Dr. Hans-Joachim Schlegel:

Subversions of the Surreal in films from Central and Eastern Europe

Contrary to a widely held public belief, surrealism hasn't been a purely West-European phenomenon but a fascinating bridge between West- and East-European cultures.

André Breton's "Manifestes du Surréalisme" from 1924 inspires visual artists, writers and theorists - mainly in Prague, Belgrade and Bucharest - to found groups of extremely creative surrealists. Romanian painter Victor Brauner and Czech painter Toyen (Marie Cerminová) join the international Surrealist-organization. Belgrade, the "white city", repeatedly appears in the surreal fantasies of the French. They met, corresponded and argued with one another. They saw the things they had in common but also pointed out their own roots and affinities, not least in Prague where as early as 1924 - simultaneous with Breton - a "manifesto of Poetism" was published, formed by surreal predispositions, whose authors Karel Teige and Viteslav Nezval founded the first Czech group of surrealists together with Breton in 1934.

Although Paris - to where numerous surrealists from Eastern Europe emigrated later - was the center of inspiration as well as dissociating discussion, one should not overestimate Breton's "official" program and overlook the difference of the similar which was fed by different sources. Apart from those groups of artists who programmatically professed themselves surrealists, there were "surreal imaginists" or Russian, Polish, Bulgarian and Croatian futurists and constructivists who strove for a synthesis with surrealism. The diversity is also valid for the frontier-crossing dream pictures of the individual as well as the collective subconscience which have traditions in their own right, especially in East-, Central- and Southeast-European cultures. Franz Kafka's surreal tendencies belong there as do Bruno Schulz's. Currently, literature scientists from Moscow have been drawing attention to Nikolaj Gogol's "nose" which already becomes independent in a "surreal" way.

A source in its own right of surreal picture creation in Central-, Eastern- and Southeastern Europe are the anarchic picture- and narration fantasies of the folk art traditions. Mainly in Slovakia, Hungary, the Ucraine and the Balkan States, these archaisms connected to impulses of the French modern age; in doing so they developed a wide range of autonomous creativity which repeatedly included a huge share of of subversive relevances to present times.

Film experiments on paper in Prague
As early as 1924, Viteslav Nezval drew attention to film and its possibilities of lending visual reality to the most daring fantasies and to produce dream-logical picture contexts in his "Advertisement of Poetism". And Karel Teige, who continuously included film in his theory of a "Poetry for all senses", four years later in the "Second manifesto of Poetism"wrote: "We have defined film as a dynamic picture-poem, a living play without plot or literature, a rhythm of black and white, and from time to tim a rhythm of colour, a sort of mechanical ballet of forms and lights...".

In fact, the Czech poetists - the later surrealists - were hardly able to realize anything in the pre-war years, although some of their ideas went into commercials, for example for the Prague electricity company. The history of poetistic and surreal film experiments at this time doesn't happen on the screen but on paper: in unrealized scenarios and film poems. Here as well as in other countries of the region, the "censorship of the market" prevented films such as the ones by the French avantgarde, works like Hans Richter's, László Moholy-Nagy's or Luis Buńuel's surrealistic key movie UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928). Its provoking visualization of a subconscience suppressed by society was not taken on until in the post-war period of the Prague "surrealistická skupina", in Jan Švankmajer's animation films.

Surprisingly, a reflection of Buńuel's UN CHIEN ANDALOU can be found in the Soviet music comedy VESELYE REBJATA (FUNNY GUYS, 1934): Grigorij Aleksandrov, who in the Paris of 1930 got to know Bunuel together with Sergej Eisenstein, operated in a scenery here in which herd animals cause a burlesque chaos in the neo-bourgeois NEP-salon, with satirical references to this film. Its anti-bourgeois aggression is being completely robbed of its psycho-analytical surreal dimension though.

Serious rejection in the USSR
This is an indirect hint to the USSR's fundamental and seriously negative attitude towards surrealism: The tendencies towards the surreal which can be observed in the early Soviet Avantgarde in the work of Majakovskij, Chlebnikov, Charms, Zabolockij or in some animation films by Nikolaj Chodataev (Organcik / THE MUSIC CAN, 1934) and Michail Cechanovskij, in the end remained marginal and without a chance to develop.

This is certainly most of all a result of the Stalinist totalitarism which made taboo the uncontrollable autonomous subversive fantasies of the surrealism (as well as the psychoanalysis which is tightly linked to it) under the banner of the "Socialist realism". It is also certain that the rejection had to do a lot with the Soviet film avantgarde's materialistic-constructivistic concept of entlightenment, that stood in fundamental opposition to the "l'acte gratuit", the "truth of the irrational". Sergej Eisenstein, who all his life worked intensely on Freud, was aware of the fact that film work is being done on the seam between subconscience and conscience, and he displayed an interest in Luis Bunuel's and Max Ernst's picture strategies. But a surreal "écriture automatique" of the unconscience was deeply alien to his concept. All he had for surrealism were marginal notes. Even in his memoirs he defines "Un chien andalou" as "a film which until the end consequently shows the perspectives of the ruin of the middle class' conscience in the >surrealism<".

The culture-political doctrine of the "Sozialist Realism" created a special paradox: It didn't strive only to exclude the irrational, the dreams and nightmares of reality, but also the concrete reality itself. With reality the "Socialist Realism" had nothing to do in the end - it cared more about producing a federal bureaucratic voluntarism, a virtual reality. This repeatedly produced almost grotesque dream pictures with a sometimes involuntarily surreal touch. Take Grigorij Aleksandrov's stalinist-propagandistic music film SVETLYJ PUT' (THE BRIGHT WAY, 1940): When the illiterate village girl Tanja finally gets promoted to delegate of the highest Soviets, she flies over Moscow in her car, high from her Soviet luck, and meets the statue for the workers and peasants which raises its hammer and sickle into the sky.

Exposure of the official emotiveness in Poland
In 1975, Polish documentary filmmaker Wojciech Wisniewski over-stylized the attributes of an official retirement ritual for a weaver of outstanding merit in Wanda Gosciminska, wl?kniarka (WANDA GOSCIMINSKA, WEAVER) in such a subversive manner that parts of the film seem virtually "soc-surrealistic", and in STOLARZ (THE CARPENTER, 1980) this director used authentic memories of a work life plus dream sequences to report on an exterior as well as interior reality. In KOBIETY PARCUJACE (WORKING WOMEN, 1976), Wisnewski's fellow countryman and colleague Piotr Szulkin used trick technology to make moments from the grey daily work in the socialism of allegedly freed women unfamiliar, and so created traumatic situations that exposed the unreality of the official emotiveness. In the final stage of the "real socialism" films like Valerij Ogorodnikov's BUMAŽNYE GLAZA PRIŠVINA (PRIŠVINS PAPER EYES, 1989) dismantled the rites and insignia of totalitarian power with openly surreal passages. Before this, first signals in this direction had been sent by Tengiz Abuladze in his Glasnost key film MONANIEBA / POKAJANIE (THE REGRET RESP. THE CONFESSION) which had been produced in 1984 but was passed as late as 1987.

The film history of the "real socialistic" Eastern- and Central Europe offers a wide range of examples for creative outbreaks from the sadness of socialist-realistic norming: varied and inventive attempts at venturing from actual to unactual reality, which also includes the discovery of the officially suppressed inner reality of dreams and nightmares. Even if they can hardly be regarded as surreal films in the classic sense of the word, surreal fantasies and images keep appearing in different genres, subversive formally as well as regarding contents.

The film program accompanying this symposium can only highlight exemplary aspects of this spectre - but at least can initiate a desperately needed widening of the cultural awareness in the now bigger Europe.

Ucrainian Folk art-traditions, Russian folklore
These surely include those film-makers from the "real socialistic" era who got close to the surreal without conscious references and knowledge of the French paradigma because their images and narration forms were inspired by the folk art traditions of their respective cultures. These are filled with poetic blurring of the boundaries between reality and dream fantasies and archaisms until the present day. This even holds true for Aleksandr Medvedkin's political satires like SCAST'E (THE LUCK, 1935) which were born out of the spirit and picturesqueness of Russian folklore, and for the poetry of Ucrainian Oleksandr Dovženko which often crosses over into fantasy in a variety of ways, and who as early as 1927 created a film historic example in SVENIGORA (THE ENCHANTED WOODS) whose effect lasted up to Andrej Tarkovskij.

In the Ucraine, Sergo Paradshanov, who was fascinated by Dovženko, also stylized traditional patterns of the West-Ucrainian Huzules (Ruthenes) into parrallels of the surreal in TINI ZABUTYCH PREDKIV (SHADOWS OF OUR FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS, 1965): For the censors of the federal bureaucracy this was as violating to the norms as were his cameraman Jurij Illenko's films. Already in his debut film KRINICJA DLJA SPRAGLIH (THE SPRING FOR THE THIRSTY, 1965), then in the Gogol-adaptation VECIR NA IVANA KUPALA (THE EVENING BEFORE ST. JOHN DAY, 1968) and finally in BILIJ PTACH Z CORNOJU OZNAKOJU (WHITE BIRD WITH BLACK MARK, 1970) he consequently followed his chosen path with traditional picture- and narration structures from his Ucrainian culture and in doing so developed virtually surreal qualities.

Bridges between archaisms and avantgarde
Analogue tendencies towards this Ucrainian phenomenon can be found mainly in the ethically and culturally neighbouring Slovakia, where artists and writers have developed a "Nadrealism" (that's how "surrealism" was translated into their own language here) as early as the Thirties, which linked impulses from Prague and Paris to poetic traditions of the own ethnic and so created an East-West-European bridge between slavonic archaisms and avantgarde.

As it did in Prague, this pre-war avantgarde blossomed again in the Czech-Slovakian spring: Not just with historic, theoratical catching up with subjects that were taboo after 1948, but also with new works by artists, poets and film-makers. Elo Havetta's SLÁVNOST' V BOTANICKEJ ZÁHRADE (CELEBRATION IN A BOTANICAL GARDEN, 1969) is still mainly fascinated by carnivalesk traditions. But from there he develops the fireworks of his anarchic lecherous fantasies which know no boundaries between dream and reality. More obvious is the surreal play with traditional elements by Elo Havetta's fellow countryman and friend Juraj Jakubisko. He comes from East-Slovakian Kojšovo, located at the Ucrainian border, and has grown up there in a world of folk art which had not yet been domesticated by museums. This is the world Jakubisko reminds us of with several attributes and motifs, not intending an illustrative reproduction but a transfer of anarchic poetry into narration- and image-fantasies with subversive functions: In VTÁCKOVIA, SIROTY A BLÁZNI (BIRDS, ORPHANS AND MADMEN, 1969) these turn into imaginations of a generation of outsiders lost between the traumas of past and present. Near the end of shooting ZBEHOVIA A PÚTNICI (Deserters and Pilgrims, 1968), which was conceived as an ethno-surreal anti-war film, Soviet occupation tanks appeared which violently crushed the dream of the "Spring of Prague": Jakubisko displayed courage when he integrated these authentic images into his anti-war fantasy - of course his film was banned, as were nearly all other productions by the Czech "New Wave".

In Hungary, neighbour to the Ucraine as well as Slovakia, Miklós Jancsó started out with ethnographical documentaries, the reason why the symbolic geometrical intellectualism repeatedly bursts out into surreal fantasies characterized by folk art traditions (like in MAGYAR RAPSZÓDIA, 1979). István Szabó, who in his films often integrates the traumas of history which last until the present, already operated with obvious surreal associations in his short film ÁLOM A HÁZRÓL (THE DREAM ABOUT A HOUSE, 1972). In the Hungarian documentary essays by Zoltán Huszárik A PIACERE - TETSZÉS SZERINT (A PIACERE - AS YOU LIKE IT, 1977), one can find rather calligraphic affinities to surreal figurativeness. Surrealistic impulses had an especially productive effect on the neo-avantgardistic orientation of the Budapest Béla-Balász-Studios: Gabór Bódy for example was already reminiscent of these with titles such as PSZICHOKOZMOSZOK (PSYCHOCOSMOS, 1976) or NARCISSUS AND PSYCHE (1981).

Provocation in Belgrade
In the Yugoslavian Belgrade, which had played a special role in the European surrealism already in the Thirties, Aleksandar Petrovic shot his famous film SKUPLJACI PERJA/ SREO SAM CAK I SRECNE CIGANE (I EVEN MET HAPPY GYPSIES) in 1967 as a mixture of reality and imaginationen from the cultural treasure of the Roma gypsies. From the spirit of surrealistic collages and grotesque evocative intellectualism, Dušan Makavejev developed his scandalous W. R. - MISTERIJE ORGANIZMA (W. R. - THE MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM) in 1970. Here, Wilhelm Reich's orgasm-theory formed the matrix for a radical reckoning with the perversion of the revolution's initial ideals and its effects in the present, for which Stalin was to be held responsible: A provocation which was banned for years even in relatively liberal Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia's studios, consequently surrealistic work was mainly done by animation film-makers: An example is HAPPY END (1958), made by Vatroslav Mimica in the Croatian Zagreb - where Vlado Kristl's DON QUIXOTTE (1961) was made as well - and full of references to Dali and Freud.

Surrealistic animation films
Because of his proximity to the creative arts and its technical possibilities for the deforming play with things and images from reality, the animation film is especially suitable for surreal ideas. As early as the Fifties, Poland was a first center. It was here that in their work together, Walerian Borowczyk (who in 1968 shot a full length surrealsitic feature film in France: GOTO / THE ISLAND OF LOVE) and Jan Lenica - both of them emigrated to France and Germany later - imagined fears and hallucinations in a deserted house in DOM (THE HOUSE, 1958) or where in 1962 they created a surreal, traumatic LABIRYNT. Films like Lenica's MONSIEUR TĘTE (1961), Borowczyk's RENAISSANCE (1963) or his LES ASTRONAUTES (THE ASTRONAUTS, 1959) - a surreal attack on progressive rationalistic space plans - are among the highlights of the European surrealistic animation cinema.

Even in the USSR, Andrej Chržanovskij ventured to realize an open surrealistic idea in STEKLJANNAJA GARKOMINKA (THE GLASS HARMONICA, 1966 ) , which Sergej Gerasimov tried in vain to save from imminent censorship with the words: "Yes, this is >Sur<, but yet our >Sur<!"

One of the the key fílms of the Soviet Glasnost years is Chržanovskij's portrait of Estonian artist Ulo Sooster who was exiled to a camp until 1956, PEJSAŽ S MOŽŽELVEL'NIKOM (LANDSCAPE WITH JUNIPER BUSH, 1988), which he created with surreal image-quotes and -procedures as well as documentary parts. Incidentally, Chržanovskij refers to the works of Alexandre Alexeieff who already in 1921 emigrated to Paris, with their surreal context which so mercilessly was banished in the Soviet era, especially his UNE NUIT SUR LE MONT CHAUVE (NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN, 1933) and the Gogol-adaption LE NEZ (THE NOSE, 1963).

Jan Švankmajer
Before and during the "Spring of Prague" there was not only a rediscovery but also an extremely lively re-activation of the Czech surrealism which anti-dogmatic attitude had been criminalized as being "anarchistically" infiltrated by the CP-officials in the Thirties and even more so after the seizure of power in 1948.

In this era of departure, the surrealistic breaking up of fossilized circumstances, the dream of a Marx-Freud-synthesis and an art theory and -practice going "against the current" (the title of a manifesto from 1938, regarded as anti-Soviet) inspired passionate debates among the intellectuals. These tendencies paved the way for Jan Švankmajer who started out as a puppeteer and animation film-maker and then also worked as an artist and writer of theoretical essays: He uses marionettes, toys, rocks or plasticine puppets to tell black parables which are inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Lewis Carroll, and which at the same time always are filmic psycho-analyses of privately and socially suppressed issues - encouraging to self-direct one's thinking and feelings.

After the violent end of the "Spring of Prague" and the dreams of the "democratic socialism" the surrealists reacted in their own way, as can be seen in works produced in the contradictory shimmering year 1969: Švankmajer made TICHÝ TÝDEN V DOME (SILENT WEEK IN THE HOUSE), a reality-animation about the traumatic existence of a human locked inside his own house whose objects for daily use refuse to work for him. Other surrealists used the last opportunities for the time being for a publicistic catching up of their long criticized positions and therefore a subversive comment regarding an intolerable present in an occupied country. For example, the anthology " Surrealistické východisko: 1938-1968" ("Surrealistic way-out: 1938-1968") was published, as was Vratislav Effenberger's "Reality and poetry" and the magazine "Analogon", which combined theory and practice. But the second volume of the writings of theorist Karel Teige, who was regarded as a "Trotzkist", was pulped down again before its publication, and finally the Prague surrealists were forced to go underground.

In 1970, Jan Švankmajer and his wife, the surrealistic painter and writer Eva Švankmajerová, joined the "surrealistická skupina", which interrupted the ordered silence with debates, Samizdat-publications and with exhibitions in the provinces, always fooling the secret police. Of course this meant the imminent end of work in the federal Krátky Film-Studio. It's true that in the Seventies Švankmajer was able to make several uncompromising surrealistic animations - among them KOSTNICE (MAINTENANCE, 1970), OTRANSKÝ ZAMEK (DAS SCHLOSS VON OTRANTO, 1973-77), the E.-A.-Poe-adaption ZÁNIK DOMU USHERU (THE FALL OF THE HOUSE USHER, 1981) or, most importantly, ŽVAHLAV ANEB ŠATICKY SLAMENNÉKO HUBERTA (JABBERWOCKY, 1971). In these, children's rooms are psycho-analytically interpreted as institutions of authoritarian discipline and its effects. But cynical studio-bosses allowed these films to be shown in foreign countries only, collecting awards and foreign exchange, but banned them domestically.

Because Švankmajer could only shoot five of these short films in the Seventies, he had plenty of time to use his surreal fantasies for collages and objects, for example a tankard you cannot drink from because it is trimmed with sharp mussels in the shape of a dull looking petty bourgeois face.To take away the purpose of real objects by altering them - this is also a basic motif of Švankmajer's filmic and creative work. For him, things do have their biography, are sometimes more alive than people whose fantasy turned to stone. "Sense of touch and imagination", as one of Švankmajer's books is called, enable to experience the time which is inherent in them.

After the change
Švankmajer was among the first to react to the "soft revolution"-change with his film THE DEATH OF STALINISM IN BOHEMIA/ KONEC STALINISMU V CECHACH, 1990. In only ten minutes the absurd tragic stations of the "real socialistic" development in the Czech Republic are shown. It starts here with the delivery of a small Gottwald-bust from the brain of a cut-open Stalin plaster head but doesn't end with the Happy end of a "Soft Revolution": From the garbage pile of history Stalin's plaster head rises - now painted in the Czech national colours - from which a new, though still invisible, child is delivered.

In Prague, the surreal fantasies have always been very close to Kafka and the theatre of the absurd. Examplary for this is Pavel Jurácek with his short film POSTAVA K PODPÍRÁNÍ (JOSEF KILIAN, 1963; Co-direction: Jan Schmidt). In it, a man whose initials remind one of the protagonist in Kafka's "Castle" finds himself in labyrinth pf bureaucracy with all signs of a Stalinist past which still hasn't been resolved; in PRIPAD PRO ZACINAJÍCÍHO KATA (A CASE FOR AN EXECUTIONER´S TRAINEE, 1969). motifs from Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's travels" become a mirror of the current situation.

The subversive functions of the surreal were in no way made obsolete by the implosion of the "real Socialism": In Russia in the year of Perestrojka,1989, Sergej Ogorodnikov took apart the rites and insignia of totalitarian reign with clearly surreal methods in his work BUMAŽNYE GLAZA PRIŠVINA (PRISCHVIN'S PAPER EYES); three years later Sergej Ovcarovs expressed the magical nightmare adventures of a homeless musician wandering through a kafkaesque land in BARABANIADA (DRUM ROLL). Similar aspects can be discovered in Lithuanian Audrius Stony's work, whose metaphysically stylized documentary NEREGIU ZEME (EARTH OF THE BLIND, 1991) does not only show the inward bound view of blind people but also a mined border zone between yesterday and tomorrow which has nothing to do with the newly prescribed optimism. In three surreal shock-scenes, Jan Švankmajer's FOOD from 1992 drew the attention to the dulling uniforming of a consumer society which cripples the people into soul and fantasy lacking machines, into sadomasochistic creatures.

Already in June of 1991, the "International Surrealist Bulletin" published in Prague contained a manifesto signed by Švankmajer among others, which ends with the following sentence: "The surrealism in Czechoslovakia is still actively opposed to any kind of future suppression by the already re-arising establishment....".