While border-less, Eastern Europe is well defined and easily identifiable by its scarring and brutal history. As cinematography has always been a longstanding outlet used by people to critique, rejoice and relate, it is no surprise that it has also lived and been shaped by the same events, creating a unique and separate genre of film and art, well defined by the prolific feelings of pain channeled into it throughout time.
If, historically speaking, this area of the world has not experienced prevalent attention from the general public despite its culturally rich state, in this new era of re-discovering previously overlooked people and places of the world, it is time to finally take a look at the most powerful gateway into the soul of Eastern Europe: film.
1. The Reenactment (1970, Romania, Filmstudio Bucuresti)
Arguably (or most definitely) the best Romanian movie ever made, The Reenactment follows a prosecutor, a policeman and a teacher who bring together two young men to reenact their drunken brawl and have it filmed, so they can discuss and teach the effects of alcoholism. Directed by one of the biggest names in Romanian cinematography Lucian Pintilie, the movie, which is based on a true story, is a powerful tragicomedy that both mocks and reflects the communist regime and times in Romania during which it’s set in.
It was censored in its native country due to political implications only months after its premiere, but it reappeared on screens in 1990, one year after the Romanian revolution that ended the communist regime.
2. Katyn (2007, Poland, Akson Studio)
Based on the horrific events that took place during the Soviet’s invasion of Poland, Katyn tells the story of the 22,000 Polish soldiers murdered within a forest in 1940. The events were covered up by the Soviet government for 50 years and were only made public in 1991, sending shock-waves throughout the country and the rest of the world as the story remains hard to believe even today. The director, Andrzej Wajda, a respected figure within the world of Polish cinema, hold nothing back as he brilliantly walks the viewer through everything that happened back in 1940, as seen through the eyes of the mothers, wives and children of the fallen soldiers, sparing no brutal detail.
3. Seven Invisible Men (2005, Lithuania, Studio Kinema)
Variety called it “an ode to human misery,” and there’s really no better way of putting it. Travelling via a stolen car, a group of Russian men and women in Crimea try to break away from the modern world and go under the radar as they fight their own personal demons. They’re the kind of people you’d avoid in real life – depressed, bored, and filled with regret, but all of these characters have been robbed of their potential, and they never had a chance to begin with. Using “usual suspects” in this mesmerizing and painful 2005 story, the director, Šarūnas Bartas, dives deep into the role of an individual in today’s society.
4. Marketa Lazarová (1967, Czech Republic, Filmové studio Barrandov)
Named by critics as the best Czech film ever made, Marketa Lazarová begins with the story of a young woman, daughter of a feudal lord, who is kidnapped by neighboring robber knights. In true Shakespearian fashion, however, the story is not about the main character, but rather about the conflict that erupts between the two clans involved – the Lazars and the Kozlík, – telling a tale of revenge and lust that is as old as time, and yet completely unlikely and disorienting on screen. Set during the transition years of the 13th century, when paganism was replaced by Christianity, Marketa is a vivid and beautiful display of brutality deserving of everyone’s time.
5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, Romania, Mobra Films)
Brutal and scarring, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days tells the story of university student Gabriela whom, almost five months into an unwanted pregnancy, seeks the help of her dorm roommate Otilia to organize an abortion during the twilight years of Romania’s communist regime, where birth control is illegal and abortion is punishable by death. The movie, a powerful social and political critique, ensures that the viewer not only sees but also feels humanity being degraded by the state as it allows you to make the most horrific realization of all – that it is telling the story of not one, but millions of women alike, and the 10 000 whom died as part of Romania’s abortion ban.
Eastern European cinematography is truly remarkable, not just because of its specific aesthetic but because of the heavy burden of internalized emotion and historical truth that it carries around. It is remarkable because of its wit, and the boldness it displays as it steps into uncharted film territory and dares you, its viewer, to dig up the stigmatized. It is remarkable because it has existed and continues to exist. Even if it was unable to slip through the cracks of the communist regime in Eastern Europe years ago, it managed to eventually break down the entire wall. Unlike anything else, it presents life, with all of its monotonous, meaningless, boring, repetitive, sad and even desperate moments, and it doesn’t force you to love or hate it – it encourages you to acknowledge it, learn from it, and finally embrace it for what it is.