Russian Ark (2002)
Shot in an astounding single, 96-minute take with a gliding Steadicam, Alexandr Sokurov’s tour de force still stands as one of modern cinema’s great achievements, both technically and thematically. Bringing together a finely tuned orchestra of visuals and sound, the camera travels through the St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, weaving a magic spell of history and art. A ghost-like narrator (voiced by Sokurov himself) drifts in and out rooms interacting with of 300 years of history, and we meet famous figures such as Catherine the Great, Tsar Nicholas II and EmperorAlexander . Other moments let us voyeuristically observe modern-day museum visitors, fragments of their conversations mixing with whispers from historical scenes. This remarkable, unique film’s stand-out moment is a ballroom scene assembling many figures and set on the eve of the Russian revolution.
Starting out as a cult success, Alexei Balabanov’s crime thriller has become one of the most popular films of the modern Russian era. Set in the St Petersburg underworld, it’s a glimpse into the lawless, chaotic ‘dashing 90s’ and introduces one of Russia’s most iconic movie characters, Danila Bagrov (played by Sergei Bodorov), whose flea-market sweater and army boots became a much-copied fashion ‘look’. Danila, fresh out of the army, is sent to work for his brother Viktor, unaware Viktor is a hitman for the local mob. The soundtrack proved just as popular as the movie itself, with some of the biggest (and loudest) hits of Russian 90s rock, while the band Nautilus Pompilius even feature in the film.
Come and See (1985)
Harrowing as it may be, Elem Klimov’s film often features high on lists of the greatest war – or anti-war – films. Based on the director’s own recollections of his childhood in war-torn Stalingrad, it’s a tough depiction of a naive boy, Florya, navigating the horrors of military life during World War II in German-occupied Belarus. The powerful images and piercing sound effects of bombs and bullets make it a shaking, all-encompassing viewing experience. When audiences winced at the brutality, Klimov famously replied: “Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.”
As influential as it is baffling and starkly beautiful, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a surreal, existential sci-fi trip into the Zone, an enigmatic and sometimes dangerous space which, once penetrated, promises to fulfil a person’s innermost desires. The ‘Stalker’ himself works as a guide to the Zone, taking the Writer and the Professor on a journey to find the elusive heart of the Zone, the Room. Stalker‘s pacing, dense symbolism and dank rain may frustrate a casual viewer – Tarkovsky wanted the start to be even slower so that anyone who didn’t like it had time to “walk out and find a different movie” – but with an extraordinary synth score and sound, it’s the work of a true visionary and features cinema’s most mysterious black dog.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film is one of the undoubted classics of Soviet cinema. It tells of a 1905 Russian naval mutiny on the titular ship that incited a massacre against officers of the Tsarist regime. Often labelled as communist propaganda (its ‘revolutionary zeal’ resulted in a ban in the UK until 1954), it is divided into five acts, including the famous sequences of the “Men and Maggots” in which sailors refuse to eat rotten meat, and the iconic Odessa Steps, depicting the death of a mother and child during an attack by the Tsar’s troops to repel popular support for the mutiny happening just off the city’s coast. As well as its political importance, the 27-year-old director’s ground-breaking rapid montages have become cornerstones of cinematic language. Although Battleship is over 90 years old, it remains a thrilling piece of film-making and a stunning slice of history.