When silent Russian cinema is mentioned, it is likely that Sergei Eisenstein will be the first name that comes up. Eisenstein was a supremely talented director and remains an important figure in world cinema but the history of film in Russia is much greater than just one man.
This month is all about celebrating the hidden corners of the Russian cinematic experience. We are going to take a look at film under the the Czar, the work of Russians in exile, the humor of Soviet productions and how Russians fared in Hollywood.
I am an enormous devotee of Russian cinema from every period. I love its rich characterizations, its astonishing cinematography, its quirky humor, its understated love stories and, most of all, its depth.
Russian characters in Hollywood films are often reduced to caricatures and unflattering ones at that. I hope you enjoy taking a trip back in time and meeting real Russians as reflected through the lens of cinema.
If you think that Russian films were all dreary and dark, I submit to you Vinni Puh, their own Winnie the Pooh. Cutest. Thing. Ever. Approximately 1,000,000,000 times better than Disney. Sorry, Disney. (Actually, not sorry. At all.)
Here are a few things that I may as well get off my chest now:
- I am spelling it “czar” and not “tsar” because I like “czar” better.
- Anastasia is dead. She died in 1918. They found the body. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly but them’s the facts. Still loved the 1956 movie, though.
- Rasputin was not a Bolshevik, nor was he an undead sorcerer with a talking bat. (That cartoon has a lot to answer for.)
- The USSR made a lot of movies. Some were propaganda films and some were not. Some were even subversive. Calling all Soviet films “propaganda pictures” is incorrect. (See cute bear cartoon above.)
- Using “Я” instead of “R” does not make your word look Russian. Я is pronounced “ya” so stop doing this. It’s overdone and unimaginative, you will look a fool and you will annoy the Yaussians.
As an appetizer, here is a selection of Russian-themed films I have already covered on the site:
Germans as Russians
French as Russians
La révolution en Russie (1905)
Americans as Russians
Russians as Americans
*Yes, I realize the leads are Italian and Hungarian but the production is 100% Yankee.
More coming soon! And while you are waiting, this is what you do if you are faking your Russian language skills and run into a real live Russian:
“Don’t talk about the old country!”
Review #1: White Russia
The Peasants’ Lot (1912)
A look at village life in Czarist Russia, a time capsule of a place and period that would soon disappear. Intriguing technically and rich in detail, this is also a fascinating character study. Ivan Mosjoukine was 23 when he starred in this film.
Review #2: Red Russia
Chess Fever (1925)
Think Soviet cinema is all about serious propaganda dramas? You couldn’t be more wrong! Here is a delightful short that deals with the troubles of a zany chess addict.
Review #3: Russians in Exile
The Burning Crucible (1923)
A wacky send-up of French detective films, this curious box of wonders is the work of Russian exiles in Paris. A treat from beginning to end. Ivan Mosjoukine was 34 when he wrote, directed and starred in this film.
Review #4: Russians in Hollywood
Hollywood came calling with this tale of beautiful rabbi’s daughters, Cossacks and attempted genocide. Praised to the skies by historians, does this film stand up to scrutiny? Ivan Mosjoukine was 38 when he made his journey to Hollywood.
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Oh boy, this is an area I’m not very fluent in. Outside of a partial knowledge of some of the early pioneers: Eisenstein, the baby carriage seen from Battleship Potempkin, and The Man With the Movie Camera (which I have not watched in full) my only real exposure to Russian Cinema would be the first hour of Solaris, and I’ve said a few unforgivable things about that film:
Tarkovsky is not really my favorite either. In the sound era, I prefer Sergei Bondarchuk, Larissa Shepitko, Grigory Aleksandrov, Nikita Mikhalkov and Grigory Chukhray. I sometimes think film professors inflict certain Russian films on their students as a sort of subtler Red Scare. You know, show them something so deadly dull they will never want to see a Russian movie again. That or they fall into the old truism that plodding = art.
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