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.
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.


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