From Eastern Europe to the West
The Eastern bloc’s new artistic freedom is having two happy effects: eminent emigres are being lured back home to make movies, and some of the legendary titles made in the pre-glasnost era are about to get to the West.
Subtitled versions of two Czech classics banned after the Prague Spring will hit the American market this year: Oscar-winning director Ji?i Menzel’s Larks on a String, a love story set in a labor camp, and Karel Kachnyna’s The Ear, described by one critic as ”a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which the marriage busts up over a bugging device.”
Andrzej Wadja, director of Man of Iron, the 1980 pro-Solidarity film, plans a documentary on Stalin’s notorious massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest in 1940.
Krzysztof Zanussi, who directed A Year of the Quiet Sun (1985), a dazzling film about an affair between an American soldier and a Polish woman who speaks no English, is now in Poland filming The Touch, a joint production with Polish, British, and possibly French and Swiss backers. The movie is a ”metaphysical comedy about an aging Hungarian composer in Switzerland visited by a young Polish student,” he says.
Few of the earliest bloc-rock recordings,by such legendary underground bands as the Plastic People of the Universe, Dead Scab Formation, Perfect, and One Million Bulgarians (from Poland, naturally), are available in the States. Still, American record stores do offer an impressive sampling of bloc pop, from Yugoslavian heavy metal to Bulgarian punk to Czech electronic-drone bands.
There’s the funky, Coltrane-inspired jazz of clarinetist Papasov (Orpheus Ascending, on Hannibal Records), the electronic march of Laibach (the band’s complete remake of the Beatles’ Let It Be, on the Mute label), and the stirring folk-rock of Hungary’s Muzsikas (Prisoner’s Song, Hannibal).
Some Eastern European acts are even touring. Up next is the Czech industrial-noise band Borghesia (known for such songs as Surveillance and Punishment) in April, and Papasov, in June and July.
With so many doors open to bloc bands, many may wonder whether Eastern European popular music, stripped of some of its rebellious image, will turn conventional. One recent hit in Bulgaria, Tangra’s Badi Kakvto Si (Be What You Are), calls on young Bulgarians to imitate Western music and fashion.
American publishers are making a heavy investment in Eastern bloc literature. Some of these works were in progress before the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe; others have been inspired by recent events.
Vaclav Havel has two books in stores now: Letters to Olga (Henry Holt & Co., $16.95), his jail correspondence with his wife, and a collection of essays, Vaclav Havel: Or Living in Truth (Faber and Faber, paper, $8.95). Due in June is his autobiographical ”self-interview,” Long Distance Interrogation (Alfred A. Knopf, $22.95).
Former political prisoner Nicholas Dima writes about Romania’s Stalinist nightmare and his own escape from it in Journey to Freedom (Selous Foundation Press, $16.10), published last month. Dima’s book is just the beginning of a major Romanian literary movement, says émigré author Andrei Codrescu, an essayist on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. ”There is a whole generation of writers who intentionally did not publish in the official press. They called themselves the ‘for-the-drawer generation’ — but their works are ready to come out. There will be a wave of realistic novels, novels of the Romanian horrors.”
Milorad Pavic, the Yugoslav author of the bizarre 1988 Serbo-Croatian novel The Dictionary of the Khazars (an elaborate work about an imaginary 7th-century nomadic people), has a new novel this month called Landscape Painted With Tea (Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95).
Next month Carolyn Kizer, Richard Wilbur, and other major American poets take a crack at translating Romanian poet Nina Cassian in Life Sentence (W.W. Norton, $17.95).
Coming in July: Bohin Manor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.95), a 19th- century historical romance with political overtones by Poland’s Tadeusz Konwicki.
One night 16 years ago, Vaclav Havel sat down in his pal Pavel Landovsky’s dining room in Prague to read aloud Havel’s new play Audience. But there was no audience. The play’s raucous, comic assault on the authorities ensured it would be banned.
On Nov. 29 of last year, the Actors Studio in New York staged a modest production of Audience. On Dec. 29, Havel became Czechoslovakia’s president. On Jan. 8, the Actors Studio did the show again in Prague, and two days later a second production in Czech starred Landovsky. At last, Havel got to see his play, and now you will too. PBS plans to air the English version (and a documentary on Havel’s improbable life) in April.
Another promising production is coming up on PBS from Czech director Jan Nemec, who shot the footage of the 1968 Soviet invasion used in the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being. His PBS documentary profiles Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish émigré poet; The Poet Remembers airs April 27.
The most eagerly awaited video release by an Eastern-bloc director now is Yugoslavian Rajko Grlic’s That Summer of White Roses, due from Media Home Video Entertainment in July. It won the Grand Prize at last year’s Tokyo Film Festival and will be screened theatrically at the San Francisco Film Festival in May. Tom Conti stars as a lifeguard who saves a Nazi (Rod Steiger) during World War II and earns the townspeople’s wrath.
But most of the current Eastern-bloc video imports of note are from the Soviet Union. The International Film Exchange (IFEX), the New York film and video distributor that brought Little Vera to the U.S., offers a range of Soviet (and many other foreign) titles: Oblomov, the film of Ivan Goncharov’s wonderful novel about Russia’s most famous couch potato; Scarecrow, Rolan Bykov’s study of children’s cruelty to one another (the most popular Soviet movie of 1985); and Karen Shakhnazarov’s Jazzman, a fictional history of an art form suppressed by officials who felt improvisation had no place in the land of the Five-Year Plan.
Many video stores also stock something intriguing from other bloc filmmakers: Look for Jiři Menzel’s Oscar-winner Closely Watched Trains, a droll comedy about lust and idleness at a World War II Czech train station, and Krzysztof Zanussi’s A Year of the Quiet Sun.