18. Soldier and Elephant (1977) Dir. by Dmitry Kesayants
A quirky and lyrical road comedy from Armenia, based on a true story. In 1945, an elephant is discovered in Berlin, which was originally sent from Moscow to Yerevan in 1942, but was taken with a train by the Germans. Armenak, an Armenian soldier, is entrusted with escorting the elephant to Yerevan.
Together, they travel across the war-scarred Europe at the twilight of war. Frunzik Mkrtchyan, the actor who plays the soldier, is well-known in Russia as a hilarious comedian, with his droopy eye, pot belly, and an enormous schnozz. But in theatres and films of Armenia, he was able to exercise his full range, including his gifts for lyrical and nuanced performance.
Much of this film shows this unlikely duo getting in and out of trouble/danger. Particularly poignant is the scene where they are caught in the crossfire and both Russian and German soldiers end up ceasing fire almost simultaneously. For as jaded as war can make people, it’s at least good to think that something as decidedly un-militaristic as an elephant can bring back happier memories of zoos and circuses from one’s childhood.
19. Wartime Romance (1983) Dir. by Pyotr Todorovsky
A soulful and handsome Oscar nominee. During the war, a young soldier greatly admires his battalion commander and nurses a secret crush on commander’s mistress, their nurse.
5 years after the war has ended, the soldier (now a happily married college student/film projectionist) accidentally runs into a filthy pastry vendor on the street, and to his horror recognizes his formerly glamorous crush, now a single mother going to pieces. He begins dating her, despite the good thing he has at home. To him, the most important thing is to fight for his former ideal. Slowly and dramatically he helps her rebound.
There is a happy ending, but the process of getting there is thorny. Nikolai Burlyaev, who 20 years earlier gave such a memorable performance in Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (see #9), gives a nuanced and edgy performance here, aided greatly by his female co-stars. The film bursts with life, verve, and attention to detail. Unfortunately, it lost out on the Oscar to Switzerland’s Dangerous Moves, very undeservingly (politics have a way of influencing arts).
20. The Tango of Our Childhood (1985) Dir. by Albert Mkrtchyan
Unlike Vegas, what happens at war doesn’t always stay at war. This Armenian tragicomedy focuses on the immediate aftermath of war.
A soldier returns from the front-and leaves his wife and children. He moves in with a woman who saved his life during the war. But, being a soft and kind man, he can’t quite part with his family either, especially considering the drama his ex-wife puts him through. He is being torn between two households, and the massive wooden dresser that he lugs back and forth becomes the symbol of his struggles.
Frunzik Mkrtchyan gives another superb tragicomic performance, ably directed by his brother. But it is Galya Novents who shines as the abandoned wife, eliciting sympathy and empathy from the viewer. The events of the film are shown through the eyes of a child, which enhances the absurdity of the situation. The score by the great Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian deserves special mention for its nostalgia-evoking quality.
21. Come and See (1985) Dir. by Elem Klimov
A powerful and harrowing masterpiece that will grab you, haul you in, and stay with you for a long time afterwards. This is a story of a Belarus teenager Flyora, who joins the partisans, loses his family, and witnesses a whole village rounded up into the barn and burned alive. One of 628 Belarus villages exterminated that way during the war.
Klimov deftly controls the elements to bring the viewer right into the dark heart of war. The artistic yet naturalistic camerawork, the cacophony of sounds, the hell-on-Earth imagery-all combine to leave a lasting impression. The teenage actor who played the main protagonist was prepared for the part by the combination of starvation and hypnosis-and it shows, as the grey hair he spouts in the end is his own.
Of note is the film’s tortuous production history. After Klimov’s wife Larisa Shepitko made her own war masterpiece The Ascent (see #17), the Belarus head Communist Party honcho Pyotr Masherov greenlit Klimov’s project, and further helped by purchasing up-to-date equipment for the purpose (Kodak stock, Steadicam, etc.). Though a Stalinist, he had a soft spot for his republic’s tragic war history, having been a guerilla commander himself. But the State Cinema Council kept demanding script revisions, which Klimov refused to do.
In process, Klimov’s talented wife died in the car accident while location-scouting, and a year later-so did Masherov (the details of that crash are still suspicious, as he was rumored to be groomed to be Brezhnev’s replacement). Klimov fought for his film since 1977, and finally was able to make it at the dawn of Perestroika.
22. Ladies Tailor (1990) Dir. by Leonid Gorovets
All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Doktorivska streets (near the cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.
So read the order posted in Kiev. On September 30th, 33,771 Jewish residents of Kiev were taken to the Babi Yar ravine, ordered to stripped, and then shot and buried, many while still alive. This horrific act caused even many of the executioners to lose their sanity.
The Holocaust was a touchy subject in Soviet cinema, for reasons ranging from latent anti-Semitism, to the antagonism toward Israel, and to the psychological trauma of the war for the rest of the Soviet citizens (the fact that 27 million of them perished have caused both atrophy of sympathy and even annoyance at the Jewish tragedy). Prior to Perestroika, the Holocaust theme was a virtual cinematic taboo.
This poignant and lyrical film goes a long way to right this wrong. It focuses on the events of the day before the massacre. As thousands of Jews prepare to march toward the unknown, feelings and reactions differ. Some are optimistic, others foresee the tragedy. Different also is the reaction of their friends and neighbors, with some expressing love and sympathy, while others-opportunism.
The central character is the tailor of title. A recent widower, he is still focused on his grief-and on the fact that he never got to make his late wife “an English lady’s costume”. Fate gives him one last gift-he meets a woman for whom he develops feelings, which are mutual. The scene where he lovingly takes her measurements to cut the suit he got to make for his wife is among the most touching and lyrical of all cinema. However, on a misty morning, a procession marches towards the ravine…
23. Cuckoo (2002) Directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Few war films are as delightful and pantheistic. In 1944, a Finnish soldier is made a “Cuckoo” by his German captors-i.e., chained to a spot and left with few supplies and a rifle. He manages to break loose.
On the other side of the battle lines, a Soviet captain is being driven by the KGB to be executed, but the truck is accidentally bombed, leaving him the only survivor. They both end up in the remote forest hut of Anni, a native Sami woman of those Northern lands, whose husband has been missing at war for four years now. And it gets better-none of them speak the other’s language.
The pacifist Finn just wants to be away from the war, the surly Russian is quick to fight and mopes around a lot. And Anni? Having the time of her life! To her, they are not soldiers or enemies, just men.
For four years, she hasn’t had one, and now she got two. At the end of the war, the soldiers go their separate ways, but not before gaining more understanding (while leaving Anni with a bundle or two of gifts). A kind, humorous, touching, funny film, greatly aided by the strong performances of all three leads (especially Anni).
24. Our Own (2004) Directed by Dmitry Meskhiyev
A truly realistic and gritty war film. The dramatic collision is set when three soldiers escape from a POW column-a commissar, a KGB officer, and a young sniper. They manage to reach the young sniper’s home village, where they are hidden by his father-who, it turns out, is made a local mayor by the Nazi occupants. The two communists are deeply suspicious of him, but they have no choice but to depend on his hospitality.
Similarly, no matter what his feelings of them he might have-he has no choice but to conceal them and his son. The ambiguity of war is perfectly captured, in a tense and atmospheric manner. The whole film is shot in de-saturated colors, almost sepia-like at times. There is no didactics or cut-and-dry moralities here-just a few days in a meat-grinder of war.
25. The Island (2006) Dir. by Pavel Lungin
A visually stunning examination of many spiritual themes-among them, survivor’s guilt and repentance. During the war, a coal barge is captured by the Nazis, who offer the young sailor a choice-to stay alive by shooting his captain, or to die. He opts for life, only to be blown up with the barge. Rescued by the monks of nearby Orthodox monastery, he spends the remainder of his life in repentance, achieving almost supernatural powers in process.
The war figures prominently here as a merciless entity that leaves scars that often take a lifetime to heal. The film is slightly let down by the religious moralization, but more than makes up for it with a powerful central performance by Petr Mamonov (a sort of Russian Tom Waits/Brian Eno hybrid), and incredible visuals of frozen fjords and wooden structures.
Author Bio: Leo Poroshin is a Russian-born aspiring writer/director (film and theatre), residing in Michigan. He enjoys life, and, naturally, the arts, as they are one of life’s best manifestations.