While the Soviet Union leaders often viewed the film as the most efficient propaganda tool for indoctrinating the masses, the most important works of that era can’t be categorized as propaganda films.
Instead, what made Soviet cinematography stick out are the works of brilliant filmmakers and theorists, who experimented with lots of different editing styles. Amongst the most important of them were Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov.
These incredible film theorists didn’t necessarily agree with aligning the film with theatrical and political frameworks, as the filmmaking process offered an entirely new set of tools to experiment and make art with.
While Lev Kuleshov founded Soviet montage as a form of editing and became famous for an editing effect called The Kuleshov effect, Sergei Eisenstein developed a concept of five different elements of montage within the Soviet Montage Theory.
In the end, these theories and types of montage (metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual) helped create and set the tone of the cinematic language we use today.
Keep on reading to see which are the 15 Soviet movies everyone should watch!
1. Man With A Movie Camera (1929)
Kino-glaz (or, Kino-Eye) is a film technique developed in Soviet Russia by Dziga Vertov. It was his means of capturing what he believed to be inaccessible to the human eye.
By assembling film fragments and editing them together using different types of montages, Kino-Eye hoped to create a new type of perception. It sought to capture untouched, moving life, and edit it together in a way that would form previously unseen truths.
Denis Arkadyevich Kaufman, also known as Dziga Vertov (meaning spinning top), made Man with a Movie Camera with the intention of making a breakthrough from the traditional cinema of that time. It is an experimental art film that rejects and violates any preexisting rules of cinema, not concerning itself with restrictive tendencies of defining time and space. There is no particular story to be told – just like there are no made-up characters – the narrative unfolds the everyday lives of citizens in Soviet Russia right before our very own eyes. We can see people being born, getting married, and even having a funeral.
Vertov used overtonal montage which by itself synthesizes metric, tonal, and rhythmic montage. He also used intellectual montage – the juxtaposition of images (man-machine, wedding-divorce, life-death) – to show the changes in paradigms induced by industrialism, with the emphasis on the mechanization of everyday life.
The frames are constantly changing scenes and speed, making it almost too hard to comprehend at times. With the use of rapid shot changes, different types of editing, and various filming angles, the key effect becomes discontinuity.
So why should you watch this movie?
The answer is – because of the raw, unfiltered real-life scenes that serve as a documentary for portraying life in Soviet Russia! And because of the great use of different types of montage, of course.
2. Solaris (1972)
Directed and co-written by Andrei Tarkovsky, this Soviet science fiction art film was based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel of the same name. This is also Tarkovsky’s most straightforward work.
The plot is set in a space station that’s orbiting a fictional planet called Solaris, where a scientific mission was stalled because the crew, which consisted of three scientists, has been experiencing an emotional crisis.
Even before a psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent on his interstellar journey, it is easily noticeable the movie is saturated with grief and sorrow. Even though the Solaris project was once thriving, it has gone amiss, and he now has to decide whether he should close down the research station.
Some of the scenes Tarkovsky used allowed him to satirize the bureaucratic system, and also the machinery of our postmodern society. In the dialogues, he doesn’t strive away from making arguments about the concepts of reality and identity.
Tarkovsky was truly critical of Western science fiction’s shallowness, which is why he set his intentions on embellishing the genre with emotional and intellectual depth – which is exactly why you should watch this movie.
3. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Bronenosets Potyomkin is another silent Soviet drama film that is still highly regarded as a masterpiece of cinema. It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein as his second full-length film.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the filmmaking industry witnessed the rise of a new editing movement, also known as the Soviet Montage Movement.
In all of his works, especially Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein reflected this movement. To send a stronger message and create new concepts, he used all 5 different elements of Soviet Montage, which are:
metric, rhythmic, tonal, over-tonal, and intellectual montage.
This film is actually based on a real-life mutiny that took place in June 1905, on the battleship Potemkin. The film is split into five parts, each of them having its own title.
The titles are The Men and the Maggots, A Dead Man Calls for Justice, The Odessa Steps, and The Godfather.
The Odessa Steps scene, where a baby inside a carriage has been falling down the stairs, has been one of the most influential scenes in the history of cinema.
This scene has served as a reference for many newer films, such as W. Allen’s Bananas (1971), F. F. Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), and B. De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987).
4. Come and see (1985)
This Soviet anti-war film is considered to be one of the most historically accurate depictions of the crimes happening on the Eastern Front during World War II.
It was directed by Elem Klimov. Its’ screenplay, written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich, is based on the 1978 book I Am from the Fiery Village, of which Adamovich was also a co-author.
Klimov has been said to have fought eight years of censorship from the Soviet authorities before he was allowed to entirely produce this film.
The story is set in Belarus, which has been occupied by the Nazi Germans during World War II.
The main character, a teenager named Flyora, joins the Belarusian resistance movements where he witnesses human suffering inflicted upon the Eastern European villagers by the Nazis.
If you’re interested in films that mix hyper-realism, surrealism, and philosophical existentialism with political, poetical, and psychological themes – then you should definitely watch this movie.
5. Stalker (1979)
Stalker is another one of Tarkovsky’s classics. It is Tarkovsky’s fifth film and the last one he made in the Soviet Union. It might also be one of his most known and cherished movies.
It is a Soviet science fiction art film that’s loosely based on a 1972 novel called Roadside Picnic, written by Russian science-fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
Just like all of his other movies, it combines elements of deeper psychological, philosophical, intellectual, and political themes. The movie also contains a deeply religious allegory.
The plot is set in a distant future, focused on the Zone, a mysterious restricted site that has a room that is able to fulfill one’s deeper desires. A hired guide, that’s illegally exploring – the Stalker – leads the Writer and the Professor into the heart of the Zone.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker is, at least on some level, about the wish to leave Soviet Russia. Tarkovsky was fighting against the restraints of the socialist bureaucracy he was destined to serve. In the movie at least, we can sense a feeling that this would be impossible if not even wrong to do.
So, why should you watch this movie?
Not only because it is a science-fiction classic that combines elements of philosophy, theology, and psychology, but also because it shines a light on the extent to which we humans, as species, are both terrified of and oblivious to our own subconscious.
6. Ivan The Terrible (1944)
Ivan The Terrible, also known as Ivan Groznyy is Sergei Eisentsein’s two-part Soviet epic historical drama film.
It was Eisenstein’s final film, and it was commissioned by Joseph Stalin himself, who admired and identified with the first tsar of all of Russia.
While the first part of this movie has been released in 1944, the second wasn’t released until 1958 (even though it was finished in 1946!). There was supposed to be a third party that would finish the story, but, after Eisenstein’s death in 1948. most of it was destroyed.
If you’re asking yourself what makes this movie so special and why you should watch it, the reason is; that the use of shadow and light (this technique is also known as chiaroscuro) is impeccable, and it is also dark and witty with elements of comedy.
7. The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, this Soviet movie is all about World War II. It depicts the inhumane cruelty of war and the damage done collectively and to individuals.
It tells the story of Boris and Veronica, a couple that remains happily in love until World War II. tears them apart. This is a beautifully made drama saturated with feelings of transcendental grief.
This movie won the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, and it is the only Soviet movie to win that award.
8. The Ascent (1977)
Directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent is a black-and-white Soviet anti-war drama film.
It is based on the novel by Vasil Bykau named Sotnikov, and it was shot in January 1974 near Murom in Vladimir Oblast, Russia. What’s interesting is that it was shot in horrid winter conditions, as was required by the script itself.
The narrative focuses on two Soviet partisans, Sotnikov and Rybak, captured by the Germans during the Second World War. The plot thickens after their capture, and we are displayed with the politics of war and ethical dilemmas, as well as heavy personal dilemmas that focus on being true to yourself versus surviving.
The film is layered with complex existential issues regarding human existence.
Even though it won the Golden Bear award at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival in 1977, this isn’t the only reason you should watch this movie.
9. Mirror (1975)
Loosely autobiographical, this Soviet art film is directed by the one and only – Andrei Tarkovsky.
The movie is structured in a nonlinear narrative, and, because of that, it was largely dismissed by the Soviet critics. It has since become one of his most influential works, along with Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).
Traveling through the transcendental halls of time and memory, this movie is much like an image-composed poem. The story is revolving around a dying poet’s life – his dreams, memories of childhood, marriage, and war – in Soviet Russia.
What makes this movie worth watching is its’ cinematography; it constantly changes between black-and-white frames, saturated color, and sepia. The film’s flowy of visually oneiric (referring to the depiction of dream-like states in cinematography) has been compared with the stream of consciousness technique in modernist literature.
10. Viy (1967)
This Soviet horror film is directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, and it is based on the story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol. Both of those are based on a Ukrainian folk tale!
It is also the first Soviet-era horror film to be officially released in the Soviet Union!
The story is set on a young priest, Khoma, that stumbles upon the house of an old woman after having fun with his other student friends. Rather than spending the night under the stars, they manage to get the woman to let them sleep inside.
The old woman turns out to be a witch.
While the broad performance is comic for the majority of the film, Viy stands out on a cinematographic level, which is exactly why you should watch it.
11. Ballad Of A Soldier (1959)
Ballad of a Soldier is a Soviet film directed by Grigory Chukray.
While the story sets place during World War II., it is not just about the horrors of war. It heavily depicts all kinds of love; love of a young couple, of a married one, and a mother’s love.
It also highlights the essence of the countryside and the purity of the villagers.
Soviet movies are sometimes ambivalent, but always complex movies that highlight political and psychological themes, along with themes filled with deep sorrow and mortal transience.
Even though the 19-year-old Alyosha Skvortsov, a Red Army soldier, dies a hero, to the woman in the field, his mother – he is simply a son.
This film won several awards, including the BAFTA Award for Best Film From Any Source, and has been nominated for many more – it is simply great, and that is exactly why you should watch it!
12. The Dawns Here Are Quiet (1972)
This 1972 Soviet war drama was directed by Stanislav Rostotsky. It is based on one of the most popular novels about World War II in the USSR, a novel of the same name, written by Boris Vasilyev.
In the context of World War II., the story is set on female Russian soldiers fighting Nazi scouts. The commander, Fedot Vaskov, asked for soldiers who don’t drink alcohol and fraternize with women, and he got – a group of female anti-aircraft gunners. Not knowing how to command women, he clashes with them and their issues every day.
Just like all other Soviet anti-war movies, The Dawn Here Are Quiet is incredibly sad and heartbreaking.
13. Savage Hunt Of King Stakh (1980)
Directed by Valeri Rubinchik, this Soviet mystical thriller/drama is based on a story by V. Korotkevich. Based on the Wild Hunt, this story explores creepy folklore legends.
The story is set in Belarussian woodlands at the end of the 19th century and it is focused on a young ethnographer (Andrej Bielarecki) who came to research local folk legends.
Even though some might say this movie’s cinematography wasn’t as great as far as acting and special effects go, you should definitely watch it because of the thrilling supernatural elements.
14. October (Ten Days That Shook The World) (1927)
October (Ten Days that Shook the World) is a silent, highly political Soviet historical film directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov.
It was commissioned by the Central Committee to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
In the Soviet Union, it was originally released just in October. It was then renamed and released internationally as Ten Days That Shook The World.
Its main focus is the shift of power in the government after the 1917 Revolution and it is portraying a large-scale view of events and struggles between the Bolsheviks and their political opponents.
While this movie might be too chaotic and confusing at times, it is definitely worth watching as it helped shape the modern cinema we have today.
15. Strike (1925)
Directed and edited, again, by Sergei Eisenstein, this silent drama film was actually his first full-length feature before he made Battleship Potemkin later that year.
Performed by the Proletcult Theatre, Strike was actually intended to be a part of seven-part series named Towards Dictatorship but it was left unfinished.
The film is set in 1903, and it shows a strike of the workers of a pre-revolutionary Russian factory.
If you’re interested in the beginnings of cinema and Soviet Montage, as well as concepts of collectivism in opposition to individualism – then you should clearly watch this movie.