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Movies and Film

Other Eastern European Cinemas: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland

Several Eastern European countries other than Russia were exposed to film almost immediately after its invention; the first showing in Belgrade and Poland occurred in 1896. Other regions had been exposed to Edison's Vitascope even earlier. Films were produced from at least 1910 in Poland, and 1912 in Hungary. Production companies sprang up in urban centers like Belgrade, Warsaw, and Prague.

Despite the fact that Eastern European film output was not nearly as prolific as in the West, some of the significant films of the period between 1920 and 1960 made it to the world stage: Ecstasy (Extase, Czech, 1933) made an international star of Hedy Lamar, in part because of a nude bathing scene. Erotikon (Czech, 1929) was even more risqué than American films tended to be.

Under Stalin, the regional, ethnic, and cultural differences that had tended to characterize various Soviet-bloc national cinemas were often effaced under Soviet centralization. (This tendency was, ironically, in direct opposition to Moscow's countertrend of financing and training—and so encouraging—satellite filmmaking.) The films to gain real attention were made, for the most part, at least a decade after Stalin's death. Sergo Paradzhanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Teni zabytykh predkov, 1964), for example. As in Russia, several ex-Soviet "satellite" countries came into their own filmically; some countries produced directors and whole film communities of some note.

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All the satellite countries we are discussing have in common occupation by and/or collab-oration with Germany and the Soviet Union—and a consequent fall in film production. The Czech experience can stand for all in this sense. Ecstasy and The River (Reka, 1934) catapulted Czech cinema into the international limelight by sharing the prize for best direction at the 1934 Venice Biennial. Then came the Nazis. Then, a short time after the occupation ended, the Venice Film Festival gave The Strike (Siréna, 1947) its Grand Prize. In the 1960s there was a brief "new wave." Then the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Czech uprising in Prague in 1968.

Czech and Counter-Czech

Czech cinema has had to survive five different political regimes in the past century: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a brief stint with democracy after WWI, Nazi occupation, Soviet occupation, and now democracy again. Though some critics believe that this roller-coaster political climate prevented Czech film from reaching any kind of fulfillment or apotheosis, we believe that it often made Czech cinema a very odd combination of fun and responsibility. On the one hand, its early history is characterized by adaptations of great works of art: Faust (1912), The Bartered Bride (1913), The Good Soldier Schweik (1926), and so on. On the other hand, it could be rather titillating: Ecstasy, for example. On the third hand (this book is being transcribed by an octopus), Czechoslovakia also produced that surrealist maniac, Jan Svankmajer. (We won't discuss him much here because he has his own section in "Film Directing.")

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Forman on the political anti-authoritarian satire of Loves of a Blonde: "You didn't try to express anything; you just wanted to have fun, and somewhere back in your head you knew that you are bugging these idiots … and these totally corrupt people."

Film production in Czechoslovakia began early—in 1898—with the amateur efforts of Jan Drizenecky, who used the Lumière apparatus. The first production company was founded in 1908. (It folded in 1912.) However, by the 1930s, the Barrandov filmmaking facilities (located just outside of Prague)—one of the best such facilities in Europe—were established, and Czech filmmaking had a brief flowering period before the country was occupied by Germany. As in so many other countries during the 1960s, cinema in Czechoslovakia had its own new wave, influenced by the French cinéma verité of the previous decade. The most famous of the new directors to emerge at this time is Milos Forman, whose most notable Czech films include Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965) and The Fireman's Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967). Like the new waves of other countries, the Czech new wave was both aesthetically innovative and politically critical.

The early 1990s saw some post-Soviet film revival, but was quickly squelched by the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The future of Czech filmmaking seems reduced and uncertain.

Hungary for Film

Director's Cut

Two prominent figures in the Hungarian film industry—Mihály Kertész and Sándor Korda—emigrated to the West, working under the names of Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda. Curtiz went on to direct The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942), and White Christmas (1954), among others. Korda produced The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), The Four Feathers (1939), The Thief of Baghdad (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

Hungary has had a remarkably influential run, despite its being small in comparison to other significant film-producing countries. Its first film showing (in 1896) occurred even before Czechoslovakia's. It has had its own significant industry, and it has exported major cinematic figures to the United States and elsewhere. In 1919 the fleeting Communist regime made Hungary the first country to nationalize its film industry, even before Russia. Mihály Kertész, later America's Michael Curtiz, directed the first film of note in 1912 (Today and Tomorrow, or Ma es holnap).

The Communists were toppled by a new repressive regime, which again privatized film, but forced figures prominent in the industry out to more hospitable countries. Among artists who left whose names we would know were Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre.

The 1930s and 1940s saw a relatively high output of films, but a relative dearth in quality; few films gained international exposure. These years saw Hungary's alliances with Axis Germany and then the Soviet Union.

A brief golden age in which young filmmakers began producing interesting films occurred in the years between the death of Stalin (1953) and the brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Some of these filmmakers remained active in the industry for decades. Films of note made at this time include Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta, 1955) and Professor Hannibal (Hannibal, tanár úr, 1956).

The major Hungarian figures of the post uprising era are Andrá Kovács and Miklós Jancsó. Like many filmmakers beginning in the 1960s, both are heavily influenced by the various new waves taking place in Western Europe, and especially by the French New Wave. One of Kovács's most famous films—Difficult People (Nehéz emberek, 1964)—sparked an enormous national controversy because of its frank portrayal of creativity stifled through official bureaucratic incompetence and stupidity. Jancsó's The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965) brought international attention to its director when screened at Cannes. In a sense typical of Jancsó's later work in its emphasis on Hungary's past, it is a blood-curdling factual account of the torture and brutalization of a group of peasants by Hungarian authorities in the mid-nineteenth century.

Director's Cut

Bela Bálázs was another Hungarian who fled the country for more politically accommodating climes. He was an extremely famous and influential screenwriter and theorist of film who defended the young medium against the accusation that it was really too popular—and so too low-brow—to be a real art form. Extremely interested in the techniques that made film unique, Bálázs was especially interested in the close-up, which distinguished film especially from live theater. His most influential work was translated into English in 1972 in a book called Theory of the Film.

Projecting Poland

As an ex-Soviet satellite country, Poland's film history parallels that of Hungary and Czechoslovakia (or the Czech Republic) in many ways: occupation, rebellion, resistance, and other kinds of political turmoil, which then become the stuff, directly or allegorically, of much film.

Film in Poland got off to a slow start, remaining popular and/or literary rather than innovative through the silent era. World War II almost completely destroyed the Polish film industry, which suffered even further under the repression of Stalinism. Immediate postwar films were typically about the horrors of occupation. The best of these is probably Aleksander Ford's Border Street (Ulica Graniczna, 1948), a film about the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.

You can sample the history of postwar Polish film through the lens of one of its most famous directors: Adrzej Wajda. His most famous works of the romantic-realist Polish School era are probably Generation (Pokolenie, 1955) and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament, 1958), two films about Polish resistance fighters. After the government's crackdown on liberal filmmakers Wajda made his most introspective film, Everything for Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaz, 1969), ostensibly about the death of a friend, but also about the act and value of filmmaking itself. Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, 1981), was a pro-Solidarity movement film that won the Cannes Grand Prix. When Solidarity was temporarily crushed, Wajda lost his job as head of a film unit, and resigned as chair of the Polish Filmmakers Association.

After the death of Stalin, Polish film became more lively with the birth of the "Polish School," an influential group of filmmakers of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The government cracked down on these filmmakers because of their criticisms of the status quo. After some uncertain years, some filmmakers rallied around the 1980s Solidarity movement against the Communist regime. When Solidarity actually (and through election) took over the reins of government in 1989, it committed a significant amount of economic aid to the ailing film industry, whose output and quality improved through the 1990s. Some of the products of that decade have done extremely well internationally; the most famous contemporary Polish director is without doubt Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose films—The Double Life of Veronique (La Double vie de Véronique, 1991) and the trilogy Three Colors: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu, 1993), Three Colors: White (Trzy kolory: Bialy, 1994), and Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge, 1994) (all co-produced by France)—have been hugely successful.

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Perhaps the most famous Polish filmmaker is another Eastern European exile: Roman Polanski. As a Jew, his childhood was spent living through the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland. Among other activities, the child was used for target practice by sadistic German soldiers. As a result of witnessing the atrocities of wartime Poland, his first feature film, Knife in the Water (Noz w wodzie, 1962) is about a sadomasochistic threesome consisting of a married couple and a hitchhiker. Even after leaving Poland, Polanski's films remained moody and murderous: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Macbeth (1971), and so on.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com.

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