A Glimpse of Eastern European Cinema
Geographically speaking, Eastern Europe usually means the East Central part of Europe that was once under the political and economic control of the former Soviet Union. These countries include Czech Republic (namely Czechoslovakia before 1993), Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany. Since the films from the last two countries were most tightly controlled by the Soviets and their development was more monotonous, this retrospective is more focus on the other five countries. The Western viewpoint likes to view the passage of Eastern European film development from post-war era to the present day as “a struggle for liberty and autonomy”, but it was actually more complicated than that. It included revolts against the Soviet dogmatism, internal self-reformation and adjustment, while encompassing each nation’s history, literature, folkloric art and traditions, adding to external influences to develop into a multi-facet art form. In the early stage of the 1950s, these countries had already established a production and distribution system, accompanied by renowned film education and good promotion of film culture. Many small studios were popular in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland, which talents joined and made films. After the death of Stalin in 1958, they gradually shed the dogmatic binding and made films which were critical of the contemporary society. Some of them took the direct exposing approach while some were more satirical, mixing fiction and reality to achieve its innuendo effect. Though the censorship rigidity differed as the regime changed, the filmmakers would adapt to the status quo and continued to reflect their artists’ conscience and social concerns through their works. Occasionally, they emerged and received attentions in foreign counties.
These five Eastern European countries have a long tradition of arts, with many cultural workers and artists participating in film production, and their audiences also have a high standard of appreciation. As early as the 1920s and 1930s, the “avant-garde” film tradition already existed, only to be suppressed by the Soviet’s official directives after the war, yet never truly submissive artistically and culturally. Starting from the end of the 1950s, there were more internal reforms and struggles; as the cultural exchange with the West increased, many talented filmmakers emerged around the period of upheavals in the 1960s. The creative works of these filmmakers, either as individuals or as a group reflected on these agendas in their films: “inside vs. outside the establishment”, “self-expression vs. the official version”, “artistic vs. political”. The contrast, struggle, and assimilation along the path were far more complicated and fascinating than one could imagine.
The richness of Eastern European cinema and diversity cannot simply be regarded as a focus on political struggle for freedom and a protest against totalitarianism. These fine works are a reflection on their nations’ history and culture, and a personal concern for the pain of living; especially on war, violence, poverty, accusation, death, escaper and resistance. These films bear a moral and social responsibility by depicting and satirizing injustice and evil absurdity; these universal values account for their popularity over the ages.
The ten Eastern European films selected in this retrospective are from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania. According to scholar Dina Iordanova, they can be classified into these four periods:
The Thaw (1956-68)
Czechoslovakia: The Party and the Guests (1966), The Firemen’s Ball (1967), Yugoslavia: Love Affair, or the
Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967)
In the 1950s and 1960s, internal reforms took place in both Czechoslovakia and Poland, there was relatively more freedom in the culture and the arts, allowing a new generation of filmmakers to come up with more diversified styles and themes, resulting in the emergence of Czech New Wave and the Polish Film School. The Party and the Guests is a Kafkaesque indirect critique of the system while Love Affair,or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator was a pioneering experimental effort. Even more direct satires on the bureaucracy such as The Firemen’s Ball was allowed to be shown. But the situation took a sharp turn after the repression of the Prague Spring of 1968. Though arts and culture was suppressed, there was still various forms of artistic ideology and different aesthetics continued to co-exist.
Convergence and Divergence (1968-80)
Hungary: Red Psalm (1971), Poland: Illumination (1973)
With the rapid development of the urban culture in the 1970s, there was a proliferation of social melodramas, comedies, and harmless historical dramas. But there had been occasions when films became parables or even sharp commentaries on the status quo. Red Psalm used a peasants’ revolt in history to depict the artistic world’s silent rebellion against totalitarianism, while praising the purity and beauty of folkloric arts. At the same time, there was “cinema of moral anxiety” which carried a subliminal political message. Illumination, about the reflection and social awakening of an intellectual is one of the better examples.
Preparations for Upheavals (1980-89)
Poland: Man of Iron (1981), Hungary: Another Way (1982)
As interaction between Eastern and Western Europe became more frequent, there was increased opportunity for artists to get funding from home and abroad. Filmmakers took an active involvement in reforms, voicing their different political views and touched on taboo subjects. Man of Iron was shot on location where the Solidarity was holding its protest; whereas the struggle against suppression of speech and sexual orientation leads to the tragedy in Another Way. Both films are remarkable presentation of force of the struggle, and the touching humanist concerns.
Euphoria, Disillusionment, Normalisation (1989 – Present)
Yugoslavia: Underground (1995), Romania: 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) & 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days(2007)
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the socio-political and cultural scene of Eastern Europe was thrown into turmoil. After an initial period of crisis and adjustment, these countries seek to enter into the “New Europe” and established their own commercial studio systems, trying to carve a film-goers market share from Western Europe and the domination of the United States. Underground was a co-production between the Eastern and Western Europe, a surrealist tragic-comic tale about the loss of identity of East Europeans through the perils of history with many special effects, a clear attempt to compete with other foreign productions. Romania had long remained on the conservative side; it was not until the 21st century that its New Waves emerged. 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are both works by new directors, and they both reflect on the past and present. The former one about only a decade after the fall of the totalitarian regime, but the people’s memory faded even faster. The latter one is about a female university student trying to seek abortion, as an allegory to the orthodoxy of people’s mind in the new era.
To comprehensively cover the progress of the Eastern European cinema, it would need more than one retrospective screening of large scale, together with seminars and publications. However, this programme, including films from five countries made outside the official channel, already allows us a glimpse of the variety of forms, aesthetics, humanist concerns and social criticism of the various nations in different eras. We have spent up to months on researching the history background and to track the film sources. I wish to express sincere gratitude to all those who have assisted in bringing this programme to the audiences.
The contents of the programme do not represent the views of the presenter.
The presenter reserves the right to change the programme should unavoidable circumstances make it necessary.