Essential World Cinema: Eastern Europe
REVIEWED BY: Robert Cettl Posted on 18/01/2009
From Umbrella Entertainment comes Essential World Cinema: Eastern Europe, a set of three films from the region with little in common bar their production locale and a focus on human inter-personal relationships. Two are from world renowned directors, Polish Krystof Kieslowski for A Short Film About Love and Czech Jiri Menzel for Closely Observed Trains, while the third, Pavel Chuckhrai’s The Thief is an example of post-Soviet Russian cinema. All of these films were celebrated on the international art-house circuit.
A Short Film About Love: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1988)
A Short Film About Love concerns matters of voyeuristic obsession, human inter-personal disconnectedness and the role of sexual passion in self-definition. A burglar steals a telescope which he uses to spy on an older woman in the building opposite his place of residence. Fixating on her, he lives a lonely existence the only bright spot in which is his ritualistic observance of the woman through her window. Peeping on her until his eyes hurt, he derives little satisfaction from anything else, driven to phone her without talking, except to once say “sorry”. However, he soon needs a much closer contact.
A melancholy and bittersweet sense of human behaviour underlies this slow film. Although he obsesses about the woman, hurt when he sees her with another man, the protagonist seems less a genuine voyeur than a love-struck milquetoast, longing for a relationship that he cannot put into practice. Jealous, he seeks to disrupt her relationships. Deceptively gentle, he is capable of malicious banality, delighting in his interference in her life from afar and the sense of control it gives him. As he watches, he is drawn into her emotional life, feeling a sense of involvement and connection where none exists. Nevertheless it makes him stir emotionally, affected by the woman he covets from afar, finally confronting her.
Knowing that he watches her, she moves her bed to where he can see her having sex, all the while knowing that it will not be him she so embraces. Slowly she turns the tables on him, reversing the balance of power so that he becomes her object in the process of which he also overcomes his shyness and fear, genuinely feeling an interpersonal bond with her as they begin to communicate and develop a relationship. Confronted with the needs and desires of a mature woman for the first time he finds himself drawn to, and guiltily ashamed of, the voyeuristic bond and associated sexual charge that exists between them.
Closely Observed Trains: Jiri Menzel (1966)
Closely Observed Trains is an acknowledged classic of Eastern European cinema, made during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, director Menzel refusing to flee to America alongside fellow directors Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. In black and white, it is a comedy centred on a young man who becomes the family pride and joy when he gets a job as a train station attendant. Soon he finds himself going up against the Nazis, who by that time have invaded Czechoslovakia. The film is a behaviourist look at eccentric Czech characters centred around the trains. Slow-moving, its humour is in the sly attention to details, small and everyday moments played for restrained comedy.
A gentle, lovely film it captures the rhythms of life in and around the train stations and the inter-personal relationships of the co-workers. Life as it revolves around the trains provides verisimilitude as director Menzel observes not the trains but the people, building a mosaic of Czech life at a precise point in history. The quiet, ordinary rhythms of human interaction mark this film and indeed seem a behaviourist trait which marks this Eastern European Cinema DVD Collection – people are the most important subject in these movies: people and their rituals, repetitive behaviours revolving around situation or occupation, the coming and going of the trains in Closely Observed Trains providing a structural beat.
But just as romance blossoms for the protagonist, the war raging off-screen gradually begins to make itself felt in more details. A suicide attempt introduces a note of a young man’s sexual despair raging behind lives which can seem confusing in the maturation process, surrounded by people driven to revel in the small moments or be overwhelmed by the larger picture as they see it. But even amidst the despair, comedy and even eroticism prevails in what is a celebration of life in a way unique to the understated Czech comedy, a genre that endeared Czech cinema in particular to the international community – in part due to the festival success of Closely Observed Trains, considered one of the finest films of the so-called Czech New Wave.
The Thief: Pavel Chuckhrai (1997)
The Thief is an Academy Award nominated film set in Russia, about a young boy who lives in awe of a wayward scoundrel, a solider intent on seducing the boy’s mother, manipulating her and slowly becoming a father figure to the boy. The most recent of the films in this three-DVD set, it also develops the theme of the intricacies of human inter-personal sexual attraction, here balancing the young mother’s attraction to the soldier with the young boy’s desire for a father figure. As a psychodrama of sexual socialization and the effects of adult relationships on children, the film is telling and engaging, cleverly related in voice-over: a mature man’s recollection of the key events in his childhood in post-war Russia.
Socialization of the young is a dominant concern in The Thief. As soldier, mother and son live together in the one room, so the boy begins to learn of the adult world, listening to, and fearful of, his mother having sex with the soldier. In turn, the soldier slowly begins to resent the boy though buying things for the mother to ensure her loyalty to his romantic and sexual designs. The boy’s desire for a family makes him slowly resent the man, whom he feels is taking his mother away from him by sexually devouring her, hurting her as he sees it. Still, the mother is in the sexual thrall of this soldier, acquiescing to his intentions as the boy lashes out, watching and studying his father figure take charge.
The Thief is a film about childhood and the function of adult role-models within and around it. Ordinary Soviet lives are played out in a way which devotes attention to the socio-economic and behaviourist reality of Stalinist Russia, free from the world of overt political interference and living its daily existence as best it can. Family, childhood, trust: these themes propel the lives of these characters as the mother gradually discovers the amoral, thieving side of the man she has taken on as lover and father for her boy. As the family flee after ransacking their lodging house, the gravity of their situation dawns on the mother, who now realizes the serious repercussions of her sexual infatuation to this man.
The three films on the Essential World Cinema: Eastern Europe Collection offer diverse depictions of human need, the maturation of young men and the consequences women feel for their sexual attraction to the men who desire them. Varying in tone, texture, setting and time the films offer a valuable social document of not only Eastern European filmmaking but the social and moral concerns affecting Eastern European society at various stages in its history. Significantly, these concerns are not limited to their location and this DVD set offers proof of the global appeal of a cinema centered on human beings and their foibles.
DIRECTOR(S): Various | COUNTRY: Various | YEAR 2008 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Umbrella | RUNNING TIME: 262 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1 | REGION: 4 | DISCS: 3
Order through WOW HD and recieve a 5% Cinemania fan discount on every order