From Vertov to Razbezhkina: five great Soviet and post-Soviet documentaries

This week at Klassiki, we are kicking off our documentary season with Vitaly Mansky’s latest film, Gorbachev. Heaven (2020) – an intimate interview with a now 90-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, the man behind the policies of glasnost and perestroika, as well as the first and last President of the Soviet Union. To celebrate an exciting month of documentaries, we have drawn up a list of the most influential Soviet-era and contemporary non-fiction films from the region.

Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Coming to Klassiki’s permanent collection in early August, Man with a Movie Camera is an experimental 1929 silent documentary film directed by Soviet-Ukrainian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova, the film is rife with sophisticated cinematic techniques which Vertov himself either invented, utilised, or developed, including multiple exposure and ambitious tracking shots. The film is an example of Vertov’s philosophy of the “Cine Eye”, or capturing what is “inaccessible to the human eye”. Vertov’s magnum opus explores scenes of everyday urban life during the mid-1920s in three Soviet cities through a heterodox Marxist lens. Largely dismissed upon its initial release by critics, Man with a Movie Camera has since aged like fine wine, earning itself the title of one of the best documentaries of all time.


Ordinary Fascism (1965)

Ordinary Fascism – otherwise known in English as Triumph Over Violence or Echo of the Jackboot – is a 1965 two-part documentary directed by Mikhail Romm depicting the rise and fall of fascism across Europe, most notably in Nazi Germany. Using excerpts of archival film footage, photographs, and German military archives, Romm creates what has come to be known as a “compilation film”, in which archival footage is spliced together in a new order of appearance. Romm does not shy away from artistic expression, utilising a host of other cinematic techniques including montage and compilation editing, pioneered by great names in silent Soviet cinema, such as Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin, and Shub. Watched by over 40 million viewers on its release, the film went on to win the Golden Dove and Best Film awards at the 8th Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival.

Is it Easy to be Young? (1986), Juris Podnieks

Is it Easy to be Young? (1986)

Filmed in 1986, Is It Easy to Be Young? is a Latvian documentary directed by Juris Podnieks. Considered by many to be one of the most controversial films of the turbulent period, this internationally acclaimed cult classic explores the numerous difficulties faced by Soviet youth in the perestroika era from a variety of interesting angles. Documenting youth opinions on heated controversies of the time, including religion, war, and Chernobyl, the film received the Latvian Film Prize for Best Documentary, FIPRESCI Award, and was amongst the five winners of the 1987 International Documentary Association awards.


Optical Axis (2013)

Maria Razbezhkina, one of the most prominent and influential contemporary Russian documentary filmmakers, has built herself a long and diverse career. One of her most interesting and perhaps most underrated works is Optical Axis, a 2013 documentary that attempts to juxtapose the past and the present within various social groups in Russian society. Utilizing the works of pre-revolutionary Russian photographer Maksim Dmitriev, who captured workers, farmers, bankers, priests, and prostitutes in early 20th-century Nizhny Novgorod, Razbezhkina returns to the city one hundred years later to document just how much things have changed. A touching portrayal of the passing of time, Optical Axis received awards at various film festivals, including at DOK Leipzig in 2013.


Under the Sun (2015)

Directed by post-Soviet documentarian Vitaly Mansky in 2015, Under the Sun depicts a year in the life of a North Korean family as their 8-year-old daughter prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. With a plethora of restrictions on filming in place, Mansky’s film aims to show the deeper and darker side of everyday life in North Korea. Since its initial release, the film has been both widely praised and criticised, resulting in a reception as polemic as the content of the film itself. Despite the various controversies surrounding the film, Under the Sun has since earned itself numerous awards at international film festivals, including the title of Best Documentary at the 2017 Nika Awards.

Optical Axis (2013), Maria Razbezhkina