There were always more interesting films made in the Soviet Union, for instance, but especially from 1985/86 with Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party. A very high degree of liberalization was achieved then in a short period of time. Censorship was relaxed and the internal pressure that had been building up over the years was suddenly released—to a much greater degree than in the sixties, when Tarkovsky, Shukshin, Parajanov, and others spearheaded the first big thrust in post-war Soviet cinema. Historically speaking, then, there was only a very brief window in which artistic quality coincided with explosive content.
The genre film and crime thriller Die Nadel by Rashin Nugmanov, filmed in 1988 and set in Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, is an example of such a happy coincidence. After another director withdrew from the project, the material more or less fell into the film school graduate’s lap, who turned this harmless, conventional thriller into an unbelievably energetic, almost revolutionary art film that makes extensive use of avant-garde cinema tropes. What’s more, The Needle became one of the most successful Soviet films ever made.
In Poland, on the other hand, things were quite different: martial law was declared in December 1981 and was not rescinded until February 1989. The craziest films were made during this time period, with a political openness and radicality that would have landed an East German director in jail. Censorship was effectively abolished in Poland in 1987. And all this under martial law, which seems absurd and hardly conceivable from today’s perspective.
Breaking through into reality
Is there a connection between state influence on filmmaking and film language? Could we say, for instance that “the greater the role of censorship, the more metaphorical the form of cinematic social critique”?
You can’t really make that kind of a generalization, since the various countries greatly differed in this respect as well. A kind of secret language did actually develop in the GDR, in the form of codes, hidden references, and metaphors. East German film language is extremely allegorical—we often find, for instance, characters that do not work on a psychological level at all, but always stand proxy for something else. Director Rainer Simon breaks the code, to a certain extent, in Jadup und Boel by working more with realism and setting the story in the present rather than in the Middle Ages or in Classical Antiquity. This allows for the sudden break-through of a bit of reality—which is precisely why the film was banned.
The criticism expressed in films is not always absolute. Today we live in a culture in which criticism, for the most part, is seen as something positive because it functions as a tool for improvement. Did the films in the special series also fulfil that kind of role, or did they mostly strive for absolute criticism?
That is a significant difference indeed. In an open society like we have today, criticism is a fundamental element. We may regret this at times, as every gesture of protest almost inevitably becomes integrated into society or the market. This was definitely not the case in the East bloc countries. The valuable, critical energy that was formulated in the films was seen as hostile rather than useful. Ultimately this was one of the things that led the system to break down—it was completely rigid and not open and flexible.