Beyond Tarkovsky: 10 Great Soviet Films

‘July Rain’, waiting for the shower to pass

Quite often the appreciation of foreign literature, cinema or art is exemplified by a near obsessive focus on a handful of big names to the exclusion of all else. For long, my awareness of cinema in the Soviet Union, which left a a huge and varied legacy with an influence that went well beyond its borders, was limited to the most restrictive canon of films that were shown in art house movie theatres in the UK or evoked in university Russian courses. This began with the silent era. The unforgettable and revolutionary work of Dziga Vertov such as Man With Movie Camera and, of course, Sergei Eisenstein and his vastly ambitious panorama of the Russian Revolution October and the iconic Battleship Potemkin, arguably the most famous of all Soviet movies. Eisenstein’s later talking movies Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, also won fame outside Russia, partly due to the power of the music by Prokofiev. Otherwise, by far the most famous Soviet filmmaker for those outside Russia remains Andrei Tarkovsky, whose five Russian-language films are exhaustively re-watched, scrutinised and analysed. And their majesty, mystery and poetry makes them among the greatest cinematic works of all time, with an all-encompassing ambition that was arguably only possible in the USSR. But after living over half a decade in Russia, where friends gently (and sometimes not so gently) pointed out glaring gaps in my appreciation of Soviet films, I find our obsessive focus on Eisenstein and Tarkovsky restrictive. It excludes the outstanding work of Soviet female directors, the exuberance of some works from the 1960s influenced by the French New Wave and works that engage with Russia’s history and Soviet society. The films are often easily streamed with the main Russian film production houses Mosfilm and Lenfilm putting entire films with subtitles on their official YouTube channels. So here is a humble and very personal list of 10 Soviet films worth watching that you may have missed, simply in the hope of arousing interest, debate and annoyance over those I did not include. My viewing is far from exhaustive and I claim no full knowledge. No silent films, Eisenstein or Tarkovsky and included simply to include more space for others. The USSR’s Academy Award winning War and Peace (Best Foreign Film 1968) and Moscow Does not Believe in Tears (Best Foreign Film 1980) are also not included despite their Oscars, although I am not sure I’d put them in a top 10 anyway.

July Rain (Director Marlen Khutsiev, 1967)

July Rain opens with one of the most memorable opening sequences in Soviet, of for that matter, any cinema. A car driving through central Moscow, past the Bolshoi Theatre, as what appears to be a radio flicks from French classical music to Soviet pop to a football commentary and back again. Then a summer rain shower erupts in which the two protagonists meet for the first time, he lends her his jacket and shouts out his telephone number so he can get it back. It’s a liberating sequence that encapsulates the film to come with no grand plot but filled with a sweet melancholia that never cloys. The film’s carefree nature — here is no onward march to the Socialist sunrise — makes it one of the key works of the cultural thaw under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a window that opened but then quickly slammed shut. Khutsiev also made the epic Ilyich’s Gate (known in its shortened and censored version as I am Twenty) of 1964 but pressure from the authorities forced him into a decades long silence from his 1970 film about the immediate aftermath of World War II It was the Month of May.

Brief Encounters (Kira Muratova, 1967)

Brief Encounters is a film of perfection which left me gasping at its conclusion over its sheer brilliance. Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and needing a certain effort by the viewer to piece it into chronological order, it tells the the story of a maid Nadia who comes to work at the home of a local Communist Party official Valentina Ivanovna, played by Muratova herself. What they don’t know is the Nadia is in love with Valentina Ivanovna’s somewhat estranged husband Maxim, who is played by the great gravel-voiced Soviet actor, poet and singer Vladimir Vysotsky. Permeated by the melancholic, guitar-strumming songs by Vysotsky, Brief Encounters is a film about the importance of happy moments in a life that is hard by bearable. Muratova in 1971 went on to make Long Farewells, an equally overwhelming and original film about a woman’s relationship with her son. Her style caused trouble with the authorities and she was unable to make films for much of the 70s and 80s but then returned with a defiant swansong in the last three decades of her life. She died in 2018.

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko 1977)

The life and career of Larisa Shepitko, indisputably one of greatest and most original of all Soviet filmmakers, were tragically cut short when she died in a road accident while working on a new film in 1979. She made just four films, the last of which was The Ascent, which looks at a group of Soviet partisans who are captured by the Nazi occupiers in Belarus in World War II. At times almost unwatchable due to the sheer horror of the events depicted, it also has scenes of mesmerising beauty whose intensity are increased by the innovative score from the great Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke. It is full of religious symbolism, highly unusual in a Soviet film. It looks at the moral choices faced by the men, one of whom saves his life by collaborating the Nazis. It launched the careers of its stars Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin but perhaps the most memorable performance of all is a chilling cameo as the Nazi collaborationist interrogator Portnov by Anatoly Solonitsyn, familiar from Tarkovsky films such as Andrei Rublev and Stalker. Before The Ascent, Shepitko made the deeply underrated You and Me, a touching but startling portrait of male friendship and rivalry. And I would do a lot to see her debut film Wings of 1966 about a female Soviet fighter pilot hero from World War II which I have not been able to source online or on DVD.

Nine Days in One Year (Mikhail Romm, 1962)

The films of Mikhail Romm (1901–1971) span epochs of cinema and movie genres perhaps like no other Soviet filmmaker. His best known works include a silent Soviet classic Pyshka (1934) based on the short story by Guy de Maupassant, The Thirteen, a spare and taut “Eastern” filmed in Turkmenistan and said to have been commissioned by Stalin himself after he watched John Ford’s The Lost Patrol and also the 1965 montage documentary film Ordinary Fascism (also known as Triumph of Violence) that won a wide following abroad. But I have been fascinated by his 1962 drama Nine Days in One Year whose originality feels like almost no other Soviet film despite having box office magnets Alexei Balatov and Innokenty Smoktunovsky (star of the great Soviet film adaptation of Hamlet) as its leads. It is a tale of love, loyalty and risk in the lives of the two men who work at a nuclear physics research plant in Siberia. With the 1986 Chernobyl disaster shadowing any work about Soviet atomic physics, it is with hindsight remarkable that such a work exposing the risks of science could have been made in the first place. But what is most wonderful about the film is how Romm mixes darling camera angles and editing with a deeply affecting storyline shot through with a heavy dose of melancholia.

Agony (Elem Klimov, 1974/1981)

Agony looks at the downfall of Tsarism through the story of the notorious monk and powerful court favourite Grigory Rasputin, showing how his debauchery and influence on the imperial family brought about its decline. But while archive footage is included with a didactic, moralising commentary the drama itself its extremely nuanced. As Rasputin, Alexei Petrenko gives a performance of wild intensity, his manic eyes staring wide, but also gives an impression of his magnetism of charisma. The glittering score by Schnittke intensifies the mystery and claustrophobia. But most extraordinary is the sympathetic portrayal by Anatoly Romashin of Nicholas II as a chain-smoking family man, deeply patriotic but too indecisive and weak. This and a host of other problems meant that a film that was finished in 1974 was only released firstly abroad in 1981 and then in the USSR in 1985. Like many great Soviet filmmakers, censorship and restrictions meant Klimov made only a handful of films but all of outstanding quality including the holiday camp comedy Welcome or No Trespassing (1964) and the celebrated, overwhelming World War II drama Come and See (1985). Klimov was also the husband of Shepitko and after her death made a deeply moving tribute Larisa, to music by Schnittke and completed the film was was working on at the time of her death Farewell (1983).

The Story of Asya Klyachina (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1966)

Uniquely among Soviet filmmakers, Konchalovsky’s career spans Soviet cinema, to Hollywood and then back to Russia. After a string of successful films in his homeland in the 1970s, he then directed a number of Hollywood his including Tango and Cash (1989) with Sylvester Stallone. His career path was similar to that of the great Czech filmmaker Milos Forman, behind some of the greatest cinema of the Czech new wave who then won great success in the US, with the difference that Konchalovsly returned to his homeland where he is still making films to this day. But while Konchalovsky, who started out as a scriptwriter for Tarkovsky, would become no stranger to big budget epics, among his greatest achievements are two raw pictures from the 1960s. The second of these is The Story of Asya Klyachina, known in Russia by the much longer but wittier title of The Story of Asya Klyachina Who Loved yet did not get Married. Telling the story of a young farmworker who has a child despite the refusal of the father to commit to a relationship, it is told in a naturalistic, documentary style that is extremely rare in Soviet cinema. Most of the actors are non-professional, with Iya Savvina who plays Asya one of the very few fulltime actors. The picture has a raw immediacy that made the Soviet authorities uncomfortable. It was rarely shown and later given a belated premier in 1987 and garlanded with awards at the Moscow film festival. Konchalovsky’s first feature, The First Teacher (1965), about a teacher who defiantly tries to bring education to a village in Central Asia in the face of local opposition, is equally compelling. It has lost none of its impact after over half a century. When I saw it during a retrospective of his work in Paris in summer 2020, the audience cheered and applauded after the showing.

Trial on the Roads (Alexei German, 1971)

The life and career of Alexei German followed an arc similar to many great Soviet filmmakers — he made just half a dozen films of staggering originality and quality over several decades in a constant battle with censorship and with long periods of creative silence. The best known is Trial on the Roads, filmed in 1971 but which had to wait until 1987 to be shown. Set in World War II, it looks at a group of Soviet Partisans fighting Nazi occupying forces who take into their ranks a former Red Army officer Lazarev (Vladimir Zamansky) who had been a collaborator with the Nazis. The film makes clear that Lazarev is a brave and patriotic man who, like many, had little choice, a line that must have proved indigestible for the authorities just a few decades after the war, Despite the suspicion of the Partisans (and particular from a fighter terrifyingly played by Solonitsyn), Lazarev acquits himself in every test of bravery and loyalty. In particular during the final bullet-spattered final scene, a shoot-out of Tarantino-like extremes. Shying away from nothing, German would go onto make a wild and extraordinary film about the death of Stalin (Khrustalyov My Car!, supposedly the first words uttered by Beria when Stalin’s death was confirmed) and the 2013 science fiction epic Hard to be a God. He died in February 2013.

Amphibian Man (Chebotaryov/Kazansky, 1961)

An exotic odball in the sometimes austere world of Soviet film, Amphibian Man is a work of glittering invention and originality that has proved surprisingly influential and enduring. It’s a mixture of fantasy, science fiction and romance that although very much of its time, manages not to be dated. It tells the story of a young man who has been fitted with shark gills by his scientist father enabling him to stay underwater. But he falls in love with the daughter of an unscrupulous pearl fisher and their quite different worlds collide. The suit of the Amphibian Man does not benefit from special effects, just some tight spandex, lots of sequins and painted flippers. The film is supposed to be set in Latin America, with Baku’s old city making a somewhat dubious backdrop for the urban scenes. Yet somehow it comes off and the denouement is genuinely moving. If this fishy tale sounds familiar it is because it has similarities to Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 hit The Shape of Water and even if the endings are different in both movies the creature allows the heroine a chance to escape a ruthless, loveless and capitalistic world. The Shape of Water even faced accusations of plagiarising the Soviet film, a claim its makers strongly denied. But the influence of this strange but alluring picture is clear.

The Woodpecker Doesn’t get Headaches (Dinara Asanova,1975)

The Woodpecker Doesn’t get Headaches is a profound and beautiful film about adolescence regarded with immense affection inside Russia but almost unknown outside. A boy grows up in the shadow of his basketball star brother and madly in love with his classmate. He expresses himself through playing the drums, which no-one wants him to play and for which he gets no encouragement except from the garden woodpecker. There are no happy outcomes in the film and it ends with a tear-jerking missed farewell in a train station. But the tragedy is not exaggerated, these are young people of emotional strength who have their lives ahead of them. The hero and his love also have a maturity beyond that of the adults of the film and much in the film, likely completely by chance, recalls Swedish director Roy Andersson’s unforgettable 1970 teen romance A Swedish Love Story. Director Dinara Asanova, born in Kyrgyzstan, defiantly made films in this realist, documentary style which brought the inevitable problems with censorship. She made the successful and prize-winning 1983 Boys, also about adolescence but died at just 42 in 1985 of heart failure, tragically unable to enjoy the greater freedoms that the next years of glasnost would have allowed her distinctive cinema.

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (Leonid Gaidai,1973)

A comedy of sometimes madcap energy and non-stop gags but also a film of originality and humanity, it’s impossible not to love Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, also sometimes called Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future in the West. Inventor Shurik, living in a typical Moscow high rise, creates a time machine that manages to send a notorious thief and the warden of his apartment block to mediaeval Russia and Tsar Ivan the Terrible to the 1970s USSR. I’ve watched this film in all sorts of situations — on a VHS as a student in the 1990s and on an overnight train trip and can never get enough of it. The Tsar, wielding his giant knife at sandwiches, looks bewildered by modern Moscow while the apartment warden, also called Ivan Vasilievich, finds the best way to survive in the past is to pretend to be the Tsar. The film is based on a play by the great Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov and the trademark wit of the author of the Master and Margarita shines through. The jazzy score will never leave your head but the film is also memorable for its unusually sharp pokes at Soviet bureaucracy and rigidity. Re-watching, I also found it surprisingly poignant. It’s unlikely such a film making light of a Russian historical figure could be made in today’s Russia. And Bulgakov, most of whose output headed for the drawer during his lifetime, never saw his play, which was predictably banned upon completion, become a box office success 40 years later.