The Watchlist is Klassiki’s series of themed viewing recommendations drawing from the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we salute the season with a selection of films with a summertime setting – from children’s holidays by the sea to Soviet bikers and the white nights of the Russian Arctic.
Blue Horizon (dir. Vytautas Mikalauskas, 1957)
Summer might not seem like the most promising season for cinephiles. Coming out of another hard winter, it can be hard to resist the siren call of the park and the beach once the sun reemerges. Of course, true screen enthusiasts know that when the heat gets too much to bear, there’s nothing better than to draw the curtains and settle down in front of a film. Here are seven features with a summertime setting. All the hallmarks of the summer classics are here – seaside holidays, youthful rebellion, first love – but fear not, it’s not all good weather and plain sailing.
Blue Horizon (dir. Vytautas Mikalauskas, 1957)
A delightful example of the Soviet “children’s film” genre, this is a charming, wistful seaside adventure in which two boys, Vytukas and Saulius (Eustachijus Aukštikalnis and Gražina Balandytė), decide to run away to the sea to become sailors. Aided by the wily swindler Tiburtius, they take to the road. Blue Horizon was also the first feature film produced solely by Lithuanian artists, and one of only two features directed by the pioneering Vytautas Mikalauskas. Screenwriter Romualdas Lankauskas, cinematographer Algimantas Mockus, composer Eduardas Balsys, and assistant director Henrikas Šablevičius would all borrow from the film’s lyrical imagination in their future careers, setting the tone for Lithuanian film in the Soviet period. The film’s easily worn charm belies the obstacles faced during production in the still-underdeveloped post-war Lithuanian industry. “There was no decent equipment,” sound recordist Petras Lipeika later recalled. “Using our knowledge, ingenuity, or experimenting, we ‘improved’ amateur cinema equipment. I used to stick shiny chocolate wrappers into the microphone to amplify the voices of the actors on set.”
Watch Blue Horizon on Klassiki now.
How I Ended This Summer (dir. Aleksei Popogrebsky, 2010)
Alongside the more famous likes of Andrei Zvyagintsev, Aleksei Popogrebsky was one of the leading lights in the loose grouping of Russian directors known as the “New Quiet” who reinvigorated the nation’s arthouse cinema at the turn of the millennium after the post-Soviet slump of the nineties. His 2003 debut, Roads to Koktebel, co-directed with Boris Khlebnikov, is also a summer movie of sorts, with its climax set in the titular run-down Crimean resort town. But Popogrebsky’s most assured work offers an altogether different take on the season. Grigory Dobrygin and Sergei Puskepalis shared the Best Actor award in Berlin for their respective portrayals of a student spending his summer interning at a meteorological centre on a remote Arctic island, and the veteran geophysicist he rubs up the wrong way. Popogrebsky’s allegorical take on the post-Soviet provinces – crumbling, undergirded by violent resentment, shorn of common purpose – ultimately gives way to the tense pleasures of the thriller genre, but never loses sight of the central conceit of the “summer job”: that temporary, liminal mode of subsistence in which young people get the chance to test their boundaries and taste independence for the first time. The alternately gleaming and brooding setting of the midsummer Arctic provides a constantly engaging backdrop.
Inese Jansone and Pēteris Gaudiņš in Motorcycle Summer (dir. Uldis Brauns, 1975)
Look at These Young People! (dir. Revaz Chkheidze, 1969)
A film that opens in the flush of summer and ends in the depths of war, Revaz Chkheidze’s coming-of-age classic starts out with a sunny disposition in order to make its narrative of disillusionment all the more biting. In the summer of 1941, a group of idealistic Georgian students are graduating and pondering their futures. But the shadow of war hangs over the sun-dappled streets of Tbilisi, and soon our heroes are cast into the perdition of conflict. Chkheidze captures the idyllic and the hellish with equal poetry, revealing just how thin the line is between joy and terror. After those prelapsarian opening scenes, the film does not return again to Tbilisi; neither do all but one of the boys who set out to war. “Winter lost, summer lost, and more to go,” as one puts it.
Watch Look at These Young People! on Klassiki now.
Motorcycle Summer (dir. Uldis Brauns, 1975)
The biker is a quintessentially American figure, standing in for the freedom of the open road and all manner of counter-cultural youthful rebellion. In 1975, Uldis Brauns transposed the biker film, with its play between cynicism and free-spiritedness, to Soviet Latvia for this cult road movie about a summer of love. When Māris (Pēteris Gaudiņš) receives a motorbike for his eighteenth birthday, he hits the road with his friends. When he meets unhappy bride-to-be Inese and her thoughtless fiancé, a whirlwind romance blooms that soon sees the pair cruising through the backwoods of Latvia, locked into an ambiguous union of convenience. Motorcycle Summer was the only fiction feature in the career of Uldis Brauns, one of the leading lights of the Baltic poetic documentary movement. It is a portrait of youthful indolence produced in the middle of Brezhnevian stagnation; in its weightlessness and easy charm, it is also a particularly timeless film. It is recognised within Latvia as a turning point in the small nation’s arthouse history, thanks to its insistence on the centrality of the image and its carefully constructed mood, as well as its luminous photography of the Latvian landscape and its quasi-improvisational “first take” shooting style, which matches perfectly the breezy, summery listlessness of the narrative.
Watch Motorcycle Summer on Klassiki now.
We Never Die (dir. Róbert Koltai , 1993)
A verifiable cult classic in Hungary, Róbert Koltai’s We Never Die combines bittersweet nostalgia with lively humour and playful dialogue. Set in the socialist 1960s, the film concerns an introverted teenager whose life is turned upside down by a few days in the company of his Uncle Gyuszi (played by Koltai himself): a coat hanger salesman with an insatiable appetite for women, alcohol, and horse racing. The success of Koltai’s knockabout comedy baffled some critics, more used to seeing Hungary through the eyes of existential miserabilists like Béla Tarr. Koltai, a well-known cabaret performer in his home country, knew what he was doing when he made this fictionalised take on his own childhood adventures with a beloved, rapscallion uncle. “Audiences have had enough of certain kinds of films, where there is no catharsis,” he told The New York Times on its American release. Set in an early-60s summer, the film’s vision of post-war socialist Hungary is one largely lacking in oppression or even dramatic tension: the long arm of the state is largely absent from the film and our attention is solely occupied by the larger-than-life character at its centre. Gyuszi’s vernacular turn of phrase and elastic trouser braces and thick-rimmed glasses becoming iconic overnight, as Koltai’s film struck a chord with a population starting to come to terms with the legacy of their recent communist past.
Watch We Never Die on Klassiki now.
Jan Machulski and Irena Laskowska in The Last Day of Summer (dir. Tadeusz Konwicki, 1958)
The Last Day of Summer (dir. Tadeusz Konwicki, 1958)
In stark contrast to the escapades of Uncle Gyuszi, Tadeusz Konwicki’s unsparing examination of life in the aftermath of great tragedy is one of the most exacting and enthralling of the early masterpieces of the Polish Film School. Made with a crew of just five, with no artificial lighting and no sets, the film uses the conceit of the holiday season as an existentialist metaphor for the dark night of the soul. Among the blasted dunes and crashing waves of the Baltic coast, a nameless man and woman (Jan Machulski and Irena Laskowska) chance one upon the other. This meet-cute by way of Beckett sets up Konwicki’s alternately modernist and primordial allegory for a nation brutalised by the Second World War, as pair, each haunted by memories of the conflict, try and fail to communicate their desires. The Last Day of Summer forms the first half of Konwicki’s diptych of films about abortive relationships hindered by the ghosts of the war, along with All Souls’ Day (1961).
Volcano (dir. Roman Bondarchuk, 2018)
The Kherson region has suffered greatly at the hands of Russian occupiers since the full-scale invasion, and is now struggling to survive the deluge created by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. To watch a film like Roman Bondarchuk’s Volcano in light of these events is a strange experience: while one cannot help but scan it for premonitions of what was to come, a kind of retrospective fatalism, it also provides a window onto alternate futures now brutally, if only temporarily foreclosed. The film follows Lukas (Serhiy Stepansky), a strait-laced interpreter for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), one of the many international groups who hovered over the disputed territories of eastern Ukraine in the post-Maidan years. Lukas is accompanying a team of foreign delegates across the sun-baked steppe around Kherson when their car breaks down. When Lukas returns after wandering off to find mobile signal, both car and delegates have disappeared. What follows is a kind of deadpan Deliverance, as our hapless protagonist finds himself drawn ever deeper into the obscure corners of this quasi-militarised hinterland. Bondarchuk’s deadpan comedy of isolation and integration blends striking tripod compositions with roving, cinéma vérité-style handheld camera, with a non-professional local cast and a deeply engaged relationship to the parched landscapes. Volcano has drawn comparisons with one of the greatest of all summer films, Ted Kotcheff’s Australian outback psychodrama Wake in Fright (1971). Make no mistake, though: this is an entirely idiosyncratic, determinedly Ukrainian vision of life under the sun.
Watch Volcano on Klassiki now.
Explore our collection of Ukrainian titles here.