The late nineteen seventies and eighties have witnessed a remarkable outpouring of stylistically varied and sociopolitically significant films from the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Film directors and other gifted film artists who made their international reputations in the sixties and endured a period of comparative neglect, political harassment, and bureaucratic interventions throughout most of the seventies, have once again begun to make films of startling originality and depth. Already established film artists have been joined recently by a newer generation of filmmakers, superbly trained in their craft—who reached maturity after the cataclysmic events of the Second World War and the Stalinist aftermath of socialist reconstruction, and who are bringing fresh perspectives to historical themes and contemporary realities. The new spirit of resurgence and pluralistic cinematic expression which has taken place in the Soviet Union and the so-called Eastern European countries (a geographic and cultural misnomer which the title of the present book perpetuates for lack of a more convenient label) has expressed itself in highly variable ways within the national and multinational cinemas analyzed in this volume.
The Gorbachev-inspired policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) have, at the time of this writing, led to a profound reorganization of the Soviet film industry and to the completion of a growing number of impressive new films as well as the release of previously censored or shelved films made in the late seventies and early eighties. In her chapter “Toward a New Openness in Soviet Cinema, 1976-1987,” Anna Lawton masterfully surveys these recent developments, placing them in relationship to the earlier “thaw” (late fifties and early sixties) and within the important political and sociocultural transitions which have taken place in Soviet cinema from the end of the Brezhnev era to the present.
The culturally rich and sophisticated cinemas of Poland and Hungary had already gone through their own versions of glasnost well before the Soviet Union. In Poland, the rebirth of a “cinema of moral concern” was signaled by the international critical and popular success of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1976) and its sequel Man of Iron (1980), the latter of which won the Palme d’or for best feature film at Cannes in 1981. The new mood of Polish cinema was richly confirmed by Krzysztof Zanussi’s complex cinematic and philosophical meditations Camouflage (1976), Spiral (1978), and The Constant Factor (1980). After the crackdown on the Solidarity movement in late 1981, it was widely assumed by Western film critics and international film festival goers that the recently reborn Polish cinema would be strangled in the cradle. Such gloomy prognostications did not fully take into account the moral and intellectual tough-mindedness of the Polish film community and the unique and complex relationship which exists between the Polish intelligentsia and regime authorities. As Frank Turaj amply demonstrates in his chapter, the last few years have witnessed an impressive number of artistically well-made and socially relevant Polish films.
Beginning in the late seventies, Hungarian cinema has enjoyed a sustained and often brilliant period of creativity. Several Hungarian films have won major international awards and widespread critical acclaim: Márta Mészáros’s Women (1977), Pál Gábor’s Angi Vera (1979), István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981)—a Hungarian-West German coproduction which captured the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1982—and Colonel Redl (1984). Miklós Jancsó, the best-known Hungarian film director in the sixties, has continued to make cinematically complex experimental films which have often perplexed both foreign and domestic film critics. In his chapter “The Magyar on the Bridge,” David Paul provides a sensitive reading of Jancsó’s recent films, and relates them to his earlier oeuvre and to the other important creative currents which are coursing through contemporary Hungarian cinema.
The extraordinarily versatile and gifted Czechoslovakian film community continues to labor under the tight bureaucratic and ideological controls imposed after the fall of Dubček in 1968. Despite these constraints, there are unmistakable signs of artistic renewal and resurgence. Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1966, and Capricious Summer, 1967) has made a well-deserved comeback with several important films in the late seventies and eighties, including his most recent international success, My Sweet Little Village (1986). Věra Chytilová has also directed several recent films which exemplify the same artistic vitality and uncompromising integrity which characterized her work in the sixties. Peter Hames provides a cogent analysis of recent film trends in Czechoslovakia and appraises them in relation to current ideological conditions and in relation to the wider and deeper Czechoslovak new wave period of the sixties.
East German filmmakers have also made impressive films in the late seventies and eighties despite a framework of ideological and aesthetic constraints which, if anything, is even more rigorous than that in Czechoslovakia. While these recent trends are followed closely in the brother state of West Germany, they are little appreciated in the rest of Western Europe and the United States. In her chapter, “Testing the Borders: East German Film between Individualism and Social Commitment,” Sigrun Leonhard makes a detailed and well-documented contribution toward filling this gap in our understanding.
Bulgarian cinema has followed its own unique rhythms of upward and downward cycles of resurgence and decline which are not always synchronous with similar cycles in neighboring socialist countries. Participating fully in the period of the “thaw” in the late fifties and early sixties, Bulgarian cinema experienced a rapid decline in the mid-to-late sixties—at the very time when the cinemas of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were reaching the highest creative peaks of the new wave period. By contrast, the revival of a significant and interesting Bulgarian cinema began in the early seventies (when other socialist cinemas were stagnating) and was maintained into the early eighties. The last few years, however, have been comparatively sterile and represent a complex period of readjustment and struggle toward recovery. Ronald Holloway, whose intimate knowledge of Bulgarian cinema has been formed over many years, provides an astute and convincing analysis and overview of these developments.
Among the internationally significant national cinemas of Central and Eastern Europe, only Romania has shown little sign of renewal. Her gifted community of film artists is caught between the twin millstones of a prolonged and deepening economic crisis on the one hand, and an unrelentingly conservative ideological climate on the other. At the time of this writing, film developments in Romania do not seem to warrant separate treatment in a book focusing upon resurgence and new cinematic breakthroughs.
Romania’s neighboring state, Yugoslavia, however, is experiencing an unusually fecund and impressive revival of its multinational cinema which was most dramatically confirmed by the award of the Palme d’or for best feature film at Cannes in 1986 for Emir Kusturica’s film, When Father Was Away on Business—a substantial international critical and popular success. Kusturica’s film represents only the tip of a broadly based film revival, the full dimensions of which are described and analyzed in the final chapter, “Yugoslav Film in the Post-Tito Era.”
Even within the confines of such a brief overview of the contents of this book, it should be obvious that the rich and varied cinemas of the Soviet Union and of the Central and Eastern European socialist states are not cut from the same cloth nor stitched together by threads woven from looms made in Moscow. It is equally valid to observe, however, that all of these countries (including Yugoslavia, which does not belong to the “eastern bloc”) have shared, in varying ways, a turbulent and sometimes tragic contemporary history characterized by revolution, war, and socialist reconstruction. These “common” experiences have provided a rich source of filmic themes which cut across cultural boundaries. There also exists an important socialist legacy of assigning to film a larger political and sociocultural status than it typically enjoys in the West. The best of the films from the “East” are characterized by a high level of artistic “seriousness” and sociocultural and political significance. They often yield distinctive, valuable, and unique perspectives on the contemporary human condition. Seriousness, of course, does not imply unrelieved somberness and tragedy. Some of the best recent films exemplify a lively sense of the comic, which ranges from slapstick to the mordant, surrealistic, and Kafkaesque—revealing a sense of humor and of the absurd which is deeply rooted in Central and Eastern European historical experiences and cultural traditions.
Many of the best Soviet and East European films never make it past the festival circuit into networks of commercial film distribution which would expose them to a wider audience. There has been much discussion recently about opening the windows of the East more widely to the flow of Western news, thought, and culture. Perhaps we need to think more deeply about opening more windows in the West to influences from the East. It is hoped that the present volume will make a small contribution in that direction.