Russian Cinema: From Eisenstein to Sokurov

by Mateusz Zatonski

The history of Russian cinema mirrors closely the turbulent fate of the country in the last century. Until the mid-1920s no one took it under account as a major film producer. Destroyed by the lengthy Civil War, there was simply no money for sets, equipment or film stock. This is why Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) came to many like a bolt from the blue. Today best known for its Odessa Steps sequence, it has become somewhat a cliché, but at the time it was truly ground-breaking. Eisenstein, in his depiction of the mutiny of a Russian battleship against the Tsarist regime, has demonstrated the to the world that film editing can be as important in creating meaning for a motion picture as the plot itself.

Unfortunately, Bolshevik demagogues quickly picked up on the propaganda potential of Eisenstein’s technique, as well as movies in general. By the 1930s mass produced communist agitprop films were flooding Western cinemas. Over the next few decades, the more talented Russian directors were constrained to make films under such self-explanatory titles as Three Songs About Lenin (Dziga Vertov, 1934), Victory (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1938), or Liberation (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1940). While often innovative in terms of filming techniques and acting methods (see Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera), they were mostly painfully simple stories praising social involvement, as understood by the Party line.

Only Stalin’s death in 1953, and the reformatory spirit of Khrushchev, brought about a certain amount of independence to Russian filmmakers. Talents were allowed to flourish in a less controlled environment, which culminated in the maturing of auteurs such as Sergei Bondarchuk (War and Peace, 1967- known as the most expensive film in history) Ivan Pyryev (The Brothers Karamazov, 1969) or Andrei Tarkovsky. The latter, possibly the most admired Russian director of all time, was the precursor of metaphysical cinema. His masterpieces, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), both based on science-fiction novels, make the viewers feel as if they’re witnessing someone’s dream unreel in front of their eyes.

Image

Sergei Bodorov, Jr., star of the cult films Brother and Brother II, was killed in a rock ice slide in 2002.

Regrettably, geopolitics again upset the evolution of Russian cinema. With the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s, the arts funding system collapsed. Only well established people could afford to make quality movies. Such was the case of Nikita Mikhalkov, who with films such as Territory of Love (1991), and especially Burnt By The Sun (1994), the story of Russian Civil War hero who is betrayed by his comrades, is responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed works of modern Russian cinema. Nonetheless, outside his work mediocre action films abounded, inspired by 1980s Hollywood. The only notable director in this genre is Aleksei Balabanov, and his crime epics Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000) provide an insight to the problems of alienation and desensitisation to violence in post-Soviet Russia.

Fortunately for Russian cinema, the natural gas-based economic miracle of the last decade turned the cards. Astounding amounts of money are being spent on promoting young, talented filmmakers. The best ambassador for this success story is Timur Bekmambetov, the man behind the multi-million dollar grossing Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) fantasy movies (and, more recently, Wanted with Angelina Jolie). Films in Russia today range from applauded artistic personal drama (Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return), through high-budget Afghanistan war movies (Fyodor Bondarchuk’s The 9th Company), to successful experimental cinema (Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark presenting 300 years of the country’s history in a single, continuous 96-minute shot). With such wealth of material, talent, and style, the future is certainly looking bright for Russian film aficionados.

(this article was first published in the Glasgow University Guardian http://glasgowguardian.co.uk/culture/film/russian-cinema-from-eisenstein-to-sokurov/)

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the article on Russian and Soviet cinema – I would say though the history of cinema in Russia is a lot more complex than this- Russia did have an interesting cinema history before the revolution, the Stalin period was a lot more complex than the article suggests as were the 1990s- there is a splendid book called about cinema in the 1990s called ‘Kino kotoroe my poteriali’ (The Cinema which we lost) which shows just how many fascinating films were made in the 1990s. My personal favourite is Pavel Lutsik’s Okraina. I also don’t think that Mikhalkov’s movies were that great in the 1990s – he made a few decent movies during the Soviet period and then declined in quality. We can’t really talk about Soviet agitprop flooding western markets in the 1930s – agitprop and agitky were out by then. Nonetheless, to squeeze Russian cinema history into such a short article is immensely difficult of course and thanks for the article.
    http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com/

    1. A very insightful criticism- you are right that a lot of subtleties are missed in such a short article. It was meant more as a introductory overview of the wealth of Russian cinematography for people who have not had contact with Russian cinema before than as a detailed exploration. Thank you for your informed comment and hope you are enjoying our blog!

  2. I would dispute some of the history – pre-revolution Russian cinema was more significant than is suggested here, the 1990s produced some much more interesting cinema than is allowed for (eg Lutsik’s Okraina), Mikhalkov’s 1990 films aren’t particularly quality film, the element of constraint on filmmakers such as Vertov or Dovzhenko ignores a whole host of issues – they were still creative geniuses in what they produced – Three Songs about Lenin is still a masterpiece as were Dovzhenko’s films up to Schors- not sure why Bondarchuk and Pyriev are mentioned and Klimov or Shepitko or Kalatozov or Muratova are not describing the thaw – they were far greater names. well a lot more to add but thanks anyway for recalling the role of Russia and Soviet cinema- truly world class at its high points.
    http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com/

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