Reflections, impressions, opinions

Slovak film and its Central European identity in a world of change

The history of Slovak film or of Slovak national cinema enrooted in the Central European context is not very long. In its beginnings, Slovak film was doomed to serve as an institutional, professional and technological base for other countries, above all Bohemia and Germany.

Later, when in 1918–1939 and 1945–1992 Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia, Slovak film was largely perceived as being part of Czechoslovak cinema. Its emancipation was gradual; and it is worth taking a look at the cultural contexts it invoked.
Before 1918, in the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Slovak film industry virtually did not exist. It was largely limited to distribution and operating cinemas, while film production itself was very modest in number and dispersed.1 In the interwar Czechoslovak Republic, Czech and foreign films were made in Slovak locations. The best known example isNosferatu by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, shot, amongst other places, in Orava Castle. Later, Slovakia was filmed by the Czech ethnographer and musician Karel Plicka; in his motion pictures Za slovenským ľudom (Among the Slovak people, 1928), Po horách, po dolách (Through the mountains, through the valleys, 1929) and especiallyZem spieva (The earth is singing,1933) he presented its folk culture, often reconstructing it.
The first Slovak film with actors, Jánošík (1921) by the Siakel brothers, was in a way also foreign: shot and produced by émigrés in America and first shown in Slovakia many years later. During the 1930s, Slovak cinema came under the aegis of Czech filmmakers. Even if themes and actors came from Slovakia, directors and cameramen were Czech. Even the first major Slovak filmmaker, Paľo Bielik, started his career as an actor in Jánošík (1935) by the Czech director Martin Frič. His directing debut was during the period of the independent Slovak State, when Slovak cinema relied ideologically, and also to a large extent technologically, on the German Reich. Although the first popular-science documentaries by Bielik, as opposed to the propaganda documentary Od Tatier po Azovské more (From the Tatras to the Azov Sea,1942) directed by Ivan Kovačevič, didn’t draw their inspiration from the rhetoric of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, shot for Hitler and celebrating Nazism, he also learned his craft not only from Czech but also from German professionals.2
After the Second World War foreign production still served as a model but the artists changed ideological camp: Ján Kadár’s first work – which he made as a self-taught director – called Na troskách vyrastá život (Life is growing on ruins,1945) and accompanied by a propagandist commentary, was inspired by the American army series Why we fight.3 Slightly later, in the 1950s, films glorifying the builders of socialism and usually modelled on Soviet cinema, dominated in Slovakia.

A still from the film "Birds, Orphans and Fools", directed by Juraj Jakubisko © Vladimír Vavrek, Slovenský filmový ústav – Fotoarchív

But the context of postwar Slovak cinema is above all Czechoslovak rather than Soviet. When Czechoslovakia was reborn in 1945, President Beneš nationalised the film industry and in 1948 the Československý štátny film company, with its headquarters in Prague, was established. Slovakia didn’t have the necessary infrastructure or even its own filmmakers, so again it was the Czechs who shot films in Slovakia, with Slovak actors and in Slovak locations. Film studios and laboratories on Bratislava’s Koliba – the hill where practically all Slovak cinema was concentrated – were built from 1949 to 1953. Until then, films were made in so called pocket studios with provisional equipment.4
But since the 1950s, Slovak filmmakers have been studying at the Prague FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts)*, and as the number of graduates grew, this Czechoslovak context of Slovak cinema became ever more evident. It had its culmination in the early 1960s, when the Czechoslovak New Wave entered the scene, featuring not only Czech but also Slovak artists. Štefan Uher, Peter Solan and later the powerful trio of Juraj Jakubisko – Dušan Hanák – Elo Havetta are perhaps not so well-known as Miloš Forman, Vera Chytilová, Evald Schorm or Jan Němec, but no less interesting. We should also not forget about Slovak directors active in the Czech film community, such as Juraj Herz, director of The Cremator (Spaľovač mŕtvol,1968) or – until he emigrated to the United States of America in 1969 – Ján Kadár, awarded the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1965 for The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze), made in tandem with the Czech director Elmar Klose.**
In the 1960s, and especially during the 1968 liberalisation, the context of Slovak cinema acquired a clearly international character. More foreign films were shown in Czechoslovakia and served Slovak filmmakers as a source of inspiration. The intimate drama by Peter Solan Before Tonight Is Over (Kým sa skončí táto noc, 1965) or Juraj Jakubisko’s debut The Prime of Life (Kristove roky, 1965) draw on the foreign impulses of New Wave. In 1968, thanks to the contacts and activities of Albert Marenčin, one of the artistic directors of the Bratislava Koliba, and thanks to the favourable social and political situation, cooperation was started with many cinema and television production companies from abroad; the most faithful partner of Slovak cinema was the Paris studio Como Films.5 Slovak films were no longer exclusively made in domestic “co-production” with the Barrandov in Prague and using a mixed Czech-Slovak crew; international film crews and financial resources from abroad were employed, for the first time coming not only from countries of the Eastern Bloc.
Artistic cooperation with socialist countries was not so rare in the early 1960s. The remarkable work by Solan The Boxer and Death (Boxer a smrť,1962) was created together with the Polish writer Józef Hen. Hen not only wrote a novella of the same title,6 on which the story was based but also co-authored the script, with Tibor Vichta and Petr Solana. Significantly, in this very European movie on the Second World War concentration camps, the focus was not on Jews but rather on opponents of Nazism as such. The theme of the Holocaust was only touched on indirectly and had to wait for the Oscar-winning Czech-Slovak film The Shop on Main Street *** to be shown openly.
Foreign actors featuring in Slovak films were not uncommon. And most such pictures certainly feature in the hall of fame of Slovak cinema. But their form, narrative technique, cinematography and cutting usually remain traditional, in contrast to the “more New Wave” works by Jakubisko, Hanák, Havetta and others, who didn’t refrain from formal experiments, rather untypical for Slovak cinema. Another experimental work is a film produced independently by Československý film Bratislava, which had three directors – Jerzy Skolimowski from Poland, Petr Solana from Slovakia and Czech Zdeňek Brynych. Their Dialogue 20–40–60 (Dialóg 20–40–60,1968) presents one conversation repeated by three couples of various ages. The authors try to outline three stages of a relationship but the experiment overwhelms the message and sometimes becomes art for art’s sake. Perhaps unintended, the atmosphere of this film is more remindful of the theatre of the absurd than of New Wave, even if in the part shot by Skolimowski we see a true icon of New Wave, the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud.In Juraj Jakubisko’s work, formal and story-telling quests interestingly play with French films from the 1960s. His third feature, Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni, 1969) is very clearly inspired by the episodic narrative techniques and staccato cutting typical of Jean-Luc Godard in Crazy Pete (1965), although the Czechoslovak film critics preferred to describe Jakubisko as a Slovak Fellini.**** This influence is not accidental: as we have already said, Slovak cinema in the late 1960s was opening to the world in terms of aesthetics and technology of production. Between 1966 to 1970, Koliba released nine co-productions, including six with foreign studios. It seems hardly credible, for in August 1968 Warsaw Pact forces started to occupy Czechoslovakia. The films already in the production stage, however, were finished between 1969 to 1971. Let us name at least the most important ones: Jakubisko’s fable Deserters and Pilgrims (Zbehovia a pútnici, 1968) was made in co-production with Italian companies Zebra Films and Compagnia Cinematografica Champion,The Sweet Time of Kalimagdora (Sladký čas Kalimagdory,1968) by Leopold Lahola was shot with Gala International from Cologne and Jakubisko’s Birds, Orphans and Fools was created in cooperation with Como Films, a co-producer of two other Slovak films: The Man Who Lies (Muž, ktorý luže,1968) and Eden and After (Eden a potom,1970). Their script-writer and director was the French writer and filmmaker Alain Robe-Grillet. In their artistic concept and style both films belong more to the French than the Slovak context, althoughThe Man Who Lies discovers parallels between French and Slovak mythology of the resistance movement, and takes note of many similarities. But Slovak audiences were completely unprepared for this type of experimentation, based on juxtaposing the image and the words in the domain of the official history and myth, and both works were long regarded as difficult to comprehend. The last film from this period of co-productions was Jakubisko’s See You in Hell, Friends (Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia,1970/1990), but because of the changed political climate it was shelved before completion.

A still from the film "66 Seasons", directed by Peter Kerekes, swimming pool in 2002 © Slovenský filmový ústav – Fotoarchív

In Juraj Jakubisko’s work, formal and story‑telling quests interestingly play with French films from the 1960s. His third feature, Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni, 1969) is very clearly inspired by the episodic narrative techniques and staccato cutting typical of Jean‑Luc Godard in Crazy Pete (1965), although the Czechoslovak film critics preferred to describe Jakubisko as a Slovak Fellini.* This influence is not accidental: as we have already said, Slovak cinema in the late 1960s was opening to the world in terms of aesthetics and technology of production. Between 1966 to 1970, Koliba released nine co‑productions, including six with foreign studios. It seems hardly credible, for in August 1968 Warsaw Pact forces started to occupy Czechoslovakia. The films already in the production stage, however, were finished between 1969 to 1971. Let us name at least the most important ones: Jakubisko’s fable Deserters and Pilgrims (Zbehovia a pútnici, 1968) was made in co‑production with Italian companies Zebra Films and Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, The Sweet Time of Kalimagdora (Sladký čas Kalimagdory, 1968) by Leopold Lahola was shot with Gala International from Cologne and Jakubisko’s Birds, Orphans and Fools was created in cooperation with Como Films, a co‑producer of two other Slovak films: The Man Who Lies (Muž, ktorý luže, 1968) and Eden and After (Eden a potom, 1970). Their script‑writer and director was the French writer and filmmaker Alain Robe‑Grillet. In their artistic concept and style both films belong more to the French than the Slovak context, although The Man Who Lies discovers parallels between French and Slovak mythology of the resistance movement, and takes note of many similarities. But Slovak audiences were completely unprepared for this type of experimentation, based on juxtaposing the image and the words in the domain of the official history and myth, and both works were long regarded as difficult to comprehend. The last film from this period of co‑productions was Jakubisko’s See You in Hell, Friends (Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia, 1970 / 1990), but because of the changed political climate it was shelved before completion.
The “normalisation” policy of the 1970s meant a return of censorship of artistic creation, which induced the artists to focus on domestic and ideologically neutral themes. Czechoslovakia and especially Slovakia found itself in cultural isolation. The socialist film industry only returned to co-productions in the 1980s. The preferred genre was the politically safe cartoon, and the Slovenský film Bratislava studio was usually partnered by German production companies. Between 1980 to 1988 twelve full-length cartoons were made for the cinema, and later shown on television. Slovak film resorted to cooperation with Western companies mostly for financial reasons. Slovenský film Bratislava wanted to modernise the technical equipment in the House of Sound. For that purpose it took out a loan, which also helped it to pay for co-productions with German studios. It also acquired good quality tape, and most Slovak films in colour were then shot on German ORWO film.
Somewhere along the way, imperceptibly, the question of the common cultural context of Slovakia and other European countries reappeared. The fact that in the early 1980s it was provided by the Grimm Brothers’ fables, adapted and shot by Slovak directors, has a deeper significance: the time for reflection on the history of the common European space came only at the end of the decade and especially after 1989. In the second half of the 1980s, a few adult films were also made in co-production with German companies. They were all set in the Central European or European cultural context. One could name here the historical film by Miloslav Luther called Forget Mozart (Zabudnite na Mozarta) or Jakubisko’s saga from the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire A Thousand-year-old Bee (Ticícročná včela). But it was as late as 1988 when a film by the latter of the two directors was finished: I’m Sitting on a Branch and I’m Fine (Sedím na konári a je mi dobre), a painful return to 20th-century reality picturing the period after the liberation and the time of building socialism in the 1950s, marked in Slovakia by the Stalinist personality cult. In the first half of the 1980s a film so strongly laden with irony could not have been made.

A still from the film "66 Seasons", directed by Peter Kerekes, swimming pool in 1937 © Slovenský filmový ústav – Fotoarchív

When the Iron Curtain collapsed, Slovak film fell on difficult times. Already under the Czechoslovak Republic the government stopped subsidising cinema, and the film studios and laboratories had to be privatised. But while the studios in Barrandov continued to make films (although increasingly often for foreign companies), Koliba was bought by firms connected with the then prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, who wasn’t interested in producing films. Between 1992 to 2001 only between two and four films a year were made in Slovakia, usually in co-production with Czech Television. However, the 1990s were not defined exclusively by the privatisation of the Koliba Film Studios and the rule of Mečiar, who tried to liquidate cultural and social pluralism, but also by the work of one of the most prolific and coherent directors belonging to the young generation, namely Martin Šulík. The Slovak film theorist Jana Dudková notes that Šulík is a director who starts from the identity of an individual to talk about the identity of society or even entire country in a situation of change. While his first works, Neha (1990) and Everything I Like (Všetko, čo mám rád, 1992), show above all the situation of an individual in the context of a past trauma or searching for a place for himself in a society torn between a traditional, closed world and the new democratic and open reality, the films The Garden (Záhrada, 1995), Orbis pictus (1997) and Landscape (Krajinka, 2000) speak mostly about idyllic or allegoric places, and concern more the Slovak national identity rather than the identity of an individual.7
In the 1990s and at the turn of the 21st century, Slovak cinema described globalisation, hyper-modernity, and dystopia or non-places devoid of memory,8 where the Slovak identity seemingly is lost or re-emerges as different than the cultural identities of the European West, the neighbouring countries of Central Europe or even the Czech Republic. A greater sense of belonging to the Central European context and greater self-confidence is only acquired by Slovak feature films in the most recent social dramas, thanks to which it has been speaking a language similar to that used by Czech, Romanian and Polish cinema,***** and through documentaries it is becoming literally European.
But feature-length documentaries with actors, meant for cinema distribution, has virtually no tradition in Slovakia. Besides Pictures of the Old World (Obrazy starého sveta, 1971) by Dušan Hanák and a few travel documentaries, the films made before 1989 lasted no longer than 60 minutes. They did not go beyond commentary and information. In cinemas, documentaries were most frequently shown as the so-called Film Chronicle preceding the main feature, and their place was mostly in television. Only after 1989 did documentaries return to cinemas, although they have been few and far between.
In 2003 the full-length 66 Seasons (66sezón) by Peter Kerekes was shot, launching an era of Slovak documentary film. Young creators of documentaries, having no access to production facilities, started to found small production companies looking for co-producers, usually in the neighbouring Czech Republic. The full-length documentary debut by Kerekes presents the history of Central Europe on the example of a metaphoric-metonymic model of the world in miniature – a public swimming pool in Košice, “where history took a bath” and which becomes a place of rebirth of the first common state of the Czechs and Slovaks, the Slovak State (although Košice in 1938 belonged to Horthy’s Hungary), deportations of Jews living in the interwar Czechoslovakia, the postwar nationalisation of private industries and building the new constitutional model, the liberalisation of the 1960s, the occupation in 1968, and normalisation etc. Kerekes used the metaphoric-metonymic principle again in his next film, Cooking history (Ako sa varia dejiny, 2009), although the Central European context turns into a pan-European context, describing the war and armed conflicts in 20th-century Europe as seen by military cooks and through their experiences.
Marko Škop also produces his films himself. In Other Worlds (Iné svety,2006) he attempts to resurrect the small multiethnic world of eastern Slovakia, putting inhabitants of one region, Šariš, side by side, selected on the basis of their nationality, religion, age and social group. Such a multiple portrait not only shows the multicultural and multiethnic character of the region. It also suggests that the possibility of intercultural dialogue is limited in a situation which is inauthentic, as it has been artificially created by a film director, and the protagonists have a problem identifying with their roles in the discourse and in relations with representatives of other groups.9 A similar problem is encountered in a very good full-length, The Border (Hranica, 2009) by Jaroslav Vojtek, which tells the story of a village inhabited by the Hungarian minority, and for more than half a century, split in two by the border between today’s Slovakia and Ukraine, where it is the director who finds himself in the role of a person who doesn’t understand. Perhaps this is why the question of understanding is such an important category in Marko Škop’s next film Osadné (2009), where the director ironically raises the issue of the im/possibility of European integration of small Slovak villages.

A still from the film "The Boxer and Death", directed by Peter Solana © Anton Podstraský, Slovenský filmový ústav – Fotoarchív

This film provides a good example of “European” thinking in cinematic practice. Osadné is a film shot to be attractive for pro-European institutions subsidising cinematic work, juries of international competitions, as well as for domestic and foreign audiences; it is a film which is to be lucid and speaking to the entire European Union, while at the same time presenting the EU’s eastern borderland as an exotic area; as well as to increase the number of tourists to a village forgotten by Eurodeputies, and ideally, to bring attention to the small and modest Slovak film industry. For many years Slovak film was part of Czechoslovak cinema, so several stages of development and maturing were completed in a crash-course mode. After the peak years during the 1960s, when the largest number of internationally successful Slovak films was made, a period of official censorship followed, when many great artists were unable to work. The continuity of Slovak feature films was disrupted, and only partially renewed in the 1980s. After 1989, and especially after the emergence of independent Slovakia in 1993, this continuity was again broken and Slovak film had to start virtually from scratch. An important source of support came from Czech cinema and European co-productions, without which many good Slovak films would probably never have been made. Digital technology also played an important role in reviving Slovak cinema, which made it possible after 2005 to create relatively low-budget documentaries for cinema, and which achieved success at festivals. Finally, the gap from the 1990s has been attempted to be filled by a new system of supporting audiovisual arts in Slovakia. Three years after the Audiovisual Fund was established it would be to early to assess its functioning, but when looking at the films made in the last two years we can say that Slovak film – especially those more socially sensitive and deeply engrained in Central European space – has entered a very fertile period.

* Vysoká škola muzických umení (Academy of Performing Arts) in Bratislava was founded back in 1949, but such courses as film directing and scriptwriting have only been taught there since the mid-1970s. Until the division of the Czechoslovak state, many Slovak film buffs decided to study at the Prague FAMU; a percentage of Slovaks still study there today.

** The Polish actress Ida Kamińska even received the American Film Academy nomination for the best female role – the figure of the Jewish shop owner – despite playing in a non-English language film.

*** Martin Votruba notes that The Boxer and Death and The Shop on Main Street shift the borders of a clichéd and official presentation of the Second World War. He claims that although they were not intended as direct descriptions of the Holocaust, the films were Jewish responses to the experience of the Shoah – all their principal creators were Jewish. See Martin Votruba, The Shop on Main Street: The Holocaust in Context. Panel 7-01 Cultural Responses to the Holocaust in Poland and Central Europe II. 18. November 2011; www.pitt.edu/~votruba/sstopics/assets/Martin_Votruba-The_Shop_on_Main_Street-The_Holocaust_in_Context.pdf (September 16th 2012).

**** The ending of Jakubisko’s film, in terms of form, camerawork, narrative and style, are reminiscent of Crazy Pete, owing to the identical motives of murdering his lover and committing suicide by the main character. Particular takes from Jakubisko’s feature, with a similar framing of the characters’ faces, seem to be paraphrasing Godard’s takes; his film is also invoked in the ending with emotional music, glimpses of water, sky and birds, in both films symbolising the “souls” of the characters.

***** Social dramas completely fulfilling the requirements of the genre have only been made in Slovakia in the last few years. The first example was the co-production Lištičky (Foxes, 2008) by Mira Fornay, which spoke about integration problems of Slovak female immigrants in Great Britain. A similar theme is raised inAž do mesta (Made in Ash, 2012) by Iveta Grófova; but here the integration problem is moved from the Bratislava - Dublin axis more to the “East”: it runs from the Slovak Roma village to the western-most point of the Czech Republic, namely to the border town of Aš. The same genre is represented by Šulík’s Gypsy (Cigán, 2010), the yet uncompleted films Zázrak (Miracle) by Juraj Lehotski and Ďakujem, dobre (Fine, Thanks) by Mátyás Prikler, and also in a soft version, the bitter social comedy made by Zuzana Liova called Dom (The House, 2010).