Despite the fact that twenty-six years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thirteen years have passed since the first group of formerly communist countries joined the European Union, an East/West divide is still often used to define European cinema in scholarly works (one could think of a number of edited volumes, such as European Cinema after 1989 , A Companion of Eastern European Cinemas , Cinemas in Transition in Central and Eastern Europe After 1989 , among others). East, West and Centre: Reframing Post-1989 European Cinema, the 18-chapter volume edited by Michael Gott and Todd Herzog, questions the validity of this particular divide by taking into consideration the current geopolitical and economic situation of the European Union and its neighbouring countries, and this opens up new ways of looking at the map of contemporary European cinema.
Michael Gott and Todd Herzog begin their introduction to the collection with a helpful and timely analysis of the issues involved in defining contemporary Europe and its cinema. Traditionally, as the editors point out, there has been a certain resistance on the part of European film scholars to discussing current conditions of post-1989 European cinema beyond the emphasis on the historical divide between East and West. Therefore, despite a growing corpus of academic writing on European cinema (including works on Eastern and Central European cinema), there has been a lack of scholarly projects that would bring together a body of texts to examine the recent re-mappings of post-Berlin Wall Europe vis-à-vis films. East, West and Centre challenges this status quo in the field by posing the following questions: Where to draw a distinction between East and West in twenty-first-century Europe? Moreover, is this distinction still valid? And, if yes, what are the implications of the East/West binary? Seeking to provide answers to the aforementioned questions, the authors of this edited collection do not attempt to discuss all recent European films, but follow a conceptual framework informed by the new borders, orientations, and networks that define the changing geography of Europe. In the editors’ words, the book “considers the ways in which notions of East and West, national and transnational, central and marginal, are being rethought and reframed in contemporary European cinema.” (p. 6)
East, West and Centre, is thus one of the rare books in the field of Eastern and Central European film studies to focus on the transnational contexts that, having emerged in the last decade, influenced both the themes addressed in films and the changing conditions of European film production. In other words, the primary goal of this collection of essays is to assess the ways in which New Europe is being mapped in the stories of recent European films, as well as to analyse who is producing and financing these stories, and how they are doing so. A diverse set of cinema-related questions, including the economic relations and political conflicts of Eastern and Western Europe, the cultural (dis)integration of different regions, internal and external migration, transnational mobility, human trafficking, among other topical issues raised in the book, makes the collection a highly original one within the field of European cinema studies.
Due to the very nature of edited volumes on transnational cinemas, this collection of essays is extremely broad in its scope, encompassing discussions on Austrian, Balkan, British, Bulgarian, Estonian, French-Armenian, German, Greek, Lithuanian, Polish, and Romanian films. The geography of the book evidently exceeds the usual focus on post-Soviet and post-socialist cinemas. Besides the discussions of films from Eastern and Central Europe, the collection includes essays on films from Western European countries that also reflect post-1989 changes in Europe. Naturally, such a wide corpus of films brings together an extensive range of authors, whose eighteen contributions explore the significance of a variety of possible cinematic assessments of contemporary Eastern and Central Europe. Split into three sections, “Redrawing the Lines: De/Recentering Europe”, “Border Spaces, Eastern Margins and Eastern Markets: Belonging and the Road to/from Europe”, and “Spectres of the East”, the collection seeks to demonstrate that the transnational and border-crossing tendencies of contemporary European cinema call “into question not only the category of national cinema but also the compartmentalization of films within discrete East and West frameworks.” (p. 10) In what follows I will briefly review each of the three sections of the book.
Redrawing the Lines of a New Europe
The volume begins with several essays exploring films about changing borderlines between Eastern and Western Europe in the twenty-first century. Seven chapters of this section treat films that problematise the East/West division. The opening chapter of the section, Jenny Stümer’s “Reframing Historical Space between East and West in Cynthia Beatt’s Cycling the Frame (1988), The Invisible Frame (2009) and Bartosz Konopka’s Rabbit à la Berlin (2009)”, examines how some recent documentaries can expand an interpretation of the past without falling into the trap of a rigid binarism. In the case of Beatt’s and Konopka’s films this involves a de-centring of the fixed position of the Berlin Wall. As Stümer’s analysis demonstrates, the symbol of the political and cultural dichotomy in these films is represented in the light of various presents that transgress dominant historical meanings of the Berlin Wall. According to the author, the films discussed not only complicate the accessibility of the communist past (an argument that would situate this chapter among the essays of the collection’s last section), they also criticise the totalising idea of the global borderless Europe.
Other chapters in this section continue the investigation of the positive and negative sides of the fluidity of borders and the mobility of people in today’s Europe. Berna Gueneli draws attention to Fatih Akin’s filmic visions of a New Europe. Through the examination of Akin’s film Im Juli (In July, 2000) she exposes how the film imagines the continent as traversable and de-centralised space engendering mobile, open-minded and cosmopolitan identities.
Nikhil Sathe, meanwhile, examines how Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export (2007) challenges the East/West divide by juxtaposing different perspectives on immigrants from Eastern European countries. Sathe underscores that Seidl’s film implicitly reveals the power hierarchies that are manifested through the use of gaze and emphasises how it reflects stereotypic gendered distinctions that “envision the male as mobile and female as restricted and limited.” (p. 77) Similarly, Aga Skrodzka, in her chapter, compares Szablocs Hajdu’s Bibliothèque Pascal (2010) to Joe Wright’s Hanna (2011), two recent European films that foreground the situation of a female mobility and feminisation of new labour relations in Europe. Highlighting contrasting models of European feminism, the author demonstrates that the aforementioned films question the liberating effects of mobility in the borderless Europe.
In addition, this section includes an essay by Alison Rice on the movements of Eastern Europeans that disorient a fixed and preconceived vision of France, as seen in the films of Michael Haneke and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Kris Van Heuckelom, for his part, explores Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier’s second feature film Comme des voleurs (à l’est) (Stealth, 2006) which, as Van Heuckelom shows, subverts a common narrative trope in post-communist European cinema dealing with East/West encounters. As the author writes, Baier’s film tells a story about two Swiss-Polish encounters which are an allegory for Switzerland’s situation in the geopolitical and sociocultural map of Europe. Paradoxically, as Van Heuckelom points out, by portraying a cinematic road trip through the continent of post-Berlin Wall Europe, Baier displaces Switzerland from the centre of attention, while simultaneously trying to save it from its political isolation.
The chapters of the first section of the volume debunk one-sided East-to-West integration by taking into account various issues related to the multi-directional lines of movement in present-day Europe. Taken together, these articles lead us to consider how contemporary European films articulate a more complex understanding of a New Europe that is defined by more factors than the mere expansion of the EU towards the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe, and in which clear geographical, cultural and economic borders and walls have fallen and mobility has become the norm.
Crossing Borders: The Road to and from the Centre of Europe
The second section of the book examines marginal spaces, especially as they apply to peripheral economic regions of Europe. This is a quite diverse and hard to summarise section, encompassing essays that examine trajectories from/towards the centre of Europe. The contributions to this section take into account either (1) filmic representations of the migration and transition from the periphery (Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania) to the centre (France, Germany) and the other way round, or (2) international co-operations and the economic and aesthetic implications they have for film industries from so-called “small nations” (Estonia, the Balkan states).
A chapter by Temenuga Trifonova, entitled “Contemporary Bulgarian Cinema: From Allegorical Expressionism to Declined National Cinema”, discusses a number of recent Bulgarian films dealing with internal/external migration and homelessness (both real and spiritual) in order to highlight how contemporary Bulgarian films tackle the ideas of nation and home. Trifonova suggests that recent Bulgarian cinema is learning to re-approach the question of national identity in a postmodern way, treating it as a “weakened” identity. In a somewhat similar vein, Lucian Georgescu, in his essay on Romanian New Wave films, diagnoses how the work of a new generation of Romanian filmmakers expresses a neorealist disillusion with post-1989 realities and exemplifies the troubles of a nation “that lost its compass on the way towards the West.” (p. 158) Jun Okada, on her part, through a close reading of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010) suggests that affective states which counter rigid structures of sexual and political identity, as represented in the film, manifest possibilities for new cinematic revivals to the global cinema market, whose sources are re-located in the “other” Europe – Greece, in the case of Tsangari’s film. According to Okada, Tsangari’s film questions the dominance of the Western discourse by exposing an ambivalence about Greek national identity, which is at once connected to Balkan national histories, the European Union economics, and classical Western civilization.
“Lithuania Redirected: New Connections, Businesses and Lifestyles in Cinema since 2000”, a chapter by Renata Šukaitytė, concentrates on another peripheral side of European cinema. Šukaitytė analyses the manner in which economic, political and cultural metamorphoses in the 2000s gave rise to a new kind of character: the neoliberal opportunist, who has emerged in a number of popular Lithuanian films. As the Lithuanian scholar points out, this tendency mirrors the urge to “maneuver between the political and economic agendas of the Eastern and the Western worlds” characteristic of the transitional phase between Soviet and post-Soviet Lithuania. Another example of the impact of the neoliberal order on post-1989 Baltic cinema is discussed in Eva Näripea’s essay. The Estonian film historian reviews the advantages and disadvantages of international co-operation and film financing through the analysis of select Estonian film co-production cases. In highlighting complications in selected films made as international co-productions, Näripea calls attention to significant cultural differences among the film production and financing communities across Europe.
In the last chapter of the section, Danica Jenkins and Kati Tonkin analyse the representation of the Balkans in transnationally co-produced films by Balkan-born directors, as well as in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), a British production directed by Michael Winterbottom. The authors show that while these films represent the dominant Western narrative of “Balkan remoteness from European norms of civility”, they also subvert some aspects of this narrative and contribute to a broader remapping of identity in a de-centred Europe (p. 218).
Reconsidering the Spectres of Communism
It is by no means possible to disregard the legacy of the communist past in thinking about Eastern and Central Europe. Therefore, notwithstanding the book’s intention to concentrate on the present, its third section examines the lingering spectres of communism that continue to haunt the shifting landscape of today’s Europe. Implicitly drawing on Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on “hauntology” elaborated in his Spectres of Marx (in Derrida’s view, the present is always haunted by the spectres of the past), the contributions to this section try to examine cinematic incarnations of the past in contemporary European films. In Derridean spirit, this section’s chapters are not so much interested in the authenticity of cinematic representations of past events, but in how these events re-emerge and are translated over time. The essays pose questions like: what experiences of communist history can contemporary films generate? What can films tell us about the past in the present? And how do certain representations of Europe deployed in post-1989 cinema reveal or counter traditional representations of the past?
Each of the five essays on cinematic reflections of the legacy of the Communist past presents a perspective coming from a different European country. Rima Garn, in her essay “A Polish Adam in the Post-Wall World” demonstrates how the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Poland through the ironic critique of genre conventions are de-dramatised in two films by Polish director Marek Koterski. As the author argues, the strategy of comic de-dramatisation, with an orientation towards the lives of ordinary people, is only possible in a new Poland that has finally acquired a critical distance from its communist past. Much more “polysemic” cinematic representations of East Germany are discussed in two following essays: “East Germany Revisited, Reimagined, Repositioned: Representing the GDR in Dominik Graf’s Der rote Kakadu (2005) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012)” by Nick Hodgin, and “Barluschke. Towards an East–West Schizo-history” by Kalani Michell. These two essays explore a shift in the cinematic portrayal of the GDR in contemporary works that, unlike the films of the early 1990s, interpret the country in more open, multifaceted ways. Hodgin discusses the complex image of the East Germans, who are narratively placed in a position of choice: to stay or to leave the GDR. Michell’s chapter, meanwhile, casts doubt on the possibility of an objective representation of East Germany’s past and examines an alternative “schizofrantic” history proposed by Barluschke (1997), a film by Thomas Heise. In the same vein, Mihaela Petrescu’s contribution to the collection discusses the original treatment of the past characteristic of Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu’s film Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii (The Way I Spent the End of the World, 2006). Petrescu demonstrates that, by creating an unprecedented duality of nostalgia towards the country’s communist past, the film manages to deal with Romanian history in a reconciliatory manner, one that does not deny its dark sides.
While the aforementioned essays concentrate on films by Eastern European directors, Joseph Mai’s contribution explores Le voyage en Arménie (Armenia, 2006), a film by French-Armenian director Robert Guédiguian. Through the analysis of the film, Mai demonstrates the limits of ideological and national identification in relation to a divided landscape of the Soviet past dealing with different presents. As Mai points out, the journey of the film’s protagonist (who herself is a former French communist activist) to post-communist Armenia exposes conflicting discourses about the communist past and challenges the French approach to Eastern “otherness”. Thus, all the essays in this chapter demonstrate that a once traumatic and rarely publicly discussed topic of the recent past of Europe has become a source for creative reflections on the spectres of the past for many filmmakers all across the New Europe.
To sum up: on the one hand, the diverse corpus of films pointing to different regions of Europe and reconsidering the physical and cultural borders of European cinema is the volume’s unquestionable strength. It opens a new vision of a heterogeneous cinematic image of Europe. On the other hand, the all-encompassing content of the book is also indicative of the lack of more structural and deeper analysis of specific films. Collections of essays on transnational cinemas quite commonly disregard the possibility of addressing films more closely. This volume is no exception: some chapters of East, West and Centre are – regrettably – too sweeping and omit closer readings of films. Yet, the collection of essays provides valuable up-to-date perspectives on contemporary European cinema, as well as original examinations of the diverse legacy of post-communism that impact and inspire current European filmmakers. Thus, by all means the book enriches the field of European film studies.
After all, a number of geopolitical events that took place in Europe right after the book was published, such as the immigration crisis, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the rise of nationalist movements, the Brexit vote, and political instability in Turkey, only prove the topicality of the conceptual framework that informs East, West and Centre. All these unfortunate events Europe has recently been faced with are, more or less, foreseen in the collection of essays. The ongoing European crisis will inevitably hasten the formation of a new identity on the continent, shifting the internal and external borderlines even farther from what had hitherto been the norm. As a consequence, the need for a dialogue between the East, the West, and the Centre, as well as between the past and the present of Europe will become even more crucial. And European filmmakers will doubtless continue to play an important role in developing this dialogue. Thus, in light of the continuous fluctuations of European identity, East, West and Centre should be considered not only as a useful addition to its field of study, but as an essential read for film scholars and film aficionados more generally, as well as those in the broader field of European cultural studies.
Michael Gott and Todd Herzog (eds.), East, West and Centre: Reframing post-1989 European Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).