15 January 2021.
Let’s take a look at the rich tradition of Russian cinema this week.
Did you know that the Lumière brothers exhibited their groundbreaking series of short film clips in Moscow and Leningrad in 1896, where they also made the very first film in Russia – of the coronation of Nicolas II at the Kremlin? Maybe that was one of the incentives for Russia to start in 1919 the world’s oldest film school – the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow – where some of the country’s finest filmmakers such as Tarkovsky and Sokurov have studied and taught. And not to forget the establishment of the Moscow International Film Festival as early as 1935.
With a vast and varied cinema, it will not be easy to cite all of Russia’s great creators and accomplishments, but there are the standouts, including my personal favorites:
Maybe the film with which to start delving into Russia’s cinematic treasures is RERBERG AND TARKOVSKY, the 2009 award-winning documentary by Igor Maiboroda on the making of their films, MIRROR and STALKER. It features many of Russia’s cinematic greats analysing the cinematographer and the famed director of those two iconic, dark art films, for Andrei Tarkovsky (of the 1960s and 70s) and of course Sergei Eisenstein (1920s to 40s) are undoubtedly two of the giants of early Russian cinema.
Sergei Eisenstein exploded onto the burgeoning world cinema scene in 1925 with his BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, a silent film about Bolshevik sailors rising up against their Tsarist officers. His revolutionary technique of crowd shots and montage made it especially potent in a Russia vying for recognition in the cinematic arts. His other notable films are also political/historical dramas which stress the greatness and the failings of Russian power: ALEXANDER NEVSKY, about a 13th century hero defying invading Germans and Swedes, and IVAN THE TERRIBLE, the two-part film commissioned by Stalin about the mad Tsar who brutally united Russia in the mid-16th century.
For me, the next memorable work is the 1958 Cannes winner, THE CRANES ARE FLYING. This dramatic story of a romance interrupted by WWII is unforgettable in its soulful rendering of what war does to normal lives, and above all its beautiful cinematography. Its lovely star, Tatiana Samoylova won awards and hearts around the world.
Then there was the 1961 BAFTA winner, BALLAD OF A SOLDIER, about a young, heroic soldier who gets time off to visit his mother, and ends up falling in love. Its simple but heartfelt tale of hope and decency among the ruins of war is both poetic and typical of the proud, idealistic films of the Soviet era.
BALLAD OF A SOLDIER
And then we come to two very different brothers from an artistic family, Andrei Konshalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov (one taking the mother’s and the other, the father’s family name). Konshalovsky gained fame with his films out of Hollywood in the mid-1980s with MARIA’S LOVERS and RUNAWAY TRAIN.
His brother Mikhalkov stayed in Russia, directing some of its finest films, such as the sublime and amusing DARK EYES (1987), based on a short story by Chekhov; the politically powerful, Oscar-winning BURNT BY THE SUN in 1994; and URGA, a haunting, beautifully soundtracked tale of a Russian soldier in Mongolia.
He also made ANNA – FROM 6 to 18 in 1994, about his own daughter going through those years of Russian turmoil, both personal and patriotic. In 2007 he made 12, an excellent remake of “Twelve Angry Men”, himself taking the role as head of the jury.
BURNT BY THE SUN
The next outstanding director with a rich and prolific cinematography is Alexander Sokurov. His films, such as MOTHER AND SON, FAUST or his numerous ELEGIES on various Russian themes are often dreamlike, poetic studies of human relations, slow and contemplative, but never boring. One of his most fascinating and audacious is the 2003 RUSSIAN ARK, an amazing single-shot revery (with no cut or editing!) through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. It is a breathtaking view of the grand building and its countless artworks mingled with the flow of Russian history.
Amongst the many fine, recent Russian films (such as LETO or ONCE IN TRUBCHEVSK) doing the rounds of festivals, there is a special favorite son of the Venice and Cannes film festivals, Andrey Zvyagintsev, who has won multiple awards for his continuously exceptional works such as THE RETURN (VENICE 2003), THE BANISHMENT (2007), LEVIATHAN (2014) and LOVELESS (2017), all stark, powerful depictions of modern Russian life.
Try any of them. You will not miss with these excellent films. I would start with the Nikita Mikhalkov gems.
Superb **** Very Good *** Good ** Mediocre * Miserable – no stars
Neptune Ravar Ingwersen reviews film extensively for publications in Switzerland. She views 4 to 8 films a week and her aim is to sort the wheat from the chaff for readers.