10 Essential Russian Films

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A box set containing three early works from Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov arrives on Blu-ray (with two films on DVD) today from Cinema Guild. The masterworks include the poetic Whispering Pages (using Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its main inspiration), the aural Stone, and a surreal retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, 1990’s Save and Protect. Sokurov has had a prolific career, admired by everyone from Susan Sontag to Darren Aronofsky. Even Vladimir Putin helped to fund Sokurov’s 2011 Cannes Golden Lion winner, Faust, which was surprising considering the director’s history depicting Russian leaders in a less than flattering light. In celebration of this rare Sokurov release, we wanted to explore other essential Russian films. Here are ten from us. Share what movies you would add to the list, below.

Russian Ark

Like Takeshi Kitano, Sokurov has a history of being celebrated more abroad than in his home country. His early works were banned by Soviet authorities (namely documentaries with political slants), which did help him gain international acclaim, but frequently prevented his creative pursuits in Russia. He’s also been outspoken about his distaste for film festival hierarchy and film critics, but has appeared at Cannes on multiple occasions, winning his first major award in 2011. Faust is his retelling of Goethe’s tragedy and completed Sokurov’s series about political corruption (Hitler, Lenin, Emperor Hirohito the subjects of the first three movies). The work may be too tedious of a fever dream for a newbie, which is why we’ve chosen the more accessible Russian Ark. The film was shot in a single, 96-minute take with a gliding Steadicam — a finely tuned orchestra of breathtaking visuals and sound that allows us to travel through the Hermitage Museum. A narrator (voiced by Sokurov) walks us through 300 years of history, and we meet famous figures like Catherine the Great. Other moments let us voyeuristically observe passersby, catching fragments of conversations that help shape our timeline. The ballroom scene is Russian Ark‘s most transcendent moment, which ironically takes place the evening before the Russian revolution. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film, “It is not simply what Sokurov shows about Russian history, but what he does not show — doesn’t need to show, because it shadows all our thoughts of that country.”

Battleship Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent Soviet classic depicts the 1905 Russian naval mutiny that incited a massacre with officers of the Tsarist regime. It’s probably the most stunning piece of propaganda you’ll ever watch. This was Russia’s rise from the ashes after the Revolution, and the film’s most exaggerated, dramatic moments (namely the Odessa Steps sequence, depicting the death of a mother and a tragic, heart-stopping end for her child) helped Battleship supersede its political strategies. The film’s rapid-paced montages have been copied by cinema’s finest, and although Battleship is nearly 90 years old, it remains a gripping piece of filmic history.

Stalker

In our view, you can’t go wrong with most of Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography, but Stalker may be his greatest masterwork. A surreal humanist drama that feels right at home next to the more obviously sci-fi and equally amazing, Solaris, we are led into the Zone — an enigmatic and sometimes dangerous space of consciousness manifest, which promises to fulfill a person’s innermost desires. The figure of the “Stalker” becomes a symbol of this desire, and he leads us through Tarkovsky’s journey to the heart of darkness. Stalker‘s dense coil of symbols may be beyond reach for an initial viewing, but it’s the best kind of long, strange trip, fronted by the great director’s lingering camera.

Man with a Movie Camera

A leader in the cinéma vérité style of documentary moviemaking, and the nucleus of the Kinoks — espousing the rejection of staged film theatrics in order to embrace the “real” world — Dziga Vertov created a 1929 film that had no real dialogue, actors, or storyline. Instead, we are inundated with a variety of camera tricks and techniques in Vertov’s experimental movie that reveals 24 hours of everyday experiences in a Russian city. The events are framed within the context of industrialization — including filmmaking, which Vertov sought to conceptually transform from romantic to a machine-driven art form. The imagery and technique speaks to his industrial eye.

Brother

It’s easy to get swept away in Russia’s fertile Soviet era, but Aleksey Balabanov proved with his 1997 crime film Brother that contemporary Russian cinema shouldn’t be ignored. The film sets us in disillusioned, post-Cold War Russia and the city of St. Petersburg. We meet Danila (Sergey Bodrov) who wants to start a new life, but becomes lost in a criminal ring as the country experiences a national identity crisis and the uncertainty further alienates its citizens. For many, Brother‘s gritty, moral struggle felt all too real.

The Cranes are Flying

An art house favorite and one of the only Soviet films to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 World War II-era tale shows the effects of the country’s upheaval on an idealistic young couple who are torn apart. It’s a familiar storyline, but Kalatozov’s beautiful, innovative camerawork and the emotional vividness of the film’s lead players led Westerners back to Soviet cinema in a post-Stalin world.

Dersu Uzala

Does a 1975 Soviet-Japanese co-production count as an essential piece of Russian cinema? It does when it’s directed by Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa. The filmmaker hit an all-time low and was recovering from a suicide attempt when he created the film about Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev. The movie is named after Arsenyev’s 1923 memoir and the Nanai hunter that guided the explorer and his crew during their expedition across the Russian Far East. Most of the film takes place in the wilds of Siberia and depicts the difficulties both men face as they develop a friendship and shared admiration. The complexity of their dynamic is beautifully realized, but leads to several tragic moments. The Oscar-winning film took home the Grand Prix at the Moscow Film Festival.

War and Peace

Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1960’s, eight-hour long epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel is the Soviet equivalent of Gone with the Wind in terms of scope and ambition. For that reason alone, it’s worth a watch. At that time, it was the most expensive film ever produced in the country (considering exchange and inflation, we’re talking a whopping $67 million as of 2011) and featured an enormous cast that included thousands of extras. No detail was left untouched, like the furniture and props borrowed from the USSR’s museums and the thousands of elaborate costumes that were constructed. It’s a monumental and daunting accomplishment that was butchered and dubbed, and eventually restored for DVD during the 1990s.

Come and See

Elem Klimov’s harrowing 1985 Soviet war drama is one of those films that tends to draw a lot of comparisons. In this case: Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, and The Wild Bunch. That may seem like a good or bad thing to you, but Klimov’s brutal depiction of a young boy navigating through the horrors of World War II can certainly stand on its own. The young soldier’s idealism and naivety make his struggle all the more heartbreaking. Klimov based the movie on personal experience. “As a young boy I had been in hell. The city [Stalingrad] was ablaze up to the top of the sky. The river was also burning. It was night, bombs were exploding, and mothers were covering their children with whatever bedding they had, and then they would lie on top of them. Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.” Thanks to the movie’s success, Klimov became part of the newly restructured Filmmakers’ Union during the 1980s, which saw the release of previously banned movies. He never returned to cinema, however. “I’ve lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt I had already done,” he said. We wouldn’t blame him if creating the soul-shattering Come and See helped inform that decision.

Bed and Sofa

This 1927 Soviet silent film by Abram Room was a bold move in Soviet cinema for its frank and comedic themes of sexuality amongst the working class. See it for its modernist social drama approach and hints of feminism, which don’t reinvent the wheel, but feel honest.