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The Fabulous World of Eastern European Cinema

by Dzimas
The Fabulous World of Eastern European Cinema by Dzimas
I moved to Lithuania 20+ years ago and discovered a whole new world of cinema in Eastern Europe. Lithuanian film had pretty much been obscured by Russian and Polish film, but it was wonderful to find such gems as Velnio Nuotaka (Devil’s Story), with a marvelous film score by jazz great Viačeslavas Ganelin, and Maža išpažintis (Small Confessions) which featured a young Vytautas Kernagis. A great film from 1990 is Vaikai iš Americos viešbučio (Children of the American Hotel), which actually depicts a time in Kaunas in the mid 70s when rebellious high school teenagers tried to stage their own version of “Woodstock.” It was a film that only… Read more

I moved to Lithuania 20+ years ago and discovered a whole new world of cinema in Eastern Europe. Lithuanian film had pretty much been obscured by Russian and Polish film, but it was wonderful to find such gems as Velnio Nuotaka (Devil’s Story), with a marvelous film score by jazz great Viačeslavas Ganelin, and Maža išpažintis (Small Confessions) which featured a young Vytautas Kernagis. A great film from 1990 is Vaikai iš Americos viešbučio (Children of the American Hotel), which actually depicts a time in Kaunas in the mid 70s when rebellious high school teenagers tried to stage their own version of “Woodstock.” It was a film that only could have been made in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

Donatas Banionis was one of many Lithuanian actors to play in Soviet films. Moscow was a much greater draw than Vilnius. He played the lead in Solaris, and a great number of films including the Cold War relic, Dead Season. He passed away a few years ago. Sadly, his last cinematic role was that of an overbearing Russian general in Tadas Blinda pradzia, a remake of the classic 1972 film.

Glad to see several Sharunas Bartas films have finally been released on DVD, including my personal favorite, The House, which is magical to watch. The Užutrakis mansion, in which this film was shot, has recently been restored. It looks so pristine sitting on the shores of Galves Lake in Trakai that you would never recognize it from the film or vice-versa. Bartas creates the feeling of The Decameron in this film, with an unusual group of persons living out their lives in the decaying mansion as the world collapses around them.

There have been a lot of other contemporary films that have stood out, but a recent film, Summer Survivors by Marija Kavtardze is a very engaging movie and has been getting good press. Somnambulist has a couple of great lists on Lithuanian film, but I will note Ghetto, which presents a fascinating portrait of a Jewish theater group in war-torn Vilnius with the controversial Jacobs Gens trying to hold the community together in the face of the Nazi regime. It was an international production and includes several wonderful Lithuanian stage actors in supporting roles, among them my favorite actor, Andrius Zebrauskas. There was also a fascinating documentary, Partisans of Vilna that tells of the Jewish resistance and the contentious Judenrat leader Gens. Juzenas also directed Rojuje irgi sninga (It Also Snows in Paradise) a lively jazz blues theme that is nearly impossible to find, but the soundtrack is available.

Russian animation was the staple of children’s programming for many years, with such classics as Cipolino and this charming interpretation of Winnie the Pooh were translated into Lithuanian. But, Lithuania had home grown talent as well. This DVD of classic animated features includes the work of Ilja Bereznickas. From his wonderful tale of Baubas to his crazy fantasy of elephants, you get a great sense of his imagination. Still, I find myself drawn to Yuri Norstein time and time again, wondering when The Overcoat will ever be finished. In the meantime, I sate myself with Tale of Tales, which I can watch over and over and over again.

It was great seeing Bela Tarr in Kaunas in October 2011. He showed his Turin Horse, which he says will be his last film. His films were all new to me when I came here. Sátántangó was quite an introduction.

Other filmmakers have been in Lithuania recently, including Gabriele Salvatores, who has filmed Siberian Education with John Malkovich in 2012, but alas it was painful to watch. Gangland drama was the staple of Russian cinema for several years, beginning with Aleksei Balabanov’s Brat (Brother). Lithuanian directors have tried their hand at it too. Zero was very popular, although it didn’t offer much more than a criminial soap opera, featuring the dubious rapper Sel. In 2010, Šarūnas Bartas premiered Eastern Drift, unfortunately it fell short of expectations as well

Emir Kusterica has been came to Vilnius with his No Smoking Orchestra. He played a number of songs from his movies Underground and Black Cat, White Cat. Underground was a fantastic film, showing that the idea of “magical realism” is as much an Eastern Europe “reality” as it is a South American one. I’ve been discovering other Balkan directors, including Milčo Mančevski. Before the Rain was an excellent exploration into the violence that has plagued the former Yugoslavia. But, my favorite is Dusan Makavejev, who has gone from the outlandish W.R. – Misterije organizma to the wonderfully amusing The Coca-Cola Kid, equally comfortable at home or abroad.

I also found myself drawn to Czech and Polish films from the 60s. I had no idea that Barrandov Studios in Prague dated back to 1921, and that Ecstasy, featuring the great Hedi Lamar, was filmed here. I particularly like early science fiction work of Karel Zeman. His movie, A Deadly Invention, aka “The Fabulous World of Jules Verne,” is wondrous. I also enjoy the stop-action animation of Jan Švankmajer and Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains. A recent favorite is Kolya, which crosses the border so to speak when a middle-aged Czech cellist finds he has a young Russian son. I liked Sverak’s The Elementary School as well.

It was great discovering some of Roman Polanski’s early works, including his short films. The Lamp is a classic. I really liked Knife in the Water, in which he created tension out of deceptively simple scenes. Great film score by Krzysztof Komeda, who would do other Polanski films, including Rosemary’s Baby.

Andrzej Wajda’s brings to life Pan Tadeusz. The question still remains whether Adam Mickiewicz was a Lithuanian or Polish poet and writer, as this epic poem is ultimately a homage to his “fatherland,”

Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie;
Ile cię trzeba cenić, ten tylko się dowie, Kto cię stracił.

The movie is in Polish, as was his native language, so I leave it to viewers to decide. Wajda’s Katyń is also well worth seeing. But, probably his best known film remains Ashes and Diamonds.

I loved the interplay between the East and the West in The Double Life of Veronique. I also liked the harder edge in Kieslowski’s White. Dekalog remains on my list of films to watch.

Aleksandr Sokurov does a wonderful evocation on the Hermitage in Russian Ark, spinning glorious images of the past in real time so that one gets the sense that he is waltzing through history. He beautifully shows how Russian literature, art and theatre are intertwined, loosely wrapping this visual feast around Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman. Sokoruv is one of the most revered directors in Russia, and recently presented his unique interpretation of Faust in Venice.

There was an interesting dilemma for Soviet directors in the late 50s and early 60s. The Soviet film industry was only interested in moral tales concerning the great war. Mikhail Kalatozov created one of the classics of the era in The Cranes are Flying. He wasn’t quite as successful with The Letter Never Sent. Tarkovsky similarly explored the ambiguity of war in Ivan’s Childhood. He was heavily influenced by Kalatozov.

A holiday favorite is The Irony of Fate, which beautifully captures the New Year, ca. 1975, in the Soviet Union. There was a follow up done a few years ago, in which Andrey Myagkov and Barbara Brylska reprise their roles as Zhenya and Nadya as parents to children who meet in a similar ironic way, but it comes up far short of the original. Myagkov was also in the great Office Romance, opposite the wonderful actress, Alisa Freyndlikh.

Another holiday classic is Carnival in Moscow, featuring the great Lyudmila Gurchenko. She teamed up once again with Eldar Ryazanov in the classic comedy, A Railway Station for Two, with a young Nikita Mikhalkov in one of the roles.

Bulgakov fans will enjoy Vladimir Bortko’s overlooked interpretation of Heart of a Dog. Shot in grainy black and white, it looks like a movie made back in the 1930s, but was made in the late 80s. Unfortunately, Bortko’s interpretation of The Master and Margarita was a bit long winded and not as good. He also did a relatively recent version of Dostoevsky’s Idiot (2003), filling in details that didn’t appear in the 1958 version.

Burnt by the Sun was my introduction to Mikhalkov. I haven’t seen the sequel, but got a kick out of this faux trailer. In 1998, The Barber of Siberia premiered in Vilnius, with Oleg Menshikov in fine form and Mikhalkov not missing the opportunity to dress up as Tsar Alexander. But, my favorite is probably his lovely homage to the Mongolian steppe in Urga, a.k.a. Close to Eden.

The Caucuses have long figured heavily into the Russian imagination. One of my favorite movies from this region is The Color of Pomegranates. Iconography figures heavily into Tarkovsky’s fabulous cinematic portrayal of *Andrei Rublev^.

A very fun “fish out of water” movie was Duska, which featured one of my favorite Russian actors, Sergei Makavetski. He’s been in a number of films, including gangland dramas, but was in prime form inf Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men. He is equally comfortable on stage. He did a virtual one man show in Chekhov’s The Black Monk, and returned to Vilnius to play in Gogol’s The Inspector General.

Recently, I saw this film of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, which updates the story to the present day, adding an ironic touch the “future” the good Dr. Ragin imagined. There was also a short film version done a few years ago. The Duel has also been remade by Dover Koshashvili.

I very much enjoyed a recent biography of Joseph Brodsky entitled Room and a Half. Brodsky has long been one of my favorite poets. He was one of the “Magic Chorus,” a group of poets inspired by Anna Akhmatova. But, you don’t have to be a Brodsky fan to enjoy this marvelous film by Andrey Khrzhanovskiy.

In recent years, there has been attempt by Russian film studios to reclaim their cultural past. There have been some excellent Russian televison productions such as Doctor Zhivago (2006), starring Oleg Menshikov as the proud doctor. Pasternak fell afoul of Soviet authorities who tried to stifle his famous book. The book had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union and printed in Italy, where it soon gained international attention and was make into a movie by Sir David Lean. There have also been excellent productions of Ana Karenina (2009), The Idiot and Crime and Punishment. But, they don’t quite measure up to Bondarchuk’s classic screen depiction of War and Peace, arguably one of the greatest films ever made.

There have also been some fascinating retro-films like Stilyagi, which explore the “HIpster” period in the aftermath of Stalin’s death. During the late 50’s and early 60’s a “Thaw” of sorts made famous by Khrushchev’s visits to the United States. The title was taken from a book by Ilya Ehrenberg, signaling a Change in Seasons in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. A lot of Western sounds and styles filtered into the Soviet Union, which this film explores. However, much of the music dates from the later Soviet period. Another interesting film is Assa, which actually dates to the late 80s, just before the collapse of the USSR, which is built around the music of that era. Vysotsky was also resurrected in 2011 film that is well worth watching. The director actually modeled his actor from the famous Russian bard’s death mask. Of course, it is hard to beat the original.

As much as I enjoyed Ida, I thought Leviathan was a more powerful film, as it explored the contemporary situation in Northern Russia by updating the Book of Job. I really like the work of Andrey Zvyagintsev. I thought The Return was an excellent film. He’s a modern-day Chekhov in my opinion. He’s also not afraid to go against the grain of Russian politics today, making films on his own terms.

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