There are many methods to language learning. Watching films in a foreign language is a useful way to aid in pronunciation, listening comprehension and knowledge of colloquial vernacular. So as someone who studies Russian, I’ve seen a lot of Russian films. Here are five I recommend.
Even without explosions, “Hipsters” is possibly one of my favorite films of all time.
The Russian word “stilyagi” can be translated as “hipsters,” “beatniks” or even “dandies,” and this movie is centered around zoot-suit-wearing, America-loving Soviet youths.
Oddly enough, they’re living in the ‘50s.
Mels, the protagonist – whose name is an acronym of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin – is a college student and a member of Komsomol (Communist Youth Union).
The movie opens with some hipsters, dressed in bright colors and patterns with gelled hair and flashy jewelry, dancing at a secret party in Gorky Park.
As they dance to illegal American jazz music, Mels, along with other Komsomolets (members of Komsomol), breaks up the hipster party.
The other Komsomolets cut the hipsters’ clothing and hair and capture them to take them to the authorities, but Mels chases down a young hipster named Polina (Polly), whom he is instantly attracted to.
So begins Mels’s interest in hipster culture to woo Polly. Mels buys a bright yellow checkered sports coat, a bold tie and a pair of platform shoes to fit in with hipster culture.
He also learns to dance to jazz and attends hipster clubs with Polly’s group of friends, yet he remains a member of Komsomol.
Not surprisingly, this creates a rift between his friends in Komsomol and his life as a hipster. So Mels must struggle to balance his life in both groups as they try to force him to choose one or the other.
“Hipsters” uses setting and costuming to overemphasize the stark contrast of the muted gray society of squares (normal citizens, as the hipsters refer to them) and the eye-catching, flamboyant world of the hipsters.
“Hipsters” also contains excellently choreographed musical numbers. These songs are covers of famous tunes by Soviet rock groups, such as Nol, Nautilus Pompilius and Bravo, with the lyrics changed to fit the plot.
In addition to being a story about love, society and friendships, “Hipsters” provides a never-before-seen (at least in the West) view into Soviet counterculture in the ‘50’s.
“Battle for Sevastopol” (2015)
“Battle for Sevastopol” in Russian, or “Indestructible” in Ukrainian, is based on the true story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet sniper in WWII.
In fact, Pavlichenko was the most successful female sniper in WWII with 309 confirmed kills. (Two thousand women served as snipers in the Red Army during WWII).
The movie switches between Pavlichenko’s propaganda tour in the U.S. and her time on the Eastern Front.
In the U.S., she meets the president’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt, who becomes a lifelong friend.
The movie follows Pavlichenko’s hardships through the war from when she trains with other women to be snipers under the scrutiny of doubting male commanders to when she’s wounded and sent home from the front to do a propaganda tour in America in 1942 to encourage America to join the war in Europe.
Like all war movies, it would seem, there has to be a love story. But, fortunately, in “Battle for Sevastopol” it doesn’t devour the plot.
Similarly, I like that the film portrays Pavlichenko’s emotions toward enemy soldiers as well as her trauma from fighting.
“Ballad of a Soldier” (1959)
Although “Ballad of a Soldier” may be advertised as a WWII film, it is actually an artsy, philosophical film about different types of love and duty with the backdrop of WWII.
The film begins with a woman walking down a deserted dirt road as an unseen narrator tells the audience that her son has been killed in the war and buried in a foreign land. The narrator says that foreigners bring flowers to his grave and see him as a liberator, but his mother knows him only as her son.
Then the film cuts to a young Red Army soldier named Alexi, who destroys two German tanks.
However, he refuses to be decorated for his heroism and instead requests a six-day leave to visit his mother so he can repair her leaking roof.
On the way home, he meets various people including Shura, a young woman his age, hiding in a train car.
One passenger requests that he take soap home to his wife, and another asks for help with his luggage as he has lost his leg in the war.
The latter worries that he will be a burden on his wife, having lost a leg, but she greets him lovingly at the train station.
Conversely, when Shura and Alexi take soap to the other passenger’s wife, they see that she is having an affair. Shura and Alexi decide that she is undeserving of the soap and don’t give it to her.
Carrying out favors, Shura and Alexi catch glimpses into the lives of strangers.
The film isn’t about whether or not Alexi makes it home to his mother, nor is it a war film. Instead it revolves around the romantic relationship he forms with Shura and the insights into the different types of love the strangers he meets hold for people in their lives.
“Brother 2” (2000)
This might be the only film that I’ve seen where the sequel is better than the original, “Brother.” (I’ve been told that the second “Godfather” is better than the original; however, I’ve never seen either.)
This movie was made on a significantly higher budget than the original, which is obvious through the cinematography and action sequences. However, it retains the first film’s long weapon-making montages.
“Brother 2” opens with the protagonist, Danila Bagrov, stating that he wants to study medicine in a televised interview. He is a young man and a veteran of the First Chechen War (1994-96).
In the first movie “Brother” (1997), Danila became entangled in underground crime while visiting his older brother, Viktor, a hitman, in St. Petersburg.
Danila becomes involved with crime once again when he learns that his friend Kostya’s brother plays in the National Hockey League in America and is being threatened by the Ukrainian mafia in Chicago.
When Danila goes to Kostya’s apartment and finds him dead, Danila decides to take revenge on Belkin, Russian crime boss who is likely behind the murder.
Danila and his brother end up flying to America separately to avoid being captured by Belkin’s thug.
Danila lands in New York while Viktor lands in Chicago, their real destination.
On his way to Chicago, Danila speaks with a homeless black man about race relations, meets a Russian woman who became a prostitute and is sold a faulty car by a Russian living in the Brighton Beach community in New York.
Danila also hitches a ride to Chicago from a trucker who shows him “real” American life: diners, American music, laundromats and American TV.
While Viktor loves American life, Danila questions whether Americans have a better life than Russians in a post-Soviet society.
Once they are reunited in Chicago, they resume their mission: to seek revenge for Kostya’s death.
The film features long weapon-making montages and the songs of many Soviet rock bands such as Bi-2, Zemfira and, of course, Danila’s favorite: Nautilus Pompilius. (In the first film, almost the entire soundtrack is Nautilus Pompilius, and throughout the film, Danila tries to find the newly released album “Wings.”)
Mostly, I enjoyed the way the movie juxtaposed American and Russian life through the eyes of Danila and, of course, the crime-thriller plot.
“Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession” (1973)
This movie is lighthearted, featuring a style of wonderful absurdity like Monty Python and chase scenes reminiscent of “Tom and Jerry.”
A comedy based on a play by Mikhail Bulgakov called “Ivan Vasilievich,” it is one of the most well-loved movies in Russia.
It begins in 1973 when an engineer named Shurik is building a time machine in his apartment and accidentally transports his landlord, Ivan Vasilievich Bunsha, and a petty thief named George Miloslavsky back to the 16th century during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. (Interestingly, this movie was released in the West titled “Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future.”)
Ivan the Terrible sees the intruders and calls his guards. In the chase, a guard throws his spear into Shurik’s time machine, breaking it and closing the portal between the worlds.
So Ivan the Terrible gets stuck in the modern era while Bunsha and Miloslavsky are trapped in the 16th century.
Fortunately for Bunsha, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ivan the Terrible. The joke is that Bunsha’s first name and patronymic (middle name) are Ivan Vasilievich, which is the same first name and patronymic of Ivan the Terrible.
Miloslavsky and Bunsha don medieval Russian clothing and have to pretend to be the tsar and his adviser while Shurik fixes his time machine.
The only difficulty is that Bunsha isn’t very bright, so Miloslavsky has to do most of the talking.
Back in the present, Ivan the Terrible explores the Soviet-style apartment complex.
Not surprisingly, Ivan the Terrible is awed and startled by things in the modern world. For instance, he notices a painting on Shurik’s wall by Ilya Repin depicting Ivan the Terrible cradling the body of his eldest son, whom he murdered.
Presumably, he hasn’t murdered his son yet and studies the picture, but he doesn’t recognize himself or his son.
In the past, “Ivan the Terrible” gets drunk at a feast and becomes angry with the musicians. He asks for more contemporary music.
Before he can make a scene, Miloslavsky asks the musicians to follow his lead as he begins to sing. Miloslavsky begins to sing “Sudden Happiness,” and the rest of the guests begin to dance.
This scene reminds me of the musical number “Knights of the Round Table” in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Just as Miloslavsky and Bunsha think they’re blending in, the tsar’s guard begins suspecting them of being imposters.
Similarly, in the real world, Shurik’s neighbor has called the police to report Miloslavsky’s burglary.
Can Shurik fix the time machine and put everyone back into their proper time period before the tsar’s guard can catch Bunsha and Miloslavsky and the police arrive at the apartment?