Foreign Enough?: Eastern Europe as a Lawless Land

From "Hostel" to "Infinity Pool," the cinematic landscapes of Eastern Europe often serve as a playground for the dark side of humanity.
Savina Petkova

Infinity Pool (Brandon Cronenberg, 2023).

In the early 2000s, American filmmaker Eli Roth landed on a dark web page offering so-called “murder vacations,” an idea which became the key for his 2005 gore-fest Hostel, in which overseas tourists find themselves abused and killed in Bratislava. While the concept sits neatly within the “torture-porn” genre conventions for excessive, brutal violence, transposing an abstraction—or a scam premise—onto a real place has material consequences. Hostel, a controversial landmark of noughties horror cinema, had Slovaks complaining to the Ministry of Culture and has certainly reinforced already existing stereotypes of Eastern Europe as depraved, fraught with danger, and vengeful towards foreigners. What David Rimanelli and Hanna Liden in jest call “the evil New Europe” encompasses both the anxieties about the ex-Eastern Bloc that have germinated in the mass imaginary since WWII and the Cold War, and the latent fear of the Other which sits at the heart of xenophobia and right-wing nationalism even today. But even if the film is sublimating post-9/11 panic and the torture horror of Abu Ghraib, there is more to it than just an act of projecting Americans’ moral ambiguity onto foreigners. Maybe that goes with the territory.

Hostel’s terrors are set in Slovakia, while the film was shot in the Czech Republic—for budget reasons and perhaps even as insurance against the accusations it nevertheless provoked—but while such displacement might allude to the two countries’ entangled past as one state, Czechoslovakia, this stand-in logic complicates the issue. Roth defended his directorial imaginary by calling the setting a “Movie Slovakia” that was based on American stereotypes in the hope of reframing the film as a self-reflexive callout for said stereotypes, but there are plenty of viewers today who associate that very same European country with the most atrocious threat. The fear that foreign looks deceive even more than familiar ones, that the lust-crazed European women encountered on a continental vacation may be out to get you, and that every innocuous B&B conceals a torture chamber owes a lot to contemporary Hollywood depictions. Now, almost twenty years down the line, are filmmakers still drawn to Eastern Europe as a site of lawlessness to prop up heroic genre narratives? 

One recent example is Brandon Cronenberg’s dizzying doppelgänger horror Infinity Pool (2023), where an otherwise innocent American novelist played by Alexander Skarsgård becomes first an ally and then a target to a group of ultra-rich sickos whose pleasures include rampaging outside the safe confines of an all-inclusive beach resort, carrying on criminal activities, and then buying their way out of the corrupt justice system. James Foster (Skarsgård) finds emancipation in the process and a relief from his writer’s block; in addition, by surviving the whole ordeal, he starts to see himself as a hero. Perhaps the most important factor to facilitate his character development is contextual: location. Cautious enough, the director has resorted to all sorts of movie magic to fictionalize the film’s setting of La Tolqa and to cloak it in layers of ambiguity, from the landscape’s vitreous look to the country’s fabricated language. But what counters the skillfully guarded geographic vagueness is the pre-opening credit to the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. Even before the film’s begun, there is a remnant of a real locus, even if one already subsumed by large scale film productions and imaginaries (think of Dubrovnik as a site for HBO’s Game of Thrones).

The storyline of Infinity Pool relies singularly on La Tolqa being an unlawful place, regulated only by bribes and exchange practices that normalize extreme violence. When the main characters find themselves in the police headquarters for firstly, leaving the resort, and secondly, a hit and run, they are given the death penalty (a judicial detail possibly inspired by militarized states such as Myanmar), which, as it turns out, is merely a method to extract wealth from the willing tourists. Everything that ensues, from the policemen’s characteristic violence, their arrogant demeanor, and the insistence on even bigger sums of money to buy not only freedom, but life, paints a picture of a venal, morally dilapidated society, not too far away from the ex-communist free-for-all where corruption is king in a perceived absence of rationale, structure, and order. Cronenberg himself points to a dream-like inspiration drawn from “an Eastern Bloc state or something” and the resort (D-Resort Šibenik on the Croatian coast) itself owes its base architecture to Communist times, with the added value of Eastern European brutalism as stylistic cache. Watching the film with the knowledge that La Tolqa is not only set in an ex-Yugoslav country, but feeds off the fraught formulas of “West is good, East is bad,” confirms that decades later, filmmakers still succumb to the same imaginary. At least Cronenberg admits to decisively filming in Croatia, unlike many others who choose to discreetly adapt to a South/Eastern European location to cut costs, outsourcing work to cheaper studios (Bulgaria, Romania, Greece) and locations, affordable labor, and, not least, viable tax rebate and incentive schemes.

Beckett (Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, 2021).

Italian director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino set his A-lister thriller Beckett (2021) in Greece because he “needed the context of a country going through a difficult time, to say the least,” to make the plot believable. In it, Beckett’s (John David Washington)’s holiday-turned-nightmare unravels across mainland Greece, from a village near the Delphi archaeological site to the protest-flooded Athenian streets. The viewer knows as little as the film’s American protagonist of the reasons behind this manhunt, but the fact that it’s all grounded in a (fictionalized) political reality—protests against the EU-imposed austerity measures in light of upcoming elections, the polarization of radicalism both on the right and on the left—seems to flesh out an actual, autonomous place. Benjamin Lee concedes that Beckett portrays Greece as “a living, breathing country” rather than a simple reference, but the role of the Southeastern country still remains utilitarian: a necessary condition to propel the narrative forward. Both Infinity Pool and Beckett toe the line between mainstream and arthouse, and even with a Canadian or Italian filmmaker overseeing the project, there are distinct similarities in how films backed by A24 and Netflix, respectively, boil down to the same geopolitically-informed clichés.

Put simply, features about Americans who find themselves in Eastern Europe end up being a type of horror film, or a film of horrors, where the geographical setting is a shadow character that enables immorality and exacerbates the latent propulsion to do evil instead of good. The horror genre sits slightly off-center in that regard, since tropes of entrapment and hunter-prey narratives take on a more literal meaning. Films such as Them (2006) and the Chernobyl Diaries (2012) have a Romanian village and the nuclear site Pripyat in Ukraine as their settings, but both of them make innocent Westerners scapegoats at the mercy of monstrous locals. Chernobyl Diaries (shot on location in Hungary and Serbia with stark resemblance to actual Priprat that only confirms the uniform aesthetics across pre-1989 Eastern Europe) is a curious case. On the one hand, the film leans heavily on the idea that, for an American, being in Europe goes hand in hand with seeking out risky experiences—an attitude immortalized in 2004’s EuroTrip on the other side of the genre spectrum—and on the other, it returns to a place of particular geopolitical and environmental trauma, that of nuclear destruction and human error. First-time director and visual effects specialist Bradley Parker worked with Paranormal Activity (2007) writer-director Oren Peli on the film, but the genre proficiency could not save the decision to set a gory foreigner’s hunt at a place of nuclear disaster from being labeled “insensitive.” Such backlash is also telling of the contextual gravity locations can hold, whether the backdrop is real, constructed, or adapted. Transporting its characters to a place where time has stopped, the film enacts at once a gesture of restoration by accurately reproducing Pripyat (therefore earning the praise of a local charity), and of a seedy mix of appropriation and voyeurism, typical of the so-called “extreme” or “dark” tourism. Like smiling selfies at the Auschwitz memorial, the pictures these characters take in front of Chernobyl’s reactors speak little of a genuine reparative attitude towards history. Especially a history that isn’t theirs.

For some filmmakers and moviegoing audiences, Eastern Europe feels far, but while it’s not that far removed from a Western-centric perspective as other parts of the world, it’s still other enough. It’s not geographical specificity that defines this particular mode of othering—especially since the examples brought forward belong to different corners of East, Central, and Southeast Europe, and the Balkans—but more the uncanny proximity it engenders. Historically, culturally, ethnically, Eastern Europe as a concept (not as a lived reality) is an oddity. As a setting, it allows foreigners the (biased) connotations of safety and recognizability of “Europe,” while its (presumed) whiteness cannot account for the heterogeneity of its ethnic groups, thus retaining an element of exoticism. In this, Eastern Europe’s uncanniness is not the same as the one offered by films set in Southeast Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, where more extreme racial, cultural, and historical denominators are at play.

It’s no wonder that Hollywood sees that part of Europe as such, when Europe itself has been divided across geographical and economic lines for hundreds of years. As a result from WWII, the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the inauguration of the EU and NATO, these lines have seemed in turns both rigid and permeable, and European cinema has responded to these changes with a proliferation of mobility narratives: travel, immigration, and human trafficking have been defining narrative characteristics since the early '90s. For example, the early 2000s saw two tonally opposing takes on the road-border film in Ulrich Seidl’s chilling social drama Import/Export (2007) and only a year later, the endearing father-son comedy The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, which won awards at more than twenty festivals worldwide (mostly audience awards). More recently, director Stefan Arsenijević took home the top prize at Karlovy Vary with As Far as I Can Walk (2021), a contemporary reimagining of a Serbian epic through the eyes of a young Ghanaian refugee on his passage through borders and patrols. 

Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017).

Even if audiences and festivals still favor a story of border crossing, what always comes to the fore is the inherent cruelty of borders. A contradiction ensues: the more united it seems, the more ambivalent Europe is. Auteurs like Béla Tarr and his apocalyptic overtones layered onto his native Hungary; Theodore Ushev’s sci-fi socialist allegory Phi 1.618 (2022); or Valentyn Vasyanovych, whose 2019 dystopia Atlantis now feels terrifyingly real, have examined their home countries and landscapes through the scrutiny and paradoxes of dissatisfaction. For Tarr and Vasyanovych, the minutiae of daily life are as potentially sublime as they are earthbound; rotten, dangerous lands populated with rotten, dangerous humans with a glimpse of hope to be found more in the cinematic portrayal of a person or potato, than the person or potato themselves. Eastern European “miserabilism” is a label one can potentially associate with the  Romanian New Wave, but still, the films of Radu Jude or Cristi Puiu inject biting dark humor into the decaying social tissue depicted onscreen.

There is, however, some hope of bridging the gap. Perhaps the most illustrious example of such an attempt figures in Valeska Grisebach’s drama Western (2017), where a group of German construction workers are tasked with building a dam in a small Bulgarian village. In choosing Bulgaria, Grisebach wanted to channel what the “Wild West” would mean for a German worker, and swapped West for East. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is quiet, skeptical at first, but eventually opens up to a cross-language friendship with a local named Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov). They converse, but each one does so in their own language, while the Bulgarian countryside enables them to connect. It’s by way of being temporarily rooted in this completely foreign place that Meinhard allows himself to truly connect with someone and foster reciprocity in a seemingly doomed and exploitative scenario. Western takes intercultural prejudices, both from a German and a Bulgarian point of view, and runs with them, exposing naked nerves and open wounds, but all the while grounding the film’s narrative in the here and now for the protagonists. In this case, the Bulgarian landscape is more a primary character, than an instrument for justification or projections.

While none of these films will ever do for Central/South Eastern Europe what The White Lotus has done for Palermo as a dream destination (the good of romanticizing it and the bad of overcrowding it with tourists), maybe it’s better that way. Foreign auteurs approach the New East with a sense of propriety which can be interpreted positively—especially in a geographical region where colonization never manifested the way it did in other parts of the world—that is, as a form of allegiance caused by proximity. “We can use this, because it’s close enough,” I imagine them thinking. But cinema’s asset of world-building, however whimsical and liberating, is interlocked with its indexicality; cinema is a world of its own, but it’s also (made) out of this world and its privileged relationship to reality can be both a blessing and a curse. If your protagonist is going to Eastern Europe to seek a quiet retreat, you should know which of the two you’re in for.

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Eli RothBrandon CronenbergFerdinando Cito FilomarinoBradley Parker
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