Video roundup: Russian cinema

by Dave Maier

006-the-cranes-are-flying-theredlistI don't usually watch the opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympics – I like to think of the Super Bowl halfime show as an aesthetic catastrophe uniquely American in nature – but I did see the Sochi closing ceremony, which celebrated Russian achievement in the arts. Or some of them, anyway. We saw dancers and poets and painters and composers, but sadly missing (with a partial exception to be noted below) was a form to which Russian artists have contributed spectacularly since its very beginnings up through the present day.

Russian cinema ranges in tone from the bleak to the mordant to the ecstatic, in subject from the quotidian to the mystical and visionary. If you appreciate the characteristically Russian sensibility in music or literature or painting, you will surely recognize it here as well.

Some of the following films are well-known classics, others possibly mere curiosities. Time will tell; but in any case this is not a best-of list – I have omitted many famous names (Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Eisenstein) – but simply a selection for your enjoyment (much like my similar list of Japanese films a while back). I'm not a film critic, so I might not have any great insights to share with you. Go watch the films, they speak for themselves.

The Cranes are Flying (Letyat zhuravli) – Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957
Letter Never Sent (Neotpravlennoye pismo) – Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959
I Am Cuba (Ya Kuba) – Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964

Mikhail Kalatozov might not be the first name that comes to mind when the subject is Russian cinema, but he's definitely one of my favorites, and these three remarkable films give a good sense of his range. Cranes is a glorious breath of fresh air made possible in part by the cultural “thaw” following Comrade Stalin's death. As I mentioned in a post on my own blog some time ago, there's a scene in this film in which two bright-eyed factory girls are about to regale the young hero's father with the customary patriotic bromides and he just cuts them off with a mocking laugh – a shocking moment, and one which I can well imagine making the audience gasp. The title is a bit mysterious, but a helpful commenter at tells us that he ran across the phrase in Chekhov's Three Sisters:

In Act 2, Masha objects to the notion that we must live our lives without meaning or understanding:

”MASHA: Surely mankind must believe in something, or at least seek for the truth, otherwise life is just emptiness, emptiness. To live and not to know why the cranes are flying, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky. Either you must know why it is you live, or everything is trivial – mere pointless nonsense.”


While Cranes is a romance, Letter is an adventure in distant Siberia. Our young Soviet heroes – thaw or no thaw, this is Socialist Realism to the core – search for diamonds for the motherland; but the title foreshadows the ultimate fate of the letter home we hear our fearless leader composing during the expedition. See it for the amazing shots of the Siberian wilderness, and see here for an interesting take on the film.

Soy cuba

Like Letter, I Am Cuba features spectacular cinematography which makes its unabashed Soviet-era propaganda almost charming, if not entirely convincing (least so in the final segment, but reasonably so in the first three). On the other hand, a commenter at imdb chides this conventional view of the film in no uncertain terms:

To dismiss it as propaganda yet ogle at its images is akin to prostituting this beautiful, very deeply moving, and inspiring film, the same way that Cuba herself was prostituted.

On the other hand (that would be the first one again, if rather more extreme) another comment is entitled “If you like this film you're a commie.” We report, you decide. After seeing this fine film, that is. Available in the original Spanish or in dubbed Russian translation.


The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye) – Larisa Shepitko, 1977
Wings (Krylya) – Larisa Shepitko, 1966

Ascent1-1These two fantastic but very different films are available on a bargain two-disc set from Eclipse so you have no excuse. The former is described in the liner notes to that set as “[a]t once a visceral, earthy evocation of life on the ground during World War II and a momentous, spiritual Christian allegory,” and features stunning black and white cinematography which serves that allegory perfectly. The latter film is Shepitko's first feature, a character study of a retired female fighter pilot living a dreary post-war life. The lead actress, Maya Bulgakova, is absolutely magnetic in this very moving film. Again, just buy the set; here's the link.

Come and See (Idi i smotri)
– Elem Klimov, 1985

Elem Klimov was Larisa Shepitko's husband, who finished her final film (ironically entitled Farewell) after her untimely death at age forty-one. In this, his most well-known film, it seems that he is determined to out-bleak his wife's somewhat more allegorical war story with a flat-out war-is-hell nightmare. The USSR really got hammered by the Nazi war machine in WWII – no natural boundaries to protect them, just the Red Army and the Russian winter – and no one who sees this wrenching film will ever forget that.


Earth (Zemlya) – Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930

There aren't that many early films on this list (I have some catching up to do, and Vertov, Dovzhenko and Pudovkin aren't exactly well-represented even on Netflix), but this classic is not to be missed. Again the Soviet propaganda is right up front – the big event is the new tractor's arrival at the collective farm – but the artistry of this film, if not its bare-bones story, is compelling and undeniable.


The Return (Vozvrashchenie) – Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003

This film, Zvyagintsev's debut, really struck me, as I knew nothing about it when I picked up the DVD at the library (warning: not to be confused with another The Return, which looks ghastly). It's more than a bit like Tarkovsky, but I suppose that's unavoidable (and of course not a bad thing!). A man returns home after ten years (in prison … ?) and takes his two hesitant sons on a trip. Excellent work by the young actors, one of whom (Vladimir Garin) tragically drowned not long after the shoot. Great hypnotic soundtrack (available on ECM Records) by Andrey Dergatchev (Youtube excerpt here).

The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaya imperiya) – Karen Shakhnazarov [N.B.: a man], 2008

96971-Vanished_Empire_MdThis was another impulsive library pickup (we've got good libraries here in NJ), featuring the charming adventures of a rock-obsessed teen during the Brezhnev era. Apart from the striking and enigmatic section in the Central Asian desert, my favorite part has our hero risking authoritarian disapproval by combing the black market for the latest Rolling Stones album (Goat's Head Soup, not their best) to give to his new girlfriend, with amusing results. Not a hit at the US box office: it grossed $9280.

Outskirts (Okraina) – Pyotr Lutsik, 1988

Outskirts_mainNot to be confused with, although surely a reference to, a famous earlier Soviet film of the same name by Boris Barnet (a.k.a. The Patriots, 1933), which I have not seen. An imbd commenter warns that “if you know Russian or Soviet culture and cinema culture well enough, this is a very interesting and original movie. Otherwise, I doubt that you'll appreciate it too much.” Hmmm. I'd hesitate to put myself in the former category, and no doubt I missed plenty, but I found this film really involving. A blurb on the DVD box reads “Equal parts Charles Bronson, Three Stooges, Samuel Beckett, and Grand Guignol” – although the characteristically Russian flavor of this one is unmistakeable. I won't try to summarize the plot here; just think “revenge” (I guess that's the Charles Bronson part). In any case I do remember remarking to myself that this film is very, very odd, so be warned in that respect.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv) – Sergei Parajanov, 1964

Shadowsancestorsreflectioninwater_zps86f7a67aMy apologies to the various ethnicities other than that of Russia in including this film, which was made in Ukranian by a man born in Georgia to Armenian parents. But it's terrific. If you are an ethnic folklore junkie (you know who you are), you will love this movie, which is packed to the gills with that sort of thing; but it's a compelling story as well, the tragic tale of Ivan and Marichka and the evil sorcerer. If you have seen some of Parajanov's more experimental work (e.g. The Color of Pomegranates), you will find this one rather less, well, experimental, yet well worth seeing nonetheless.

My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moy drug Ivan Lapshin) – Alexey Gherman, 1984
Khrustalyov, My Car! (Khrustalyov, mashinu!) – Alexey Gherman, 1998

It's actually been a while since I've seen these, so rather than relying on my vague memories let's once again turn it over to imdb's knowledgeable commenters. The former film is a bit like a Russian Amarcord,

a rambling fantasia of events in a small provincial town during the 1930s. The film is virtually plot less but rich in incidental detail, and like any nostalgic memory is oblique and selective, and often shadowed with a profound sense of regret. Viewers unfamiliar with Russian habits and history may be hard pressed to follow the director's near-documentary recreation of local events (spiced with occasional arcane, Fellini-esquire symbolism).

… while the latter

captures the growing absurdity of trying to rationalize life under a beast like Stalin: His principal characters' lives (and brains) have become as cluttered and confused with attempts to make sense of their own conduct in the face of tyranny as the crazy, stuffed-to-the-gills, attic-like warrens of rooms they live in.

Hedgehog in the Fog (Yozhik v tumane) – Yuri Norshteyn, 1975
Tale of Tales (Skazka skazok) – Yuri Norshteyn, 1979

Apparently the former film, an 11-minute animated short, was indeed referenced at Sochi, but in the opening ceremonies rather than the tribute to the arts in the closer. Norshteyn (also transliterated “Norstein”) was one of many master animators of the Soviet era, and these are two of his more famous works. If I may cite yet another commenter at imdb, this one tells us re: “Hedgehog” (“A masterpiece but not for everyone”):

It is quite possible this will not appeal to Western audience. You cannot explain what it's about. All you have are those vague emotional harmonics, and image is too subtle, too airy and blurry, and has almost no color… I remember a guy working in a game publishing company explaining the differences in national color perception to me – Russia prefers barely saturated colors, while in the US and especially Japan it's all about contrast and max saturation. The same for emotions, and the same for the plot – the stuff which appeals to westerners is always literal and to the point, while for Russians it should always be about hints and fuzzy shadows, as no one knows what he's living for…


Tale of Tales
is somewhat longer at 29 minutes, equally oneiric if not more so than “Hedgehog,” and features music by J. S. Bach. Both are available on a remarkable four-disc set of Russian animation, and I'd try Youtube also (here's “Hedgehog”), if you're okay with a rather more low-res presentation.

Siberiade (Sibiriada)
– Andrey Konchalovsky, 1979
House of Fools (Dom durakov) – Andrey Konchalovsky, 2002

Back to Siberia for this first one, a mini-series-length, multigenerational epic (275 minutes, but also available in a 206-minute cut). Guy tries to build a road through the Siberian forest by hand (good luck with that). Melodramatic in the multigenerational-epic sort of way, but definitely compelling. Apparently it reminds one more imbd commenter of Imamura's The Profound Desires of the Gods, which is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen and not that similar to Siberiade, I would have thought, though also, I suppose, well-described by the title of this commenter's review: “A wild explosion of pure cinema.” (Another commenter asks: “what was the deal with Anastasia” – what, indeed …).

The much more recent House of Fools is a bit slicker, sort of a Russian version of King of Hearts, set in an insane asylum during the Chechen war – featuring (I kid you not, you have to see this for yourself) rocker Bryan Adams as himself (!).

The White Sun of the Desert (Beloe solntse pustyni) – Vladimir Motyl, 1970

Beloe_solnce_pustyniThis one is well out of control, an “Eastern” set in the Central Asian desert, with characters named Abdulla and Sayid (the latter first seen buried up to his neck in sand) speaking fluent Russian, and where everyone has a rifle, machine gun, or explosive device of some kind – except for Abdulla's many wives, whom our put-upon but spirited hero Sukhov is charged with shepherding to safety, with decidedly mixed results. Sukhov is a classic Russian happy-go-lucky yet resourceful type, pining for his sturdy blonde Soviet wife back home in the lush green fields of their village (and so immune to the charms of even the comely Gyulchatai). Not uproariously funny, but definitely odd and very entertaining.

That should keep you busy for now. Do svidaniya!