Though the western world has largely dominated the film industry, Russian cinema has a deep and rich history. The country’s innovative films have made a lasting impression on film through the ages. From the country’s debut feature in 1908 to Nikita Mikhalkov’s masterpiece in 1994, Russia has contributed a tremendous amount to cinematic culture.
Russia’s first movie, titled Stenka Razine, was based on a traditional folk song and produced by Aleksandr Drankov. It soon gave way to moving cartoons, basic animation that often included stop-motion puppetry. Additionally, adaptations of Russian literature became popular on the big screen.
In fact, Vladimir Gardin gained particular renown after directing “Nest of the Nobility” based on Turgenev’s novel of the same name. After building the foundation of what would come to be a fruitful career, he went on to mastermind “Natasha Rostova” along with Yakov Protazanov, one of the most prominent filmmakers of the day. The audience came to appreciate this genre of more sophisticated film and dubbed them “dramas of high society.” However, the advent of World War I made film much more nationalistic and focused on propaganda.
Soon after, Lenin rose to prominence and proclaimed that “the art of cinema is the most important of all arts today” and incited a period of history known as Soviet cinema. The tools were in place and industrial production began in full force. Remarkably, although perhaps unsurprisingly, the film industry in Russia would be exclusively managed by the state from Lenin’s rise to power in 1919 to the Soviet collapse in 1991. This era gave rise to the now-common stereotype of propaganda films—black and white movies depicting lines of workers toiling for the benefit of a greater cause, with the message that conformity is key to society’s success.
Although entirely under the thumb of the state, Russian directors still managed to contribute to cinematic culture with impressive ground-breaking work. More specifically, the latter half of the 1920’s oversaw an impressive slew of films such as “The Forty First” by Yakov Protazanov (1927) and “The Wreckage of the Empire” by Friedrich Putevka (1929). However, this golden age rapidly deteriorated in the Stalinist period during the 1930s.
The number of produced films plummeted as the state started exerting more control over the industry. Then came World War II, which took a further toll on Russian cinema. Mostly centered around patriotism, these films may not have been the most creative additions to film but do still offer some notable accomplishments, namely “Two Soldiers” by Leonid Lukov, an excellently-scored war film depicting the struggles of a pair of war buddies fighting against German invaders.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia cinema changed dramatically, many looking back on Russian history with a sort of nostalgia. “Burnt By The Sun” is one such feature, focusing on how Stalinism affects the lives of a rural family. It was awarded an Oscar in 1994 in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category.
Similar to “Burnt By The Sun,” many modern Russian films explore themes of family, relationships, and love—a far cry from the state-produced films of the Soviet Union.
Although not always discussed, Russian film deserves to be acknowledged for its place in cinematic history. Its unique techniques and innovative contributions have helped to develop and mold the artistic medium we now know as film. With humble roots in simple projection and moving cartoons, film grew to include enormous auditoriums and captivated crowds in as little as 20 years. Within 50 years, it established itself as a culture-defining artistic medium.