“Art is not some sort of guideline for understanding. It’s a thing unto itself.” – Andrey Zvyagintsev
While many of the films from the earlier periods in the history of Russian Cinema were used by the state as propaganda tools, contemporary Russian films have expanded to transcend the limitations of their predecessors and take on the subversive duties of art. Originating in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR, New Russian Cinema saw the development of young filmmakers who were bold enough to take the necessary risks.
For some context, readers should check our earlier feature on the history of Russian cinema in the Soviet Era. Modern Russian filmmakers are standing on the shoulders of giants like Eisenstein and Tarkovsky but they have managed to find their own artistic vision, transforming the cinematic medium into a magical site for avant-garde experiments.
One of the prominent figures of the New Russian Cinema movement, Andrey Zvyagintsev said: “The state doesn’t want to remember that it’s the role of the artist to be in the opposition,” he says. “Otherwise how do the people in power see their true face. In ancient times, kings would have clowns and jesters in court every day. On the one hand, they were there to entertain the king.”
He added: “But on the other they were the only people who were able to tell him the truth. The intelligent, wise king knows that the jesters are needed. The foolish, insecure king does not. You ask me if I’m a dissident. When really, I think, I’m more like a clown.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we look at 10 essential films from the New Russian Cinema movement in order to examine how the art form has evolved in the country since the productions of the Soviet era.
10 essential films from the New Russian Cinema movement:
Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov – 1994)
An extremely powerful film about the Stalinist regime in the late 1930s, Burnt by the Sun tells the story of a senior officer of the Red Army and the tragedies that he experienced during the Red Terror. The film was wildly successful, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The filmmaker explained, “Yes, they all live under a ‘burnt sun’ because they have destroyed all the suns that had illuminated the country for thousands of years. Before the Russian Revolution, God represented the law, the only law which Russians accepted, and they only seemed to follow those laws written by men of faith. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks understood how to use this religious vigilance of the Russian people. They realised they could replace the monarchy and the church with power embodied in the cult of one man, Stalin.”
Adding, “In the film, Serguei Petrovitch Kotov, the Red Army colonel and hero of the revolution, does not exude the image of one who could be accused of treason. When Stalin’s political police force, the NKVD, comes to arrest him, Serguei remains very calm, expecting to resolve everything with a simple phone call to the Kremlin. But when the arresting officers turn violent, Serguei understands. This is not a tragedy of a guilty man, but the tragedy of a man blinded by the sun.”
Brother (Aleksei Balabanov – 1997)
Aleksei Balabanov’s fantastic 1997 neo-noir crime drama stars Sergei Bodrov Jr, a young man who returns from military service only to find himself caught up in the shady affairs of the St. Petersburg underworld. Filmed in 31 days on a budget of approximately $10,000, Brother has become a cult-classic in the country and its success spawned a sequel in 2000.
“I make different films because people like different films,” Balabanov said. “Violence is a big part of life in our country, especially in the 90s. Look at Russian TV series now, all the channels show violent criminal sagas, a lot of programs are about murder, maniacs, criminal dividing of business. I do not invent is, I show the portrait of time the way I see it.”
Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov – 1997)
Sokurov’s poetic film about an ailing mother and her young son is a brilliant case study of the human condition. Notable for its innovative cinematography, Mother and Son distorts the images it presents by filming through painted glass panes, mirrors, and special lenses.
Sokurov commented, “I don’t think that in cinema there are big personalities. No. The tradition is too young. We don’t have enough people to compare. We can compare the cinema as an art to a physician who is trying to study a million health problems of people without knowing how to help them. Every physician makes a discovery and then proclaims his method as the unique and best one to help people, but the disease or problem continues on.”
Khrustalyov, My Car! (Aleksei German – 1998)
Set in the spring of 1953 in Moscow, Aleksei German’s comedy-drama paints a carnivalesque picture of the events that occurred in the Soviet Era. For his work, he earned comparisons to the great Federico Fellini and received the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the Russian Guild of Film Critics Awards.
When he was asked whether the film was about contemporary Russia, German said, “Of course, maybe things are simpler now—they just shoot you…The artist is a canary in a mine shaft. If Brezhnev had read Rudyard Kipling, he would never have gone into Afghanistan. We didn’t really want to depict 1953, we wanted to show what Russians are like.”
The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev – 2003)
A moving examination of the meaning of family and masculinity, The Return is the sinister story of two brothers whose father returns home after 12 years only to subject them to something mysterious. It garnered several awards and nominations, including a place on the BBC critics’ poll about the greatest films of the 21st century.
The director revealed, “The script was the inspiration. Myself and the producer, Dmitry Lesnevsky, decided to film a feature-length movie, and we read many scripts over about half a year. This was the only script that really moved us. But not immediately – the very strong feeling that it wasn’t just an entertaining travel story, but something much more, came maybe six months after I first read it.”
Dust (Sergei Loban – 2005)
A minimalistic masterpiece that was made on a relatively measly budget of $3000, Dust exists in an intersection of sci-fi, existentialism and magical realism. It focuses its investigations on the main character who participates in a secret experiment where a machine tricks him into believing that his wildest dreams came true.
Sergei Loban said of the film’s thematic focus: “Dust is the bustle in which people are immersed. Dust is a common misconception, a clogging of heads. Dust particles are the image through which these people are perceived by the scientist, who, as it seems, is learned more than others about the mechanisms of the universe.”
Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko – 2010)
Based on a 2008 novella by Denis Osokin, Silent Souls is a meditation on the rituals of life and the escape of death. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion and Fedorchenko’s film was compared to the works of Tarkovsky. Silent Souls won the award for the Best Screenplay at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
“I don’t think that a prophet has anything to do with a person’s occupation,” Fedorchenko said. “The film-makers can be as prophets as craftsmen who do their job well or badly. This job is like many others. The only thing that makes them different is that each film has its own audience with their own opinion. But it’s really very difficult to sort out whether the film-makers are prophets or not. As for me I can’t judge on myself.”
How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebski – 2010)
An interesting look at the effects of isolation on individuals, How I Ended This Summer is a psychological drama that presents the unique case of two men living on a remote island who grow mistrustful of each other. The film has been perceived as an allegory of modern Russia and divisiveness present in its citizens.
The director elaborated, “For me, the most fascinating part was not the sickness or people going crazy, it was when a completely ‘abnormal’ or ‘extreme’ experience becomes routine, it’s something very human and very intense. In the books that I enjoyed the most, like Fridtjof Nansen’s account of his expeditions, there are details of everyday life, the daily routine, they’re there for years, often in darkness, and that’s what’s so fascinating, that humans are animals that can adapt to anything, really.”
Living (Vassily Sigarev – 2012)
Living is Sigarev’s cinematic thesis on death where he explores the process of mourning and conducts a philosophical examination of how the human condition is fundamentally brutal. One of the bleakest films from the New Russian Cinema movement, Living earned several accolades and put Sigarev on the map.
Sigarev said, “There is a kind of ‘official’ theme: that is the attitude to death in society is homogenous, especially in cinema. That is, when a death is shown, it is always so easy, and no-one pays any attention to is. That is, a person is killed, but five minutes later the viewer remembers nothing about it. And we wanted to show, the ‘greatness’ of death, as it were, and from that show the greatness of life, because life is an enormous treasure.”
Under Electric Clouds (Aleksei German Jr. – 2015)
A lesson in sublime cinematography, Under Electric Clouds is an ambitious project which attempts to capture the ethos of a place through disparate narratives. The film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for its outstanding visual narrative, constructing a vision of a near-future Russia that is riddled with symbolism and subtextual commentary.
“We live in big cities but for some reason we pretend that they don’t exist,” German Jr told The Calvert Journal. “For some reason we isolate part of our lives from the connotations of reality. There are particular situations that exist as part of a certain kind of life in Moscow, with clubs and girls in sparkly evening dresses — this life lends itself to aestheticisation, but nobody has noticed this.”