From Russia with Film:
Best of Russian Cinema

By Karlanna Lewis

In film’s early days, the revolutionary spirit of Russia as it became the Soviet Union meant a great deal of energy was directed into experimentation. With an appetite for change, early Russian filmmakers pioneered new camera techniques that reflected the drama and turbulence of their day.

Sergei Eisenstein’s silent The Battleship Potemkin remains the most well known Russian film of all time. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera can only be described as avant-garde for the avant-garde. As my Raindance colleague Erik Waldman said, “If you want to be in film you have to see Man with a Movie Camera.”

As the Soviet regime gained control of more aspects of citizen life, artistic freedoms in all disciplines felt censorship’s striking hand. Then to succeed, filmmakers often had to create films that were either metaphor or propaganda.

What resulted is a century of highly diverse and creative works, which despite their differences have certain themes in common: the gravity of life, the conflict between ideals and reality.

1. The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin) – 1925

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Producer: Jacob Biokh
Screenwriter: Nikolai Aseyev, Sergei Eisenstein, Nina Agadzhanova and Sergei Tretyakov
Cinematography: Eduard Tisse
Actors: Aleksandr Antonov, Grigori Aleksandrov and Beatrice Vitoldi

The most famous Russian film ever made, pioneering Soviet director Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin was selected as the greatest film at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Edited to produce an emotional reaction, Eisenstein’s film is a propagandised drama of the 1905 anti-tsarist uprising. The stair massacre scene, though entirely fictional, has since been paid tribute by many films, including The Godfather. Though nearly a century old, the film continues to rank among the best films of all time.

2. Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingiskhana “Heir to Genghis Khan”) – 1928

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin
Screenwriter: Osip Brik and Ivan Novokshonov
Cinematography: Anatoli Golovnya
Actors: Valéri Inkizhinov, Anel Sudakevich and Boris Barnet

Storm Over Asia, a Communist work, re-imagines the history of Mongolia. The British army is occupying Mongolia and wants to control the protagonist Bair (a descendent of Genghis Khan) in a puppet regime. While the film was one of the first to portray traditional Mongol life—the story is fictionalised. What the English, who never actually occupied Mongolia, did in the film, the Russians did in real life.

3. Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s Kinoapparatom) – 1929

Director: Dziga Vertov
Producer: VUFKU (Ukrainian film studio)
Screenwriter: Dziga Vertov
Cinematography: Mikhail Kaufman
Actors: none

Man with a Movie Camera, as Vertov proclaimed at the film’s public release, is “an experimentation in the cinematic communication of visual phenomena without the use of intertitles” (or a scenario or a theatre). The controversial kinok (kino-oki, or kino-eye) film is Vertov’s response to the critical reception of his previous film, One-Sixth Part of the World, which was disparaged for its overuse of over-titles. Without actors or sets, Vertov created an early modernist masterpiece, one of the first to play with dimension and time perspective, to demonstrate how film can go anywhere. Vertov considered fiction film “the new opiate of the masses.” In the midst of Soviet Russia, together with his wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, he built a rough-cut and surreal silent movie to awaken his contemporary country-folk to the realities of their lives.

4. Outskirts (Okraina) – 1933

Director: Boris Barnet
Screenwriter: Boris Barnet and Konstantin Finn
Cinematography: Mikhail Kirillov and A. Spiridonov
Actors: Aleksandri Chistyakov, Yelena Kuzmina, Nikolay Bogolyubov, Nikolai Kryuchkov, Hans Klering and Mikhail Zharov

Barnet’s Outskirts is regarded as a subtle masterpiece of the early sound-film era, with the expressive sound effects and score characteristic of Soviet film. Set in a remote village (exact whereabouts unknown) in Tsarist WWI-era Russia, Barnet’s film is at once lighthearted and a mockery of Soviet society. For this reason the village setting is generic—Barnet hoped to avoid trouble with his dark commentary on the characters’ lack of attention to the War or Revolution. Although he was punished, he was able to continue working. In 1998 Peter Lyutsik made a parody of Barnet’s film, under the same title.

5. The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli) – 1957

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Producer: Mosfilm (studio)
Screenwriter: Viktor Rozov
Cinematography: Sergey Urusevsky
Actors: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov and Vasili Merkuryev

WWII, known in the USSR as the Great Patriot War, damaged Soviet psyche. The Cranes Are Flying focuses on the cruelty of the War, with a plot centered around Veronika (Samojlova) and her boyfriend (Batalov) and the love and betrayal the War causes. The film was only the second Soviet film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (1958). Samojlova’s Veronika represents the complexities of post-war Soviet women, and through her portrayal, she helped shape more multi-dimensional post-Stalinist heroines.

6. The Steamroller and the Violin (Katok i Skripka) – 1960

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Producer: Mosfilm (studio, children’s unit)
Screenwriter: Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
Actors: Igor Fomchenko and Vladimir Zamansky

This 40-minute short was Tarkovsky’s diploma film at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), where he was a student together with co-writer Konchalovsky. Tarkovsky’s ambitions were set on having the renowned Urusevsky (of The Cranes Are Flying fame) as cinematographer, but Urusevsky rejected the student’s proposal. Still, in The Steamroller and the Violin, with seven-year-old Fomchenko as the young violinist Sasha, Tarkovsky created a dream-like masterpiece. Centered around Sasha’s friendship with a steamroller operator, the film, in a deviation from the planned ending, closes with a fantasy sequence. Sasha runs after steamrollers in what symbolizes the soul’s eternal search for understanding and fulfillment.

7. The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat-Nova) – 1968

Director: Sergei Paradjanov
Producer: Armenfilm (studio)
Screenwriter: Sergei Parajanov (based on the poems by Sayat-Nova)
Cinematography: Suren Shakhbazyan
Actors: Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori and Armen Dzhigarkhanyan (as narrator)

The Color of Pomegranates is a biography of ashug (Armenian mystc poet) Sayat-Nova (King of Song) but more than that, the film is a poem. Considered one of the most aesthetically beautiful films of all time, interspersed with metaphorical moments of the poet’s life are lines from his verses. Actress Chiaureli plays six roles, among them the Poet as a Youth, the Poet’s Love, the Poet’s Muse, the Mime and the Angel of Resurrection. Although Paradjanov felt people didn’t understand the film, from its release The Color of Pomegranates was immediately popular. Clips are still used in music videos, and with recurring motifs like books turning in the wind and still bodies on the ground, Paradjanov created a new language in film.

8. Mother and Son (Mat i Syn) – 1997

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Producer: Aleksandr Golutva, Martin Hagemann and Katrin Schlösser
Screenwriter: Yuri Arabov
Cinematography: Aleksei Fyodorov
Actors: Alekseiv Ananishnov and Gudrun Geyer

In a slow reversal of Christian passion, a son (Ananishnov) cares for his dying mother (Geyer). Sokurov’s contemplative tale makes use of distorted, painted glass images and landscapes in the style of Caspar David Friedrich. Sokurov believes a story cannot be rushed. Not only does the mother’s path to death move at the pace of her fading breath, the film’s two sequels (Father and Son and Two Brothers and a Sister) have drawn the trilogy out over fifteen years. Watch it to see a love story in the purest sense.

9. Brother (Brat) – 1997

Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Producer: Sergei Selyanov
Screenwriter: Aleksei Balabanov
Cinematography: Sergei Astakhov
Actors: Sergei Bodrov, Jr., Viktor Sukhorukov and Vyacheslav Butusov

Brother is a multi-layered title for Balabaov’s crime film, first screened at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. On the surface, the title references protagonist Danila (Bodrov) who journeys to St. Petersburg to find work with his older brother Viktor (Sukhorov), a hitman who begins passing his jobs on to his younger sibling. Beneath that, Brother (Brat in Russian) is a familiar form of address, which Danila uses with friends. When opponents, however, address Danila as Brother, he spits back “You are not my brother!” (“Ti ne moi brat!”). In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the film was an instant hit, addressing many relevant problems, including the failing family structure and disenchanted youth.

10. The Cuckoo (Kukusha) – 2002

Director: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Producer: Sergei Selianov
Screenwriter: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Cinematography: Andrey Zhegalov
Actors: Anni-Kristina Juuso, Ville Haapasalo and Viktor Bynchkov

War is a common theme in Russian cinema, perhaps because war has the extreme dimensions associated with Russian character—great patriotism and great suffering. The Cuckoo is set during WWII, in which the USSR suffered the greatest number of casualties, nearly half of all deaths in the war.
The plot begins just before Finland surrenders, when Finnish solider Veikko (Haapasalo) has been left for dead because he is considered a pacifist. He is dressed as a Waffen-SS man because his comrades believe Soviet hate for Germans will force him to fight. At the same time, Ivan (Bychkov), a Captain in the Red Army, is accused of anti-Soviet correspondence and arrested by the NKVD secret police.
A Lapland woman Anni rescues both, and in a interweaving of three languages and cultures, they come together to care for each other and leave their conflicts behind. At the 24th Moscow International Film Festival The Cuckoo won various prizes including Best Director and Viewers’ Choice.

Fade Out:

The Russian language is poetic by nature—and this poeticism must be infused in the culture too, because with one look at the titles of these excellent Russian films you might think they were poems. They are.

With such a rich body of literature to draw from, many Russian filmmakers have succeeded in translating works like Gogol’s The Overcoat or Tolstoy’s War and Peace to film. More than that, though, all these filmmakers have created films to be speak to anyone, Russian or not.

The best films utilize visual storytelling so well language becomes secondary, and with such a distinctive culture, these Russian filmmakers have something that needs no explaining.

What other masterpiece Russian films have slipped by us? With their country still dominated by the power of one man (Putin), Russian filmmakers surely have plenty to say.

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About The Author

Karlanna Lewis Karlanna Lewis, whose dreams include becoming a bird, completed her honors B.A. in Russian and Creative Writing at Florida State University in spring 2011, with an honors thesis in poetry and minor in computer science.

At Florida State Ms. Lewis was selected as an Outstanding Senior Scholar. As a graduate student at Florida State Ms. Lewis was a 2011-12 Rhodes Scholar Finalist.

She has also presented a research project on Russian literature and dance at various conferences. Ms. Lewis is a published writer and galleried artist, and in August 2011 she published her first book, Cante de Gitanas con Nombres de Luz / Songs of the Gypsies with Names of Light.

A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Ms. Lewis is a principal dancer for the Pas de Vie Ballet and has led an honors service project teaching dance to local schoolchildren. Ms. Lewis has worked multiple jobs as a cashier, teacher, and journalist her entire collegiate career and volunteered as a DJ and the continuity director for the V89 radio station.

Now as an intern at Raindance Film Festival in London, Ms. Lewis is writing articles about film, assisting with Web building projects and translating the Web site into Russian. When she leaves Raindance at the end of April she will spend a month in France as a writer-in-residence at Camac Art Centre.

In the future she plans to pursue her M.F.A. in creative writing and to eventually become a university professor. Serving as an art director for a production team is her ideal film job. Passionate about the arts and the environment, in 2011 she founded the non-profit Dancearth, an arts for social change initiative celebrating movement and the earth in which we move.

Check out her website:

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From Russia with Film: Best of Russian Cinema