Imagine suddenly having available on your computer, via YouTube, free, high quality films from leading directors from Charlie Chaplin’s day to the present era of Martin Scorsese. And, of course, with a simple HDMI cable you could hook up your computer to your TV (preferably a big flat screen) and watch them anytime, enjoying a cinematographic experience at home that is first rate.
That is exactly what you can do with excellent Russian subtitled films from the days of the great film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein to the present era of popular directors such as Alexei Balabanov and Karen Shakhnazarov, some of whose films you might have seen previously only by ordering them from Netflix.
The most interesting Russian films have been placed on YouTube courtesy of Mosfilm Studios (MS) and RussoTurismo (RT). In this essay I will identify some of these films, indicating their source—MS, RT, or O (for Other)—though I am only sure that all the Mosfilm movies comply with copyright law. The Mosfilm and RussoTurismo movies, and only some of the others, I have viewed (via the computer cable to my television) are of excellent technical quality, though differing significantly in other respects. The range of films, regarding directors, date of creation, subjects, and genres, is impressive. In subsequent essays I plan to write over the next year or so, I will concentrate on certain categories of these films, such as those by leading directors, or by genre like “Russian WWII Films,” “Russian Films Based on the Works of Great Writers,” or “Russian Musicals and Comedies.”
A few technical notes. 1) It is sometimes necessary to click cc beneath a film to access the English subtitle option. 2) If one uses Google Chrome instead of Intenet Explorer or Firefox, one can often right click a selection to obtain an English translation of Russian titles or information about a film.
Among Sergei Eisenstein’s films are his greatest: The Battleship Potemkin,October,Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible (Parts 1 and 2), as well as his first major silent film, Strike (all M). Soviet historical films, including Eisenstein’s, provide a varying mix of ideology, artistic license, and historical reality. But Eisenstein’s film are also interesting because of his major impact on filmmaking generally (click here for an excellent site on his work).
Andrei Tarkovsky is probably the second most famous Russian film director, and his most celebrated films are also readily available. They include (in the order in which they appeared from 1962 to 1986): Ivan's Childhood (set in WWII); Andrei Rublev (Parts 1 and 2), about the life and times of this gifted Russian medieval icon painter; Tarkovsky’s famous sci-fi movie Solaris (Parts 1 and 2); Mirror (also set in WWII but a more subjective film than Ivan’s Childhood); Stalker (Parts 1 and 2), which New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin called “a somber futuristic fantasy”;Nostalghia(set in Italy), about which Vincent Canby wrote, “Loveliness, I'm afraid, is really what this movie is all about”; and his final film, Sacrifice, which was made in Sweden, concerned human’s spiritual failures in the modern age, and reminded many critics of some of Igmar Bergman’s films. Most of these Tarkovsky films were uploaded by Mosfilm, except for Nostalghia (RT) and Sacrifice (O). An excellent site at the University of Calgary is available on Tarkovsky and, as with Eisenstein, I may later devote a separate essay to his works.
The director with most Mosfilm movies available is the also the head of Mosfilm, Karen Shakhnazarov. Nine of these films, appearing between 1984 and 2008, are summarized and links provided to them at John Wyver’s May 2011 guide available at http://www.illuminationsmedia.co.uk/blog/index.cfm?start=1&news_id=1052. Since then, Mosfilm has made three more available: Winter Evening in Gagry (1985), Dreams (1993), and Ward No. 6 (2009), based on Chekhov’s story of the same name. Shakhnazarov is an important contemporary director, and sometime in the next few months, I’ll devote an entire essay to his films.
Besides Chekhov’s story mentioned above, various other stories and plays by him are available, most noticeably Uncle Vanyaand The Sea Gull (both MS) and My Tender and Affectionate Beast (O), based on his long story “A Hunting Accident.”
Also available are films based on other great Russian literary masters. At least three of Alexander Pushkin’s works have served as a basis for films on YouTube: Ruslan and Ludmila(Parts 1 and 2), The Tale of Tsar Saltan, and Boris Godunov, the first two directed by Alexander Ptushko and the third by Sergei Bondarchuk (all three MS). Gogol’s Viy(MS), the 2009 Taras Bulba(RT) and Goncharov’s 1859 novel, Oblomov (O), have also been transformed into films, as have at least three of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces uploaded by RussoTurismo: Crime and Punishment (Parts 1 and 2), The Idiot (in 10 segments), and The Brothers Karamazov (in 8 parts)—various other adaptations of these Dostoevsky works or parts of them are also available. From Tolstoy’s works, Mosfilm has adapted Anna Karenina (Parts 1 and 2) and The Cossacks, but its War and Peace (in 4 long parts), directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, contains no subtitles.
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In addition to the directors already emphasized, the following directors of the period from the mid 1920s into the 1970s are all well represented: Grigori Alexandrov, Eldar Ryazanov, Alexander Ptushko, Leonid Gaidai, Larisa Shepitko and (her husband) Elem Klimov. A brief guide to some of the films of these directors produced by Mosfilm, which include entertaining musicals, comedies, and fantasies, can be found here and here.
World War II, or the “Great Patriotic War” as the Russians called it, was a horrendous yet heroic
experience for them. About 27 million Soviet people lost their lives, about two-thirds of them being civilians. In the city of Leningrad alone, war deaths were more than twice the entire U.S. wartime losses. By November 1942, German occupying forces controlled about 45 percent of the Soviet prewar population. By the end of the war tens of thousands of Soviet towns, villages, plants, and schools were destroyed, and millions of Soviet citizens were left homeless. Yet by then Soviet troops had liberated the USSR and pushed German forces all the way back to Berlin. Little wonder that so many Russian films deal with the war, directly or indirectly.
Mosfilmoffers such movies as The Fall of Berlin (Parts 1 and 2), made under Stalin and, of course, glorifying him (see here for a recent review of it). The perspective on the war from Soviet authorities during the Brezhnev era can be seen in Mosfilm’s “Liberation” series:
- Liberation Film I: The Fire Bulge
- Liberation Film II: Breakthrough
- Liberation Film III: Direction of the Main Blow Part 1
- Liberation Film III: Direction of the Main Blow Part 2
- Liberation Film IV:The Battle of Berlin
- Liberation Film V: The Last Assault
Among Mosfilm movies that deal with the war on a less grandiose but more personal scale, two of the best are The Cranes Are Flying (1957) and Ballad of a Soldier (1959). Amidst the war films of well-know directors is They Fought for Their Land (Parts 1 and 2), 1975, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, which deals with an army unit at the Battle of Stalingrad.
Available Mosfilm movies from 1980 to the present include Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears, which received a U.S. Academy Award as best foreign film in 1981. It depicts a woman who, after overcoming many hardships, becomes a factory director, obtains a nice apartment and automobile, and finally finds a good man. On his first visit to her apartment, he tells her to rest while he puts on an apron and prepares the evening meal, but, lest Soviet men think he is not man enough, he and a friend successfully defend her daughter’s boyfriend against five young toughs.
Among the other noteworthy films of the Gorbachev years (1985-1991), most of them, with the notable exception of several Shaknazarov films and Agony (Parts 1and 2) were not uploaded by Mosfilm. Directed earlier by Elem Klimov, Agony, in which the notorious Rasputin had a central role,had been considered too sympathetic to Tsar Nicholas II, and did not appear until after Gorbachev came to power. Two of the other most important films of these years were My Friend Ivan Lapshin and the Georgian film Repentance, (both RT), both of which were stylistically innovative and dealt with Stalinism in their own unique and critical ways. Pavel Lungin’s Taxi Blues, for which he was recognized in 1990 at the Cannes film Festival as the best director, is still another of the RT films. Still another of the period’s noteworthy films was Little Vera (1988), which, unlike most earlier Soviet films, presented an unflattering depiction of Soviet alienated and sexually active youth, urban ugliness, crowded housing, alcoholism, and stressful family relations. YouTube, however, offers it with subtitles only in 11 parts (see, e.g. here). Better to watch this from Netflix or some other source.
Most of the critically acclaimed and/or popular films of the post-Soviet period, again with the exception of Shakhnazarov’s, have been uploaded to YouTube by other sources than Mosfilm. RussoTurismo, for example, has placed on the site Nikita Mikhailov’s Oscar-award-winning Burnt by the Sun(1994); several films by director Alexei Balabanov, including Brother(1997), its sequel, Brother-2(2000), and Cargo 200 (2007); and a variety of films such as The Cuckoo (2002), The Return (2003), Papa (2004), The State Counsellor (2005), Franz+Polina(2006), High Security Vacation [or Hard Labor Vacation] (2009), and How I Ended This Summer (2010). High-quality reviews by Russian film scholars of these noteworthy twenty-first century films, as well as most others of the last decade mentioned in this essay, can be found at the KinoKultura web site.
Among films uploaded by a variety of others (legally or not) to the YouTube site are Alexander Sokurov’s international commercial successRussian Ark(2002), which (inside St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum) offered a dialogue between a foreign critic of Russia and the narrator of the film about Russian history and culture; Turkish Gambit (2005), like The State Counsellorbased on a novel by the popular crime writerBoris Akunin; Lungin’s The Island (2006) and Tsar (2009); Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol(2007); and Wolfy (2009).
Although many other Russian films on YouTube could be mentioned here, this essay is already long enough, and I’ll mention more in future articles on this site
Walter G. Moss