Soviet influences in central-eastern European cinema


The most prominent feature of central-eastern European cinema is its overt challenge to Russian influence of communism and Stalinism that imperialized the region in the latter half of the 20th century. Films such as Sedmikrasky, a 1966 Czechoslovak “new wave” film directed by Věra Chytilová, and Przesĺuchanie, a 1982 Polish “cinema of moral concern” film directed by Ryszard Bugajski, both show the repressed filmmakers’ anguish over the state’s increasingly tighter grip on their nations.

Students, like at Georgia Tech, would benefit from knowledge of Cold-War-inspired films by creativity expressed in times of extreme control and suppression. The extreme Soviet-style socialism and communism often left only enough room for creativity to endorse the state, but filmmakers still often either directed the film toward ambiguity to allow multiple interpretations – including state-dissenting ones – like Sedmikrasky or produced a film altogether contrary to what the state would ever consider “safe” like Przesĺuchanie. The world of engineering is laden with budget restrictions, litigative barriers, and policy restrictions that could easily kill creative ideas. Knowing that even in the face of an entire government that film scripts seek approval by, filmmakers still submitted their originality and direction to the public market; thus, the engineer may still have options to submit a product or innovation despite modern obstacles.

Sedmikrasky is, to say the least, an exceptionally odd film, with the staccato shot sequences, periodic tinting and wash changes, jump cuts, and rapid-edit photomontage. The plot itself, consisting of the two main characters (both named Marie) discussing their lives and their raison d’être could be likened more to a series of episodes rather than a typical continuous film. The two Maries decide the world is rotten and destructive; therefore, they will be just as rotten and destructive to it, going on several adventures – each one in a sort of episode form – where their anti-social and unorthodox behavior makes the people around them uncomfortable. Chytilová also touched on feminism; when one Marie points out that the other Marie’s gait is crooked, she replies that she bases her personality on it. Superficially, this corresponds to both girls’ wacky personalities, but in feministic context, this corresponds to the trend of women basing themselves on physical appearance and self-objectification. Between all the destructive episodes the Maries execute, they simply talk – though often accompanied by strange mannerisms and injections of surreal humor – about themselves, making these specific points, like the crooked gait comment, more visible.

Sedmikrasky is a film that shirks the typical character development and plot continuity to, as its director Chytilová intended, present its message unfettered or obfuscated by conventional elements. It was conceived during the Czechoslovak New Wave movement, when Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization relaxed censorship of artists, allowing artists to be more openly critical of the U.S.S.R., and Sedmikrasky shows an attitude of wanting to simply oppose such strict control over the last decade with a wholly surreal visual scene. The Czechoslovak pictures were a nationalized industry, so the state had approved the script; however, once government officials actually saw the film and considered the protagonists lauding anti-social behavior, they rescinded approval of the film and barred Chytilová from producing new films for six years. Chytilová was frustrated that the government mistook her film, which she considered a morality play or “philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” as she described it. Essentially, she intended the film to condemn the Maries’ actions on ethical grounds. In her letter to Comrade President Gustav Husak, she wrote:

“Sedmikrasky was a morality play showing how evil does not necessarily manifest itself in an orgy of destruction caused by the war, that its roots may lie concealed in the malicious pranks of everyday life. I chose as my heroines two young girls because it is at this age that one most wants to fulfill oneself and, if left to one’s own devices, his or her need to create can easily turn into its very opposite” (Chytilová).

Chytilová was supportive of a socialist government, even supporting the government’s subsidization of the Czech film industry; however, her inability to produce films with messages complementary to the socialist parties because the parties misread and scorned them are an ironic result (Skvorecký).

Contrasting Sedmikrasky’s lackadaisical feel, Przesĺuchanie is more of a modern crime thriller, with a Kafka-esque influence like The Trial with more violence and direct political spotlight. The film centers on Tonia, a woman intimately linked to military officers, who is underhandedly detained by the state; the police present her crime as inciting a coup from her relations with the high-profile she often sleeps with. “Her naiveté paradoxically saved her humanity. This simple girl suddenly starts wondering who she really is. And from that moment, she starts to understand what she’s fighting for – not for her life any more, but for dignity,” Bugajski said of the protagonist Tonia (Nawój).

Her vicious treatment in a harsh prison system in an overwhelming police state is a highly shocking element, but the greatest threat to the actual communist regime was its negative direction toward the contemporary political state. Filmmakers expounded on the returning influence of the then-waning Soviet politics and police state mentality. Przesĺuchanie was conceived in the Polish cinema of moral concern, which investigated and probed into the common Polish morality and history during a time of hightened sensitivity and desperation of the Soviet Union as it neared its collapse (Goulding).

With the continuous rise and evolution of Soviet politics, the U.S.S.R. expanded after World War II to spread its ideology of state control. Its first targets were eastern European nations and enclaves, where the U.S.S.R. had contributed greatly to improving their infrastructure following the war. This led to the formally binding Warsaw Pact, which the U.S.S.R. used as a basis for further influence and political incursions into the region. Once Nikita Khrushchev assumed office as Premier, his process of de-Stalinization led to the east European nations’ publics – whose feelings had been fomented by distrust and repression by the Soviets – to openly oppose them and even incite riots. Soon after Khrushchev’s departure from power, the Brezhnev Doctrine – similar to the Roosevelt Corollary – allowed the U.S.S.R. to militarily intervene in a country that failed to follow Soviet political goals. This, however, was simply a formal statement of Khrushchev’s incursions in Europe a decade before, and it was frequently revisited and restated to ensure cooperation between the Eastern bloc and the U.S.S.R. (Kovalev).

Despite the state’s lax enforcement of creative works, both Sedmikrasky and Przesĺuchanie were banned in their countries soon after its release; Sedmikrasky for having a poor attitude toward socialism, Przesluchanie for blatant criticism of crime management under communism. That level of censorship was still prevalent though the periods in which the films were produced at least allowed the filmmakers to actually create the material without fear of prompt state retribution. Both Czechoslovak New Wave and Polish cinema of moral concern were challenges via art to combat the repression of Eastern bloc countries’ and enclaves’ artists. When the Soviet Bloc collapsed, the state relinquished control of creative products like films, allowing them to reach the international cinema and offer a window into the creativity behind a dour iron curtain (Biography).

Works Cited

“Biography: Nikita Khrushchev.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 25 Nov. 2009. .
Chytilová, Vera. “I Want To Work.” Letter to President Husak. 1975. Czech Cinema. Web. .
Goulding, Daniel J. “East Central European Cinema: Two Defining Moments.” The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Eds. John Hill, Pamela Church Gibson, Richard Dyer, Ann E. Kaplan, and Paul Willemen. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1998. 471-477.
Kovalev, S. “Sovereignty and the International Obligations of Socialist Countries.” Pravda 25 Sept. 1968. Print.
Nawój, Ewa. “Ryszard Bugajski.” Polish Culture. Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Dec. 2004. Web. .
Skvorecký, Josef. “The Inheritance.” Proc. of “It’s Better to be Healthy and Rich Than Sick and Poor”: Changing Currencies in post-89 Central-European Cinemas, University of Iowa, Iowa City. Institute for Cinema and Culture, 19 Feb. 2009. Web. .