Uzicka republika/The Republic of Uzhitse (Yugoslavia, 1974, dir. Zika Mitrovic)

May 26, 2010 at 11:24 am

Uzicka republika (1974) is one of several Yugoslav super-productions of the late 1960s and early 1970s that tackle WWII resistance through unqualified glorification to the leftist partisans and Tito in particular. The film is a typical representative of the genre: an epic panorama of people struggling for freedom and equality, zooming in on selected characters for rough individualization; it comes down to interweaving human interest stories within the context of a struggle that is depicted in idealistic and often exaggerated tones.

The actual historical episode in the focus, the short-lived Repulic of Uzice in Western Serbia existed for less than three months in the Fall of 1941, still in the early phase of the war. Its defenders were defeated in an extended battle in November 1941, which is also shown in at the end of the film. The historical material which confirms the leftist leanings of the population early on in the war has clearly been suitable for turning into a movie; the direction of the project entrusted to veteran Zika Mitrovic, a director favored by the powers-that-be who had already made several important partisan/WWII features as well as other historical films, such as the Macedonia-themed Mis Ston (1958) and The Salonika Terrorists (1961).

The part which I am embedding here includes the scene that is perhaps the highest manifestation of socialist realist adjustment of historical material (starting somewhere around the middle of the clip; the first half represents the arrival of Soviet comrades who come to assist the republic). It represents an improvised concert staged for the supporters of the republic, all red stars and unity. The culmination is the performance of a song glorifying Tito, sung by one of the young girls (Neda Arneric) and gradually picked up by everybody in the audience, who join into the plea for comrade Tito to take them along for the struggle. Then they all dance to the tune of a well-known Soviet tango Serdtse, tebe ne hochetsya pokoya, a popular song first featured in one of the Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s films of the 1930s.* It is an example of the way in which Soviet culture was quietly imported on the side of the import of revolutionary ideas and military assistance.

Uzicka republka is a good example of the aesthetics of communist propaganda film. Based on a real story, the narrative is of unreserved and supportive togetherness, of clear strategy in the struggle, of clear-cut feelings and allegiances. The leadership narrative gives Tito and the Soviet comrades (who are seen arriving by submarine in the clip) a key role. Displaying allegiance to the Soviets is of primary importance; everybody is in a hurry to erect slogans praising the anniversary of the October revolution and portraits of comrade Stalin. The slogans written on the walls read as if taken directly out of a history textbook – Power to the People!, All for the Victory! — professionally executed and politically correct. There is no trace of the ambiguities nor the uncertainties found in films like Praznik, which are attempting a critical examination of the complexities of the conflict. The good partisans are all nice and humane, their adversaries are all bad. The bourgeois collaborators soon quit the union, disgruntled with the communists’ efforts to push for economic reforms rather than only focusing on the current German threat. The Germans, represented stereotypically, conspire and close the circle around the rebel republic. The Cetniks are horrible, killing and indiscriminately abusing the peaceful population; they mercilessly destroy one of the female protagonists as she is propagating to local women trying to persuade them to become more actively involved in the revolution. The Cetniks also massacre a group of ordinary villagers by burning them in their own church. (A curious appearance in this film is a young Rade Serbedzija, now one of the most successful East European immigrants in Hollywood, as a Cetnik officer who is shocked by the atrocities his own people commit yet indirectly endorses it all with his compliant silence). Media reports from the period that are brought into the texture of the film suggest that the Yugoslav public opinion has been grossly misinformed about the situation with the breakaway territory.

While there isn’t a main protagonist (the protagonist is the ‘struggle’ itself), several human interest stories evolve as important subplots. The heavily idealized love between partisan leaders Nada and Boro, both thoroughly committed to the cause and who both perish in the struggle, is one of the key stories. They manage to make their vows to each other yet it so happens that they will never be together; still, they are both conscious that the freedom is more important, they are thoroughly far-sighted and forward-looking; in addition, Nada is an emancipated feminist.This is the typical way in which cinema of the East Block tackled love stories set in war time — the ideal lovers are proud, focused, dedicated; the struggle is at the foreground and takes precedence over personal feelings.

Another human interest story is the subplot featuring a young teenager who is shaving for a first time and receiving loving glances from his mum and dad at home, to only hours later be brought back to town as a corpse; he had gone on failed mission to secure bread for the town and his parents are left mourning in shock. Yet another is the story of Pero, the old lonely baker, who adopts an orphan boy and teaches him bread making. The boy grows attached to him and begs him not to go to the battle but Pero feels he should bring bread to the fighters, and is killed. One by one, most of the protagonists are killed in the protracted bloody battle shown at the end of the film, leaving the ending on a sad yet optimistic note.

The film, which does not have an official distribution in the West (I only have an old not subtitled VHS copy) has been made available on YouTube, and can be watched with English subtitles in what I would describe in a pristine quality copy. The posting of this film may not be precisely legal, yet it is an instance where excellent public service is performed by making available an interesting and rare example of cinematic history. The film is cut into 18 parts for this posting; below each clip one can trace some interesting discussions which are suggestive of the political temperature (and concerns) of the likely audiences. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the way current concerns relate to historical film.

©Dina Iordanova
26 May 2010

* The tango Serdtse was created by the team Isaak Dunayevski/Vassiliy Lebedev-Kumach in 1934 for the film Vesyolie rebyata/Jolly Fellows and first performed here by Leonid Utesov. It has since become extremely popular, performed by legendary Russian singer Piotr Leshcenko. More recently, it was used as the main musical motive in Ulrich Seidl’s film Import/Export.

Praznik (1967, Yugoslavia, Djordje Kadijevic)

May 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Praznik (1967) was one of several films on the list which director Zelimir Zilnik gave me a few years back; he was making recommendations which films I should make sure to see in order to come to know the most important works dealing with Yugoslavia’s complex historical past. Having now finally seen it out of a DVD which I got courtesy of another director, Slobodan Sijan, I can confirm that this is yet another one of the Yigoslav masterpieces that are largely absent from European film history, as it is currently written about in the West.

Director Djordje Kadijevic (born 1933 in Croatia) made this debut feature at the age of 34; I have not had the chance to see his other films, perhaps because he mostly worked in television. The script was authored by Kadijevic and Aleksandar Petkovic, who is the film’s cinematographer (and the man who shot a wide range of Yugoslavia’s best-known films over several decades). Set in the mountains of Yugoslavia during World War II, the film takes place during the festivities for Božić (Christmas) 1943. Its snowy aesthetics made me think of another East European masterpiece dealing with memories of WWII, Hungarian Cold Days. A group of Cetnics (Nazi supporters) are stationed in the village where they dispense self-styled horrifying justice (there is a difficult to watch violent scene where they instigate violence against a young widow). The main line of the plot evolves around the way in which the leader of the Cetniks opts to deal with two American pilots who crash in the mountain nearby. Initially welcomed, the Americans believe they have found allies who will get them to the Partisans and with comrade Tito very soon; it does not work out this way, and while they are dined and wined at first, later on they are detained. During the night, however, the two captives escape; the leader of the Cetniks gets worried that he may be blamed for letting them free, so he promptly puts arrangements in place for two of his own men to be restrained and slaughtered, their dead bodies are then dressed up in the uniforms of the Americans. Alas, the superiors who are meant to be fooled this way do not buy into the trick as they have captured the two American fugitives meanwhile; the villagers who silently watched the slaughter of the two men (by an expert killer, a handsome and introverted young man pictured below, who spends most of his time looking over the snowy landscape and nibbling apples) now finally burst out in rage; but it is too little too late. Toward the end of the day, a group of Gypsy musicians walk down the deserted streets of the village; they find the Americans’ parachute and take it away with them, it will be of use.

The uncontrollable volatility of the context, the constantly changing mood of the wild and whimsical leader of the Cetniks, the lawlessness, the coldblooded efficiently-executed murders, the extreme violence and the endless reversals of power make this film a difficult viewing. In a subplot, a man is killed for daring to speak up, his killer (Bata Zivojnovic) is assassinated within minutes and his body dumped into a well. It is a place that harbors multiple secrets of a vicious cycle of past and future blood lettings and violence. It is difficult to tell who is who, there are so many changes of mood and allegiances. The only constant feature is the fear in the air, and in this respect the film is directly reminiscent to Miklos Jancso’s most prominent film, The Red and the White, also made in 1967, where the balance of power constantly shifts between the hordes of the revolutionaries and Whites from the time of the short-lives Hungarian Soviet Republic. At moments Praznik looks pretty much like scenes from films by Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Mirror, most notably), perhaps because in all cases there are identifiable influences of Pieter Bruegel.

The more films dealing with the memory of WWII I see from this part of the world, the more I realize what great treasures of cinema remain forgotten. Films like Praznik, or the much-referenced Herrenpartie/ Stag Party (1964), by director Wolfgang Staudte, are not in distribution. Neither are other WWII masterpieces from around the same period, films such as Aleksandar Petrovic’s Three or Zivojn Pavlovic Zaseda. It is about time to do something to bring these films properly into the annals of cinema history.

© Dina Iordanova
14 May 2010

Golyamoto noshtno kapane/The Big Night Bathe (Bulgaria, 1980), dir. Binka Zhelyazkova

March 10, 2009 at 1:01 am

An e-mail from a British colleague prompted me to prioritize the viewing of this DVD, which I recently purchased for 3 Bg leva in the Sofia supermarket near where my parents live. As I promised to lend him the film, I thought I should view it before sending it off, just to refresh my memory of it and see if the feeling of serious reservations that it had left me with on first viewing (now nearly 30 years ago!) would change.

The British colleague is interested in Binka Zhelyazkova’s work in general, and for a good reason: she is one of the major feminist directors from Eastern Europe, but, unlike Vera Chytilova or Marta Meszaros, she remains virtually unknown. The man had tried to approach the cinematheque in Sofia to check if they would consider making Binka’s work available, and had received a polite response written in good English which was informing him that, yes, they could produce copies and DVDs and in general help with availability, only they would do this if he could please make his own arrangements toward presenting them with letters from two other Bulgarian institutions that would give the cinematheque authorisation to go ahead with making the material available. Needless to say, the colleague dropped it all at this point (as most other researchers would); seeing this correspondence gave me an interesting glimpse into the absurdities in treating cinematic heritage that everybody working on these matters is constantly confronted with.

Now about the film itself. I still think i is a really week one; I could not help it being truly annoyed by the cartoonish characters, the slow pace, and lack of dramatic tension. If I remember correctly, the plot of the film is based on a real story. During the shooting of a film set in ancient Thrace, a bunch of friends organise a midnight swimming party on the seaside set. Drunken, they decide to play a game where one of them climbs on a stone with a rope on his neck and a sickle in his hand. The others are dancing in a circle and at one point somebody kicks the stone underneath the hangman; to save himself he is supposed to manage cutting the rope with the sickle. Two of the ‘victims’ make it, but in the third instance the young man does not manage to cut the rope and hangs. This is the culminating event in the film, which is preceded by a long (and tedious) build up of what are supposedly character studies of those involved, and is followed by an equally tedious investigation. It is all supposed to expose the drunken and promiscuous environment and the moral decline (of mature socialism) that leads to the sad loss. One of the subplots is the love affair between young gorgeous Ninel and Sava, a relationship that is seriously tested by their class differences (something that would normally not be supposed to exist under socialism). Another subplot tackles ‘The Little Prince’, the son of a highly placed party apparatchik who has just been demoted (so all speculate how their friend will be affected), yet another story included to expose the moral corruption within socialism. All protagonists are good looking, well-to-do, successful, and sexy; yet their problems are not deeply suffered and there is no dramatic development to build up to the moment of the hanging; the 150 min. length of the film can hardly be justified.

Golyamoto noshtno kapane (1980) is scripted, like Binka Zhelyazkova’s previous film, Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977) by her husband Hristo Ganev, who is responsible also for the script of A byahme mladi/ We Were Young (1961), a film that won the top award at the Moscow International Film Festival but was nonetheless shelved afterwards and created a number of problems both for the director and the screenwriter.* One should immediately say that the script is probably the film’s biggest liability. It is supposed to have been a daring statement of sort, as Hristo Ganev enjoyed the reputation of a dissident writer, and it is probably not politically correct to declare his work weak (especially, as I can imagine, he has probably seen at least some of his work suppressed by the authorities). However, i simply cannot help it calling the script what it is: a feeble work of screenwriting. While it is clearly intended to critique the moral decline that reigned over mature socialism, as revealed here through the disorientation of this lost generation, the film is heavily dominated by small talk dialogue that should have been cut down in order to allow the director use at least some of her imagination. A pity that she does not appear to have had the strength to resist the weak script and take charge.

The second liability is the poor acting. Not much could have been done there, however, provided the heavy dialogue dominates it all. The actors are selected from among the promising new generation of VITIZ gaduates: Nikolay Sotirov (a Mathew Modine look-alike), Yanina Kasheva, Tania Shahova, Lyuben Chatalov — all actors who showed promise but were then affected by the downturn in cinema that came about at the end of the decade when they had launched their careers. For who knows what reason, there are two foreign actors in the cast (not that their presence is logically required, nor that they contribute anything to the performance, as they are both more than boring): Polish Malgorzata Braunek who plays the jaded masseuse Zhana, and Lithianian heart-throb Juozas Budraitis, whose supporting role barely has more than ten lines. I would speculate that the reason these two were in the film is that they simply wanted to spend a paid vacation on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The main ‘acting’ is in the heavy dialogues between Nkolay Sotirov (Sava) and Yanina Kasheva (Ninel) and is meant to expose the rift between profound inherent values of carrying morality that is still intact in the provinces (he is taking care of his ill mother in the beautiful mountain hamlet of Melnik) and the inherently corrupt mores exemplified by English-language-school graduate Ninel and her friends, an urban crowd from the capital (new bourgeoisie, so to speak).

There are moments of greatness in this film, however, remnants of Binka Zhelyazkova’s trademark avantgardist brilliance: the occasional low camera shot, the bird-eye view scenes, the filming of animals (killing of birds and crabs), the drum, the dry tree on the stony seaside. These are, however, too few, to compensate for the overwhelming boredom. With the abundance of close up shots of beautiful semi-naked bodies among sand dunes, this film somehow kept referencing in my mind to a relatively recent Vera Chytilová work, the equally weak Vyhnání z ráje/ Expulsion from Paradise (2001), which, even if made more than twenty years later also evolves around sand dunes and relationships, and looks very similar in its beach stories, aesthetics and concerns.

I must confess to taking a profound dislike to all novels and films that feature a group of similar protagonists, and where the focus is on the group dynamics — be it taking place in a boarding school, a student dorm, in a madhouse or, like here, among a group of young people on their summer holidays. It is a large topic that I am not going to go into and which I am mentioning mostly because, strangely enough, it seems it was this kind of group dynamics films that dominated the early 1980s of Bulgarian cinema. The earliest one seems to be Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev’s Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977), about a bunch of young people confronting issues of moral decline, very similar and equally dialogue-heavy as The Big Night Bathe. Then there were films such as Vulo Radev‘s Adaptatsiya/Adaptation (1981), probably the best of this range (about a bunch of young people belonging to a psychoanalysis group), Lavina/ Avalanche (1982), based on Blaga Dimitrova (a bunch of young people forced to confront their moral foundations when challenged by nature), and Rangel Vulchanov‘s A sega nakade?/And Where Do We Go From Here? (1986), about a bunch of young people searching for a moral compass in life. The cycle probably came to an end with Ivan Andonov‘s Vchera/Yesterday (1988) where the bunch of young people affected by a moral crisis put it all squarely on the vicious socialist system. What is noteworthy is that all these films scrutinizing the moral decline in the young generation were made by members of the older generation, directors and writers born in the 1920s and the early 1930s; members of the generation that was being scrutinised (my generation actually, born in the 1960s) simply never had the chance to make films on these matters as by the time we came to maturity, the end of socialist funding for cinema hit and severely limited the chances to develop robust and prolific filmmaking careers. Thus, we never had the chance to give a cinematic response to the diagnostic that older filmmakers were imposing on us.

When I look back now, I realize that I probably hated these films as my life was not particularly different from what was shown in it. We had all adapted to the socialist system which we were not finding particularly onerous, as long as we could go abroad once a year and spend three weeks by leisurely exposing our naked bodies on the cliffs near the village of Varvara, where, for many years, the dry tree used as a prop for the hanging in The Big Night Bathe was still standing. We were passing by it every day, on our way to the nudist beach, and then also on most nights, on our way to the late night parties that were full of alcohol, locally sourced and prepared food, and heterosexual sex: pretty much the same stuff that is seen in the film.

* See my piece on these matters: Iordanova, Dina. “Binka Zhelyazkova” In: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (ed. Derek Jones), London/Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publ., 2001, vol 4, pp. 2705/6.

© Dina Iordanova
10 March 2009

Severino: The Secret of Condor Pass (GDR, 1978) Claus Dobberke

January 10, 2009 at 12:34 am

This Gojko Mitic vehicle from his later period is interesting to mostly as it represents yet another good example of the transnational filmmaking that was in full swing in the area of popular cinema in the Soviet bloc countries of the period. The actor is past his prime here, and even though he does pull some of his traditional stints of horseback riding and shows off his sculpted upper body on several occasions, it is more by way of giving fans a treat in a routine effort to maintain an established star image rather than an attempt to impress new audiences. (In a way, it is a film that can be compared to the fare that Tom Cruise is involved in these days — mostly relying on past glory rather than radical reinvention.)

The film is set in Argentina and is based on a novel by Eduard Klein. A mature and balanced man, Severino is a Manazanero Indian who has been away for ten years and now comes back to his village, ridden by conflict between the locals and the settlers, all evolving around the secret of a certain Condor pass (a climb to which provides one of the nicest moments in the film, with awe-inspiring views over the highest parts of the Andes). Severino does his best to settle the disputes and manages to do so, but only to some extent; he is also involved in a love affair, but it is an added subplot that lacks sparkle and does not engage. In the overall, the film feels tired and overlong, even for its short 78 minutes. There is very little character development, almost no gripping action, and the conflicts are not persuasive nor deep enough to engage. There is surprisingly little effort to propagate the cause of proletarian struggle (which is a feature of earlier films like Osceola); the advancing age of the actor and the early decline of socialism are both felt in the film.

Thus, as I said, the most interesting aspect for me remains the information that the film brings on the matter of international socialist co-productions. The cast of the film includes the titan of Polish cinema Leon Niemczyk, as well as a host of Romanian actors such as Constantin Fugasin or Violeta Andrei, as well as many more. The film is made by DEFA in collaboration with the Romanian Buftea Studio (and it is places in the Carpathian mountains that seem to stand in for the Andes). What is particularly important, however, is that it appears there is no consistent pattern in the co-production dimension in these DEFA projects. In other cases there is usually one co-production set-up that is put in place and then exploited all over again for as long as it is possible; it is simply not economic to have a new co-production configuration put in place on a per-project basis, especially if one already has got a set-up that is working. Yet, in the case of these productions, the films are shot in a different production configuration each time — Osceola is made in co-production with Cuba and Bulgaria, this one — with Romania, The Scout — with Mongolia, Ulzana — with Russia and Romania, The Sons of Great Bear — with Bosna film. It reads like a list of socialist international cultural collaborations. What is specific here is that the driving force behind many of these projects seems to be not so much economic convenience (nor financial considerations of pulling together budgets or resources) but rather the desire to be involved in joint projects with the group of ‘brotherly’ countries. This was the underlying motive of many of the cross-border cultural initiatives of the period, and it worked. It is important not to lose it out of sight today.

© Dina Iordanova
10 January 2009

Nie sme na vseki kilometar: A personal memoir

January 7, 2009 at 1:04 am

During a recent visit to my native city of Sofia, Bulgaria, I heard that the Socialist Party (formerly Communist Party) which had just held its 47th or so Congress, has been in the media with a clip using motives of the famous TV series Na vseki kilometar (1969). As this film is associated with a host of memories for me, I could not help it but searching for the clip on YouTube. Here is what emerged:

The man who jumps on the tram is actor Stefan Danailov, who played the lead role of Sergei/Major Deyanov in Na vseki kilometar. (The protagonist was an underground anti-fascist conspirator who always managed to outwit the police and pull off whatever he had planned to do.) There was a well-known episode in the original series where Sergei jumps on a tram, like in this present clip. Using the reconstruction of this familiar visual trope and casting the same actor, who is now nearly forty years older, is a good approach to the clip’s target audience, which consists of die-hard former communists and by those younger Bulgarians who, supposedly, believe in the continuity of the socialist tradition. Actor Danailov himself is now part of the governing coalition, and has enjoyed a relatively good reputation during his mandate as culture minister (prior to entering politics he was mostly busy appearing in various Italian productions, most notably as a bad guy in the seventh installment of Italian mafia TV series La Piovra). In the clip featured here, he talks to the ‘tram driver’ who is, in fact, Sergey Stanichev, the current socialist PM of Bulgaria, a guy of whom I have got no personal views as he has appeared on the country’s political scene in a period over which I have no immediate observations (my understanding is that he is some sort of typical aparatchik). Stanishev turns to Danailov, who is breathing heavily after having jumped on the tram in a well-familiar Sofia setting (‘tramvaycheto v gorichkata na Pionerskiya dvorets’), and comments: “Things are not like before, eh?” Danailov replies: “Well, they are not. Yet the ideas and the dreams remain the same!” An elderly man who is riding on the tram approaches, calls him ‘Sergei’ (the name from the TV series), and, hand on heart, confirms that he is all up for these same ideas and dreams. Inspiring indeed!

Now, I am still significantly younger than the two old men appearing in this video, yet I am old enough to have a host of memories triggered by the viewing of this clip. So maybe in a move of nostalgia, I went on checking if there was anything from the actual Na vseki kilometar on YouTube. And there was, to my surprise: a two-minute long clip featuring the opening scene and credits of the series (where also the well-known tune sounds). It is posted on YouTube by someone from Vietnam, who testifies as to the film’s popularity there (a theme in which I have persistent interest, namely the wide international exposure of some of the East European productions in the specific transnational context of the so-called Second and Third world, see comments in my piece on Estonian Viimne Reliikvia on these matters). Here it is:

Kosta Karageorgiev, the actor who appears here as the young shooter who is killed at the beginning, is also singing the song (a well-recognizable tune in the Bulgarian context; most folks of my generation would know the lyrics by heart). A Woody Allan look-alike, this bespectacled nondescript charmer enjoyed real popularity when I was a child (He was in many childrens’ programmes, known as ‘bate Kosta’; I see from the imdb he has died in 1998, which means that he has not lived beyond his mid-50s).

Karageorgiev was mostly a singer, and one of my earliest memories involves him. My mother was working in the childrens’ department of Radio Sofia at the time (must have been around 1965), and one day she took me to the studio with her; she was to be recording some songs for a radio show she was preparing. The singer she was working this day happened to be Kosta Karageorgiev (who was already a well known TV personality alongside the ubiquitous bat’ Climbo, Kliment Denchev, who was painting on glass in the show and later disappeared by emigrating to Canada, where he also largely disappeared for the artistic profession).

I must have been about 6 years old. The actor approached me and asked me what was my name, and I replied ‘Kostadina’ (my full name). To which he said: ‘Hm, how is it possible then that we have not known each other so far if we have the same name (‘adashi’), all people by the same given name must know each other.’ I was smitten and extremely pleased at the same time. I had never heard anything like this until then, so I took what he said by face value: it would be, indeed, great, if all people by the same given name knew each other. It was only a few years later that I realized this was not really the case. Still, even today I sometimes hear myself producing the same comment when I see children who share the same name — maybe because the friendly comment of the actor back in my childhood is so deeply entrenched in my early memories.

The other personal memory linked to Na vseki kilometar must be from around 1968. We lived in Lozenetz; the house was at the bottom of a hill-street on which a tram runs. One day the traffic was blocked for the same of a film shoot. I was all happening opposite our house, so I was able to look on as much as I wanted. This is the first time I had the chance to see how films are made and to realize how many takes one does for a single sequence in a film. The scene represented a tram descending the steep street, and a young man jumping out of it while the tram is in full motion. They shot probably more than twenty times the same thing: the tram would ascend the hill and then head down down, and the actor would jump out of it at one point, and run parallel to the tram until the acceleration of the tram’s motion wore off. And then all over again and again. I cannot say who was the young man jumping out of the tram. It might have been Stefan Danailov himself (he was an unknown young actor at the time, so I could not have possibly recognize him; he only became a well-known face after the huge popularity of the series), or it might have been a double. I was, of course, looking to see the scene when the film aired on TV, but I do not think I ever saw it. They may have removed it, thus deleting the celluloid equivalent to this memorable day of my life altogether. In any case, I will always remember the sweet feeling I had on that day while looking on, of being part of something in the making that was to come on later, of witnessing the process of creating a film. Who knows, it might have been experiences like this that have led me to become who I am today: an on-looker, a critic.

As to the series itself, I do not remember many details. In my mind, it links with the Romanian films by Sergiu Nicolaescu on Inspector Moldovan — not because the plot or protagonists were the same, but the spirit, the exploitation of the policier genre (and also because I have seen these more recently than Na vseki kilometar). There was this good looking, sleek and superior Sergei/Deyanov, who always outsmarted the cops. There was the unforgettably popular peasant-partisan Mitko Bombata, played by beloved comedian Grigor Vachkov, some of whose lines in the series would then enter into wide for popular circulation. And, of course, there was the intelligent cerebral policeman Velinski, played by respected theatre actor Georgi Cherkelov (this was such a superb performance that the actor, who was mostly known in the capital as he was playing in theatre, and not across the country, was regularly being referred to not by his real name, but by the name of the protagonist whom he played in the series, so high was the degree to which audiences were identifying him with the role). Otherwise, the film was a typical historical propaganda fare, painting the resistance pretty much in black and white and remaining silent on all the awkward issues related to the period of WWII and its aftermath. What else can one expect from the Sixteenth Soviet republic in 1969? (I hear that this is a period where all the countries in the East of Europe have lived through ideological stagnation which reflected their reaction of well-grounded fear from the iron grip of the Soviets in the aftermath of the Prague invasion). In any case, back then this would not have been my assessment as I had no clue of any of these contextual aspects; I have become aware of them at a much later point. As far my personal recollection for back then is concerned, I was a child enjoying the entertainment that was on offer. And it was fun.

© Dina Iordanova
7 January 2009

Haiducii/The Outlaws (Romania, 1966, Dinu Cocea)

October 26, 2008 at 12:33 am

The Outlaws, a great example of the adventure-cum-history films that were produced in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, was directed by Dinu Cocea (b. 1929), a director most of whose work is in the lighter genres and who has to his credit some of the most popular titles of Romanian cinema, such as Parasutisti/ The Paratroopers (1972) and the films about legendary outlaw Iancu Jianu from the early 1980s. The Outlaws was 37 year-old Cocea’s truly assured directorial debut, soon thereafter followed by a second installment called Razbunarea haiducilor/ The Revenge of the Outlaws (1968), the poster of which is pictured here.

The film is set during the 18th century in the mountains of Wallachia (a.k.a. Ţara Românească), a province located to the south of the Carpathians, which was part of the Ottoman empire. At the time it was effectively ruled by Greek Phanariots installed by Istanbul to take charge of the empire’s Christian millet (province). The outlaws that acted during this period would usually aim to undermine the rule of the Phanariots and the Ottomans, and this is one of the main motivations behind the actions of the film’s protagonists. But there are also complex inter-personal relations at play.

The story evolves around two stepbrothers, Sarbu and Amza, who are leaders of a band of outlalws. Sarbu, a treacherous and violent person (played by Romanian megastar Amza Pellea, 1931-1983), betrays his brother and sells him off to the Ottoman authorities who come to hunt him in the inn where he has just spent the night with his lover. Amza, the good brother, is brandmarked and then put in a cage and left hanging between the walls of a huge cave. Sarbu violates his woman (a feisty inn-keeper played by Magda Barbu), and then ventures on to a series of outrageous deeds, which involve, among other things, marrying the Phanariot ruler’s daughter and then rudely manipulating and blackmailing her family over money due to the Turkish sultan that they have tried to appropriate. The story, which involves simple-hearted Romanians, treacherous Greek Phanariots, and aloof Ottoman Turks soon turns into a story of revenge, after Amza is freed from his cave imprisonment and comes back to institute a spectacular vengeance over Sarbu.

Here s the only clip from the film I was able to find. Alas, it has got no subtitles. It refers to the moment when Amza’s outlaw friends manage to charm and fool the local Christian monks, a move that allows them to get access to the cave where their friend is imprisoned and manage his bold release.

The film is edited on a fast pace, the characterisation is convincing; all in all it makes for an excellent example for the achievements that East European cinemas had in these genres (see my discussion of another representative of these films, Estonian Viimne Reliikvia). The copy which I watched was black and white, so all I could do was to imagine what it would look like in color, especially as the photography proficiently focused on dynamically-staged fight scenes interspersed between spectacular and breathtaking mountain views. The film is influenced by some of the Polish historical epics of the early 1960s, but also by swashbuckler extravaganzas like Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) as well as by spaghetti Westerns (most clearly seen in the pub and shoot out scenes at the beginning of the film).

The spectacular death of Sabru is interestingly staged: he is hanged on a church bell and his body keeps bouncing up and down for a while. This same set-up is seen in several of the films of Emir Kusturica, most notably in Time of the Gypsies and in Underground (where Marko’s brother commits suicide this way). The Outlaws was most likely distributed in Yugoslavia, and it is quite possible that it informed Kusturica’s artistic vision, as the director is known to frequently re-stage visual tropes from other films in his own works (see my 2002 monograph Emir Kusturica for a more extended discussion on this matter).

I was able to see this film due to the friendly assistance of Marian Tutui from the Romanian National Film Centre of which I am truly grateful.

© Dina Iordanova
26 October 2008

Kevade/ Spring (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Arvo Kruusement

September 8, 2008 at 5:19 am

Kevade/ Spring is clearly a classic of Estonian cinema, and is probably the best film to see for whoever wants to get acquainted with this cinematic tradition. Shot in 1969 parallel with the great hit Viimne Reliikvia, the film cost about 300,000 roubles to make (just about a third of the other film’s budget). Director Kruusement really wanted to shoot in color but all the resources at Tallinnfilm at the time were directed to The Last Relic, so he could only afford the usage of a black and white stock. Cameraman Harry Rehe intervened and persuaded the director that a black and white film would certainly be closer to the spirit of the work, set around the turn of the the 20th century. In addition, the black and white photography would give the film a more timeless feel.

Based on the work of Oscar Luts (1887-1953), the novel Kevade dates from 1912-1913. It had also been turned into a stage play that had often been part of the repertoire of various theatrical companies across the country. Usually, however, it were adult actors that were playing the teenage protagonists. It is for the film that director Arvo Kruusement insisted on casting young people of the same age, a move that was considered particularly progressive at the time. The actors were recruited as a result of a nation-wide search, which allegedly also increased the anticipation of the film across this small country. It was also the director’s decision to change the focus of the novel from the more comical characters such as Toots and Kiir (who still dominate the later films) to a scrutiny of the fragile relationship of Arvo and Teele, and make this lyrical tone dominant for the film.

The story evolves in the region of the town Paunvere; all the protagonists are in one way or another related to the small community and the center of action takes place at a mixed-gender half-boarding school where a wise Teacher, a Church Master, a drink-loving servant (Lieble), and a range of teenage pupils spend most of their days. It is a close-knit community where most interactions evolve around daily events of formative importance and where simple situations and exchanges can lead to serous ethical conclusions. Like in other coming-of-age films situations like first attractions, jealousies and disappointments are in the centre of attention, and so are funny and mischievous friendships. One of the protagonists covers up for a friend just to realize very soon that someone else is punished unjustly because of his false testimony; it is all resolved in an emotional confession from the culprit. All in all, the teenagers at the school form an interesting bunch of endearing characters — the funny Kiir, the phantasist Toots, the bear-like Tonisson, the dreamer Arvo, the musical wonder Imelik. It is mostly the boys, however, who remain in the centre of attention, with only one female character, Teele, developed to some extent and all the other girls remaining indistinguishable from each other on the background (the fact that they are all blond certainly does not help characterisation).

The centrality of this film for the Estonian legacy is remarkable also because it is typical for Central and West European literary traditions to have such coming-of-age novels (and films respectively) as cornerstone of their identity discourse at the onset of the 20th century (I am thinking here of German-language novels by Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Robert Musil, for example).

Even though every national cinema tradition probably has a film of this type, Kevade‘s superb artistry makes it stand out. The biggest achievement in my view is the superbly paced action — many various events are crammed in the 84 minutes of the film, many requiring detailed complex characterization, yet it is all balanced neatly in the space of the film. The performances are excellent, most likely due to the well thought-over casting and competent work of the director with the teenage actors, both the music and the camerawork are memorable.

The two further parts of the trilogy Suvi/ Summer (1976) and Sügis/ Autumn (1990) were made seven and twenty one years later, respectively. By casting the same actors, the director is able to capitalize on the natural process of aging and thus enhance the familial feeling that the trilogy leaves. Margus Lepa (as Kiir), Riina Hein (as Teele), and Rein Aedma (as Imelik) and Arno Liiver (as Arno) have only played in the trilogy and have never been engaged as actors in other films, thus leaving the viewer with the feeling that, by appearing in the three installments, they have shared part of their real lives. Director Kruusement is responsible also for other important Estonian films, most notably the cheerful musical Don Juan of Tallinn (1971).

Here is a non-subtitled clip from the film, a scene usually referred to as The Sauna, featuring characters like Tonisson and Toots.

Along with the two other parts of the trilogy, Kevade is restored and released on DVD. I saw the trilogy out of a box set where the three films are available with English and Russian subtitles. There is also a separate DVD edition of Kevade only, which comes with a 50-minute long documentary about the production history of the film (featuring interviews with the director, members of the crew, and the actors), and with a variety of subtitling options in English, German, Russian, Finnish, Swedish and Estonian.

© Dina Iordanova
8 September 2008

Viimne reliikvia/ The Last Relic (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Grigori Kromanov

September 5, 2008 at 6:50 am

The Last Relic is seen by many as the best Estonian film. It is, undoubtedly, the most popular Estonian film as well, a prime example of the attempts of the Soviet Union to produce appealing mass entertainment (other classical illustrations of this endeavor were films like Neulovymie mstiteli, a truly entertaining gem from 1966). The film has all elements of a good romantic adventure: love affair between two extremely good looking protagonists, who manage to be together against all odds and by overcoming all sorts of difficulties that an assortment of disguised enemies (clergy, ambitious suitors, envious rivals) put on their way. There are gorgeous horses, chases through lovely forests, exciting river passages, night scenes at burning castles, treacherous cloister underground corridors, funny jokes, and memorable songs.

The film is based on a classical Estonian book for children, which was substantially changed in the process of adaptation. One of the important new aspects was the introduction of dynamic songs which are still popular today (and which are performed by different singers and in different musical arrangements for the Estonian and the Russian versions of the film). In the documentary that is appended to the DVD, the makers of the film openly acknowledge that they were influenced directly by films like the French Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) and the classical version of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland). But they also indicate they had in mind many other adventure films of the time as well. The cameraman spoke of being influenced by Antonioni, but it seems to me there were influences also from the East European school of filmmaking with their long shots (mostly Miklos Jancso) — one scene that is reminiscent of a Pieter Bruegel painting includes a two-minute long uninterrupted take including over 200 extras in a complexly choreographed traveling shot.

The Last Relic was made for about one million roubles, a truly sizable budget for the time. At the time of its release it was seen by nearly 45 million people within the Soviet Union alone, and it was exported to 63 countries. Most of these countries, notably, are located in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe — a glance at the list of these gives a very interesting outline of the geopolitical distribution of the cultural sphere of influence of the Second World at the time. These also happen to be precisely those territories that we know very little about in terms of cinematc exposure.

One of the remarkable features of The Last Relic is that it puts the love affair in the center of the plot, and tackles it quite openly, by including erotic scenes of a type that has not normally been seen in Soviet cinema; in one instance Ingrid Andrina, the lead actress, is shown naked — the scene looks like out of a Scandinavian film of that time. The role of the nun Ursula, a young woman permanently attracted to men, is played by the well-known Eve Kivi (who enjoyed somewhat of a similar reputation in real life). Even though for an outsider like me Ursula’s presence appears to be a minor supporting role without any particular significance, it seems that due to the actrress’ special reputation the character acquires a much bigger importance, is given tremendous attention in the discussions of the film that I have come across and is credited as nearly key personage in the context of the film.

Even though billed as Estonian (as it is made in Estonia and based on Estonian material), the film is a true example of the Soviet dimension in filmmaking. Alongside beautiful Ingrid Andrina (as Agnes) and feisty Eve Kivi (as Ursula), several of the most important roles are played by Russian actors – Aleksandr Goloborodko (Gabriel) and famous Rolan Bykov (as Brother Johannes)*. Elza Radzina (best known from her roles in Grigoriy Kozintsev’s Shakespeare adaptations, here as the Abtiss of the Monastery), also has an important role. The role of Ivo Schenkenberg, a real historical personality, was initially planned for Lithuanian star Juozas Budraitis (but then went to Estonian Peeter Jacobi, who delivers a fully competent performance).

Here is one of the musical numbers, a song about fighting for one’s freedom. In the ‘making of’ documentary, the author of the lyrics said he worked on these precisely at the time when Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague in 1968, thus he truly embraced the chance to create a song about liberty and rebellion.

The entire film is available to view on YouTube , cut into ten minute-long segments, but these are only in an Estonian version. It is interesting that from over twenty videos that have been posted here, none has subtitles nor any explanation in English. Evidently, those who posted did not imagine that anyone beyond Estonians would be interested in it.

The Last Relic was restored with the assistance of Finnish collaborators and re-released in 2002, 33 years after its original premiere. It is available to purchase on DVD with English, German, Russian, Finnish, Latvian and Estonian subtitles.

* At the time of the shooting Bykov was simultaneously working on his own directorial Vnimanie, cherepakha!/Attention, turtle!, a great childrens’ movie of the time released in 1970.

© Dina Iordanova
5 September 2008

Don Juan of Tallinn/ Don Juan Tallinnas (Estonia/USSR, 1972), Arvo Kruusement

September 2, 2008 at 12:48 am

Don Juan of Tallinn is a light-hearted romantic musical by established Estonian director Arvo Kruusement (b. 1928) whose other best-known films include the trilogy Kevade/ Spring (1969), Suvi/ Summer (1976) and Sügis (1990). On the surface, the film looks pretty much like yet another European offering from the 1970s, with the bright solid colors of the costumes, fencing routines on fortress walls, and a lavish display of narrow steep cobblestone streets and other examples of heritage architecture (precisely in the taste of Jess Franco’s films of the period, who also likes to set his films in places which have forests of sorts). What I found striking in this 66-minute long piece of entertainment, however, is that this is actually a Soviet made film, a production of Tallinnfilm. But it certainly did not look one tiny bit like what we are used to seeing out of the Soviet Union at the time. First of all, the jeans, the bright colors of the clothes that the protagonists wear, the smiling faces and excellent white teeth, the modern dancing, it all looks fully in line with any West European culture of the time, not a trace of the frumpy Soviet fashions that dominated the country for decades. The second aspect is the fact that this film is entirely in Estonian language (I am not closely familiar with the intricacies of the Soviet linguistic policy of the time, but I know that most films that were made in the republics had to also have a Russian language version, and this has probably been the case with Don Juan of Tallinn as well; in any case, the DVD I have is only subtitled in Russian but not dubbed; it also has got English subtitles).

The plot is simple: Don Juan and his servant Florestino arrive in Tallinn and soon everything is disarray. Local women realize that this is ‘that’ Don Juan and all begin lining up to be seduced, while the local men decide to defend their honour and challenge the intruder for a duel, which he effortlessly wins. Most of these situations develop into dance and song routines and give opportunity to showcase lovely seaside landscapes or the fortress walls of old Tallinn. At the end Don Juan (who is actually a woman disguised as a man) departs the town with a smile.

The film reveals avant garde inclinations in yet one more respect — it touches on issues of gender identity, even if only probing them. As Don Juan is actually a cross-dressing woman who lives off the reputation of the famous seducer. One of the men in town realizes that he is attracted to him and declares his love (to soon thereafter correct himself, of course, by saying that he would have certainly be in love with Don Juan if he were a woman).

In any case, the film is full of music and good mood; it is unusually light and breezy for a Soviet film, not a whiff of the heavy ideological or moral conundrums that dominate other films of the time. The music is by Olav Elhala, just twenty one at the time, who later on became a prolific film composer, mostly working in Estonia. One of the young blond women who fall in love with Don Juan is famous Estonian actress Eve Kivi (she is best known as one of the few women of the period who openly discussed their sexuality and love affairs; her main claim to fame is her relationship with Soviet-bloc heartthrob, American maverick Dean Reed).

A copy of this film on DVD came to me courtesy of Karlo Funk of the Estonian Film Foundation , after I visited Tallinn in 2007 to talk at the conference on forgotten dimensions on East European Cinema.

© Dina Iordanova
2 September 2008

Privideniye, kotoroe ne vozvrashchayetsya/ The Ghost That Never Returns (USSR, 1929) Abram Room

August 31, 2008 at 12:56 am

Like his famous Tretya meshchanskaya/ Bed and Sofa (1927), this 66 minute-long silent film by director Abram Room (1894-1976) is an existential drama disguised as a saga about the proletarian struggle. The Ghost That Never Returns (1929) presents a lonely and insecure individual who is challenged to act more heroically than he is prepared to, but who constantly questions his confidence and loyalties.

The film is set in an unnamed South American country. Jose Real is a labor leader who is sentenced to life in jail. But even though he is safely kept behind bars, the guards are not satisfied and look for an opportunity to get rid of him. So they plot to assassinate him by staging an escape. As someone who has already served ten years, Jose is eligible for a day of liberty in order to visit his family. The prison officials plan to send him on this visit and ensure that he is killed during that day. In order to achieve their goal they send an experienced executor to trail Jose. The rest of the film consists of convoluted series of moves and chases amidst impressively rugged landscapes, at the end of which Jose manages to get back home (in spite all obstacles), to see his little son and his wife, and to reconnect with his fellow-communists who are about to begin a strike. Not a single man who has been sent off to such a day of freedom has ever returned to prison, usually because he would have been killed by the guards. But not Jose — he does not return either, but it is because he turns into a phantom of liberty. Protected by his comrades, he comes to lead the looming strike.

The depiction of South American life and landscape in the film appears convincing. There are some avant garde sets representing the prison, reminiscent of sets used by Fritz Lang in Metropolis (I thought of links to Fritz Lang’s aesthetics of the time more than once while watching the film). The film is based on the writing of Henri Barbusse (1873-1935), a French writer who had moved to Russia in 1918 and who closely sympathized with the Bolsheviks (he also authored biopics on Trotsky and Stalin). There is proficient camera work (by Dmitri Feldman who later on worked primarily in the context of Armenian and Georgian cinema), at moments reminiscent to the visual experiments of Vertov just a few years earlier, using multiplication of the image to create psychologically tense effect. The original music score (by A. Shenshin) is truly impressive.

The DVD, by Bach Films, contained an interesting bonus: The 1908 short feature ‘Stenka Razin’ by Vladimir Romashkov, a rare visual treat produced by A. Drankov’s studio. Less than ten minutes long, the film tells the story of a group of freewheeling outlaws and a kidnapped Oriental princess, whom they throw in the Volga at the end of the film. It is shot interesting tableau-like settings and is one of the earliest surviving Russian films.

The film is released with French intertitles only and can be purchased from the French Amazon site.

© Dina Iordanova
31 August 2008