I originally intended this as a companion piece to my Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer, in which I was going to discuss key films from various Eastern-Bloc countries outside of the Soviet Union that were made only prior to the worldwide collapse of Communism. I eventually reconsidered to include more recent films from Bulgaria and Hungary — but even these post-Communist films are arguably relevant mainly for what they reveal about life before and after the dissolution of the “iron curtain.”
Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958 Poland)
Andrzej Wajda is probably the greatest Polish director to have worked mainly in Poland (as opposed to, say, Roman Polanski or Krzysztof Kieslowski, who are mostly known for the films they made outside of their native country) and Ashes and Diamonds is an ideal introduction to his work. Although it is the third part of a loose “war trilogy” (following A Generation and Kanal), each film features different characters and a self-contained plot, with Ashes arguably providing the dramatic high point of the three. The WWII-set story follows Maciek, a disillusioned Polish resistance fighter who becomes involved in a plot to assassinate a Communist leader (after the Soviets had driven off the invading Nazis). In addition to the complex ethical issues it raises, Ashes and Diamonds is also of interest for the performance of Zbigniew Cybulski (the “Polish James Dean” who helped to set a new standard for cinematic cool) as well as some strikingly poetic cinematography — what Wajda and D.P. Jerzy Wójcik do with a fireworks display will etch itself into your brain.
Knife in the Water (Polanski, 1962, Poland)
After a couple of promising shorts, Roman Polanski burst onto the international stage with Knife in the Water, his first full-length feature that, although it would be the last film he ever made in Poland, introduced most of the motifs for which he would soon become famous: a suspenseful scenario with psycho-sexual underpinnings, a penchant for shooting in claustrophobic settings, and strong, naturalistic performances from a small cast. The story, a three-person show, concerns a married couple who embark on a yachting expedition and decide at the last minute to take a long a young hitch-hiker. Once they’ve set sail, the husband and the drifter engage in a game of shifting power dynamics with the attractive young wife unwittingly caught between them. An auspicious debut.
The Shop On Main Street (Kadar/Klos, 1965, Czechoslovakia)
This incredible Holocaust movie illustrates, with commendable subtlety and complexity, how insidiously Nazi ideology pervaded Europe during WWII. The main character, Tono (Jozef Kroner), is an out-of-work carpenter who is granted by fascist authorities the opportunity to take ownership of the title location from an elderly Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska) in a small Slovak town. The woman, however, is hard of hearing and oblivious to the process of “Aryanization” — she thinks Tono is merely looking for a job and agrees to hire him. As the two work together, they begin to like one another but soon the Nazis begin deporting all of the Jews from the town . . . Very few fictional movies on this subject are capable of illustrating the kind of impossible moral choices that faced many ordinary European citizens at this time as well as this masterpiece co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos from a screenplay by Ladislaw Grosman. Too bad only a small fraction of the people who have seen Schindler’s List will ever see this.
Closely Watched Trains (Menzel, 1966, Czechoslovakia)
One of the seminal films of the Nová Vlna (or Czech New Wave) movement is Jiri Menzel’s comedic 1966 account of a young man’s tenure as a train station employee in WWII Czechoslovakia. As the war is nearing its end, partisans are attempting to blow up Nazi supply trains while Milos (Václav Neckár), the protagonist, is mostly interested in trying to get laid. Like Milos Forman’s similarly groundbreaking Loves of a Blonde, Menzel’s depiction of his characters’ earthy desires (including a hilarious subplot about a scandal caused by a train dispatcher’s literal stamping of a woman’s bare ass) was not without ideological import: the Czech New Wave filmmakers took full advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded to them (in terms of form and content) by the brief period of reform known as the Prague Spring. Closely Watched Trains deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968.
Daisies (Chytilova, 1966, Czechoslovakia)
My favorite Czech movie ever is this astonishing piece of radical feminist pop art from director Vera Chytilova. Almost impossible to accurately describe, Daisies is a plotless examination of two women, both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová), who engage in colorful, madcap adventures that involve going on dates with — and ripping off — old men, dancing, wearing outrageous clothes and make-up, and consuming copious amounts of food and alcohol. While the style veers from Godardian bricolage to silent slapstick, with an innovative employment of color filters throughout, the tone of the film is consistently pitched at a level of joyous anarchy. I’m not entirely sure to what extent Chytilova is railing against patriarchy under Communist rule vs. merely having a bit of dada-esque fun (though the fact that Czech authorities banned Chytilova from making another film until 1975 suggests the former) or perhaps she’s doing both, but I do feel certain this looks as fresh and delightful in the 21st century as it must have looked to audiences in 1966.
The Firemen’s Ball (Forman, 1967, Czechoslovakia)
Milos Forman’s last Czech film before departing for America is an amazingly subversive comedy about a fire brigade in a small Czech town holding its annual ball, during which time they plan on staging their first “beauty contest” (whose participants turn out to be unwilling female attendees) and honoring the 86th birthday of their former chairman. Perhaps the definitive “Prague Spring” movie, The Firemen’s Ball clearly views the fire brigade at its center as a microcosm of the Communist government: an inefficient bureaucracy presided over by old men whose approach to organization is to essentially make everything up as they go along. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and it actually depresses me to think that the man who made it wound down his career making generic biopics in Hollywood.
The Red and the White (Jancso, 1967, Hungary)
During Russia’s civil war, circa 1919, the “reds” are the Russian bolsheviks and their Hungarian allies, the “whites” are the tsar’s government troops. In many ways, this is like a modern update of Battleship Potemkin: both are propagandistic period pieces that show the brutality of the tsar’s old regime by focusing on teeming masses instead of individuals but, in terms of style, the two films couldn’t be more opposite. While Eisenstein’s movie is virtually one long rapid-fire montage, Miklos Jancso employs a long take/long shot style that features stunningly elaborate camera choreography instead. Indeed, some of the shots in this film are among the most impressive ever captured on celluloid and the complexity of the camera-choreography clearly exerted an influence on the late style of Jancso’s countryman Bela Tarr.
Ward Six (Pintilie, 1978, Yugoslavia/Romania)
Lucian Pintilie is widely considered the greatest Romanian director of all time and the godfather of the highly regarded “Romanian New Wave” of the 21st century. While his influential films of the 1960s are virtually impossible to find today (at least with English subtitles), this lesser known 1978 masterpiece is ripe for rediscovery. Shot in Yugoslavia with a Serbo-Croatian cast but set in Tsarist Russia, Ward Six is an adaptation of a Chekhov story (Palata No. 6) about a doctor who befriends a patient in a mental hospital. The two engage in lengthy philosophical conversations that precipitate the doctor’s own descent into madness. I loved the lengthy tracking shots used to follow the doctor as he makes his daily walk from home to the hospital, accompanied by industrial noises on the soundtrack as well as internal monologues fraught with moral dilemmas (e.g., if it is natural for humans to get sick and die, why bother trying to help them at all?). I should also note that this uniquely austere work of great cinematic artistry appears to have been appreciated more in Chicago than anywhere else: it won the Chicago International Film Festival’s top prize in 1979 and the only North American video release it has ever received is via Chicago’s Facets Multimedia.
The Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1988, Poland)
My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.
Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, 1988, Yugoslavia)
Though his critical reputation seems to have diminished in recent years, Serbian director Emir Kusturica was considered one of the key directors of the 1980s and 1990s during which time he was a mainstay at prestigious international festivals. My favorite of his films is this gypsy epic set in the former Yugoslavia about Perhan (Davor Dujmovic), a young man who goes to great lengths to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves (after her mother disapproves of his courtship), which includes becoming involved with a local crime kingpin. The gypsy setting allows for Kusturica to provide a feast for the eyes and ears: the non-professional performers, production design, use of color and, especially, Goran Bregovic’s original score (later appropriated by Borat) are all top-notch. Guiding all of it with a sure hand is Kusturica, whose darkly comic approach can be ascertained by the film’s tagline: “When God came down to earth he could not deal with the gypsies . . . and he took the next flight back.”
Canary Season (Mihailov, 1993, Bulgaria)
Until recently, I had never seen a movie from Bulgaria (a country whose cinematic output has admittedly always been sparse) but tracked down this well-regarded film in the hopes that I might be able to include it on this list. I was not disappointed. Canary Season is a powerfully realistic — and occasionally shockingly brutal — portrayal of life during the country’s recently dismantled Communist regime. It begins in the present as 20-year-old Malin is released from prison following a year’s stretch for assault. After Malin aggressively confronts his mother, Lily, about the true identity of his father, whom Malin has never known, the movie then flashes back to the early 1960s to recount a sad tale rape, forced marriage, and detention at a labor camp and mental hospital — all of which occurs under a cloud of paranioa and fear in a country where the threat of being denounced to a corrupt government is ever-present. High production values and excellent performances make this a formidable addition to the Eastern European cinema canon although this is obviously not for those who shy away from the grimmer realities of life.
Satantango (Tarr, 1994, Hungary)
Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.