Text prepared by a film critic Nikita Smirnov for Gorod812, a magazine about St Petersburg.
Collapse of Socialism: A Dedication to the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall is a final part of the 2017–2019 programme trilogy about socialism in the 20th century. In 2017, the programme’s first part was presented (curated by Aleksei Artamonov and Mikhail Trofimenkov), Revolution: A Spectre is Haunting the Screen, about the methods of depicting the revolutionary events on-screen employed throughout the cinema’s history; in 2018, Resistance. 1968–2018 (curated by Aleksei Artamonov and Katerina Beloglazova), about the legacy of 1968. Aleksei Artamonov and Katerina Beloglazova, this year’s programme curators, talk about it.
K.B.: 30 years since the fall of the Wall is a sufficient historical distance to see objectively the events that are often represented as a “displaced” foundation of contemporary history. The films that we selected demonstrate the cause and effect of the fall of socialism as an ideology and economic system; they show the dissolution of the Eastern bloc as a complex and contradictory process whose political and cultural repercussions can have a direct effect on the current situation.
A.A.: This is the final part of the trilogy dedicated to the history of socialism in the 20th century; a trilogy about the history of leftist ideas and the contradictions that this ideology faced with in real life. All the films in the programme depict the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of socialism not as something inevitable but as multifaceted processes that always contained a certain third way, although not apparently. Directors of these films wanted to shed light on these unapparent images and to move away from simple oppositions in order to see this seminal historic and ideological event in all its complexity and incompleteness.
K.B.: The collapse of what textbooks call “global system of socialism” resembled a chain reaction that went across the globe in the late 80s and early 90s, but we chose the fall of the Wall as a most iconic link of this chain, an outcome of global policy in the second half of the 20th century. Yet dissolution of the GDR and reunification of Germany reflect many contradictions of the perestroika and precede the self-dissolution of the Soviet Union. The programme centres around three films about Berlin and the end of the GDR, but they view these events through different lenses. Thomas Heise’s Material (2009) is a monumental three-hour film documenting the events of the autumn of ‘89 that includes the shots that he made on his Betacam, followed by his footage and musings about the ensuing history of Germany, until the year 2008. This is one of the most detailed records of political transit from Eastern Germany to Western.
Material by Thomas Heise (2009)
Coming up next is Petra Tschörtner’s Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg (1991), shot in cinéma vérité style. We watch and listen to interviews with city dwellers: factory workers, shop assistants, pensioners, young activists, musicians and bohemians. Tschörtner interviews them in the month preceding the introduction of the single German mark. On one hand, this is a time of freedom and hopes for the future; on the other, a time of nostalgia and uncertainty. It is clear than new economic policy will be good for someone, while others will have to tighten their belts. But most importantly, we see real people, and it makes this film a sort of a time stamp, a photograph of a passing era.
The third film is The Communist by Andreas Goldstein. It largely tells a story not of the German unification, but of the disintegration of socialism. Yet it is also a lyrical essay where events are seen thought the belief in a fairer social order and, at the same time, through self-delusion, escapism and defeatism. We watch these contradictions while listening to Goldstein himself talking about his father, Klaus Gysi, who was a minister of culture in the GDR shortly before the country was dissolved. Contradicting filial feelings are accompanied here by a mixed review of his father’s career that seems to follow the development scenario of the state itself: from ardent belief in socialist ideals to brilliant bureaucratic career and, finally, to professional downfall and denial of the ideas of socialism.
The Communist by Andreas Goldstein (2018)
A.A.: What is important in this film is that Goldstein shows that people retroactively describe their past using completely different – liberal – vocabulary that was inappropriate at that time and is unable to fully reflect it, at that. The past is being reduced and real responsibility is being displaced. The filmmaker views this as an attempt to sort out his memories of the life in Eastern Germany that have a certain magic pull for him.
A.A.: Marc Karlin is an extremely important British essayist who worked in Channel 4 and did a lot for British experimental political cinema. In Scenes for a Revolution (1991), a documentary essay, Karlin revisits the post-revolutionary Nicaragua several years after he shot there several episodes of a TV film about the revolution. Now he shows how a socialist country faces economic controversies that it cannot overcome. Even though ideology lives on and belief in revolutionary ideas is still there, these controversies, when combined with external political pressure, take over. The film takes place in 1990, simultaneously with the collapse of the entire socialist project.
K.B.: Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010) uses newsreels of the socialist Romania that recorded the entire political life of its general secretary who was eventually executed. Of course, much can be gleaned from between the frames of the official newsreel: not just what intonation the ideologized regime chose to represent itself from year to year, but what images accompanies Ceausescu’s rise as a strongman and how different type of representation stripped him of his “magical” aura of a leader almost overnight. Ujica had conducted similar visual study before, in an iconic film Videograms of a Revolution that he made together with Harun Farocki. It was screened at Message to Man two years ago and Andrei Ujica came to St Petersburg to present the film personally.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010) by Andrei Ujica
K.B.: In Disgraced Monuments (1994), filmmakers Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis analyse what happens with historic legacy and historic memory, the attitude to which rapidly changes during revolutionary events. Many countries went through total de-Sovietization; we are now witnessing this in Ukraine. The question of how to treat Soviet legacy is still open. Sometimes the film turns this into a joke, because people are the same: a sculptor who used to make the busts of Lenin now makes statues of Christ and Schwarzenegger. This film is above all about representation, because historical process was accompanied by the change of representation of anything socialist per se. Yet reflection about this process seems to be lacking even today, because we now see the erosion of internal contradictions between various periods in Soviet history and turning everything Soviet into a chimerical monolithic image that some see as a positive thing and others as a negative.
A.A.: This film is also about the remembrance policy. This is the problem that is unfolding right now and demands certain solutions. It is clear that other monuments and new ideologies replace the demolished ones. How to treat it, what place should the past take in the present – few films ask these questions.
K.B.: Just like The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Dina Karaman’s A Chronicle of the Day (2019) shows the evolution of the regime’s “official language” in cinematographic images. In this case, it deals with Soviet magazines that were published weekly from 1944 till 1992. These two works allow you to think about the reasons of the downfall and what imagery the changing regime produced.
CHRIS MARKER’S BALKAN TRILOGY
K.B.: The collapse of socialism was accompanied by ethnic conflicts; wars in Yugoslavia were one of such hotbeds. Interview films of Marker’s trilogy are valuable because he, as always, is interested in an underdog’s point of view, demonstrating different opinions.
Prime Time in the Camps (1993) by Chris Marker
Prime Time in the Camps (1993) shows an activist practice: refugees set up their own TV service in a camp, broadcasting news stories about the current military situation. They edit the materials themselves and try to objectively cover the events amid uncertainty and bias of many official media; this is again a matter of representation.
A.A.: This is a case of looking for a third position that confronts the authorities on both sides and for a political language that could share the experience of the participants of those events. Incidentally, this is important for virtually all films in the programme, even those that withdrew from the race: to find a language that can describe events and processes that are relevant to political transit and to capture what was displaced from dominating ideologemes.
K.B.: In Mayor in Kosovo (2000) we also see how the protagonist tries to uphold national identity and at the same time to fit into the greater European context. This a documentary interview with a man who went through this war and then took a political office. We see a cross-section of political views of someone who came to power, albeit local. The protagonist tries to balance: the shift from civil war to diplomacy is manifest in speech as well. He tries to shape up the political present and future of his city and region.
One of the power lines of this trilogy is the place of Kosovo, this small, relatively independent state, in the European Union. This a parallel between the ideas behind the Eastern bloc and the EU as a sort of a superstate, a political community that unites states.
Casque bleu by Chris Marker (1995)
In Casque bleu (“Blue Helmet”, 1995) the protagonist, a UN peacekeeper, talks about his experience. We see what ideological framework surrounded his peacekeeping mission. It is not always nice. The film reveals the mechanisms of war and ideology that accompanied that particular conflict from different sides. Official peacekeeping rhetoric collides with numerous national prejudices of both peacekeepers and soldiers of the warring states.
LITHUANIA, JONAS MEKAS
A.A.: In Lithuania and the Collapse of USSR (2009), Jonas Mekas films on his hand camera the TV news that he watches in the USA as a Lithuanian emigrant. This film is special because it depicts how the US covered Lithuanian secession from the USSR and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Mekas himself suggests treating it as a classical Greek tragedy, when irrational will of a protagonist can challenge destiny; an interesting attempt to dramatize history. This film is a romantic work in a truly cultural meaning of Romanticism. We forget that we have an intermediary, a living mediator of this observation process that sometimes lets himself be known by adding his personal feelings to the film’s fabric. All this brings us closer to history as something elevated.
Second part of this Freud Museum-based exhibition dedicated to Mekas is a six-hour-long interview that he gave to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum several months before his death. Mekas gives a detailed account of his childhood in a Lithuanian village and adolescence, first under Soviet authority and then under German occupation; his resistance, both activist and artistic (he wrote poems) to these political hegemons.
A.A.: The programme will be accompanied once more by an academic conference that will take place on September 21 in European University. Its task is to understand the collapse of socialism, its causes, effects and lessons. Conference attendants include Artemy Magun, a philosopher; Vyacheslav Morozov, a political expert; Ilya Budraitskis, a historian; and Thomas Heise, the author of Material. We greatly appreciate his viewpoint as a practitioner and a participant of the events who experienced them to the east of the Wall, on one hand, and as a professor of Academy of Fine Arts Vienna who teaches how documentary cinema can be political and what its tasks are in terms of creating historical images.
Most of the films in the programme will be screened in Russia for the first time.