Soviet Legacy

in 32nd Moscow International Film Festival

by Birgit Beumers

The 32nd edition of the Moscow International Film Festival presented a good selection of films from around the world. In contrast with previous editions, this year the selectors seem to have focused on Central-Eastern Europe, with nine out of the 17 competition films from the region. It is even more surprising in this selection that several of these films assess the past, or rather specifically the year 1968 — without any obvious reason or occasion. Of course, the invasion of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia (or the so-called Prague Spring) represent a watershed for the countries of the former eastern bloc: it was the final turning point, marking the end of hope for a more liberal version of socialism or, as Dubcek had it “socialism with a human face”, to a stifled and oppressive system of socialist rule. So it is quite curious that of all international film festivals it should be Moscow that selected five films which explore — directly or indirectly — the Soviet interventions in the socialist “brother” countries. As the actress Vilma Cibulková, who played Marta in Irena Pavlásková’s An Earthy Paradise for the Eyes (Zemský ráj to na pohled, 2009) said as she stood barefoot (having forgotten the right pair of shoes to match her dress) on the stage of the Pushkin Cinema Hall to receive her Best Actress Award: “If someone had told me 15 or 20 years ago that I would take part in a film about the Soviet occupation in my own country and get a prize from the Moscow Film Festival, I wouldn’t have believed it”.

An Earthy Paradise for the Eyes starts with a Czech family holidaying in Italy and being mugged as they spend the night camping at the beach. Without money, the woman, Marta, and her two teenage daughters Majda and Gábina, flirt with the assistant of a petrol station to get a free fill up for their return journey. As they drive back to Prague, they are caught up by the Soviet tanks approaching the city, which will have a deep impact on their lives. The film covers a range of themes, from emigration to dissidence, from censorship to denial of education, but it does so through a web of personal relationships that develop and change, juxtaposing the flux of everyday life to the political stagnation. Whilst portraying the invasion of the Soviet tanks visually and rendering some events through documentary shots, the film dwells not so much on these events as on their effects on individual lives, or rather on the characters’ refusal to let politics have an impact: it is their stubborn refusal to change and adapt to the new situation, which creates problems for them, but which also makes them realistic, profound and loveable characters. The spirit of hope and joy never leaves them, and this is a distinguishing feature of An Earthy Paradise.

Matti Geschonnek’s Boxhagener Platz (2010) is also set in 1968, but in East Berlin. The film uses political events a backdrop for the caricature of representatives of the system, which never seems evil or dangerous, and is not the driving force of events. Grandma Otti, superbly portrayed by Gudrun Ritter, has outlived five husbands when she falls in love with the former Spartakus fighter (and now “Stern” reader) Karl. Her grandson Holger watches the events surrounding his grandma, almost as a passive observer with a naïve distance that allows the director, through point-of-view camera work, to expose the system to laughter. Thus, Holger’s classmate — constantly beaten by his alcoholic father — throws some paper slips with propaganda slogans onto the street — and duly gets his father arrested so the family can live in peace. In another scene, Geschonnek touches upon the issue of homosexuality in the GDR through the figure of Otti’s son, who finds a partner in West Berlin; both are completely overlooked when the police come to perform an arrest in Otti’s home. Or take the theme of emigration, when Otti’s daughter expresses a desire to leave the country largely for personal rather than political reasons: she is unhappily married to an ambitious and overzealous policeman. The GDR of 1968 is a Kafkaesque place, where husbands die conveniently when women fall in love with somebody else; where political repression helps to get rid of violent husbands and fathers; where social and personal problems are solved, as it were, by “state agents”.

Márta Mészáros contributed her film The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó jelentes Annáról, 2009), which is set in Hungary and Belgium the 1970s, thus after the events of 1968; however, the plot is linked to the Hungarian equivalent of the Prague Spring: the crushed reforms of Imre Nagy and his government in 1956. The literature scholar Peter Faragó (Ernõ Fekete), an expert on French mediaeval texts, is recruited by the secret service to spy on Anna Kéthly, formerly a minister in the Nagy government who now lives in Belgium and who — once upon a time — had a passionate affair with Peter’s uncle Laci. Peter narrates his story in a café, a scene which frames the film. Within the recollections of his trip to Brussels, he also conjures up images of Anna during the Nagy government; these flashbacks are motivated in the first instance by reports he reads in the state archives, and later by Anna’s words. Thus the film uses the classical and traditional form of flashbacks to provide character history, but in all this, Peter lacks the emotional and psychological depth and cannot grasp Anna’s refusal to return to Kádár’s Hungary. The film highlights both the effects of the deposition of Nagy on Anna’s personal life and political career, and also the destructive effect of reports —and by extension of the role documents that allow insights into and control over personal lives. Peter clearly cannot handle the information — and remains loyal to the regime.

The Polish film Little Rose (Rózyczka, 2010) by Jan Kidawa-Blonski is set in 1967, at a time when the Polish secret service exerts pressure on its agents to uncover the voice behind Radio Liberty reports critiquing the regime. The pretty Kamila (code name Rózyczka, played by Magdalena Boczarska) is a secretary in the university office and in love with secret agent Roman. In order to advance his career, he sets her up to spy on the writer Adam Warczewski, but when Kamila falls in love with him and writes a final report, which covers up Adam’s involvement in anti-state propaganda, Roman blows her cover and takes personal revenge. The story of collaboration with the system, which is at the root of this film drama, makes for a television film, as the characters lack the emotional depth of the protagonists of another recent Polish film on the topic of involvement with the secret service: Michal Rosa’s Scratch (Rysa, 2008).

Finally, the Bulgarian film by Ivaylo Hristov, Footsteps in the Sand (Stupki v pyasuka, 2010), tells the story of Slavi, who left Bulgaria in the 1970s and returns to a free and independent country in the hope of finding the love of his adolescence, Nelly. Again, this is a story of personal relationships which failed — not because of politics, but because of the way in which people’s lives came into conflict with the authorities as a result of relationship problems: Slavi takes to drink when Nelly turns to his best friend, gets into trouble wit the police and — unable to study or find a job — leaves the country. He returns to tell the story to a customs official who has just split up with his girlfriend — an unconvincing twist of the story that simply enables the director to tell Slavi’s life in the form of a flashback. Visually unexciting, the film follows the form of a road movie, ending with a happy return home.

These films all show the destructive effect of a political system on individual lives — yet it is only the Czech film that presents a characters who uphold love and humour at times of political and social trouble. The other films merely tell stories (largely as flashbacks) of destruction, where people are the victims of a system (of the past) and are often unable to piece their lives back together: Anna will never meet her beloved Laci again; Peter’s wife flees to Paris; Adam becomes a (literal) victim of the system, thus depriving both Kamila and his daughter of a future; Holger will accompany Otti to the cemetery where she has one more grave to attend to; and Slavi might find the way back to his old love, but many years of separation lie between him and Nelly. It is precisely the final tableau of An Earthy Paradise — Marta with her partner, Majda and Gábina playing music from an amplifier mounted on their car to entertain and show solidarity with the political prisoners — that shows their inner resistance, highlighting the strength of character, which the system could not break. This frame singles out An Earthy Paradise from the other films: it ends on a note of strength while the other films relying on flashbacks of broken characters to a past that has left them victims of a system.

So the return to 1968 in so many competition films of MIFF 32 reveals a curious concern of the former eastern bloc with the past and with the role of the Soviet Union in destroying the hope for a future. All these films leave the system triumphant, while small islands of hope remain rare. Why should the Soviet oppression of 1968 fascinate so many filmmakers? It would appear that this stream of films is less an accusation placed at the feet of the Soviet past, but a strange form of nostalgia for an inner freedom that the protagonists have preserved: Anna with her stern integrity; Marta and her daughters in their quiet resistance on an everyday level; and Adam through his writing. What is at stake is precisely this inner freedom —and this is a theme pertinent to all times: a freedom that allows hope for a future in a bleak situation. Here the obvious parallels to the global crisis of the present hardly need to be spelled out.