Category: East European Cinema

Charlatan (Czech Republic-Ireland-Slovakia-Poland 2020)

Jan Mikolásek analyses a sample, watched by Frantisek Panko

This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.

Frantisek goes out to the queue of people to make sure they are behaving in an orderly manner

The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the  communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.

The young Mikolásek meets a herbalist who can teach him the ropes

With the family background in horticulture, Mikolásek has a head start

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.

Mikolásek comes across as a severe figure

I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.

Mikolásek passes a diagnostic test set by the occupying Nazis

Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.

The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.

The Girl (Eltávozott nap, Hungary 1968)

This début fiction feature by the documentarist Márta Mészáros is a stunning portrait of a young woman in Hungary searching with steely determination for a sense of her own identity in a society experiencing a dramatic contrast between tradition and developing modernity. It is both an example of the New Wave films of Eastern Europe in the late 1960s and one of the early films of feminist cinema in Europe (although Mészáros is reported as not recognising the ‘feminist’ label). The film is currently streaming on MUBI as part of a four film offering of restored prints. The film also goes by two other English titles, The Day Has Gone and The Sun Has Gone.

The head of the instution with her staff welcoming the ‘old girls’ to the monthly meal.

The central character is Erzsi, a young woman of 24 who has grown up in a state orphanage and now works in a textile factory, living in what appears to be a dormitory in a workers’ hostel. The narrative opens with  a monthly meal at the orphanage where the former residents are served by the older girls who are still living in the orphanage. The opening credits have shown us a group of young women in their twenties being given training in archery. The orphanage and its ‘alumni’ association appear to be single sex institutions, possibly linked directly to the factory as state institutions. Eventually Erzsi is picked out by the camera when she leaves the Sunday meal, complaining that she doesn’t feel well. In fact she is probably just bored. Later she tells her friend that she has made contact with a woman who is probably her mother and she has decided to visit the village where this woman lives. Erzsi is played by Kati Kovács who in 1968 had already been recognised in a TV talent contest and had sung a winning song in a televised dance-song festival. After 1970 her recording career took off and she has become one of Hungary’s most famous singers. Her confidence as a performer is already evident in her portrayal of Erzsi.

Kati Kovács as Erzsi on the train to visit the village

Erzsi takes a train and a bus to get to the village where she finds the family house of her mother. But the welcome is not warm – the woman says that she will introduce Erzsi as a niece who is visiting because she has a work appointment close by. The evening and the next day are difficult for Erzsi. The woman is married and has a grown up son, and a younger boy with her husband. His mother is also living with her. Erzsi becomes the focus of attention for the husband and eldest son. She gets little opportunity to speak to any of the family, even if she wanted to. In a key scene, the family watch a TV broadcast from London of a ‘beauty contest’ (see the image below). Note how the woman watches her husband but the others watch the screen. The woman is dressed traditionally and so is her mother (still in the kitchen). Television was still relatively new in the 1960s, especially in rural Hungary, and these formal groups (as in the UK in the 1950s) were common for audiences. The following day the family attend a dance in the village and the traditional/modern split becomes more apparent especially between the younger and older women. The band is a ‘beat group’ which resembles those seen in small towns in the UK in the 1960s. Erzsi leaves soon after the dance without saying goodbye. On the train back to Budapest she decides to go home with a man she meets.

The family tableau watching the beauty contest

When she gets up the next morning in her dormitory she returns to the factory and socialises with her small circle of friends. She has ‘admirers’, including a young man who appears to be stalking her. Her attitudes towards men are straightforward. She enjoys some of the attention and dismisses other attempts to engage with her. She appears to enjoy her sexual encounters but has no romantic notions. I was reminded to some extent of the Hungarian girl who loves the ratcatcher in Dusan Makavejev’s Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Erzsi is a ‘modern’ young woman but she is still interested in finding out about her history. The film is also similar in some ways to Pawel Pawlikowski’s later prize-winning Ida (Poland 2013) but in The Girl, Erzsi who would have been born in 1944, does not engage directly in discussions about the Second World War. She does eventually meet a man who claims to have known her parents and he tells her a story about them. They are both dead it seems. Erzsi doesn’t believe him but later says it was a ‘nice story’. Hungarians in the 1960s must have been conflicted about remembering the war period. They did not come out of it well, aligned to the Axis powers initially and then occupied by the Nazis. This history also affected the later relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary.

Erzsi in ‘cool’ mode

The oddest thing about Erzsi is that on three occasions she pays the bills for people she meets or her friends. She is paid a modest wage as a textile worker but seems unconcerned about money. Overall, she is a ‘cool’ character who might appear in any 1960s film from Europe or North America. Much of the impetus behind this character must come from Márta Mészáros herself. The director wrote the script herself and her own biography records a similar history of ‘displacement’. Born in 1931, Mészáros went with her artist parents to Moscow as a young child and was orphaned a few years later, being brought up by a foster mother. She returned to Hungary as a teenager in 1946 and later went back to Moscow for film school. She then worked as a documentary filmmaker in both Hungary and Romania. Her second marriage was to the director Miklós Jancsó. They divorced in 1973. The Girl created a strong impression with critics and audiences but divisions quickly developed and it has been suggested that Mészáros became more popular outside Hungary. The reason for this was her strong central aim of exploring the ‘modernising’ of Hungarian society and specifically gender and sexual relations. I suspect that she also disturbed audiences with her probing into personal and social history in a society in which personal identity post-1945 was a difficult issue for many. Here’s a more theorised observation from one writer on Mészáros:

There are not many reviews of The Girl in English and some of them seem off the mark to me. Erzsi is often seen by reviewers as ‘lonely’ and ‘oppressed’. One American review I read seemed to suggest that this was because Hungary was a cold and unhappy country in the Soviet bloc. I don’t think Erzsi is alone and oppressed but clear-eyed and focused. The narrative is recognisable as an East European New Wave film but the standout performance of Kati Kovács is riveting. It is worth watching the film just to see this powerful performance. Her hair and dress sense is modern and sophisticated but it is her ‘gaze’ that is most striking. The presentation of pop music in Hungary in the film is remarkable for most Western viewers (although I am reminded of the earlier Czech New Wave film Audition (Czechoslovakia 1963, by Milos Forman) and the images below refer to a dance at the end of the film in which the band seem to be riffing, in both a musical and fashion sense, on Californian psychedelic and rock music of 1966/7.

Erzsi turns away her friend at a dance and takes up with a man who has been watching her

The band at the dance – channeling The Byrds or Lovin’ Spoonful?

The Girl is a relatively short film, more like 84 minutes in this restoration than the 90 suggested by IMDb. The restoration looks very good and the black and white photography by Tamás Somló presented in Academy (1.37:1) does justice to Márta Mészáros’ selection of locations and framings. Both director and cinematographer had come out of documentary work and with Kati Kovács’ performance as a focus the presentation of life in Budapest and the contrast with the outlying village is compelling. This is one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. I note the next film in the quartet has just popped up on MUBI. There is too much to watch all of a sudden. In fact we have already reviewed one of the four restorations, Adoption ( Hungary 1975). Other films by Márta Mészáros on this blog are Diary for My Children (Hungary 1982/4),  The Unburied Man (Hungary-Poland-Slovakia 2004) and The Last Report on Anna (Hungary 2009). Her latest film is Aurora Borealis: Északi fény (2017). Her body of work is in many ways comparable with that of Agnès Varda and it deserves to be much more widely celebrated.

Motherland (Gimtine, Lithuania-Latvia-Germany-Greece 2019)

Motherland is one of the films available free to download during December from ArteKino Film Festival. I’ve seen films set in Lithuania as a location (see The Adoption (Spain-Lithuania 2015)) but I don’t think I’ve seen a film made as a Lithuanian project before. Writer-director Thomas Vengris is the son of Lithuanian migrants to the US and the film was jointly funded by companies in Latvia, Germany and Greece as well as a Lithuanian company and Eurimages funding. The story also reflects an interest in Lithuanian identity as perceived in a global  (i.e. European and American) context.

Viktorija (Severija Janusauskaite) and her son Kovas (Matas Metlevski) arrive in Lithuania from the US in Summer 1992, only two years after Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. For 12 year-old Kovas, who was born in the US, this is a summer holiday during which he hopes to discover something of the country his mother fled 20 years ago as well as simply enjoying a new experience. For Viktorija, however, this is much more. She has recently divorced Kovas’ father, David and at first her intentions aren’t clear to Kovas. She is at a turning point and Lithuania represents both the past and a possible future.

Thomas and Viktorija in Vilnius – the composition emphasises that they each look at their surroundings in a different way.

Mother and son spend a couple of days with Viktorija’s sister in Vilnius and Viktorija investigates the legal situation re her family’s land, bequeathed to her by her father but which has lain abandoned for many years. An old boyfriend of hers, Romas, arrives to help her and eventually Viktorija and Kovas accompany him to look at the land. They stay with Romas and his daughter Marija who is roughly the same age as Kovas or possibly a year or two older. But ‘recovering’ the land is not straightforward and leads Mother and son into a series of ‘adventures’. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it is obvious someone might be living there. 

Kovas joins Romas in a sauna, tastes vodka and joins a shooting match.

The title ‘Motherland’ is interesting because of its double meaning. In terms of a national identity, Lithuania is ‘the motherland’, but for Kovas it is literally his mother’s land that is central to the story whether it describes this unknown country he is visiting (about which he knows little, except what his mother has told him) or the physical land that his mother hopes to recover. The story is told from the perspective of Kovas – told quite literally at times via a voiceover by Kovas in English. This also means that although it is Viktorija whose attempt to reclaim the family land is the driver of the narrative, there is also a form of ‘coming of age’ story for Kovas, one with only a few of the familiar conventions. I’ve read a couple of comments suggesting that we don’t know enough about Kovas and that we learn more about Viktorija. I find this a little puzzling since we learn most through what Kovas sees. Perhaps this impression comes because Matas Metlevski has no prior professional film experience and was discovered in Kansas via a search across Lithuanian-American communities. By contrast Severija Janusauskaite is an award-winning actor working in Russian cinema. Both are very good but perhaps convey their feelings in different ways.

Marija teaches Kovas how to drive.

The developing relationship between Kovas and Marija is well handled. Life in rural Lithuania in 1992 is portrayed as still fairly traditional for the region and we see a ‘solstice festival’. This is to some extent familiar from Swedish films, reminding us that Lithuania has a long history during which the state grew to a large territory as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 16th – 18th century before coming under Russian domination. National identity is a complex matter in this region. The Baltic states have relatively small populations of low density, with borders difficult to defend and the threat of invasion from East and West, as well as across the sea from Scandinavia. The Cinema’Scope images are well-used to portray the grey Soviet housing blocks of Vilnius as well as the beautiful landscapes of forests, grasslands and lakes. The film was shot by Audrius Kemezys, the celebrated Lithuanian cinematographer who died soon after completing the shoot. The film is dedicated to him.

Uncertainty is really the name of the game, so it isn’t surprising that the film has an ‘open ending’. Even so I found this optimistic since it does look as if Kovas and Viktorija have learned something about each other and that whatever happens next they should be able to face it together. Thomas Vengris has suggested that one of his aims was to make a film that would be seen outside Lithuania (which currently produces 20+ films each year) and which might enable a wide range of audiences to consider the difficulties faced by people trying to build their lives after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a struggle to rediscover/build a new identity. For many of the people of the newly independent states this might mean migration, ‘capitalist’ reconstruction, EU membership etc., but the identity question remains.

I enjoyed the film and learned a lot. I hope it eventually gets some form of distribution in the UK and it’s well worth catching as part of this free festival offer.

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)

rounds

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)

savovi2

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)