Short time passed after the cinematographer, invented in France, came to the extensive Russia. In 1896, a year after the Lumiere brothers recorded the Arrival of a Train to La Ciotat -a 50 seconds film that officially marked the beginning of cinema in the world, the Russians did the same by filming the Czar Nicholas II’s coronation in May.
From then and until the early Soviet era, the film industry grew rapidly producing a plenty of films, which include Stenka Razin, 1908 (the first ever short film), and The Queen of Spades and Father Sergio, directed by Yakov Protazanov and based on the literary works of Pushkin and Tolstoy.
After the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the film industry covering the geography of these countries took off dramatically. However, one should not confuse Russian with USSR films. The former, developed within the Russian Republic, and the latter in all the nations of the Union.
Since he took the Government, Vladimir Lenin had a clear idea about the important influence of the industry. In fact, shortly after taking over the country said his famous phrase "in all the arts, cinema is the most important for us." Thus, that use of film as an instrument of propaganda and education marked almost the sixty years of history that lasted the communism in Russia.
In the early 20s, the Government sought to professionalize the people active in the film industry and established technical, acting and filming. As a result, filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein forged a solid career that still makes him one of the referents in world cinema. Among his best known films are Battleship Potemkin (1925), perhaps his most famous film, and Viva Mexico! (1932), a production that was released after countless problems.
Like Eisenstein, famous for revolutionizing the cinema for his conception of the editing process, other directors also innovated in this art. For example, Dziga Vertov changed the documentaries genre in 1929with The Man with the House.
The 30s marked the end of silent films, and thus, the Stalinist regime took further the conception of cinema as propaganda channel. The movie The Way to Life was the very first Russian sound film that enjoyed success in the USSR countries and was bought by 26 countries outside the Soviet geography.
In addition, biographical films also had massive support from the authorities and the audience. Movies such as Mikhail Romm’s Lenin in October (1937) and Lenin in 1918 (1939) were regarded with wide acceptance and imposed a new style.
When Russia entered to the World War II, the industry served again to the government purposes, this time to support the national troops fighting and to demonize the Nazis image. Those years, documentaries were the main exportation of Russian cinema and Leonid Varlamov’s Moscow strikes back (1942) became the first movie in the country to win an Oscar.
The Cranes are Flying
With the death of Stalin in 1953, cinema and other arts enjoyed a gradual decline of censorship, allowing its directors to ignore the propaganda influence their films should have to focus on making more artistic products. In consequence, films like The Cranes Are Flying, directed in 1957 by Mikhail Kalatozov achieved distribution in other European countries, and film won at Cannes Film Festival.
Thus, the period between 1950 and 1970 was characterized by films about World War heroic feats with movies like The Ballad of a Soldier, directed in 1959 by Grigori Chujrái or The Fate of a Man, the same year and directed by Sergey Bondarchuk.
Around the same time, comedies also began to pave their way on Russian cinema, and films such as Kin-dza-dza!, a fiction story directed by Georgy Danelia achieved astonishing success in 1986 Kin-dza-dza! became a cult favorite around the world
The economic crisis that marked the end of the Soviet Union impacted dramatically the film industry in Russia. The filming support from the Government decreased considerably while the private industry was just beginning to settle with no ambitions to supporting the cinema industry.
However, dreamers like Nikita Mikhalkov continued filming, and his 1994 film, Burnt By the Sun, which told the complicated social conditions of Russia in the Stalin era, won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
In recent years, the industry begins to see a slow but sure recovery by money injection and a better distribution system to counter-balance the U.S. productions. One of the most prominent films was The Return, released in 2003 and directed by Andrei Zviáguintsev, which won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Other recent Russian successful films include Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch in 2004.
Burnt by the sun