Ever more often, the media in Central Europe are talking about winners and losers of the systemic transformations that followed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. The processes set in motion during this period of often wild and unrestrained economic, political, and social change, influence the shape and quality of democracy in this region today. A time when newly-minted entrepreneurs became staggeringly rich by suspicious means, when former state enterprises were sold off in fraudulent transactions, and society quickly stratified into the rich and the poor, the 1990s are a period whose legacies have arguably now become more pressing than those of the previous authoritarian communist regimes. As a result, the decade has become a hot topic of media interest. But what about the role of culture? Has it not been overlooked? Films and TV shows of the 1990s in Central Europe tried to capture the rapid transformation from state socialism to free, and largely unregulated, markets – sometimes applauding the new political course, at other times criticising it. This series zooms in on the audiovisual culture of the first post-socialist decade in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, and asks what it can tell us about how filmmakers tried to make sense of the bewildering changes around them.
In the year 2000, looking back on the decade of often dizzying change brought about by the transformation from a planned economy to the free market, Czech President Václav Havel admitted he felt a degree of responsibility for the “mafia capitalism” that had developed in the country. Havel was referring to untransparent privatization processes accompanied by cases of large-scale fraud and the development of clientelistic networks that marked the Czech transformation from a planned economic to free market capitalism of the 1990s. These new phenomena did not escape the attention of filmmakers, who were keen to capture the bewildering new realities that brought not only freedom of expression, travel, entrepreneurship, but also prostitution, drug use, organized crime, social stratification, and a number of other until then largely unknown social phenomena. Many of these topics created new possibilities of representation that had been almost absent in socialist-era cinema and the amount of gunshots fired and blood splattered in the attempt to capture the “wild nineties” on the screen rose dramatically.
These new phenomena did not escape the attention of filmmakers, who were keen to capture the bewildering new realities that brought not only freedom of expression, travel, entrepreneurship, but also prostitution, drug use, organized crime, social stratification, and a number of other until then largely unknown social phenomena.
Hand in hand with new topics came also a quest for finding new ways of speaking. While in the previous instalment of this series of texts we saw that Polish filmmakers turned to Hollywood genres for inspiration, Czech films rather forged their own hard-to-define genre mixtures. Filmmakers were unwilling to completely abandon the inherited modes of representation from the socialist era, during which comedy held a prominent position. Even the darkest of films of the 1990s thus contain a number of light-hearted moments – the results are perhaps incongruous, but certainly distinctive for Czech cinema. Perhaps the most bizarre example is the little-known film Wild Beer (Divoké pivo, dir. Milan Muchna, 1995), which combines the story of the privatization of a brewery with fairy tale elements, including time travel. It capitalizes on the ever-lasting popularity of the fairy tale as the number one genre in Czech cultural production, painting a whimsical picture of the Czech path to a market economy.
In general, humour functioned as a safety valve for making sense of an era of bewildering change. Satirical programmes such as Czech soda (Česká soda) often quite brutally made fun of the language and symbolism of the new era. Perhaps the most famous gag on this comedy sketch show was a parody of a TV commercial advertising a laundry detergent, in which a dark-skinned child comes out white after washing. It was certainly an era when ‘political correctness’ as we know it today simply didn’t exist. For this reason, the visual production of the era needs to be viewed in its historical context. Without such an understanding, today’s viewers will be nothing but shocked by the portrayal of women and minorities in the films of the 1990s. Vít Olmer’s Playgirls I and II are perhaps the ultimate pictures to depict calculating women who take advantage of the new, as of yet largely unregulated market to sell their bodies and advance in the world. Of course, as in most commercial cinema, the female characters get punished for trying to get ahead.
Characteristic of the films of the transformation years is an attempt to educate viewers on how to fare in the new capitalist system.
While Olmer’s enterprising prostitutes are hardly characters who capture our wholehearted sympathies, the figure of the entrepreneur became a key model in the new symbolic order. Sociologist Stanislav Holubec analysed the press of the 1990s and concluded that the entrepreneur was hailed as the true creator of values at the time. We could add that filmmakers only contributed to this picture and their work serves to remind us of the key values, dreams and hopes of an era. The entrepreneur emerged as someone who knew how to take advantage of the new situation; in combination with the epithet “controversial”, he (more often than she) became the embodiment of the free market’s more nefarious side. The result weren’t perhaps great films, but they are great historical sources.
Characteristic of the films of the transformation years is an attempt to educate viewers on how to fare in the new capitalist system. Let’s take the 1992 film with the eloquent title The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag) by acclaimed new wave director Věra Chytilová as an example. Set two years after the revolution, this dark comedy about a vulgar country bumpkin in Moravia who unexpectedly inherits a fortune is a cautionary tale about the emptiness of the power of money. The film responds to some of the most marked processes of social change of the early 1990s, namely restitution and privatization. It is an example of a trend in Czech cinema that attempted to process the economic and social changes by way of simple didacticism and warning. Initially, the money gives Bohuš, the film’s protagonist, the freedom to do and get all that he wants – pay for all his friends, build a pool, pay a prostitute to come and live with him in his village. But of course, the money turns out to be more of a curse that can’t buy him love. The film captures the misunderstandings inherent in the new language of the era: Bohuš turns his own “freedom” into the oppression of others, terrorizing his lawyer with the ultimate law of the market that he will “exchange him for someone else” into doing various things he feels reluctant to do. “Sit down! Drink! Lie down!”, he commands his lawyer at various junctures, only to top it off with “We have democracy, don’t we?”The film paints a vision of the transformation where democracy is interpreted as the rule of capital by its protagonists, which does not however bring them any happiness. The film ends with a warning sign, after Bohuš has lost his initial fortune, with a new lawyer appearing in the village pub to announce that Bohušis the beneficiary of yet another large inheritance – to which Bohuš responds by first grabbing his head in his hands in despair, then turns to face the camera point-blanc and declares: “Now I will buy you all!”
The focus on the “small person” is certainly something the cinema of the transformation years took over from the socialist era.
Television production also took on a didactic remit. Life at the Chateau (Život na zámku), a52-episode TV series from the production of Czech Television, the public broadcaster, which was hugely popular in the 1990s, present’s a “how-to guide” of finding a new lifestyle in the post-1989 conditions. The narrative of the series is driven forward by just about every social and economic process that affected citizens’ lives in the period: restitution, privatization, property management, entrepreneurship, emigration abroad, etc. The central premise of the series is that the family of the Králs (meaning King in Czech) inherits a small chateau – which changes their lives completely. The series is thus an exemplary exploration of a number of social phenomena brought about by the economic changes, illustrated on the example of one “ordinary” family.
The focus on the “small person” is certainly something the cinema of the transformation years took over from the socialist era: the heroes of the Czech films of this period are far away from strongman Bogusław Linda’s swaggering gangsters or cops-turned-bad in nieghbouring Poland. They are regular men and women who take a blow when confronted with the realities of capitalism, but ultimately learn a lesson that with an enterprising spirit and a bit of cunning (though not too much), they too can navigate the paths of the transformation.
Veronika Pehe is a historian based at the Institute for Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 749475”.