Until the early 2000s, fans of Eastern European cinema relied on the slimmest of pickings: festival cherry-picks and even rarer repertory screenings and television outings, plus ongoing coverage of a tiny number of high-profile filmmakers.
It wasn’t until the DVD revolution that it became possible to sample a much wider range, and although UK streaming services can’t yet match physical media for breadth of coverage, the number of titles currently available online runs into triple figures, albeit with a strong bias towards films made in the last decade (only about 20% of what’s on offer dates from the 20th century).
Within its relatively narrow Eastern European selection, Netflix favours Polish and Romanian films, although more than half of the latter group is made up of recent romantic comedies by Cristina Jacob. But there are also two cast-iron classics in Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005; also on BFI Player) and Aurora (2010) – the first being the film that brought the Romanian New Wave to international attention, no doubt because its story of a dying man passing through the various stages of the Romanian healthcare system had such universal relevance.
Given the platform’s usual blindspot for older cinema, Netflix’s Polish output is strikingly biased towards the 1970s and 80s. Surprisingly, given the grim popular image of Polish cinema, two of the best examples are comedies: Marek Piwowski’s delightful The Cruise (1970), in which a couple of disreputable stowaways on a cruise ship are mistaken for officials, and Wojciech Marczewski’s anti-censorship satire Escape from the Liberty Cinema (1990), in which a film censor is confronted by on-screen actors rebelling against the compromised dross they’re appearing in.
Much more recently, Maria Sadowska’s The Art of Loving (2017) is a hugely entertaining biopic of the real-life author of Poland’s first graphic sex manual, which had to run the twin gauntlets of communist and Catholic scrutiny prior to publication.
Fans of Czech cinema are particularly well-served on Amazon Prime, which offers more than 60 titles either for rent or for subscribers, plus numerous films from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia and Slovenia. Delving through everything on offer here is a major research job in itself, not least thanks to the presence of many recent titles that have had little English-friendly exposure outside festivals.
An eye-catching selection could include Snow White and Russian Red (2009), Xawery (son of Andrzej) Zulawski’s gleefully surreal assault on contemporary Poland; Wojciech Smarzowski’s Clergy (2018), a mammoth domestic hit that lays bare misdeeds within the Catholic church; Lukasz Palkowski’s rousing biopics Gods (2014) and Breaking the Limit (2017) – about, respectively, pioneering cardiac surgeon Zbigniew Religa and junkie turned champion triathlete Jerzy Górski – and Pawel Pawlikowski’s triumphant return to his birth country with Ida (2013; also on BFI Player) and Cold War (2018).
The Czech range sadly omits most New Wave classics, but it offers other pleasures, including Borivoj Zeman’s fairytale Once upon a Time There Was a King (1953), Oldrich Lipský’s wacky musical western Lemonade Joe (1964) and carnivorous-plant-based fantasy Adele Has Not Had Her Supper Yet (1978).
The last of these features an instantly recognisable creation by the great Jan Svankmajer, whose own features are also well represented: Alice (1988), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Lunacy (2005) and Surviving Life (2010). And if one of the greatest of all Czech films, Jirí Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966), isn’t currently streaming in the UK, lesser-known Menzel/Bohumil Hrabal collaborations such as Snowdrop Festival (1983) and Larks on a String (1969) can be found here, along with Menzel’s Oscar-nominated My Sweet Little Village (1985).
Other countries are represented by a handful of titles, with standouts including Rainer Sarnet’s Guy Maddin-esque November (Estonia, 2017), Cristian Mungiu’s riveting illegal-abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania, 2007), Srdan Dragojevic’s pro-LGBTIQ+ comedy-drama The Parade (Serbia, 2011) and Andrea Staka’s Fräulein (Bosnia, 2006), about the complex relationship between exiles of different generations.
BFI Player offers a spread of canonical titles, notably from Hungary, Poland, Romania and from the era of the Czech New Wave. The most prominent Czech filmmaker is the formidably inventive feminist surrealist Vera Chytilová, represented by the bulk of her 1960s output, including her first three features (Something Different, 1963; Daisies, 1966; Fruit of Paradise, 1969) and the early mini-feature A Bagful of Fleas (1962). There’s also Ivan Passer’s lovely chamber piece Intimate Lighting (1965), a favourite of both Milos Forman and Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Juraj Herz’s riveting black comedy The Cremator (1969).
Its Polish output is more diverse, ranging from Wojciech Has’s mind-bending Chinese-box narrative The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) and Walerian Borowczyk’s only Polish feature, The Story of Sin (1975), to much more recent titles. These include Malgorzata Szumowska’s Mug (2018), a Christ-inspired parable about a man who undergoes Poland’s first full-face transplant; Adrian Panek’s gripping Werewolf (2018), about Second World War survivors besieged by starving dogs; and Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones (2019), a biopic of the Welsh journalist who tried to break the news about the Stalin-engineered Ukrainian famine.
There are also what are still very rare examples of Polish LGBTIQ+ films: Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers (2013) and Olga Chajdas’s Nina (2018).
From Hungary, Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love (1974) filters Greek myth and ritual theatre through his unique visual and choreographical sensibility, with just 12 takes but hundreds of human and equine performers. Ildikó Enyedi’s visually and conceptually dazzling My 20th Century (1989) follows two identical twins as they negotiate the turn of the 20th century in their own distinctive way: one a revolutionary anarchist, the other an alluring courtesan.
Much more recently, Kornél Mundruczó’s White God (2014) is one of the great recent films about man’s inhumanity to his notional best friend (the film’s protagonist is Hagen the dog), while László Nemes’ wrenching Son of Saul (2015) demonstrated that the cinema could still find something new to say about the Holocaust, in this case from the viewpoint of an extermination camp inmate charged with cleaning up afterwards.
From Romania, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012), a bleak study of women trapped by their religion, rubs shoulders with Radu Jude’s extraordinary Aferim! (2015), which imposes the language of the western on to the tale of the hunt for a gypsy slave in 1830s Wallachia.
Mubi offers a handful of rentals, including Ildikó Enyedi’s award-winning On Body and Soul (2017) and Tomás Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s I, Olga (2016), the latter an unnervingly confrontational study of the psychology of Czechoslovakia’s most notorious female mass murderer. However, their Eastern European selection is dominated by eight films by Krzysztof Zanussi, from his 1969 debut The Structure of Crystal to 2009’s Revisited. Meanwhile, Curzon Home Cinema offers Corneliu Porumboiu’s deadpan Police, Adjective (2009).
Keep your eye out, too, for initiatives such as the Hungarian National Film Archive offering a free selection of major Hungarian classics (many, although not all, with English subtitles) for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak. The complete list is here, and includes such major masterpieces as István Szöts’ Men on the Alps (1942), a huge influence on the Italian neorealists, Miklós Jancsó’s magnificent The Round-up (1966), which first unveiled its director’s unique, long-take style, plus essential works by such key figures as Gábor Bódy, Zoltán Fábri, István Gaál, Károly Makk, Márta Mészáros and István Szabó.
You can’t go wrong with any of those, but there are also striking lesser-known works in the form of Ferenc Kósa’s Ten Thousand Suns (1967), which proves that Jancsó wasn’t Hungarian cinema’s only master of widescreen composition, and Pál Gábor’s Angi Vera (1979), a big arthouse hit in its day that deserves reappraisal, not least because a central storyline about a nurse protesting hospital working conditions in the late 1940s could hardly be more topical right now.
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Originally published: 22 April 2020