Post by Anna Fomicheva
Lists, you gotta love them! I shall kick off my series of Soviet cinema top 5’s with everyone’s favourite film subject (or is it just me?).
I am emphasising the subjective nature of this list by putting ‘My’ in the heading and by pointing out that only one of these love stories has a happy ending, as I do tend to be affected by on-screen heartbreaks a lot more than by happily-ever-afters. I am however inviting you, dear reader, to comment and put up your own lists of romantic storylines. And they don’t have to be Russian or Soviet at all! What type of love story affects you most? Wild passions? Subtle glances? The ones with big white weddings at the end? Or the ones that are cynical about love and relationships?
Now, here’s a list of the kind of cinematic love stories that remind me why I love the medium of film.
(The fact that all of these films are black and white is incidental!)
#5 The Girls (“Девчата”, 1961)
Here’s a great example of a Soviet romcom, and it has to be one of the most beloved Russian films of all time. Tosya, a young (and frankly, adorable) girl is sent to a huge construction site in Siberia to work as a cook straight after she graduates from a culinary college. There, in harsh Siberian conditions, she shares a big wooden house with a group of girls, a small part of a greater collective that Tosya has to become a part of. Her naive and overly self-confident ways initially put off the girls, but very soon they come to love her and Siberian winter doesn’t feel as cold anymore. But it isn’t so easy with the male population. Tosya is no rush to charm the boys, especially one of them. No, she is not interested in him at all. He is arrogant, and rude and generally insufferable. Although he is also suddenly kind, and attentive, and… very handsome. The Soviet play on the Pride and Prejudice plot is full of girls vs boys humour, beautiful young people, energy and the cutest on-screen couple I have ever seen. Below is the first part of the YouTube version of the whole film with English subtitles – press ‘cc’ button to see them (the quality isn’t fantastic, unfortunately). Do watch it, it’s wonderful!
#4 Wild Dog Dingo (“Дикая собака Динго”, 1962)
Wild Dog Dingo is a coming of age tale at the centre of which is a love triangle. Tanya is somewhat of an outcast, and in her hometown she would rather spend time with animals than her classmates. She does nonetheless have a human best friend, a devoted and endlessly loyal Filka, who can never speak of his love to her. The arrival of Kolya, a new boy at school, brings an end to their relatively peaceful and content existence. First love, first jealousy, first emotional confusion… The power of this film lies in how the emotions are conveyed, and how successfully we are reminded of the intensity of experiencing them for the first time.
Tanya’s state of infatuation with Kolya has a fever-like quality about it, and I love how the camera, the sound and the cutting in the film all bring a sort of dizziness, and excitement, but also a kind of sea sickness into our experience of the movie. It really is the magic of cinema at its best.
Below is a TV trailer
#3 Seventeen Moments of Spring (“Семнадцать мгновений весны”, 1973)
Over 12 episodes Seventeen Moments of Spring shows us few weeks in the spring of 1945 in the life of Standartenfuhrer S.S. Max Otto von Steirlitz, whose real name is Maxim Maximovich Isaev. He is, of course, a Soviet spy who has been living in Germany long enough to be successfully passing for a standartenfuhrer S.S. But as the war is nearing its end and the Nazis start turning on each other, suspecting everyone and everything, Stierlitz is in trouble… He also has a very important task from the ‘centre’, which makes it impossible to keep it low. It is the slowly growing tension, as the situation becomes more complex, difficult, and even tragic, and the subtlety with which it is presented that makes this series into a masterpiece. Move over, John le Carre 🙂
The romantic storyline is simple, and all the more effective because of it. Maxim Isaev is married, but he has not seen his wife, who is still in Russia, for many years due to the nature of his job. In order to bring up his spirits the ‘centre’ organises for them to see each other, and she is brought over to Berlin. However, this cannot be a real meeting, as Isaev’s cover cannot be compromised in any way. The 5 minute scene of their meeting (see it below in its entirety) contains no dialogue, as glances across a cafe room are the only thing they are allowed. Some magnificent acting there and the soaring music doesn’t quite help with holding back the tears. Heart. Break.
#2 Twenty Days Without War (“Двадцать дней без войны”, 1977)
Another wartime story, this film is about a journalist, Lopatin, who gets a brief break from the WWII frontline action when he is sent to Tashkent (capital of Uzbekistan, it was one of the evacuation centres during the war). There he meets a woman. They connect. He has to go back to the frontline. They will probably never see each other again. Simple.
The film is based on a relatively standard Soviet play about the hardship of wartime and the determination of Russian people to get through no matter what. And it would have made a pretty standard Soviet film if it wasn’t directed by Aleksey German, who, in short, is a genius of the cinematic medium (and I’m not just throwing away a superlative here). The film’s power is not so much in the story or even the dialogue, as it is in its visul aspect: the landscapes of poverty-ridden Tashkent, the interiors of people’s houses, the general composition of objects in the film’s shots… I know of no other director who uses those things as powerfully as does German.
Another thing that makes this film stand out for me, even among other films by German, are the two main actors and how he presents them. Both the famous circus clown and film comedian Yury Nikulin and the musicals’ favourite Lyudmila Gurchenko (first-rate Soviet stars, in fact, amongst the biggest stars of their time) are cast completely against type. Not only that, but here they give the absolute best performances of their career, in my opinion. And I’m not saying it just because this is a change from their usual light genres to a serious one. But because German directs them in a way that unexpectedly reveals their impressive acting range and brings out some truly outstanding moments.
And it is the contrast between the unhappiness of the time and the place, which is so powerful visually, and the human connection that brings two very tired people back to life for a brief period of time, so beautifully played by the actors, that makes this love story special. Incredible filmmaking. One of my all-time favourite movies.
#1 Three Poplars at Plyuschikha Street (“Три тополя на Плющихе”, 1967)
My number one Soviet romantic storyline is number one not because it is the best ever, or because it is actually a recognised classic, and I somehow don’t want to miss acknowledging it. It is my number one simply because it makes me emotional just thinking about it, and because it offers me the ultimate pleasure of watching love on screen. I don’t know whether it is a testament to how good it is or how sensitive I am, but this is what I’m choosing.
Directed by Tatyana Lioznova (also the director of Seventeen Moments of Spring. Could it be the female gaze that I am subconsciously relating to by picking two of her films for this list?), it tells a story of a village woman who goes on a short trip to Moscow. At the start of the film we are introduced to her everyday life, her hard work ethic, and her abusive husband. Her life is undoubtedly difficult, but she is that archetypal Russian village woman: patient, humble, grateful for what she’s got, and completely unaware of her own wonderfulness. On her arrival to Moscow she gets a taxi and strikes up a conversation with the taxi driver, who is immediately smitten. She finds him interesting but does not take any of it seriously. He suggets they meet up in the evening, she says okay, and then completely forgets about it.
What happens when she remembers and finds him waiting outside is one of my all time favourite movie scenes and it is watchable below (no need for subtitles as it contains almost no dialogue apart from the taxi driver telling his potential customers that he is not available).
I shall not try and put into words what has been said cinematically in this scene, but I will mention that for me part of the weight and power of this scene is in our knowledge of the homelife of this woman, who is simply not used to gestures of affection.