9. Ivan’s Childhood (1962) Dir. by Andrei Tarkovsky
The highlight of this list, and one of the most harrowing films ever made. Also, a brilliant feature debut that signaled an arrival of one of cinema’s most original and profound artists.
During the Thaw, there were numerous films made that presented the world through a child’s point of view-Daneliya’s “Seryozha”, Kalik’s “A Man Follows the Sun”, Tarkovsky’s own diploma short “The Steamroller and the Violin”. But none of them have placed the child-hero into such inhospitable, horrible worlds, both the inner and outer.
Tarkovsky was brought on to save the project, when another director has trivialized the material. He ended up rewriting the script and introducing Ivan’s dreams to the narrative. The film is based on Ivan Bogomolov’s novella titled “Ivan” and describes a child-scout who frequently travels behind the enemy lines on recon missions.
The original story was already realistic and no-frills, yet Tarkovsky took it further by showing the horror and the absurdity of a child at war. He did it by introducing Ivan’s dreams-of sunshine and play, peace and tranquility, mother’s love. Everything that the war took from him, and how it turned him into a living ghost.
This horror is well understood by the officers who take care of Ivan. They try to send him to cadet’s school, but he wants none of it-war is his life now, and that sets him apart from his grownup friends. They fight for peace-Ivan fights for the sake of fighting. The almost feral-looking young actor Nikolai Burlyaev does an outstanding job.
Another touching presence is that of the nurse Masha. Described in the story as a busty blonde with blue eyes, in the film she is awkward, angular-bodied, brown-eyed post-teen. A counterpart to Ivan, another soul who does not belong at war.
The visuals that will distinguish Tarkovsky’s cinema in the years to come are all here-water, wind, long tracking shots. He deftly handles time and space to present a gripping and affecting story. Child soldiers are not new-from Kipling’s Kim to the Lost of Boys of Sudan. This film is a step to eradicate such a monstrosity.
10. The Alive and the Dead (1964) Dir. by Aleksandr Stolper
This gritty, realistic film shows how much progress was made by the Khruschev’s Thaw and the continuing process of de-Stalinization. An adaptation of Konstantin Simonov’s eponymous novel, it focuses not on glorious deeds, but rather on the confusion and tragedy of the first days of blitzkrieg, where whole units were encircled and the fate of Russia was in question.
Another novelty-the results of Stalin’s pre-war purges were also mentioned in the proper context, and the insidious role of KGB was not hushed down. Here, the confusion and retreat are shown through the eyes of a journalist who accidentally ends up behind the enemy lines and fights through the encirclement with a makeshift unit under the capable command of general Serpilin, who, turns out, was a victim of Stalin’s purges.
The general is deftly portrayed by the great Russian actor Anatoly Papanov (it surprised many, since Papanov’s specialty was usually satire and grotesque comedy). The leads are aided by an excellent ensemble and good direction. The harsh monochrome picture and complete lack of music add to the realistic qualities of this important film.
11. Father of a Soldier (1964) Dir. by Rezo Chkheidze
A powerful and lyrical Georgian film, it continues the school of looking at war through an odd man’s eyes. In this story, an elderly Georgian vintner goes to visit his son at a military hospital, barely misses him, gets caught in the whirlwind of war, and ends up in Berlin with the army, where, for a brief moment, he is able to see his son.
It greatly benefits from a powerful and humane central performance by Sergo Zaqariadze, a legendary Georgian theatre actor. He chews up the scenery with his mix of humanism, simplicity, and unwavering moral compass. A simple peasant, he knows a thing or two about what’s important in life.
The film is full of rewarding, anecdote-like moments. Especially memorable is the scene where the whole detachment is asleep in the winter trenches, and they get visited by a wartime entertainment band. The sergeant asks them to play a Georgian tune, and the contrast of the warm and merry jingle with the harsh gusts of winter wind stays with the viewer.
The film won many awards, but the highest honor bestowed upon it is the monument to the Father of a Soldier in Georgia, which depicts the film’s main character holding his dead son’s trench coat.
12. Nobody Wanted to Die (1966) Dir. by Vytautas Zalakevicius
This gripping Lithuanian forest noir is not so much about the war as it is about the immediate aftermath of the war and the old habits of violence dying hard.
The setting is the remote Lithuanian village in 1947. There are still roving nationalistic bands of “Forest Brothers” in the woods, waging war on the government. Their latest victim is the local chairman, fifth man on the job to be killed within a year. His four sons decide to go the way of vendetta. Their different personalities are well presented here, as is the dilemma of all the villagers on which side to choose. It’s particularly hard for a new chairman, an amnestied bandit.
Placed in the position that carries mortal danger, caught between his past and his present and just at the moment where he met the love of his life. Donatas Banionis (best known to Western audiences as Kris Kelvin in Tarkovsky’s Solaris) shines in thus ambiguous role. In the end, the good triumphs-but at additional terrible costs.
The acting by the Lithuanian actors of the famed Panvezh theatre is outstanding, as is the tight and crisp cinematography by Jonas Gricius (who two years prior shot Kozintsev’s Hamlet and would gain further accolades for shooting King Lear 5 years later). An intense, atmospheric, and rewarding film that placed Lithuania on the cinematic map.
13. Belarus Station (1971) Dir. by Andrey Smirnov
One of the first films to deal with long-term effects of war. Set 25 years after it ended, the film shows four wartime friends reuniting at the Moscow station from where they left for the war and to where they returned from it. Their walks of life are different-a factory chairman, a journalist, an accountant, a fitter, but they are united by their shared battle experience.
Back then, things were simple-us vs. them. The realities of modern times present different and unforeseen challenges. Though they haven’t seen each other for a quarter of the century, the four friends rediscover the strength of their unity and embark on a series of quixotic adventures and misadventures.
Finally, they end up crashing at the apartment of their battalion’s former nurse. The film ends on a lyrical note, as they tearfully sing their former marching song together, flowed by the documentary footage of soldiers returning from the war. This film is a rare breed-a character-driven and humane satire.
14. Trial on the Road (1971, rel. 1985) Dir. by Alexey German
By early 70’s, the political climate has changed. With the ousting of Khruschev, the process of de-Stalinization was effectively curtailed. This new policy affected all Soviet arts in general, but, especially and in particular, the cinema.
This fate of this film is a painful example of how “the socialist realism” wanted nothing to do with the actual realism. German’s assured solo debut features all of the creative techniques that would come to define his cinema-unique and unobtrusive composition, strict adherence to truth, fearless exploration of underlying currents.
This black-and-white film shows the activities of a small partisan (guerilla) detachment. The arrival of a new soldier, who was captured by the Germans and volunteered to serve in their army only to escape and rejoin his own, creates a split between the detachment’s commander and commissar. The latter takes an unforgiving position, while the commander chooses to err on the side of humanism and trust.
But the film does not present it as a simple conflict-we learn what drove the commissar to be so uncompromising and how lieutenant Lokotkov’s wisdom and humanism are the results of his many years of experience and thoughts.
In the process, German shows the main characters not as cardboard figures but very real human beings. He continues the process of de-heroization, underlined by attention to detail (for example, Lokotkov is shown not as a steely-eyed, all-knowing commander, but as a rather simple former village policeman, who spends hours between battles soaking his swollen feet in the tub). This and other scenes gave fodder to the hardliners, who succeeded in getting the film banned until Perestroika.
15. The Dawns Here are Quiet (1972) Dir. by Stanislav Rostotsky
An honest, engaging, and affecting Oscar-nominee. Doesn’t feel long, even at just over three hours. That’s because of its measured pace and attention to characters. At a remote anti-aircraft post, the commanding sergeant has a problem-soldiers sent to him tend to slacken, drink, and fraternize with the villagers. He asks for better replacements and gets them. Only problem is, all five of his new charges are young women.
The first half of the film establishes their routine, along with flashbacks to their pre-war past. The characters and backgrounds of each of the women are shown-we have a headstrong and beautiful general’s daughter, a spunky orphanage graduate, a solemn and recently widowed young mother, a shy college student, and a soulful village girl.
But mid-point, the film changes gears. It turns out, 16 German paratroopers have made landing in their area, so the film rapidly gets into “Lost Patrol”/”Seven Samurai” territory. The figure of the sergeant becomes central, and so does his dilemma-as a good soldier and commander, he does everything to do his duty, but as a good man, he also tries his best to protect the girls.
The ending is refreshingly free of sentimentality, owing largely to the honesty of the literary source. It may have lost the Oscar race, but it won the hearts of many viewers across the world.
16. Twenty Days Without War (1976) Dir. by Alexey German
This time, German’s war film did get a proper release, albeit with some difficulties. That was largely due to the clout that the writer, Konstantin Simonov, has enjoyed. German continues the tradition he started with Trial on the Road, presenting the war with utter attention to detail and honesty.
The story follows a reserved and taciturn war correspondent, on a 20-day leave to Tashkent in order to assist with a film being made based on his writings. In the lead, German and Simonov have cast Yuri Nikulin, a famous comedian and a circus clown. Here, he is fully able to extend his acting range, as he is more of a witness and commentator rather than an active protagonist.
He meets a wide variety of people, with their joys and sorrows (a monologue of the soldier who is suffering because of his wife’s betrayal is unforgettable), and comes to find ambiguous love when least expected. The attention to detail, as is typical with German, is unbelievable-every prop seems real, and the sound mixing is unlike everywhere else-here, the actors don’t enunciate every word, and are frequently interrupted by outside sounds.
The very nature of truth is cinema is questioned when the hero finds that the studio plans to substantially glamorize and neaten his realistic stories. As always with German, a unique and enriching experience.
17. The Ascent (1977) Dir. by Larisa Shepitko
More of a philosophical parable than a war film per se, this masterpiece concentrates on the spiritual combat. Two partisans go on a foraging mission, and are captured by the Nazis. One of them, a healthy and ruddy one, chooses to collaborate in order to survive. The other elects to preserve his beliefs and esteem through trial and torture, and does so, even if at the cost of his own life. Any description doesn’t do this film justice-it must be seen and experienced.
Larisa Shepitko was always a director of depth and steely determination, and she managed to get the best out of her cast and crew. Particularly memorable, besides the main protagonist, is the police chief who interrogates him and engages in the battle of spirits with him.
A decade earlier, Anatoly Solonitsyn established himself as the titular character in Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublev, and here he does so again, but this time as an ultra-reptilian villain. Striking, too, is the look of the film-it’s black-and-white in the truest sense, with dark human figures contrasted on the blindingly white snow.
The film’s production and release history was anything but smooth, as honesty and spirituality of this kind was frowned upon by the Party in the 70’s. Luckily, the head Party chief of Belarus, where it’s set and made, had a soft spot-he was himself a former guerilla commander during the war and lost most of his family. His support enabled Shepitko to make her signature film, and would later help her widower, Elem Klimov, to make his masterpiece (see #21).