“Language is much closer to film than painting is.” – Sergei Eisenstein
The history of Soviet cinema is contentious because the Soviet Union leaders often viewed film as the ideal propaganda tool, thanks to its immense popularity. Vladimir Lenin believed that cinema could be effectively used to indoctrinate the masses as it could be comprehended by just about anyone. He declared, “The cinema is for us the most important of the arts.”
However, the most definitive works of that era aren’t the ones that can be categorised as propaganda films. They are the experimentations of brilliant filmmakers and film theorists with the burgeoning medium that was cinema, experiments which have shaped how films are made to this day.
Eisenstein once wrote, “It is interesting to retrace the different paths of today’s cinema workers to their creative beginnings, which together compose the multi-coloured background of the Soviet cinema.
In the early 1920s, we all came to the Soviet cinema as something not yet existent. We came upon no ready-built city; there were no squares, no streets laid out; not even little crooked lanes and blind alleys, such as we may find in the cinemetropolis of our day.”
He added, “We pitched our tents and dragged into camp our experiences in varied fields. Private activities, accidental past professions, unguessed crafts, unsuspected eruditions-all were pooled and went into the building of something that had, as yet, no written traditions, no exact stylistic requirements, nor even formulated demands.”
We revisit some of the seminal films of that era to get a better understanding of the phenomenon that was Soviet cinema.
10 greatest Soviet films:
10. Earth (Aleksandr Dovzhenko – 1930)
Part three of Dovzhenko’s Ukraine Trilogy, Earth is a chronicle of the process of collectivisation and the hostility of Kulak landowners. Dovzhenko’s camera presents visually stunning images of the sensual side of nature, transcending the limitations of propaganda to question cosmic concepts.
Dovzhenko himself explained, “I conceived Earth as a film that would herald the beginning of a new life in the villages.” The film was condemned by Soviet critics back in the day, including a scathing attack by Demyan Bedny (the pseudonym for Yefim Pridvorov, considered a major proletarian poet of the 1920s).
“I was so stunned by (Bedny’s) attack,” Dovzhenko wrote, “so ashamed to be seen in public, that I literally aged and turned gray overnight. It was a real emotional trauma for me. At first I wanted to die.”
9. I Am Twenty (Marlen Khutsiev – 1965)
Considered a landmark of 1960s Soviet cinema, the film was heavily censored upon its release but the definitive three-hour version was restored in 1989. Khutsiev’s masterpiece follows three lifelong friends who return to Moscow after serving in the military, navigating their aspirations and questioning their place in society.
Khutsiev said, “The absolute confidence in what you’re doing, and persistent doubts about it. If any of these qualities outweighs [the others], it is bad…the opinionated will decide that everything they have made is [a work of] genius. Indecision also leads to nothing. These two qualities are necessary to the director – all at once.”
8. Happiness (Aleksandr Medvedkin – 1935)
One of the more experimental works on the list, Happiness is a surreal, silent, Soviet black comedy which features a hapless peasant who goes on one wild adventure after another with his wife, a neighbour and members of the clergy. It is a brilliantly satirical and existential interpretation of a Soviet farmer who finds himself answering to the state, religious institutions as well as his peers but never being able to find his individual identity.
Acclaimed filmmaker Chris Marker wrote, “I happened to see [Happiness] almost at once. Ledoux invited me often to watch his new discoveries. Both of us were flabbergasted, as were to be all who would discover the film after us, by a unique mixture of humour, lyricism and cinematographic mastery. Plus the mystery of the date: 1934 – and yet a silent picture. Plus the fact that film and filmmaker were completely forgotten by the historians of Soviet Cinema…”
7. Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai – 1959)
An unconventional meditation on the effects of war, Ballad of a Soldier is a poetic search for hope in devastated, war-torn landscapes. It follows a young soldier who decides to visit his mother but gets sidetracked by the suffering he sees all around him. The technical mastery of the visual narrative amplifies this overwhelming feeling of loss and anguish.
“Russian films always had big crowds of soldier, battle scenes and people giving their lives for the motherland,” the filmmaker said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. ”I decided to make a film about what happens when the world loses a single person.”
6. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov – 1929)
It is astonishing to see how the limitless potentials of cinema have been examined since its early days. Although Man with a Movie Camera appears to just be a chronicle of the daily life of the Soviet people in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa, it is a strikingly avant-garde exploration of the process of voyeurism and uses contemporary techniques like slow motion, stop motion and fast cuts.
“The idea for The Man with a Movie Camera had already arisen in 1924,” cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman revealed. “How did this idea take shape? Strictly speaking, we needed a Kino-theory and a Kino-program in cinematic form. I suggested such an idea to Vertov, but it could not be realised at that time.”
5. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein – 1925)
This 1925 Soviet silent film has had a formative influence on cinema and introduced new ways to engage with the medium. The film is a dramatised version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against its officers because they were fed rancid meat. Not just a historical account, Battleship Potemkin is a symbolic investigation of power relations.
Eisenstein reflected, “I often hear the criticism that Battleship has too much pathos. By the way, the version shown in Germany lost a good share of its political focus. However, we all are people; we all have character, passions, tasks and goals.
“The success this film had in Berlin and throughout post-war Europe, which was plunged in the darkness of an unstable status quo, should have become a call for an existence worthy of humankind. Doesn’t this justify pathos? We should raise our heads and learn to be human, we need to be human, to become a human being: this is what this film aims at, no more and no less.”
4. The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov – 1957)
Mikhail Kalatozov’s masterpiece focuses on the devastation and pain caused by the Second World War through its emblematic female protagonist Veronica who loses her boyfriend during the war. The Cranes Are Flying is the only Soviet film to have won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky said, “With us there existed a tacit right of veto. We didn’t agree on it, it wasn’t written down anywhere, but he knew: if I don’t like something, he won’t insist; if he doesn’t like something, me neither. Of course, we tried to persuade each other, we argued.”
He added, “No one held anyone back, prompted, dictated. The graphic side of the picture depended on me, and Kalatozov attached great importance to that.”
3. The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko – 1977)
Larisa Shepitko’s 1977 magnum opus was the last film she made before her death in a car accident in 1979. Set during the World War II’s darkest days, it outlines the face of two peasant soldiers who leave their starving unit to search a nearby farm for supplies but are forced to retreat deeper into enemy territory when they see the Germans have already occupied it. The film won the Golden Bear award at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival in 1977.
The Ascent is based on Sotnikov, a novella published in 1970 by the Belarusian writer Vasil Bykaŭ. Speaking about the source material, Shepitko said, “It pinpoints the crucial importance of the spiritual fortitude of the Soviet man in the face of the Nazi military machine.
“I thought it very important the idea that the Soviet people won the war not only by the force of arms, but also by their strength of spirit. By their superior moral makeup. Like Bykov’s story, our film is an attempt to trace the sources of that spiritual fortitude and glorify the exploits of the human spirit”
2. Come and See (Elem Klimov – 1985)
Soviet filmmaker Elem Klimov’s bleak anti-war film is a ruthless depiction of humanity’s capacity for unabashed evil. We experience the horrors of war through the teenaged protagonist, Alexei Kravchenko, in a landscape that has been subjected to a Nazi incursion and genocide. Come and See insists that although the war has changed what it means to be human forever, individual dignity is something nobody can take away from us.
It is a compelling tale of surviving against all odds even though an entire civilization spirals into chaos all around us. Visceral and moving, Come and See is a nightmare but a necessary one, a reminder for us to steer clear of our past mistakes.
Klimov said, “It was some kind of reflection of what I felt of my own emotions at the time of the war. Or, you might say, of my wartime childhood. Because when the war started, I was only eight years old. I was born and raised in Stalingrad. So, like a lot of my friends and acquaintances, we all experienced together very hard times.
“We had to work hard. We felt human suffering. These were my memories of the war. Memories that will never leave me. And I am sure that, one way or another, they were reflected in the film Come and See.”
1. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky – 1979)
Stalker is the best film by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Just that statement is enough to merit a place on any list but it does not do the film justice at all. Tarkovsky constructs a meditative experience that violently lurches towards the truth but only claws at the void, a revelatory incision from which an empty dialectic drains out. Although it is structured as an outdoors expedition to arrive at a heterotopia that promises to provide our deepest and darkest desires, Stalker conducts a simultaneous journey into the psychological recesses that remain hidden from us.
Tarkovsky shrouds the brashness of the sci-fi genre with a rich atmosphere of philosophical maturity. Stalker’s self-destructive desire threatens to destroy all of our preconceived notions but holds back with the graceful restraint of poetic totality. Tarkovsky’s camera glides over the radioactive wasteland as he slowly punctures some of the mysteries of the universe.
“Why doesn’t it matter where he arrived? Because the path is infinite,” Tarkovsky said. “And the journey has no end. Because of that, it is of absolutely no consequence whether you are standing near the beginning or near the end already — before you, there is a journey that will never end. And if you didn’t enter the path — the most important thing is to enter it. Here lies the problem. That’s why for me what’s important is not so much the path but the moment at which a man enters it enters any path.”
He added, “In Stalker, for example, the Stalker himself is perhaps not so important to me, much more important is the Writer who went to the Zone as a cynic, just a pragmatist, and returned as a man who speaks of human dignity, who realised he was not a good man. For the first time, he even faces this question, is man good or bad? And if he has already thought of it — he thus enters the path… And when the Stalker says that all his efforts were wasted, that nobody understood anything, that nobody needed him — he is mistaken because the Writer understood everything. And because of that, the Stalker himself is not even so important.”