10 Essential Russian Films

A box set containing three early works from Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov arrives on Blu-ray (with two films on DVD) today from Cinema Guild. The masterworks include the poetic Whispering Pages (using Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its main inspiration), the aural Stone, and a surreal retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, 1990’s Save and Protect. Sokurov has had a prolific career, admired by everyone from Susan Sontag to Darren Aronofsky. Even Vladimir Putin helped to fund Sokurov’s 2011 Cannes Golden Lion winner, Faust, which was surprising considering the director’s history depicting Russian leaders in a less than flattering light. In celebration of this rare Sokurov release, we wanted to explore other essential Russian films. Here are ten from us. Share what movies you would add to the list, below.

Russian Ark

Like Takeshi Kitano, Sokurov has a history of being celebrated more abroad than in his home country. His early works were banned by Soviet authorities (namely documentaries with political slants), which did help him gain international acclaim, but frequently prevented his creative pursuits in Russia. He’s also been outspoken about his distaste for film festival hierarchy and film critics, but has appeared at Cannes on multiple occasions, winning his first major award in 2011. Faust is his retelling of Goethe’s tragedy and completed Sokurov’s series about political corruption (Hitler, Lenin, Emperor Hirohito the subjects of the first three movies). The work may be too tedious of a fever dream for a newbie, which is why we’ve chosen the more accessible Russian Ark. The film was shot in a single, 96-minute take with a gliding Steadicam — a finely tuned orchestra of breathtaking visuals and sound that allows us to travel through the Hermitage Museum. A narrator (voiced by Sokurov) walks us through 300 years of history, and we meet famous figures like Catherine the Great. Other moments let us voyeuristically observe passersby, catching fragments of conversations that help shape our timeline. The ballroom scene is Russian Ark‘s most transcendent moment, which ironically takes place the evening before the Russian revolution. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film, “It is not simply what Sokurov shows about Russian history, but what he does not show — doesn’t need to show, because it shadows all our thoughts of that country.”