Category: East European Cinema

LFF 2020 #5: Shadow Country (Krajina ve stínu, Czech Republic 2020)

The christening at the start of the narrative. Marie is between her husband and her sister-in-law who holds the infant

This is one of the best films I’ve seen to present the real dangers inherent in nationalism and its inevitable decline into fascism between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. What is so remarkable about it is the humanist approach which is careful not to create monsters but instead to offer glimpses of the decent people who find themselves doing unspeakable things. I think that there are a couple of irredeemable characters and possibly one who is true to her beliefs throughout, but most are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just ‘ordinary folk’ whose behaviour becomes unacceptable in the extraordinary times. Director Bohdan Sláma told us in the Q&A that the script by Ivan Arsenyev drew on historical events but that the villagers were developed as fictional characters.

Marie’s German in-laws prepare to welcome their new status – but the armband has the swastika reversed

The narrative takes place in a village in the south of Bohemia, i.e the Western part of the state of Czechoslovakia, close to the Austrian border. When the new Republic was founded after the First World War and the break-up of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia found itself newly independent but with a significant German-speaking minority of over 20% of the total population. These were referred to as Sudeten Germans (named after local mountain ranges) and they were a majority in the new borderlands of the republic around the the Western, North-Western and South-Western parts of the country. Prior to 1918 these communities would have been in Germany or Austria. By the late 1930s and with the loud clamour of Nazi re-armament in Germany, the ‘Sudetenland’ began to make claims for the territories to be returned to Germany-Austria, especially after the Nazis forced the Anschluss on Austria. In the fictional village, the inhabitants voted to become German. Life became difficult for those maintaining their Czech identity and got worse when Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Adults in the village could now remember living in Austria, then Czechoslovakia and now Nazi Germany.

The Germans arrive in the village

The main period of the war is only a relatively short section of the narrative, principally focusing on the fate of the Jewish family and whatever resistance was possible for the Czechs. More time is spent on the aftermath of the war in 1945 and then on into the early 1950s when further movements of people were still taking place. The film begins and ends with Marie (Magdaléna Borová). As the narrative begins her baby is being christened. She is from a Czech family but has married a German. The whole village celebrates but only a few months later her husband declares himself ‘German’ and though Marie protests, she is classified as German as well. In 1945 she is expelled from the village and forced to live for a time in the woods outside the town as Austria won’t accept her. Then she is taken back by the village but humiliated because of her German connections. She will be moved again and she embodies the struggle to remain true to yourself while those around you are less scrupulous. You feel she will survive and that she represents the strengths of Central European peoples who have had to suffer so many changes of borders and rulers.

Josef, who attempted resistance, returns from the concentration camp in 1945 and is welcomed close to the village

The film features an ensemble narrative, brilliantly choreographed in black and white ‘Scope by the director and cinematographer Divis Marek. Many shots are composed in depth during community gatherings. There are also several music performances and overall there is a real sense of a village culture with separate narrative strands for a large number of characters. The focus on events after 1945 is interesting but very painful to watch as the script cleverly demonstrates how a former principled resistance fighter is forced to act as part of the ‘restoring order’ directive and then later investigated for not following proper procedures. Alongside this we see a number of events that demonstrate the savage ironies of occupation, collaboration and ‘national renewal’. There is no moral superiority in the film as far as I could see.

Marie with her new baby is forced into the woods in 1945

I was a little surprised at the relatively low profile of the Czech Communist party and the absence of Russians after 1945 but this is possibly simply a result of my own ignorance of events in Czechoslovakia from 1945 onwards. The scope of Shadow Country as a narrative with a wealth of characters across a period of some 15 or more years suggests parallels with Edgar Reitz’s long TV serial Heimat in 1984. When Shadow Country ended I felt like I wanted to watch the next episode to find out what happened to the surviving villagers from the late 1930s during the 1950s and beyond. At the same time, I also felt that the film I’d just seen was a real warning for audiences in Western Europe and North America about how fascism can destroy lives and communities. Those seem like major achievements for the makers of Shadow Country and I hope that the film gets seen widely.

CIFF20 #4: Rounds (V krŭg, Bulgaria-Serbia 2019)

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A night in the life of…

CIFFlogo Director and co-writer (with Simeon Ventsislavov) Stephan Komandarev’s last film, Directions (Posoki, Bulgaria-Germany-Republic of North Macedonia, 2017), centred on taxi drivers in Sofia. In Rounds it’s the turn of cops and he hopes to complete the trilogy with ambulance workers. ‘Hopes’ reflects the difficulties he had in getting the small budget for Rounds and the film was shot, incredibly, in 12 days. It won the Cineuropa Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Best Actress jury prize for Irini Jambonas who plays the only female cop. Rounds is a brilliant mix of mordant humour and social commentary. It’s set the night before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and some of the conversation is about the debate whether the Red Army statue should be removed or not.

Clearly Bulgaria is a divided country between those who celebrate western ‘freedom’ and those who pine for the days of Soviet ‘tyranny’. As one character says (I paraphrase), “I used to live on Class Struggle Street and they renamed it European Way; it hasn’t changed”.

The narrative follows three pairs of cops who are linked only by moving a corpse over a precinct boundary so they won’t have to deal with it. Komandarev said in an interview they used stories from actual cops and the absurdity of encountering grave vandals who claim their names are Rocky, Rambo and Sylvester give a sense of the surreal nature of some of their work. The darker side of dealing with those on the margins is seen when searching for an AWOL Alzheimer’s patient who turns out to be an ex-teacher that had ‘saved’ the cop from a life of crime. The glimpse we get into the ‘care’ home is quite chilling and the cop faces the moral dilemma of what to do in such circumstances. Another thread includes a young lad beaten up by neo Nazis.

Understandably the takes are long and the camera is often positioned in the back of the car giving it a documentary feel that is entirely appropriate. The performances are all believable and it is some feat of filmmaking to produce such a superbly made film under such limitations. This ‘night in the life of . . . ‘ gives us the good and bad and an insight into what post-‘Communism’ is like in a former eastern bloc country. It’s a clear sighted view of division which is important in divided times. The current ‘culture wars’, from the right wing perspective, is all about taking sides and if you’re not for them you are against them.

The film is still available at the Cheltenham online festival here.

CIFF20 #3: Stitches (Šavovi, Serbia 2019)

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Hoping for a release

According to IMDb the lead of Stitches, Snezana Bogdanovic who plays Ana, was a leading classical actor in Yugoslavia and her brilliant performance is crucial to the success of this delve into Serbia’s murky past. The narrative centres on the fact that hundreds of children were sold into adoption when their parents were told they were stillborn. Stitches is ‘inspired by true events’ and investigates the emotional fall-out of not being sure about a child’s fate. Ana’s child was taken from her at birth and though it’s 18 years later she is still seeking evidence about what happened, even if it’s only a grave at which to mourn. Even though she now has a daughter, Ivana (Jovana Stojiljkovic), Ana’s emotional lockdown means she’s alienated from both her and husband Jovan (Marko Bacovic).

Bogdanovic plays Ana as a dogged pursuer of truth and if, occasionally, a plot point seems to be missing (Ana’s sister, for example, seems to change her mind suddenly) it doesn’t detract from the powerful story. Everyone from the police to health authorities and her family have told her give up her search. It’s not until Ana makes progress that the emotional dam starts to break that we see how good Bogdanovic’s performance actually is. Ana has been almost a blank page throughout the film and Bogdanovic is careful to avoid histrionics as she nears her goal; indeed Ana’s desire is not one we might expect..

The film was directed by Miroslav Terzić (script by  Elma Tataragić) and the camera follows the relentless Ana as she works her way through each day. In one rare scene where she isn’t present Jovan is urged by the police to curb his wife and so we see the misogynist hurdles she has also had to combat. Similarly, in Argentina the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still await justice – as dramatised in The Official Story.

Her husband is a security guard who has unsocial working hours and there is often some confusion about what time of day it is. This emphasises that, to Ana, nothing other than finding out about her child’s fate is important; she is just going through the motions of life to the detriment of Ivana, whose alienation from her mother is readily understandable. Ana’s existence is economically portrayed as almost dream world or, more accurately, a nightmare. It’s another good film available at the Cheltenham online festival here.

This title was also reviewed by Keith at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019: See Stitches (2019)

Something Different (O necem jiné, Czechslovakia 1963)

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Concrete abstract

There’s something quite dazzling about Vera Chytilová’s first fiction feature; though roughly half of it is a documentary of sorts. There are two narratives: world champion gymnast Eva Bosáková training for her last event and housewife Vera (Vera Uzelacová) dealing with the difficulties of childcare and being a housewife. Although it is clear that Bosáková’s narrative is documentary, and it climaxes with her final performance, it is shot in often highly abstract ways which are anti-realist. Whether the framing is using extreme close-ups of parts of her body or unusual angles (there are some astonishing overhead shots), Chytilová is not representing reality simply. In addition, Bosáková constantly tells her trainer-husband she can’t do things (possibly an unusual image for a sportsperson to display) and many of the movements are obviously choreographed or Jan Curík’s cinematography would have no chance to keep up with them. I’m not denying the reality of what we’re seeing but noting that the stylisation gives it a constructed feel. From a sporting perspective it is notable that gymnasts of the time were very unlike the bendy youngsters of today but no less brilliant.

The second narrative outlines Vera’s mundane life and is shot far more conventionally. Here we are in a familiar melodrama of an inattentive husband and a wife whose life horizons are severely constricted; though nowhere near as long as Chantal Ackerman’s feminist classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Belguim-France 1975) – which I haven’t seen – there is enough routine shown to give a deep sense of ennui. Several times Vera pauses and says, to herself, “What was it I wanted?”

O necem jinem

‘Don’t you fancy me any more?’

The only link between the two narratives is Bosáková’s appearance on Vera’s television once. However, the two strands are entwined with the superb editing of Miroslav Hájek, facilitated by Chytilová’s camera placement, that uses graphic matches to link the disparate locations. So a close-up of leg might be matched by a close-up of the same shape in the ‘other’ narrative.

Although it may seem that Bosáková has more freedom than Vera she is, mostly, coached by men telling her to do things she doesn’t want to do. However, the resolution to her narrative does offer her some hope for the future; for Vera, however, the pattern seems unlikely to change.

Chytilová’s Daisies is one of the great Czech New Wave films and although Something Different comes nowhere near the brilliance of that it is something different that is well worth seeing.

Take Me Somewhere Nice (Bosnia-Netherlands 2019)

Alma watches Emir and Denis

This is the début feature of writer-director Ena Sendijarevic, a Bosnian filmmaker based in Amsterdam. The film has had a successful festival run around the world, garnering prize nominations, including wins in its two ‘home’ festivals of Rotterdam and Sarajevo. It’s a road movie and ‘coming of age’ drama that includes many familiar elements but presents them in fresh and ‘refreshing’ ways. Several reviews have referred to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (US 1984) because of its low budget and three characters on a trip to the sea, each of whom are ‘finding themselves’. I haven’t seen the Jarmusch since its first UK screening in 1984 so I was more taken by similarities to two other similar road movies, Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001) and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (UK 2002). I mention all three films simply to make the point that they each make use of familiar elements but in very different ways and in different settings.

Alma (Sara Luna Zoric) takes part in a show

Ena Sendijarevic elects to use a 1.33:1 ratio image in colour – and the bright pastel colours are part of the film’s visual appeal. Cinematography by Emo Weemhoff, who also shot Ms Sendijarevic’s successful short Import (2016), is striking in its manipulation of space and use of angles. It is at times also lyrical in presenting summer in Bosnia. The plot is relatively simple in outline. Alma is a young woman living with her mother in the Netherlands and together they have decided that she should visit Bosnia for a holiday and also try to visit her father who is sick in a hospital. We get the impression that Alma has grown up in the Netherlands and may never have known her father or only has vague memories from early childhood. We don’t learn Alma’s age but she could be anywhere between 18 and 23. In the opening scene she is with her mother trying to decide between two summer dresses to take on her trip. There will be several other images and actions that represent her sense of having two identities and her difficulty in deciding how to reconcile the two.

Alma with Denis (Lazar Dragojevic)

In Bosnia she is expecting to stay with her cousin Emir who has a flat in a tower block. He turns out to be unemployed but somehow always busy with schemes and seemingly reluctant to help Alma. Fortunately he has a sidekick (an ‘intern’ as the subtitles put it) called Denis who is more friendly. Even so, Alma decides to try to find her father in hospital, travelling across country by bus. Alma experiences several setbacks which she overcomes with remarkable calmness. She is an attractive young woman but ‘down to earth’ – sensible and playful in equal measure. Eventually the two young men catch up with her and the trio continue their journey. Alma’s twin identities are reflected in the different dreams of the Emir and Denis. Emir is proud to be Bosnian, Denis wants to get away. The crucial thing about the film for many reviewers seems to be that the film isn’t typical of Balkan films that are about the aftermath of war, the yearning for migration or indeed ‘dark’ drama of any kind. (The names Emir and Denis mirror the Muslim/Christian balance in the population but this isn’t an issue.) Instead the film focuses on the personal stories of its three young characters who have universal concerns. There are dark moments, especially towards the end when they finally get to the sea, but there are also fun times and I’m not going to spoil the adventures of the three. Later, I read an interview by the director stating clearly that she wanted to avoid the ‘social-realist’ image of a ‘victimised’ Bosnia. She succeeds in this and she says her next picture will be:

. . . about the feminine side of the colonial oppression of Indonesia by the Dutch – the female experience, so to say. It will be quite a surreal, fantastical, absurdist horror comedy. [Laughs.]

Alma with Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac)

The film’s music by Ella van der Woude won a festival prize and there are diegetic tracks of local popular music. I’m too old to be able to comment on this but I enjoyed the film, which at 91 minutes seems about the right length. The three young leads are all good as quite different characters, but it’s really Sara Luna Zoric as Alma who ‘owns’ the film. I imagine that she got on well with her young director and the whole film seems to have gone down well with younger audiences in both Amsterdam and Sarajevo.  It’s an encouraging début film and well worth looking up on MUBI where it will be available for the next three weeks.

In the Fog (V tumane, Germany-Netherlands-Belarus-Russia-Latvia 2012)

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No way out

It’s not surprising that the non-propaganda war films that came out of the Soviet Union, and come out of the former Soviet Union (in this instance Belarus), are particularly brutal in their representations. As The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) by Svetlana Alexievich details, the reality of war was virtually unimaginable depravity and, as the eastern European war was particularly a territorial battle, it was a fertile ground for ‘hell on earth’. British and American movies, at least, tend to emphasise heroism and, in the case of the former, contribute to the myth of British exceptionalism; a myth that’s been shown for what it’s worth during the current pandemic. Indeed, the recent VE day celebrations erased the Soviet contribution as if they had never been allies. The extreme right wing newspaper, the Daily Mail, even called the day ‘Victory over Europe’ somewhat ironic as, before the war, it was on the side of Hitler and no doubt would be today.

Director Sergey Loznitsa adapted Vasily Bykov’s novel which focuses on the consequences of an act of sabotage against the occupying Nazis. It was Loznitsa’s second film as director; he’s probably better known for Maidan (Ukraine-Netherlands, 2014) that documented the uprising in the Ukraine. In the Fog did compete for the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and although the tension sags occasionally it’s a fascinating film (available until May 23 on the Kino Klassika website).

The film’s narrative unveils itself through a series of flashbacks (although there is one scene that I cannot fit into the narrative at all; I must have missed something) that piece together how we come to the opening situation where Burov (Vladislav Abashin), a partisan, has come to punish Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). This is preceded by a virtuoso long take, hand held camera through the village where the Nazis are staging an execution. The characters are taciturn, seemingly doing ‘what a man’s got to do’; what is striking about Alexievich’s book is how different the women she interviewed dealt with their war experiences compared to men who had sunk into silence. Sushenya, even though he does eventually explain what happened, knows that words are useless and he’s as trapped as Josef K is in The Trial.

Oleg Mutu’s cinematography captures to glorious beauty of the forest but I found the night time scenes less credible. Other than the uncinematic virtual darkness, night time in the countryside is incredibly hard to film; however, even taking that into account, I kept expecting to see an arc light appear in the scene: it was distracting.

That didn’t distract from the power of the film and its central metaphor: the fog of war. In Errol Morris’ documentary of that title (full title: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, US, 2003) the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War candidly explained his reasoning for the brutality of war. Whether you agreed with him or not probably depends upon your political orientation but the fog our protagonists deal with is not abstract, they are in it. In the UK, many on the right are telling teachers to ‘be brave’ and go back to school (Private Schools, which the elite attend, are shut until September): keyboard warriors happy to have others take the risk. In the Fog firmly places the spectator in the nightmare ensuring the film speaks to our emotions.