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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 – kinokinomozi@gmail.com

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).

Bibliography

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.

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Wajda and the Polish Resistance: Depictions and Message

1 Dec

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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; http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1053-a-generation-wajda-on-war, 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, http://www.wajda.pl/en/filmy/film01.html, 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, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/feb/14/a-movie-that-matters/, 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, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jun/19/katyn-andrzej-wajda-film-review, 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, http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1388, 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.

 

Bibliography

 

 

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

 

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.

Introduction

 

 

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.

Concerns

 

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, http://www.estonica.org/en/Culture/Film/Feature_film/, 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” (http://www.filmbirth.com/estonia.html, 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.

Meeletu

 

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” (http://www.estonia.gov.uk/news_events/news/aid-936, 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” (http://www.profimeedia.ee/upload/docs/efs-filmiraamat-osa.pdf, 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, http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/news/2009/06/veiko-ounpuu-sugisball/, 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” (http://www.nftsfilmtv.ac.uk/index.php?module=People&people_id=1136&film=381, 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.

Conclusions

 

 

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.

Bibliography

 

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: kinokinomozi@gmail.com

Knoflíkáři and Cinematic Technique

6 Apr

Knoflíkáři (Buttoners) is a 1997 film directed by Petr Zelenka, which deals with the experiences of its protagonists in the post-communist Czech Republic. The essay below looks at the issues of irony and synchronicity in the film and what it suggests. Originally written in February 2010.

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Petr Zelenka’s 1997 feature Knoflíkáři (Buttoners) is often held up alongside Jízda and Kouř as one of the defining cult films of Czech cinematography of the 1990s. A black comedy divided into six separate, yet interlinked, parts; Knoflíkáři examines the experiences of various people in the new Czech Republic, as well as that of an American pilot who was responsible for dropping the first Atomic Bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Subjects such as relationships, society as well as life and death are explored within this framework, in an original and thoughtful manner. The lives of those portrayed, and indeed the stories they tell, range from that of a Prague taxi driver whose passengers wish to have intercourse in the backseat, to an unemployed man who takes much pride in his ability to spit under train carriages whilst lying on the track. Indeed, the film’s title comes from another character: with a penchant for ripping buttons out of antique furniture with the aid of a set of false teeth.

Two integral themes crucial to the film are employed both overtly and covertly by Zelenka: namely that of irony and synchronicity. These are highlighted through several different techniques, both in the film’s plotline, narrative and delivery. The question that this essay will be attempting to answer is not only based in identifying when such themes are employed, but to analyse the significance of their usage and why there is a high level of significance attached to them.

It is the structure of Knoflíkáři itself that makes the synchronicity aspect so effective. At first, it appears that the six parts to the piece are separate and distant from each other (perhaps reflecting the distance felt by Czechs between themselves and Western Europe after the collapse of communism), but gradually the audience becomes aware of how each story is linked on several levels. The most obvious of these linkages are those which are portrayed on screen, such as characters integral to one section becoming cameos in another, until by the end the full realisation occurs that these events were happening simultaneously. It is the final chapter, “The Ghost of an American pilot”, where this is at its most revealing – as its title suggests, the airman comes back as a ghost to the Czech Republic, and others such as the taxi driver and the psychiatrist are reintroduced through the storyline here. Any misconceptions to this continuous theme have been made crystal clear at this moment. Furthermore, within the sections several occurrences take place which link the unknowing protagonists themselves, thus there are connections between characters on multiple levels.

Perhaps the strongest example of this interlinking is in “The Taxi Driver”. As was mentioned earlier, this narrative begins with a taxi driver picking up a couple, who then wish to make love in the car (as the man can only fully perform while a car is in motion). After they leave, the car is hailed again, this time by a man who wants driven to an address in an attempt to catch his wife cheating on him. This proves to be unsuccessful, as upon entering the flat in which the supposed affair is taking place, the passenger finds an unknown woman instead. However, it materialises that the woman originally in the taxi was indeed his partner, whereas the wife of the driver is in fact the one sleeping with the man in the apartment. Romney asks that if it is “really possible that everyone in Prague that night ends up hailing the same taxi? In fact, you can imagine 100 ways that the narrative could fork off in other unexplored directions” (http://www.newstatesman.com/199901150035, accessed 24/2/10). Although a legitimate assertion, it is these random instances that make the synchronicity so strong and lingering in the viewer’s memory: ‘what if’ situations which add a psychological aspect and communicate the idea of the Czech Republic as a small, enclosed nation which is uncertain of its direction or its morals, a point often made in Czech cinema at this time. This skill is recognised by Allan who comments that “up until the final twenty minutes Zelenka maintains a tenuous grip on ‘everyday reality’, ensuring that the various stories are linked in a manner which, though occasionally a little outlandish, is nevertheless rooted firmly in the fact that such things could happen” (http://www.blisty.cz/art/13173.html, accessed 25/2/10).

In addition to using protagonists as a linking factor, several other techniques are employed to reinforce the idea of all these scenes being acted out at once. It is intentional that all chapters, except the greyscale first scene, are set in the evening. Not only does this highlight the continuity between scenes, but additionally it indicates that this film could dually be perceived as either a dream or nightmare, and that there is a lack of clarity that could perhaps be avoided if set in the daytime (in other words, that some of the coincidences may not have happened). There are also several replications and similarities in traits and character: for instance, the couples and individuals who have sex in taxis, act out warfare, spit under trains or are “buttoners” – these are all experiences which excite them; for sheer thrill, sexual pleasure, or otherwise.

The point of such replications ties in with synchronicity to communicate part of Zelenka’s social commentary on life in the post-communist Czech Republic. With his interlinking, he brings everything full circle – that the different characters, diverse in background and class, yet somehow sharing common features and values – are representations of the entire nation. By doing this, Zelenka creates a microcosm of the Czech Republic as a country struggling to deal with the new democratic, Westernised society it finds itself in. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are large amounts of strange behaviour and little morality amongst the populous, as such glimpses “into the moral idiosyncrasies of post-communist life” clearly demonstrate “fear of responsibility as the fundamental form of post-modern angst” (Stojanova, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/4/buttoners.shtml, accessed 25/2/10). The director’s argument here is that such a struggle for identity is not something merely individual, but that everyone experiences it, and this is why there are so many coping mechanisms on display. Again, the structure helps carry such feelings; as although there is of course synchronicity and linking between each chapter, the mere fact that the film is separated into these instances carries the feeling that society itself is in a state of degradation and fragmentation. Thus synchronising events carries further the speed of this breakdown, carrying the weight to the viewer that all this is happening simultaneously and in real-time, and how these coping mechanisms are a result of not being able to keep up in a time of rapid change.

It is telling that the young couple featured in “Civilised Habits” are the most ‘normal’ of the people in Knoflíkáři; and ironically, the people that die. Yet themes of irony and mystification act alongside synchronicity as crucial to developing not just the atmosphere the director intends to portray, but also to aid his arguments on the state of the Czech people. This is often used by means of mock documentaries that Zelenka inserts into the film. The viewer is introduced to this concept at the beginning, with mock footage of Japan in 1945, shortly before the first Atomic Bomb blast. In this instance, irony is obvious: a Japanese businessman who has recently returned to the town of Kokura teaches his friends about how Americans enjoy swearing (we are told that there are no swear words in Japanese), and this is directed towards the torrential rain outside. This is moments before Japan is bombed. Paradoxically, the airplane headed to drop the Atomic Bomb on Kokura is diverted due to the rain, and instead the warhead is discharged on Hiroshima. The second piece of faked footage is the American documentary highlighting how scientists have sent sperm from four million men into outer space, as an attempt to save the human race. It should be noted that “unlike the generation of their parents, Zelenka and his peers do not idealize (sic) America as a beacon of freedom, but view Western values suspiciously and as an object of irony” (Stojanova, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/4/buttoners.shtml, accessed 25/2/10). This is a definite contrast to many Czechs in the immediate aftermath of 1989, and attempts to embrace Western democratic ethics and values as well as free market capitalism. By doing this Zelenka serves to portray American and Western European culture as having an unsettling effect on the Czechs, contrasting with the numerous nods to what citizens are used to (one such instance of this is the petrol station pump still operating in Czechoslovak Crowns). Discussions surrounding the footage, such as the unemployed former train worker as a “man who has not contributed” echo communist rhetoric of the working class contributing to the building of the socialist state. This sets up the viewer for the American pilot coming back as a ghost, ironic in the sense of the Czech idea of ‘returning to the West’.

The director’s use of irony enhances Knoflíkáři in its exploration of the human condition. There is certainly irony in how, as documentary footage, we take the farcical notions of sending sperm into space as fact; and this is intended to reflect further on collective ideas with reference to all characters in the film, and thus all residents of the new Czech state: there is often a lack of clarity of what is happening, a lack of factual recollection, and this has resulted in a crisis of direction and identity. Because the director is careful to “strike a balance between the social groups he parodies: the young and the old, the middle class and the working class” (Horton, http://www.ce-review.org/kinoeye/kinoeye15old1.html, accessed 25/2/10) the conclusions are able to reflect on transition as a national rather than a personal problem. Anyone in the film who tries to take control of his or her destiny, is cruelly punished by coincidences and turns of fate, and in turn this adds to the element of unpredictability that inevitably arises from any change of system or state. Again with irony, the insecure psychiatrist, himself a caricature in the film, is almost right when he remarks to his patient that “it is not within your power to change”; indicating that there must be something more than the personal, and how difficult it is to move on from the past. Such a concept is almost made explicit with the young couple symbolically destroying their keys on the rail tack – this symbolises a moving on from the past, but just as what happens with the keys, it is difficult to break them completely.

From the use of both irony and synchronicity, Knoflíkáři becomes much more than “a film as crazy as the whole of the twentieth century” as the press release describes. In fact, it is a complex and on the whole successful exploration of the individual and the collective, of chance and coincidence, and how this has an effect on the Czech experience post-communism. From what on the surface appears to be a fragmented story of several vignettes, Zelenka crafts both overtly and covertly concrete links between the characters on physical and behavioural levels, as a method of suggesting the shared experiences of Czechs at this time. By synchronising these events and with the use of omnipresent darkness, the viewer gets the impression of a state which is morally confused and torn between the old and new, and of how as a typical occurrence in ‘real time’, the events of the film are hardly extraordinary to characters whose surreal idiosyncrasies are their coping mechanisms. The liberal use of irony helps to create a sense of mistrust to the West but is just as important in emphasising the unpredictability of what is happening in everyday life. Therefore to conclude, Knoflíkáři is another important film of 1990s Czech cinema in dramatising the problems of identity in the backdrop of rapid alternation of political and societal phases; and serves to provide an insightful commentary of a central European state in the period of transition.

Sam Beaton, February 2010

Online Articles

  • Horton, A. (1999) The Discreet Charm of the Czech Bourgeoisie: Petr Zelenka’s Buttoners

http://www.ce-review.org/kinoeye/kinoeye15old1.html, accessed        25/2/10