Russian Guild of Film Critics 100 | 1940-1949 (and honorable mentions)

My entry into professional writing was reviewing the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list for DigBoston. Now I’m doing the same with the Russian Guild of Film Critics’ equivalent list found here. Rather than review each film, I’ll be recapping each decade.

I’ll also include the burrito I ate while collecting my thoughts. Welcome to

RGFC films:
Mashenka (Машенька) 1942, dir. Yuli Raizman (YouTube)
Dream (Мечта) 1943, dir. Mikhail Romm (YouTube)
Ivan the Terrible (Иван Грозный) 1944 (Part I) & 1958 (Part II), dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Criterion Channel [subscription required])
Cinderella (Золушка) 1947, dir. Nadezhda Kosheverova, Mikhail Shapiro (YouTube)

Non-RGFC films:
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Необычайные приключения мистера Веста в стране Большевиков) 1924, dir. Lev Kuleshov (Kanopy)
Man with a Movie Camera (Человек с кино-аппаратом) 1935, dir. Dziga Vertov (Kanopy)
By the Bluest of Seas (У самого синего моря) 1936, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy)


First burrito of lockdown: steak burrito grande from Tenoch. I started this draft in March but some stuff’s been happening since then, y’know?

World War II left no part of the world untouched, but for the USSR, its victory became the keystone in Soviet national identity. The revolutionary restructuring of the 1920s had degraded into totalitarian consolidation in the 1930s. Optimism turned to fatalism, hope to terror. Though the 1917 revolutions continued to inspire liberation movements around the world, the Soviet citizenry had little left to show for its triumphs but famine, repression, and the memory of when they’d shaken the world.

All of this changed when the Nazis surrendered in Berlin on May 8, 1945 (May 9 in Moscow, the day Victory Day is celebrated). With devastating losses early in the war and at least 20 million dead by its conclusion, the Soviet Union was now more than the land of revolution in the eyes of the world. It was the nation that brought the Third Reich to its knees through perseverance, solidarity, and sacrifice. Their victory redefined what it meant to be Soviet. They had won the fight of their lives, for their right to exist. Whereas Marxism is inherently internationalist, it was now possible to be a non-ideological Soviet patriot, with a voice on the world stage and a stirring new national hymn in place of “The Internationale.” The Russian name for World War II – Великая Отечественная война, the Great Patriotic War – shows how deep this runs to this day.

War films selected by the RGFC rarely feature generals, commissars, or party officials, meaning there is no equivalent to Patton on this list, not even Yankee Doodle Dandy. Instead, they focus on the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: families torn apart, cities under siege, and the scars that remained once the last shots were fired. As Stalin’s personality cult intensified and the atrocities he committed against friend and foe grew even more vicious than before, filmmakers remained committed to the truth of what they’d experienced, even if their access to facts were restricted.

The most iconic depictions of this era in Soviet film came in the 1950s, as the next generation of artists were emboldened by new freedoms as part of de-Stalinization and Khrushchev’s Thaw. During the war itself, the production of new narrative films drastically decreased, a combination of limited resources and increasing government control.

In previous decades, censorship was strict, but studios operated with enough independence that a film could be written, shot, edited, and scored before it was condemned. We saw this in the 1930s with A Severe Young Man, which by merit should have been a generation-defining classic and posed no challenge to the dominant ideology. This level of control was apparently insufficient, so even production became centralized, creating an unmanageable bureaucratic bottleneck amplified by the material loss of resources and talent to the war effort. As few as nine narrative films might be released in a given year, a massive dropoff after the booms of the 1920s and ’30s.

Perhaps for this reason, there is less that unites this decade’s slate of RGFC films than in ones prior. How could there be when there was no way to know how the war would end, and therefore which stories to tell? Two films – Mashenka and Dream – are charming dramas interested in the problems of everyday life. Ivan the Terrible and Zolushka, meanwhile, are the best Disney films that Disney never produced. Given the difficulties that went into making a film at all in this period, the fact that they even exist is a miracle, and that they hold up so well under radically different circumstances is a gift.

With fewer films produced, the RGFC chose fewer titles from the 1940s for its list than other decades. Because there are only four films here, I’ve included some honorable mentions that deserve recognition in any conversation about the greatest Soviet movies.

Mashenka (Машенька) 1942, dir. Yuli Raizman

We all know the sting of unrequited love. Less explored is when mutual attraction exists, it’s not a secret, but neither one knows how to begin, so a close yet unsustainable friendship forms. It’s very a difficult situation to navigate, especially if one person starts seeing someone else, forcing a decision between being supportive and feeling jilted. It’s like if Cupid used a paralyzing nerve agent instead of an arrow, or being permanently mid-breakup with someone you never actually dated.

That’s the subject of Mashenka, a sweet story about two young people, Masha (Valentina Karavayeva) and Alyosha (Mikhail Kuznetsov) who form a close friendship right away, but never find their romantic stride. Yes, sweet; we understand how the world feels to these characters, even if we don’t like the decisions they make, as threat of impending war heightens the most confusing human emotions. I realize that on paper this sounds like a soapy melodrama, but director Yuli Raizman injects plenty of humor and excitement into every moment with a layered yet understated style. Any given stroll, conversation, or dinner party is filled with possibilities for what they might say to one another, as we wonder where their relationship will be when the world comes crashing down on them.

What must this film have meant to audiences in 1942? A reminder of things before the fighting began, a taste of why everyday life – even the sad parts – is worth living. Masha is not only the film’s namesake but it’s beating heart, and I’ve never seen a performance quite like Karavayeva’s. She can capture so much in just a single exhale.

One of the things I’ve found unique to Russian and Soviet films is their treatment of heartache and breakups. There’s plenty of sappy stuff for sure, but there is greater appreciation for the proper ending to a love story, not just the happy one. There are a number of romances on this list alone where the couples don’t end up together, and it’s not depicted as sad. Perhaps this is no surprise from the country that produced Anna Akhmatova, the legendary poet capable of many things, among them verses that capture the moment love ends. These kinds of stories are beautiful, too.

Dream (Мечта) 1943, dir. Mikhail Romm

If you know that you’re destined for failure, is it better to lose all hope or to lie to those who trusted you, inviting a worse fate for all but getting a taste of what the happiness you chased might have felt like?

The titular Dream, run by Madame Skorokhodova (Faina Ranevskaya), is a hotel/grocery shop where the residents are either on their way to a better or have accepted that they won’t amount to anything. It’s not where dreams go to die, but people caught in its orbit tend to fall for some form of deception, whether institutional, social, financial, or criminal – perhaps even self-deception.

Set in Eastern Poland in 1933, which would later become Western Ukraine, much of the film can be seen as a critique of capitalism, but interestingly, not any more than Western films of the same era. A film with this same plot and tone would not have felt out of place in the US ten years earlier, or Germany ten years later. There’s only the faintest whiff of “and then the revolution fixed everything,” but most political messages are kept in the background to keep the focus on the emotional arcs. The characters are terrifically realized by both script and performance, and even class enemies like landlords and old-money aristocrats, though they are the film’s antagonists, are treated with enough humanity to have fully developed personalities and motivations.

I’ll admit that I needed to watch it a second time to understand why certain things happened the way they did, and it may be the most conventional of the RGFC films so far. Nevertheless, Mikhail Romm’s Dream is a smart little picture, thematically ambitious on a small scale, examining the ways that, despite all of our efforts to remain ruggedly individual, our fate is wholly intertwined with those around us, even those we have never met.

Ivan the Terrible (Иван Грозный) 1944 (Part I) & 1958 (Part II), dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Criterion Channel [subscription required])

The best way to watch is on Criterion. If you don’t subscribe, hopefully this clip convinces you.

Sergei Eisenstein was the right person to make an epic biography of Ivan IV, best known as Ivan the Terrible. Stalin was unfortunately the wrong person to commission it. Originally intended as a trilogy, Eisenstein was surprised by how enthusiastically his all-powerful patron embraced part one, and devastated by his hatred for part two. Production was halted on part three, part two was banned, and Eisenstein died four years later at age 50 after his second heart attack.

One has to imagine the stress of such a catastrophic event at the hands of a tyrant caused his health to collapse as quickly as it did, and watching parts one and two of Ivan the Terrible, it’s clear that there was still plenty of life and energy in this ceaseless innovator. He helped put Soviet film on the map in the ’20s, redefined what a war movie could be in the ’30s, and was on the verge of creating a new genre with his planned trilogy in the ’40s. There were no other films like Ivan the Terrible when it was made, in the USSR or abroad, yet when viewed as a continuation of his previous breakthroughs, it feels like this was where he’d been headed since at least October, perhaps earlier.

Nikolai Cherkasov plays Ivan, from his fresh-faced days as a newly crowned tsar ready to take on the greedy boyars, to his descent into paranoia with sunken eyes and a dagger-like beard. He sees everyone around him as either an ally or an enemy, which helps him consolidate power away from the aristocracy in part one, but his inflexibility causes his idealism to break under the weight of his crown in part two.

What a thing of beauty this film is. Eisenstein loads every frame and movement with symbolism and meaning, but even at his most theoretical, his goal has always been for the viewer to understand. He’s interested in mythology, not realism. If tapestries and mosaics could move, how might they tell their own stories? Most won’t notice the esoteric imagery in the Polish court, but will see the chessboard on the floor and know what’s being discussed. Many won’t grasp the intricacies of sixteenth-century politics, but will understand the meaning of telling eye movements in extreme closeup. It’s extremely complex yet fully accessible.

At the time of his death, Eisenstein had been writing a series of essays and lectures on the art of Walt Disney, which you can find in a collection called On Disney. It’s a wonderful read, and his enthusiasm for Disney’s work is contagious, delighting in how his creations connect with audiences despite their complete detachment from reality. Disney’s influence is most visible in the Ivan films, as figures occupy space and cast shadows not relative to their actual size, but to their dramatic power in a given moment.

“Terrible” is an accurate translation of grozny, but in the sense of invoking terror, not as a way of saying “Man, Ivan totally sucks.” It’s closer in tone to “awesome” – as in its literal meaning, making one feel awed, not as in “bodacious.” Spend any amount of time in an Orthodox church, hear those reverberations of the metal AF hymns, and you’ll understand the Russian notion of greatness. God is not your friend, Jesus doesn’t walk beside you on a beach. They exist so far above you, and you should tremble before their might. That’s what “terrible” means when it comes to Ivan IV. It’s not so strange, therefore, that Stalin admired him as a leader who vanquished his enemies and united his country – and that he’d take it as a personal insult when the character devolved into a petty, vengeful despot.

Cinderella (Золушка) 1947, dir. Nadezhda Kosheverova, Mikhail Shapiro

What I love most about this version of Cinderella is that all of the technical and creative skill on display is in service to comedy first and foremost. Yes, it’s a fairy tale so there’s magic and it’s enchanting or whatever, but directors Nadezhda Kosheverova and Mikhail Shapiro are seriously committed to being as silly as they can be. Not parody, not satire, with no specific moral, just cute and ridiculous, with great performances a few dazzling effects.

Story-wise, this is the tale you know: overworked and underappreciated Cinderella, wicked step-mother and three step-sisters, fairy godmother, ball, prince, love, shoe, boom. A few things distinguish it from any version you’ve already seen: Cinderella and her fairy godmother seem to have a preexisting relationship, so she’s not surprised by all the magic. Good, cuts out about 20 minutes of singing about stuff we already know. Cinderella’s name in Russian is Zolushka, which is derived from the word for “gold,” as opposed to “cinder.” Both are diminutives, so she is still the recipient of narrative affection, just coming from different ends of the elegance spectrum.

For all its silliness, this is not a mockery of fairy tales or of magical storytelling. Every moment of the film is gorgeous, including some astonishing mattes, and the ball scene is a real delight. The cast includes Yanina Zhejmo, who was 38 years old when she played the lead part, and 35-year-old Aleksei Konsovsky as the young prince. Legendary comedic actor Erast Garin makes an instant impression as the king, who repeatedly threatens to abdicate in shame at the slightest hiccup in daily affairs.

The result is a fairy tale that feels like your hilarious grandpa is reading it, voices and all. Your own private version of The Princess Bride. The film came out in 1947, a year marked by adventure flicks, biopics, musical comedies, and animated films, and not a single WWII or personality cult film among them. Escapism was in the air, and Cinderella led the pack.

Don’t watch the colorized version if you can help it.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Необычайные приключения мистера Веста в стране Большевиков) 1924, dir. Lev Kuleshov (Kanopy)

Back before this project began, I was familiar with the Kuleshov effect but hadn’t watched one of his films in its entirety, so I chose this one first based on its name. I loved it, and decided to commit to watching all of the greatest Russian and Soviet films – only to discover it wasn’t on the RGFC list! The only Kuleshov they chose is By the Law, which is truly a great accomplishment, and in truth, Extraordinary Adventures is probably less historically noteworthy than those that were included. But if you share my love of Kuleshov protégé Boris Barnet’s comedies, you should still watch it to see where he learned it.

John West (Porfiri Podobed) is president of the YMCA who travels to the USSR to expand his organization. Before his trip, he reads a magazine full of frightening images of “Bolshevik types,” fur-covered savages who wear literal sickles on their heads. For safety, he brings Jeddy (Barnet), a cowboy with an alarmingly tall hat who’s way too eager to shoot a lot more than six bullets out of his six-shooter. A comedy of errors leads them to a group of dispossessed aristocrats, who try to play his fear to their advantage. Hilarious slapstick at the expense of American ignorance ensues, helmed by one of film history’s greatest theorists. It’s fucking genius.

Man with a Movie Camera (Человек с кино-аппаратом) 1935, dir. Dziga Vertov (Kanopy)

It’s unfortunate that documentary films were left off of this list, though the AFI also neglected them on theirs. Director Dziga Vertov, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman (also his brother), and editor Yelizaveta Svilova (married to Vertov) profoundly affected world cinema, even if many have never heard their names. They pioneered the concept of Kino-Pravda – film truth – which heavily influenced its French namesake, cinéma vérité.

Kino-Pravda might be called the artistic elevation of newsreel footage, though distinct from documentary. Man with a Movie Camera is the ultimate statement of Vertov’s theory; he believed in making cinema as distinct from literature or theater as possible, so much so that he was against any form of concrete narrative or reenactment. Man with a Movie Camera moves at a brisk pace with no script, no specific story, and yet it is a complete statement of cinema’s ability to draw connections where any other medium would would not. Even if you have no investment in Vertov’s historical moment or theoretical beliefs, even if you don’t care about documentary filmmaking or avant-garde cinema, Man with a Movie Camera will make sense to you. That’s how powerful it is.

By the Bluest of Seas (У самого синего моря) 1936, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy)

I had never heard of By the Bluest of Seas when I decided to hit play on Kanopy. I saw that it was directed by Boris Barnet, and that was enough for me. I was in for the surprise of a lifetime, because it’s one of the best films I’ve watched since I started this project. It’s sweet, funny, emotionally resonant, a little tragic, and gorgeous to behold. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen water filmed so beautifully, or romantic jealously depicted with such empathy, and it’s all wrapped up in Barnet’s signature mix of muscular absurdity and technical bravery.

Two sailors, Yussuf (Lev Sverdlin) and Alyosha (Nikolai Kryuchkov), wash up on the banks of Azerbaijan when their boat capsizes, and are taken in by the local kolkhoz (collective farm). Both develop feelings for the kolkhoz’s leader, Maria (Yelena Kuzmina). I’ll avoid describing the plot any further, not to avoid spoilers, but because it’ll do a disservice to the film. The straightforward love triangle is enriched by wonderful performances, smart dialogue, gorgeous cinematography, and respect for the audience’s intelligence.

I was surprised to find out that some have dismissed it as propaganda, for a scene where Alyosha is disciplined for failing his duty to the kolkhoz and for its ending where the two are called away for military service. Reader, I’ve watched a lot of propaganda as part of this project, and I just don’t see it. Both moments have very strong dramatic foundations, and neither are a betrayal of its own ideas or a manipulation of the viewer’s trust. By the Bluest of Seas was the best movie I’d never heard of, but now you have heard of it, so you have no excuse. Check it out.

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