An Introduction to Czech Cinema

15 Jul

Czech Dream

After an extended period away while completing a Postgraduate Diploma (in Czech language, no less!), Kinokinomozi has returned with new content. This short article was originally written for Glasgow Guardian’s Thirty Days of Summer series, encouraging students to try something different this summer.

You’ve realised that the Glasgow “summer” lasts for about an hour and it’s now pouring down outside. Or you’ve got a dismal summer job while your pals are Inter-railing around Europe. Maybe you’re just disappointed with the soulless, CGI-enhanced crap that gets churned out of Hollywood every few weeks. Whatever your reasons, Central and East European cinema offers a stylish and engaging alternative to film fans and culture vultures, and the cream of the crop can often be found in films originating in the Czech Republic.

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The Czech Republic?!

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Aye. Unfortunately the Czechs usually get stereotyped as merely being a country of beer, ice hockey and stag nights in Prague, but if you look closer there’s a rich and interesting history that many forget about. Film in the Czech Republic and the former Czechoslovakia has always been a strong art form, from communist times right up until EU membership, and domestic films routinely beat their North American counterparts at the Box Offices. You can find everything from Arthouse movies to period drama, and even wince-inducing American style comedies, which is pretty diverse for a country of ten million people slap-bang in the middle of Europe.

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But where can I get a hold of these films?!

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Thankfully, out-culturing your friends this summer doesn’t mean shelling out on expensive flights to C.R, or even spending money at all. The uni’s Language Centre library is tucked away in the Hetherington Building, and is usually overlooked by students who don’t study languages or have lectures there. However, the selection of DVDs on offer is excellent, and it’s open all throughout summer (for opening times see here). You’ll be able to find Polish and Russian DVDs too, the vast majority of which will come with subtitles.

If you fancy delving in, here are five you can find in the library:


Jízda (The Ride, dir. Jan Svěrák, 1994)

Svěrák is one of the most well-known Czech directors after his film Kolja (1996) won an Oscar for best foreign language film, but I think this is a more well-rounded film. A classic ‘road movie’, Jízda tells the story of two twenty-somethings driving around the Czech Republic in an unlicensed car, and their struggle to fit into the changing environment of a democratic, capitalist country. Skirting around the edges of drama and comedy, and accompanied by a preeetty cheesy soundtrack, this has become a cult movie around young people; and a must-watch if you want to understand the changes to everyday life of Czechs after the dismantling of communism.

If you liked this, try: Knoflíkáři (Buttoners, dir. Petr Zelenka, 1997)


Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, dir. Jiří Menzel, 1966)

Talking about Oscars, Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains scooped an award for Czechoslovakia in the mid-sixties, and is by far the most famous film of that time in the nation’s cinematic history. Set in the times of Nazi occupation, it is a coming-of-age tale about a young man’s self-discovery and attempted sexual liberation, with a backdrop of resistance to fascism having a strong part to play. On the surface this is merely a sweet, funny movie about the protagonist Miloš trying to lose his virginity, but what makes it particularly interesting is the technique and subversion employed by the director – although the sixties were a liberalising time in Czechoslovakia, it was difficult to openly criticise the regime, so look out for attempts to compare the Nazis with the communists throughout. If for some reason you’re wondering who the man playing Dr. Brabec is, that’s also Menzel.

If you liked this, try: Černý Petr (Black Peter, dir. Miloš Forman, 1964)


Kouř (Smoke, dir. Tomáš Vorel, 1990)

Another cult film from the 1990s, Kouř is a musical set in the final years of communism, and based in a factory. Take from that what you will, but this is excellent – stylistic, entertaining and exceptionally exposing of the time it’s set in. Much of the humour can be derived from the absurdity of communist bureaucracy, the fact that no work ever seems to take place and (especially to the outsider) how drab and inoffensive popular culture is (look out for the stereotypical ‘Soviet bloc’ disco!); yet throughout Vorel underpins the hypocrisy of the system and the grim everyday life of the ordinary person. Compared with the modern state we see today, it is at times remarkable how bleak and drab the setting is. For those with an interest in politics and history, you’ll also see underlying tensions between those who favour liberalisation and the hard-line faithful. The fact that Kouř is still popular today should be an indicator as to how well many Czechs can relate to the situation, and just how good the delivery is.

If you liked this, try: another cult film, Rok Ďábla (Year of the Devil, dir. Petr Zelenka, 2002)


Český sen (The Czech Dream, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, 2004)

This is definitely worth a watch, if only because it’s the most controversial Czech film in years. This is documentary feature film, done at the time of accession to the European Union, and a project by two film students from Prague. The idea was to set up a new hypermarket, with dirt cheap prices, a real consumerist paradise…except, of course, the ‘Czech Dream’ hypermarket never existed. In perhaps the largest practical joke of all time, the directors started a month long advertising campaign, promoted on TV and radio, and even build a fake façade out of scaffolding – then gave it an official opening. Then pretty much had to run for their lives. Very effective in highlighting the increasing capitalistic nature of the Czech Republic, and a criticism of unquestioning support towards the EU, Český sen has a notorious place in modern Czech film history and popular culture.

If you like this, try: another documentary: Zdroj (The Source, dir. Martin Mareček, 2005)


The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, dir. Juraj Herz, 1966)

Finishing off on a high note, this is deeply disturbing and a classic example of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Although not the most accessible to beginners of film, the New Wave was a critical step in the development of modern European cinema. Drawing from Italian and French influences, this movement of the 1960s created highly polished, artistic films employing shedloads of black humour and more often than not deliberately set out to subvert and attack the regime. Spalovač mrtvol is often considered one of the best Czech productions of all time, and upon viewing it is easy to see why. Against a backdrop of an impending World War and a widening Nazi sphere of influence, the director of a crematorium, Karl, becomes not only radicalised by the ideas of fascism, but obsesses over the dead, to the point of absurdities which become chillingly real as the plot unfolds. Special mention has to be made to lead actor Rudolf Hrušínský, who is absolutely brilliant in convincing the viewer of the chilling thoughts that Karl has.

If you liked this, try: Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball, dir. Miloš Forman, 1967)

Of course, when it comes to cinema, everyone is different – some films you like, some you despise – but if you’re after something a little different from Avengers and multi-million dollar productions, and something a little bit authentic, give Czech cinema a go. I guarantee you’ll be surprised!


On the Road to Castration in Jízda

12 Dec

Jízda and its three main protagonists

Kinokinomozi is pleased to welcome its first contributing article. In this essay, Kirsteen Redpath from Glasgow University discusses the Czech Republic’s transition after 1989 and its affects on the protagonists in Jan Svěrák’s 1994 film Jízda. Kirsteen can be contacted through the comments section of this site or via our usual address –

On the Road to Castration in Jízda.

Jízda, Jan Svěrák’s 1994 post-communist road movie, explores the disabling reality of two thirty something males (Radek and Franta) rocketed into a burgeoning capitalist Czech Republic.  “We are facing a major decision”, asserts Radek towards the end of the film: “East or West” (Jízda). Although intended as a geographical musing, through a polysemic reading of the text, it may be inferred that in actuality, what he is posing, perhaps unbeknown to himself, is a metaphysical question: where does a grown man, formerly infantalised under the paternalistic soviet regime turn to when his country is put into the hands of a free market economy. In analysing the relationships of individuals within the film, the characters will be treated as a microcosm of the Czech Republic’s post-communist social order. By so doing, Aňa will be presented as a symbol of globalisation, a Czech reworking of the ambitious, thrill-seeking and eroticised Western woman, so punted by the mainstream media. Honzik, her boyfriend, a paradigm of capitalist entrepreneurship – driven by conquest and consumerism. Radek and Franta, representatives of the communist past, parochial and distinctly ‘local’, isolated and perplexed by the dawning of Globalisation.

At the time of the film’s release the Czech Republic was in a transitionary period: the communist state collapsed after the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’, unemployment (due to privatisation and outsourcing) was on the increase, and migrants from the ex Soviet Unions and Balkans were entering the country in the hope of a better life. Thus, lacking the stability of a job and a home guaranteed under the totalitarian state, Czechs like Radek and Franta became foundlings in their own country. At the beginning of their journey Radek stretches the radio aerial, shouting “Let’s plug ourselves into the world” (Jízda). This, ironically, is the closest connection they have with global culture, considering their car lacks the papers required to leave the Czech Republic. Besides, due to their similar upbringings in a monolithic state, their relationship does not allow for cross-cultural referencing; they are not emotionally prepared to cross borders, whether they be geographical or metaphorical. Reading a newspaper, Radek comments that the credit card is now used as a measuring device. As he remarks that they “used to use matchboxes to compare the scale of things” (Jízda), their inability to modernise becomes even more apparent; in fact, they continue to use a matchbox for this purpose until the final shot of the film.

Let us briefly turn to Svěrák’s deployment of the road movie genre in his 1994 cult classic Jízda.  Taking to the open road has become linked to the theory of ‘Nomadism’: that which ‘has come to refer to displacement, usually described in positive, liberating terms,’ although nonetheless ‘often imposed and dictated by socio-political changes’ (Mazierska & Rascaroli 112). The fleeting relationships of participants on the road trip, Aňa, Franta, Radek and Honzik, we will find, correspond to this theory of Nomadism, which, on closer examination, is a symptom of Globalisation; a system which necessitates the perpetual movement of individuals, ever less likely to remain permanently in one place. For those who do remain ‘local’, there is still no option of immobility as transients enter their vicinity, stop for a short while and then continue on to their next destination. And so it continues. In ‘Globalisation: The Human Consequences’, Bauman states that:  ‘Travelling […] is in the life of the consumer much more pleasurable than to arrive’ (Bauman 84). This theory would explain why, when Aňa and Honzik become bored fighting, they “go away somewhere and fight there too” (Jízda). Thus, one may argue that relationships and ‘being’ in today’s society are no more permanent and real  than the filmic episodes in Svěrák’s  Jízda.

To turn to the purpose in making a road trip, Cohan and Hark maintain that: ‘the road movie promotes a male escapist fantasy linking masculinity to technology (in the shape of the car)’. Further to this, ‘the road is seen as an escape from seditariness and from familial duties, which are traditionally associated with woman’ (Mazierska & Rascorali 162). This being the case, it is interesting to note the subversion of gender roles in a Czech reappropriation of this Hollywood genre. Traditionally allocated a peripheral role in road movies, the woman in the form of the boldy erotic Aňa, is seen to take hold of and mould this phallic machine; Aňa’s ‘owning’ the car, exposes the shift in power relations between the sexes. Indeed, as Aňa steers the car, astride Franta, he works the brakes. She simultaneously dominates the man and the machine. Aňa, as a new passenger, announces “I’d like a drink”. The tone of her voice, however, leads the viewer to read this as a command rather than a request. Franta, unhesitatingly replies: “Can be arranged”. Aňa says “I’d like an ice-cream” (Jízda), Franta brings her a box of Magnums. Through these brief verbal encounters the dialogic structure of the movie is determined. Further to this, it is Aňa who insists on ‘freewheeling’ the car downhill, and Aňa who fetches the tractor after it crashes into the field. She has the power to damage and reconstruct. With Honzik in pursuit, many diversions are made. Both men respond willingly to Aňa’s every whim.

How then, does Aňa exert this hypnotic control over Radek and Franta?  Before 1989 the communist woman had little awareness of the Western world; her implicit role in society was that of child-bearer and worker. ‘Any stress on gender equality was regarded by the state as “the ploy of the enemy”, detracting from class warfare’ (Funk and Mueller 12). As Czechoslovakia divided, the Czech Republic became vulnerable to the darker side of de-nationalisation and the so called freedoms of capitalism: once open to Western advertising, an ‘overwhelming fascination with sexuality across mainstream media’ took hold of the country (Iordanova 140). The commodification and essentialist sexualising of women was to be whole-heartedly embraced. Pornographic images were displayed in ‘Bulvar’; trashy tabloids. Women like Aňa succumbed to the doctrine that to be a sexual object was to be successful. In certain cases, positing oneself in a hyper-sexual role led to status and social mobility, if not happiness. This is the role which Aňa ascribes herself, and through this performance, she wields control over our powerless heroes, Radek and Franta.

Through a close analysis of the narrative we see a pattern take place. Aňa toys unceasingly with her male counterparts: at one stage, while lying in the grass with Radek, she allows him to stroke her thigh, speaking in hushed tones. She does not, however, allow Radek to go further. “Why not” asks Radek, “Because I’m not turned on” (Jízda) states Aňa. When first picked up by Franta and Radek after fighting with Honzik, Aňa is heard humming a tune. In relation to this Pisters argues: ‘In singing, one can become […] child […] the power of music and the refrain is a territorial […] power […] we create sound walls to create our environments’ (Pisters 138). Thus, through song, Aňa creates a barrier between herself and her hosts.  The mirror effect of this act, however, is that of arousal in both men. In Barthes’ theory of the voice, he states that: ‘the voice is a diffusion, an insinuation, it passes over the entire surface of the body, the skin […] it possesses a special hallucinatory power. Music, therefore, has an effect utterly different from sight; it can effect orgasm’ (Barthes 110).  In both cases Aňa maintains control. Through a combination of body and speech Aňa sustains an effect of pre-climactic tumult over the men.  Her body suggests sexual availability (she explains she is wearing no “panties” (Jízda) and kisses both Franta and Radek open-mouthed while freewheeling). Her speech, in contrast to her singing, has the effect of a cold shower on both men. While playing with an ant hill, (an allegory to workers in a totalitarian state), Franta names one of the ants “Betty”. Aňa is quick to assert her dominance, claiming: “I’m the only female around” to which Radek responds “and what are you going to do if we all jump you”. Aňa with a coy smile, assuredly replies: “You don’t have what it takes” (Jízda). This, one may argue, is the reason for Aňa’s relentless flirting with both men: awareness of their powerlessness.

In response to Aňa’s comment, it can be argued that in Jízda, male emasculation is compounded as a result of societal reconstruction. In analysing scenes within the film it can be inferred that both men are rendered impotent due to the disorientation they feel after the ‘fall of communism (which) to a large extent abolished the ideological, political, economic and social framework in which men operated’ (Mazierska 217). It is clear that both men are financially challenged as they state they have only “8,000” crowns to spend on a car. While they make commodifying remarks about having sex with, and even burying “Romanian” and “Hungarian” (Jízda) girls, they do not take themselves seriously as contenders for Aňa’s affections, as it becomes apparent from her choice of boyfriend that Aňa appreciates the costly things in life. Honzik, in juxtaposition to Radek and Franta, stands as a symbol of globalisation and all that is desirous in the new Czech Republic: he is wealthy and cosmopolitan, an aggressive entrepreneurial type who adheres to the marketable doctrine that happiness is achieved through ‘rugged individualism (and) a focus on meeting self-centred needs’ (hooks 81).

In addition to the impotency Radek and Franta experience in response to the new capitalist social order, their masculinity is further diminished by the younger Aňa, whose crass eroticism (based on an artificially constructed Western model) arouses, yet simultaneously debilitates them. While swimming in the lake Franta becomes impatient with Radek’s timidity towards Aňa: “for God’s sake, go screw her” (Jízda), he urges him. Radek, emboldened by his friend’s encouragement, steps out of the water naked. Aňa, aware of his desire for her, gazes at his penis and  reflects: “the way it shrinks like that in the water […] it must be awfully humiliating.” (Jízda). As he is inspected by Aňa from the front, we, the audience, perceive him from behind. Thus, for Radek, there is no escape from the critical, compartmentalising eye. This scene inverts cinematic norms whereby ‘women, typically, must bear the gaze of the spectator’ (qtd. in Hein 6). Later in the journey, she deals another blow by commenting to Radek: “with the sun shining through your ears, you look like an alien”. Almost in the same breath, while plaiting Franta’s hair, she calls him her “little girlfriend” (Jízda). Thus, by making Radek non-human, and Franta feminine, she challenges their virility, exposing them as impotent males.

Further evidence to support the post-communist male’s impotency in the face of modern woman’s aggressive sexuality can be found in applying Freud’s theory of fetishism through the fear of castration:

Freud shows how the function of the fetish arrives from the fear of castration. In the male’s fantasy a woman’s difference (and desirability) is the result of castration. If the fear of castration becomes a fixation, the tendency on the part of the male unconscious is to replace female love objects with fetish objects that will forever disavow the fear of castration. (Williams 83).

This fetishistic behaviour is to be found in Radek: despite his attraction to, and advances from Aňa, he finds it impossible to act on his sexual desire for her. Instead, when Aňa suddenly leaves, after they have crashed into the field, Radek lifts the dress she was drying, holding it to his nose and inhaling her scent. This prompts Franta to comment: “Hey Radek, you got a fetish” (Jízda). In addition to this, Radek’s biting of his own tongue in the crash stands as a symbol of castration; the cut implying the mutilation of the erect penis. The act of fetishisim is repeated at the end of the film, after Aňa and Honzik die in the tragic car accident. The last shot we see of Radek is him pulling his T-Shirt, which Aňa had worn, over his head, retreating into a dream-like state. In fact, their whole road trip is illusory: it is a retreat from the bewildering ‘changes in political culture  […] privatization and the transformation of state institutions’ (qtd. in Forrester et al 251) and an escape into the Czech countryside and its mythologised palliative powers.

Having explored Aňa’s power over Radek and Franta, I will now turn to a brief analysis of Honzik. Barely visible throughout the film Honzik is, in actuality, the real driving force behind everyone’s movements in Jízda. Concealed by his black sports car, wearing black shades and a black outfit (a symbol of cosmopolitanism and status in the Western world) and holding a keyring in the shape of a gun (that ultimate symbol of phallic power), Honzik represents ‘the ruling position’, the capitalist entrepreneurs, who have the ability to make ‘their own situation opaque and their actions impenetrable for the outsiders’ (Bauman 33), while redirecting and limiting the movement of others. With Honzik in pursuit, time and again the travellers must make diversions. Aňa speaks of Honzik’s aggression, informing Radek and Franta: “He does whatever he wants […] with me […] he once kicked the shit out a guy just because he was talking to me” (Jízda). If this is the case, why then does Aňa return to him? Simply put, Aňa belongs to a new era of consumer culture, in which ‘materialism becomes the basis of all transactions’ (hooks 81).

Although Radek and Franta momentarily amuse Aňa with their child-like enthusiasm for games in nature, they fail to hold her attention. Lacking wealth and status, they cannot compete with the powerful elite to which Honzik belongs. Aňa’s final thrill-seeking act, this time free-wheeling in the modern car, in which she removes the key emblazoned with the gun motif, ends in her and her lover’s death. Soon after, we witness Franta discard the matchbox inscribed with ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’. The connotative message received is two-fold: capitalism may be a force of destruction but communism is truly dead. Franta and Radek are left on the open road, asking the question they have no control over: “East or West” (Jízda).


Barthes, Roland.  S/Z. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequences. Cambridge: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Funk, Nannette and Mueller, Magda. Gender Politics and Post-Communism: Reflections from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Hein, Carolina. Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Cinematic Narrative. Norderstedt: GRIN Verlag, 2006.

hooks, bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Iordanova, Dina. Cinemas of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Jízda. Dir. Jan Svěrák, Centrum 1994.

Mazierska, Ewa and Rascaroli, Laura. Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel and the European Road Movie. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

Mazierska, Ewa. Masculinities in Polish Czech and Slovak Cinema: Black Peters and Men of Marble. Oxford: Berghan Books, 2008.

Pisters, Patricia. The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory. California: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Forrester Sibelan, Zaborowska, Magdalena J. and Gapova, Elena. Over the Wall/after the Fall: Post-Communist Cultures through an East-West Gaze.  Bloomington: University Press, 2004.

Williams, Linda. Figures of Desire: a Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film. Oxford: University of California Press, 1981.

Wajda and the Polish Resistance: Depictions and Message

1 Dec


After a break of several months, Kinokinomozi returns with an essay critically analysing Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy and comparing it to his 2007 feature Katyń . This piece, originally written in April 2011, will investigate whether or not the director’s message and view of the Polish Resistance has changed over time.

Wajda and the Polish Resistance: Depictions and Message


In the realm of Polish cinema and culture, it would be difficult not to mention the name of Andrzej Wajda. Operating throughout both the communist regime and transitions to democracy in a career spanning almost sixty years, Wajda has achieved international recognition and acclaim; despite much of his filmmaking exploring subjects which are quintessentially Polish in nature. An example of this can be seen in his “War Trilogy”: three films from the nineteen-fifties that focus on underground resistance to fighting Nazism during the occupation of Poland and its immediate aftermath. More recently, this has been revisited in the 2007 feature Katyń: a controversial film capturing events around the tragedy of the same name where several thousand Polish Army officers were executed in secret by Soviet forces.


It is this particular theme that this essay bases itself in. This investigation will analyse depictions of wartime resistance groups in Poland as shown in A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955), Sewer (Kanał, 1956) and Katyń in order to attain what Wajda’s general message and attitude to the resistance is, and whether this has changed by the time of revisiting the subject in the post-communist environment. In addition, style and narrative will be scrutinised to see how this supports the content of the films themselves. Through this examination, it will be argued that although depictions are patriotic and romanticised, they also set out to demythologise events and enforce a sense of realism in what had happened. This will be contrasted with Katyń which gives a more rationalised picture, yet this occurs due to the underground being a secondary theme; thus deflecting from the patriotism and romance of the primary characters.


Wajda’s debut feature, Pokolenie, is a story which bases itself in the political awakening of young people under Nazi occupation. The main protagonist Stach is a young worker who gains employment at a German-run carpentry business, and ends up becoming an organiser and fighter for the left-wing underground resistance. Jasio, the son of a carpenter, is also involved and becomes an important secondary character; as is Dorota, the group’s leader whom Stach falls in love with. Alongside street battles with German forces, for instance in scenes where they are assisting the Ghetto Uprising, there are also strong psychological aspects and narratives which are interwoven: the division of allegiances between rival underground groups in the workshop is one such example of this. By its conclusion, Wajda has painted a detailed yet bleak picture of war, which highlights the psychological and emotional cost alongside the loss of life.


It has been said that Pokolenie acted as a “transitional work between socialist realism and this new Polish School” (Mazierska 2005;, accessed 31/3/2011), and it is important to recognise this point in determining why portrayals are so effective here. The political thaw which occurred in 1956 under the leadership of Władysław Gomułka resulted in a liberalisation of the arts, and indeed a break from Stalinism in general. This allowed for Polish filmmakers to “build their films around their own experiences” and to initiate a “serious artistic and intellectual dialogue with their viewers, and who reflected the spirit of the times in their works” (Haltof 2002:76). Such openness gave space to a distinctive cinematic culture, which although diverse in terms of remit (films ranging from historical epic to black comedy), borrowed from realist movements in other European cinema to develop a style which reflected the tensions of postwar Poland. The early beginnings of this can indeed be seen in Pokolenie. On the surface, it stays in line with the general narrative of socialist realist cinema, in the sense that at the forefront is a “positive hero: high-minded, uncompromising, dogged, with all the mandatory virtues and not a trace of doubts” (Michałek 1973:19). In many respects, Stach fulfils the requirement of a class-conscious worker who overcomes the obstacles put in front of him. Yet underneath, the tragedies witnessed on screen break from this mantra.


If Stach is the worker-hero in the film, then Jasio is the embodiment of the shift away from conventional cinema at the time. He is troubled and complicated, hesitant to join the resistance, and possesses “an existential distaste for killing” (Mazierska 2005) that puts him at odds with such a hero figure. Just as “the white trench-coat of the fleeing Jasio isolates him from the grey surroundings” in the encounter with the soldiers, where even “the frame itself seems to be marking him down as doomed” (Michałek 1973:21), he commits suicide when he realises that he is helpless to escape them. This in itself embodies Wajda’s message here: that while there was a large degree of bravery involved in the actions, these were still regular people, wrought with internal conflicts and often meeting their end in a manner which was far removed from the glorious deaths expected of such a soldier. Noticeable was the move to include references to Home Army (Armija Krajowa, the right-wing and dominant resistance movement loyal to the government-in-exile) collaboration with Germans. Although this in itself is a tenet of the political line from the communist authorities, it can be argued that its inclusion is one which intends to undermine notions of uncritical support to resistance. More interesting is the inclusion of multiple references highlighting casual anti-semitism which also existed amongst Poles. The fairground behind the burning ghetto plays on these ideas, as does the joke on the workshop floor that “the Jews have actually started to fight!”.  These inclusions enforce a sense of historical realism into the film, highlighting Wajda’s disinterest with one-sided depictions of events and revisionism. In addition, like many Polish School films to come it reflected upon the auteur’s own life as well, commenting that his film “shows craftsmen’s workshops like those with which I had become so familiar during the German occupation, and council houses and poor suburban streets like those where I spent my days in the wartime” (Wajda,, accessed 31/3/2011).


The second instalment of the trilogy, Kanał, would further develop such sentiments. Released in 1956, it documents the final days of a Home Army platoon during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Forced into retreat after battle, the group takes to the sewers in an attempt to escape capture. Unlike his previous film, Wajda makes the situation overt from the very beginning; narrating on top of the “long opening shot, tracking over ruined Mokotow and introducing the doom-ridden squadron” (Bren 1990:35) that the soldiers will die, and that these are the final hours of their lives. There are also numerous protagonists making up the unit, all under assumed names, led by Zadra the commander. The number of different characters on screen reflects the sub-plots and interactions that permeate – the love interests between Korab and Stokrotka, Madry and Halinka; and the composer who desperately tries to contact his family stand out here. Ultimately, tragedy becomes the overarching theme, for the deaths of the soldiers and loves which are unfulfilled.


Kanał’s depiction of its characters, each with their unique background and traits, acts as part of the director’s deliberate plan to “show the antifascist resistance as it actually was” (Liehm and Liehm 1977:179). This includes showing the diversity of the fighters, coming from all walks of life; as well as portraying the futility and demise of those fighting. The heroism on display to an extent mirrors that of Pokolenie in that the courage of the group is never doubted, but is at times interspersed with fear and a sense of hopelessness. Outwith the characterisation these fears are communicated via the visualisation of the sewers, with the stifling claustrophobia made all the more real by the usage of close camera shots and dim lighting. In this way Wajda very effectively “straddles a gulf between the realism of actual events and characters who are reasonably faithful portraits of the mentality and attitudes of the time, and an almost abstract vision of a sealed world whose inhabitants are doomed to extinction” (Michałek 1973:29). The chilling picture is enforced by the mental trauma of the subjects throughout their time in the sewers, best portrayed by Jacek, who stumbles feverishly and confused through the winding tunnels.


This is not to say, however, that there has been a complete departure from the romantic, patriotic style as witnessed in Pokolenie. Rather, there is a dualism here. The suffering that the platoon goes through, and the painful choices made in order to survive, couples with the cinematography to generate an atmosphere which carried the real events of the uprising to screen. Yet by considering “the mise-en-scène, in the way of presenting the fate of participants, in the romantic tone of narration, in the heroic nature of their commitments and gestures, Wajda implies admiration and approval of this historic event, and that set the tone for Canal (sic)” (Michałek and Turaj 1988:133).  Higham has argued that “the film is flawed by an over-literary style” (1965:411) which can be seen to enforce this further (the quoting of Dante by the Composer draws comparisons to the Inferno for instance, invoking a clear symbolic effect). Despite admiring the courage of the soldiers, Kanał “is not a paean to the Home Army heroes, but rather a film demythologizing (sic) Polish-style heroism” (Haltof 2002:85). It communicates, much like Jasio’s suicide on the stairwell, that death is not the illustrious and glorified sacrifice it is often considered as. In a climate where such a film would have to contest with “popular memory of events and an extreme selectiveness in the presentation of the political facts” (Coates 2005:120), Wajda achieves a feature that not only passes comment on the role and nature of resistance, but bases itself in realistic notions and environments which became symbolic with films of the Polish School.

Moving forward fifty-one years to the release of Katyń, the viewer sees a film which is contrasted to that of the “War Trilogy” in several ways. A colour film, in which underground resistance is very much part of the background rather than leading plot, Katyń explores what its title suggests: basing itself around the lives of families living in wartime Poland, and their relatives who are captured Polish Army officers, in the years surrounding the massacre. Many elements of the film are based around the director’s own war experiences – a resistance fighter applying for art school, a relative who was murdered – which adds a certain amount of autobiographical weight here. It can be argued that to an extent Katyń is a classic Wajda movie, in the sense that it is directed towards a Polish audience and that “Wajda has always been able to rely on them to interpret his work correctly, even when censorship forced him to make his points indirectly” (Applebaum 2008,, accessed 1/4/2011).


With this in mind, Wajda is overt in his condemnation of Soviet forces in Poland, and the point-blank and grotesque execution scenes would never have had any chance of making it on-screen in the years of Kanał or Pokolenie, but not everything about Katyń is on-the-surface. Indeed, there is a large element of symbolism involved, which appears to take the place of filming technique in creating the atmospheric conditions which Wajda is famed for as an auteur. One of the most striking examples occurs near the beginning of the film, where the viewer has time to “register a bizarre and painful touch: a statue of the crucified Christ has evidently been knocked down – only a nailed hand is visible on the cross” (Bradshaw 2009,, accessed 1/4/2011). The similarities with Wajda’s Popiół i diament is striking here – the symbol of the arm acting in the same way as the upside-down cross did to enforce a sense of Godlessness and loss of hope at this time. Viewers will also understand the heavy symbolism involved in Soviet soldiers tearing up the Polish flag, in order to use the red half for communist banners to hang from public spaces. Under this backdrop the instances, brief as they are, of resistance fighters carry a great deal of weight, as it enforces the feel of clandestine activity operating in a heavily oppressed society.


The most interesting character in this respect is Tadeusz, a young man who spent much of the war fighting as a partisan in the forest against Soviet forces. Attempting to integrate back into society by applying for an artist course, he refuses to amend his C.V. in which he states that his father, a Polish officer, was murdered by the NKVD. Leaving the faculty building, he tears down a pro-Soviet poster: a fairly innocent act but within this context an act of subversion. Following a hasty escape from soldiers looking to arrest him, he tries to pull out his gun, only to be killed by an army jeep on the road. Echoing the protagonist Maciek in Popiół i diament, “he dies a pointless, postwar death, fighting for a failed cause” (Applebaum 2008). Rather than use this as a critique of the pointlessness of war, Wajda states that Tadeusz’s role was to “show the defiant, indomitable spirit of that generation” and “as a reminder” of those who believed that the West would free Poland from the Soviets after 1945 (in Hodge 2009,, accessed 1/4/2011). Very similar is the delivery of the secondary character Agnieszka, a partisan involved in the Warsaw uprising. Most of her story is only catalogued through references in dialogue, again suggesting the covertness of such operations. The director again shows the uncompromising nature of the fighters, in the lines “even the rising taught you nothing. You won’t change this world”: highlighting how out-of-place and disenfranchised these people now feel.


Although Katyń puts the Polish Army in the central role, the general atmosphere carries over to the discussion of underground resistance effectively. It is a necessary inclusion if the director wishes to create an image of Poland which encompasses all political lines and sections of society. The romanticised style of Wajda does not touch the fighters, rather it is saved for the main characters and their families, instead giving way to a degree of rationalism. There is no support or denial of their actions, nor that much sympathy for the cause, but rather a feeling of tragedy; in that those fighting for a free Poland can no longer assimilate back into society without compromising the ideals that brought them to fight in the first place. This is a contrast from the sympathies exerted in both Pokolenie and Kanał, which carried sympathetic tones and paid a tribute to the heroism of the soldiers. At that time, they also served as a demythologising of commonly-held ideals and uncritical support directed towards the resistance. In the political and social context of Katyń, such a point was never needed to be made. While it may be argued that mythologies are communicated in the film, they are taken up through the soldiers of the Polish Army and are never mixed up with the underground.


In conclusion, in the years spanning Pokolenie to Katyń, Wajda has undergone a transformation as a director; from beginning with a feature breaking with many conventions of socialist realism, to one which was fully produced in post-communist society. The message of underground resistance carried in these films has been influenced by the styles exhibited, but have all moved away from glorification to suggest more of a realistic depiction. While the director clearly shows a romanticised style, this has also gone hand-in-hand with techniques akin to neo-realism in other European cinema, with a quintessentially Polish twist and take; allowing for an acknowledgement of bravery and human sacrifice without resulting in an imbalance or political favouritism. Therefore in his featuring of underground resistance movements, Andrzej Wajda is one of the directors that has been at the forefront of making bold depictions, which although slightly unpopular and away from common memory at times, have been able to provoke an interesting discussion in a Polish cinematic context.





Books (Authored)


  • Bren, F. (1990) World Cinema 1: Poland, Trowbridge: Flicks
  • Coates, P. (2005) The Red & The White: The Cinema of People’s Poland, London; New York: Wallflower Press
  • Haltof, M. (2002) Polish National Cinema,  New York; Oxford: Berghahn
  • Liehm, M. and Liehm, A. (1977) The Most Important Art: Eastern European Film after 1945, Los Angeles; London: University of California Press
  • Michałek, B. (1973) The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda, London: The Tantivy Press
  • Michałek, B. and Turaj, F. (1988) The Modern Cinema of Poland, Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press


Journal Articles


  • Higham, C. (1965) “Grasping the Nettle: The Films of Andrzej Wajda”, The Hudson Review 18:3 pp.408-414


Online Articles


Stalinism on Screen: How Rákosi’s Rule is Depicted in Hungarian Cinema Under Kádár 1956-1989

21 Jun

Protagonist József Pelikán in 'A Tanú'

An analysis over 5,000 words of three Hungarian films released during the Kádár era of Hungarian Communism, and how they reflect on the period of 1948-1954~. Originally written April 2011.



The cinema of Hungary, like other Central European states, is recognised as carrying a strong tradition of both realism and social commentary. This has been shaped by the political events which swept the country after the Second World War: the authoritarian state led by Mátyás Rákosi and the Hungarian Communist Party and the struggle for liberation in 1956, which still plays a large part in the Hungarian identity today. The early years of the People’s Republic of Hungary (1949-1989) were categorised by widespread oppression, show trials and politically-motivated purging of numerous institutions; and this has been a topic of exploration for a multitude of directors in the years following the revolution. This strength of this theme can be seen in the release of films on the subject well after it had passed, and into features released after the transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, films reflecting on this period of history have become revered both in the national context and abroad, winning prizes on the international circuit and achieving cult status amongst sections of the population.

This report will be focusing on this particular point, to investigate a number of questions relating to freedoms of expression in the cinema of Hungary and wider society. In order to do this, several films dealing with the Stalinist period of Hungarian history will be examined and critiqued, supplemented by available English language literature; both reflecting on the films themselves, and also in the historical context. The aims of the study are as follows:

  • To identify why Stalinism has been a key cinematic subject: what events and occurrances under Rákosi made this such a crucial subject?
  • The role of censorship in Hungary after the revolutionary period, and the leadership of Hungary under Kádár: what made these films possible to be shown?
  • A content analysis: why are such scenes depicted, and what are they meant to communicate to the viewer?

Films for Consideration


The films which will be analysed in this report are:


  • Diary for my Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Mészáros 1984)
  • Love (Szerelem, Makk 1971)
  • The Witness (A tanú, Bacsó 1969)




There a several reasons as to why this investigation is valuable. Firstly, it aims to provide an in-depth analysis into an aspect of Hungarian cinema which is accessible due to it being written in English. Unfortunately, much cinematic writing on Hungary is marginalised to scholars who do not have a working knowledge of the language, and thus this report is necessary to deepen understandings of Hungarian film and to provide a resource. As Central European cinema does not and should not exist in isolation (recognising that there has historically been an influence from outside factors), there is space to broaden out the debate from merely an internal, Hungarian viewpoint; and of course provides a template to study similar themes and patterns which may exist in the cinema of the region.  In addition, academics and writers who possess a knowledge of Hungarian can play a positive contribution into the expansion of this project, to cover any gaps which may exist because of omissions of sources.



With an investigation of this magnitude and scope, it is inevitable that there are some concerns which may impact on the report in a negative way. The lack of Hungarian-language sources is a problem in that it may lessen the scope of investigation. In order to overcome this, reading of English sources will be broad and diverse, and although this does not remedy the problem entirely, it gives space for a future study incorporating the research work evidenced here and coupling it with Hungarian sources.

Rákosi’s Hungary and Stalinism in Effect 1948-1956


In order to examine the importance of Stalinism in Hungarian cinema, one needs to assess the political and social affairs of Hungary under the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, Mátyás Rákosi, from 1948 until the Revolution of 1956. During this time, the Party was able to consolidate its power in the postwar climate, and entrench itself by following one of the most aggressive forms of loyalty to Stalin’s USSR, and employing its tactics of terror and oppression in order to keep itself in power.

Firstly, attention should be paid to how the Hungarian Communist Party was able to establish itself. In the aftermath of the occupation of Hungary during the Second World War, Hungarian communists supported the line of the Provisional Government, with the belief that “the population would reward them at the polls for their apparent commitment to pluralism in general and to the cause of reconstruction in particular” (Gati 1994:371). This was not to be the case, with the Smallholder’s Party garnering an overall majority of 57%; with both the Communists and Social Democrats on 17% each. However, the subsequent government which was formed allowed the Communist Party four ministerial seats (plus one for the National Peasant Party, which can be seen as allies to the HCP), and for achieving a majority, the Smallholders only receiving half of the posts available. This coalition allowed for the generation of what was known as “salami tactics”: the procedure of removal of opposition and implementation of policy ‘slice by slice’; which continued to the fraudulent 1947 election where Communists achieved a higher share of the vote and eventually outright power through an organisation which “excelled not only in intimidation, but also at organising demonstrations” (Molnár 2001:299).

At this period, Kadarkay comments that “Rakosi (sic), Stalin’s most faithful East European viceroy, did his zealous best to give credence to the haunting lines of the Hungarian poet laureate, Endre Ady: ‘Nothing proves better our beautifully sad primitiveness than the fact that we have to extract from literature life and death’” (1973:280). The AVO and AVH, Hungary’s political police outfits, were ruthless in the internal and external purges of society in the late 1940s onward.  Molnár comments that “in the political sphere, the transition to brutality affected everyone: there were mass dismissals in the ministries, municipalities, army and publishing houses”, and that “the number of political executions and political prisoners incarcerated, beaten and tortured is not known” (2001:302-304). Of course, similar to events in the Soviet Union, there were investigations and purges into the Party itself, mostly around the divisions between ‘Muscovite’ party members, who spent the war in Russia, and communists, who had either stayed in Hungary or emigrated abroad and then returned. László Rajk, former Interior Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who didn’t emigrate to Moscow, was one such victim; being submitted to a show-trial and sentenced to death on grounds of being a ‘Titoist spy’ who wished to reinstate capitalism. In the clergy, Cardinal József Mindszenty was also tried, and after “having been drugged and tortured by the AVO, the Cardinal confessed to “anti-state” conspiracy and received a sentence of life imprisonment” (Gati 1994:373).

The film industry, at this time, was what one could expect under such a climate. Decimated during the wars, Hungary was only able to produce and release approximately three films a year in the period immediately after 1945. Like the press, creative artistry and expression was stifled by the new regime, where the industry had to “submit to Zdanov’s (sic) principles, which stood diometrically opposed to the efforts of neorealism” (Liehm and Liehm 1977:147) – highlighting not only the influence of Soviet political figures such as Andrei Zhdanov on Hungarian affairs, but also the curtailment of the realism movement which was sweeping European film and its incompatability with the doctrine of socialist realism. This would change after the Revolution of 1956, in which Rákosi would be forced to resign, ushering in a new era of Hungarian Communism, as well as a marked change to the shape of Hungarian cinema.

Kádár and Liberalisation


The turmoil and tragedy of Hungary’s 1956 revolution, although brutally suppressed by Soviet tanks, created a symbolic and long-lasting break from the Stalinism of Rákosi and eventually a liberalisation of the country. Coming in as General Secretary in October 1956 under the new party guise of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, János Kádár, backed by the Soviet Union, moved to “restore order and extinguish the dying flames of revolution” and “inaugurated two years of systematic repression and revenge” after the events which had unfolded (Cartledge 2006:488). Although this second wave of purges and imprisonments were not as arbitrary and random as what was seen in previous years, there were still three hundred executions, including that of popular leaders such as Imre Nagy.

However, Kádár’s rule in the decades following can rightfully be seen as a turning point in the Hungarian context. Infamously implementing an economic system of reforms which lead to growth, known as “goulash communism”, there were also liberalising tendencies with regards to deviation and basic freedoms of speech – which is important to consider when discussing films which depicted Stalinism on screen. In contrast to the doctrine of “he who is not with us is against us” under Rákosi, the new slogan for reform was “he who is not against us is with us”. Kontler describes the subsequent regime as:

That fluid and indefinite amalgam of the absence of liberty in general but access to some liberties; of the mitigation of repression and a limited autonomy of the economic and cultural spheres; of lip service paid to strong political consciousness and a de-politicisation of everyday life (relieving and annoying at the same time); above all, the trimming of the wilder branches of the command economy and the endeavour to satisfy the demand for consumerism (2002:434)

These changes had reverberations on the cinema industry. For the first time since the openness generated around the events of 1956 (which, of course, were extremely short-lived), “the government [has] encouraged a modest degree of critical reporting by the press and an ever-expanding latitude for cultural intellectuals…the result has been a lively activity within the cultural community, with literature and film profiting especially from the relaxed political environment” (Paul, in Goulding (ed) 1989:178). This factor did not, of course, allow for a full-blown attack or critique; as despite liberalising tendencies the system “was still believed to have had the most sophisticated and elusive censorship mechanisms in place” (Iordanova, in Cornis-Pope and Neubauer (eds) 2004:531); yet this still allowed for the opening up of what was once a closed topic of investigation. From this, a new realism movement in Hungarian cinema was fostered, using depictions of Stalinism as an enforcing factor. On the other hand, the political climate still forbade any direct references to the 1956 uprising: thus pushing the subject of life under Rákosi back to being a legitimate yet daring subject. This should also reflect on the denunciations of Stalin by the political elite, notably Khrushchev, which paved the way for Kádár’s style of governance in the first place.

Therefore, the economic revitalisation and freer (but not completely free) society that Hungarian people experienced during the Kádár years placed a resurgent cinema industry in the position to embrace not only new artistic styles, but new content analysis. At this time, directors and auteurs could make mention of parts of history that reflected on the trials and imprisonments that communities experienced in the aftermath of the Second World War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of Hungary. This was communicated in numerous ways by film, with differing intentions, and is necessary to examine in order to establish the bigger picture of life and society during the post-1956 period.

Károly Makk’s Szerelem


It may be, on the surface, unusual to analyse a film released in 1970, Makk’s Szerelem (Love); before going on to examine a film from the year before. Yet the script and ideas that resulted in one of Makk’s most noted films was a working project for nearly half a decade before its cinematic debut. Based on two short stories by the writer Tibor Déry, it tells the tale of an old woman, her daughter-in-law Luca, and the husband János. Bedridden and sick, the woman anxiously waits day-by-day for the return of her son, receiving letters telling of his successes as a director in the United States. The twist here is that these letters are in fact written by Luca, who knows that her husband has been imprisoned for political crimes. Szerelem touchingly portrays the increasing senility of the old woman, her death, and János’ eventual release against a backdrop of the last days of Stalinism.

The film employs a number of techniques to communicate both the events that many dissidents, or so-called dissidents, suffered; and the paranoia which existed throughout the 1950s. This is one of the main reasons in itself why this subject has been a central theme to cinema of the liberalisation period: that “problems of the 1950s as an historical (sic) object stemmed at least in part from a controlled absence of relevant historical documentation” (Aczel 1998:152) and therefore depictions on screen became an effort to communicate some sort of historical or anecdotal record to this particularly brutal regime. In other words, the films provide a comment which the state could not make. As Déry and Ivan Darvas (János) had both served time in Hungarian prisons, this consciously reflects real experiences, which is also a part in reflecting Hungarian neo-realism which was developing at the time. The film does not shy away from shots that leave no doubt as to the political situation – the prison cell, for instance, is captured, as are the shaved heads of the prisoners; inferring the possibility of execution rather than release, adding to the overall atmosphere.

It is this sense of paranoia throughout Szerelem that makes for captivating viewing. As Liehm and Liehm note, the director “succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear in which friendship, faith, and fidelity somehow collapse and turn into the exact opposites” (1977:392-393). Luca’s role as a school teacher plays into this perfectly. When she is suddenly dismissed from her job and loses her home the viewer is in no doubt that this is politically motivated; similarly when she is meeting friends, the mysterious men from the “telephone exchange” are almost certainly spies who are planting surveillance equipment. Indeed, these “friends” are also lost, due to the association with her husband.  The strength of these images often lies in delivery and technique: Makk does not need to make the telephone bugging, or motivations for Luca’s dismissal, completely overt in the dialogue, precisely because the subject is one which is familiar to the Hungarian audience. Furthermore, there is a powerful contrast that is made. Whereas “the old woman “sees” flash frames of yesteryear, gallant men on horseback and ladies with parasols photographed with the slight distortion of a wide-angle lens…Luca sees crisp images of her own era with its crumbling plaster and shortages of food” (Paul in Goulding (ed) 1989:190).

The visions and recollections, one of the stand-out techniques in the film, also construe “visions of imperial elegance that blend into her fantasies of János’ transatlantic adventures” (Robinson in Hames (ed) 2004:176). The old woman appears to be intelligent despite her condition, so these moments ask the question as to whether or not she is in denial. If there is doubt that János is likely to be in prison, then this is an indication of the coping mechanisms which some used to counter the oppressive environment of Rákosi’s state. Perhaps the outrageous story of her son’s supposed life in America is indicative of the closed nature of Hungarian society in the 1950s, that the image of America here can at least be perceived as credible. The doubt in the viewer’s mind on interpretations of these motifs mirrors the paranoia which lingers throughout the film. Ultimately, Makk has been able to direct a film in which the protagonists “encapsulate the national trauma of Hungary in the years of Stalinist oppression and its lingering and pervasive heritage” (2004:173).

Iordanova argues that the films of Károly Makk, amongst others, helped to “form(ed) the backbone of the strong tradition in socially critical film-making” in Central Europe (2003:38); and from Szerelem this can be seen clearly. The director has incorporated cinematic technique and motif in a neo-realist style, which produces a film that is rife with tension and paranoia. As has been mentioned, the intention here is to provide an analysis of the Stalinist years without being as direct to create a historical text or documentary, in order to strike a balance between real experiences and the state-legitimised view of happenings. The fact that it is based on genuine experiences only adds to the strength, and these anecdotes are ones which appear in other films of the era; where auteurs create features that are entrenched with an autobiographical perspective.

A Tanú (The Witness)


The cult status around Péter Bacsó’s feature film A Tanú (1969) lies not only on merit as a comedy set during the years of political trials and purges, but also it being one of the most notable shelved films in Hungarian cinematic history. As the film was “considered too critical to be shown at the time of its completion (not long after the Prague spring)” (Aczel 1998:154), audiences would have to wait nine years before receiving it to mass acclaim. Set, for the most part, in rural Hungary, it is a film about József Pelikán; a dam-keeper, and his experiences with the Communist Party in its early years of power. In multiple absurd circumstances, he is appointed multiple party positions, despite being generally disinterested in political organisation; and in-and-out of prison due to a series of unfortunate mishaps. When an old friend and comrade, Zoltán Dániel, is arrested in true show trial fashion, Pelikán is appointed as the ‘star witness’ in order to condemn him. Refusing to lie about Dániel, he is subsequently convicted and condemned to death. However, at the gallows, Pelikán is informed at the last minute he has been rehabilitated, and he is released back into society, at a time which the viewer understands as being many years later. Returning to his old life, the now free protagonist goes back to his village and to dam-keeping duties.

With regards to the banning of the film, it is important to remember that although the post-1956 environment was vastly different from that of the Rákosi period, it was by no means a free society. That “the people in power could and would, still use that power if they felt threatened” (Cunningham 2004:114) is indicative of this, yet the phenomenon of shelving completed films was far more overt in other Communist countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. The fact that A Tanú was indeed shelved is representative of the level of political satire featured: the film makes this directly part of the storyline, and is unreserved at painting a picture depicting the Party as being bureaucratic and incompetent. This is made clear both in actions and in dialogue. When given charge of a local swimming pool, Pelikán fails to recognise leading member Comrade Bástya (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Rákosi) swimming, and opens up the pool to the public. Speaking of the incident, the protagonist apologises as he “didn’t know the party line”, reflecting the far-reaching bureaucracy of even simple functions in Hungarian society. This is coupled with the delusion of the high-ranking officials, Bástya and Virág, served by the constant repetition throughout of tired political clichés that appear to be related to all sections of life (“the international situation is intensifying”). The absurdism is also reflected in the banners, with slogans mirroring socialist realism at every turn; the pinnacle of this is witnessed in the heralding of the Hungarian Orange, which is then portrayed as a glorious victory against the imperialist West.

Dániel’s trial, “which some commentators saw as having parallels with the Lásló Rajk case” (Cunningham 2004:115) is towards the end of the film, but is certainly one of the most fascinating to evaluate. As one would expect from any show-trial the script is written in advance (at one point Virág mistakenly hands over the sentence to Pelikán while the court is in session); and the protagonist is made to go through a ridiculous procedure of speech therapies and examinations before being brought in as the main witness. Accusations held up against ‘Dániel and his group’ fit in with the historical context – the usual charges of fascist espionage and the like – yet these are interspersed with bizarre claims such as hiding secret messages in tin cans covered with gopher skins, and conversing underwater with frogmen. Aczel argues that by this scene “the historical perversity of the show trial is rewritten in the “innocent” terms of dizzy fantasy; the tragedy of the absurd is rerun as the farce of the impossible, or fictional, finally liberated from the awkward history of which the film itself is a problematic representation” (1998:155). The satire here cannot be taken seriously, but this is the point: to demonstrate the incongruity and irrationality of the charges which were brought against many during the 1950s. To an extent, ironically, it also reflects the absurdity of communist control over all spheres of influence – of which art is one – and the removal of A Tanú from the cinemas.

Bacsó has been careful to create a film which does not downplay the tragedies of the past, but is also not afraid to highlight the grotesque and comedic aspects of the regime; generating a piece which “teeters between humour and horror” (Paul in Goulding (ed) 1989:196). It cannot be helped to laugh at the bureaucracy of the state faced with Hungarian oranges and ‘Socialist Ghost Trains’, but at the same time the very real situation is kept close at hand. All in all, it symbolises a complete cross between historical realism and comedy which still appeals to younger generations in Hungary today; and in a way highlights the spirit of a nation who could not be beaten or held back by the overshadowing of the Communist Party.

Márta Mészáros and Autobiographical Film


Perhaps Hungary’s most renowned female auteur is Márta Mészáros, who has been active in the domestic and international cinema community for more than forty years; and a key component in the analysis of cinematic developments of the Kádárist years. Her Diary trilogy, of which the first, Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, 1984) will be discussed here, should be considered as necessary viewing for any academic engagement with Stalinism and cinema in the Central European context.

In order to thoroughly examine Napló gyermekeimnek, it is essential to understand Mészáros’ personal background and how it relates to the story that is being told. The daughter of a sculptor, Mészáros emigrated with her parents to the Soviet Union, where her father was imprisoned (and subsequently disappeared, and her mother died when she was young. Subsequently, she moved back to Hungary in 1946, before relocating again to Russia to study at the Moscow Film Academy. The main protagonist in the Diary trilogy, Juli, is therefore autobiographical in nature. Juli will further mirror parts of the director’s life in future features, but in Napló gyermekeimnek the viewer sees her arrive back in Hungary at around the same period, with a family situation that is practically identical. Upon returning to Hungary, Juli is cared for by Magda, a staunch communist, representative of the Stalinist camp. Based right in the middle of the internal politics of the organisation, Juli witnesses “the intensifying conditions of fear and deception upon which Magda’s career seems to thrive” (Aczel 1998:172) which enforces itself by disappearances, forced confessions and imprisonment. Despite the advantages she receives, and close connections within the Party, Juli is able to resist the attempts made for her to conform and instead focuses priority on finding her father, though of course his relocation and background are not talked about as a so-called ‘enemy’ of the people.

Mészáros creates an atmospheric and gripping film with a bold remit, which arguably goes further than other contemporaries in the field. What Napló gyermekeimnek excels at is highlighting the divides that still exist in the society that Juli finds herself in. The birthday party which she is invited to exposes the luxury that high-ranking Communists enjoy, almost suggesting that a new class has been forged in a society that strives to be classless; and the divisions between home communists and Muscovites is played out in detail – argued out through the dialogue between protagonists. Radio broadcasts and political rallies make overt the “Titoite” trials and the case of Lásló Rajk. Furthermore, the implications of the factionalist purges and the realism of the situation are supplemented by close-up shots intended to capture emotion. The director also includes documentary footage and a fragmented style of chronological events which create “a paradigm of groundbreaking visual strategies used to serve the filmmaker’s long-censored story of familial loss, intergenerational tension and the struggle for artistic and personal identity” (Portuges, in Hames (ed) 2004:193). Much like Szerelem, film has again been used as a platform to contribute to the history of the Hungarian state under Rákosi, in this case the personal story of the director.

Despite this being the most well-received film of the Diary trilogy domestically, “twice as many people went to see Oh Bloody Life, and four times as many saw István the King, the film version of a rock opera set in the eleventh century” (Aczel 1998:175): in other words, films geared towards mass appeal rather than historical drama were more favoured. Cunningham points out that “Hungarian audiences tended to become bored with the films revisiting the 1950s” (2004:138), and despite the liberal regime at this point, may be another reason why Napló gyermekeimnek could go far in its criticism of Hungarian Stalinism. However, the content and artistic quality provoked both discussion and praise. As Portuges highlights, it is “a recreation of historical events and a re-reading of official versions of history. As such, though far from merely didactic, they [the Diary trilogy] propose interpretations that conform neither to the prevailing ideologies of the time in which they were made nor to those of the period they propose to represent” ( 1993:86). Thus this film also serves a purpose of opening up a wider dialogue, frank and overt, as to the happenings of 1940s and 1950s Hungary to compensate for the lack of official discussion and documentation.

By completing Napló gyermekeimnek, Márta Mészáros has made a highly stylistic and personal film, which has historical as well as cultural usage. The definition of Stalinist Hungary that is exhibited is different from that of Makk and Bascó in the sense that it is more of a direct challenge to held beliefs, and by highlighting the divisive and classist nature of the Hungarian Communist Party, indirectly questions the rationale and existence of the Hungarian state itself. These themes would inevitably be built upon in the continuation of the trilogy, yet even as a stand-alone work Napló gyermekeimnek has achieved in creating an argument that is steeped in personal experience and realism.



From this investigation, a number of conclusions can be made attaining to the role of Stalinist depictions in Kádár-era Hungarian film. Although this rule lasted from 1956 to 1989, spanning thirty-three years, a general pattern has still emerged despite the length of time.

Although Kádár’s initial approach to governance in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution amounted to a de-liberalisation of society, with reprisals aimed at stabilising the country, this soon changed to one which allowed more openness than experienced before in the Communist context. From such a development, the realism style of cinema could be adopted to a greater extent by Hungarian filmmakers, and historical depictions was a key, but not exclusive, component of this. Due to the doctrine of “he who is not against us is with us”, more criticism could be levelled at the political nature of Hungary, and as discussions of 1956 were more or less off-limits, the rule of Rákosi became a well-explored topic.

Károly Makk’s Szerelem from 1970 is an early example of the realist practice coupled with historical recollection, being based on two short stories by an author who was imprisoned under the regime. The film is a well-crafted balance of content and technique, with the style reflecting the paranoia and uncertainty of the years documented. It can be used as a pivotal example of a reclamation of history, in that it aims to forge a realistic picture of the times as a method of countering the lack of recorded evidence which was available. Fourteen years later, Márta Mészarós would also employ such a combination, however it would go further. Indicative of both the continued liberalisation and also the development of artistry in Hungarian film, Napló gyermekeimnek exhibits a much more damning critique, which attacks not only mainstream interpretation and oppositions to Stalinism, but the intentions of the Party and system itself. At a time when disinterest in historical realism was affecting the national audience, the director was able to open up the space for another deep discussion into the country’s past.

Despite the examples set by the films above, the realist style is by no means a prerequisite for a critical examination of the postwar regime. This has been shown by Péter Bascó in his film A Tanú, a comedy which both satirises the Communists but also displays a chilling undercurrent. It perfectly points out the inconsistencies and the absurdities of Stalinist society without downplaying the brutality of it: a pitfall which would be easy to step into. Although unintentional on the part of the director, it also highlights the inconsistencies of the state at the time of release – openness, but not too much openness – the result of which saw this cult film shelved for a number of years and only adding to its appeal.

Therefore, the depictions of Rákosi’s Hungary became a theme for three main reasons: the slight freedoms emerging through the installation of János Kádár as General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party; the characteristics which permitted it to become a vehicle for a realist movement in cinema; and a desire for documenting and opening up the history of the regime. Depictions on screen were further aided by a cinematic technique which intention was to create both an atmosphere reminiscent of the time, and to highlight particular tenants of Stalinist rule. The fact that these films are still enjoyed today by both a Hungarian and international audience is testament to both the stylistic tendencies of the films of this era, and the very serious role they had to play.



Books (Authored)

Cartledge, B. (2006) The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary, London: Timewell Press

Cunningham, J. (2004) Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex, London: Wallflower Press

Iordanova, D. (2003) Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film, London: Wallflower Press

Kontler, L. (2002) A History of Hungary, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Liehm, M. and Liehm, A. (1977) The Most Important Art: Eastern European Film after 1945, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press

Molnár, M. (2001) A Concise History of Hungary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Portuges, C. (1993) Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Márta Mészarós, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Books (Edited)

Gati, C. (1994) “From Liberation to Revolution, 1945-1956”; in Sugar, P., Hanák, P. and Frank, T. (eds) A History of Hungary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp.368-383

Iordanova, D. (2004) “East-Central European Cinema and Literary History”, in Cornis-Pope and Neubauer (eds) History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Junctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries Volume 1, Amsterdam: John Benjamins pp.524-541

Paul, D. (1989) “Hungary: The Magyar on the Bridge” in Goulding, D. (ed) Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press pp.172-214

Portuges, C. (2004) “Napló gyermekeimnek/Diary for My Children”, in Hames, P. (ed) The Cinema of Central Europe, London: Wallflower Press pp.191-202

Robinson, D. (2004) “Szerelem/Love”, in Hames, P. (ed) The Cinema of Central Europe, London: Wallflower Press pp.173-180

Journal Articles

Aczel, R. (1998) “”The Day Before Yesterday”: The Representation of the 1950s in Hungarian Cinema in the 1980s”, Hungarian Studies, 13(2), pp.151-178

Kadarkay, A. (1973) “Hungary: An Experiment in Communism”, The Western Political Quarterly, 26(2), pp.280-301

Estonian National Identity and Natural Environment – How is Communicated and Employed in Estonian Film?

24 May

Scene from Kiisk's 'Nipernaadi'

An investigation into the use of natural environment in several Estonian feature films, and how it ties into concepts of national identity. Originally written April 2011.




Despite having a population of less than two million, Estonians have fostered a vibrant and diverse cinema culture encompassing multiple techniques and remits. From the first feature film shot in 1914, Estonian national film has survived throughout the years of independence from Russia, re-occupation by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the emerging post-communist freedoms of national sovereignty in 1991. The wide range of subjects which have been covered during this span reflects national experiences, collective memory, and Estonian cultural tradition in its many shapes and forms.  Although not enjoying the same international success as other former Soviet-occupied or satellite states, the years following 1991 have seen a rise in export, with several notable films garnering prizes on the international film circuit. One recent film that has been praised is Veiko Õunpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony (Püha Tõnu kiusamine, 2009).

A persistent theme that emerges within this national film movement is one which deals strongly with the subject of identity, in various guises. This of course has historical connotations due to many decades where there was a distinct lack of self-determination. By enforcing a unique cultural and national identity on screen, directors and auteurs were able to not only subvert authority during times of occupation, but also to communicate strong ideas in the post-communist context.

One exploration that has often been visually overt is that of the natural environment and space, and it is this factor that this report is concerned with.

Areas of Examination and Questions for Consideration


The intention of this investigation is to look at ideas of nature and national identity through several angles, via the medium of Estonian film. In order to assess the role of nature in the Estonian consciousness, it is necessary to examine why it plays such an important role, and what it suggests to the people of Estonia. Therefore, a historical and ethnological examination will take place using available academic sources and literature in English translation. Once this has been established, a comprehensive analysis of several films will identify depictions of the natural environment,  and then will move to discuss both how it manifests itself on screen and what it intends to communicate.

It will be argued that ideas of national environment are deeply rooted and associated with the idea of homeland for Estonian people, and that the manifestation of this in folk culture has carried through to the present day. As such, cinema has to an extent taken over more traditional formats to become an artform itself, continuing the practice of entrenching Estonian identity through the use of nature. In addition, natural surroundings have also served the use of enforcing points the auteur wishes to make concerning societal make-up and in some situations political issues.


Rationale and Justifications


There are several clear reasons as to why such an investigation is necessary. Firstly, it allows for a clear understanding of a topic which experiences a lack of coverage in English language academia. Baltic cinema has unfortunately never received the coverage that other Central and Eastern European states have had (Russia and Poland are two such examples of this) and as such there is an absence of qualitative sources into the study of it. By completing this study a small part of this void will hopefully be filled, and in turn encourage interest into further projects within the remit of Baltic film.  In addition, it provides a template for a more wide-scale thesis or report into Estonian cinema, or indeed identity studies within the cinemas of Latvia and Lithuania.



As with any investigation of this magnitude and scope, there are concerns which may affect the outcome of the work. The most pressing of these concerns is that of sourcing, namely the insufficient number of English language sources pertaining to Estonian culture and identity. In order to overcome this obstacle, online sources will also be employed, particularly ones which are based on cinema and film review. This in itself leads to the problem of verification – to what extent these sources are valuable and whether or not they are legitimate. However, this can be countered by a critical analysis of the content; although this does not remove the problem entirely. Overall, the concerns here do not necessarily impact on the strength of this investigation as being a piece which can be developed and replicated into either a full-length thesis or replicable research paper.

The Role of the Environment in Estonian Culture



The importance of environment and natural surroundings, in its most basic understanding, can be seen through the geographical make-up of Estonia; revealing the role it has had to play in the lives of many generations of the land’s populous. A country of 17,500 square miles, Estonia is the smallest of the Baltic States, with half of its land covered by forests and another fifth by marshes and peat bogs. There are also thousands of lakes, the largest being Lake Peipsi to the East of the country; and many miles of coastline looking out onto the Baltic sea, the Gulf of Riga and Gulf of Finland.

It is from this dominating environment that people have survived for thousands of years, and which has helped shape a strong Estonian culture. Forests were important sources of fuel and building material, as well as food. However, the common depiction of Estonians as peoples of the forest may be exaggerated. On this point Jürgenson comments that:

The picture of Estonians as forest people is largely ethnic-romantic and as such, relatively similar to the same kind of clichés of other Eastern-European peoples. Let us think of the fact that actually, Estonians have been growing plants on the fields for more than 3000 years. No doubt, the forest, at one time, used to be the main environment of subsistence for the ancestors of Estonians, however, during the last centuries, the Estonian consciousness has primarily been that of a land-cultivator. (in Runnel and Vallikivi (eds) 2004:99)

Indeed, historically much of the Estonian population resided in rural villages or communities with adjacent farms; and farmland has been heavily featured in traditional rahvalaul, or folk songs, which “served as assistants at work, supporting the rhythm and alleviating the toil” (Viires 2004:185). However, the farm and the forest in cultivating identities do not have to be mutually exclusive. The fact that woodland takes up so much of the land inevitably turns it into a national symbol over time, and one which can be related to by the population. The agricultural nature of Estonians traditionally does not omit the image of the forest, as it is a defining feature in many areas. Rather, “The role of the natural environment in shaping attitudes of the people was also of great importance. The whole life proceeded in an environment of surrounding fields, hayfields and pastures, woods, bogs and bodies of water” (Viires 2004:221). It is these images that have stuck in the mindset and developed the contemporary Estonian attitude towards nature.

This can be witnessed in the struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, and emerging debates in the new free Estonian society. By emphasising the nature of their homeland, Estonians were relying on the symbolism and imagery created through the first Republic, and thus setting it aside from that of the occupier force. The movement for independence in the final years of occupation “placed considerable emphasis on the country’s rural heritage” in order to advance this idea, particularly during the environmental protests of 1987 which set out to contrast the country with an “opposition to what was seen as Soviet, and more specifically Russian, despoliation of the state’s ‘natural’ environment” (Unwin, in Pickles and Smith (eds) 1998:297). Thus, ideas about identity were strengthened beyond merely geographical terrain in that the forests and lakes now carried a political dimension of opposition to authoritarianism.

When referring to cinema and the environment, it can be seen that this is an extension of Estonian cultural art, albeit with a contemporary mode of expression. Despite the relatively small size and population, distinct regional cultures have emerged: not only in the way people lived and worked, but also in song and dance; and ultimately, the surroundings they found themselves in. The use of choral refrains for instance, was something incorporated into southern Estonian folk song, yet something unrecognised in the north. In the same way, depictions of environments in films are perhaps a reflection on the director and their own backgrounds. One example is that of Kiisk, born in north-eastern region, whose 1983 film Nipernaadi bases itself in the farmland of the area (Nipernaadi will be analysed later in this report). It is undeniable that cinema has become part of a cultural framework in many countries and thus “when talking about culture, we cannot evade the concepts of territory, place, landscape, environment” (Jürgenson 2004:101).

To summarise, the importance of the natural environment is one which has been developed through several avenues. The strong folk culture forged in Estonia often reflected the experience of those who crafted it, and inevitably this paid attention to their surroundings. Thus images of farmland and forest are ones which have stayed throughout the years and become established as symbols of Estonian life. Such symbols were strengthened in the national psyche by the linking to the political independence struggle, and therefore acquired a new sphere of relevance. Finally, in many ways as an art form cinema has become a new method of artistic communication, with environments again featuring as part of a continuation of traditional Estonian custom.

Kiisk’s Nipernaadi and Estonian Farmland



In over fifty years of active directing, producing and acting in films, the late Kaljo Kiisk established himself as one of the most popular and important minds in Estonian cinema. Although Russian-trained, his films have consistently exhibited a unique Estonian feel, and one such example of this is 1983’s Nipernaadi (translated as Happy Go Lucky, The Wanderer or The Adventurer in English). The film tells the story of Toomas Nipernaadi, a man of wonderfully persuading charm and language, and his time in the countryside in the northern parts of the country. Through his travelling he meets numerous women who he professes his love for, before mysteriously moving on from one farm or village to the next; manipulating crofters and farmers in order to stay with them. It is based on a novel originally written by August Gailit, yet undertaken in Kiisk’s own style, highlighting “the genuine vitality of the literary work and the artistic charm of the director’s vision” (Kulli 2008:10).

The opening shots of Nipernaadi set the tone and surroundings for the film: the introductory titles are shot over a background of a blue, clouded sky, before moving to shots of the open fields where most of the feature takes place. From this beginning the viewer interprets this as a feeling of space and openness, unstifled by any industrial or urban centres. This feeling continues throughout, with the camera focusing on the winding country roads and the forests dotted around. Kiisk’s choice for Nipernaadi, ably acted by Tõnu Kark, to wear white is excellent here: there is no dark contrast which directs attention away from the scenery, rather it is complimentary and enforces ideas that the protagonist is at one with nature. Nipernaadi enforces this through the film’s dialogue. It becomes evident that the protagonist has a compulsion to make up stories about himself and others and to use wild exaggeration, yet this is very effective in reflecting on the omnipresence of nature throughout. One such example comes from one of his tales by the lakeside, where he appears to be speaking about himself:

He speaks about his land, its forests and meadows, its light nights, hot days; the foaming waterfalls of its streams, and the mystery of its bogs…I want none of your riches, for I am a thousand times richer than you. I have swaying woods in the north, wild geese flying over them, honking. I have fields, and when the wind caresses the golden ears of corn, it feels as if it were the seas swelling. (Nipernaadi 1983)

What this suggests is that the natural environment is intertwined with the personal, and that Nipernaadi’s identity is very much reflected in his surroundings. In this way Kiisk is arguing that nature is an important part of what makes Estonian people who they are.

By the film’s conclusion, the viewer witnesses a twist which answers many questions as to who the protagonist really is. While staying on the coast, Nipernaadi’s real wife turns up, and explains that he is actually a writer (presumably residing in some urban centre such as Tallinn or Tartu). Every year her husband disappears in the spring to wander the countryside and returns once the snow has fallen. This heavily romanticised outcome adds another interesting dimension to explain why the environment is so important to the Estonian consciousness. Even today most families have, or rent, isolated cottages in which to escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life, and this form of escapism and reconnecting with nature is enforced here. In short, the intentions of Nipernaadi speak to a desire that many Estonian people hold. When the couple leave to return home, for the first time the viewer witnesses Toomas dressed only in black: a symbolic break from his connection with the outdoors for another year.

It can also be argued that this enforcing of Estonian mentality also serves as one of subverting the Soviet sphere of influence. It has been noted that “like art in general, Estonian film, too, was focused on the issue of national identity. Maintaining national characteristic features acted as an indirect opposition to Soviet ideology which, at least in rhetoric, identified people through class and worldwide mission” (Funk 2000,, accessed 9/4/2011). Thus Estonian nature, a defining characteristic, is also employed as a means of resistance and opposition to occupation, driving through the concept of a unique and independent Estonia. Such criticism, even in the more liberalised 1980s, could not be overt, and this resulted in filmmakers, including Kiisk, creating “a coded language of images; and experienced viewer would be able to decipher the images, but the censors’ scissors would overlook their significance” (, accessed 9/4/2011).

Therefore, Kiisk’s Nipernaadi serves an important role linking national cinema with the national consciousness of the population. While placing emphasis on the beauty of natural surroundings, the director focuses on the unique identity of Estonia politically, setting it aside from the rest of the Soviet Union; but also makes the point that nature plays a crucial part in the make-up of identities of Estonian people. The main character speaks to the audience on multiple levels, most importantly the desire for time to discover oneself while immersed in the rural environment. It is a strong message which is skilfully delivered by the director and enables Nipernaadi to still carry relevance today.



Although coming from a theatre background, director Elmo Nüganen has been responsible for two features which have been very well received in the national context. His 2002 film Names on a Marble Board (Nimed marmortahvlil) generated one of the largest Estonian audiences for a home production, and this was followed up by Mindless (Meeletu) in 2006, which has been described as “an emotional artistic project, which best conveys his style for what he is praised and awarded as a theatre director” (, accessed 10/4/2011). In a simple but touching storyline, Toomas, an executive for a successful telecommunications company in Tallinn, becomes frustrated with the busy city life and retreats to a lakeside cottage in the countryside. While there, he finds that villagers keep asking him different questions, on subjects such as life and love. Buoyed by this popularity, he attempts to start his own religion which is built on ideas of nature being powerful. At the same time, Toomas’ colleagues and family become estranged from him and do not fit into his new lifestyle and ideas. Upon returning to the city, deflated (realising that the villagers were only interested in him because of his money) he discovers he is able to control the weather as he claims. Meeletu is yet another Estonian film which takes advantage of the country’s natural scenery to help develop its points.

Upon examination of the film it is perhaps unsurprising that it became so popular. Very much like Kiisk, Nüganen has been able to tap into the desires of many Estonians to spend time away from the cities and to engage more with the rich resources outside it. Not only does Toomas become the carrier for such ideas, by taking a year away from a world of mobile phones and computers, but the director has been able to draw a clear contrast between urban and provincial life – a contrast which arguably speaks to many people. Footage of the cityscape, the office, and most importantly the nightclub scenes at the beginning of the film, all use various techniques to make a point: the close shots suggesting cramped space, coupled with background noise which will later be the antithesis of the birdsongs and gentle wind of Toomas’ new lakeside cottage. Moreover, for a protagonist who states that “I had always thought that a little bit more and then I will start living my own life…I just rush through my life and then it is over” his work in fixing up the cottage and trying to find religion makes clear that the countryside gives him a sense of purpose; more so than his former life in business. As the camera changes swiftly from the city skyline to the natural environment, so do the priorities of the protagonist.

Differentials between natural and artificial are multi-layered, in fact. Although it has been argued that Meeletu is “rich in clichés and lacking in content” (, 37, accessed 10/4/2010), there are several instances which are very effective in communicating the director’s point. Shots with Toomas sitting in the trees represent his newly-acquired connection with nature, whereas his money is associated by the village people as being a hallmark of someone who resides in the city – in other words, money means nothing to the environment itself. From this, Nüganen enforces the beauty and simplicity of living amongst nature, and that happiness can be found here. This is a cultural motif that harks back to the times of rising Estonian nationalism, with epic poems and art of the time using “prevailing imagery referring to the natural and historical environment. Here, homeland can be defined by way of nature” (Jürgenson 2004:107). The use of money as a dividing factor plays into the historical context of post-communist Estonia and the rising profit motive. As the neighbour says to the protagonist, “It is interesting to hear what a rich man has to say”.

The success of Meeletu, and indeed other films that communicate similar ideas, can more often than not be directly equated with a message which speaks to its audience – and in the Estonian context, this is related to their desires and own identity politics. As has been shown previously, because the environment has such a large part to play in the development of what it means to be Estonian, Nüganen’s feature is very much an Estonian film for an audience which understands, and in some ways desire, for the life that is portrayed.  The film is also important to look at from a historical perspective, as what it enforces is the extent that old ideas equating homeland with the environment in creating identity has permeated both centuries and political changes; as well as the art form in which it entrenches itself. Film now places itself amongst poetry and folk song in developing cultural themes in the contemporary period, and Meeletu shows how strong this can be.

The Films of Veiko Õunpuu and Explorations of Solitude



One of the rising talents of modern Estonian cinema, Veiko Õunpuu, is a director that can be credited with exporting film out of the national boundary, and to great acclaim. Having released three films in his brief career, Õunpuu has already amassed prizes on the international circuit, and has done so with a unique style that blends psychological aspects with black comedy to interesting effect. His first two features, 2006’s Empty (Tühirand) and 2007’s Autumn Ball (Sügisball) both feature contrasting settings which deal with the environment, and an interesting continuation in cast members and storylines. Both films are based on novels by the writer Mati Unt.

Tühirand, a forty-three minute short, tells the tale of a love triangle between Mati, the academic male protagonist, his wife, affair interest and brother. It is one which explores ideas surrounding relationship struggles, and its provincial setting is intended to develop these themes. Although it can be said that the film’s concept is one that has been covered before, Tomberg points out that “repetition and over-coding reveal to the viewer a grotesque and sad loneliness” (2007:23). In the duration filming takes place in the forest, with colouring and shot style bringing out the natural beauty and density of the woodland; and the beach with its long, sweeping landscape. As has been argued earlier, these surroundings evoke a sense of isolation, which has often been portrayed as a desirable attribute in the likes of Meeletu. However, Tühirand uses this symbol for a different purpose entirely, namely the ironic differential between the personal feeling of being alone and the physical aloneness which a person might feel in the setting; and a desire for this which none of the characters can actually cope with. Again Tomberg argues this point in why the film is multi-layered, stating that “Existentially they thus remain, or choose to remain, on their own in the reality of a game, although solitude is exactly what is impossible to endure” (2007:23). One of the most striking scenes sees Mati, played by Rain Tolk, waist deep in the water, by himself: creating a desolate and thought-provoking image reflecting this internal crisis.

Whereas Õunpuu’s debut envelopes itself in the rustic surroundings of coastal and forest-laden country, his sequel, Sügisball, immerses itself in quite the opposite. The beaches and forests have been traded in this instance with Soviet-era apartment blocks and housing schemes, yet the main theme is the same: that of isolation. Mati remains one of the integral characters here, and he is joined by a host of other protagonists in a feature that follows the lives of several people and their residence in one of the towers. Alongside Mati, who has now been left by his wife, the viewer encounters architect Maurer and his partner, single parent Laura, Finnish barber August, and cloakroom attendant Theo. The one thing the protagonists all have in common is the shared experience of loneliness.

This image is created, again like Tühirand, by a dualism between style and setting. Outside of the environmental aspect, it is interesting to recognise that the “understated stories of quiet desperation only occasionally overlap, instead sitting side by side, the emotional resonances playing off each other” (Dawson 2009,, accessed 10/4/2011). Despite residing only a few metres away from each other, the characters lead separate lives entirely, emphasising their separation from others and the community. The sheer size of the city, in particular the housing scheme which is shown in wide-shots and landscapes, communicates how deep feelings of solitude go: that is to say, that despite the concentrated population and vastness of the urban environment, there is no connection with it or its people. Artificial divisions are also communicated through aspects of the dialogue, and this reflects on the setting. The scoffing reply Maurer receives at a party of artists and members of the ‘intelligentsia’ on his choice of living in his apartment indicates the class divide which exists in present-day Estonia, and arguably this can be interpreted as being indicative of city life compared with that of the country. Nature itself knows no class, but living areas and districts of the capital appear to. Overall scenery here provides the perfect setting to a complex drama on a subject that has been rarely covered in post-Soviet cinema.

The director’s strength in the choice of scenery and environment is that it is an altogether different approach from what is becoming a quasi-pattern of Estonian film. Instead of playing on romanticised attitudes of the countryside, and the placing of two different settings in competition with each other, Õunpuu employs depictions of environments to draw out individual concepts of isolation to a greater level than communication and dialogue can. His highly stylised films use a multi-faceted approach in speaking to the viewer, subverting their attitudes in a way which turns conventional attitudes to nature in the opposite way. The result, which can be witnessed in the two pictures examined here, is extremely effective.

Short Films at Home and Abroad: Musting and Toom



Two fascinating short films from Estonian directors also highlight in different ways the importance of the environment in constructing national identities. Both are based in a contemporary age and environment and have the natural surroundings at the forefront. The films in question are Paradise for Old Men (Vanameeste paradiis, Ove Musting 2005) and Tanel Toom’s The Confession (2010). What makes these two pieces striking is they are set in vastly differing contexts: as expected, Musting’s feature bases itself in rural Estonia and effectively captures the beauty of rurality; however The Confession is a British production with English actors, reflecting Toom’s studies at the National Film and Television School in London.

Vanameeste paradiis tells the story of two elderly city officials and their retirement from the Environmental Office, and their experiences in the rural villages. During this time they struggle to shed their former past (fighting against what they perceive as illegal fishing) rather than enjoying life. Like with many other films that have been explored in this project, nature and surroundings are overt and impressive, and plays a vital role in the storyline. What is fascinating is that the environment also acts as symbolism here. For instance, a bus full of drunken city dwellers, representing urbanisation of Estonia, winds its way down the rough country roads, until a series of driving mishaps causes it to veer off-track and into a river. Rather than float to the surface, or result in a tragic accident, the river merely swallows the vehicle up and it disappears. This is a suggestive symbol reflecting not only nature’s omnipresence, but also its ability to stave off threats of mass urbanisation and environmental damage.

Similarly, the old men are placed in direct conflict with nature, in a way that directors such as Kiisk employed in their subversion of the Soviet system. The bureaucratic language on show, “we will ask the questions”, at times reflecting the language of Soviet state institutions, couples with unsettling music to create and air of paranoia. However, nature again shows its resilience and ability to deal with such matters – when the men end up overboard and underwater. In this way the director suggests that the environment operates in its own set of laws, indicative of nature as a symbol of opposition to the occupation in the years before Estonian independence.

Despite being a British production by an Estonian director, Tanel Toom’s The Confession, the first Estonian film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, also betrays an Estonian attitude to nature in the style witnessed. The storyline deals with two young boys who attend a Catholic school, and the events which lead up to their first Confession. This takes multiple dramatic turns, including a car-crash tragedy and one of the boys, Jacob, being killed. Although being one of only several films made by Toom, a pattern has emerged reflecting the director’s love “to impact the audience, whether with fear, laughter or bittersweet pain” (, accessed 9/4/2011).

While basing itself in psychological drama, the use of environment is employed to full effect. The long shots and panned camera is used to capture the English countryside’s beauty, but also danger, and this image is used alongside bold use of coloursin order to set the tone. Use of blues and greys reflect the sinister undercurrent that the main protagonist, Sam, feels at home and while alone, yet this is contrasted with the bright greens and yellows of the fields. It is unsurprising that as an Estonian, Toom has inserted a critical aspect of Estonian identity into his short film here, as it enforces that this identity is not just found by Estonians living in their homeland. As Jürgenson has argued, the Estonian diaspora has “lived an Estonian life, stood for the Estonian thing, participated in Estonianism, although abroad” (2004:110).

The deep-seated identification with natural terrain, therefore, is something which is multi-faceted and developed in numerous ways by Estonian film directors. Whereas Musting has highlighted that environments can be used as symbolism in film to develop a certain line of argument, Toom’s work reflects that Estonian cultural pillars are not simply confined to their national borders. Again this demonstrates how widely differing situations can still feature aspects of a culture on screen, and the extent that surroundings are recurring themes in this national cinema tradition.




From this investigation, it has become apparent that a number of patterns have emerged, as well as concrete answers to questions surrounding the issues of national identity in Estonia. As concepts of homeland have often been cultivated, in folk and peasant culture, at a time where much of the populous resided in small farms or villages in the countryside, natural environment and scenery contributed much to collective experiences and regional characteristics which forged what people saw as their identity. Over the years, this grew to reflect all of Estonia, as much of the country itself can be seen as unique in its mixture of forest, lake and marshlands. The strength of this image has carried on to even the most recent months and years, thanks to a strong tradition of folk art which has been reclaimed in the current context by cinematic works. Thus Estonian film has featured settings in provincial and rural locations for the reason that it speaks to the audience and their understanding of what makes them who they are; and to the director or auteur who shares similar feelings.

Kiisk and Nüganen, for instance, have created films with the theme of escapism and engagement with nature, and have done so through the portrayal of nature on-screen coupled with the storyline and dialogue. The popularity of the films examined in this report can be attributed to the audience’s ability to relate to the idea of isolation and getting away in order to rediscover oneself. However, as Toom has shown, the importance of nature to Estonians is not one which merely thrives in the national borders alone, which is why his recent piece The Confession has characteristics typical of the films which have been examined; indicating a trend which may run through most of the active years of Estonian filmmaking. Numerous directors have not only used the backdrop of the countryside to reinforce points either. As has been seen, Nüganen makes use of Tallinn as a contrast with his own pictures of serenity, as has Musting’s busy bus which symbolises urban life in Vanameeste paradiis. Veiko Õunpuu’s novel variation on this is to place the environment in a role which deliberately brings out the personal conflicts in his film’s subjects, deviating from the attitudes of positive isolationism and escapism which has been focused on in Meeletu and Nipernaadi. Nevertheless, in order to make such a tactic work there is a certain reliance of understanding what the natural environment means to Estonians, and therefore reflects on how crucial this concept is to the Estonian nation and the identification that its population has with the country.



Books (Authored)


  • Viires, A. (2004) Old Estonian Folk Life, Tallinn: Ilo Publishing House


Books (Edited)


  • Jürgenson, A. (2004) “On the Formation of the Estonian Concepts of Homeland and Home Place”, in Runnel and Vallikivi (eds) Pro Ethnologia 18 – Culture and Environments, Tartu: Eesti Rahva Muuseum  pp.97-114
  • Unwin, T. (1998) “Rurality and the Construction of Nation in Estonia”, in Pickles and Smith (eds) Theorising Transition – The Political Economy of Post-Communist Transformations, London; New York: Routlege pp.284-308


Journal Articles


  • Kulli, J. (2008) “Kaljo Kiisk – With a Madly Lucky Fate”, Estonian Culture, 2008(1) pp.4-11
  • Tomberg, D. (2007) “Empty”, Estonian Culture 2007(1) pp.22-24


Online Articles


Brief Break

18 Apr

Hattyúdal (1963)

kinokinomozi will be taking a brief break this week, due to a Hungarian Cinema report needing to be written for a class (which will then, naturally, appear on these pages at some point in the future) and a research proposal.

However, we will be back next week with reviews of Somewhere in Europe as part of the Hungarian Film Festival in Glasgow, and Venice.

As ever, please submit any work you wish to see published in this blog:

Hunky Blues – The American Dream (Film Festival Review, Part One)

11 Apr

This is the first installment of a series dedicated to reviewing the films of Glasgow’s Hungarian Film Festival.


The first film of the Hungarian Film Festival was a documentary in nature, namely Péter Forgács’s Hunky Blues – The American Dream. The documentary deals with early waves of emigration to the United States by Hungarians in the early parts of the 20th century, encorporating footage shot from that time with interviews and recordings. At times light-hearted, other times mired in the social and political wedge these new immigrants find themselves in, the director has produced a credible and factual image of the situation in which thousands of Hungarians made the long voyage overseas.


Hunky Blues’ strength lies in the fact that it emphasises the personal stories, and is not guilty of homogenising the Hungarian people and viewpoint. Anecdotes are varied, at times even including the source on screen, and this adds to the academic strength if employed as part of a serious investigation. The drawback of this in the documentary is that the viewer tends to skim over or forget the statistical evidence which at times appears: the tales of the interviewees are much more fascinating. When coupled with period song recordings – at points just a woman singing over limited instrumentation in Hungarian – adding a sense of atmosphere and further retrospect to the inclusions within.


However, this is not to say that Hunky Blues does not have its problems. At times certain points are emphasised on screen when they simply do not need to be. The fade-in of “he was killed by a train” is bizarre and out of place. If the stories being recited are strong and telling, why does there need to be an emphasis here? By this Forgács appears to be straining to ensure that the viewer identifies with the severity of the plight many immigrants faced, or to feel a sense of sympathy – and it is debatable whether or not that should be part of the remit of a documentary. That is not to say that a documentary cannot occupy the space of cinema as a medium of communicating emotions, but at times one feels there is a line that has ever so slightly been crossed from the objective aspect of the feature. There has been wide discussion in the directing and production community on aspects of how a documentary film should be presented, and the director in this case has opted for third-person narration to compliment the footage. Perhaps there would be more resonance to the, often gripping and fascinating, tales if this was omitted; but it should be recognised that in this case a lot has to do with personal preference.


As a co-operation with Hungarian Television, there are several parts which a Hungarian audience, or someone with an interest in Hungarian affairs, will have more of an idea in the grounds of context and politics of situation in this part of history. Many parts dealing with immigration and Hungary’s part of Austria-Hungary have been generalised, and coupled with the long running time, may drag on for some viewers who are watching the film from an outsider’s (or merely cursory knowledge) perspective. The danger of generalising is that it tarnishes the extent of how informative certain parts are, and indeed makes some of the footage less relevant than it actually is.


Nevertheless, this is a credible effort and a fitting start to a film festival which will be dealing with the subject of immigration and displacement. Forgács has found some success in directing a piece that puts real-life stories first and foremost, and to their credit, this is what carries Hunky Blues along: the sheer number of immigrants yielded a rich cultural tradition which has been captured on the footage extremely well. The question that keeps arising, nonetheless, is whether or not the platform itself could have been worked upon.