the indigenous Goldi people. He helps them as they struggle in the wilderness, and then we see him out of place, when he returns with them to civilisation. It is the performance by the actor playing the title character, and the cinematic nature of the remote locations, that together with the masterly touch of Kurosawa, turn this film into a small masterpiece. This clip has no subtitles, but really shows the vast expanses where the film was shot.
I have tried to find you some examples of typical Russian Cinema, with a warning that the acting style, to this day, is very different to what you may have come to expect. They still value expressive gestures, long-winded speeches, and occasional slapstick, so be prepared for a slightly unusual viewing experience. I have avoided all the silent films, as well as some of the better-known epics, such as Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 version of ‘War and Peace’, which runs for a full eight hours, on two DVD discs! Try some of the above for size, and I will revisit the work of Russian Cinema another time.