Five Russian Films You Need to Watch

Film poster "Stilyagi"

When you start learning Russian, it can be a bit daunting to even consider watching Russian films. However, I personally think that watching films in a foreign language is a really useful learning tool.

First of all, you tune your ear into Russian. You pick up on words and expressions, thus you build on your vocab. For example, if you’re watching a film where the main characters are at a restaurant, you can see how they order, how they interact with the waiter and with each other. From that simple interaction, you can gain an insight in how the language works in a certain context beyond your Russian textbooks. Just as important, you also pick up on cultural nuances that exist in the language. Films are an aspect of popular culture, and in turn you can better understand a language.

I’ve chosen five of my favourite Russian films which I think are not only useful as a language resource, but are also entertaining to watch and are at times, quite simply, masterpieces of world cinematography.

Film poster for "The Cranes are Flying"
Film poster “The Cranes are Flying”

1.) The Cranes are Flying – Летят журавли (1957)

This film is simply breathtaking. The film was unprecedented in Soviet cinematography for its portrayal of the Great Patriotic War as a personal tragedy for many millions of Soviet citizens, in stark contrast to the Soviet Realist formula that came before. Rather than a hero, we have a heroine, and the focus on her as a woman coming to terms with loss during the trials of the war. The film struck a chord with audiences which still resonates to this day. Remembering the Great Patriotic War is deeply important in modern Russian culture; the imagery of the Crane, symbolising renewal, is one that you can’t get away from.

2.)Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession – Иван Василиевич меняет профессию (1973)

This film deserves a mention because it is quite simply a Soviet classic. A slapstick comedy, it follows the attempts of the inventor Shurik in creating a time machine, that brings Ivan the Terrible into Soviet Moscow, and mixes up his Soviet look-alike back in Tsarist Moscow. The film has produced famous catch-phrases and jokes such as “Гитлер капут!” which are still used and referenced by Russians today. After watching it you’ll be able to sleep soundly, knowing the Russian for “time machine”….

3.) The Irony of Fate – Ирония судьбы (1976)

Just as ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘ is a  traditional film to watch for many American and British families at Christmas, ‘The Irony of Fate’ is broadcast every New Year in Russia. For this reason, I’d say it’s important to watch the film, because it is so integral to a very important time of year for Russians.  There are many cultural references; from poking fun at Brezhnev-era life, to the shenanigans that occur in a banya; its brimming with useful idioms and expressions. Throw in a couple of catchy  songs and you got yourself another useful tool for vocab learning. Give it a watch.

4.) The Romanovs: An Imperial Family – Романовы. Венценосная семья (2000)

film still from "The Romanovs: An Imperial Family"
The Romanovs: An Imperial Family

Apart from providing a more personal insight into the lives of the last Romanovs, this film genuinely helped me get to grips with a grammar concept known as ‘ verbal participles’. If you’re just starting out on learning Russian, don’t worry about this yet, but essentially, a famous poem by Alexander Blok, which is basically comprised of participles, was adapted into a cute song that the Grand Duchesses sing among each other, and this is a central motif in the film. With the repetition of this song, I found that the patterns of conjugating verbs into their participles came much quicker.

5. Stilyagi (Hipsters) – Стиляги (2008)

Continuing along the musical thread, Stilyagi is probably my favourite Russian film. Set a few years after Stalin’s death, it follows a group of young Moscovites and their struggle for self-expression against the repressive social realities of Soviet life at that time. Thanks to the bright and colourful costumes, this film is visually captivating. It (purposefully)  provides a completely different image to the stereotypical drabness that we would associate with those times. The songs in the film too have been adapted from popular rock songs, and so they too can help you build your vocab. If you love ‘Amelie’, this film is for you.

For more hints and tips about learning Russian through watching films, here is another useful article brought to you by Liden & Denz

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Posted by Thomas Reid

A passionate Russian and history student, I'm here in bonny St P. to build on my knowledge of Russian and learn more about the shared history between Scotland and Russia.

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