3 Great Russian Films
Any cinephiles out there will undoubtedly have consumed the majority of Hollywood’s output of the last 50 years or so. Some particularly voracious viewers might have ventured further back to the 60s and late 50s, and perhaps stumbled across the likes of Alfred Hitchcock or the early beginnings of Kubrick’s oeuvre (if you haven’t, I highly recommend that you do), but the majority of us are ignorant to foreign film. By foreign film I mean of course, any piece of moving media that doesn’t happen to align with our hyper-English-centric proclivity when it comes to media consumption. So with this in mind, and a desire to educate the English-speaking cinephile in the rich and venerable genre of Russian film, I suggest the following 3 great Russian films.
1. Battleship Potemkin – Sergei Eisenstein
My first suggestion, Eisenstein’s 1925 Бронено́сец «Потёмкин», is by far the most standalone film on this list, simply owing to the era from which it appeared. Indeed, it’s the earliest film on this list, predating the next earliest by some 50 years. When watching, this is apparent; the film arrived at the dawn of both Soviet and modern cinema,
though the resounding success Mosfilm elicited through Eisenstein’s film only foretold that of the future, once Tarkovsky arrived on the scene. The film, in a nutshell, is a visual retelling of the 1905 mutiny on the Russian Imperial Navy’s Battleship Potemkin, and consequently, is blatantly propagandistic. The notions of revolt and overthrowing a domineering and oppressive regime (as indicated by both the quality of food being served on board and the linguistic comparison of люди and черви) betray this palpable sense of agitprop. Nevertheless, the film is still visually striking, owing to Eisenstein’s pioneering use of montage – perhaps Soviet film’s greatest contribution to the art form. With a runtime of just 71 minutes, the film is short, and opts for a musical soundtrack over dialogue. Eisenstein further splits Бронено́сец «Потёмкин» into five defined sequences or episodes, each accompanied by explanatory text titles in generally simple Russian. It is therefore, not a hard watch, and one well worth it for those interested in very early cinema history, or Soviet film and its propagandistic undertones.
2. The Mirror – Andrei Tarkovsky
Tarkovsky is widely considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and his standout style of ‘slow cinema’ has become iconic as a result. In fact, Tarkovsky’s body of work is such fertile ground for my writing that to try and capture the essence of his style of filmmaking would take pages; perhaps he warrants an article of his own. Regardless, my tentatively suggested second film on this list is his 1975 Зеркало – a film that is far from transparent for novice Russian speakers, but one very much worth the struggle. The Mirror is a considered and loosely meditative reflection on both Tarkovsky’s autobiography and the contemporary historical biography; the film itself is the manifestation of these two threads’ intersection, brought together by the unification of memory. Both personal and collective memory. Tarkovsky’s unseen narrator may essentially be considered as a reflection of himself whilst his choice to cast the lead actress, Margartia Terekhova, as both Aleksey’s mother and future wife, blurs the lines between the multiple timelines. Instead, it posits Зеркало as an expression of Tarkovsky finding his cinematographic articulacy and an exploration into the relationship between collective and personal memory. Unsurprisingly the film was met with great praise, even from Goskino itself, as renowned Soviet actor, Vsevolod Sanayev put it: ‘each frame is saturated with meaning’. Saturation of meaning is prototypical Tarkovksy and, in my opinion, is more than enough reason for any film-lover to watch Зеркало.
3. Brother – Aleksei Balabanov
My final suggestion on this list is probably the most mainstream in the sphere of Russian film as it rapidly became a cult-classic. That is, Balabanov’s 1997 gritty neo-noir Брат. Unsurprisingly, when talking to any student-aged native Russian speaker about film, Balabanov’s crime drama invariably gets mentioned. Sergei Bodrov Jr. is in the leading role (Bodrov Sr. incidentally, directed the 1996 adaptation of Lev Tolstoy’s ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’ which is in itself worth a watch) as Danila Bagrov – a war veteran-turned-thug, whose perilous escapades across the lawless 90s St Petersburg characterise the majority of the film’s plot. The general themes of the film are essentially anything and everything relating to anti-establishment, the burgeoning underbelly of crime that came out of the anarchic 90s and Yelstin era Russia, the disenfranchised and disaffected Russian youth and ultimately, hope, out of seemingly impenetrable poverty and despair. Such a perspicacious depiction of the realities of the contemporary vicissitudes of the Russian people, unsurprisingly struck a chord with its audience, hence its rapid rise to cult classic status and the commissioning of a sequel almost immediately. Брат is not a film for the faint hearted, nor for that matter, is the Russian always that easy to understand. Instead, Брат sits on a similar plane as the likes of Tarantino’s early 90s crime dramas, both thematically, and in terms of dialogue. With such acclaimed status, Брат is surely mandatory for any true cinema lover.
With this list, I’ve tried to assemble as wide a chronological range of Russian film as possible. From the genesis of the art form in Eisenstein, to the high art of Tarkovsky, to Balabanov and his more utilitarian approach to filmmaking, Russian film is as diverse as its literature. What’s more, as always, this is a far from exhaustive list. In fact I had to cut down from five to three films as I noticed my word count. Thus, by all means, watch these films listed above, they’re a great place to start, but explore Russian cinema further. Watch Tarkovsky’s other works like Соларис and Сталкер, or else, venture further into contemporary film through the likes of Zvyaginstev and his Возращение and Левиафан, both of which are fine films worthy of a spot on this list. The repository of Russian film is vast, and much of it free online, so get watching!
Patrick, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.
Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/4modNup9AzI