by Sergey Kuznetsov
The Diamond Arm/Mosfilm
Nobody loves Russian movies, even Russians themselves. Their films are very long, very slow, black & white or monochromatic. They are crowded by intellectual talk and lack plot, characters or any kind of entertainment.
This is common knowledge and, of course, it’s not true.
We, the Russians, love our cinema – although the majority of us don’t know about Tarkovsky of Zviagintsev. Moreover, we – surprise! – love movies with an intense plot, powerful characters and funny jokes as much as any audience.
So, I would like to introduce you to fifteen great Russian movies you don’t know (if you are not Russian film fans or a Slavic Studies professor).
To shake things up, there are no films on this list from the most well-known Russian film directors: Sergey Eizenshtein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, 1979) or Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun, 1994). I also tried to avoid very slow and very long monochromatic films – although there are a few great movies of this type. I chose the Russian Westerns, the war flicks, the comedies and the criminal films – the movies you would like even if you find Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wordy and boring.
Brother (Alexei Balabanov, 1997)
The indie-style crime movie from one of the best Russian directors of the last decade – Alexei Balbanov (Cargo 200, The Stoker) – is about a young Afghanistan war veteran Danila (the best role of Danila Bagrov’s career, he tragically died a few years after the film) who fights for justice in the chaotic Saint Petersburg of the post-perestroika period. Danila is not John Rambo – he is a skinny shy boy who loves Russian existential rock music and only his inner “Truth” gives him strength.
The film is the only Russian movie of the 90s warmly received by a wide Russian audience, mostly because of its honest portrayal of Russian xenophobia. If you wish to understand the frightening transformation of Russia in 2014, you have to see Brother.
The Cameraman’s Revenge (Wladyslaw Starewicz, 1912)
Highly recommended for everybody who is sure that Russian films are very long – it’s just twelve minutes! As well there are no Russian men with beards or women with babushka head cloths. Wladislaw Starewicz, the director, used only insects from a herbarium to tell the story about Mr. Grasshopper, the cameraman, who discovered his mistress, Ms. Dragonfly, has an affair with Mr. Beetle. To take revenge, Mr. Grasshopper films them and shows the movie in the local theatre.
Cold Summer of 1953 (Alexander Proshkin, 1987)
The focus of the drama is an amnesty in 1953, when shortly after Stalin’s death hundreds of criminals were released from the jails and labor camps of a Soviet gulag. So, the bunch terrorizes a small village – and only two political convicts try to protect the people. Half Magnificent Seven, half High Noon, this anti-Stalinist western became one of last Soviet films loved by Russians and the last film of the Russian star Anatoly Papanov (a smuggler in The Diamond Hand).
The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)
Soon after Stalin’s death the Soviet movies changed again, and Mikhail Kalatozov made the film about love and war filled out by freedom and passion. Shot by the hand-held camera of the great Russian cameraman Sergei Urusevsky, the film is a favorite of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. It was awarded by Palm d’Or in Cannes ’58 where it won over Bergman’s Brink of Life.
The Diamond Arm (Leonid Gaiday, 1969)
Perhaps the best Russian comedy, the story of an ordinary man who was incidentally involved in illegal diamond trafficking. It’s a parody of crime movies and of the Hitchcockian “wrong man in wrong circumstances” plot, as well as a satirical sketch of Soviet life. Sometimes the American audience might need some knowledge of Soviet realities, but I’m sure real cinephiles would highly appreciate the stylistic diversity and charms of the actors.
Everybody Dies But Me (Valeria Gay Germanica, 2008)
A coming-of-age drama of teen angst, drugs, alcohol and loss of innocence in the suburbs of contemporary Moscow, it’s the Russian version of Kids or early Harmony Korine films. Three girls, classmates, all dream about a school disco party, their first party… where every one of them will meet her own drama and disappointment. Dirty, cynical and authentic, the film shocked some Russian audiences; however a few years after young Gay Germanica developed her success, the serial The School was released on one of Russia’s major TV channels.
I Am Twenty (Marlen Khitziev, 1962, released 1965 and 1988 (director’s cut))
A classic of the Russian poetic New Wave, this is the story of three friends and a portrait of Moscow in the beginning of the 1960s. The film was cut by Soviet censorship almost twice and was only fully recovered at the end of the 1980s. In my favorite sequence, the main character talks with his dead father in WWII. “You asked my advice,” the father says, “but you are older than me now.”
As a bonus for Russian movie lovers, Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky both make cameos.
Ménage à trois (Abram Room, 1927)
The real monument to the early years of Soviet Russia, the time when people of the young country felt free and were ready for unexpected sexual experiments. A husband welcomes an old friend to live in his small apartment. When he finds his wife has an affair with the tenant, they decide to live as a threesome.
I love the movie because of the strong female character and because there is no reprobation of the adultery or sexual freedom. As a contrast, I recommend A Severe Young Man (1934) from the same director – the times changed and Abram Room shot an adultery story in the neoclassical, almost ancient Greek, style.
Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (Vladimir Menshov, 1980)
The film was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film despite the Afghanistan war and the American boycott of the Russian Olympic Games (yes, Russia had the Olympics already in 1980, eleven years before the Soviet Union collapsed). The reason is that this film from Vladimir Menshov is a classical Hollywood success story: a young girl makes a career and meets her love. The female lead was supposed to appeal to feminist critics at the time, but now we may recognize patriarchal overtones: a career is good, but first of all every woman needs her man.
The Adventures of Mowgli (Roman Davydov, 1973)
The most famous and prize-awarded Russian animated film is Yuri Norshtein’s The Little Grey Wolf Will Come (1979), however I’m including the animated version of Mowgli’s story. The brilliant film by Norshtein is for Tarkovsky fans – Mowgli, however, is an amazing colorful story for kids and their parents. Like Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” the film is scary and heroic: the hypnotizing dance of Kaa the python, the bloody battle with red dogs and the farewell song of Akela were all communicating with small Russians about destiny and death – issues important for Kipling himself. Don’t forget the original soundtrack of Russian avant-garde composer Sofiya Gubajdulina, and understand that this film is the reason praising Disney’s Jungle Book when you talk with any Russian will spoil your reputation as a movie expert.
Our Own (Dmitry Meskhiev, 2004)
WWII – or The Great Patriotic War, as it is called by Russians – is the central episode of Russian history of the 20th century, the core of Russian self-identity. So, we are not surprised the directors of younger generation film warflicks again and again. Standing out from the majority, Our Own is a powerful, deep movie about the ordinary people who were clamped between the Soviets and the Nazis. Three soldiers run from Nazi capture to a forest village, putting all of its inhabitants in danger of Nazi retribution, but their leader can’t send the warriors away because one of them is his own son.
The Scarecrow (Rolan Bykov, 1984)
The Russian Lord of the Flies or Carrie, this school drama of bullying is even more frightening without any element of fantasy or parable. A twelve-year-old girl is ostracized by her classmates, and nobody can help her. At the time the film critics wrote that the movie is the story of the outsiders in the Soviet society however we know that a story like this takes place in any country and in any age.
Taxi Blues (Pavel Lungin, 1990)
The story of love and hate between two Muscovites: the taxi driver and the Bohemian jazzman. Pavel Lungin made Moscow as bright as an American metropolis and showed the audience two faces of Russia: an irresponsible artist meets a brutal working man. The spectators who have seen other Lungin’s films (Tycoon: A New Russian, The Island) say it’s his own two faces. Whatever the symbolic case, for this debut movie the Russian director was awarded Best Director in Cannes.
Trial on the Road (Alexei German, 1971)
The WWII drama of Alexei German (Khrustalyov, My Car!, Hard to Be a God). The POW has to prove his loyalty to Resistance underground forces in the forests of Russia occupied by Nazis. More the political film than the war action thriller, and more a drama of choice then attention-diverting mission movie, the film was not released in the Soviet Union until 1985.
A note for whomever knows the later of German’s films: Trial on the Road is much easier to watch than the director’s last two masterpieces.
The White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl, 1970)
The Western always was one of the favorite genres of Russian and Soviet directors, who filmed a lot of “red-flagged westerns,” however almost all of them are forgotten except The White Sun of the Desert, one of the evergreen favorites of the Russians. A Red Army soldier is going to return home to his beloved wife, however he has to complete his last mission: accompany the local bandit/rebel Abdulah, who is going to kill his wives.
There are the burning oil tropes, horse tricks, machine gun play, cross-cultural misunderstanding jokes and touching characters. When I was a school boy, I wept every time I watched this movie on TV.
Sergey Kuznetsov was born in Moscow in 1966. In the 1990s he achieved a high profile as one of the pioneers of the internet in Russia, and has written for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Playboy, Vogue and L’Officiel.
His groundbreaking thriller “Butterfly Skin” has been translated into six languages, and in 2001 he became the first Russian journalist to receive a Knight Fellow scholarship from Stanford University. Besides being an entrepreneur and writer, he is editor-in-chief of Booknik, an internet publication on Jewish literature and culture. He lives in Paris.