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.
Polish cinema of the 1990s does not have a good reputation. The critics of those times – and today’s film historians – describe it as shallow, naïve, and of poor quality from a formal point of view. Andzrej Wajda, one of the most accomplished Polish directors, accused the younger generation of making “irrelevant and insignificant” films, addressed to “the ignorant masses, who seek pleasure at all costs.” The critics said: “These films tells us nothing about Poland”.
True, these weren’t good films. Polish cinema after 1989 welcomed the free market, which apart from the end of censorship also meant drastic cuts to state subsidies and commercialization. In accordance with the contemporary belief that everything from the West is gold, predominantly American film genres hit the screens: gangster movies, comedies, family films. But the budgets weren’t American – and the results were what they were.
It’s hard to dispute the critics: it simply wasn’t good cinema. Which, moreover, aged quickly and with only a few exceptions is watched nowadays for amusement only. But I cannot agree that these films were insignificant and “told nothing” about Poland. Of course, they didn’t say much about social reality and the problems and tensions of the period. But on the other hand, they did tell us a lot about the transformation itself.
In accordance with the contemporary belief that everything from the West is gold, predominantly American film genres hit the screens: gangster movies, comedies, family films.
In his book Zone des Übergangs (Zone of Transition), Boris Buden notes that the term “transformation” – if we are talking about the systemic changes that took place after the fall of communism in East-Central Europe – does not describe the change itself, but its goal, a change into a “normal country”, i.e. a liberal democratic country. The cinema of the transformation functioned in a similar way: it did not show Poland as it was, but projected models to be followed.
Analogously to “socialist realist” cinema, we can also speak about “capitalist realism”, though we should remember that the cinema of the 1990s was not a propaganda tool, but rather a component of soft ideology characteristic of neoliberalism. Capitalist realism is a term proposed by Leigh Clare La Berge and Alison Shonkwiler in the field of visual anthropology. It describes an iconosphere linked to the capitalist system, which offered audiences instructions on how to understand the new reality.
These instructions were directly based on the ideology of the Polish transformation. According to Jakub Majmurek, this included: appeals to rejecting the idea of the state as a guarantor of common prosperity, the conviction that the period before 1989 “forcefully tore Poland away from the West” and the transformation was a “return to normality”, contempt for the expectations of the working class as well as considering the free market a guarantee of all freedom and social inequalities as the motor of economic growth. That is what the media and politicians wanted, and that is what cinema wanted from its audiences.
But around the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protagonist became an individual belonging or aspiring to the middle class and trying to achieve success – most often in the sphere of business – and trying to “get on in the new reality”.
The bearer of the new values was obviously the hero. In the 1980s, under the weakening, but still present socialist ideology, the positive protagonist of an average genre film was a policeman, engineer or worker – to an extent a collective subject. But around the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protagonist became an individual belonging or aspiring to the middle class and trying to achieve success – most often in the sphere of business – and trying to “get on in the new reality”. The new hero, with whom the audience was meant to identify, was a neoliberal Foucauldian homo oeconomicus – a subject who deals with life through a balance of profits and losses.
The opposite of homo oeconomicus, and therefore the antagonist, was of course homo sovieticus, or Soviet man. This derogatory term was used in the language of the transformation to designate a person who does not agree with the neoliberal character of the transformation, criticizes rising inequality, and does not want to – as the idiom of those times had it – “take their fate in their own hands”, demanding instead support from the state. Mentally, they are stuck in the past era and do not respond to the calls of ideology to transform into homo oeconomicus and participate in creating Polish capitalism, damaging it and slowing down the transformation as well as the return to the desired “West”.
There are numerous examples. In the case of homo oeconomicus, let us take Młode wilki (Young Wolves, dir. J. Żamojda, 1995). The main hero of the film is a gifted working-class teenager, who under the influence of his resourceful friends (“If you really are smart, you won’t be poor”) understands, that rather than studying at university, it’s much better to smuggle Russian uranium hidden in garden gnomes to Germany. Indeed, he does rather well – apart from making money, he also wins the heart of a girl from America.
Another example is the public television series Bank nie z tej ziemi (Bank from another world, dir. W. Dziki, 1993), which tells the story of a banker trapped in purgatory, whom God promises salvation if he manages to reopen his pre-War bank on Earth. Although obstacles are put in his way by evil communists in hell, all ends well thanks to the enterprising spirt of an unemployed textile worker. Or Mów mi Rockefeller (Call me Rockefeller, dir. W. Szarek, 1990), an absurdist youth film, in which ten-year-olds, in the absence of their parents, make a fortune building a stage for a private Michael Jackson concert for an Arab princess.
Negative protagonists, or homo sovieticus, are also not missing from the cinema of this period. For example, the hero of the drama Cześć, Tereska (Hello, Tereska, dir. R. Gliński, 2001), a teenager from a disadvantaged estate, who wants to become a fashion designer. Instead of studying hard – which would, according to the film’s logic, guarantee success – she prefers to drink cheap wine and steal. The lazy and unruly working class has only itself to blame and doesn’t take advantage of the chances capitalism provides.
Other obstacles on the way to liberal democracy are depicted in the comedy Kapitał, czyli jak zrobić pieniądze w Polsce (Capital, or, How to make money in Poland, dir. F. Falk, 1990). The main protagonist tries his hand at business after business, but is constantly set back by health and safety, tax, or other inspections. These represent the state, which is seen as an anachronism in the world of the free market. On the other hand, in Dług (Debt, dir. K. Krauze, 1999), the heroes have almost achieved success, but this is thwarted by the Russian mafia, which – alongside corruption and nepotism – represented one of the most significant obstacles on the way to a liberal democratic paradise in the discourse of the Polish transformation.
The teacher was neoliberal ideology personified in the figure of Western experts leading the privatization of state property.
Boris Buden has described the logic of the transformation as a pedagogy in which the inhabitants of Eastern European countries were relegated to the role of schoolchildren. The teacher was neoliberal ideology personified in the figure of Western experts leading the privatization of state property. In Chile, Pinochet’s advisors, who studied under Milton Friedman, came to be known as “Chicago Boys”. In Poland, they were known as “boys from the Mariott”, referring to the name of one of the few luxury hotels in Warsaw where they stayed.
The cinema of the Polish transformation played the role of one of these “boys”. It copied models from the adored “West”, ignoring local specificities and the needs of local people. It taught audiences to adopt new dreams, expectations and aspirations adequate for the times of the newly arrived liberal democracy.
If you ever wonder why Poland is ruled by right-wing populists today, have a look at the films of the 1990s.
Kaja Puto is a journalist and commentator.
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”.