Artists helped bring freedom to Eastern Europe. Will they keep it? And how with they use it?

It was even weirder than 200 Motels. There was erstwhile underground rocker Frank Zappa, smoking a cigarette with erstwhile avant-garde playwright — and now president of Czechoslavkia — Vaclav Havel. Were they discussing the breakup of the Soviet Empire? No. The desperate ecomonic condition of Eastern Europe? Not exactly. How about Bongo Fury, Zappa’s album with Captain Beefhart, and whether the Rolling Stones and Joan Baez will play during Havel’s coming (political) tour of the United States? You bet. Suzy Creamcheese, what’s got into you?

Necessity, like Zappa, is a mother of invention, and these days nobody is more inventive — or has greater necessity to be — than the former Soviet satellites now spinning away under varying degrees of control. Like the nationalist revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, which brought musicians such as Richard Wagner into the streets, the revolution of 1989 was also a revolt of artists, one that took Havel from a prison cell to the presidential palace in a few breathtaking months and said to a generation of writers and musicians: Just do it.

Of course, there have always been unsuppressible artistic movements in central Europe: Polish avant-garde music, Czech literature, even Hungarian rock & roll. But now there is legal freedom; censorship has been officially abolished. In theory, artists are free to write, paint, sing, and make films as they like.

Typewriters in Romania once had to be registered with the government. No longer. In Czechoslovakia, it used to be illegal to own a camera, says emigre director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). ”Now any Czech can go make his own movie.”

But are Eastern European artists really as free as their counterparts in the West? Can the dead hand of Stalinism be overturned so quickly?

A good place to start asking these questions is among entertainers and artists in Budapest, Hungary, and East Berlin.

A couple of years ago, the Hungarian director Zoltan Kamondi, 36, was 17 days into shooting a feature film called The Stop in the Subconscious (as in bus stop; it makes more sense in Hungarian) when authorities shut down production, saying it was too expensive. The real reason, Kamondi says, was political: The story — which examined the deteriorating inner world of a man, fatally injured in an accident and suspended for a few seconds between life and death — hit close to home. ”You saw his world dying around him,” says Kamondi, a black-bearded bear of a man, ”and that was a little too dangerous.” Shot in the ruins of an old hotel, the film features an Indiana Jones-like hero, replete with slouch hat and gun, wandering through a world of wrecked Jewish cemeteries, feral children, and celebrating dwarfs. Kamondi salvaged what he could, completed postproduction, and shows the movie now as a fragment.

By contrast, Kamondi’s most recent film, Parallel Metabolism (memo to Zoltan: Gotta work on those titles), had no trouble at all. A nonnarrative, it counterpoints the water-closet weltanschauung of a public-toilet attendant with the performance-art drama of a naked woman, smeared with mud, trapped in a large glass case, and struggling furiously — and unavailingly — to get out. ”Hungary is a toilet,” says the attendant, while the frightened and enraged woman pounds against her prison. We get the message.

”In a sense, repression was good for us,” Kamondi says, giving voice to a widespread belief among the artists of Eastern Europe, who are now trying to decide how to deal with the fall of the antagonist they loved to hate. ”We had a special language,” he says, ”but we didn’t enjoy it.”

But even though the Hungarian government has repudiated censorship, the apparatchiks who run the country’s cultural institutions are mostly still around. ”Censorship at the top is gone now,” Kamondi says, ”but it has been pushed down to a lower level. Just today I had a meeting with a studio head for a new film I want to do about the Hungarian uprising of 1956. He turned me down. What we have now is internal censorship.”

Others echo his sentiments. ”The same people are still leading the cultural life of Hungary,” says Laszlo Melis, 36, a violinist and composer who plays with the adventurous Group 180 (the number refers to the average height, in centimeters, of the members of the chamber orchestra), known for its performances of the minimalist music of Steve Reich. ”Freedom only seems to be freedom. For the time being, I would call it an illusion.”

Until the promised free elections in Hungary and East Germany in March, no one is quite sure which way the political wind is blowing.