10 great modern black-and-white films from eastern Europe

Masterpieces of monochrome – from Béla Tarr to Pawel Pawlikowski, directors from eastern Europe have made some of the most extraordinary black-and-white films of recent times.

3 September 2020

By Michael Brooke

The Painted Bird (2019)

This year, 2 extraordinary eastern European testaments to the power of black-and-white cinematography have arrived in the UK. First came the long-awaited Blu-ray edition of Béla Tarr’s legendary 7-hour masterpiece Sátántangó (1994) – though rare screenings planned for spring and early summer, like so many things in 2020, had to be cancelled.

Now comes the delayed cinema and digital release of Václav Marhoul’s 3-hour adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s notorious 1965 novel The Painted Bird, the harrowing story of a Jewish boy’s search for sanctuary through the forests of war-torn Europe.

It’s impossible to imagine either film in colour. Indeed, one of the reasons why The Painted Bird took so long to get off the ground was Marhoul’s adamant insistence that it could only be filmed in black and white. It comes as little surprise that 2 of his key visual influences were Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) and František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967), textbook examples of the potency of widescreen monochrome imagery.

Over the last 3 decades, films from behind the former Iron Curtain have revived the art of black-and-white cinematography surprisingly regularly given the commercial challenges. If it wasn’t for the rule that dictates that the 10 films listed below should be reasonably accessible to British readers, the work of György Fehér (Twilight, 1990; Passion, 1998), Attila Janisch (Shadow on the Snow, 1992) and Ildikó Szabó (Child Murders, 1993) would be rubbing shoulders here with Tarr’s films, as would Piotr Dumała’s later The Forest (2008) and Ederly (2015).  

But what’s especially encouraging about this list is that only one of the filmmakers cited below, Andrzej Wajda, actually came of age when black and white was all but universal. Everyone else is adopting the style for purely aesthetic reasons, in splendid defiance of what audiences are supposed to prefer.

Korczak (1990)

Director: Andrzej Wajda

Korczak (1990)

Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), born Henryk Goldszmit, was a children’s writer, broadcaster and paediatrician who devoted the final years of his life to running an orphanage in Warsaw, vowing to defend its 200 Jewish children even to the point of knowingly accompanying them to their death.

Andrzej Wajda’s first post-communist film was also his first in black and white since the 1960s, but Robby Müller’s cinematography is a perfect fit for a gravely solemn treatment of Korczak’s story that deftly avoids both sentimentality and exploitation of Holocaust horror. Veteran Wajda leading man Wojciech Pszoniak (Danton) is faced with the considerable dramatic challenge of portraying someone whose biography makes him seem almost impossibly good, but rises to the occasion with aplomb. Steven Spielberg was so impressed by the film that he hired some of Wajda’s crew (notably production designer Allan Starski) to make Schindler’s List (1993), and took a very similar stylistic approach.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Director: Béla Tarr

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Although considerably shorter at a mere 145 minutes, Béla Tarr’s next feature after Sátántangó announces its thematic weightiness from the start, as its protagonist János (Lars Rudolph) constructs a working model of the solar system, its moving bodies made up of drunkards in a bar. His equally visionary friend György is obsessed with the work of Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706), creator of the equal tempered scale and consequently, according to György, responsible for the world’s subsequent harmonic imbalance.

But it’s not the philosophical arguments that the viewer will remember so much as the images, of the giant whale in the town square, the marrow-chilling climax of a riot in a hospital, the Brownian motion of immense and anonymous crowds. No fewer than 7 cinematographers are credited, a legacy of the protracted 4-year shoot, but the film as a whole is as tonally controlled as if it had been shot in a single take.

A Wonderful Night in Split (2004)

Director: Arsen Anton Ostojić

A Wonderful Night in Split (2004)

The Croatian port town of Split is one of the most beautiful in south-east Europe, hence the decision to shoot these 3 interlocking tales of sex, drugs and senseless death in black and white. Cinematographer Mirko Pivčević’s images strongly (and presumably intentionally) recall the streets and shadows of The Third Man’s Vienna.

US rapper Coolio makes a surprise appearance (the cast is otherwise Croatian) as an American sailor to whom a local junkie prostitutes herself in exchange for a desperately needed fix. Elsewhere, a plan to double-cross a drug dealer is inadvertently (and fatally) thwarted by a small boy, while a young couple’s plan to have sex for the first time against a backdrop of New Year fireworks turns nightmarish when they impulsively decide to stir hallucinogenic drugs into the mix. It would be easy to guess that writer-director Arsen Anton Ostojić was a Hitchcock and Tarantino fan even without him obligingly confirming it in interviews.

Alois Nebel (2011)

Director: Tomáš Luňák

Alois Nebel (2011)

The Czech Republic’s answer to such notably intelligent animated features as Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008), Alois Nebel was adapted from a trilogy of graphic novels by Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99 and spans decades of Czech history, from the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans after the Second World War to the Velvet Revolution.

The title character is a stationmaster in a remote rural outpost, happy to have his life regulated by timetables drawn up by others, the better to forget disturbing past events such as a rape. The fact that Nebel is mentally not all there causes both the narrative and the imagery to fissure and dislocate, with much recourse to fog (‘nebel’ in German).  Director Tomáš Luňák and his team animated on top of rotoscoped footage of actors, including Miroslav Krobot, who a few years earlier had played the lead in Béla Tarr’s equally monochrome The Man from London (2007).

Papusza (2013)

Directors: Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze

Papusza (2013)

Papusza is a fascinating biopic of Bronisława Wajs (1908-1987), perhaps the most famous of all Roma poets, though she achieved her status at immense personal cost. She grew up in a nomadic community that discouraged writing and education as being unwanted outside influences, with her mother regarding it as no good for anything other than witchcraft. 

When Wajs (Jowita Budnik), nicknamed ‘Papusza’ (Romany for ‘doll’), was discovered and her work published by the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki) in the late 1940s (the film spans half a century), she became further estranged from her community. She was deemed to have betrayed her culture’s ancient secrets, despite her protestation that she only ever intended to write for herself. 

Paying as much attention to song as to speech, Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze’s haunting film is immeasurably enhanced by Krzysztof Ptak and Wojciech Staron’s black-and-white cinematography, which is particularly sensitive to the power of rural landscape.

Aferim! (2015)

Director: Radu Jude

Aferim! (2015)

If you imagine a typical 21st-century Romanian film, it would most likely be shot in colour, set in either the present day or the Ceaușescu era, and be either an intense psychological drama or ultra-deadpan comedy. It will most likely not be a black-and-white widescreen quasi-western road movie set in early 19th-century Wallachia with a title that roughly translates as ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Attaboy!’ 

This is one of many reasons why Radu Jude’s fourth feature was such a pleasant surprise. Another is that it’s sensationally entertaining, a particularly unexpected quality in a film set against a backdrop of a brutally divided, still overwhelmingly feudal society that functions on the back of the enslavement of its ethnic minorities. Much of the fun is down to a running commentary of bizarre and often nonsensical folk wisdom from constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) as he and his trainee son are charged with tracking down a gypsy runaway who’s been sentenced to death.

I, Olga (2016)

Directors: Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb

I, Olga (2016)

The full Czech title, I, Olga Hepnarová, is broadly equivalent to I, Myra Hindley in terms of local demonology, following an incident on 10 July 1973 in which Hepnarová deliberately drove a truck into a bus queue, killing 8 people. With the premeditated nature of the crime underscored by her sending a nihilistic personal manifesto to 2 newspapers beforehand, she would become the last Czech woman to be executed by the state. 

Directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb are less interested in the crime itself, however, than in exploring her mental state over the decade leading up to it. The film’s black-and-white images (by Polish cinematographer Adam Sikora) reinforce the notion that we’re watching things through her own tunnel-vision perspective. It’s almost as though she’s deliberately drained all colour from a vision of the world that’s dominated by one of the cinema’s most vivid portraits of primal disgust since Repulsion (1965) half a century earlier.

November (2017)

Director: Rainer Sarnet

November (2017)

Inspired by ancient Estonian folklore (filtered through Andrus Kivirähk’s bestselling novel), which director Rainer Sarnet infuses with more than a touch of Guy Maddin, this spellbindingly bonkers film ostensibly concerns a standard-issue romantic tangle: betrothed to a pig farmer, peasant girl Liina loves village boy Hans, but Hans in turn has romantic aspirations far higher up the social scale. Both of them resort to ancient pagan magic to achieve their goals, with the usual unpredictable and uncontrollable results, seen most memorably here in the ‘kratts’, creatures constructed from random bric-a-brac that spring to sinister life when the devil imbues them with a soul. 

Sarnet and cinematographer Mart Taniel drench their extraordinary images in brilliant white light to a degree that (presumably consciously) invokes Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent horror classic Vampyr (1932). There’s also more than a touch of Ingmar Bergman and indeed Robert Eggers’ similarly conviction-driven The Witch (2016) in the masterly control of place and mood.

Cold War (2018)

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Cold War (2018)

After decades in the UK and France, Paweł Pawlikowski triumphantly returned to the country of his birth to make Ida (2013), Poland’s first best foreign language film Oscar winner after 6 decades of being a regular bridesmaid. Shot not only in black and white but also in Academy ratio, both Ida and the more ambitious Cold War feel thrillingly alien, textually identical to but contextually wholly different from classic 1950s Polish cinema in a way that recalls Jorge Luis Borges’s Pierre Menard and his rewrite of Don Quixote. 

Inspired by Pawlikowski’s own parents’ turbulent romance, Cold War traces the on-off relationship between pianist-conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and folk singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) across Poland, East Germany, Yugoslavia and finally France.  Almost any frame of Łukasz Żal’s immaculately lit (and Oscar-nominated) cinematography could be enlarged for a gallery wall, and the tragic final scene is a textbook example of the kind of essentialism favoured by French director Robert Bresson: a handful of stark, simple shots containing everything that we need without spelling anything out. 

Mr T (2019)

Director: Marcin Krzyształowicz

Mr T (2019)

Superficially similar to Cold War in that it’s also a black-and-white film with a post-war setting, but strikingly different in other respects, Marcin Krzyształowicz’s witty, playful film was released to some controversy in Poland. It was assumed (although Kryształowicz denies this) to have been based on the life of writer Leopold Tyrmand (1920-85), whose diary of life under Stalinism is one of the era’s most vivid documents. 

Unable to publish after angering the authorities, the writer ‘Mr T’ (Paweł Wilczak) scrapes a living through teaching. At the same time, he concocts a literary exercise about a terrorist plot to blow up Warsaw’s then-new Palace of Science and Culture, which is something that the secret police take a little too seriously. The film flits blithely between fantasy and reality – did Mr T really get away with pissing on the shoes of Poland’s Stalinist president Bolesław Bierut? – while Adam Bajerski’s cinematography brilliantly evokes the Kafkaesque environment of the Polish capital in the early 1950s.

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