Eclectic Cinematic Pleasures

in 33rd Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Giuseppe Sedia

The cinematic experience in Cottbus has transformed enormously over the past two decades. This has been made possible by the commitment of the FilmFestival Cottbus (FFC) organizers and supporters alike. Long gone are the days in which the German city could not rely on a regular film venue to host the FFC, as the Chief Mayor of Cottbus, Tobias Schick, underlined in his speech at the opening night. The architecture of the local state theatre, where the ceremony took place, is in harmony with the splendid movie theatre called Weltspiegel, that was originally build more than a century ago. The cinema was renovated in 2012 and outfitted with an impressive Art Nouveau facade as well as a beautiful wooden ceiling, to match its eclectic style.

In a similar vein, the main section of this year’s FFC can be defined as eclectic, too. The fact that two unorthodox zombie movies from Eastern Europe – Xawery Żuławski’s It Came from the Water (Apokawixa, 2022) and Vardan Tozija’s M (2022) – were included in the main programme, gives an idea about the unprecedented genre diversity that one can experience in Cottbus these days. Every cinematic spectacle comes with a small lesson to learn, so it seems.

Contrary to expectations, for example, the film that made the public laugh the most, was not the title that, in the end, received the audience award: The Invisible Fight (Nähtamatu võitlus, 2023), a kung fu comedy directed by Estonian cineaste Rainer Sarnet set in an Orthodox Monastery in the 1970s. It had the moviegoers in stitches. After all, Cottbus is located in Brandenburg, a state that was part of East Germany before the country’s reunification. In this portion of Europe there is certainly room for “Ostalgia”, a German term used for describing a nostalgic mood for the East German past as seen in the film Good Bye Lenin! (2003).

No surprise then, that the Soviet Union setting in Sarnet’s madcap and “ostalgic” action flick could have caused a delicate rush of nostalgia and contributed to make the viewers laugh out louder then expected in Cottbus. The Invisible Fight has all the hallmarks that Fredric Jameson attributes to pastiche as a “blank parody” but comes with a certain humour. Aesthetically it looks like the European counterpart of Wisit Sasanatieng’s thai western pastiche Tears of the Black Tiger (Fa Thalai Chon, 2003), thanks to the retro look given to the film by Mart Taniel’s saturated cinematography.

If it wasn’t for its Christian orthodox setting, in terms of conventions The Invisible Fight ticks most of the boxes attributed to the martial arts genre, including but not limited to the usage of wire acrobatics usually seen in wuxia films. In the Hong Kong-esque opening sequence Sarnet’s fourth feature film stages the attack of three formidable oriental boxers at the USSR-China border. Rafael (Ursel Tilk) is the only security guard to survive the raid. After he falls in love with Rita (Ester Kuntu), Rafael who in the meantime became a car mechanic and heavy metal fan, decides to become a fighter. To do so, he is required to go cap in hand to the lead staret Nafanail (Indrek Sammul) in a monastery and practice very hard to learn the way of the fighting monk. In a memorable scene reminiscent of Michael Hui’s best gags, Rafael is involved in an exhilarating raw dumpling fight with another monk within the walls of the hermitage.

Despite all odds, Sarnet’s kung fu comedy is never blasphemous, not even when Rafael touches the eyes of a painted icon with his finger before putting it in his mouth to savour the taste of ‘sweetness’. What really brings the uncanny into The Invisible Fight is the presence of Black Sabbath in the score that clashes with the Soviet Union backdrop — a whacky cocktail of West and East ingredients that disregards the Cold War tensions. Just like a shrewd director of masala films, in The Invisible Flight the Estonian director succeeds in carefully mixing and merging diverging cinematic flavours.

Estonia shares maritime borders with Finland. In addition to several Caucasian features this year, the official competition in Cottbus sported indeed also a Finnish film, Light Light Light (Valoa Valoa Valoa, 2023) directed by Inari Niemi. In the editions to come the FFC programmers will keep doing their best in hand-picking the finest titles within East Europe and beyond. As such the increase in geographic scope of the FFC seems, eventually, inevitable.


Giuseppe Sedia
Edited by Pamela Jahn