The East glows in Blue

in 33rd Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Katrin Hillgruber

A broad blue line on the pavement connects the venues in Cottbus with each other. Even the beautiful late-recessionist State Theater by architect Bernhard Sehring shined in the official festival color at the opening of the 33th FilmFestival Cottbus. Under the huge cupola on the first floor one can stroll under a decoration of rams’ heads, the Art Nouveau symbol of spring and fertility. This fitted in with the lively and sensitive opening film We Call Her Hanka (Bei uns heißt sie Hanka, 2023) by Grit Lemke. It uses a wedding celebration to address the presence of the Sorbian minority between Lower and Upper Lusatia. The title heroine of the documentary was enthroned in the front row of the theatre in Sorbian costume with a mighty hood.

Moving on to the stage of another German theatre: There’re no less than three thousand individual pieces of a Hungarian Roma house that the stage workers of a Berlin theatre dismantled and packed into a truck. It would then be presented as an authentic backdrop to the astonished capital city audience, before being dismantled again and brought back to Hungary. And what does this change for the discriminated local Roma minority? Nothing, of course. Their poor dwelling only serves as a hip re-enactment in order to amuse the blasé cultural apparatus.

In his essayistic film Three Thousand Numbered Pieces (Háromezer számozott darab, 2022) the Hungarian director Ádám Czászi cleverly uses the proverbial German thoroughness to satirize the Western European cultural scene: poverty and misery are “branded” as “woken” accessories. The German director (Wieland Speck) enthusiastically asks those standing by whether they can smell “the filth and smoke” when the grayish stone house with purple paint is finally standing on the stage: “There is no parallel for this in German theatre history,” he says. Meanwhile, the Hungarian director, described as “white” (played by the Roma Kristóf Horváth), devotes himself to grooming his beard. He has professionally guided various Roma amateur actors and actresses to present their respective life stories. These are full of criminal clichés, from smuggling to rape and forced prostitution to the punishment of one’s own children. But what is true and what is a lie? Who is real?

When a cross-gender ballet by the Ugandan army appears with glittering headdresses while the atrocities of the so-called child soldiers are projected on the wall, Ádám Czászi, eventually, reveals himself to be a radical follower of Bertolt Brecht’s theory of alienation. His film has a real background, because four years ago he was actually invited to direct a play at the Deutsche Theater in Berlin: a play that was very successful in Hungary and performed by the same Roma theater group from the film. Looking back, he speaks of “poverty porn” that was very well received in Berlin because leftists and woke people also cultivated their prejudices. He had to wait five years to be able to make this film, Császi said at the 33rd FilmFestival Cottbus. He had previously fallen out of favor with the Hungarian authorities with his gay film Land of Storms (2014).

This year’s FilmFestival Cottbus offered around 150 film premieres from 40 countries, with the term “Eastern Europe” generously including Finland and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, to which the festival also dedicated a separate section. Cottbus loves its film festival, that was evident on all six days. People flocked to the screenings, regardless of whether it was a sad but enlightening documentary about the supposedly destroyed wall mosaics in Mariupol, such as Smouldering: The Tree of Life (Zhevrinnia. Derevo zhyttia, 2022) by Nadila Mykolaienko) or Vlad Petri’s Between Revolutions (Intre revolutii, 2023), artfully intertwining the fates of two women from Romania and Iran in 1979. The Bucharest director, whose mother was studying medicine with an Iranian fellow student at the time, viewed vast amounts of material in both countries. He assembles sequences from state and private film archives to accompany the fictional correspondence between Bucharest and Tehran invented by the writer Lavina Braniște. In doing so, he creates an astonishing parallel between the instrumentalization of women in an atheistic and a radical religious system.

Located not far away from the splendid Art Nouveau Sate Theatre is the so called “Weltspiegel” cinema, built in 1911. In the main hall with its impressive vaulted coffered ceiling, the Georgian director Nana Janelidze, who was invited to be a member of the international jury, captivated the audience with her drama Liza, go on (2023). In the title role, the writer Ekaterine Togonidze plays television reporter Liza on her restless journey through Georgia. She tries to research the true background of the bloody war with Abkhazia in 1992/93, who also changed her life. The director works with animated scenes to sublimate the brutal descriptions from the diaries of war participants on both sides – a method that takes time to get used to, although it is understandable. The Spanish director Avelina Prat, also member of the International Jury, received the DIALOG Prize for intercultural understanding for her film Vasil (2022). It describes the tragicomic approach of the solitary Bulgarian emigrant and chess master Vasil (Ivan Barnev) to his new environment in Valencia, Spain – and how this ultimately fails.

Among the twelve films in the main competition, Cold as Marble (Mermer soyugu, 2022) by Asif Rustamov from Azerbaijan was a darkly humorous to malicious satire on the cultural world. It’s about a highly talented stonemason (Gurban Ismayilov) who hammers portraits of the deceased into black marble slabs, but he would much rather be a painter. As the son of a convicted murderer and as the secret lover of an oligarch’s wife, he is at a double disadvantage. Rustamov’s parable about a society in which all problems can supposedly be solved with power and money sticks in the mind long after leaving the cinema thanks to the intricate narrative and original camera work. For example, the stonemason’s cunning father plants tomatoes in the cemetery, even though it is forbidden. After the father’s death, the son enjoys eating one of the nightshades, which is reflected in the moving surface of a water filled bucket.

In addition to the national epic Liza, go on, other films completed Georgia’s triumph in Cottbus: Rezo Gigineishvili received the special award for best director for his tragicomic hospital epic Patient No. 1 (2023). In a climate of fear, the staff of a clinic monitored by the secret service try to keep an aged, terminally ill Soviet potentate alive. Right down to the signature folders, houseplants and Bakelite telephones, the director and his fantastic ensemble create a hyper-realistic insight into the interior of a dictatorship. In any case, the cinematic reckoning between the non-Russian ex-Soviet republics and their former colonial power was a constant theme. Elene Naveriani created an enchanting Georgian non-love film with Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry (2023), which received the Ecumenical Jury Prize. The leading actress Eka Chavleishvili also received the award for an outstanding individual performance, so convincing was her interpretation of a calm 48-year-old druggist in the country who reluctantly experiences first love.

The Polish film Imago (2023) by Olga Chajdas and Forever-Forever (2023) from the Ukraine were also completely characterized by their charismatic leading actresses. Imago is about a manic-depressive singer who lives with eight siblings in her parents’ apartment and, because she is so preoccupied with her unstable ego, is unaware of the Solidarność movement. In addition to Smolik’s post-punk music, we liked the sepia-brown “random” image design and Lena Góra as a chain-smoking, ever-nervous puppet candidate (therefore the title). The Cottbus main prize, donated by the Munich-based Society for the Management of Film and Television Rights (GWFF), went to the Ukrainian-Dutch co-production Forever-Forever: in the bright colors of advertising clips, Anna Buryachkova depicts the unbridled life of a teenage group in Kyiv in the late 1990s. When the beautiful Tonia (Alina Cheban) arrives at a new high school on the run from her violent ex-boyfriend, she turns the heads of two young men there – with devastating consequences. In this anarchic post-soviet scene neither parents nor the police appear. The director explained that she wanted to give Ukrainian cinema a teenage film. A large part of her film team is now at the front in the fight against the Russian aggressor. Forever-Forever could only be completed with the help of a Dutch production company.

The impressive Tonia jumps into the waters of the indoor pool in a red swimsuit. In Tudor Giurgius’ film Freedom (Libertate, 2023), however, the swimming pool in Sibiu/Hermannstadt is empty. During the bloody revolution in December 1989, the Romanian army used it to hold supposed “terrorists” prisoned in the tiled pool. He wanted to turn against the superficial glorification of the revolution in school textbooks, says the director, who uses a real event in his tableau vivant full of masterfully staged mass scenes. With the arrested police officer Viorel, the viewer is immersed in a bloody revolutionary scenario that is not only acoustically confusing and to the sound of machine gun fire, in which it is soon uncertain who should be trusted. In his film, Tudor Giurgiu goes beyond the aesthetics of the Romanian New Wave. Contrary to this, Rainer Sarnet’s The Invisible Fight (Nähtamatu võitlus, 2023) provided lightness: a kung fu film shot in an enchanted Estonian monastery. Both films proved, again, in a striking manner the fantastic diversity of Eastern European cinema.


​Katrin Hillgruber
Edited by Pamela Jahn