“O Ancient World, before your culture dies, Whilst failing life within you breathes and sinks, Pause and be wise, as Oedipus was wise, And solve the age-old riddle of the Sphinx
That Sphinx is Russia. Grieving and exulting,
And weeping black and bloody tears enough,
She stares at you, adoring and insulting,
With love that turns to hate, and hate–to love.”
– “The Scythians”, Alexander Blok
September may be giving way to the spooky season that is October, but it’s already been an exciting month here at the Frida with our Soviet September series, co-presented with the South East European Film Festival! Including everything from philosophically-minded sci-fi films by Andrei Tarkovsky like Stalker and Solaris to Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark silent movie Battleship Potemkin and Elem Klimov’s harrowing anti-war epic Come and See, the series gathered a whopping nine movies from over the 70 or so years the USSR existed to give modern American audiences the chance to see them for themselves on the big screen. While communism may have gone the way of the dodo well before some reading this were even born, the ability of these movies to arouse emotion and compel one’s conscience remains long after the parting of the Iron Curtain.
But of course, it would be a mistake to think that the story of Russian film simply ends with the fall of the Soviet Union. Far from it, the Russian Federation has seen the development of its own distinct cinema, reflecting the increased freedom of expression that came with the end of the old communist censorship regime. This expression has given filmmakers in Russia and its near abroad—the USSR, it should be remembered, included 14 other countries across Europe and Asia besides Russia—the opportunity to honestly address any number of significant topics and issues in that region. With the alarming revival of Cold War-type tensions between the US and Russia in recent years, the invaluable insider’s perspective of films made in the post-Soviet space is all the more vital in informing and, often, correcting our perception of this much-misunderstood part of the world.
With any luck, the following selection of movies will help in some small part to advance such understanding and give readers a greater appreciation of not just Russian film, but also the rich, complicated history and culture of Russia itself.
Although Russian national cinema’s reputation doesn’t quite precede it the way that, say, French or Japanese cinema do, the Russians are no slouches when it comes to churning out critical darlings. Indeed, one of the most notable Russian films of the past decade, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, won tremendous acclaim abroad, competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France and garnering an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film here in the States. Inspired by the story of Marvin Heemeyer (he of the “Killdozer” fame), Zvyagintsev also drew from the biblical Book of Job to weave a story about a man living in a small, seaside town who disputes the local authorities’—and in particular, the corrupt, booze-swigging mayor’s—claim to his property. With its frank, despairing portrayal of life in the Motherland, the film received a chilly reception from conservatives and the country’s Ministry of Culture (which, ironically, provided funding for the movie) but praise from others for trying to tackle the political and social problems of contemporary Russia.
In contrast to the cold setting and the detached feel of the film, protagonist Kolya is a hothead who brings emotional fire to his interactions with his family and his enemies. Blue collar and burning with zeal for his seemingly-doomed crusade to save his home, it’s hard to root for Kolya at first since he’s quick to anger and boorish towards his wife Lilya and son Roma. However, Aleksei Serebryakov puts in the necessary work to make the quixotic car mechanic grow into a better person and, consequently, grow on the audience. This growth is most observable in the scene where Kolya drops Roma off at school following the discovery that Lilya was having an affair with Dima, Kolya’s friend and attorney. When Roma brings the subject up, Kolya—in a warm, uncharacteristically calm voice and manner—simply tells him to forgive her and that she’s a good woman. Short but tender, it’s a moment that really humanizes our hitherto hard-to-like hero.
Set in the fictional northern town of Pribrezhny, Kolya’s surroundings are bleak enough to make you understand why he holds on so dearly to his house and land. Dominated by dull, gray buildings and bordered by the remains of wrecked ships, the atmosphere of depression and decay is amplified by Zvyagintsev’s predilection for long shots, providing panoramic views of the desolate landscape that Kolya and his family call home. As grounded in reality as the movie is, its dreary mood and the isolated environment it takes place in call to mind Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In fact, one scene—when the mayor has his goons rough up Dima—especially recalls the look of that movie, with the barren clearing and heavy fog almost making it appear that Dima and his assailants have driven out of Pribrezhny and into the enchanted, mist-filled “Zone” of Stalker.
“Set in the fictional northern town of Pribrezhny, Kolya’s surroundings are bleak enough to make you understand why he holds on so dearly to his house and land. Dominated by dull, gray buildings and bordered by the remains of wrecked ships, the atmosphere of depression and decay is amplified by Zvyagintsev’s predilection for long shots, providing panoramic views of the desolate landscape that Kolya and his family call home.”
Remote as the setting may be, there’s no handwaving the questions about power and its nature that the film raises as provincial concerns. The battle between Kolya and the mayor for the former’s land is a classic case of conflict between the individual and the state, a touchy yet topical subject in Russia under Vladimir Putin (whose face briefly appears in a portrait hanging on a wall in the mayor’s office). Even the title, Leviathan, evokes the 17th century political treatise by Thomas Hobbes as much as it does the Book of Job. Devising a state that not only has the might but the right to exercise total control over its citizens, Hobbes’ idea of unrestrained sovereignty echoes in the words of the mayor’s confidante—a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church—who tells his powerful friend that “All power comes from God” before imploring him to crush the little man who stands in his way. These disparate influences and references are neatly united in the form of a whale skeleton that Roma rests by after running away from home, embodying the sea-dwelling creature of Job, the Leviathan state of Hobbes, and the self-serving corruption of the mayor all in one image.
With a tone as frigid as the subarctic town that it takes place in, Leviathan is a heavy watch but one whose examination of the relationship between man and authority, family, and life itself will likely ring true even for viewers living in the West.
Prisoner of the Mountains (1996)
Having seen as much war as Russia has in the past century alone, it’s no surprise that many fine war films have come from that country. While it’s hard to pick, one of the most powerful of the post-Soviet era definitely has to be Prisoner of the Mountains, directed by future Mongol director Sergei Bodrov. Adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”, Bodrov and writer Boris Giller updated the story to take place during the then-ongoing First Chechen War, in which rebels in the Caucasian, predominantly-Muslim republic of Chechnya battled federal forces in an attempt to secede from Russian rule. An immensely controversial and traumatic episode for the new, democratic Russia—with several generals and senior members of president Boris Yeltsin’s government even publicly resigning in protest over the war—Bodrov’s movie captures the frustration ordinary Russians and Chechens must have felt through its story of two Russian soldiers who are ambushed and taken prisoner by Chechen insurgents.
Erring on the side of realism, stars Oleg Menshikov and Sergei Bodrov, Jr. turn in rounded, naturalistic performances as prisoners Sasha and Vanya respectively. Tempting as it is to dismiss Bodrov’s casting as nepotism, he genuinely brings a quality of good-natured naivety to the young greenhorn. Experienced veteran Sasha, on the other hand, is given a wryly cynical personality by Menshikov, making him the source of many of the film’s humorous lines of dialogue. Yet it is their captor, the Chechen patriarch Abdul-Murat, who compels the audience’s attention the most. Played by Dzhemal Sikharulidze, the towering, black-clad rebel intimidates with his commanding gray eyes and low voice but accrues sympathy through his concerted efforts to turn the prisoners over—hopefully, unharmed—to the Russian authorities in exchange for the freedom of his son. In any other movie, he’d just be another heavy, but in this one he’s a heavy with a heart (maybe not of gold, but a heart nevertheless).
With filming on location in Chechnya out of the question due to ongoing hostilities, shooting took place in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. This doesn’t appear to have inhibited production at all, with Bodrov getting in some spectacular aerial shots. Most of these are scenic views of Abdul’s mountaintop village, but there’s also a literal helicopter shot from the POV of a Russian helicopter, with the pilot communicating over radio as it flies over the mountainside and surveys a herd of goats. Another noteworthy sequence has Sasha, tied back-to-back with Vanya after several failed attempts to exchange them, singing the patriotic march “Farewell of Slavianka” before a recording of the song fades in. Panning across, the camera passes over the village and surrounding mountains before returning to a close-up view of Sasha—who, up to this point, has mainly been making light of their predicament—struggling with all his might to contain an outburst of crying. In short, it’s an impeccable example of clever cinematography in the service of moving storytelling.
“Yet it is their captor, the Chechen patriarch Abdul-Murat, who compels the audience’s attention the most. Played by Dzhemal Sikharulidze, the towering, black-clad rebel intimidates with his commanding gray eyes and low voice but accrues sympathy through his concerted efforts to turn the prisoners over—hopefully, unharmed—to the Russian authorities in exchange for the freedom of his son.”
Equally of interest to Bodrov is the people who live in the mountains, with him demonstrating an ethnographer’s appreciation for his subjects. Between the lines of the main plot, we get to see how Abdul and his fellow Chechens live, whether it be him observing daily prayer towards Mecca or a group of rebels celebrating Sasha and Vanya’s deactivation of a mine with folk dances, Caucasian cultural costume, and that favorite pastime of the region, wrestling. Similarly, during a scene where Abdul’s daughter Dina gets teased by a couple boys for “waiting” on her dad’s Russian prisoners, we see a shepherd driving their sheep in the background. It’s not directly relevant to the action between Dina and the boys at all but it does help flesh out the world that said action occurs in, giving the illusion that Bodrov has caught life in the Caucasus on candid camera.
A plea for peace and understanding in the midst of a savage war, Prisoner of the Mountains balances its political messaging with refreshingly human performances and its slice of life depiction of Chechen culture and society.
Song from the Southern Seas (2008)
A drama dealing with the feud that arises between two couples, one Russian and one Kazakh, over the paternity of the Russian couple’s son, Marat Sarulu’s Song from the Southern Seas might have some wondering why it’s included in a list of Russian movies. Set in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan—yes, the same Kazaksthan Borat is from—and shot in Sarulu’s native Kyrgyzstan, both countries were not just constituent republics of the Soviet Union but part of the old Russian Empire as well. As such, considerable influence has been exercised on the region by centuries of interaction between the indigenous Turkic peoples and their Slavic neighbors. It’s this unique blurring of cultural boundaries that Sarulu explores in this film, interrogating the idea of racial and national purity in a land whose inhabitants look East Asian, practice Islam, and speak Russian (which, neatly underlining this point, is the primary language spoken throughout the movie).
Although the movie revolves around the relationship between the two couples, it must be said that it does give more attention to the Russians, played by Vladimir Yavorsky and Irina Angekina. With more time to bicker amongst themselves and interact with other characters, you would think that they have an unfair advantage over the Kazakh actors, Dzhaidarbek Kunguzhinov and Ajzhan Ajtenova, at making an impression on viewers. And while Yavorsky and Angekina are indeed convincing as Ivan and Maria, it is Ajtenova as their neighbor’s wife, Aisha, who leaves the biggest impression. Though she gets the least screen time and dialogue out of the four, she brings such a presence to Aisha that you are still able to get a sense of the strong, quietly-resilient woman she has to be to endure the environment she lives in. It’s probably for this reason that the film’s DVD cover features Aisha instead of her husband Asan or the Russians, with the oblique, almost-determined expression on her face likely to pique the interest of curious viewers.
Without taking away from the talent of Ajtenova and her cast mates, the country they live in is a sight to behold all its own. Beyond the humble, run-down abodes the couples dwell in lie the rolling hills, amber fields, and vast steppes of the Eurasian wilderness, faithfully captured by Giorgi Beridze’s cinematography. Beridze often resorts to long shots of characters talking or going about their business, minimizing the actors but allowing the audience to get some incredibly picturesque views of the remote land they inhabit. Contrasting with the alluring seclusion of the film’s setting is the intimate enigma of its shadow puppet scenes, which tell the story of a young man searching for a “woman of the southern seas” who will free him from his “grief” and “memories”. With their dark hand-drawn puppets, hushed voice-overs, and folk-flavored musical accompaniment, the segments add elements of mystery and longing that suit the rest of the movie.
“Beyond the humble, run-down abodes the couples dwell in lie the rolling hills, amber fields, and vast steppes of the Eurasian wilderness, faithfully captured by Giorgi Beridze’s cinematography. Beridze often resorts to long shots of characters talking or going about their business, minimizing the actors but allowing the audience to get some incredibly picturesque views of the remote land they inhabit.”
That being said, there is thematic significance to the puppet scenes. In fact, the young man’s quest parallels both Asan’s ride out into the country to find himself and Ivan’s trip to his grandfather’s home to inquire about their family’s roots. While there are differences between each man’s journey, they are all ultimately seeking the same thing: a sense of identity and fulfillment. It also ties into the idea that people have more in common than artificial divisions like race and creed would have us believe, another overarching theme of the film. This is cleverly illustrated by the scene where Aisha and Maria—left to their own devices while their husbands search for themselves—forget the bad blood between them and share a dance and drinks together. It’s a simple scene with unembellished camerawork, but the sheer happiness of the women as well as the upbeat accordion tune they dance to gives it all the hearteningly cheerful energy it needs.
Modest in ambitions and unpretentious in presentation, Song from the Southern Seas is a stimulating snapshot of a little-seen corner of the world that gets its message of love and brotherhood across.
Night Watch (2004)
Of course, it would be a mistake to think that Russian movies are just dialogue-driven dramas and three-hour art films about spaceships where nothing happens. No stranger to the action-packed blockbuster, the biggest one to come out of the Motherland has to be 2004’s Night Watch. Based on the fantasy novel series by Sergei Lukayenenko, the movie tells the tale of a centuries-long conflict between two factions of supernaturally-gifted humans—one good (the Light Others), one evil (the Dark Others), but both vampiric—unfolding within the shadows of modern-day Moscow, the citizens of which are none the wiser. Making skillful use of its uniquely urban take on magic and vampire mythology, the film established screenwriter and director Timur Bekmambetov (now known for his work in Hollywood on Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer) as an auteur of action cinema and remains the highest-grossing movie to be released in Russia to this day.
In contrast to the more restrained acting seen in Leviathan or Song from the Southern Seas, the cast here embrace the fact that their characters live in an unnatural universe, turning in energetic performances that make viewers buy the eccentric premise and care about said characters. Konstantin Khabensky is likable and believable as unlikely hero Anton Gorodetsky, with his Michael Stuhlbarg-esque features and lightly-worn masculinity adding credibility to his role as an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. On the opposite end of the morality spectrum is Viktor Verzhbitsky as Zavulon, the haughty, video game-playing leader of the Dark Others whose shock-white hair and piercing blue eyes call to mind Roy Batty (less so the mesh t-shirt he often wears). Though he appears for only a relatively small amount of screen time, we do get to see him put those video game-fighting skills to use, facing off against Anton in a battle that can truly be described as spine-tingling.
Bekmambetov’s eye for action serves him especially well in this film, as seen in the slickly kinetic editing of many of its most memorable scenes. Using different cinematographic techniques like stable and shaky cam or live-action and CGI in the same movie is basic filmmaking, but the way he seamlessly cuts from one to the other in the same sequences is nothing less than inspired. The resulting effect is as immersive as it is thrilling, with the film’s creative sound design heightening the onscreen violence and movement even further through the visceral sounds of ethereal whooshes, punches landing, and cracking bones. We see a great example of Bekambetov’s dynamic editing style early on in the prologue, where the Light Others wrestle with a Dark Other as a young, naive Anton helplessly watches on. Jumping from slo-mo to fast motion and from close-ups to medium shots, the scene’s climax also has some of the most satisfying cuts on action I’ve seen in a movie—Russian or otherwise—in a long time.
“Bekmambetov’s eye for action serves him especially well in this film, as seen in the slickly kinetic editing of many of its most memorable scenes. Using different cinematographic techniques like stable and shaky cam or live-action and CGI in the same movie is basic filmmaking, but the way he seamlessly cuts from one to the other in the same sequences is nothing less than inspired. The resulting effect is as immersive as it is thrilling, with the film’s creative sound design heightening the onscreen violence and movement even further through the visceral sounds of ethereal whooshes, punches landing, and cracking bones.”
What’s also interesting to see is how the film—which, as a massive hit in its native Russia, can be said to serve as a reflection of the country and its mood at the time—portrays the city and society it’s set in. Far from the grim, inexplicably still-Soviet dystopia that we still see in Western depictions of Moscow, the Russian capital is shown here as a busy, bustling metropolis where people are too busy going about their jobs and lives to notice that vampires are fighting for the heart and soul of their city. This also extends to the way the two Other factions are presented: the Light Others appear more drab and civic-minded with their plain boiler suits, unwieldy utility truck, and the fact that their front organization is a power company, while the Dark Others drive spiffy sports cars, attend pop concerts, and are partial to tacky track suits (squatting, not so much), marking them as children of the chaotic, post-communist “Russian ’90s” and the materialistic individualism that came with it. Though the kleptocratic ’90s may have given way to the “sovereign democracy” of apparent-president for life Putin, the film remains an intriguing picture of that uncertain period when Russia was, finally, a “free country” but wasn’t sure what to do with that freedom.
Smart enough to not take its story too seriously but well-executed enough to make audiences feel invested in it, Night Watch is likely to continue its reign as the most people-pleasing popcorn flick to come out of the New Russia for years to come.
Ivan The Terrible (1944)
If you’ll permit me to reach back before the fall of the USSR—indeed, to the dark days of Stalinism—I’d like to raise Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part historical epic Ivan The Terrible as a critical exemplar of Russian cinema. Produced on the whim of Joseph Stalin himself, the Battleship Potemkin director was tasked with telling the story of the man who turned a then-divided Russia into a single, centralized state. Considering Ivan’s efforts to challenge the power of the aristocratic boyars, unify the country, and protect it from foreign invaders, it’s little wonder that Stalin saw himself in the movie’s portrayal of the 16th-century Tsar. Unfortunately, he was also sharp enough to pick up on other unflattering aspects of Ivan’s character and rule that could be said to reflect his own: namely, the character’s descent into brutality and paranoia. The Soviet dictator didn’t like these elements of the film one bit, and so he halted the release of Part 2 and barred Eisenstein from making a planned third film. Eisenstein died before the ban was lifted sadly but—with Stalin and the totalitarian superstate he helped forge dead and buried—viewers around the world are now free to see his masterful duology in full.
As with any good biopic, the movie lives by the portrayal of its title character, brought to forceful life by Nikolai Chersakov. Reportedly one of Stalin’s favorite actors as well as the star of Eisenstein’s previous epic Alexander Nevsky, Chersakov brings an intense sense of purpose and authority to Ivan. His deep, quintessentially Russian baritone commands attention enough as it is, but it’s his expressions and body language that make his Ivan so magnetic. Chersakov is particularly given to raising his head and staring off into the distance, whether alone or when addressing others. The resulting impression is that of a starry-eyed idealist, whose goals and ambitions for Russia extend far beyond anything his selfish, short-shorted enemies could imagine. Accentuated by Chersakov’s wide-eyed gaze—the gaze of a true believer? A madman? Both?—it’s a look we still expect to see in our men of vision.
Adding to the film’s power is the stirring score by Sergei Prokofiev, whose musical contributions are often as emotive as Ivan himself. Perhaps best remembered today for penning Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev draws as much from pre-modern Russia and the Orthodox Church as he does the traditional orchestra, incorporating such textures as ringing church bells, liturgical chanting, and marching-style choruses into his compositions. There are a number of recurring themes throughout, but the most potent has to be “Ivan’s Tent”. Opening with an almost pastoral quality, the theme is carried by a calming combination of woodwinds and strings that are then intruded upon by slow, sulking brass and the roll of marital-sounding percussion. Heard in crucial moments like Ivan’s wedding and the battle of Kazan, it’s a beautifully provocative piece that captures the contrast between the noble aims of the tsar and the latent menace lurking underneath.
“Chersakov is particularly given to raising his head and staring off into the distance, whether alone or when addressing others. The resulting impression is that of a starry-eyed idealist, whose goals and ambitions for Russia extend far beyond anything his selfish, short-shorted enemies could imagine. “
Also amply on display here is Eisenstein’s storied ability to craft visually-striking imagery. From askew close-ups to awe-inspiring long shots, there’s as much emotion as there is thought behind the camera. Another trick Eisenstein makes the most of is using shadows to convey the relations between characters in a given scene. When Ivan walks across his room, for example, the shadow he casts on the wall grows until it looms over the room, dwarfing the measly figures of the treacherous boyars who refuse to support his campaigns against the Germans and Livonians. The visual highpoint of the film, however, has to be the Dance of the Oprichniki (Ivan’s secret police) scene from Part II. Clashing with the austere black and white of the rest of the film, the sequence is drenched in hellish-red hues that, in conjunction with the manic dancing and darkly humorous singing of the secret police, catapult it to the realm of Stalinist fever dream and put the ball in “secret policeman’s ball”.
Half-romanticized retelling of Russian history and half-thinly-veiled allegory for Soviet tyranny, Ivan The Terrible is as much a stunning work of art as it is a courageous act of defiance.