Tag Archives: Russian film

Svoi (Our Own) 2004

 “A woman and a cow need their udders touched tenderly.”

SVOI (Our Own) is an amazing Russian film that explores shifting alliances and divided loyalties against the backdrop of the German invasion of Belarus during WWII. Interestingly, the film keeps the Germans–more or less–in the background of this tense, tight drama, and although the Germans swoop in occasionally like a plague of locusts, the action mainly focuses on how Russians, fractured by politics, see each other as ‘the enemy.’

I’m not a fan of most war films as I find the way film tends to concentrate on all the flag waving, patriotism and noble death stuff behind those governments, politicians, and megalomaniacs determined to off  large numbers of humans in lemming-like marches to their collective, meaningless suicides while collecting rotten pay and a few tacky bits of ribbon and metal along the way, well…absurd and nauseating.

In spite of the fact this Russian film is set in WWII and initially seems to set the stage for the repeat of a typical WWII scenario, instead the plot manages to avoid all those tired old clichés by focusing on the human drama.

The film begins explosively with Germans invading Belarus. While all the Russian soldiers are rounded up and marched off, the savvy Chekist (Sergei Garmash) who had just arrived at the Russian headquarters abandons his uniform for hastily donned civilian clothes. As he tells the young sniper, Mitka (Mikhail Yevlanov), soldiers will be shot whereas with civilian clothes perhaps they stand a chance. It’s in this moment, that the Chekist shows his quick thinking and that Mitka accepts him as a leader. Watching the film’s first scenes, there’s the sense that if anyone survives, it’ll be the wily Chekist

As the men are marched off, the Chekist and Mitka form an alliance with Jewish Russian soldier, Livshits (Konstantin Khabenskiy). Another soldier taunts Livshits about being Jewish and summarily strong-arms him into handing over his scanty rations. This scene sets the stage for the idea that the Russians are divided amongst themselves but also underscores the tentative coalition formed between Mitka, Livshits and the Chekist as the dominating, protecting figure.

As luck would have it, the prisoners are marched near to Mitka’s village, and the savvy Chekist realizing that the chance to escape will never be this good again, persuades Livshits and Mitka to escape with him. The trio ends up at Mitka’s village where his father, Ivan (Bogdan Stupka) is the headman. While the plan took the escaped prisoners to the village, it flounders in the face of reality. Germans are swarming all over the countryside looking for the escaped soldiers, but they more or less leave it up to the Russian villagers to hand them over.

Hiding in the barn and with Livshits beginning to succumb to illness, the three soldiers have plenty of time to consider their situation. Mitka happily reunites with his fiancée, Katya (Anna Mikhalkova) while the Chekist ogles Ivan’s woman, Anya (Natalya Surkova). Mitka takes increasingly bold chances to see Katya and the Chekist becomes obsessed with Anya.

Over time the seemingly simple situation becomes increasingly complex while human behavior boils down to its basic elements and loyalties are tested. The Headman Ivan, a former Kulak who escaped from Siberia, is no great lover of the current political situation. To him, the enemy is anyone who threatens his home, his children or his way of life, and there’s an automatic antipathy between the Chekist and Ivan when they recognize their political opposition. Locked in the barn, dependent on the villagers for food, water and shelter, the relationships between the characters are stripped down to the basest level, and yet in spite of the fact that survival underlies all their actions, some of the characters function at a level that includes a notion of brotherhood while other characters seek only their own selfish ends. Just what happens in the village and how this drama plays out is the substance of this excellent Russian film, and by the film’s conclusion ironically two Tsarist gold coins end up trumping everything else.

The film’s heavily biographical screenplay is from Valentin Chernykh, who also wrote Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, and Chernykh modeled the character of Ivan on his grandfather, a man who hid his past as a kulak from Soviet power but who raised his grandson, the screenwriter, as a model Soviet citizen. The film is set in Chernykh’s grandfather’s region, Pskovshchina.

For those who don’t like to watch violence on the screen, the film includes a couple of killing scenes that are pretty brutal. From director Dmitri Meskhiyev.

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Admiral (2008)

“It seems to me that water and war are the only loves in your life.”

If you don’t have an issue with subordinating the Russian revolution to a love story, then the epic film Admiral is a feast for the eyes. But if you expect Admiral to be heavy on politics or historic events, then you may be disappointed in this visually stunning film from Andrei Kravchuk. If you simply want to enjoy the film, it’s best to approach Admiral for what it is–rather than what it isn’t, and basically Admiral is an epic love story of two people whose lives are defined by the backdrop of the Russian Revolution.

The Admiral of the title is Admiral Kolchak played with icy toughness by Konstantin Khabenskiy, and the film begins wisely by establishing the sort of man Kolchak is. It’s 1916, WWI and a Russian battleship is setting mines when a German ship appears on the horizon. A battle commences and severely outgunned, the Russian ship takes a beating. It’s the cool head and strategic military thinking of Kolchak that saves the day, designates him a Naval hero, and brings him honour from the Tsar.

The film follows Kolchak, as he becomes Commander-in-Chief of the Black Sea Fleet and at pivotal points in his life while the story focuses on the tentative love affair the married Kolchak has with equally married Anna (Elizaveta Boyarskaya). It doesn’t take a great deal of observational powers for Kolchak’s wife, Sofia (Anna Kovalchuk) to deduce that her husband is in love with Anna (and indications are that love affairs for Kolchak are a regular event), but Kolchak takes the ‘noble’ road and tells Anna that their love affair cannot be. This begins a relationship that’s maintained for some time just by letters. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution is shaking the country to its foundations, and we have glimpses of Kronstadt, scenes of the Petrograd Soviet, the massacres in Sebastopol, Kolchak’s relationship with the Provisional Government, and Kolchak’s role as Supreme Ruler of Russia. Simultaneously, the film follows the love affair between its protagonists while the revolution wears on, so we have one scene for example, when Anna won’t leave Sebastopol (in spite of the slaughter of officers by Bolsheviks) simply because she is expecting a letter from Kolchak. Eventually, however, with Sofia living in exile in Paris, Anna and Kolchak, throw caution to the winds and begin a brief life, such as it is, together.

The film avoids political statements while touching on the sweeping brutality of the times, and the brutality focuses on the violence of the Bolsheviks. Some of the best scenes depict the wholesale class slaughter taking place, and the film’s cinematography excels at the underwater scenes. Particularly poignant (and accurate) are the scenes of the bodies of officers under the water at Sebastopol. An 1918 account from a diver who was sent to retrieve the body of a murdered officer recounts seeing the bodies of hundreds of freshly dead, weighted by stones, swaying in the sea. This unnerving sight was powerfully recreated for the film, and the imagery of the secrets held by water is a recurrent theme throughout the film, culminating in Kolchak’s eerie watery grave.

Kolchak, as a leader of the White Russian forces intent on property protection and class privilege, was a ‘baddie’ as far as 20th Century Soviet history was concerned, and now the film seems to be an attempt at an image makeover as part of a celebration of Russian history. It’s ironic that Kolchak went from being a villain to being a saint or at least a flawless hero. Glaringly absent is any reference to Kolchak’s brutal methods of suppression, particularly in Siberia. There are no scenes of villages being burned while peasants are tortured and slaughtered. Personally I had issue with this almost complete lack of detail especially since the film shows scenes of the Bolshi mayhem and mass slaughter.

Since this film will be the introduction to Kolchak and in many cases the only knowledge a great number of people will have of the White Russian commander, one must ask whether or not it’s ethical to portray Kolchak in such a bleached out manner. There’s a lingering romanticism that attaches itself–at least in the West–to White Russians, and while I am certain most Westerners could sniff out a Red Bolshi propaganda film, I’m not convinced that the Whites are subject to an equal evaluation.

I think Russian cinema is making some very exciting films these days, and it’s sobering to think that just a few decades ago those associated with the film could have been dragged off to the gulag. So with the Cold War gone, and the Iron Curtain ripped asunder, Kolchak is no longer vilified but glorified. Note here that I am not trying to place the sins of the Whites or the Reds on to some sort of sliding scale of evaluation; I am noting the swinging doors of political ‘progress,’ the shift in acceptable attitudes and a sad lack of historical accuracy.

If you watch Admiral, do yourself a favor and check out the Hungarian film The Red and The White–a film that does a marvelous job of showing the interchangeability between both sides when it comes to senseless violence.

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Father Sergius (1917)

father-sergius“I saw you in a dream.”

The 1917 film, Father Sergius (Otets Sergiy) is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, and after suffering through the 1990 version from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Night Sun/Il Sole Anche di Notte), I hunted down a copy of this original, silent film. Father Sergius was made after the February Revolution but completed before the October Revolution, and with its anti-tsarist stance, it’s an extremely important film in the history of Russian cinema. Tolstoy’s story was controversial for its implications about the Tsar’s private life and also for the implications about the priesthood. The film was not shown in cinemas until May 1918.

Co directed by Yakov Protazanov and Alexandre Volkoff this is the tale of Prince Kasatsky (Ivan Mozzhukhin sometimes spelt Mozhukin). The story begins with glimpses into the character of the young Kasatsky as he attends military training school, and it’s noted that he would make a “model officer” if not for his temper.

In adulthood, Kasatsky falls in love with Maria (V. Dzheneyeva) and several scenes show Kasatsky tentatively attempting to establish a relationship with Maria, but unrequited love is in the air as he gazes at her while she gives him the cold shoulder. Unbeknownst to Kasatsky, Maria is the mistress to Tsar Nikolai I, and when rumours begin to fly around the court, the Tsar decides to marry off his mistress to avoid the scandal. Kasatsky is selected as the bridegroom, but is horrified when he learns the truth.

Devastated and humiliated, Kasatsky becomes an acolyte, a priest, a hermit, healer and a wandering holy man, and the film follows this process while emphasizing that this choice is Kasatsky’s failure to face his pride. Even as a priest, however, Kasatsky, now the bearded Father Sergius suffers the temptations of the flesh in some of the film’s very best scenes. At one point, he’s locked up with a nymphomaniac in an attempt to cure her (and the inevitable happens) and this sends him spiraling off into solitude. But even here the now middle-aged, unhappy and hysterical Maria finds him.

Actor Ivan Mozzhukhin (also known as the Russian Valentino) fled from Russia and settled in Paris, eventually trying his luck in Hollywood, but the end of silent films combined with the actor’s Russian accent ended hopes for a Hollywood career. Mozzhukhin returned to France and died there of tuberculosis in 1939.

If you are a fan of silent film, or if you are interested in Russian cinema, then seek out Father Sergius. This really is an amazing film–the sort of silent film in which you don’t ‘miss’ dialogue because the story and the acting are all encompassing. The film includes some incredible scenes–the temptations suffered by Father Sergius, a fantasy-guilt scene, and one scene (possibly the best scene in the film) in which father Sergius stares through a window and glimpses peasants dancing, and the dancing evokes poignant memories of the ball and falling in love with Maria.

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Mongol (2007)


Mongol DVDMongol, an epic tale from the Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains) charts the early years of Genghis Khan–from his childhood until he became the great Khan uniting the Mongol tribes.

The film begins with young Temudgin (Genghis) with his father as they journey to the Merkit tribe in order for Genghis to select a tribe. Temudgin’s father took a bride from the Merkits, and so Temudgin’s marriage to a Merkit girl will forge a relationship between the tribes. Well that’s the plan, at least, but Borta, a girl from another tribe, beguiles young Temudgin. He picks her, and this selection starts a chain of bloody events that basically comprise the rest of the film and serve as evidence for this legendary warrior’s resilience.

Bodrov’s film Mongol is part one of a trilogy, and if you enjoy the film (as I did) we can look forward to the rest of the story. As it is, Mongol is just concerned with the early years, Temudgin’s enslavement and his rise to power. The film is, above all, an epic spectacle with little introspection, and little emphasis on Mongol culture but loads of action in the form of bloody, gruesome, fierce battles, initially between Temudgin and the warriors loyal to him and their blood enemies–the Merkits. Later the battles shift to Temudgin and his blood brother, Jamukha (Honglei Sun). Jamukha is my favorite character in the entire film. Perhaps it’s that jewelry ring (looks like a Bluetooth) he wears around his ear, or perhaps it’s because of his laugh. No matter, he’s still my favorite character and he steals the film.

It’s the film’s cinematography that ultimately makes this a must-see. Every frame is different. From the woods, the endless steppe, the shimmering river, the burning sands, the photography is spectacular. While this isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, this is a magnificent spectacle from eminent Russian director Sergei Bodrov–a name in Russian cinema to watch out for.

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The Rider Named Death (2004)

“Terrorism is the triumph of the individual over the state.”

rider named deathRussia in 1905 was a tumultuous place, and the film The Rider Named Death follows the actions of a determined group of revolutionaries whose aim is to assassinate Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (Vasiliy Zotov), the brother of Alexander III. The revolutionaries belong to the Social Revolutionary Party and they constitute the SR Combat Organization. While they take orders from the Central Committee, their group leader is Georges (Andrei Panin)–a character based on author and revolutionary Boris Savinko. Georges is a cold, unemotional individual whose lover is bombmaker Erna (Kseniya Rappoport). Other members of the group include the young idealistic poet Vanya (Artyom Semakin), Fyodor (R. Bershauer) and Heinrich (Aleksei Kazakov).

The film begins with a short introductory sequence that illustrates the many political assassinations that occurred in Russia during this period. The film moves from one particular assassination into a brief black and white mode while creating the impression of newsreel, and this effectively serves as the background to the activities of the group led by Georges.

Georges and his fellow revolutionaries plot their assassinations in the garish colourful atmosphere of the Tivoli, and there, surrounded by pleasure seekers, the assassins receive their orders from Azef (Dmitri Dyuzhev), a member of the Central Committee. The distant, bureaucratic Central Committee hands out orders, but it’s Georges and his band who must execute those directives–assassination orders that are–at times–difficult to accept. The film makes it clear that one of the fundamental problems inherent with this band of revolutionaries is the hierarchal structure that implies that some revolutionaries are more valuable than others. Georges is seen as more valuable than Vanya, Fyodor, and Heinrich, for example, so it’s his job to bid farewell to revolutionaries who are on their final missions armed with a bombs. But as far as the revolutionary food chain goes, Georges is considerably lower than his dashing Central Committee contact, Azef. In one glorious scene, Georges eats with Azef while he receives his latest orders from the higher echelons. Georges notes that Azef orders the best Vodka and the finest caviar. Although Georges offers no comment on this extravagance, his glance speaks volumes.

Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov, The Rider Named Death is an extremely colourful, visually stunning film, and as a film illustrating the volatile times, it’s riveting. The examination of the ethics behind revolutionary violence, the aftermath of the assassinations, and the death and mutilations of innocent bystanders are intentionally provocative. One of the ways both the Central Committee and Georges, as its revolutionary assassin, assess a revolutionary’s commitment to the cause is to question exactly why he/she has turned to violence. And the answers are sometimes very simple, and sometimes much more complicated. In Russian with English subtitles, the film ends with quotes that prophesy the apocalyptic destruction that will descend upon Russia in 1917.

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Poor Poor Pavel (2003)

 “Everyone to hard labour in Siberia!”

poor-poor-pavelRussia had its share of despotic rulers, and the film Poor Poor Pavel examines the brief rule of Tsar Pavel I, son of Catherine the Great. In 1796, Catherine died, and at the age of 42, Pavel (Viktor Sukhorukov) became Tsar. Pavel ruled for a brief five years.

When the film begins, Pavel receives news that he’s now ascended to the throne, and it isn’t long before the volatile Pavel manages to rack up enemies. He immediately exiles the powerful Zubov family and all other “favourites and sycophants.” But the paranoid Pavel doesn’t stop there–he constantly suspects that his sons covet the throne, and even periodically places them under house arrest. Pavel unravels under the responsibilities of the state, but finds consolation in a private room that contains his cardboard models. While the Tsar’s family and most of the court frantically try to placate Pavel’s childish and explosive whims, Pavel discovers two favourites: Baron von Pahlen (Oleg Iankovskii) and a pert young girl who is the only other person capable of soothing Pavel’s fractured psyche.

While Pavel throws himself into the construction of the fantastic Mikhailovsky Castle, Baron (soon promoted to Count) von Pahlen becomes Pavel’s most trusted and intimate advisor, and the wily statesman discovers that such a trusted position puts him in the perfect place to plan a coup ….

The film’s splendid cinematography matches that of Russian Ark, and the film’s interior scenes place an emphasis on yellows and golds. Exterior scenes, naturally, depict the frozen harsh landscape, and whirling snow. While it’s tragic to conceive that a nation is under the thumb (yet again) of a despotic madman, the film also utilizes slices of black humour to emphasize the absurd. In one favourite scene, a man who’s been branded with the word ‘thief’ on his forehead confronts Pavel. A loyal manservant tries to comfort the hysterical Pavel by explaining that the case of a man who was branded but then found innocent was solved by simply branding the words ‘not a’ above the word ‘thief.’ This brief moment between the deranged monarch–and his loyal servant encapsulates Pavel’s rule. In the film’s enigmatic final scene, von Pahlen stresses that the end of the 18th century heralds in a change for Russia. This excellent film will particularly intrigue Russophiles. Directed by Vitali Melnikov Poor Poor Pavel is in Russian with English subtitles.

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The Idiot (2003)

 “What a sweet and innocent idea of life you have.”

idiotThis 550 minute, 4-disc set of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is a ten episode miniseries made by Russian-state television, and it’s clearly a labour of love for those involved in the project. A commitment to watch this version of the great Russian novel, is nothing to take lightly, and it helps to come to the film with some knowledge of the book. That said, fans of the novel, the author, Russophiles, or those who just love excellently produced foreign television that remains true to the classic novels on which it is based, should be well-pleased by this production.

Set in 19th century Russia, the story concerns Prince Myshkin (Yevgeni Mironov). When the film begins he’s just returned from a sanitarium in Switzerland, and he calls upon some relatives–General Yepanchin, his wife and 3 daughters. He’s just inherited his father’s estate, and he’s now unleashed in St. Petersburg society. No one knows quite what to make of the Prince. Known to suffer “fits” he’s sweet natured, innocent, and incapable of guile. This combination of characteristics can make him both an entertaining guest and a social liability. One of the most peculiar characteristics of the prince is that in spite of the fact he possesses a keen understanding of the depths of human nature, he remains almost childlike in his faith in human goodness. And this is the odd thing–most people who understand human nature also possess a deep cynicism–but not the Prince. Because of his innocence and inherently good nature, his peers deem him an idiot, and even he admits that his “frequent fits have almost made me an idiot.” He seems to bring out both the best and the worst in people. As the Prince attempts to negotiate the complications of Russian society, the question becomes–will his goodness and innocence survive or will he be crushed or corrupted?

Prince Myshkin becomes embroiled in the affairs of Nastasya Filippovna (Lidiya Velezheva) the beautiful mistress of Totsky, a wealthy man. Totsky is about to marry and plans to discard his mistress in a genteel fashion by marrying her off to the General’s ambitious secretary Ganya. Willful Nastasya however has other plans, and she casts her lot in with a dark, threatening character–Rogozhin (Vladimir Mashkov)–a man who loves her obsessively. While other men bargain for her favours, the Prince offers to marry Nastasya to ‘save’ her from Rogozhin. Eventually, the Prince also becomes romantically involved with Aglaya Yepanchina (Olga Budina) who soon finds that she has a rival in the notorious Nastasya.

The Idiot is perfectly cast–especially Myshkin’s character, and the actor Yevgeni Mironov’s simple gesture of seeking close eye contact during conversation conveys Myshkin’s earnestness and utter goodness most effectively. The film captures the novel’s mood and tone with brilliantly structured and paced scenes, and whenever Dostoevsky’s troubled, and desperate characters gather in a social setting, a disaster soon occurs–scenes at Nastasya’s party, scenes at Myshkin’s home, scenes at Aglaya’s home. It’s all quite perfect. Directed by Vladimir Bortko, the film is in Russian with subtitles. And a note on the subtitles–they start off well translated, and slide downhill from there–running right off the edge of the screen, lagging behind the speeches, and full of errors. That’s a disappointment for a production of this quality, but in spite of that, this DVD set was worth every penny.

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