Russian film has a rich, complicated history and for those new to the field, knowing where to start can feel daunting. With beginnings rooted in the final years of Tsarist Russia, Russian cinema experienced massive ideological shifts that occurred across the Arts over the course of the 20th century. From Socialist Realism to Khruschev’s Thaw and the final years of perestroika , ideological change affected the style, content, and message of films, as well as the industry as a whole. For those wishing to get acquainted with Russian cinema, we have drawn up a shortlist of enjoyable classics to get you started.
Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sergei Eisenstein
A Life for a Life (1916)
An absolute classic of the silent film era, A Life for a Life is a 1916 drama based on a novel of the same name by Georges Ohnet, and directed by Yevgeni Bauer, one of the biggest names in pre-revolutionary Russian cinema. A tale of back-stabbing, revenge and the corrupting nature of money, the film explores the strife of two sisters, Nata and Musya, who fall in love with the same man – a charming swindler with a gambling addiction. Rife with nuanced explorations of family dynamics and romantic affairs, A Life for a Life, a film boasting one of the world’s first tracking shots, is guaranteed to keep you guessing until the very end.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
With its revolutionary use of montage – an editing technique used to create symbolism – Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is a 1925 silent film, depicting a dramatized version of a mutiny by a naval crew aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905. Officially recognized numerous times as one of the greatest films ever made, the critically acclaimed Battleship Potemkin is as exciting as it is shocking, with the iconic ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence believed to be one of the most haunting scenes in 20th century film. Truly a turning point in Soviet film and propaganda-making, Eisenstein’s arguable magnum opus remains highly influential almost 100 years later.
A behemoth of Socialist Realism, Chapaev is a fictionalised biography about Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev, a Red Army commander who, despite his stubbornness and short-temper, is redeemed by his identifiable peasant background and above all his undying loyalty to the revolution, becoming a hero of the Russian Civil War. Based on a biographical novel by Dmitri Furmanov, the film follows Chapaev and Furmanov as they lead their troops against a White Army division. Filmed under the influence of state-enforced Socialist Realism which promoted realistic and accessible art in all fields of culture, the film aimed to both resonate with the masses and show off the glory of the Communist Party.
I Walk Around Moscow (1964), Georgiy Daneliya, Mosfilm
I Walk Around Moscow (1964)
Directed by Georgiy Daneliya, one of the Soviet Union’s most critically acclaimed directors, I Walk Around Moscow is a lighthearted comedy film which explores the shenanigans of a group of young adults on a summer’s day in the early 60s. Although often critiqued for its ‘over-the-top’ positivity, it is precisely this depiction of an almost utopian Moscow that saved the film from censors, with subtle, subversive elements delicately undercutting the state ideology throughout. This unconventional narrative is further obscured by the guise of a seemingly trivial plotline through which the film lives up to its name, all whilst constantly begging the question of what is real, and what is not. A classic of Thaw cinema.
Mother Got Married (1970)
An iconic film of the bohemian Leningrad school, Vitaly Melnikov’s 1970 film follows the story of Zina, Viktor, and Boris – a single mother, her new partner, and her son, who, in his struggle to acclimate to the new structure of his already fragmented family, rejects outright the new man in his mother’s life. Melnikov brings to the table a true ‘slice of life’ – by rejecting the long-standing utopian lens of Soviet cinema and shattering its rose-tinted view of family life, he explores in realist detail the taboo of single-parent households that persisted in 70s Soviet society. A story of love, struggle and perhaps above all – compromise, Mother Got Married remains just as relevant and touching to this day.
Burnt by the Sun (1994)
One of the few films from the Russian film industry of the 1990s to achieve both critical and audience acclaim internationally, Burnt by the Sun is a 1994 historical drama directed by the legendary Nikita Mikhalkov, who stars in the lead role of a senior Red Army officer and who you might recognise as the youthful lead in I Walk Around Moscow. The film skillfully explores the dark reality of the Great Terror as it rapidly approached its peak in 1937, with a detailed look at denunciations, revenge, and secret agendas which characterised the period – a stark contrast to the idyllic countryside setting in which the story unfolds. Burnt by the Sun is not a simple political film, however. Full of twists and turns, Mikhalkov’s award-winning work, for which he took home a Best Foreign Film Academy Award and the Cannes Grand Prix, also dives headfirst into the effects of terror onto personal relationships and the family unit as a whole.