Russian Film and Cold War Culture

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Whether viewed at the movie theater or in the comfort of home, there’s something about a good film that we all love. Movies have the ability to give us context to a specific period of time, and relate to a character (or group of characters) outside of our life’s experience. With the Opening Ceremony kicking off Sochi 2014 this evening, we thought it would be appropriate to roundup a handful of films to help us get excited for the Games and to give us a better understanding of the host country — in history, culture and in foreign relations during the Cold War.

The silent and black-and-white film, Battleship Potemkin is one of the most famous Russian films of all time. Celebrating any and every significant jubilee was an integral part of Soviet society and the film’s director, Sergei Eisenstein, was commissioned by the government to direct a multi-episode film to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution.

At the time of its release, Battleship Potemkin used innovative montage and film editing techniques that had never been used in film before, to heighten viewers’ emotions. One noteworthy episode within the film, The Odessa steps, is a spectacular display of cinematic storytelling. In this scene, czarist troops march down a long flight of steps, firing at unarmed citizens as they flee away. Several modern films pay homage to this scene — The Godfather, The Untouchables and Brazil — to name a few. Cutting between the faceless troops in uniform and the fearful faces of the fleeing citizens, Eisenstein gives a clear argument to sympathize with the plight of the proletariat. Battleship Potemkin set the standard for all propaganda films to follow.

After profiling one of the greatest Soviet films, it’s only natural to move onto one of the country’s most acclaimed directors — Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky is widely known for his experimental and non-linear approach to filmmaking. Through his films, Tarkovsky proposes questions and leaves it up to the viewer to answer them. On the emerging topic of film as an art form, Tarkovsky wrote this in 1962, “In cinema, it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings. The emotion, which is awoken, is what provokes thought.” His progressive approach to filmmaking is best displayed in 1966’s Andrei Rublev. The film dramatizes the life of the Russian medieval painter, but most importantly, is a film about the role of an artist in the world around him detached from a linear narrative.

Throughout the Cold War and after, a handful of films have been released from Western perspectives that gave insight and social commentary on the conflict. Although several films have taken a dramatic approach (such as The Hunt for Red October and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), there are a couple of movies in particular that are lighter hearted in nature. With the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh on the minds of many at the time of its release, no other film so flawlessly satires the tensions of the Cold War as provocatively as 1964’s Dr. Strangelove. What Dr. Strangelove conveys so well is expressing the idiocy of the nuclear arms race, as well as the people who were behind it.

Second to only Dr. Strangelove, another film to humorously address American / Russian relations during the Cold War is the cult-classic Spies Like Us. In the movie, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd are trained to be covert spies by the U.S. Department of State and are tasked with a covert mission deep inside Soviet territory. True to 1980’s comedic fashion, the two are unaware of their status as mere decoys, but believe that they are real secret agents. Although this plot would probably never be green-lighted today, this is a hilarious film to revisit.

During the Cold War, America and Russia competed not only in the nuclear arms race, but also on nearly every front, including sports. Rounding out our movie picks, we have two sport films. First, we have Rocky IV (we’re sure you saw this one coming), which unapologetically plays up the David vs. Goliath scenario. As always, Rocky is the underdog and is pitted against immeasurable odds. Spoiler alert: Rocky wins . . . Rocky always wins.

Rocky IV, was a fictional story that we can never forgive Sylvester Stallone for, but we remain thankful for a real life underdog story and victory that happened inside of the hockey rink. Relevant to the Winter Games, Miracle is the dramatization of the U.S. hockey team’s triumph over the seemingly unbeatable Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Although this victory happened decades ago, “the miracle on ice” remains one of the greatest upsets in not only the history of the Olympics, but also in sports.

The history of Russian cinema is incredibly rich, and even though the Cold War is now a distant memory, it remains an interesting topic for discussion. If you find yourself in need of brushing up on your Russian cinema, nostalgic of Cold War hysteria, or simply looking for something to watch between Olympic event coverage, go with any of these. We’re sure you will enjoy them.

Yра!

(Cheers)

 

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