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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(THE ENCHANTED WOODS) whose effect lasted up to Andrej Tarkovskij.
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
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.
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.
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".
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
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
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.
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
(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.
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<!"
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
NEZ (THE NOSE, 1963).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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....".