Academic journal article CineAction

The Politics of Hiccups: National Cinema without National Language

Academic journal article CineAction

The Politics of Hiccups: National Cinema without National Language

Article excerpt

1. The End of Eastern and Central European Historical Allegory

Films from Eastern and Central Europe (1) are rarely discussed outside the national-cinema framework. They are reputed to have a unique regional sensibility: a tragic or ironic preoccupation with national history permeates virtually every film made in the former Soviet Bloc. This preoccupation takes a variety of aesthetic forms and ideological directions, from realistic historical epics adapted from classics of national literature to "existentialist" films, in which the historical background is projected onto the moral screen of the hero-protagonist. (2) Films generally selected as representative of East and Central European cinemas during the Cold War, such as Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol I diament, 1958), Miklos Jancso's The Red and The White (Csillagosok, katonak, 1967), Istvan Szabo's Mephisto (1980) or Jan Kadar's The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1965) all process traumatic moments of collective history in an allegorical language that projects the past onto the unspeakable, politically oppressive present, assuming a national audience eager and able to decode the Aesopean inscriptions.


The end of the Cold War pulled the rug from under the Eastern and Central European tradition of allegorical filmmaking. Tragic and romantic heroes are out of place in the age of the triumphant, global postmodern, where no truth is taken for granted, where identities and identifications proliferate well beyond the narrow confines of nationalism, and where the heroic is inconceivable without the ridiculous. The end of communist censorship, the end of the Manichean opposition between oppressor and oppressed that had characterized Soviet-type cultures rendered the Aesopean double talk superfluous. Changing conditions of filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition have left East and Central European filmmakers and audiences in a state of confusion. However, after the initial shock over losing most of their state funding and guaranteed domestic exhibition, most post-socialist film industries bounced back by the mid-nineties.

The end of the Cold War made its mark on world cinema and film criticism as well, leaving both cold towards formerly celebrated East and Central European national allegories. This loss of prestige has little to do with audiences: gloomy East and Central European films had only interested select groups of film buffs outside of the region even during socialism; while, for the most part, they had lost touch with entertainment-starved, message-burdened domestic audiences long before 1989. Rather, what became evident after the fall of the Wall was that the genre of national historical film had been partially propped up by Western festival critics themselves. In other words, it is likely that what had lent East and Central European films such a unique position in world cinema during the Cold War was not necessarily the aesthetic value of the films or the originality of the filmmakers but Western investment in the idea of "good nationalism"--of nations firmly embedded in teleological history united around the voice of the white male genius--a notion that East European filmmakers eagerly embraced and perpetuated themselves.

I wish to contribute to the process of reassessing the validity of East and Central European national cinemas and their critical reception from the vantage point we have gained in the fifteen years since the end of the Cold War. My primary interest is in the transformation of the allegorical form vis-a-vis the East and Central European nation caught up in processes of globalization in every sphere of culture. I will first sketch out some disruptions and continuities between the allegorical East and Central European film of the Cold War and films produced in the post-socialist period. The rest of the essay will be devoted to the case study of a film that has creatively and successfully bridged the divide between old and new filmmaking traditions and audience expectations: Gyorgy Palfi's Hukkle (2001). …

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