Within two years of Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet writers and artists perceived a "thaw" in the party's cultural politics. Statements from the new leader Nikita Khrushchev (first secretary of the party from 1953 to 1964, and premier from 1958 to 1964) promised more creative freedom. Meanwhile, the film industry reorganized in this more tolerant climate to increase both productivity and diversity in annual film plans, gradually boosting outputs through the decade. By 1960 the USSR was releasing over a hundred features annually, the first time in three decades that productivity reached triple digits. Several banned films, including Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part II , were finally cleared for Soviet exhibition.
Whereas in the 1940s newcomers had little hope of getting the few available directing assignments, the expanded production plans of the 1950s allowed a generation of young directors to launch careers. Eldar Riazanov (b. 1927) began his career with the musical comedy Karnaval'naia noch' ( Carnival Night , 1956). Its biting satire on bureaucratic interference in artistic expression was clearly an allusion to the Stalin legacy. After graduating from the State Film Institute in 1955, Lev Kulidzhanov (1924–2002) showed his talent with the touching drama Dom, v kotorom ia zhivu ( The House I Live In , 1957). A loose story that follows the daily lives of several people living in a communal housing situation, the film evidenced a debt to Italian Neorealism.
Such foreign influences were not accidental. During the mid- to late 1950s, Soviet film artists were able to reenter the international cinema community after two decades of isolation. The USSR began importing foreign films again for domestic release and encouraged its own filmmakers to participate in international festivals. Two films of the late 1950s won acclaim in the festival circuit and helped reacquaint the West with Soviet cinema: Mikhail K. Kalatozov's (1903–1973) Letiat zhuravli ( The Cranes Are Flying , 1957) received a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Grigori Chukhrai's (1921–2001) Ballada o soldate ( Ballad of a Soldier , 1959) won prizes at Cannes and Venice. When the Moscow Film Festival began in 1959, it was clear that the USSR would remain in the international film arena.
This renewed contact with the West proved salutary for the generation of young filmmakers that emerged in the 1960s, including Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986), Vasily Shukshin (1929–1974), and Larisa Shepitko (1938–1979). Although they did not view themselves as part of a unified film movement, they are sometimes treated as a Russian "new wave" because of their parallel career paths and similar artistic debts to modern European cinema. All three graduated from the Film Institute and started their careers in the early 1960s, and they all drew their inspirations not from the past giants of Soviet cinema like Eisenstein but from leading European art directors. Tarkovsky is often compared to Ingmar Bergman, and that debt is evident in Tarkovsky's first feature, Ivanovo detstvo ( Ivan's Childhood , also known as My Name Is Ivan , 1962). Shukshin's debut film, Zhivyot takoi paren' ( There Lived Such a Lad , 1964), with its loose narrative structure and elegant camera movement, bears a resemblance to the early work of François Truffaut. And the subjective episodes in Shepitko's Kryl'ia ( Wings , 1966), which sometimes blur the distinction between fantasy and reality, are reminiscent of Federico Fellini.
The Soviet regime hardened its policies in the late 1960s, and renewed censorship stemmed some of the creative energies of these young directors. Signs of this trend were the heavy-handed censorship of Korotkie vstrechi ( Brief Encounters , Kira Muratova, 1967) and the banning in 1968 of Komissar ( The Commissar , Aleksandr Askoldov), which ran afoul of censors because of its treatment of the sensitive issue of anti-Semitism in the USSR.