In Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film, Dina Iordanova proposes a reframing of Eastern European cinema (and by extension, film culture studies) away from conventional, western-centric paradigms that tend to evaluate post World War II cinema from the “other Europe” within the context of cold war politics and chauvinism. Intrinsic in Iordanova’s thesis is the prevailing notion of a shared, distinctive Central European ethos that continued to gain momentum in 1970s cultural studies as a means of distancing the region from a Pan-Germanic evaluation of twentieth century history that provided the catalyst for two world wars and the division of Europe, as well what H. M. Hughes describes as a nostalgia for a democratic and more culturally diverse pre-1918 Habsburg Empire (note the embodiment of this sentiment in the image of a multi-ethnic paradise lost in Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Austeria that is also directly correlated with the experience of World War II in the fate of displaced Hassidic Jews on the outskirts of Poland).
More importantly, the idea of differentiating Central Europe as a bridge between East and West was also a way of reasserting a regional identity that was separate from the complex dynamics of the Balkan region as well as the cultural cross-pollination of an imposed Soviet hegemony. In essence, the idea of a shared cultural identity provided a means of aligning (or rather, realigning) regional interests closer to the illusive ideals of a democratic West with the eventual objective of breaking with Russia (and with it, chauvinist attitudes that being “non-West” was analogous with backwardness and underdevelopment) and “returning” to Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ironically, it is Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov who would capture this sense of isolation from “old” Europe and return to a shared cultural history in Russian Ark) – what Iordanova describes as a “remapping” of Eastern European films into redefined national cinemas that reflected the cultural amnesia of a post-Soviet landscape (most notably, in the absorption of East German films into a broader category of German cinema that glosses over the distinctive qualities of DEFA studio productions, and also the reassignment of a collective Czechoslovakian cinema into separate Czech or Slovak film cultures).
The second part, Film and History, Ethics and Society examines the role of history in the shaping of national identity as reflected in Central European cinema, creating a sense of impotence against the tide of history that, in turn, manifest as forms of escapism, whether through the romanticization of heritage epics (such as Andrzej Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz), elements of surrealism (such as Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript and Juraj Jakubisko’s The Deserter and the Nomads), or magical realism (such as Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels and Pharaoh). In each case, the encounters with history are rooted in personal – rather than collective – memory:
The people of Central Europe look at history from a specific angle: they come from small countries which are usually powerless to make developmental decisions, yet need to react to whatever political shifts and advances occur (usually at the instigation of a neighboring great European power). So the stories told here are not so much those of people heroically influencing the course of history but of those who cannot do much more but stand by and witness events; they are stories of the vulnerable and the powerless, the small and the weak, the pawns and the underdogs. The actions of these protagonists are marked by the overpowering consciousness of their own limitations.
…The key concern of East Central European cinema is the interplay between historical and social processes and the personal experience of these processes. It is within this relationship, tilted towards the individual, where most identity issues and existential insecurities are played out. The never ending identity quest is often accompanied by an underlying frustration; there is an ongoing friction between objective historical events and their critical appropriation that limits the range of choices available to the individual. This is part of an eternally unresolved process of identification where all subjective moves are ultimately determined by the dialectical interplay with history.
Iordanova further examines the toll of “historical burden” through a survey of postwar trümmerfilms (films of the ruins) such as Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us (East Germany), Géza von Radványi’s Somewhere in Europe (Hungary), and Aleksandr Ford’s Five Boys from Barska Street (Poland), as well as Andzej Wajda’s war trilogy (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds), which are thematically connected by a sense of tragic inevitability as ordinary soldiers fighting on the losing side of the war. Conversely, Iordanova cites Andrej Munk’s Eroica and its ne’er-do-well, accidental hero as a foil to the trümmerfilm paradigm, underscoring the arbitrariness of siding with history. Similarly, Miklós Jancsó’s The Round Up and The Red and the White also reflect this dynamic in the ambiguous framing of partisans and collaborators, the victors and the vanquished.
In the chapter State Socialist Modernity: The Urban and the Rural, Iordanova argues that the conventional images of dour protagonists, mundane problems, and bleak industrial landscapes that characterize East Central European cinema are acts of subversion that would serve as fertile creative grounds for such seminal film movements as the Czechoslovakian New Wave and the Polish Cinema of Moral Concern:
Well aware of the excesses and dangers of totalitarianism, filmmakers saw the making of ‘apolitical’ films as a matter of priority. The films that they opted for would often be about disturbances of intimate relationships rather than heroic confrontations or class struggles; they would focus ordinary everyday life and thus, in the context of imposed excessive politicization of the personal domain, deliver a covert political statement.
Acquarello, 2009 [reprinted]