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The Eastern European Newwave

13.01.2011

In the countries of the Eastern Bloc, the culture was still coming out from the Stalinist deep freeze. We have already discussed many of the most important figures in this cinematic thaw, such as Poland’s Andrzej Wajda and the Soviet filmmakers Mikheil Kalatozishvili and Grigori Chukhrai, whose films in the late 1950s set the stage for further developments in the 1960s. But two figures in the 1960s took matters much further, Poland’s Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski. Polanski attended the Polish Film School at Lodz and made several shorts, including the farcical Dwaj ludzie z szafa (Two Men and a Wardrobe, 1958), before shooting his first feature, Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water), in 1962.


Knife takes place almost entirely on a small pleasure boat, as a married couple, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), picks up a nameless young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) to rupts the holiday as Andrzej becomes envious of the young man’s good looks and youthful vigor. At a spare ninety-four minutes, the film attracted enough attention to garner Polanski an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and his career was suddenly quite a public affair. Interestingly, Jerzy Skolimowski collaborated with Polanski on the script of Knife in the Water, along with writer Jakub Goldberg.


Almost immediately, Polanski moved to the West, stopping in London to direct Repulsion (1965), a searing drama of an unstable young woman, Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), who is left alone in an apartment in London for a weekend and gradually descends into homicidal madness. Marked by moody black-and-white cinematography and superb performances from Deneuve and the supporting cast, the film was a substantial hit, as was Polanski’s next British film, Cul-de-sac (1966), a brutal thriller starring Donald Pleasence as George, the jealous, possessive husband of Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), who resents the fact that they are forever hidden away from the world in a remote castle on the northeast coast of the British Isles. Polanski left England for the United States, where he directed several very successful films, including the haunting Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where witches apparently inhabit an apartment building on New York’s Upper West Side and have designs on the pregnant Rosemary (Mia Farrow), and Chinatown (1974), a brilliant noir set in a corrupt 1930s Los Angeles, with Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes, who is drawn deeper and deeper into a mystery involving millionaire Noah Cross (John Huston) and his daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). However, in March 1977 Polanski was arrested on a charge of statutory rape and subsequently fled the United States to avoid prosecution. Since then, he has worked in Europe, creating films such as Tess (1979) and Bitter Moon (1992), but the highlight is doubtless the World War II drama The Pianist (2002), the moving, true story of a classical pianist, a Polish Jew, who struggles to survive the Holocaust and goes into hiding from the Nazis in Warsaw.


 The project was especially personal for Polanski, as he himself survived the Nazi occupation of Poland as a young boy. The Pianist won Academy Awards for Best Director, Actor, and Writing (Adaptation), the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and numerous other awards.


Jerzy Skolimowski had a much lower profile but produced several interesting films of youthful social protest, such as Walkower (Walkover, 1965) and Bariera (Barrier, 1966); he left Poland soon after to create the mysterious thriller Deep End (1971), shot in London and Munich with U.S. and German financing. He then moved on to create what many consider his signature film, Moonlighting (1982), with Jeremy Irons as the foreman of an illegal Polish work crew in London renovating the luxurious flat of a wealthy man, in an effectively realized allegory of wealth versus privation.


In Hungary, Miklós Jancsó stood out as the most influential filmmaker of the 1960s, followed by András Kovács and István Gaál. Kovács pursued a documentary style in his films Nehéz emberek (Difficult People, 1964), Falak (Walls, 1968), and Staféta (Relay Race, 1971), and Gaál worked on a thinly disguised autobiographical trilogy of films detailing his early life under the Stalinist regime. But Jancsó emerged as the boldest visual stylist of the group, with such films as Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965), Csilla-gosok, katonák (The Red and the White, 1967), and Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1972), in which he used a ceaselessly tracking camera to create strongly political films that dealt with issues of responsibility in wartime, mob violence, and military behavior.


Jancsó’s tracking shots are something like Godard’s moving camera, but nothing like Max Ophüls’s dolly shots; in Jancsó’s films, the camera is an impassive observer that sees, records, and moves on with a clinical formalism that is simultaneously distancing and unnerving. Often we might wish to linger on a particular scene, but as his camera keeps moving, we know that we will only have a brief time to view each image before the eye of the lens moves on.


Vera Chytilová was one of the most important directors of the Czechoslo-vakian New Wave. She began her career as a university student, emphasizing philosophy and architecture, then worked as a model, script clerk, and draftsperson, among other jobs, before she fought her way into the Prague Film School (FAMU). Working at Barrandov Studios, Chytilová encountered problems distributing her difficult, feminist work. Her early films were shot in the style of 1960s underground films in America, gritty cinema ver-ité–like works that featured non-actors in philosophical investigations into the nature of power over women in Czech culture. Her formalism met with approval from Western critics, but it caused her to be completely silenced for several years by the political machine in her native country.


Sedmikrasky (Daisies, 1966) is Chytilová’s best-known work abroad, although it was banned in her native country for several years. It can be aptly described as a Brechtian comedy, in which two young women loll around, often semi-nude, as they talk directly to the audience about philosophical and political questions. Daisies is thus a prototypical New Wave feminist film, with Brechtian political statements (“Everything is spoiled for us in this world”), jarring editing (the women are intercut with stock footage of buildings falling apart), and existential ponderings (at one point, the women ruminate that if “you’re not registered, [there is] no proof you exist”).


Jan Schmidt’s absurdist, apocalyptic tragic comedy Konec srpna v Hotelu Ozon (The End of August at the Hotel Ozone, 1967) is an appropriate coda to this brief survey of Czech films; in August 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush a regime that was becoming too liberal for the Soviet rulers. The Czech cinema came to an abrupt end for the time being.


In Yugoslavia, Aleksandar Petrovic’s romantic Dvoje (And Love Has Vanished, 1961) is generally considered the first film of that country’s New Wave movement. Petrovic followed it up with his most commercially successful film, Skupljaci perja (I Even Met Happy Gypsies, 1967), a love story that ends in murder, set among the gypsy tribes of the region.


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