Like France, Germany, and the United States, Russia is one of the places where film as we know it today was born. Unlike those countries, though, in Russia film was far more utilitarian than entertainment – a key tool for propaganda and politically charged storytelling. From silent masterworks of state-sanctioned propaganda like Battleship Potemkin (1925), Russian film grew into something markedly more poetic and distinctly visually inventive, setting it apart from the cinema of other nations.
To celebrate the upcoming Russian Resurrection Film Festival, which will bring both old and new work of Russian film to Event Cinemas George Street and Burwood from October 27th to November 6th, we’re taking a look at five of the greatest works of Russian cinema.
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Sergei Eisenstein, one of the cinema’s great formal experimenters (he invented the concept we know today as “montage”) helmed this historical epic that details the defeat of the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire at the hands of Prince Alexander in the 13th Century. Made during the Stalinist era, Alexander Nevsky crucially plays on the importance of the common people – the proletariat – in contrast to the uncaring bourgeoisie of nobles, as well as strained relationships between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany at the time. Beyond its politics, though, Alexander Nevsky is one of the grand classics of Soviet cinema, climaxing in a half-hour recreation of the Battle of the Ice, accompanied by the music of Prokofiev.
Andrei Rublev (1966)
Andrei Tarkovsky, if he is not Russia’s greatest filmmaker, is certainly its most influential. His later work tended toward hallucinatory science-fiction and surreal philosophical musing, and somehow with his first masterpiece he brings those same sensations to a film biography of the 15th Century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev. This episodic, fragmented film is full of strangeness and wonder, enhanced tenfold by Vadim Yusov’s incredible black-and-white cinematography that gives the historical narrative the aspect of a fable, investing what the titular character sees and does with an aura of magic that no other filmmaker could have achieved.
Come and See (1985)
It's hard to think of a war film more confronting than Come and See. Its evocation of the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Belorussian SSR (what is now the Republic of Belarus) during the Second World War does not gloss over or sugar coat any atrocity. With brilliant pacing, a brilliantly structured screenplay, and dazzling cinematography that is somehow simultaneously both beautiful and gruesome, Come and See creates an unforgettably immersive cinema experience. It evokes and explores what was a major turning point in the history of Russia and the USSR. That it can't be conclusively agreed what the film's stance is - pro-war, anti-war, anti-fascist, propaganda - only makes it more exciting.
Russian Ark (2002)
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark is most known for its remarkable technical achievement, and an achievement it certainly is, but the enormous dedication and preparation it took to make the film also resulted in something sensuous, beautiful, sorrowful and inspiring. Russian Ark is essentially a tour through Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, but the entire film was shot in a single, unbroken take from the perspective of an unnamed protagonist. As he moves through the museum, historical figures come to life, and he finds himself witnessing tiny microcosms of Russian history, ending in a dazzling climax featuring a ballroom full of splendidly dressed dancers and a live orchestra.
At the centre of this remarkable, allegorical drama is a simple land dispute, but what ultimately unfolds is a gripping and emotional story that carries the weight of a biblical tale. Leviathan begins with the efforts of mechanic Kolya to keep the home that the mayor of the small fictional coastal town of Pribrezhny would ostensibly replace with a telecommunications mast, and from there develops into a calamitous, catastrophic excavation of the human soul. There is a crackling intensity to every frame of Leviathan, with the spectre of a whale skeleton washed up on the shore (giving the film its title), haunting its gripping descent into ruin.