Post-Yugoslav Film: Style and Ideology

Jurica Pavičić

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

3. The Context of Eastern European Cinema after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The third part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

3.1. Glasnost and after: the dusk of Eastern European auteaur modernism

The countries of Eastern Europe that emerged from the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union did not, unlike the countries of Yugoslavia, go through war and interethnic violence in their transition: there was no bloodshed during the process of national emancipation and the transition to democracy in the European part of the Soviet Block, with the exception of street violence in Romania and a short-lived escalation into war in Lithuania.[1]

However, all the other transition-related challenges facing the young democracies emerging from the earlier real-socialism were largely the same as those encountered by the post-Yugoslav societies. Most of these countries went through similar social changes, which were typical and resulted from transition: sudden deindustrialisation, increase of class differences, development of primeval “wild” capitalism, problems with corruption, difficulties in the development of a functioning market and a successful democracy. The package of these social changes, typical of transition, also included changes in cinema.    

Before 1945 the cinemas of Eastern Europe differed in the level and wealth of national tradition. In some lands – such as Czechoslovakia – this tradition was rich, in others – such as the countries of Yugoslavia – insignificant. But after film studios were nationalised in the late forties, accompanied by the establishment of complete party control over the film industry (Liehm and Liehm, 1996: 84-105), the countries belonging to the Soviet sphere got film industries that differed in details, but were essentially the same. Film studios were state-owned and production was controlled. Unlike the polycentric Yugoslav model, production was centralised, usually subjected to the committee, the cinema commission or the ministry of culture. Unlike in Yugoslavia, where the studio system was rejected in the mid-sixties and replaced by filmmakers’ tenders (Škrabalo, 1997: 315-317), in these countries the studio system remained the basic form of cinema production right until the end of communism. This enabled communist parties to control the content of films both formally and informally through the internal mechanisms of filmmaking enterprises. The systems of control differed but were as a rule rather complex, as the editorial of the Russian Literaturnaya Gazeta complained in 1954:

The number of examinations through which a scenario must pass makes cinema work very difficult for writers … A scenario goes to an editor of the scenario department and the editor-in-chief. Then the editorial board of the scenario department and afterwards the art council of the studio discuss it.  The decision of the art council must be approved by the director of the studio.  The studio is not entitled to sign a contract with the author, however, until the Main Administration of Cinematography gives its consent. And so at this point, the scenario is sent there. Again it goes to an editor of the scenario department and to the editor-in-chief, and from then to the assistant chief (of the Main Administration). Then straight to the chief himself, whose signature authorises the studio to make its arrangements with the author. And finally, the court of last instance (in 1954) is the collegium of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR. A verdict is rendered at 10 levels… (Liehm and Liehm, 1996: 74) 

Immediately after World War Two all the countries in the Soviet sphere of influence – also including Yugoslavia in the first, short period – went through a shorter or longer period of compulsory socialist realism (Zhdanovism), an aesthetic doctrine that imposed not only desirable subjects, character types and narrative stereotypes, but also laid down strong formal requirements. Each departure from these requirements in subject-matter was seen as disloyalty and sabotage, and each departure in style and form was looked on as “bourgeois formalism”, “lack of ideas”, “a reactionary approach” or “a varying of forms without content”, “weaving in a vacuum”, “cobwebs in empty space”.[2]  

This kind of repression over the freedom of formal expression lasted for different periods of time in different communist countries. In Poland it already slackened considerably in the mid-fifties. In Yugoslavia it was declaratively rejected after 1950 but continued to survive as a cultural reflex (Maković, 2004: 19-20; Kolešnik, 2004: 60), during the 1950s, producing what Turković called “uncertainty in criteria” (Turković, 2004: 138-143). In the 1960s socialist realism definitely became an object of scorn, even a politically discrediting label. In Czechoslovakia and Russia the break with socialist realism came with the auteur film of the sixties. In the Democratic Republic of Germany the thaw was patently broken off overnight at the 1965 plenum of the ruling communist party, SED, when a whole annual production was shelved, cinema accused of “nihilism, scepticism and subjectivism”, after which the entire film industry switched back to socialist realism (Bondebjerg, 2010: 32). In Romania a similar re-dogmatising took place in 1971, when a more tolerant atmosphere in cultural policy was reversed under the influence of the so-called July Theses (Bradeanu, 2006: 174). In Croatia the situation was similarly aggravated after the fall of the Croatian Spring in 1971, and in Serbia after The Plastic Jesus affair[3] and retaliation against the black wave.

The fact alone that socialist realism/Zhdanovism was imposed, never mind how strongly and persistently, made it part of the collective memory of the film industry, with deep-seated consequences. For Eastern European filmmakers the modernist style and poetics meant much more than formal liberation. Except in Yugoslavia, where “socialist aestheticism”, as a canonised version of modernism, became the ideological norm (Liehm and Liehm, 1996: 230), in all the other communist countries the modern style had subversive connotations. There, a move to auteur cinema meant more than liberation from market requirements or studio production standards, as in the West. Much more than in the West, modernism in style was an expression of individuality, of a free spirit, non-conformism, anti-establishment defiance. These connotations made Eastern European auteur modernism attractive to local audiences, and also to foreign film archives, festivals and distributors. It is therefore not surprising that the full international affirmation of Czechoslovak, Polish, Hungarian and Yugoslav film went hand in hand with the prevalence of auteur film in the late fifties and the sixties. This was the golden age of modernist currents such as the Polish black series, Serbian black wave or the Zagreb school of animation, and of the titans of Eastern auteur cinema Andrzej Wajda, Miklos Jancsó, Aleksandar Petrović, Lucian Pintilie, Sergei Parajanov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Vĕra Chytilová, Milos Forman, Rangel V'lčanov, Ante Babaja, Dušan Makavejev and Juraj Jakubisko.

For the West, entrenched in its “single-minded view” that could only see the duality of “oppressive state policy against dissident intellectuals” (Anikó, 2005: xiv), this was exactly the kind of cinema culture it favoured, so it became a synonym for Eastern European film. Consequently, the East greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall with an outdated cinema culture strongly dominated by – as Anikó wrote  – a “fossilised art character”, and its most important films reflected a “Euro-centric, male or masculine intellectual attempt to deal with national history using a sophisticated, self-reflexive, allegoric film style” (Anikó, 2005: xii).  In Western Europe this model of auteur film had for the most part already been abandoned by the end of the 1980s, but in the East it was artificially kept alive in the context of dictatorship.

At the end of the eighties, this “Eastern auteur policy” seemed healthy and successful because several circumstances played into its hands. In the Gorbachev era cultural life was liberalised in all European communist countries except Albania and Romania, resulting in the appearance of a new wave of provocative political auteur films. At the same time, films that had been shelved because of their confrontational contents began to be screened, such as WR misterija orga(ni)zma/WR Mystery of Orga(ni)sm, 1971, by Dušan Makavejev or Moj drug Ivan Lapšin/My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984, by Alexei German. Some of these films met with belated international success, like the Georgian film Monanieba/Repentance, 1984, by Tengiz Abuladze. After being banned in the USSR for three years, the film was released in 1987 on the wave of perestroika and glasnost and won the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Award and the Award of the Ecumenical Jury.

Furthermore, as the Velvet Revolution seethed in Eastern European countries a lively interest awoke in the West for culture and films from the Communist block. The Eastern European “pantheon” of authors, both expatriate and domestic, took up much of the programme at major festivals. A good example is the most influential film festival – in Cannes – which screened films by Bondarchuk, Tarkovski, Konchalovsy and Rangel V'lčanov in 1986, films by Tengiz Abuladze, Nikita Mikhalkov, Konchalovsky and Károly Makk in 1987, and in 1988 Krzystof Kieślowski and István Szabó were screened in the competition and as many as five films from Eastern Europe in the Un Certain Regard section, including films by Kira Muratova and Andrzej Zuławski, and also the Serbian film Slučaj Harms/The Harms Case by Slobodan Pešić.   

In this atmosphere a whole series of festivals was set up in the West at the turn of the eighties to the nineties, which focused on films from behind the Iron Curtain. In the late eighties a specialised festival for Central and Eastern European films was founded in Trieste, Alpe Adria Cinema, which grew out of the student film-study group La Cappella Underground. It devoted one of its first retrospective seasons, 1989, to the then-not-yet independent Croatia (Fornazarič and Percavassi, 1989). At the end of the eighties, the German Film Institute (DIF) organised the Eastern European Film Week which travelled around German cinema theatres and finally, at the end of the nineties, found a base in the neoclassical spa of Wiesbaden, in 2001 becoming the goEast Festival. In 1991 the “festival of new Eastern European cinema” was founded in the formerly East-German town of Cottbus – the seat of the Slavic culture of the Lusatian Serbs – which organised retrospectives of national cinemas and showcased new authors. In 1992 the old Greek film festival in Thessaloniki, which – similarly to Pula – had been a national festival, was given international status and established the Balkan Survey section (Horton 2007: 48-49).


3.2. The early shock of transition

Things changed completely very soon after the communist regimes broke down. Eastern European films lost the allure of forbidden fruit. The “system versus dissident” dichotomy, a driving force of Eastern European culture, lost its political foothold, except to a degree in authoritarian countries such and Croatia, Serbia and Belarus. According to Anikó Imre, a “tacit consensus” developed in the West that there was “nothing more to be said” about Eastern Europe, and the “loss of interest in Eastern European film has been a part of the more general loss of interest in the Second World in the aftermath  of the post- Berlin Wall euphoria” (Anikó, 2005: xv). Once more film festivals serve as a good indicator. In the decade between 1997 and 2006 only eight films from former communist Europe were screened in the competition programme of the Cannes Festival, six of them Russian and two from former Yugoslavia (Ničija zemlja/No Man’s Land by Danis Tanović and Život je čudo/Life is a Miracle by Emir Kusturica). Not a single Polish or Czech film managed to enter the competition in Cannes after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the first Hungarian film did not make it until 2007.[4]

In the meantime, socio-economic circumstances did not favour this obsolete cinema culture, either. As Dina Iordanova wrote:

The shift to a market economy affected every level of film industry, from its basic infrastructure to its forms of financing and administration. The pattern of changes in media economy and film industries was similar throughout all Eastern Europe: a sharp decrease in state funding, empty studios looking  to attract foreign film crews, the disappearance of domestic films from the circuits, armies of idle film professionals …. The rapid privatisation of many cultural institutions, film studios foremost among these, film production was to undergo a drastic transformation. The funding crisis led to shrinking production, particularly in features and animation. Financing for film production changed profoundly, moving from unit-based studio system to producer-driven undertakings. (Iordanova, 2000a: 2) 

This “production business”, however, had to come to grips with an unfavourable situation on the market. A great number of cinema theatres in towns had disappeared during the privatisation process, and multiplexes were not yet even in view. The Eastern European public, hungry for imported Western culture, ignored domestic films and they were pushed onto the margins of the market:

Domestic films, bearing a stamp of a lofty art-house tradition and the historical mission of national artist, came to compete at the box office with popular Hollywood fare in the theatres and on international film market: and were doomed to lose on both fronts. (Anikó, 2005: xi-xii) 

All the efforts to secure channels of distribution and screening at festivals faced the new reality in which Eastern European films were no longer attractive. If new production houses wanted to place a film, they became the hostages of large (mostly French) coproducers and world sales agents, which “resulted in a new kind of Western cultural colonialism” (Iordanova, 2000a: 2).

An obvious consequence of this process was a fall in production. This came to expression most in the largest Eastern European cinema – Russian – where 300 feature films had been made in 1990, the number falling to 153 in 1993 and only 46 in 1995, and hitting the bottom in 1996 – only 26 (Graffy, 2000: 5). This initial production crash did not happen only in the great cinemas, like Russian. It also affected small ones, such as Albanian, which produced 14 feature films in 1986 and only three in 1990. After a halt in production in the early nineties, after 1995 the number settled at two to three a year (Sopi, 2009: 14).  This early, shocking fall in production happened in almost all post-communist countries, but after recovering from the shock their film industries began to split in two clearly distinct groups: in the first were (often smaller) countries in which feature-film production turned to clear-cut commercialism and a struggle for local viewers, like in Poland, the Czech Republic or Serbia, and later also in Russia. Even there, however, there were oscillations, especially in periods of economic crisis as in 2009/10, when state subsidies in some Eastern European countries decreased by as much as 80%, and in others – like Ukraine – production even stopped (Kozlov, 2010: 20).

The old modernist authors were completely unprepared for this new context. “Larger than life,” wrote Anikó, “they remained frozen in a romantic modernist gesture,” (Anikó, 2005: xiv) while the production model in which they had built their careers crumbled before their eyes, as did the bipolar ideological model (totalitarian regime/auteur freedom) in which they could find their bearings and which was the only one that they understood. Many classics of modernism suddenly faced the unpleasant fact it was just as difficult, or perhaps even more difficult, for them to obtain a green light for a project in the market-oriented cinema production, as it had been in the corridors of the Soviet regime-governed apparatus. In what had earlier been a compact “class” of Eastern European auteur filmmakers, a clear caste-like gap opened up between two categories. The first were “international authors” who often lived in the West, made films in international coproduction and found it easy to enter A-class festivals (Lucian Pintilie, Aleksandar Sokurov, Emir Kusturica, Otar Iosseliani, Goran Paskaljević, Nikita Mihalkov, Radu Mihaelanu); the second were directors who found it much more difficult than before to make a film and who instead of state censorship now suffered the repression of “market censorship”, as Iordanova called it. Some of them were definitely disarmed by this new context: the best examples are two cult-status directors from the Soviet eighties, Elem Klimov and Aleksei German, who practically disappeared as filmmakers.[5]  


3.3. New themes: from films of revisionism to the “cabinet of curiosities”

Under the new circumstances, the Eastern European film industry understandably also embraced new subjects. The most important novelty was many films about subjects that had been prohibited in the previous period. Thus, according to Temenuga Trifonova, “in the first five years after 1989 Eastern European film was primarily preoccupied with the abuses and taboos of totalitarianism” (Trifonova, 2007: 32).

Most typical of these taboo subjects were compulsory nationalisation, secret services and undercover agents, gulags, contract murders and the troubles of dissidents and freethinking artists. In all of Eastern Europe film screens suddenly showcased aggressive, leather-coated undercover agents, and prisons, institutions, army barracks and camps became privileged film locations. Thus Agnieszka Holland made Popiełuszko/To Kill a Priest as early as 1988, a political hagiography of Jerzy Popiełuszko, a politically engaged priest killed by the Polish communist police. In Bulgaria, Kladenecut/The Well (1991) by Docho Bodzhakov and Sezonut na kanarčetata/Canary Season (1993) by Evgeni Mihailov showed the suffering of free-thinking individuals in communist Bulgaria (Delcheva, 2005: 199). Trahir/Traitor (1992) by the Romanian Radu Mihaielanu tells about the fate of a Romanian poet arrested for writing an anti-Stalinist article. In Albania Vdekja e kalit/Death of a Horse (Saimir Kumbaro, 1995) and Slogans (Gjergj Gjuvani, 2001) show the tragicomical, almost accidental victims of political persecution, and Kolonel Bunker/Colonel Bunker (Kujtim Çashku, 1998) is about the paranoid Albanian regime which had 800 thousand concrete bunkers built throughout the country. In Russia, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Utommlyenye sonstsem/Burnt by the Sun (1994) is about Stalinist purges in the thirties, and his hero is a communist general who does not even suspect that he, too, will be arrested.[6] This “cinema of revisionism” included films about the fates of decimated national minorities, which had never before been told, such as of the Transylvanian Germans (Der Geköpfte Hahn/The Beheaded Rooster, by Radu Gabre, 2007, Romania).

Ravetto Biagoli wrote that the new transition societies “generated an enormous amount of historical revisionism” (2005: 182), which came to expression in renaming streets, removing and erecting monuments, re-tailoring textbook history and canons of national greatness. “Revisionist cinema” also played its role. It glorified the newly-established, newly-great national figures, redistributed positive and negative roles, exposed what had been concealed in the past, and showed “real” history instead of the “false”, “former” one.  

Critics and theorists looked, and still look, on this “revisionist cinema” with justified reserve. Rumana Delcheva rightly wrote that this body of films “promoted a new kind of monologism aimed at silencing the voices of the past 45 years, while constructing a new grand narrative, equally epic and autocratic” (Delcheva, 2005: 198).[7] Such films, observed Delcheva caustically, “offered intellectuals expiation for the passive role they had played in the years of totalitarianism”:

By offering a highly naturalistic, almost grotesque image of the past, and an accompanying absolute negation of the entire era, the directors are also dealing with their own guilty conscience of conformism. (Delcheva, 2005: 200) 

“Revisionist films” hardly ever had either local or foreign success. Since the characters they showed were often simplified, black-and-white and rigid, they could not have any success in the art niche, and Eastern European audiences shrank from them for at least two reasons. The first was that they had themselves spent most of their lives in the former regime, usually entering into various kinds of pragmatic compromises, so they felt films about uncompromising, anti-regime martyrs as a kind of attack on their own lives. The second reason – as Delcheva noted – was the “growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world” (Delcheva, 2005: 203). In time Eastern European audiences discovered that capitalism was not only German cars and Italian shoes but that it also meant layoffs, insecurity and declining social rights, and a trend of “bitter-sweet nostalgia … for a bygone era that in hindsight does not seem all that bad” appeared in the Eastern European culture (Delcheva, 2005: 200). This culturological trend, named Ostalgie in German (nostalgia for the East), is best illustrated by the titles of two influential books of fiction from that period: Baječna leta pod psa/The Blissful Years of Lousy Living (1992) by Michal Viewegh and Kako smo preživjeli komunizam i još se smijali/How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991) by Slavenka Drakulić.    

Both these books – whose titles have the ironic dichotomies blissful/lousy and survived/laughed - are a kind of programmatic description of the Ostalgie phenomenon. The books and films belonging to this trend do not re-evaluate communism, there is no revision of revision. Instead, the new larger-than-life narrative that had been established after 1990 is “softened along the edges”. The communist period is shown from the viewpoint of ordinary people, the focus is on everyday life under totalitarianism and shows pragmatic strategies for survival and everyday functioning. Most Eastern Europeans, who had lived lives of this kind, found it much easier to identify with this view of the past than with stories about outstanding dissident martyrs. Furthermore, in films of this kind the Easterners affirmed their distinctive subculture, behaviour styles and memory at the moment when they were suffering blows delivered by the dominant Western culture and lifestyle.

In Germany the term Ostalgie was coined in connection with the film Sonnenalle/Sun Avenue (1999, Leander Haussmann) based on the novel of Thomas Brussig, which gives an ironic description of the life of young people in former East Berlin. However, Ostalgie began earlier as a trend in cinema, in the first place in the Czech Republic, where the new humorous approach to communism had already been expressed in the films Obécna škola/The Elementary School (1991) and Kolja/Kolya (1996) by the father-and-son team Jan and Zdenĕk Svĕrák, and in The Blissful Years of Lousy Living, an adaptation of Viewegh’s novel directed by Petr Nikolaev in 1997. Kolya is clearly a film of transition between two paradigms because the hero is a typical hero of “revisionist films” – a political-dissident artist who is a victim of repression by the system. But the film’s plot gives an ironic view of the stereotypes of martyrdom, Prague is wistfully shown on the eve of the change of system as a glamorous, picture-post-card town, and even the dissident’s fear, as Andrew Horton wrote, “is not real fear but alleged fear, full of superficial elements but without any true consequences” (Horton, 1999). The Blissful Years of Lousy Living, on the other hand, shows three decades in the life of a family in the pastoral environment of rural Bohemia, and – although the repressive context is clearly indicated – the film is convincingly dominated by “indestructible” and “eternal” constants which the regime cannot hurt: family closeness, hedonism, humour and the bucolic beauty of nature. Jan Hrebejk’s films Pelīšky/Cosy Dens (1999) and Pupendo (2003) belong to the same trend. Cosy Dens is a humorous portrayal of two neighbours, a communist and an anti-communist, on the eve of 1968, and Pupendo a comedy about a family trying to secure a visa for a holiday in Yugoslavia during the ”leaden years”. The “bitter-sweet” trend of Ostalgie is not only a Czech speciality. In Hungary, Csinibaba/Pretty Baby (1997) by Péter Timár shows Kadar’s Hungary in the mid-sixties, but with an accent on popular culture, pop music and youth sexuality. In Poland, Cześć Tereska/Hi, Tereska! (Robert Gliński, 2001) shows the growing up of an adolescent girl in a working-class quarter of new buildings in Silesia, and the context of communism is no longer an object of criticism or condemnation but is tacitly taken for granted in this film, which completely focuses on adolescent intimate life and family relations.  

If Kolya, Oscar-winner for best foreign film in 1997, initiated Ostalgie films, then this cultural trend undoubtedly culminated in Goodbye Lenin (2003) by Wolfgang Becker, winner of the European Film Award (EFA) in 2003. In this film the hero, Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl), sets up an imaginary, frozen-in-time East Germany for his mother, a fervent communist, who has woken up from a coma. Since he can no longer keep from his mother that the DDR has disappeared, the hero organises the kind of unification of Germany that his communist mother would find acceptable. In this parallel history, which he puts together for her by editing television inserts, the German Democratic Republic is not a passive, sinking object of annexation that has been permitted to join the dominant, victorious West. In Kerner’s parallel history, the DDR broad-mindedly and generously “accepts” West Germany under its wing.

This “film in a film” that ends Goodbye Lenin is the key for understanding the Ostalgie phenomenon. After the fall of communism, people in the former communist countries found themselves in the midst of a process over which their own societies had no control, but were passive objects. In the new Europe, the East became a passive receptor of technology, pop culture and lifestyle, the Eastern economy is owned by and under the control of the West, and political systems are harnessed in a process of mimicking the West, which assesses the success of the mimicry in accession negotiations and, later on, membership in the EU and NATO. What was perhaps even worse, the Easterners even lost control over their own memory and self-narration, because the larger-than-life narrative used to interpret and tell about the East was created in the West and impressed on the East through ideological “reassessment” using the media and education. A good example of this process of “memory expropriation” is given by the East German writer Jana Hensel, who in her autobiographical book Zonenkinder/After the Wall (2002) writes about how the inhabitants of the former DDR, in the nineties, began to exchange strange, over exaggerated anecdotes about their past. “The very fact that we exchange such stories shows the degree to which we have internalised the West-German view of our history. We have even forgotten how to tell stories about our own life in our own way, instead of this, we have adopted a foreign tone and perspective” (Hensel, 2002, quoted after Bondebjerg, 2010: 31).  

Goodbye Lenin is a film that imagines the inversion of this process. It is a kind of wishful thinking, a story that makes the Easterners’ hidden wish come true, at last turning them into subjects in the historical process, not only passive receptors. This wish is what generated Ostalgie literature and films: these films and books sprang from the Easterners’ yearning to resume control over their memory and personal history, instead of being under the control of the West and the ruling ideological narrative.

Because of this, the Ostalgie culture was never an aesthetic project directed against capitalism or for the restoration of socialism. On the contrary, this culture, by capitalising on the frustration of the East, carved itself a specific market niche within the capitalist market culture, becoming its functional and successful part.[8]   

Although films bordering on Ostalgie still appeared during the second half of the 2000s – for example, the popular Romanian omnibus Amintiri din epoca de aur/Tales from the Golden Age (2009) by six authors – the impression is that interest in Ostaligic films gradually decreased during the first decade. One possible reason is surfeit, because this had been the overriding cultural trend for six or seven years. Another reason, more probable, is the gradual generation change among filmgoers: the twenty-year olds who filled cinemas in the new decade could no longer have any personal memory of the preceding age. Be that as it may, a third stage is beginning in the onscreen representation of communism which neither condemns the earlier period nor re-examines it emotionally, but uses it as a value-neutral backdrop of images, perceptions and mythemes, similar to the street stands in East Berlin that sell models of the Trabant car and second-hand Soviet officer’s hats. In the words of Temenuga Trifonova, communism is becoming a “cabinet of curiosities” out of which “filmmakers self-confidently and with the playfulness of the postmodern art student” pick unusual exhibits (Trifonova, 2007: 33). Thus the greatest hit of newer Bulgarian film, Zift (2008) by Javor Gardev, uses the context of Bulgarian communism as an iconographic frame for a prison and crime drama in the style of Quentin Tarantino. In Taxidermia (2006) the Hungarian director György Pálfi uses the iconography of the Spartakiada Games and Soviet sports to emphasise the grotesque in a story about an obese hero, a champion speed-eater. Rewers/Reverse (2009) by Borys Lankosz of Poland uses the ambience of Stalinist Warsaw from the fifties as a setting for the personal drama of an introverted, sexually unfulfilled librarian. None of these films centres on examining communism: they use communism as an ahistorical chest of iconographic components, and the directors, as noted by Trifonova on the Bulgarian examples, “give vent to an arbitrary stylisation of history, keeping to self-confident fascination with the bizarre and the absurd” (Trifonova, 2007: 33).


3.4. A return to history

If, as Ravetto Biagoli said, “generating historical revisionism” was the dominant characteristic of Eastern European culture after the fall of the Berlin Wall, history films – expectedly – played a role in this newly formed history.  

The post-1990 reappraisal of history did not cover only the period of communism but equally, if not even more, involved earlier historical periods. It is not difficult to explain why this is so: fourteen new national states were created in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall, or even eighteen if we add Kosovo and the Transcaucasian Republics. Each of these old/new nations had the need to build up its identity through a re-examination of history, to create a gallery of heroes and historical mythemes. Even established national states such as Poland, Hungary and Romania felt this need, in the first place because in the communist period the official historical narrative had been subjected to the ideological dictate of Marxism and brotherhood with the USSR. Consequently, for both the new and the old Eastern European states the post-communist period was a kind of “return to the national state” which was “more a product of imagination and dreams than an historical fact” (Ravetto Biagoli, 2005: 182). In this context, historical films played the same role as memorial statues, banknotes, street names and the like: they served to produce an illusion of continuity which was to a great measure a construction.[9] History films became a favoured product of their nations, and also potential hits.     

Moreover, this role of the history genre is not new in Eastern European culture. While few Eastern countries have an SF and futurology tradition, almost all of them have a long tradition of the history novel and fiction, a tradition represented by popular national classics such as Gogol, Sienkiewicz or Šenoa. In many Eastern European literatures – including Croatian – this genre was the backbone of the story-telling tradition, and it included many different and old sub-genres. In the Balkan context one such was about the haiduks, which marked Croatian prose in the mid-nineteenth century (Nemec, 1994: 55-58), but also appeared in many cinemas in the widest Eastern European region, from Romania to Poland (Tutui, 2008: 170-189).

History epics continued to be filmed in post-communist times, now no longer as state projects in the name of the national ideology but as business projects which exploited the obvious attraction of history for the Eastern European audience. This gave rise to two paradoxes. The first is that such films, although they exploited national sentiments, were usually made in international coproduction arrangements. For pragmatic market reasons, and for the sake of being politically correct, they planned to attract audiences from the other side of ethnic demarcation lines, as well: thus Polish spectacles also counted on the Ukrainian market,[10] and Slovak ones on the Czech market. Another paradox is that they were more often made in large countries such as Russia and Poland, and more rarely and later in the younger national states with a limited local market, for which this kind of onscreen “history writing” would be more precious.  

The first wave of historical epics appeared in the 1990s in the two most developed central-European cinemas: Czech and Polish. In the Czech Republic a characteristic part of national production were World War Two spectacles, such as Tankový prapor/Tank Battalion  (Vít Olmer, 1991), Tobruk (Václav Marhoul, 2008 – about Czech soldiers on the North African front in 1941) and Tmavomodrý svĕt/Dark Blue World (Jan Svĕrák, 2001, about Czech pilots in the British RAF). In Poland, the wave of history spectacles was primarily based on classic Polish literature, in the first place by Sienkiewicz. Thus in 1999 Jerzy Hoffman made Ogniem i maczem/With Fire and Sword and Andrzej Wajda made Pan Tadeusz, and in 2001 the veteran Jerzy Kawalerowicz filmed Sienkiewicz’s third classic, one not thematically linked with Polish history - Quo Vadis. Commenting Hoffman’s and Wajda’s films, Rumiana Delcheva said that both the films based on Sienkiewicz’s knightly novels “are about what is considered the golden age of Polish history… when the country stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea”,  and noted:   

… an integration is achieved that does not require legitimating from the Western centre … Historical epics play an important function of cultural drivers toward the Western center. The return to a glorious past, whether real or imagined, becomes an expression of the ideologeme: “We, too, have contributed something valuable to the world.” (Delcheva, 2005: 207-208)

This comes to expression even better in Russian examples. In Sibirskij tsiruljnik/ The Barber of Siberia (1998) Nikita Mikhalkov gives an idealised picture of 19th-century Russia under Alexander III, showing it as a progressive, rich country of gallant balls, glittering mansions and technological advance, integrated in the Western world and without class tension. Defending the film from Western critics, Mikhalkov explained that by presenting this image he wanted to contest the established image of Russia in films, which show it as a miserable land of paupers and drunks. His film functions as a conservative nationalistic fantasy: it is dedicated to “honourable officers” and Mikhalkov – who had presidential ambitions at that time – is shown in the film in imperial uniform, riding on a horse.  

Although it cannot be included in the definition of the history epic genre, the film Russkij kovčeg/Rusian Ark (2002) by Aleksandr Sokurov legitimises national culture in a similar way. Made with dazzling technical skill in a single take, the entire film unfolds in the corridors of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, through which the invisible Russian narrator follows the French diplomat and aristocrat Marquis Astolphe de Custine[11] along the halls of the palace/museum. The French marquis and the invisible Russian narrator do not pass only through the rooms of the Hermitage, but also through time: from room to room vignettes from two centuries of Russian history are shown, which are at first idyllic and exalted (private lunch of the Imperial Family, audience of the Persian Ambassador), after which the “march of history” goes through an anti-climax showing the siege of Leningrad in 1941-44, and Custine sees coldness, hunger, the wounded and dead in a side room. During the entire tour Custine expresses the negative Western stereotypes about Russia and the East (“gifted copyists … who have nothing of their own”,  “Asia adores tyrants … the worse the tyrant, the more beloved his memory”…). At the moment when he loses his French travelling companion, the narrator stops before a splendid long take of the Neva and concludes the monologue with a sentence showing reverence for the myth of the Nation: “It is a pity that you are not with me: you would understand everything here, look, we are surrounded by the sea and we are intended to sail for ever… live for ever.” 

Russian Ark functions as a kind of “cultural patch”, a film whose ambition is to join Russia’s present with an idealised past, using “mass amnesia” to bridge the Bolshevist period which is “treated like a crack, and also an interruption in Russian history” (Ravetto Biagoli, 2005: 189). While the mythical bridging in Sokurov’s film uses high society and the culture of the imperial court, in Pavel Lungin’s film Ostrov/The Island (2006) this role is given to religion. Set in the period between the 1930s and the 1970s, the film shows the life of Anatoly (Pyotr Mamonov), a soldier who was wounded during World War Two, fell off a river barge and was saved by monks in an island monastery. Anatoly takes his vows and in time discovers that he has the gift of healing and prophecy. One day the communist Admiral Tikhon visits him on the island in secret, believing that Anatoly can save his daughter. It turns out that Tikhon was a soldier on the barge that night with Anatoly. A German officer had given him the choice of killing Anatoly or being executed himself. Tikhon fired, and spent forty years believing that he had killed Anatoly and that his career of a soldier and war hero was founded on cowardice and lies. On the island he and Anatoly recognise one another, and Tikhon finds redemption. It is not difficult to read an obvious political allegory in Lungin’s plot. The public, heroic history of communism is based on a lie. At the moment when the society based on falsehood finds itself in insoluble difficulties, it finds redemption in tradition and faith, and in this process the real course of history is revealed, until then shrouded in deception.[12]

The middle of the 2000s also brought a new cycle of real historical epics into the cinemas of post-Soviet central Asia. In 2004 the historical spectacle Köşpendiler/ Nomad: The Warrior was produced in Kazakhstan, about the 18th-century dynast and hero Ablai Khan. Made to the script of the prominent writer Rustam Ibragimbekov, the film was a collective work by a “brain trust”: the Czech Miloš Forman was executive producer, the Czech Ivan Passer and the Russian returnee from Hollywood Sergei Bodrov co-directors, in cooperation with local director Talgat Temenov. According to Variety, the film cost forty million dollars, had several American actors (Jay Hernandez, Jason Scott Lee) and was financially supported by the Weinstein and Wild Bunch companies. In 2007 another central Asian war leader got his biographical spectacle – Genghis Khan. Mongol/Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007) by Sergei Bodrov was planned as the first part of a yet unfilmed trilogy about the life of that Mongol ruler. The film shows the youth of Temujin (the future Genghis Khan) from boyhood to the moment when he becomes unchallenged ruler of the Mongols. In this case, too, a historical epic functions as a comment on the present (this time Russian). At the beginning of the film, the Mongols are divided, disloyal, dependent on the culturally superior Chinese, and Temujin himself spends a short time as their slave. The hero of the film saves himself from Chinese slavery, wins in a civil war and unites the Mongols in absolute obedience, turning them from foreign subjects into a self-confident empire. In short, Bodrov’s Mongol uses historical parable to describe the new self-confidence of Putin’s Russia.  

Another region in which national epics flourished in the late 2000s was the Baltic region. The Estonian historical/political thriller Detsembrikuumus/ December Heat (2008), directed by Asko Kase, takes place in 1924 and is based on an attempt (historically authentic) at a Russian communist coup in the young Estonian republic. This historical action thriller became the seventh most-viewed film in 2008 in the small Estonia. In Latvia a film was made in the same period that played on a mixture of glamour, patriotism and hushed-up history. Rīgas sargi/Defenders of Riga (Aigars Grauba, 2007) takes place in 1919 and tells about Latvian volunteers who defended Riga from the mercenaries of the German General Von Goltz, who had secretly colluded with the Russians. The film cost 3.5 million dollars, and with 140,000 viewers it had higher attendance in Latvia than Titanic (Pavičić, 2009: 77). Another film appeared in the same period in the same region, which, like the two above, exploited hushed-up history, contained an anti-Russian line and had a strong national charge: but in this case the author and the subject of the film guaranteed a much stronger foreign echo. This was the film Katyń (2007) by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, showing the massacre of 22,000 Polish non-commissioned and commissioned officers liquidated by the Soviet NKVD in a forest near Smolensk and on several other locations, to prevent them from thwarting Soviet political plans in post-war Poland. Katyń, like the Baltic films, was a local hit, but it was much more than that. The film about the Katyń massacre – in which Wajda’s father Reserve Captain Jakub was also killed – played at the Berlin Festival, was nominated for an Oscar, and official Polish diplomacy showed it worldwide. It was also shown in Zagreb in the arrangement of the Polish Embassy in Croatia,

All the films mentioned above are historical spectacles based on anti-communist and/or anti-Soviet revisionism, made to exploit national feelings and present a nationally-coloured history abroad. However, at the end of the 2000s several films were made in central Europe that not only do not exploit nationalism, but are completely the opposite: they use history as a reservoir of appealing stories known and attractive to viewers on several national territories. Such is the case with Bathory (Juraj Jakubisko, 2008) and Jánošík (Agnieszka Holland, 2009).

Both films are historical spectacles about real historical figures. In the first case it is the Hungarian, Baroque-age, Countess Erzsébet Báthory who in her castle in Slovak Ternčin killed between 35 and 600 young girls, servants and pupils of the gynaecium. In the second, the hero of the film was a Slovak, a Carpathian rebel, the “Slav Robin Hood”, known to the Yugoslav audience thanks to the Polish TV series by Jerzy Passendorfer from 1974. In both cases, the directors had been experienced auteur film directors before 1990: the Slovak modernist Jakubisko and the Polish director Holland. Both films were made in multinational coproduction and were distributed at the same or almost the same time on several territories (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia), capitalising on the fact that the historical stories on which they were based were relevant and generally known to the public in several countries.[13] In both cases production expectations showed themselves right: 425,000 viewers in Slovakia and 900,000 in the Czech Republic saw Jakubisko’s film, and according to data of the business bulletin Film New Europe, only in Slovakia, and only on the first weekend, 36,000 viewers saw Jánošík.  

In short, historical spectacles did not by any means disappear from Eastern European cinemas in the first decade of the 21st century; indeed, they got a new life. They can be divided in two different but interweaving models. In the first, historical epics are extremely national, if not nationalistic, made for the local audience and to promote the state and nation abroad. In the second, the films are made with the intention of attracting audiences on several territories. The first model is characteristic of the Baltic and post-Soviet regions, the second of the more developed liberal democracies and the market societies of Central Europe.

Nevertheless, with rare exceptions (Nomad) both kinds of films were produced for business reasons, where the nation and nationalism served to secure box-office success. Great epics used earlier to be made for the sake of ideological propaganda, but now they became a way of securing a self-perpetuating, viable, market-oriented film industry. This characteristic of Eastern European historical films necessarily had an aftereffect; films made to seduce their audience must to a degree flatter its self-regard. Or, as Peter Hames wrote: “Emphasis on narrative accessibility, popular actors and plenty of humour are the inevitable ingredients of box-office success – but so also is a need to flatter the public” (Hames, 2005: 147). In the case of historical films, this “flattering of viewers” meant conforming to the national ideology and flirting with more or less strongly expressed nationalism.


3.5. Escape into the margins 

Unlike Western cinemas, where entire genres functioned as a chronicle of society and its unsavoury hidden corners (for example, the gangster film, film policier or film noir), in Eastern European cinemas the communist-party-controlled studio system tried to give a polished version of society, in its propaganda approach removing from the screen, to a greater or smaller measure, the unacceptable, seamy side of life: poverty, deprivation, violence, alcoholism, inequality. This practice – in the Croatian language known under the Russian term lakirovka, lacquering - was not used to the same degree in all countries or in all periods, but it is difficult to find a communist state in which what Liehm and Liehm define as the self-censorship of “modest goals” was not used at some time and to some extent: 

if not the truth, then at least without lies: if not progress… then at least without retreating into the lines of artistic reactionaries; if not reality as it is, then at least not reality painted pink… (Liehm and Liehm, 2006: 80)

Having emerged from this kind of production practice, part of which was embellishing real life, the filmmakers from the auteur-film period had the need – to quote Branko Bauer – to show the “backyard” of society (Polimac, 1985: 100). Thus it is not surprising that many fundamental movements and schools of the Eastern European auteur film included satire, social criticism and a naturalistic aesthetic of ugliness in their poetic description: this is true of the new wave in Czechoslovakia, the black wave in Yugoslavia and the Polish cinema of moral anxiety.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall this long tradition of social criticism found itself in difficulties. Films of this kind were no longer widely popular with audiences, as the end of the Cold War ended the ideological dichotomy which had made them enticing goods in the West. Or, as Marguerite Waller wrote:

After years of…dodging censorship and sensitively criticizing  the social and psychological damage done by passing years of great and petty repression, it was not at all clear what they should be making films about. (Waller, 2005: 21)   

However, the post-communist society showed itself a hard nut for filmmakers to crack. The earlier dichotomies that had shaped the perception of society (the people/the authorities, freedom/repression, individual/system) not only did not function under the new circumstances, but were crumbling before the very eyes of the Eastern European intelligentsia. It became evident that the citizens of Eastern European had not brought communism down in the name of liberal individualism, but very often in the name of new collective paradigms – usually the nation and nationalism. It became evident that the people/authorities dichotomy was untenable, because in many countries (Belarus, Russia, Croatia, Serbia) people kept electing authoritarian leaders and political elites. Freedom also showed itself as an unstraightforward ideal, because in Eastern European practice democracy, as Ravetto Biagioli wrote, degenerated into a “cultural desert of violence, corruption and isolation” (Ravetto Biagioli, 2003: 445) and led to social collapse and new economic exploitation.  

Thus a double paradox happened in Eastern Europe after 1990. On one hand, the collapse of Eastern European societies became an attractive subject for Western filmmakers, often distinguished ones, who made many films about the East, especially about the post-Soviet and Balkan chaos: Lamerica (Gianni Amelio, 1994, Italy),  Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana / Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (Aki Kaurismäki, 1994, Finland), Vesna va veloce/Vesna is in a Hurry (Carlo Mazzacurati, 1996, Italy), Elvjs e Merilijn/Elvis and Marilyn (Armando Manni, 1998, Italy), Code inconnu/Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000, France), Lilya 4-ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002, Sweden), Import/Export (Ulrich Seidl, 2007, Austria). These films showed the East with almost pornographic negativism, giving a caricatural illustration of the disintegration, injustice, poverty, social stratification and disorientation of the post-communist society and individual. Strongly patronising, these films portrayed people from the East as mixed-up children with unclear and immature perceptions about the Western world and reality beyond the Iron Curtain.[14]

At the same time, filmmakers from Eastern Europe moved away from that group of subjects and did not find the instruments to dissect the society in transition. There are surprisingly few convincing films about the drama of the transformation of one system to another: rare examples are the already mentioned Polish thriller Psy/Pigs (Władysław Pasikowski, 1992, Poland), or the Hungarian drama Edes Emma, draga Böbe/ Sweet Emma, Dear Böb (1992) by Istvan Szabo.[15] These films, however, are rare exceptions squeezed in between the two dominant themes from the early transition period: anti-communist revisionism and hedonistic commercial films that glorify the fledgling consumer society.  

Even in the countries in which functioning democracy took root and capitalism brought economic progress (Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic lands) it appeared to be difficult to represent the new capitalist society. Disarmed, unable to draw on the stock of images, perceptions and subjects from the preceding era, the filmmakers of the Eastern European ”tigers” took over the motifs, subjects and characters of Western European, socially-engaged films and applied them to their own environment, often in a mechanical and repetitive manner. They began to make films about immigrants, about violent and right-wing subcultures (Horem pádem/Up and Down, Jan Hřebejk, Czech Republic, 2004), youth violence (Lányok/Girls, Anna Faur, Hungary 2007, Klass/The Class, Ilmar Raag, 2007, Estonia), narcotics (Dealer, Benedek Fliegauf, 2004, Hungary), the disillusioned X generation (Farba, Michał Rosa and Jerzy Owczaczyk, 1997, Poland) or the new economic elite (Rusalka, Anna Melikian, 2007, Russia). Films of this kind had a dual rhetoric meaning: on one hand, they perpetuated the pattern of the engaged film inherited from the author’s earlier era. On the other hand, they complimented the self-image of their own communities, flattering them that they have become like the West because they have the same kind of social problems. Having Western-type deficiencies practically became a mark of success.  

Eastern European filmmakers found themselves facing social changes that were difficult to conceptualise, and in a new cultural landscape in which nothing was original but was just an imitation of the West. They were confronted by the biased view that the young Eastern European democracies (especially those that were successful) had no problems that were special, original or interesting outside their own backyards. This attitude crystallised in the recurring and generalised phrase that the developed Eastern European democracies had “no more great stories” to tell, implying that no one found what was going on in Eastern Europe interesting or important any more.

Because of this, Eastern European filmmakers very often avoided social subjects and preferred to make films about people who had rejected society or had been spewed out by it. Kristina Stojanova is right in saying that a “general escapist tone” characterises contemporary Eastern European cinema in which “Eastern  European directors, true, with rare exceptions, consistently prefer the isolation of closed existentialist worlds distant from an engaged analysis of the frenzied post-communist tensions” (Stojanova, 2005: 227). This led to the paradox that the ”genre” of films about people on the margins is perhaps the strongest, and certainly the most visible “genre” of Eastern European transition film in the 2000s. Often presented as a kind of Eastern European variant of the road movie, this genre (or production series) brought to the screen new, post-transition heroes: drop-outs who reject society, start off on a path without a clear goal, or live in countercultural pockets separate from the social mainstream.    

Two early and characteristic examples were two Russian road movies made in the same year – 2003: Koktebel (Boris Khlebnikov, Aleksey Popogrebskiy, 2003) and Vozvrashchenie/The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003). The heroes of Koktebel are a boy and his drunkard father, a failed aeronautical engineer, who roam the Russian backwaters on the way to the Crimean summer resort of Koktebel, where they have a relative. The overly-serious boy follows his father in thoughtless, aimless roaming during which they meet a gallery of misfits and pass through areas disjointed from modernity. The Return is another road movie, in which children (two brothers) are the hostages of their father’s seemingly aimless wanderings. In this case the father is a returnee who is after many years of absence taking his two sons to a lonely lake and during the journey he uses cruelty to impose his authority. A mixture of the road movie genre and the Russian provinces also appears in Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi/Travelling with Pets (Vera Storozheva, 2007), in which the heroine Nastasya, widow of a railway trackman, takes to wandering after her husband’s death; in Shchastya moye/My Joy (2010) by the Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa, in which the hero is a lorry driver who has lost his way and is travelling through the Russian backwaters; and in Ovsyanki/Silent Souls (2010) by Alexey Fedorchenko, in which a husband and lover travel together to scatter the ashes of the woman they loved. In all the five films the heroes wander through the bleak back of beyond, places disconnected from the contemporaneous that are inhabited by extreme misfits, ruled by violence and lawlessness, and the action takes place in timeless, derelict inns, village houses, trackmen’s cottages, abandoned army barracks and sanatoriums. 

These five films were exceptional in the international success they received, but they were by no means exceptions. Showing dropouts dominated most of the successful Russian films from 2000s: in his next film Izgnanie/The Banishment (2007), Zvyagnitsev dealt with a marital crisis in rural isolation. In Rusalka/Mermaid (2007) by Ana Melikian the film’s heroine is the personification of a Slavic fairy and grows up with her mother in a remote seashore area. In Eyforiya/Euphoria (2006), Ivan Vyrypaev links a stylistically grandiose melodrama with the desolate, poverty-stricken, timeless ambience of the taiga backwoods. The hero of 4 (2005), Ilya Khrzhanovsky, travels from dynamic, business-minded Moscow into the secluded, socially and hygienically degraded rural area. A co-author of Koktobel, Boris Khlebnikov, in Sumasshedshaya pomoshch/Help gone Mad (2009) shows the life of a Belarus immigrant in Moscow, but the extremely caricatured and fairy-tale-like film is more like some kind of social fantasy reminiscent of De Sica’s Miracle in Milan, than like social reality. His former co-author, Alexei Popogrebsky, made Kak ya provyol etim letom/How I Ended this Summer (2010), which takes place on a meteorological station isolated in the polar circle. It is important to note that all these films were the most successful Russian art-films of the decade and had most success at festivals.

Escape into the margins can be seen best in Russian productions, but it is also characteristic of Hungarian, Estonian, Bulgarian and the earlier Romanian films. In fiecare zi Dumnezeu ne saruta pe gura/Every Day God Kisses us on the Mouth (Sinisha Dragin, 2001), one of the few noted Romanian films before the appearance of the Romanian new wave, is about a released prisoner wandering through rural areas and Gypsy villages. In the Bulgarian film Mila ot Mars/Mila from Mars (Sophia Zornitsa, 2004), a young city girl runs away and becomes the protégée of old women living in a remote, border village outside the scope of the law. In Divoké včely/Wild Bees (Bohdan Sláma, 2001), “the pre-modern myth about wise old people is sarcastically deconstructed, showing the fossilised, rustic idyll as a… heap of sex-obsessed, alcoholic hags” (Stojanova, 2005: 218). The Hungarian film Friss levegö/Fresh Air (Ágnes Kocsis, 2006) is about a mother and daughter living on the margins of society, completely separated from social contacts, and at the moment when the daughter runs away it gets the character (again) of a road film. Delta (Kornél Mundruczó, 2008) shows the incestuous relationship of a brother and sister and their conflict with villagers, and the location is an extremely archaic, atavistic village in the Danube delta. A similar Danube location appears in the Romanian film Ryna (Ruxandra Zenide, 2005) in which a patriarchal, tyrannical father brings his teenage daughter up as a man. In Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009), made by a British director in Hungarian production, Romanian locations are used to tell a story about rape and revenge, and the director again uses a multi-lingual, remote Carpathian setting to stress a mythical and timeless dimension, reducing to a minimum admixtures of contemporaneity and all reference to the surrounding world. Like in the Russian case, these examples have not been carefully selected: the films listed above make up the lion’s share of the internationally visible Eastern European titles of the decade.

Another possible interpretation for this predominance of films about people from the fringes and showing one’s own land as exotic is that it is the result of the major Western festivals sifting Eastern production because they, for some reason, preferred such films to those that were socially engaged and/or urban. But it is, nevertheless, difficult to get rid of the impression that these thematic preferences were also a kind of flight from social changes which were tritely, repetitively predictable or discouragingly incomprehensible. Instead of showing settings representative of their societies, Eastern European filmmakers chose marginal pockets. They did not show these pockets as a desirable refuge from the “frenzied tensions”, but usually as real hellholes. The microcosms of Eastern European films are places of evil, revenge, repression, lawlessness, patriarchal outlook, alcohol and violence, regardless of whether they show the Russian provinces in Koktobel, the Danube delta in Delta and Ryna, or the remote rural areas in Mila from Mars and Katalin Varga,. By showing social microcosms of this kind, Eastern European “escapist” films make a pessimistic social comment.


3.6. Changes of Style: the Eastern European case

After the fall of communism Eastern European societies to a certain degree became passive objects of history. Whether in political and economic models, technology or cultural and stylistic trends, they became mere places of reception which assimilated what came from the centres of emission – the USA, Western Europe and Japan. Through pre-accession adjustments Eastern countries accepted democratic standards and institutions, tax, monetary and education policies, through general technological advance they adopted Western technological achievements, and through cultural circulation they adopted Hollywood genres, Broadway texts and musicals, Anglo-Saxon holidays, music styles, youth subculture and behaviour patterns. 

This passive response was also characteristic of film production and style. While some Eastern European film currents, such as the Czech new wave or the Zagreb school of animated film, had before the beginning of the nineties spread their influence and acquired followers outside Eastern Europe, and although some authors such as Dušan Makavejev or Vĕra Chytilova were in the foreground of stylistic innovation, after the nineties such situations were extremely rare. It is true that this was a period of profound changes in film technology, media sociology and style, but Eastern European cinema generally accepted them passively, rarely or hardly ever initiating them. 

The post-1990 period was a time of major technological changes in filmmaking which also led to changes in style, all of them the result of computer technology. Among other things, the computer generated image became a tool of films, the boundary between the live-action and animated film weakened, and a strong influence was felt of the style and dramaturgy used in computer games and virtual reality (such as the 3-D games space or interactive internet worlds like Second Life). After the mid-eighties commercial films, and to a great measure art-films, as well, turned to stylisation, metafiction and the creation of fictional heterocosms/zones. Film abandoned its earlier reliance on the photographable and materially recordable, which had so fascinated post-war theorists like Bazin and Kracauer, and live-action and animated film amalgamated. In style, image manipulation and special effects became the dominant characteristics, and film is approaching what Dudley Andrew ironically and sometimes one-sidedly called an “animated storyboard” (Andrew, 2010:4).

The predominance of this kind of style – which Dudley Andrew calls cinema of attractions (2010: xv) – provoked an expected and sharp response. After the end of the nineties the dominant style in art-films moved strongly towards “hyper-realism” and stylistic flirtation with the pseudo-documentary and the reality culture. This can be seen in a certain number of commercial films (Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999; Cloverfield, Matt Reeves, 2008; Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli, 2007; (REC), 2007, and (REC 2), Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, 2009), but the changes in style were most clearly expressed in low-budget art-films. Many authors and currents in contemporary art-film made a sharp turn in the opposite direction, reaffirming what Andrew calls the “Cahiers’ axiom” in film theory: under this axiom, “cinema has a fundamental rapport with the real and the real is not what is represented” (Andrew, 2010: 5), therefore, under this axiom, film has the meaning and task to “reveal, meet, confront, discover” (Andrew 2010: xviii). Film is once more expected to explore the material and spiritual world, to be a tool of perception used by the “epistemological” and not the “ontological” dominant, to use Brian Mc Hale’s famous dichotomy (1992: 151-203). Furthermore, films that have moved in this stylistic direction exploit the ontological realism of the photographic image without preparation and at random. This return to Bazin’s or Kracauer’s heritage is clearly expressed in a string of contemporary cinemas such as Philippine, Argentinian, German and American.  

This change in style took place at the same time as the technological evolution and the appearance of the much lighter, more mobile and more democratically accessible DV camera or camcorder, which became the privileged tool of minimalistic hyperrealism. This process, and the ensuing stylistic effects, was first felt in cheap, low-budget productions, and it would be reasonable to expect filmmakers in the poverty-stricken Eastern cinemas to be among the first to accept them. Yet, the new and stylistic technological flexibility (which Nicholas Rhombes calls “DV humanism” and “mistakeism” – Rhombes, 2009: 25-30), was first accepted by authors from the smaller Western European cinemas (such as the Danish movement Dogme 95 or Pedro Costa from Portugal) and authors from the Third World (Philippines, Latin America, China), while Eastern European authors entered this stylistic changeover reactively and late.

The new, easily accessible technology relates to the new sensibility and stylistic choice in two ways: directors use the mobility of the new technology and base their work on long shots/sequences made by an extremely mobile and restless camera (as in the films of Dogme 95, Nicolas Winding Refn, the Dardenne brothers, Harmony Korine, Brillante Mendoz and the Philippine school), or they base their work on long, extremely static shots and long takes, where the camcorder is used almost like a ”spying” or a surveillance video camera (as in the films of Pedro Costa, Benedek Fliegauf, the Chinese fifth generation or the Argentinean new film – Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel, Celine Murge…). This radical stylistic minimalism invites the viewer “to participate as a voyeur, to watch an experience that is not his own, in the context of the shocking banality of everyday life” (Rhombes, 2009: 23).

This change in style went hand in hand with preferences in subject matter. The manifesto of Dogme 95 shows this most clearly by explicitly prescribing that historical and futuristic films should be avoided (“temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden”), as should “superficial action” and genre films; it criticises the “illusion of pathos and the illusion of love” and attacks the “golden calf – dramaturgy” (Pavičić, 1998: 99-100). The shift in subject matter to everyday stories shown in an ordinary, present-day setting was also characteristic of the Berlin School of filmmaking from the middle of the 2000s (Valeska Griesbach, Angela Schalanec, Dieter Petzold, Andreas Dresen, Maren Ade) and of the American off-off-Hollywood mumblecore project, which developed at the same time around the independent festival in Austin. A characteristic example is Beeswax (2009) by Andrew Bujalski, leader of the mumblecore movement. This film, shown at the 2009 Berlin Festival, has an amateur cast of actors and shows a relatively commonplace business conflict between two women partners who have a second-hand clothes shop in Austin.   

In short, after the late nineties film went through a change of paradigm which manifested itself in coherently complementary technological, thematic and stylistic changes and which appeared in several national cinemas, from the USA to the Philippines and from Argentina to China. In Eastern Europe, however, these changes had only a small and belated echo. Excepting the extraordinary case of the Romanian new wave, few authors and titles in Eastern European (post)transition cinema fit into this kind of changed paradigm. One of these few is the Hungarian filmmaker Benedek Fliegauf, whose films Dealer (2004) and Tejút/Milky Way (2007) are based on formal research into the long, static shot. In Dealer we follow one day in the life of a Budapest cocaine dealer who makes a round of his customers – which include a religious guru. In the film shots/sequences are juxtaposed with minimum causal or narrative links. Each shot/sequence is directed in one long, static take in which the only camera movement is a slow wheeling forwards or backwards. This cold, impersonal directing goes hand in hand with the visual impression of the film, the extremely cold colours and the settings in which the film unfolds, all of them sterilised, sanitized, dehumanised places such as a solarium, operating room or rich, modernistic flats. In Dealer Fliegauf dissects the life of the budding transition aristocracy using an extremely minimalistic and explicitly conceptual directing procedure which suggests footage by surveillance video cameras.

Fliegauf, however, is largely an exception. If we exclude the few older, affirmed authors who work in Western co-productions (such as Béla Tarr or Aleksandr Sokurov), most Eastern European authors opted for films that are much closer to the mainstream of narrative films and the standard industrial production model. They followed newer trends more as a reaction and a fashion, like in the case of sporadic Dogme-style films in Eastern Europe, which mostly used the Danish Vow of Chastity as an excuse for poverty in production. Eastern European cinema, even by younger authors, rarely participated in these new trends, and even more rarely anticipated them.  

Having said this, however, there is one great exception. This exception is - Romania.


3.7. An exception: the Romanian new wave 

Romanian cinema could rightly be described as completely opposite to the rest of Eastern Europe. In the 2000s Romanian filmmakers managed to form a recognisable national school based on shared stylistic characteristics. These characteristics were linked with the technological and stylistic changes that were underway after the appearance of digital video. Thanks to their quality and recognisable style, the films of this new Romanian cinema (also known as the Romanian new wave) achieved visibility abroad making Romanian cinema one of the most awarded and most respected in Europe. This success also brought Romanian cinema followers, so other cinemas, including Croatian, began to imitate the poetics of the Romanian wave

Paradoxically, all this happened in a country whose film tradition was one of the poorest in the former Eastern Block. Romanian cinema was strongly ideology-impacted even for Eastern European standards, and even the well-meaning Liehm and Liehm, when writing about Romanian film from the fifties, said that it had a “recognisable ‘style’ … based on dialogues in socialist realistic jargon” (Liehm and Liehm, 2006: 140). Even in the mid-eighties it was usual for Romanian films to be banned, harangued by workers’ collectives and tried in so-called “artistic courts” (Liehm and Liehm, 2009: 345-6).

During the early transition period Romania shared the fate of most transition cinemas, but the negative trends went deeper. Romania had one of the poorest networks of cinema theatres in Europe; during the nineties production fell to one or two films a year, and in 2000 not a single film was made (Franklin, 2009). Home films had exceptionally poor viewing, and the only Romanian filmmakers with visibility abroad were the already affirmed veterans Lucian Pintilie and Mircea Daneliuc. Things began to change in the middle of the 2000s, when excellent Romanian films began to appear at major festivals with amazing frequency.    

The first film with suggestions of the future Romanian Wave was Marfa şi banii/Stuff and Dough (2001), made in cooperation by two important future Wave figures, director Cristi Puiu and scriptwriter Răzvan Rădulescu. The film’s plot seems like a conventional post-Tarantino crime story about two amateur criminals who must carry an illegal package from the provinces to Bucharest. However, the film already shows stylistic features of the future current: a strict unity of time, long takes of sequences in cramped interiors (car, kitchen), realistic presentation of the banal aspects of “ordinary life”, absence of music or any kind of pictorial or sound stylisation and a specific treatment of dialogues, which are extremely long and often include elements of verbal abuse with the aim of one person imposing his or her will on another.

The Romanian new wave exploded after 2005, when five Romanian films won awards on three successive Cannes festivals: Moartea domnului Lazarescu/The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005) won the award of the Un Certain Regard programme, A fost sau n-a fost?/Was There or Wasn’t There?/12.08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006) won the Golden Camera award for best debutant, and the comedy California Dreamin' by Cristian Nemescu, who was killed in a car accident soon after, also won the Un Certain Regard award. Finally, in 2007 the film 4 luni, 3 saptamăni si 2 zile/ 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) won the Golden Palm in Cannes, the FIPRESCI award for best film of the year, and two EFA awards for best European film and director. This was undoubtedly the climax, but not the end of the Romanian cinema renaissance. After this success other noted debutant directors appeared in the Romanian new wave (Adrian Sitaru, Radu Jude, Florin Şerban) making many successful films, such as Hīrtia va fi albastră/The Paper will be Blue (Radu Muntean, 2006), Pescuit sportiv/Hooked (Adrian Sitaru,2007), Boogie (Radu Muntean, 2008), Cea mai fericita fata din lume/The Happiest Girl in the World (Radu Jude, 2009), Felicia īnainte de toate/First of All, Felicia (Răzvan Rădulescu and Melissa de Raaf, 2009),  Politist, adjectif/Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009), Eu cănd vreau să fluier, fluier /If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Florin Şerban, 2010, Silver Bear in Berlin), Aurora (Cristu Puiu, 2010), Marti, dupa craciun/Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2010), and Pozitia copilului/Child’s Pose (Catilin Peter Netzer, 2913 - Golden Bear in Berlin). An intriguing aspect of the Romanian new wave is the large number of directors and good films, and also that the creative figures who underpinned the wave are not directors but one scriptwriter – Răzvan Rădulescu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; Paper will be Blue; Boogie; Tuesday, After Christmas; Child’s Pose), and one cinematographer – the Moldavian Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days).  

Although the Romanian new wave has as many as ten directors, the current has clear and recognisable stylistic elements. The first is emphasis on unity of time – these films often take place within 24 hours (Stuff and Dough, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Paper will be Blue, The Happiest Girl in the World, Hooked…), during a weekend (Boogie) or several days (Police, Adjective; Tuesday, After Christmas). The second shared auteur characteristic of the Romanian new wave is the use of a long shot/sequence usually made with a very mobile camera, often in found settings or places prepared so as to enable the camera to move through them freely. The settings in Romanian new wave films are intentionally extremely banal: they take place in overcrowded flats, kitchens, student dorms and the corridors of public institutions, behind the peeling facades of Soviet-type high rises, and the protagonists are often urban bachelors and families with completely typical problems or those that are dysfunctional. The third obvious recognisable characteristic of the Roman new wave is the treatment of dialogue: in these films people talk a lot, the dialogues are often long and at the first glance not dramaturgically functional, and the language is used for domination, sadism and control. In these films the impact left by the communist, Kafka-like bureaucracy and the post-communist, corrupt state come to expression through a person in power verbally abusing someone who is not: the receptionist and gynaecologist abusing girl students (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), the doctor abusing nurses and the nurse abusing a patient (The Death of Mr Lazarescu), the airport booking official abusing a woman traveller (First of All, Felicia), a superior policeman abusing a lower-ranking one (Police, Adjective). The British critic Kieron Corless noted that “language”, as on the example of Porumboiu’s film Police, Adjective,  “creates and defines reality, shapes people and relations… by ignoring, or even clouding up what is really essential” (Corless, 2010: 42).

While the Romanian new wave is a typical example (and perhaps the best) of the poetics that dominated art-films of the 2000s in the way in which it relates to the camera, space and in the treatment of actors, what singles it out from this dominant approach is the somewhat “Eastern European” fixation on the past. Romanian new-wave films are often either about the period of Ceausescu’s communism (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Cum-mi am petrecut sfărşitul lumii/The Way I Spent the End of the World, Catalin Mitulescu, 2006), or about the time of the short-lasting revolution that brought the communist dictatorship down (Paper Will be Blue, 12.08 East of Bucharest). It is interesting that the Romanian wave filmmakers, in their joint omnibus film produced at the moment when the Romanian new wave was already famous abroad, chose to show urban myths from the communist period (Amintiri din epoca de aur/Tales from the Golden Age; co-authors: Hanno Höffer, Razvan Marculescu, Cristian Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru; 2009).[16] However, this fixation on the recent past is not absolute, and Romanian films often address typical transition problems such as emigration (First of All, Felicia; Boogie), the new consumer society (The Happiest Girl in the World) or the (post)transition family (Boogie, Hooked).  

Paradoxically, the outstanding foreign success did not help Romanian cinema with the home audience. Romania has the lowest cinema attendance per person in Europe (0.13 a year in 2007), in a relatively highly-populated country a domestic film seen by 15 thousand viewers is considered a hit, and a characteristic example of viewing difficulties is what happened to the comedy The Happiest Girl in the World (Radu Jude, 2009), which did not sell more than 1,330 tickets despite its success at the Berlin Festival. This is not a unique example: only 2,556 Romanian viewers saw the thriller Hooked (Adrian Sitaru, 2008), and in June 2009 the Film New Europe information service reported that the most widely viewed Romanian film in that year, Weekend with my Mother (Stere Gulea), came only 62nd on the annual viewing list, with 4,144 sold tickets (Blaga, 2009). Under such circumstances Cristian Mungiu was forced to show his film, the Canners winner, through alternative channels, in culture, sports and community halls.

Translated by Nikolina Jovanović. The translation is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.


[1] On 13 January 1991 the Soviet army quartered in Lithuania reacted to the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence by attacking the TV tower and killing 13 Lithuanians. The clash did not develop into a real war, however, and by the end of 1991 Lithuania was internationally recognised. This was the only armed conflict in the European part of the USSR after the fall of communism. Things were completely different in the Caucasian and Transcaucasian part of the USSR, where the post-communist period was marked by lasting instability and a series of wars: Armenia and Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Russia, Georgia and the seceding regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia.

[2] The quotations are from the programmatic text Reč književnika (The Writer’s Word) by the Serbian socialist realist critic Jovan Popović, from 1948.  See Mataga (1987: 70).

[3] The Plastic Jesus (1971) is a student film by Lazar Stojanović, student of the Belgrade Academy, in which the young director made fun of Tito’s personality cult. The film was banned, the director got a three-year prison sentence, and the affair was used as a reason to settle scores with black wave authors, especially the circle around the Belgrade Academy. See more in Tirnanić, 2008: 144-158).

[4] A London férfi /The Man from London (2007) by Béla Tarr. However, even this film was made in French coproduction and was shot on Corsica.

[5] Klimov never made another film after 1989, and German made only one – Khroustalov, mashinu!/Khroustalyov, My Car (1998), and this in French coproduction.

[6] The film got an Oscar for foreign film in 1995, and it is not inconsequential that the plot is very similar to that of an important Croatian, anti-Stalinist film from the sixties, Lisice/Handcuffs (1969) by Krsto Papić.  

[7] One of the few exceptions, and one of the best films about the transition, is the Polish police thriller Pigs (1992) by Władysław Pasikowski, in which the hero (Boguslaw Linda) is a former member of the communist secret police. Transferred into the basic police after the democratic changes, in the new circumstances he tries to prove himself as a professional and intends to unmask contacts with the Russian mafia. But in doing so he foils the plans of the new democratic bigwigs who defame him politically. In this way Pigs shows how the new, “epic and autocratic” larger-than-life narrative serves as a protective shell for a new, corrupt political elite, and by showing the redemption of a communist agent Pasikowski’s film polemicizes with “revisionist cinema”.  

[8] More than anywhere else, this is true of the countries of former Yugoslavia where the Yugonostalgia market, according to the Belgrade curators and art historians Jelena Vesić and Dušan Grlja, focused much more on “showing the socialist period as a paradise of consumerism”. This is expressed in creating myths about the material, consumer goods of that era, such as Bajadera (chocolates), Cockta (soft drink), Zastava 750 and Yugo 45 (cars). Thus Vesić and Grlja point out that “today Yugonostalgia fits perfectly into the model of [capitalist] cultural industries” (Vesić, Grlja 2010: 8).

[9] In this process the new historical narratives were often in mutual conflict. These conflicts sometimes even created a rift between the members of a single nation (like the “truth” about World War Two in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia). In other cases they caused international tension, like between Poland and Russia about Katyń, Russia and Estonia about removing the statues of liberators in Tallinn, or Poland and Ukraine about Ukrainian honours for the nationalistic guerrilla fighter of World War Two, Stepan Bandera.

[10] As Delcheva (2005: 206) shows on the example of With Fire and Sword (1999, Jerzy Hoffman).

[11] Custine is a historical figure, a diplomat and writer of a critical travelogue through Russia in 1839 (Ravetto Biagoli 2005: 186).

[12] One can make an interesting analogy between The Island and the classic Croatian novel Miris, zlato i tamjan/Myrrh, Gold and Incense by Slobodan Novak, in which the disillusioned members of the modernist generation find redemption in caring for an old noblewoman who symbolises denied history and identity.

[13] In an interview for Film New Europe, Holland said that Janošik had a different meaning for each of three countries: “In the Czech Republic Janošik is an abstraction connected with a TV series and pop-culture, not history. In Poland we counted on being compared with the TV series… for the Slovaks this hero is something entirely different, part of their national identity, a piece of history that constitutes the Slovaks as a nation of highlanders” (Grynienko, 2009).

[14] We find a similar patronising note in films about Eastern Europeans who emigrated to the West. As a rule they are shown as naïve, or through the stereotype of penetrating arrivistes ready for anything: examples are films such as I Want You (Michael Winterbottom, 1998), Last Resort (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2000), Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth, 2001), La silence de Lorna/Lorna’s Silence (Dardenne brothers, 2008), or Ken Loach’s episode about an Albanian pickpocket in the omnibus Tickets (Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach, Ermanno Olmi, 2005).

[15] In both the films, not at all by chance, the drama of transition is shown through the story of people who were minor travelling companions of the regime, and whom the new system spat out as an unnecessary encumbrance: in Pigs the hero is a former member of the secret police, and in Sweet Emma, Dear Böb two teachers of Russian who are forced to learn English to keep their jobs after the political changes.  

[16] This is an omnibus film consisting of six stories based on urban myths from the communist period. An interesting feature is that the parts of the omnibus have not been signed, and formally it is the work of a collective of authors. 


Jurica Pavičić

Stylistic Models

6. The Film of Self-balkanisation 1

The sixth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Jurica Pavičić

Stylistic Models

5. The Film of Self-victimisation

The fifth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Imre Szíjártó

Cinemas in Central-Eastern-Europe at the End of the 1980s

The historical framework

In this chapter we attempt to delineate the socio-historical background of the Central-Eastern- European cinemas of the 1990s. We treat the period directly preceding the change of regime, namely the "end of the 1980s" as a relatively neutral period reference and describe events of the  period relevant to film history. Since state socialism collapsed in a different rhythm and logic in each country, we will discuss each country separately. As in previous chapters the descriptive approach will be complemented by a comparative one, since we also try to formulate the regional message of the transformation that took place in each country.

Jurica Pavičić

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

4. The Eastern European and the Post-Yugoslav Situation: Similarities and Differences

The fourth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Iván Forgács

The Concept

Could there be a full gap between a state's political function and its ideology and recordable values with a humane trend? If not, in what kind of elements can be revealed the link? Is the opportunity of the violence game for this humanism inside? Could that state oppressor machineries work in the context of the humanism? How much was the film art of the East European state socialism specific? How much can be the intellectual-artistic peculiarities of the region's film production derived from the ideological values represented officially in these countries? May we talk about socialist cinema art in any kind of sense?

Jurica Pavičić

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

3. The Context of Eastern European Cinema after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The third part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Imre Szíjártó

Theoretical Framework: Canon, Canonisation, School 

The political transformation in the East-Central-European region, which began in the second half of the 1980s and ended in the early 1990s, connected in two countries with the establishment of souvereignty, seems to be a perfect period – or to be more precisely, a perfect milestone in history – to analyse the constructedness of the canon. Although it is clear that changes in values systems do not occur from one day to the next, neither can they be understood as effects of historical milestone events, unless we pause the ever changing reality of culture. 

Jurica Pavičić

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

2. The Development of Cinema in the Post-Yugoslav Countries

The second part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Krasimir Kastelov

Postmodernist Film Interpretations of the Communist Past

(The Bulgarian contribution in the context of the Central and East European cinema)

The proposed analysis of key films from the Bulgarian and the East European cinema shows, that their postmodernist specifics is not accidental, but it reflects the overall feeling of crisis, lack of meaning and absurdity which has engaged the minds of many filmmakers from our region – something typical for the transition between two eras, when one cultural paradigm is put aside, but a new one is still not widely adopted. On the other hand, the appearance of those films, in my opinion, refutes the premature conclusions of some Western theorists that the postmodernism is already dead. 
Thirty years after the first swallows of the postmodernist cinema in the West, the film art in the post-totalitarian East European countries takes advantage of its lessons in order to make sense of some of the unpleasant episodes of the communist past, “with irony, not innocently” by Umberto Eco’s definition. The wide international reaction to most of the titles, analyzed in the current overview, suggests perhaps the right path for overcoming the nostalgia of that era.