25 Great Soviet and Russian Films about World War II
May 9th, 2015 marks the 70-year anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. This human catastrophe has affected billions of people and its residues remain to this very day. Perhaps no other country was as scarred by it as Soviet Union, where the invasion of deadly Nazi forces coincided with the horrors of Stalinism.
Here is a list of 25 Soviet and Russian films that present the war as what it is-a destructive horror that challenges the very notion of humanity. The attention is drawn to films that focus on the people rather than jingoism and heroics so favored by the officialdom.
As usual, I am presenting these films in chronological order rather than as a rated list. Arts are not sports, and the subjectivity of ratings is not as important as the understanding of cause-and-effect.
Simply by looking at dates of release, it’s easy to see how the war was presented on Soviet and Russian screens-the realism of the war years is followed by many years of Stalinist lacquer, which in turn led to the liberating effect of Khruschev’s Thaw, followed by the stagnation of Brezhnev era. This cycle continues to this day, considering the current situation in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet geosphere.
1. Mashenka (1942) Dir. by Yuli Raizman
This brief, chamber film stands out among the Soviet productions leading up to war. Here, the focus is trained not on the Great Collective, or the march to the shiny future, but on personal experience. Throughout the film, it stays on the heroine, showing her life, joys, and sorrows. A simple telegraph girl who trains as a nurse, Mashenka finds love and loses it, laughs and cries, hopes and grieves. And then, the war happens.
In the picture, it’s the Finnish war, but because the film wasn’t finished and released until 1942, it came to symbolize the despair of the ongoing war and the hopes that its ending may offer. There are many scenes of note, but the ambiguous ending is the most striking part of the film.
After briefly reuniting with her love on the war-time road, and parting with an understanding that they’ll meet again, Mashenka’s happy and waving figure is framed by silhouettes of cars and the galloping cavalrymen. The viewer is left with a mix of concern and hope.
Much like Waterloo Bridge and Brief Encounters, Mashenka remains watchable by concentrating on the human and the humane. The happiness shown here is private and personal. By continuously lingering on the face of the heroine, catching both the shadows of sorrows and rays of joy that it emanates, this poignant melodrama remains a shining example of lyricism and hope.
2. Two Soldiers (1943) Dir. by Leonid Lukov
The two titular soldiers are simple machine gunners at the Leningrad front. They fight the enemy, they go on rare leaves into city, they sleep, eat, and sing in the trenches. Then, there is a rift between them, but it’s mended on the battlefield. The end.
What, then, makes this simple film so watchable? The excellent characterization and focus on the simpler things in life. Not glory, valor, or life for the party and/or Motherland, but-friendship, camaraderie, songs. One of them is a blacksmith from the Ural mountains, a surly and burly fellow. The other-a shipwright from Odessa, lightning-quick with emotions, jokes, responses, quips, and songs, much in the spirit of his hometown. The highest brass we see is their battalion commander.
The songs deserve a special mention, as they are still performed in Russia. One is heart-wringing “Dark Night”, of a night at war and hope to return home. The other-“Boatfuls of Mullet”, a half-klezmer, half-underworld ditty about a lucky fisherman of Odessa. Nothing about those songs is political, everything-human. As is this film. Special mention must be made of the realistically filmed combat sequences (although they were all done at the studio lot).
3. Rainbow (1943) Dir. by Mark Donskoy
This film was influential on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s remarkable in its emotional and powerful depiction of life under the Nazi occupation. Harrowing scenes follow each other-a woman walks barefoot in the snow. A newborn’s life is brutally ended hours after birth. A 10-year old is shot for trying to sneak bread to the prisoners (with his family watching from the window, and his death being marked by his little sister’s emotionless “Mama, Misha fell.”).
Later, his family buries him beneath the dirt floor in their hut, and they all walk back and forth to level out the hill. A bored and cold German soldier plays a game of “eenie-meenie-miny-moe”, aiming at a group of children, most too young to even comprehend the danger.
The titular rainbow appears only in the end as the glimmer of hope, after the grieving mother’s ordeal is over at the gallows. The writer, Wanda Wasilewska, also wrote the screenplay, and the decision to focus the attention on the plight of women and children amid the violence pays off. It was shown to acclaim in America, garnering an honorary Oscar.
And, even though it was largely filmed on the studio set, its style was an acknowledged influence on Italian neo-realists. 70 years later, it lost none of capacity to move to tears, and none of its power.
4. Soldiers (1956) Dir. by Aleksandr Ivanov
After a prolonged period of officialdom, where comrade Stalin and The Party were hailed as primary heroes, a new way of looking at the not-distant war emerged. Viktor Nekrasov’s novella “In the trenches of Stalingrad” came out to acclaim in 1946, and 10 years later he was able to make a humanistic, de-heroizing screenplay out of it.
As the title suggests, it’s a story about soldiers, about their lives in combat and in rare moments between fighting. The main characters, a lieutenant and a couple of privates, retreat from Kharkiv to Stalingrad, are reassigned, go from defense to offense and back again, eat, drink, sleep, smoke, are wounded and hospitalized-all the day-to-day details are here, presented matter-of-factly and without pathos.
More than that, the cost of the war and the attitudes and costly ignorance of higher command are questioned. Additionally, this film gave the great Russian actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky his first notable role (he would go on to play Hamlet, Tchaikovsky, and Uncle Vanya to great acclaim), and it’s symptomatic-the new aesthetic called for actors who live the part rather than act it, which Smoktunovsky was more than able to do due to his own wartime experience.
5. The Cranes are Flying (1957) Dir. by Mikhail Kalatozov
This extraordinary film singlehandedly gave Soviet cinema a new creative jolt. Elements here a perfectly combined-humanistic screenplay by Mikhail Rozov, contemporary and real acting by the leads, Kalatozov’s sure-handed direction, and, of course, the dazzling bw cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky.
The story of a love ruined by the war, of a family shattered, and of Veronika’s ultimate redemption draws in, keeps on the emotional edge, and provides a whole range of sensations. After about two decades of suspicion towards “formalism”, the form here strikes back with a vengeance, recalling the giddy days of Eisenstein, Vertov, Kuleshov, Dovzhenko, and other early masters of montage shaping the language of cinema.
Urusevsky, a cinematographer with a painter’s education (and a talented painter in his own right), here brings back the powerful mobility of the camera and the striking imagery.
Deserves to be seen as a whole, but several scenes particularly stand out-the lovers greeting the morning together, the scene of Veronika rushing past the mobilized crowds to say goodbye, the moment where she is confronted with her bombed-out flat and loss of family, and, of course, the legendary death scene for Boris, where by the miracle of swirling shots and multiple expositions the experience of life cut short untimely is brilliantly conveyed to the audience. The Palme d’Or is not its true reward-but its continuing relevance and artistry is.
6. Ballad of a Soldier (1959) Dir. by Grigori Chukhrai
Continuing the good tradition that The Cranes are Flying began, this humane and well-made film stirred emotions well beyond the Iron Curtain. While not as technically stunning as Kalatozov’s masterpiece, its structure and cohesion make it a very worthy equal. Further continuing the youthful spirit of Khruschev’s Thaw, it features two very young actors in leading roles.
The soldier of the title is Alyosha. More out of fear and self-preservation than courage, he commits a heroic act and is rewarded with a week’s leave. He travels on the rails back to his native village. But the journey and the encounters he makes take up most of his leave time.
On the way, he encounters Shura, a young girl travelling alone. Together, they meet different kinds of people-some good, some unhappy, some downright ugly. Alyosha is able to help those in need due to his openness and positivity. Especially memorable is the scene where they encounter a recent amputee who feels worthless and suicidal.
The talented actor Yevgeny Urbansky virtually steals the scene with his intense performance. Alyosha and Shura part with hope and understanding of their feeling toward each other. He is only able to see his mother briefly before having to return. Spoiler alert-there is a spoiler in the beginning, where the voiceover mentions that Alyosha will perish at war.
But at the end, the viewer is still left with the good feeling of hope. The film’s success at the San Francisco Film Festival and the Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay are well-earned.
7. Destiny of a Man (1959) Dir. by Sergei Bondarchuk
Together with The Cranes are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier, forms an informal and influential trilogy of the Thaw period. It slightly leans towards monumentalism (plenty of low-angled shots of the lead character), mostly due to the fact that the debuting director was one of USSR’s lead actors who cast himself in the lead role. But it more than makes up for it with its important and novel message of compassion towards the POWs, who under Stalin were vilified and persecuted.
Mikhail Sholokhov’s story is faithfully adapted to the screen. A Russian man creates a family, overcoming his alcoholism in process, but loses everyone he loves during the war, and goes through the POW concentration hell. He becomes a lonely and empty-souled trucker, until he adopts an orphaned boy, thus gaining a new reason for living and reshaping his destiny.
For a debut, Bondarchuk’s direction is solid, and his acting is powerful as usual. The concentration camp scenes are staged liked an expressionistic horror movie, with the strength of human spirit persevering and overcoming the hardships.
The scene where the hero wins his life in the drinking game the Nazis force him to partake in is central in the film (we can’t help but applaud him when he says “I never chase the first shot”). Overall, a moving film that continues the humanistic spirit of the Thaw and de-Stalinization.
8. Peace to Him Who Enters (1961) Dir. by Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov
In Japanese theatre, there is a concept of “michiyuki”, literally translated as “to go on the road”. Michiyuki scenes are performed by travelers going from one place to another. Nowhere is the road more important than at war, where each step can be challenging and treacherous. It’s well presented in this pacifist road film.
A young lieutenant fresh out of officer’s school arrives in Germany days before peace is signed. He is eager to go to the frontlines. Instead, he gets a very unheroic task of supervising a transportation to the hospital of two patients-a shell-shocked soldier and a German woman due to give birth.
The miscommunications here are astounding-the lieutenant knows little of life and warfare, the German woman only speaks German, the happy-go-lucky driver is a chatterbox who just gabs away about everything under the sun. The most silent character is a wounded deaf-mute soldier (who also just learned he has no family to come home to), a war-scarred zombie (a powerful silent portrayal by the actor).
And the miscommunications continue along the way as they travel through war-torn Germany. They get lost, they encounter concentration camp survivors (only one of whom speaks very broken Russian), as well as a lively American GI (played by a frequent Tarkovsky actor Nikolai Grinko), who, naturally, only speaks English (but loves life, beer, and to dance Charleston).
On their way, the young lieutenant comes to understand life, war, and peace a little better, while the German woman and the wounded soldier exorcise some of their demons. The final shot, of a newborn relieving himself on a pile of decommissioned weapons, is a powerful symbol of life’s triumph over death and destruction.