It is known that Russia got acquainted with cinematograph by the French who brought it to the country. In Russia first filming was taken in 1896 by the French cameraman Kamill Serf during the coronation of Nicholas II in Moscow. Soon many Russian photographers mastered the new skills and short documentaries were made by not only foreign but also Russian camera men. However there were 10 year before the appearance of the first fiction films.
The history of Russian film production started on October 15, 1908, when the first domestic live-action film, was shown. It was a primitive drama entitled Ponizovaya Volnitsa or "Sten'ka Razin" directed by Vladimir Romashkov.
By 1914-1915 Russian cinema could present more sophisticated films like "War and Peace", "Demons". The best pre-revolution feature film is considered to be "The Queen of Spades" directed by Yakov Protazanov. A historical documentary "The Defence of Sevastopol" made by A. Khadzhonkov won international acclaim.
Yevgeni Bauer, Russian film director of silent films, a theatre artist and a screenwriter greatly influenced on the aesthetics of Russian cinematography of that time. Bauer worked with the leading actors of Russian silent cinema, including Ivan Mozzhukhin, Vera Kholodnaya, Vitold Polonsky, Ivan Perestiani, Vera Karalli and others. He is famous for creating films in genres of social and psychological drama: "Tears", "After Death" (both 1915), "A Life for a Life"(1916), and "The Revolutionary" (1917).
However the official birthday of Russian cinema became August 27 1919 when RSFSR's Council of People's Commissars signed a Decree about nationalization of the film business in Soviet Russia. From that time, the People's Commissariat of Education was in charge of all private cinemas, studios and rental companies, as well as all the photo and cinema trade and industries. In 1980, this date was made an official holiday - Day of Soviet Cinema. Later, in 1988, it was renamed Cinema Day.
In the beginning of 1920-ies the new film production companies in Moscow and Petrograd appeared - "Mosfilm" and "Lenfilm". From 1922 the sphere of cinema production fell under the total control of the state, with the establishment of Goskino, the official controlling cinema apparatus. Enormous film production industrial mechanisms set in. From this time till the late 1980s the cinema production was planned, financed, censored and controlled by special state organizations. Cinema was proclaimed a means of propagation, upbringing and education. Agitational powers of cinema were broadly realized in the Soviet period.
The 1920s saw a flowering of film experimentation, notably with the work of Sergei Eisenstein - "The Battleship Potemkin", The film got a high appraisal both in Russia and abroad not only because of its depiction of events leading up to the 1905 Revolution, but also because of innovative cinematic techniques. Eisenstein, introduced the concept of "montage" in film editing, where two or more scenes in sequence provide symbiotic intellectual value for the viewer. Filmmakers openly acknowledge his contribution to world cinema as monumental. The methods he used in his films "Strike" (1925) and "October" (1927) were also later borrowed by other famous film-directors.
Unfortunately, in Stalin's USSR, even Eisenstein had to face the brunt of state censorship. Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible" Part II was not allowed to be screened for decades and his Part III viciously destroyed for political reasons.
Other filmmakers who did not conform to the state's prevailing line of thought were blacklisted or jailed. A contemporary of Eisenstein, expressionist filmmaker Grigory Kozintsev was one such victim. His now acclaimed 1929 silent film "The New Babylon" was banned within Russia and hardly discussed for decades.
Vsevolod Pudovkin directed a number of talented feature films giving an insight to the psychology of people involved in the revolutionary events: "Mother" (1926) after Mikhail Gorky's novel, "The End of St.-Petersburg" (1927) and "The Offspring of Chingiz-khan" (1929).
These films greatly affected the formation of Socialist realism in Russian cinema and became a milestone in development of world cinema.
Among the films of the late 1920s there stand out some movies on social themes such as "The Forty First" (1927), directed by Yakov Protazanov, after Boris Lavrenev, "The Wreckage of the Empire", (1929) by Friedrich Ermler "A Send-Off Into Life" (1931) by Nikolay Ekk, and "Outskirts" (1933) by Boris Barnet. Comedies of manners also enjoyed popularity; the most notable of them are "The Tailor from Torzhok" (1925) by Yakov Protazanov, "Kollezhsky Registrator"(1925) by Zhelyabuzhsky after Pushkin's novel Station Master and "By Law" (1926) directed by Lev Kuleshov after the story by Jack London.
In 1930 the government favored the directors that managed not only master the new means of sound cinema, but also create the ideological mythology of the Great Revolution in Russia. Vasiliev brothers ("Chapaev"), Muchael Romm ("Lenin in October" and "Lenin in 1918"), Friedrich Ermler ("Great Citizen" - biography of Stalin's slain enemy Sergei Kirov) could adjust their talent to the requirements of the epoch, avoid the mass repressions and gained popularity.
The Stalin however realized that the modern cinema could not attract the spectators by only ideological hits. Musical comedy became another leading genre performing the functions of mass culture in those years. The most noteworthy examples include the sparkling "Jolly Fellows" (1934 ), distributed worldwide as Jazz Comedy, starring Leonid Utesov and Lyubov' Orlova (called Stalin's shining Star), "Circus" (1936) and "Volga-Volga" (1938), all the three directed by Grigorii Aleksandrov and starring Lyubov' Orlova, as well as "Tractor Drivers", (1939) and "Swineherd and Shepherd", or "They Met in Moscow", (1941), both the films directed by Ivan Pyr'ev and starring Marina Ladynina. The genre of historic epopee was also developing: "Peter the First" (1937-1939) by Vladimir Petrov, and "Ivan the Terrible" by Eisenstein. The second part of these film was banned by Stalin.
WWII changed the genres and themes of the cinema after 1941. Full-length war films shot at the height of the WWII were "Rainbow" directed by Mark Donskoy, "Invasion" by Abram Room, "She Defends Her Country" by Friedrich Ermler, "Zoya" by Leo Arnshtam. They showed heroism and sacrifice of the Soviet people, terror and torture of the Nazis, and true horror of war.
The victory in WWII gained at the cost of life of millions of the Soviet people caused the next outburst of the Stalin personality cult in the Soviet cinema. The films by "court" film director Mikheil Chiaureli - "The Fall of Berlin", "The oath" were Soviet propaganda at its most over the top and portrayed Stalin as a real idol and Hitler as a fool. By the end of the 40th the minority principle prevailed in the Soviet cinema. The real masterpieces of Socialist realism appeared: war epics "Battle of Stalingrad", Directed by Vladimir Petrov, "Unforgettable the 19th" by Mikheil Chiaureli, the historical and biographical films about scientists, military leaders and men of art that were approved by the official ideology.
One of the best movies shot during the war, was "Two Soldiers" (1943), directed by Leonid Lukov, a patriotic film about the power of friendship, with Mark Bernes and Boris Andreev.
Very few comedies : "The Kuban Cossacks" directed by Ivan Pyr'ev, "Springtime" with unforgettable Faina Ranevskaya by Grigoriy Aleksandrov were released immedialtely afterthe war. They were few of first Soviet color films.
The work of genius "Ivan's Childhood" (1962) by Andrei Tarkovsky, and "The Dawns Here Are Quiet" (1972) with Olga Ostroumova directed by Stanislav Rostozkii after the same name novel by Boris Vasiliev - even today these films do not loose in their power and expressiveness, dwelling on the eternal basic issues of humanity, spiritual and moral values and life and death.
The Thaw also let the Soviet audience enjoy fascinating comedies "I Stroll Through Moscow" (1964) by Georgii Daneliya, "Watch out for the Cars" (1966) by Eldar Ryazanov, get the pleasure of real entertainment by the comedies of the most popular Soviet comedy director Leonid Gaidai: "The Bootleggers" (1961), Business People (1962), "Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures" (1965), "Kidnapping, Caucasian Style" (1966) and the most popular Soviet comedy ever made, "The Diamond Arm"(1968) where one can enjoy brilliant performance of Nonna Mordyukova.
The Thaw became the moment of glory for such famous Soviet actors as Tatiana Samoilova, Anastasa Vertinskaya, Liudmila Savelieva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who created the immortal character of Standartenfuhrer Stirlitz in Soviet TV miniseries "Seventeen Moments of Spring" directed by Tatyana Lioznova, as well other actors as Oleg Strizgenov, Tatiana Doronina, Innokentiy Smoktunovsky, Oleg Efremov and other outstanding actors of the new generation.
Film "The Cranes Are Flying" with Tatiana Samoilova became the real worldwide sensation in 1957 and opened the new era of post-Stalinist Soviet movies. It won the Palme d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the second of two Soviet films to win the award.
A true masterpiece of that period was the film "War and Peace" directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. With Lyudmila Savelyeva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov starring, this Soviet-produced film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace became one of the most elaborate films ever created and most expensive film producation of that period. It was produced over a seven year period and released in four parts between 1965 and 1967. "War and Peace" by Bondarchuk won Academy Award, Golden Globe and National Board of Review Award in 1969 and New York Film Critics Circle Awards in 1968.
One cannot but mention "Hamlet" made in 1964 and "King Lear" in 1971 by the director Grigory Kozintsev. Working with composer Shostakovich and translations of Boris Pasternak, Kozinstsev came up with remarkable innovations in his His Hamlet's highly valued by he western critics.
The Thaw abruptly finished in 1968 when the Soviet troops invaded Chekoslovakiya. The Kremlin censored Soviet cinematograph and many remarkable movies were never shown or had limited distribution. Among them were the films "Solaris" with young Natalya Bondarchuk and "Stalker", directed by universally acclaimed Soviet genius, Andrei Tarkovsky. Like Eisenstein and Kozintsev, Tarkovsky was not allowed to work freely in Russia. The filmmaker, who made "Solaris", died in exile in France far from his beloved native land Other famous Tarkovsky's films are "Andrey Rublev", "Mirror", and "Nostalgia".
This however did not stop films by high class Soviet directors burst through the government censorship. They were Vasily Shukshin's "Pechki-Lavochki" ("Bench by the Stove", "Snowball Berry Red", Gleb Panfilov's "The beginning"), Nikita Mikhalkov's "An Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano", "Five Evenings"(1978) with Lyudmila Gurchenko starring, "Oblomov" (1980), "Family Relations" (1981); "Chuchelo" by Rollan Bykov, "Wartime Romance" with Natalya Andrejchenko, directed by Pyotr Todorovsky and many other remarkable films.
Russia could boast the highest attendance of the cinemas that time. Million of cinema-goers enjoyed the comedies of Leoniod Gaidai (Ilf and Petrov's "The Twelve Chairs" (1971), "Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future"(1973), Georgi Daneliya - Mimino (1977), "The Autumn Marathon" (1979), Eldar Ryazanov's "The Irony of Fate" (1975), "Office Romance" (1977) (Alisa Frejndlikh's most memorable role), "The Garage" (1979), spectacular catastrophe movie "Air Crew" (1979) by Alexander Mitta, etc.
The absolute hits of the late 1970th was melodrama "Moscow Does not Believe in Tears" directed by Vladimir Menshov, Vera Alentova starring. And a Soviet action "Pirates of the XXth Century" by Boris Durov. The film was the leader of Soviet distribution in 1980 and had 87.6 million viewers.
Soviet actors Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Vladimior Vysotsky, Oleg Dal', Yuri Bogatyrev, Andrew Mironov, Elena Solovey, Marina Neyolova Evgeniy Leonov, Inna Churikova and others were at the prime of their popularity.
Perestroika period and post-perestroika period saw a loosening of the censorship of earlier eras and allowed more liberalization on the one hand. Finally rehabilitated director Elem Klimov became top prize winner at the Moscow Film Festival with his film "Come and See." No other Soviet film depicted the horror of the WWII so naturally. Previously banned flims were shown to the broad audience.
Films like Victor Pichul's "Little Vera" and Sergei Soloviev's "Assa", "Shakhnazarov's" "The Courier", "Igla" (a film about drug abuse featuring Soviet rock legend Victor Tsoi) broke through, exposing Russian life as it was: in the former, vodka-sodden citizens went for one another's throats at the slightest provocation; the hypocrisy of the older generation resisted the change demanded by young hipsters.
On the other hand perestroika prompted a torrent of second-rate movies and broad import circulation of western films had Russian coming lose even its most devoted goers.
Other films of 1980s include: "The Pokrovsky Gate" (1982) a made-for-television comedy starring Oleg Menshikov; "Kin-dza-dza!" (1986) allegorical science fiction
Perestroyka, however made all Russian especially fashionable in the West and Russian film directors were eagerly invited to the international film festivals and won prestigious awards. Most notable works were presented by Leonod Kanevsky ("Freeze Die Come to Life"), Valery Todorovsky ("The Hearse") and "Love", Pavel Lungin ("Taxi Blues"), Kira Muratova ("Asthenic Syndrome"), Gleb Panfilov ("The Theme", "Mother"), Nikita Mikhalkov ("Urga").
The collapse of the Soviet Union was catastrophic for Russian cinema. All the time before the cinema was completely financed by the state. After 1991 the state funding of the cinema ran low, the cinema halls were given for rent and the Soviet audience was hardly offered the few new films produced during the 1990s as the film distributors were mainly focused on the western cinema.
On the whole the 1990th were characterized by stagnation in Russian cinema. This was aggravated by the flood of commercial non-professional movies. Oscar winning "Burned by the Sun", (1994) by Nikita Mikhalkov was probably the most successful film of the decade.
The 2000s delivered a number of original masterpieces of cinema, such as "A Walk", (2003) by Aleksei Uchitel', "The Return" (2003) by Andrei Zvyagintsev and richly financed mystic blockbuster "Night Watch", (2004) by Timur Bekmambetov.
The Russian cinema of the last years has split into 2 competing groups, concentrated around most meaningful cinema prizes of Russia: "The Golden eagle" and Nika. The first group follows classical style and is focused on national values. Whereas the second one encourages avant-garde and liberal views. This competition makes the modern Russian cinema especially intriguing.
Most significant films of the last years are the film "12" (2007) directed by Nikita Mikhalkov - the remake of Sidney Lumet's original picture, a spiritual drama "The island" by Pavel Lungin, "Cargo 200" (2007), by Aleksey Balabanov, called most negative and depressive depiction of the Soviet society, yet called the best film of 2007 by the critics, "Kraj" ("The Edge") (2010) by Aleksei Uchitel'
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