Eastern Europe at TIFF13. Films reviewed: The Burning Bush, Ida, Le Grand Cahier
Eastern Europe used to have a specific meaning — not so much geographical as political. It meant the countries behind the iron curtain. Western Europe was allied with the US, Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union. And it meant the barrier to those scary “Asiatic” hordes waiting to swarm, en masse, across Western Europe to enslave us all.
Now, though, there is no eastern Europe anymore. Just Europe. Maybe mittel-Europe if you want to be fancy about it. But the old Eastern Europe lives on in the minds and films of the countries that suffered the brunt of two World Wars, and both Nazi and Stalinist occupations.
So, this week I’m looking at some really good movies, all from Eastern Europe, all from TIFF. They come from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary: all historical dramas, two set in the 1960s and one in 1944.
Dir: Agnieszka Holland
In January, 1969, Jan Palach – a history student at Prague’s Charles University – walks into Wenceslaus square with a bucket. He pours the liquid all over himself then sets himself on fire. He’s rushed to a hospital to treat his burns, but is barely alive. He immediately becomes a symbol of Czech opposition to the invasion of the country by Russian tanks to crush the short-lived Prague Spring.
The Party overlords want his story silenced, or the narrative stripped of any political significance. The Czech investigator looking into the case doesn’t want the Russians to impose martial law. His political allies at the university – students and some professors – want his story told. And his family – his older brother and his mother, the ticket seller at a remote train station – are devastated when they discover what happens.
But when a privileged party hack makes the papers when he states Jan Palach not only was working for the west, but never intended to burn himself alive. Jan’s steadfast mother decides to sue the man who made the speech, with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, a woman, and a young idealistic university student. But the wrath of the party is let loose all around the main characters, with midnight phone calls, men in black cars parked outside their homes, and mysterious disappearances.
The Burning Bush is an epic, four-hour-long story, (originally made as a Czech mini-series, in four, one-hour parts.) It has many diverse plot lines and dozens of characters. It alternates between the hope Jan Palach’s action inspired, and the dread of authoritarian rule that fought against him and his allies.
But it stands up beautifully all-together. The director, the renowned Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier, In Darkness) follows this gripping story all the way through. It had me glued to the screen.
Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) was an orphaned baby in WWII Poland, left at a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows, become a nun, but Mother Superior insists first she speak to her only known relative, her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). But why?
Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz.
And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, though she seems to have lost her status. And she’s Jewish.
Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: Jews who died in the war have no graves! But the two of them head out to the small town. The family that took over their home stonewalls them and says Jews never lived there. But does he know what happened to her parents? Never heard of them.
Wanda delves deeper. Ida starts to discover her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – Ida is just like her sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). She has to decide between cosmopolitan urban Poland and a cloistered life behind the walls.
Ida is beautifully shot in black and white on a 4×3 frame (not widescreen) like old TV shows. Each scene stylized. It’s only 80 minutes long, but has everything it needs. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist. The two actresses – the two Agatas – as the naïve teen and her world-weary aunt are both fantastic, with fine rapport as their relationship gradually changes. This is a great movie – beautiful to look at, moving to watch.
Dir: János Szász (based on the novel by Agota Kristov)
A soldier and his wife live in a big city (Budapest?) with their twin boys (András and László Gyémánt). Life is beautiful. Then suddenly, boom! it’s 1944, and the Germans are moving in, taking over Hungary. So they send the twins off to stay with the wife’s estranged mother in a remote farm, to keep them safe. It’s wartime, their dad says, everything’s different. He gives the a big black ledger – the Grand Cahier of the title – and they promise to record everything that happens.
Grandmother – fat, gruff, unmannered – is known as the witch by the locals. She has no friends, and takes care of the farm all by herself. “I’ll put them to work – they don’t eat for free.” The twins – dressed in navy peacoats and clean white shirts — are terrified by the evil witch. They have one book to read – the bible – but they use it for memorization and grammar skills not for prayers.
The boys decide in order to survive the war they have to be impervious to pain, hunger, and remorse. They refuse food from Grandmother, and take turns punching and hitting each other to see who can endure the most.
They start to meet people. There’s a girl they call harelip (Orsolya Tóth) — who teaches them how to steal. A kindly Jewish shoemaker gives them boots. Then there’s the corrupt deacon at the church and his lascivious secretary – she introduces them to the adult world but they recoil from her black heart. And a gay Nazi officer, fascinated when he sees the twins punching each other. The twins record it all, good and bad.
They witness the wartime atrocities and start to kill: first insects, working their way up the food chain. Will they become killers themselves, just like the people around them? Or will they retain a sense of morality?
Le Grand Cahier is an amazing, rich, and disturbing coming-of-age story, told through the twins’ eyes. The two boys — undifferentiated, nameless — give a mythical, novelistic view of wartime life under the Nazi occupation. The movie follows them until the end of the war, in a gripping unexpected adventure. You should see this one when it comes out.
The Burning Bush, Ida, and Le Grand Cahier, all played at TIFF13 – keep an eye open for these three films. Also worth mentioning are two movies whose titles are self-explanatory. A documentary about a dissident theatrical troop that uses its performances to challenge the authoritarian Belarus government: Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler); and a drama about an Australian woman who discovers the hotel in Serbian Bosnia she slept in was the site of unspeakable war crimes: For Those Who Can Tell no Tales, (Jasmila Zbanic, who previously directed the excellent Grbavica (2006).)
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com