The first hundred years since a revolution: Optimism, nevertheless!

Author: Prof. Janko Ljumović, Mr.Sci. / Faculty of Dramatic Arts / Cetinje 

The centennial of the October Revolution evokes numerous other revolutions – revolutions that preceded the red October and those that followed it. Small and big.

Revolutions which could happen as soon as tomorrow. Political, cultural, sexual, academic, technological.

We call them differently, but after one, they all become empirically close to one another and accessible.

Film – art of the moving images, the power of the technological revolution, an innovation which characterizes the modern age.

“The most important art”, as the Russian revolution labeled it, holding onto the idea from a Lenin’s statement.

The relationship between society, art and politics, not at all unfamiliar to the millennium experiences.

The beginning of the new “most important”, as in case of every novelty, was dedicated to education and emancipation, but, of course, propaganda as well, which soon replaced avant-garde with socialist realism.

Cinema.

It provided not only entertainment but a race of demigods appearing to their devotees in a blaze of light, the apotheosis of the individual. More than ever, technology had now taken control of people’s dreams, and authors and engineers competed to innovate and expand the technical and aesthetic possibilities of film. (Blom 2015:419)

One of the dreams was the united Europe. Seen from the aspect of film, the global cinematography got the European film.

The European film integrated national cinematographies which were strong to the extent to which politics established connections between authors, producers and politicians trying to step across borders.

Just like Walter in China[1], or Veljko Bulajić and Tito. Or not step across in order to leave, through some other rappers, evidence of national sovereignty without communication with others or through communication in spite of others.

In architecture, for example, or in sculpture, such as in the project Skoplje 2014, as the Macedonian government under Prime Minister Nikola Grueski saw it through the concept of antiquisation of Macedonia, a project of a new national and political branding of the state.

Cinematography was not immune to such context either, but we shall not count on the movies which failed to survive the time of their emergence.

Or in communication in spite of others when it was bunkered, film managed to cross borders, especially in the countries of the eastern or south-eastern Europe.

Such as WR: Mysteries of the Organism by Dušan Makavejev from 1971, a movie which was a grotesque depiction of Wilhelm Reich’s theory “on organism (“Even a human organism can become a part of society, with all its systems, controls, standpoints and confusion.”), erotic critiques of revolution (“Free love was successful where the October Revolution failed!”) and Stalinism seen from the same point of view (“Stalin is an exceptionally pornographic character”).” (Liehm and Liehm 2006:429).

On a flight from Berlin to Dresden, I was sitting between two Chinese men.

When I told them I was from Montenegro, they did not know where it was. But, when they saw on a map of Europe in Lufthansa’s magazine that it was close to Sarajevo, they knew where their fellow traveler’s homeland was.

Walter was a movie hero of a revolution, anti-fascist and communist, the protagonist of Walter Defends Sarajevo directed by Hajrudin Krvavac in 1972.

Its soundtrack was played by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra at its concert in Podgorica in 2017.

This shows how much a Yugoslavian partisan movie is still present in China, a country currently building cities of future and a highway in Montenegro.

Borders. Real and imaginary, old and new, military and those drawn in peace.

Those pertaining to movies are especially interesting, not only the aesthetic ones, but also the spatial, which, when they “survive” the time of their creation, remain a permanent value of a culture.

Just like The Battle of Neretva, “a movie which continues to represent cinematography of a country that ceased to exist 20 year ago – and that existed for 45 years”. (Rafaelić 2015:191)

But, this is not an essay on partisan or Yugoslavian movies.

This is an essay on movies which could be a story about Europe as it could be, as we are always imagining it in our dreams.

Or about us now and here on our way to Europe. We are dreaming about it differently, because we have not all developed the critical rationality in these dreams, as initiated by European humanism. How to reach freedom for all?

…within the European culture, we have to recognize the special benefit of the critical rationality which is itself questioning and, thereby, maintains objectivity, able to criticize itself and its criticism. That same rationality is the basic vector of the universality principle nourished by the European culture, while it, at the same time, nourishes the European culture. (Morin 1995:132)

The selection of movies on fears and hopes which are never more noticeable than in the eve of a revolution or in the process of facing its consequences.

Or the way authors and their audience, or more importantly, non-audience see them. Some new viewers through cinema activism. In a space which transforms into a cinema.

I am here remembering the eighties of the last century, when cinema Kultura in Nikšić, in the former building of the National Theatre, was, for a time, transformed into a pornographic cinema.

The trend of pornography, which was a “liberating” wave of a soothing socialism, a porn repertoire available to the socialist youth (and not only them), just like in one of the scenes from the first movie from our mini list, when many East Germans were discovering porn shops in West Berlin.

1. Good Bye, Lenin

2003, comedy/drama, Germany, 121 min. Director: Wolfgang Becker

The graffiti from the Berlin Wall “All walls must fall” came true, as the history tells, in the night between the 9th and 10th November 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a series of events which changed the picture of Europe after the Second World War.

The Berlin Wall has remained the symbol of both theory and practice, both politics and culture.

Beyond the global interest it evoked, it presented a trauma for its own inhabitants, a line for the wave of refugees for whom it had been erected, as well as a line for the wave of those who were entering freedom after its fall.

Many believed that the wall was a solution to the problem. It was a curtain of different illusions, of which many have survived its fall. It has remained a part of everyday politics and, more importantly, an archive of contemporary art. From graffiti to a movie.

Good Bye, Lenin by Wolfgang Becker is an intimistic movie on a big topic, a movie which achieved a great success in the German cinematography of the early 21st century.

Becker made his movie in a nostalgic tone, maybe because every beginning of a new century brings some nostalgia for the past.

He recorded it courageously, as a move which counters memory hunters. The movie is a reconstruction of the eve of erection of the wall, the period during its existence and that after its fall.

The protagonist, Alex, faces the legacy of his mother’s beliefs. She lives according to GDR values, maybe even because the father never returned from his business trip to West Germany.

She wakes up from a coma to the world where GDR, the country she has been loyal to, does not exist anymore. This information could be fatal for her heart.

Alex maintains the appearance of a country which no longer exists and produced its design and format, even news, devotedly and creatively.

The fight against brands such as Coca-Cola or Ikea, which are giving shape to a new lifestyle, and Lenin’s statue being taken (like a toy) to some monument cemetery are just some of the challenges he is facing in trying to maintain an unchanged view from their window.

We are witnesses here of a son’s love for his mother, as well as a standpoint according to which the political private is Alex’s private.

Alex possesses the wisdom of a modern European man. He is, in fact, a hero of the Creative Europe, the Europe which anticipates all its traumas and uses creativity to come up with solutions for another person.

A story of a healthy process of growing up is another important determinant of the movie. This could also be a story on solidarity or an example of how dedicated Germans were in working on their democracy and the facing of the past.

This could be where we go back to the citation from the beginning of this essay on the benefit of the critical rationality. The director is not entering into a conflict with the West or the East. He is merely showing how things could have been better for all.

Good Bye, Lenin was awarded as the best European movie in 2003 by the European Film Academy and was also awarded the French César Award for the best EU movie, as well as Berlin Film Festival Blue Angel Award.

A special screening of the movie was organized for members of the German Parliament in the Bundestag building in Berlin.

2. Babette’s Feast (Babettes Fest)

1987, drama, Denmark, 102 min. Director: Gabriel Axel

Great Danish author Karen Blixen wrote the novel Babette’s Feast, on which Danish director Gabriel Axel based his movie. The movie got an Oscar in 1988 in the category “best foreign movie”.

Karen Blixen also wrote My Africa, which Sydney Pollack turned into a movie with the same name starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

Unlike the American cinematography which is present globally, Babette’s Feast takes us to the so-called small cinematographies and the European film which is rarely seen in cinemas, at least the big ones with popcorn.

Now that we’ve mentioned corn, before we analyze this movie, we’ll say that food is the question of diversity, since Babette’s Feast is a movie which, for the first time, gave food the leading role.

A worthy role, which corresponds to how we can see food as a medium in the experience of diversity in the context of the policy of interculturality.

Like, for example, when we put baklava and sechertorte on the same plate, like a meeting of two kingdoms in the Balkans and Europe.

It also corresponds to the concept of new ideologies depicted by the dilemma: slow food vs. fast food.

Besides these sweet narratives, if we think about food in the context of this movie, it could also mean danger, like Stalin’s hunger.

There is a joke from the Soviet era: How do you defend yourself from mice in Kremlin? You put a sign that says “collective economy”. A half of mice will die from hunger and another half will flee. (Ben Lewis, Hammer and Tickle) (2).

A statement attributed to Orson Welles goes: Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. With this attitude, we can finally best answer the question of who Babette is.

She is a French woman who lives in exile in the north of Norway and who, as a sign of gratitude, organizes a dinner for the little community which lives in a religious askesis, a feast that breaks emotional and all other barriers among people.

In the clash of two cultures or, rather, in the meeting of different cultures, those present at the dinner become one.

Her skill, the way in which she prepares food and her selection of food present a strong contrast in the mirror of another culture, a contrast which also pertains to all the different associations of the French cuisine, from erotic to political, such as the statement attributed to Maria Antonietta before she was executed at the guillotine in 1793: “If they have no bread, let them eat cake”. The movie subtly introduces the possibility of a change which can take place over night. This is a story about the possibility of choice, but mostly about solidarity, just like that contained in the name of a big movement of the 20th century, the Polish movement Solidarity co-founded by Lech Wałęsa.

Babette’s feast is also a provocation which was, as a result of certain attitudes of inhabitants of the Scandinavian landscape, seen as “witchcraft”.

It is this provocation what so masterfully seduces the viewer while he/she follows the game which leads to the final farewell to Babette and her return to France and the words an old woman utters: “Oh, how happy you are going to make the angels!”

During the movie, we witness the warming of relations and it could be a story on the warming of relations after different historic events in the old continent.

Many relations were thawing, but some were also getting colder. The first question today is: Who is nowadays Babette who would prepare a feast for migrants all over Europe?

One of the basic assumptions for our reflection on Europe, not only today, has to do with its relations with others outside of its borders, with non-European nations or those within its borders.

The questions of others and otherness are manifold in Europe. We could, in fact, say that Europe built its identity in relation to others, primarily its cultural identity, the European cultural identity.

3. Leviathan

2014, drama/thriller, Russia, 160 min. Director: Andrei Swjaginzew

In the first hundred years of its existence, the European film contributed greatly to the topic of social violence, different types of social violence, such as political purges, show trials, xenophobia, homophobia, and not only in the East.

Remember the movie The Imitation Game on British mathematician Alan Turing, who, after the Second World War, instead of receiving honours and fame for his contribution to the fight against the Third Reich, ended his life tragically at 42 after a threat of a forced chemical castration due to his homosexuality.

In east-European countries, especially in the Polish and Hungarian cinematographies, just like in cinematographies that arose from the former Yugoslavian, and more so because of the bloody dissolution of the country, cinematic searches for stories which tell of systems of destruction of human intimacy, human rights – cultural, political, economic, are still ongoing.

Both in former West and East, nowadays Europe and Russia, we can connect destruction to corruption. This is a term which is, along with the word “democracy”, the most present term in contemporary public discourse.

Corruption is the basic line of conflict which brings Kolya, protagonist of Leviathan, in an agonizing confrontation with the corrupt mayor of a small Russian seaside town, a small town in big Russia.

Big Russia cannot exist without an image of a bigger authority, today Putin, but also the Orthodox Church. Kolya’s agony may not be any milder that the agony of the suppressed in the eve of the October Revolution or “the small revolution” in 1905 in the Tsar Russia.

Leviathan makes us think about the constant presence of authority which has always determined Russia, especially in relations to others, for example Europe, which managed to replace its imperial and other authorities with ideas of a civil and open society, ideas which, in the end, remain the basic determinants of integrity of European values.

In spite of Europe today and the constant strengthening of the right, whose openness toward otherness and others brings back the face of the not-so-far past through evident anti-Semitism or erection of new fences and barbed wires to keep migrants out.

Reporting from Cannes for Zagreb’s Jutarnji List, Croatian film critic Jurica Pavičić said Leviathan was, politically, the hottest title at the festival (3).

It is important to point out that the title of the movie is also the title of a study by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published in 1651. Hobbes’s metaphor – leviathan as the ultimate state, a dictatorship without a single democratic value, tolerance and freedom for its subjects.

Do we need to say in the end that Kolya loses everything, powerless against the strength of provincial moguls in the images of apocalyptic scenery so skillfully depicted in the movie? Regardless of its topicality, the movie has already become a classic, and classics are the movies for all times.

If we return to the story on human rights, we can say that, regardless of the tragic outcome for the protagonist of the movie, the fight is sometimes more important that the victory.

4. The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)

2013, drama, Italy, 141 min. Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Beauty. In the Eternal City, as it is called.

The history of film diligently records the movies dedicated to different European cities – let’s mention just two by Wim Wenders: Sky Above Berlin and Lisbon Story.

Cities reflect the power of Europe. They are the carriers of its cultural identity. Even when they stopped being economic centers, they attracted attention with their heritage – Venice, Genoa, Antwerp, London – until the power of capital crossed the Atlantic.

Many were reborn, destroyed in the 20th century and born in an image which reflected their beauty or a new ideology. Or they continued their lives in the spirit of time, as an expression of modernity.

Or both. As the reconstructed Dresden, or the new face of Warsaw, or Bucharest which Ceausescu tried to make “more suitable” for the new era, committing in the process one of the largest urbicides in the times of peace, or the new old bridge in Mostar.

The big return of a city to contemporary cinematography came with Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. This is, at the same time, return to the lost time in the life of a modern man.

The image of modern society tucked in in the kingdom of comfort – which, in the end, is the image of Europe, i.e. West Europe. Individuality which is, nowadays, facing the question of fear of solitude.

How can one be alone in Rome? It is impossible. The movie is not only a self-reflection regarding the beauty of past times portrayed by Sorrentino so luxuriously, but also an homage to the history of his own culture – or, to be precise, to Federico Fellini, the culture which offered Europeans and the whole world the idea of beauty after the rough first half of the 20th century, which brought two world wars with millions of victims, fascism, Holocaust, Stalinism.

The period which marked the return to decadence, without which there is no narrative on Europe. Or a life on the “ruins” of the antic world, which is becoming a constant in the European civilization. Even when we are cynical or ironic, there remains beauty, which we, today, often fail to see. We don’t see it because we are bored!

In a movie which is a fresco of a town, we see a gallery of art works, many works which belong in Europe’s luggage.

5. Amarcord

1973, comedy/drama, Italy, 123 min. Director: Federico Fellini

Another important year in a series of rebellious movements is 1968. It brought a rebellion of students and initiated the question of limitation of individual freedoms.

We mentioned the sexual revolution in the beginning of the essay. In case of Fellini, a superstar of the European film, after 1968, we see his movies which thematically focus on nostalgia, sexuality and politics.

These were dangerous topics which resulted in many authors in Europe needing police protection, such as French writer Michel Houellebecq, because of controversies contained in his novel The Elementary Particles – in our 21st century.

Amarcord gives us unforgettable images of a sleepy little provincial town in Italy. Fellini combines nostalgic interpretations of his own childhood with ultimately harsh criticism of Italian conformism during the fascist rule.

Nowhere in the West was the leftists’ strong idea of a fight as portraited in politics, philosophy and culture in the eve, during and after the fall of fascism as in Italy.

Historians say it lasted until 1970, when the Italian Communist Party gave up completely on the principle of a revolutionary change.

“Such a change in the communist ideology enabled what was later to become known as the historic compromise, an initiative the Party undertook to ensure that a reaction against students and workers’ protests would not lead to a right-wing coup similar to that which ousted Allende in Chile.” (Domborski 2006:127)

Outside of the political domain, but crucially political in Fellini’s work, and especially in Amarcord, we see the idea of optimism, genuine optimism accompanied with laughter. As in Molière or Shakespeare, or Chekhov as well.

We shall use the following Fellini’s statement about his movie to once again confirm in our essay the story on growing up: “…necessity of separation from something that used to belong to you, where you were born and where you lived, that determined you, that infected you, where all feelings are dangerously mixed.

This past must not poison us and this is why we have to free it from all shadows, knots, connections which still exist. We have to accept the past to live in the present as consciously as possible.

This miserable school whose main characteristics are ignorance and beating, these heavy and foolish obligations for us to always be together, in a procession, at a parade, in church, at a cinema, in choirs, so we could sing eulogies and fart with our mouth!

Why is this story not behind us? Amarcord is supposed to be a goodbye to one cycle in life, that incurable adolescence which threatens to hold us forever and with which I still do not know what to do.”

Enough reasons for us to watch Amarcord today. Especially in relation to the incurable adolescence which always finds new faces of fascism or, as Boris Buden says: Fascism of tomorrow will not have the face of the fascism of the past.

***

In the end, this is an essay on optimism – written on the occasion of a jubilee of a revolution which, besides reaching justice, was supposed to do everything for the world to become beautiful.

These few hours of movie stories contain numerous events in which their protagonists, and not only they, participate.

All these movies (and so many others in another selection and context) are perfectly aesthetically organized.

As if they are telling us that such aesthetical organization of life can be transferred into reality, into different big and small politics.

We know this is not the case, especially if the break from the past was unmerciful – which was the trait of the revolutionary enthusiasm in 1917.

In other places, culture led to a layered preservation of everything that preceded, so if we did not see some of the monuments to Mussolini in the Great Beauty, we can see them while taking a walk in Rome. Stratification or the power of culture to overcome traumas from the past.

A movie – just like the cinematic and political adventure of the characters in No Resurrection Without Death (Vaskrsenja ne biva bez smrti), based on the screenplay by the first Montenegrin scriptwriter Vladimir Đ. Popović and directed by Eduardo Bencivenga in Italy.

Premiere of this movie was in 1922 in “Il grande cinema Volturno” and it has been preserved in fragments.

As an example of a small revolution which was not particularly successful and which was conducted peacefully in 2006, when Montenegro regained its independence.

From 1922 until 2006, Montenegrin film was more of an incident and, as such, it is invisible in the archive of the European cinematography.

This is not a final determination, since new young rebels in the film industry make film vital and important for the community, giving through the model of the European film everybody a chance to tell their story on growing up.

 

Literature:

Blom, Philipp (2015) The Vertigo Years: change and culture in the west, 1900-1914, Fraktura. Zagreb Domborski, Robert (2007) Socialism, Communism and Other ‘Isms’”. Ed. Zygmunt Baranski, Rebecca West: Modern Italian Culture. CID, Podgorica Liehm, Mira and Liehm, Antonin (2006) The Most Important Art. Clio. Beograd Morin, Edgar (1995) Thinking Europe (Penser l’Europe). Durieux. Zagreb Rafaelić, Daniel (2015) Bitka na Neretvi – film nad filmovima. Ed. Rudež, Božo Veljko Bulajić Vlakom bez voznog reda u povijest filma. Zrinski Čakovec

(1)  The movie Walter Defends Sarajevo by Hajrudin Krvavac was the first foreign movie shown in China after the Cultural Revolution in 1976. It has, so far, been seen by more than a billion people.

(2) Ton Standage (2010), An Edible History of Humanity. Geopetika. Belgrade. p. 144

(3)http://www.jutarnji.hr/kultura/film-i-tv/levijatan-andreja-zvjaginceva-politicki-najpapreniji-naslov-festivala-i-kandidat-za-nagradu/803239/ (24 October 2017)

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