Youth In The Old Cottbus

in 24th Cottbus Festival of the East European Cinema

by Dinu-Ioan Nicula

Scheduled this year to share the week with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cottbus Film Festival had one more subtle note of parallelism with the past of the city, a history that spans two empires – the Austro-Hungarian and the Soviet – to reach current days, in the era of diversity and free opinion.

Not so close to a masterpiece level, the movies from this year’s feature film competition were nevertheless generally above the medium standard, with the exception of maybe The Owners (Ukkili Kamshat) by Adilkhan Yerzhanov, whose attempts at black humour are not in synch with the European perception.

Marked by gaping holes in the storyline, despite a charming actress (Hana Selimovic) and with timeless music of the seventies, The Disobedient (Neposlusni), the debut feature of Serbian director Mina Djukic, was not very convincing.

Another director from the former Yugoslavia, Isa Qosja from Kosovo, very different in age to his competitors who were at most 50 years, treated very honestly the situation of women as victims of religious prejudices in his film Three Windows and a Hanging (Tri Dritare Dhe Nje Varje), an ecumenical production in the real sense of the term.

The post-war trauma of Qosja’s movie has its roots in the First World War, illustrated by Slovenian-Austrian The Woods Are Still Green (Die Wälder sind noch grün), which has a theatrical look of fine quality and an actor – Michael Kristof – who is brilliant in the role of antihero.

A glorious set of characters appears in Warsaw 44 (Miasto 44), on the well-known episode of the Polish rebellion, with director Jan Komasa reaching to make this a huge epic in a rather impossible mission to compare with predecessors like Andrzej Wajda.

Another kind of apocalypse was the focus of dialogue-free Russian film Test (Ispytanie), centred on the simple lifestyle of the Kazakh steppe and a teenage girl whose existence along with her father’s is tragically damaged by a nuclear experiment.

In the realm of poetry cinema, too, and also with the same warm tandem of the generations (here a grandfather and a niece), was the Georgian film Corn Island (Simindis Kundzuli) by George Ovashvili, featuring the marvellous camerawork of Hungarian master Elemér Ragályi. It is a film very awarded at other festivals.

Accustomed to laurels also is György Pálfi, the director from Hungary who entered into the competition with Free Fall (Szabadesés), a sophisticatedly segmented story of events occurring in a block of flats as seen by the suicidal old heroine played by the prodigious Piroska Molnár.

A touch of special originality also characterised the Polish film Hardkor Disko by  Krzysztof Skonieczny, an acerbic portrait of a young killer, but the plot leaves the impression of some arbitrary authorial choices.

The problems of the new generation were the core of most of the films from the selection, highlights being the Russian Corrections Class (Klass Korrektsii) in which, with thematic echoes of Nikolay Ekk with his classic Road to Life (Putyovka v zhizn), the debut director Ivan I. Tverdovsky makes a severe radiography of the exceptional being, damned by nature to live in the middle of plebeians, not so ugly outside, but monstrous on the inside.

The topic of young people’s deviant behavior was the most surprisingly developed by the Croatian director Ognjen Svilicic in These Are the Rules (Takva su pravila), in which a couple of parents rather limited from the intellectual point of view have to face the violent death of their son. In the role of the father, Emir Hadžihafizbegovic succeeds in his performance to become the silent voice of fate, as in a Greek tragedy reloaded.

A finely constructed character we could discover in the Latvian Modris (the name of the hero addicted to slot-machine gambling), but the approach of the director Janis Kursietis offers too many cliches from other genre movies.

There were many up-to-date surveys of the problems of the young generation, a lot of them being shown in the Forum section – dedicated to the situation of gay people in the East European countries – whose curator was the Georgian director Zasa Rusadze. Among many titles, it deserves to be mentioned, for its attentively created dramaturgy, the Slovenian Dual, by Nejc Gazvoda, a touching story beginning in the Ljubljana airport between two girls: a local guide and a Danish tourist.

Because the elderly spectators of now are the young people of yesterday, I want to conclude by putting a spotlight on a compilation of the late Alexei Balabanov’s short films, which offered a very realistic perspective on rockers’ lives in the eighties of the Soviet Union. It’s a mixture of ideologies and human perennial attitudes, very at home in a city like Cottbus.

Edited by Carmen Gray