Change in the Central-East-European Concept of Film Culture

Theoretical Framework: Canon, Canonisation, School 2

3. Cinemas in Central-Eastern-Europe at the end of the 1980s

The historical framework

In this chapter we attempt to delineate the socio-historical background of the Central-Eastern- European cinemas of the 1990s. We treat the period directly preceding the change of regime, namely the "end of the 1980s" as a relatively neutral period reference and describe events of the  period relevant to film history. Since state socialism collapsed in a different rhythm and logic in each country, we will discuss each country separately. As in previous chapters the descriptive approach will be complemented by a comparative one, since we also try to formulate the regional message of the transformation that took place in each country.

While examining national cinemas we focus on the following fields: the social changes affecting the institution of film production and distribution; the state of film production at the end of the 80's; developments in film culture, which make the interpretation of the film-historical events of the 1990s possible.

It seems appropriate to start the analysis of the 1980s from the middle of the decade, and end it with the formation of the new governments. As for film history, the change of regime did not offer itself as a sharp marker of the period’s end, nevertheless scholars distinguish between the cinema before and after the political changes. The conceptual framework to theorize the transition will hopefully be provided by the whole of this work.

The qualitative change assumed here can primarily be described (or rather described more precisely) by financial, economic, organizational and production-related processes. The transition may hardly be grasped in terms of aesthetic-stylistic phenomena, mainly for two reasons: 1. despite the dramatic and exhaustive nature of the changes, the film culture transformed gradually, and there are hardly any traces of this change in the cinematic language. 2. The changes may have affected the film industry in an accidental and not in a planned manner. As a result we may say that continuities and discontinuities overlap at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s: signs of organic development may be observed as well as discontinuities caused by the sharp changes. The relevant film-historical period may be ultimately described as the road from the dismantling of the state monopoly to the formation of a quasi-commercial film industry. This transformation was accompanied by changes in the social role of filmmakers and film. On the one hand they ceased to fulfill political orders, on the other hand, they were no longer forced to articulate their political criticism through their works. The salience of professionalism obviously affected the quality and ethos of films.


Poland - ongoing social upheavals

The mid-1980s , on the one hand, was influenced by the powerful state propaganda, the crude and refined methods of pressure and the lack of freedom, while, on the other hand, second publicity and underground movements strengthened.

In 1987, films completed during the martial law, but censored because of their content were released. (Janusz Zaorski Matka Królów – The mother of kings, Ryszard Bugajski Przesłuchanie – Interrogation, Wojciech Marczewski: Dreszcze – Shivers, Jerzy Domaradzki Wielki bieg – The big run, Agnieszka Holland Kobieta samotna – A Lonely Woman, Krzysztof Kieślowski Przypadek – Blind Chance).

We have to mention a film of great popularity, which portrays the events and period of the regime change, and thus belongs to the few examples of the then contemporary depiction of the topic. It is Wojciech Marczewski’sUcieczka z kina Wolność – Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema (1990) that offers a satirical depiction of the events based on the nightmares of a censor made redundant amidst the collapse of the socialist system.

In terms of historical events, roundtable discussions between the representatives of old elite and the opposition started at the beginning of 1989 followed by the historical moment: the peaceful transition from a totalitarian to a democratic system. After the election victory of Solidarity (Solidarność) in June of 1989, the government was established under the premiership of Tadeusz Mazowiecki. According to the election scenario a certain portion of seats was given to the representatives of the former state party, which has raised highly controversial debates in Poland ever since. The change of regime was completed when Lech Wałęsa won the presidential elections in December 1991.

In the field of cinema, the first changes were marked by the legislation of 1987 that abolished the state monopoly of film production and distribution of Polish, and the distribution of foreign films. In the Polish context this measure itself embodies the transformation we are about to discuss. It was in the same year that the Ministry of Culture and the Komitet Kinematografii (Motion Picture Commission) were established. Censorship was legally terminated in 1990, making the establishment of an intellectually independent cinematic life possible.

The emergence and surge of co-production in the region’s film industries did not only create new formats of funding and production management, but brought new attitudes as well: 30-40% of Polish films were produced through international cooperation in the mid-1990s.

The decrease of movie theatres also affected each of the region’s countries. In addition cinema attendance figures were also on the decline: in 1993 moviegoers purchased an average of 0,35 tickets (In Hungary 1,26, In Czechoslovakia 2,06 ticket).


Czech Republic - cultural continuity of the successor country

Scholarly literature identifies the period between 1970 and 1989 the era of normalization. (Ptáček, 2000:155-195). Organizational transformation began in 1990, when the central board of the ČSF (a similar organization to the Hungarian Central Film Bureau) was dissolved. In the There were 1200 movie theatres in 1993, which means that Czechoslovakia was less affected by the decrease in the number of movie theatres than Poland.

On 17 November, 1989 university students in Prague organized a grand march, two days later the Civic Forum (Občanské fórum) was established.

With the establishment of the Government of national reconciliation in December 1989, the resignation of Gustáv Husák and the election of Václav Havel as state president and Alexandr Dubček as president of the parliament, all obstacles were removed from the way to establish a democratic society and a market economy. The independent Czech Republic and Slovakia was established on January 1, 1993. 


Slovakia - the creation of cultural self-image

In the second half of the 1980s the professional reputation of Slovakian films decreased within the cinema of Czechoslovakia. The increasing relevance of commercially successful productions was an interesting phenomenon of the mid-1980s. Some began to talk about Slovakian Hollywood, which meant ten films a year. Most notable were thrillers, adventure films and comedies.

The trend of social criticism was continued by the films of Miloslav Luther, Vladimír Balco, and Martin Hollý; one of the greatest achievements of the era was Sedim na konari a je mi dobre – Sitting pretty on a branch, (1988) by Juraj Jakubisko.

The next period marker is also related to the efforts for renewal. In Prague the student marches began in November 1989. In Bratislava marchers demanded religious freedom, and on 19 November the Slovak movement called Publicity against violence was established. Censorship was terminated among the series of measures that took place after the general strike on 27 November, 1989; this was the date when sections declaring the leading role of the Communist Party were eliminated from the constitution, and the legal background of the freedom of speech and assembly was created. The first free elections, bringing victory to the democratic block, took place in the summer of 1990.

In January 1990 the Slovak Film Association (Slovenský filmový zväz) and the Forum of Slovenian Filmmakers (Fórum slovenských filmárov) were established. In 1991 the Slovakia Pro State Culture Fund (Štatny fond kultúry Pro Slovakia) was created.

In December 1995 the Audiovisual Act was approved, which paved the way for the transformation of national film production. The law essentially terminated all kinds of restrictions that would hinder free film production. As the History of Slovak film argues“It was the first time in the history of Slovak film industry that no organizations influenced film production including the Ministry of Culture”. (Macek, Paštéková, 1997:488). The publication of the latter volume also marks a turning point in the creation of the identity of Slovakian cinema, since it provides an overview and emphasizes the continuity of national film history from 1896.


Hungary - The vanguard among the countries of transition

The Central Film Bureau was maintained in the 1980s and the measures relating to the licensing process were in force, but these were less strictly than in the previous decades. A reorganization, similar to ones in other countries of the region, took place in Hungary. From 1987 state-administered studios were reorganized into companies, the registration of which took place in 1989. The aim of this was both to increase the autonomy and responsibility of studios, and terminate the monopoly of the only national film producing company. Besides MOKÉP two new distribution companies began operations.

Attendance figures were gradually decreasing, and the share of Hungarian films was on the decline. (I. Movie Yearbook 1988-89). The audience of Hungarian films was also influenced by a new factor, namely the explosive expansion of the video market: 1988 marked a turning point in Hungary, from this year on, the number of viewers buying and renting videos raised to over two million.

The key event in the political transformation of the country was  the opening of the Hungarian border for the citizens of the GDR (1989 summer). In the same year the reburial of Nagy Imre and other martyrs took place on 16 June, 1989. The Republic of Hungary was proclaimed on 23 October, 1989. Scholarly literature has coined the term ‘transition films’, which includes a distinctive selection of titles. These films symbolically mark the end of state socialist film history, yet their stylistic significance requires a more nuanced approach. The following films are included in this less than coherent list::  Bereményi Géza’s Eldorádó - Eldorado (1988), Jeles András’Álombrigád – Dream brigade (1983, released in 1989), Grunwalsky Ferenc’s  Egy teljes nap – A whole day(1988), Tarr Béla’s Kárhozat - Damnation (1987), Enyedi Ildikó’s Az én XX. századom - My 20th Century(1989), Monory M. András’ Meteo (1989) (cf.: Györffy, 2001:257-266).


Slovenia - emancipation and change of regime

In the second half of the 1980s the offences against The Republic of Slovenia revived. It was mainly verbal but later political (exhibiting a military nature) as well: in 1988 arrests amongst members of the cultural and political elites began, resulting in the court trial of the four leading Slovenian intellectuals in Belgrade. In December 1989, the one-party Slovenian government made its desire for independence evermore clear – in this spirit the Slovenian delegate left the chamber of the party-federal congress in the beginning of the following year. The united opposition won the election in March 1990, then the referendum of December 23 ended with the landslide victory of the independence supporters. The independence of the country was proclaimed on June 25, 1991.

Slovenian cinema in the second half of the 1980s was defined by stylized and highly subjective perception of history and thus turned away from the authentic depiction of the era. The two post popular historical periods were the avant-garde of the 1920s and the events of World War II. Karpo Godina’s Umetni raj – Artificial Paradise (1990), which narrates Fritz Lang's Slovenian residence, is the best-known semi-historical fiction film.

More contemporary narratives are populated by marginal figures, who, in tandem with the social endeavors of the period – this was the time when the Slovenian alternative movements flourished – seek parallel realities. Such endeavors are portrayed in Damjan Kozole’s Remington (1988). The film Moj ata socialistični kulak – My Dad, The socialist kulak (Matjaž Klopčič, 1987) shares the thematic ambitions of Central-Eastern-European cinema: the film adaptation of the play is a tremendous parody of communism. Damjan Kozole's film Usodni telefon – The Fatal Telephone (1987) foreshadows the playful-ironic tone of Slovenian cinema in the 1990s.



At the end of the 1980s, state monopolies in production and distribution were abolished. The remodeling of the institutional system, including the sub-system of state subsidizing, was also initiated. As a consequence the conditions of an autonomous film culture were created.




Filmévkönyv 1988-89. A magyar film egy éve. Erdélyi Z. Ágnes, Somogyi Lia (szerk.). Budapest: Magyar Filmintézet.

Györffy Miklós (2001): A tizedik évtized. A kilencvenes évek magyar játékfilmje. In: Uő: A tizedik évtized. A magyar játékfilm a kilencvenes években és más tanulmányok. Budapest: Palatinus-MNFA.

Macek, Václav, Paštéková, Jelena (1997): Dejiny Slovenskej kinematografie. Bratislava: Osveta.

Ptáček, Luboš (ed) (2000): Panorama českého filmu. Olomouc: Rubico.