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20 Essential Films For An Introduction To Soviet Cinema

27 September 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Salome Khazaradze

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The history of soviet cinema began from the 1917 Russian and Revolution and ended somewhere in 1996. Even after the collapse of SSSR, the Soviet atmosphere could still be felt.

The Soviet movie industry has spanned a lot of years and genres, starting from experimental avant-garde of Eisenstein, continuing with the focus on socialistic problems, and ending with the industrial and modernist themes. These films have touched viewers in different ways, and have made us think about topics like faith, humanity, life, love and many other things. Here are 20 essential Soviet films that are definitely worth watching.

 

20. Ivan The Terrible (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944)

Ivan The Terrible

Eisenstein’s symbolic take on the history of Russia. Ivan the Terrible was the man Stalin most looked up to, the man he aspired to be. So Eisenstein thought, why not make a film about him? The first part of Ivan the Terrible was very well received by Stalin and made him happy. The second part had a limited release, and the third part was so controversial that Stalin banned it for life.

The first part shows Ivan the Terrible as a national hero. In the second part, Ivan slowly goes from being a hero to being the evil Tsar (aka King), which didn’t satisfy Stalin. The film is interesting to watch as it is the most controversial and criticized film of the Soviet Union. It also sets Eisenstein in his place: a crazy revolutionary genius.

 

19. Bed and Sofa (Abram Room, 1927)

Bed and Sofa

Bed and Sofa is the only Soviet film that was banned in Europe because of its sexual situations. Room managed to release the film because at that time, the ideals of Soviet realism weren’t yet regulated, so there was still some time to touch the soon-to-be-forbidden subjects. It’s almost amazing how things changed after the regulations.

A film about a woman sleeping with two men together? Having an abortion? Not living an idyllic life? It would be impossible to film a few years later. A very controversial film and one of the most important in the early Soviet cinema.

 

18. The Wishing Tree (Tengiz Abuladze, 1976)

The Wishing Tree

Set in a Georgian village, The Wishing Tree is about everything: it’s about the tragic love of two people, Marita and Gedia, and how other people sometimes influence our lives in a way that should never happen, it’s about people who work hard everyday to make something out of their live, but never succeed, it’s about the everyday life in the village and how sometimes small things can make us happier than anything else.

What people absolutely adore about this film is the actress who plays Marita – Lika Qavzharadze. This girl manages to look stunningly beautiful and mysterious even when bathed in mud and dirt.

 

17. Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Vladimir Menshov, 1979)

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

The Academy Award winning film, delivering the “Russian Soul” in the best way possible. This movie is about three women whose lives span from late 50s to late 70s.

These women search for love, life and understanding, but find it hard to gain. They struggle to find a job, be successful, get married and be happy at the same time, all of which was very hard to do for women at that time.

 

16. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)

Alexander Nevsky

Sergei Eisentstein was a theoretical genius. Alexander Nevsky was the prince of Novgorod who saved Novgorod from he invasion of the Teutonic Knights, aka Zee Germans. You can either view the film as an epic historical drama, or an allegorical take on the political situation between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Also the theme of common people having a bigger influence on protecting the country than the bourgeois is very important in the film.

Eisenstein even wanted to use swastikas in costumes, but that would cause an even bigger controversy than the film had already caused. It took Sergei Eisenstein 10 years to complete the film. No wonder, since it was filmed during the Stalinist era.

Less experimental than Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky perfectly transports us back and forth between the pre-WW2 tension and the 13th century invasion of Novgorod. The strange thing about the film, though, is that it has two characters for comic relief and despite its dramatic theme, these characters don’t fail to make us laugh.

 

15. Little Vera (Vasili Pichul, 1988)

Little Vera

Little Vera is about a young girl called Vera, who lives with her parents in the Russian province. She doesn’t like her life there, but does nothing to change it. Vera goes to parties and and has fun with friends which leads to her meeting with Sergei. They fall in love and marry. Vera’s another problem, besides the boring life in the province, is her drunk father, Kolya.

The film, despite the fact that it’s full of romantic cliches and subplots, is a realistic depiction of the Russian youth in the 80s: a drunken father, escaping from strict parents by marrying a handsome young man, although at moments it shows us the true family values. The film sometimes makes smart remarks about the Soviet Union, and it has a more open approach to youth and life than other Soviet films, due to the fact that the destruction of USSR was nearing and the censorship wasn’t so strict anymore.

 

 

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  • Richard McLin

    Forgot “Solaris”.

  • Miroslav Karas

    Where are ” I am Cuba” or “Vojna i mir I” or “Solaris.”

  • What about Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky?

    • Charles Barnes

      Ah, but we could be here all day with Tarkovsky! Other filmmakers must be given a chance against the nation’s (Eisenstein aside) wonder child.

  • Meerkat

    Wrong picture for 12 Chairs – it’s Mironov , not Gomiashvili

  • Ivan Darias Alfonso

    Missing:

    An Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano (Nikita Mikhalkov) Siberiade (Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky) Courier (Karen Shakhnazarov) War-time Romance (Piotr Todorovsky) Scarecrow (Roland Byko) Is it easy to be young? (Yuris Podnieks).

  • NothingMan00

    “Burnt by the Sun” Nikita Mikhalkov

  • György Darján

    what about Mikhalkov?

  • csmif

    Did you really compare Apocalypse Now to Come and See? That is like comparing Spongebob Squarepants to The Exorcist.

    • Charles Barnes

      Scratch that.

      Did you really compare Spongebob Squarepants to Apocalypse Now?

      • csmif

        No. Its an analogy. The point is that Apocalypse Now is about as close to Come And See as Spongebob is to the Exorcist. Have you actually seen Come And See?

        • Charles Barnes

          Ah, I misinterpreted you then.

          I haven’t seen Come and See yet (to my displeasure), I was merely attempting to ascertain a perceived criticism toward AN, or at least what (at first) appeared to be a gross exaggeration concerning the film’s quality.

          How (without spoilers, if possible) does AN differ so greatly from CAS?

          • csmif

            The only way for you to understand is to watch the movie. In my mind, it is without question, the most powerful movie about war I have ever seen. Its realism depicting the brutality of war, and in particular a particular episode during WWII, is unlike anything I have seen. Apocalypse is a fantastic and entertaining movie, but for sheer, gut-wrenching power, it is not in the same league as Come and See. Check it out!

  • Dr Worm

    I know it’s not a full-length feature, but Yuri Norstein’s Tale Of Tales deserves to be included here – a masterpiece. I hope he manages to finish The Overcoat one day, currently 34 years in the making!

  • William Wei Chang

    Not sure if it can make to top 20 but I strongly recommend Ballad of a soldier.

  • Kestutis Nicas

    “Kin-dza-dza”

  • Miroslav Maric

    great

  • Aelita

    Definitely, “Kin-dza-dza” (1986), “Heart of a Dog” (1988), “Gentlemen of Fortune” (1971), “A Railway Station for Two” (1983)… Too much of Tarkovsky, one film would be enough.

    • Смотрящий

      Вокзал для Двоих is a horrible film. Are you kidding? Never too much of Tarkovsky, his all 7 movies should be included.

  • Смотрящий

    Ryazanov is way too high on the list. And those are not his best movies (“Beware of the Car” with immortal Smoktunovsky should have been here instead). Some obvious misses like Hamlet (1964) and Mother (1926)

  • Despoina Kampouridou

    Ballad of a Soldier