Mysticism, otherness and traumatic echoes: the best of Eastern European cinema

Vera Chytilova's Daisies

Vera Chytilova’s Daisies

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Miklos Jancso’s seminal film The Red and the White, Getintothis’ Chris Leathley considers what half a century of Eastern European cinema can offer.

Eastern Europe as a label or identifier is exceptionally broad – it could incorporate numerous nations, ethnicities, religions, political groups and cultural norms, some of which we may even think of as quintessentially Western.

For most cinephiles, the film annals of Eastern Europe can, and do, conjure up heady feelings of admiration, lust, mystification and wariness.

In terms of ‘regional’ cinema, more than most, Eastern European films have fostered a sense of ‘other’ that is matched only by the ‘magic realism’ of somebody like Apichatpong Weerasethakul or the existentialism of Wim Wenders.

However, for much of the time that movies have been produced in Eastern Europe, the circumstances of their production have been far from propitious.

The granite edifice of totalitarianism loomed menacingly over all that filmmakers and their casts did. Physical threat, psychological conditioning, ideological fanaticism (after all, some directors were true believers, after a fashion) all played their part. Even in collapse and disintegration, the repressive structures remained in place or were subsumed by the ideologies of the Free Market and the attenuating need for capital.

All of these drivers were component parts of cinema in the East but were far from being the exclusive influencers on celluloid exotica from there.

Indigenous cultures, linguistic rhythms, and lurid dreamscapes have all found vivid expression in these curious movies. More than within alternative filmic cosmologies, directors, screenwriters and actors have found relief from official and unofficial strictures through ever more complex abstractions and surrealism.

Ironically, it was this kind of esoteric symbolism which would regularly get filmmakers into trouble with perplexed, suspicious censors. Anything that wasn’t easily comprehended was potentially dangerous to the regime. As such, it is not surprising that the most creatively fertile periods in Soviet-era cinema in Eastern Europe happened during periods of relative liberalisation – for example, during the Czech New Wave in the 60s.

Those films which were released during more difficult times of rigid suppression were often faced with extremely limited distribution, to such an extent that they were guaranteed obscurity.

We are now some 28 years beyond this period of human tragedy and political tyranny. Nevertheless, its emotional wounds remain colossally deep.

More recently, there has been a return to more brutal, delineated cinema with clear, realistic portrayals of the moral quagmire within which much of Europe (both East and West) finds itself stuck.

The horror of corruption, the recognition of human pettiness and the systemic demands of life that enforce behaviour that is almost sociopathic, are all writ large in this latest manifestation of Eastern European cinema.

Thus, we can see that films continue to be made which give painful voice to the traumatic echoes of this past.

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Filmmakers in countries like Hungary, Romania and Poland have often been the most prominent public figures engaged in reminding us of parallels and sordid similarities between contemporary facets of governance and the dark days of 20th Century history.

Yet, our conceptions of Eastern European cinema, if they are to be meaningful, must extend beyond simplistic political paradigms. Equally, it would be folly to assume that a neat, all-encompassing summation is possible or desirable.

Suffice to say, there are many (often overlapping) ideas that give life to the beating heart of Eastern European cinema,


The role, position and inevitable corruption of authority is something which has pervaded cinema in the East. Deploying tragic narratives and black humour, many a director has sought to reveal the warped nexus of power and collaboration, futile rebellion and enforced conformity.

One would perhaps be more surprised to find that these directors have often unveiled not just the failure of established government. They’ve also detailed the manner in which millenarian revolutionaries can hasten a slide into a malign anarchy that is, at the very least, the malevolent equal of the regime that they dismantle.

It would have been all too easy (not to mention conventional) to portray a utopian society as the natural, laudable goal of all fighting repression. Sadly, as Eastern European films have perceptively noted, such aspirations regularly come to naught.

This razor’s edge lends further credibility to the cinema of this ilk.

Their conclusions – that authority may indeed be loathsome and compromised in many of its manifestations but without any governmental structure, our bestial worst is invariably unleashed – are painfully compelling.

Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies

Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies

Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies express these themes through scenes of animalistic rioting; Miklos Jancso chooses the Classical tyranny of Elektra, My Love whilst Miklos Jancso explores the philistinism of early 19th century Romanian feudalism in Aferim! These are just some examples of a crucial theme to the filmic mythos of Eastern Europe.

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The Collective

Rather like Authority, the concept of the Collective vs the Individual is never far away from the cinema of the old Soviet bloc. The political context is both obvious and understandable.

Despite this, the values inherent within movies like Satantango and Red Psalm are just as relatable to those in the West who share frustrations with petty bureaucracies or belligerent security forces.

Jancso's Red Psalm

Jancso’s Red Psalm

In spite of the prevailing ideological orthodoxy that cloaked post-war Soviet states, that is that the community was of paramount importance and that the individual was of small moment, there was much in cinema that bucked the norm.

The grubby moral concessions, the sordid exchanges of dignity for survival and the grinding erosion of diversity down to a mere rotten nub of homogeneity are all unleashed on the complacent audience.

This cinematic mis en scene for these philosophies of existence could be expressed via an abstraction of political symbolism and cultural ritual. Similarly, elegant dressage, folk songs and rustic costumes could be substituted for monochrome austerity, gloomy long takes and bleak faces telling us all and telling us nothing.

The sheer variety of cinematic expression for entirely similar conceptions of being (despite one being utterly optimistic while the other is despairingly pessimistic) is proof positive that Eastern Europe has a bold, rich cinematic heritage capable of holding a profound depth of ideas and means of filmic ‘conversation’.

Whatever the scenario, whatever the means, Eastern European cinema has sought to unravel the conundrum of the group mentality and its impact in relation to personal expression and libertarian principles.

Liberty and the Individual

Just as the Collective was/is predominant in much of cinema from this area, Individualism and the liberty of choice plays a significant part too.

For instance, in films like Eduard Grecner’s Dragon’s Return, there is a precision of detail that’s breathtaking, to the ways in which the strange, the different, the ‘other’ (however benign) can lead to devastating consequences amongst a callous collective.

Grecner’s Dragon’s Return

Grecner’s Dragon’s Return

The injustice of these repressions, where a yearning for choice, however esoteric, is ruthlessly denied, is a recurring and poignant theme in Eastern European cinema.

Not that filmmakers were any less cognisant of moral ambiguity here than in other realms of cinematic discussion. The movies were frequently allegories for the horrendous excesses of ideological dictatorship but equally, filmmakers were not ignorant of the terrors that untrammelled freedom can bring.

In films like Tarr’s Damnation and Autumn Almanac, individuals and their families or friends or lovers are just as capable of making terrible choices or crafting insidious prisons of their own creation, without any assistance from an outside authority.

The swivelling, directionless moral compass of these films embodies the perspective that the individual, and their liberty to decide, can be both catastrophic and inspiring. This double-edged sword of ‘being’ is profoundly important and is central to the cinematic narrative of this region.

Sexuality and Indulgence

Moving away from the political concepts and philosophies of liberty, many of these films were also preoccupied with freedom as embodied by sexual needs or other sensuous appetites.

If they couldn’t make overt political statements, filmmakers could make coded arguments in favour of liberation via behaviours and characters where various desires were sated.

In addition, in a region where entrenched levels of misogyny were finally beginning to be broken down, Eastern European cinema proffered some positive roles for women both in front of and behind the camera (although not by any means enough!).

Vera Chytilova and her delightful surrealist masterpiece Daisies is one such example. Libertinism, of whatever hue, was often a parallel language for criticism of grey, humdrum discipline and political constraint.

Similarly, the embrace of liberalised sexual mores was connected with a younger generation of writers, poets and filmmakers. Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders or the works of Walerian Borowczyk and Andrzej Zulawski leap to mind when considering the ‘red meat’ of human lusts, perversions, repressions and obsessions as expressed by Eastern European auteurs.

In saying that, diverse means of engagement with these issues were more evident in their films than in more crudely obvious Western efforts. Sexuality could be, and was, often celebrated.

However, directors here did not shy away from the bestial oppressions of men, where women often became objects of ruinous exploitation. This was manufactured sometimes within specific historic contexts (such as Frantisek Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova) but always with a direct reference to the brutal present.

Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova

Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova

As ever, the true genius of these auteurs was their willingness to pull together the full, dense weave of sexual experience, both enriching and terrifying.

Spirituality and Religion

On a rather more contradictory note, Eastern European directors have often been bedevilled by matters spiritual and religious alongside a more cynical, existential worldview.

How and why was this the case?

Aside from the obvious answer that there are conservatives and liberals within cinema, just as in other walks of life, there are more subtle levers at play here. Perhaps it was in part a deliberate fascination with ideologies that directly contravened Marxist-Leninism? Indeed, it seems possible that there was an aspirational idealism at work in their interrogation of faith.

Crucially though, in these films, when faced with biting reality, the warm illusory embrace of religion (as filmmakers saw it) was often denied in favour of a more clinical individualism.

In fact, for many, organised religion was simply another example of restrictive authority and little distinction was made between its impersonal dictates and those of other bastions of societal oversight.

Many were also convinced only of the fact that an individual could rely on oneself and nothing else. The systems of denunciation and betrayal that existed in the Eastern Bloc, mechanisms which made even the family unit potentially insecure, made this kind of existentialism pretty predictable.

Even many years later, directors like Bela Tarr have remained wedded to this bleakly misanthropic conception of existence and our place within it.

Even so, many filmmakers felt obviously uneasy with such a crude rejection of the ineffable and this was considered in myriad subtle ways.

Directors like Andrzej Wajda or Krzysztof Kieslowski were much more willing to imply wider spiritual significance within our lives and the lives of their protagonists. To these artists, faith equated hope in the face of apparently insurmountable odds or seemingly inevitable destruction.

Tradition and Historicism

Finally, Eastern European cinema regularly made use of established traditions and cultural historicism. The societal, religious and political traits of the past were often utilised as vehicles for contemporary commentary.

For example, the anarchic feudalism of medieval Europe, the impossibly shifting loyalties and realities of the Russian Civil War, the bitter transgressions of World War Two or the austere eras of conservative religious dominance were all used liberally.

Whatever the specific context, Kawalerowicz, Jude, Vlacil and others were/are eager to utilise the past as a murky prism through which to comprehend the present. What’s more, the muddy authenticity of Eastern European cinema when depicting the past is still unprecedented in modern cinema and remains utterly unique.

No other region in the vast geography of cinema has spawned such frighteningly authentic, immersive and utterly unsentimental visions of what has been. There is an absence, thankfully, of the kind of false nostalgia and glorification that inhabits much Western cinema. These celluloid representations of history are surgically sharp in their desire to cut away every possible embellishment of popular myth and romantic legend.

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Of course, all of the discussion of themes and strands of thought in Eastern European cinema are couched in terms of very broad generalisation. All of the films that we have seen from this amazingly productive region have their own dazzling idiosyncrasies that defy easy explanation or classification.

Thus, in order to discover more, you might want to watch some of these choice films.

There will be omissions (not least Russian cinema which we will deal with at a later date) and causes for debate.

We have much still to explore, particularly in more contemporary Eastern European cinema.

Honourable mention should be made here of the fabulous guys and gals at Second Run who have made strenuous efforts to bring such films to as wide an audience as possible.

This is intended to be a conversation starter, not a definitive conclusion. On that note, here are our top 10 picks.

  1. Ashes and DiamondsAndrzej Wajda (1958)

Polish cinema owes a lot to the bold vision of Andrzej Wajda.

Nowhere was this more self-evident than in the post-war drama of Ashes and Diamonds. A ruthless, laconic assassin faces political and personal challenges in the immediate aftermath of World War Two.

The ruined Warsaw environs are exquisitely utilised by Wajda in order to provide the perfect atmospheric back-drop to the political conspiracies of 1940s Poland.

The film’s lead (Zbigniew Cybulski) takes on tragic proportions as he struggles to find peace, fulfilment and hope, providing the viewer with rare and tragic insights into mid-20th Century Poland.

  1. The Fabulous Baron MunchausenKarel Zeman (1961)

If you dig Ray Harryhausen or early Terry Gilliam, you might want to consider watching a few films by the wildly imaginative Karel Zeman.

Free of overt political commentary, Zeman worked within fantasies of being which provided much-needed relief from the harsh nature of existence in the Soviet Bloc.

The escapades of Baron Munchausen are depicted with flamboyance and a visual flair that proved very influential well beyond the borders of Czechoslovakia. Appealing and bewitching to all ages.

  1. Daisies Vera Chytilova (1966)

Of all Czech films that we’ve seen, this is the most aesthetically ambitious.

Surreal, chaotic and full of exuberant humour, Daisies lights the fuse and explodes the pomposity of established authority.

The adventure of two young women as they stridently embrace their senses and more besides, whilst defying every manifestation of political and cultural hypocrisy, is a cinematic delight.

For those who think punk sensibilities only took root in the mid-70s, watch Daisies and think again.

  1. Dragon’s Return – Eduard Grecner (1967)

A Slovakian film, that provides a wonderful mix of mythical pastoralia (in an unspecified era) with a strikingly experimental approach.

The story is a fairly simple parable of creative individualism facing off against rural conservatism, as a potter seeks freedom to express himself amongst an insular village community.

The thing which lifts the movie from the banal, is the imaginative editing, charismatic leads and a sensational atonal score by Ilja Zeljenka. An unsung masterpiece of world cinema.

  1. Marketa Lazarova Frantisek Vlacil (1967)

Perceived by many as the greatest Czech film of all time, Frantisek Vlacil’s adaptation of Vladislav Vancura’s modernist novel sets new standards for authenticity in historical cinema.

13th Century Europe is brought to a vivid filmic fruition in which rival clans fight savagely over love, land and power. The dialogue is poetic, overlapping and impressionistic, as are the stunning visuals.

Once seen, this piece of cinematic magic is never forgotten.

  1. The Red and the WhiteMiklos Jancso (1967)

Hungary has produced two peerless filmmakers in the 20th Century – Bela Tarr and Miklos Jancso.

Jancso has produced many startlingly original films but few pack as much (mostly unspoken) power as this Russian Civil War epic.

The atomisation of loyalties and social norms by internecine warfare are laid bare in brutal fashion. Jancso’s style of virtuoso filmmaking, typified by long, exquisitely choreographed takes, is full of complex depths and nuances. War is both terrifying and beautiful in this humanistic gem of Hungarian cinema.

  1. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires (1970)

A perfect slice of Euro-Gothica, Valerie… is at one and the same time, a creepily surreal tale of the supernatural and a highly eroticised tale of one girl’s exit from adolescence into adulthood.

As in other Czech films from the New Wave era, the score is intoxicatingly beautiful while the photography is luminous. If any film from Eastern Europe was said to cast a (sexually lurid and ambivalent) spell, then this is it.

  1. Alice Jan Svankmajer (1988)

It takes an idiosyncratic mind to transform a much beloved tale of childhood literature and transform it into a dark and disturbing film.

Combining live action with tactile animation, Jan Svankmajer delivers a witty rejoinder to complacent expectations. The imagery crafted is of a suitably creepy variety, drawing the audience into a universe that poses plenty of danger to the curious protagonist.

Rarely has any filmmaker mined the darkest recesses of the mind for such droll laughs and bizarre shocks.

  1. The Turin Horse Bela Tarr (2011)

Directors often aspire to be celluloid philosophers.

Few achieve it in any truly meaningful and intellectually rigorous way. Bela Tarr, in each of his awe-inspiring cinematic ventures, leads the way in this regard.

No abrupt summary can do justice to this film, such is its fathomless breadth of thought and ideology. The intensity of its cyclical action, as a father and daughter live out a bleak existence that gradually disintegrates in horrifying ways, is unparalleled. Nobody else in modern cinema has made a film of such simplicity, yet extraordinarily profound. A life-changing viewing experience.

  1. Aferim!Radu Jude (2015)

Romanian cinema is at the cutting edge of filmmaking today. My favourite (so far), is this ribald tale of serfdom and lawless brutality in 19th century Wallachia.

The film tells us of a local policeman who is prepared to take the pay of a ruthless local aristocrat and pursue a hapless escaped serf. The ritualistic ties of ethnicity and fatalistic acceptance of a palpably unjust system of oppression is shown with stark violence and physicality. Yet Jude does lighten the load at times with scathing humour and the authenticity of the environment is compelling.

Nonetheless, Jude demands that the audience draws uncomfortable lessons from the past and applies them to a contemporary Romania that is not without comparable aspects. An exceptional and important film.