Ewa Mazierska, Matilda Mroz and Elżbieta Ostrowska (eds.): The Cinematic Bodies of Eastern Europe and Russia. Between Pain and Pleasure

Ewa Mazierska, Matilda Mroz and Elżbieta Ostrowska (eds.): The Cinematic Bodies of Eastern Europe and Russia. Between Pain and Pleasure

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, ISBN 9781-4744-0514-0, 261 p.

Author
Anna Batori
Keywords
Eastern European cinema; queer studies; cultural studies; sexuality; corporeality; bodily representation.

In their edited volume, The Cinematic Bodies of Eastern Europe and Russia. Between Pain and Pleasure, Ewa Mazierska, Matilda Mroz, and Elżbieta Ostrowska aim to investigate a rather under-researched area in Eastern European cinema by bringing the body and the bodily into the focus. Body in cinema has been widely discussed by a range of disciplines, including phenomenology, psychoanalytical film theory, and gender studies. It seems that in the present posthuman age where data overwrites materiality, corporeality – the transformation of bodies into computerised entities, as we often see on Hollywood screen – will be one of the main focus points for screen studies. Still, as the editors also note, the film texts that have been analysed by the scholars so far mainly come from Western screen cultures, which points to the absence from the field of film studies of the corporeal discourses that emerged during and after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. Thus, while we see a growing interest in examining the area through the lens of gender studies – as, inter alia, Catherine Baker’s (2017) or Edmond J. Coleman and Theo Sandfort’s (2008) edited collections on gender in 20th-century Eastern Europe demonstrate – the cinematic representation of corporeality during socialism and after the system’s collapse, has been largely neglected by film scholars. To bridge this gap, The Cinematic Bodies of Eastern Europe and Russia. Between Pain and Pleasure introduces us to the material and screen cultures of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia and former Yugoslavia, while offering three overlapping contexts through which corporeality can be researched. These three sections – “Wounds and Traumas”, “Transgressions and Pleasures”, “Carnal Histories” – offer a series of perspectives on injured, sexual(ised) and allegorical cinematic bodies, while also approaching the phenomenological aspect of bodily experience and imagery.

The first section, “Wounds and Traumas” gives insight into cinematic bodies suffering from alcoholism, brutality, war and work injuries and begins with Elżbieta Ostrowska’s investigation of male protagonists as hysterical subjects in Andrzej Wajda’s “War Trilogy”. She argues that Pokolenie / A Generation (1955), Ashes and Diamonds / Popiół i diament (1958) and Kanal (1956) feature an excess of facial gestures and body movements which are strongly connected to the male hysterical body which communicates multi-layered (vernacular) trauma of politically impotent masculinity in socialist Poland. The political is also the key focus of Calum Watt’s meticulous analysis of the doctor’s journey for pálinka (brandy) in Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994). Watt understands alcoholism as a reaction to the collapse of Hungarian socialism and the slowly degrading body – and its cinematic framing (slow takes, voice-over narration) – as a reaction to the present as well as another time of “horror and compassion” (Mazierska, Mroz, Ostrowska 2016: 66). The corporeal approach to Tarr’s film is refreshing, as it offers a significant method of investigating the Tarr-universe as well as alcoholism in Eastern European cinema and could further explain the (metaphoric) degradation of Eastern European addicted bodies on screen. Another stimulating point regarding Tarr’s oeuvre, as well as contemporary Hungarian cinema, is offered by Hajnal Király who analyses the tableau-like compositions of Tarr’s A torinói ló / The Turin Horse (2012), and the works of Kornél Mundruczó, Benedek Fliegauf, Szabolcs Hajdu and Ágnes Kocsis. She argues that the intermedial references to Holbein’s and Mantegna’s paintings of dead and dying bodies in the works by these directors – something that Ágnes Pethő analyses in great detail as tableau vivant in the book’s final section – are figurations of melancholia, which sublimates “loss and the death drive” (ibid.: 85) in the post-1989 era. Veering away from Hungarian cinema, Helena Goscilo turns her attention to male corporeality in post-Soviet cinema. In her comparative study, she points out how the “quintessentially Soviet male body, robust and powerful […], capable of heroic exploits and colossal stoicism” (ibid.: 91) has taken another representational form on the screen. The degraded, vulnerable and traumatised male corporeality in contemporary Russian films not only signals the political changes in the country but also opens up new understandings where “the mythologised body, impregnable and spectacular but absent from screen, can belong only to Vladimir Putin” (ibid.: 105).

“Transgression and Pleasures”, the second section of the collection, investigates explicit sexual corporeality in Eastern European cinema and begins with Ewa Mazierska’s analysis of Walerian Borowczyk’s works. Mazierska offers a new insight into the films of the – rather under-researched – Polish director by identifying his works as “pornographic, political and philosophical” (ibid.: 130). She demonstrates how Borowczyk’s setting of the female body in sites of religious contemplation breaks the taboos, inter alia, of the Catholic Church – a reading that puts the director in a highly political role. Similarly, Nebojša Jovanović also touches upon the under-negotiated and less-known topic by looking at queer male bodies in Yugoslav cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. Jovanović’s is one of the collection’s most outstanding entries, for it not only investigates an important and neglected area in film studies, but also highlights that – contrary to our understanding of socialism as an apparatus that repressed same-sex relationships – in the Yugoslav era, homosexuality and queer-related questions were “constantly refined, discussed and valued at different social sites and by many social agents in early Yugoslav socialism” (ibid.: 133). By dissecting three films – Gustav Gavrin’s Život je naš – Ljudi s pruge / Life is Ours – The People from the Railway (1948) and Crveni cvet / The Red Flower (1950) and Fedor Hanžeković’s Bakonja fra Brne / Monk Brne’s Pupil (1951) – Jovanović proves that it is not only that querness was present and screened, but acquired a positive light in Yugoslav cinema. In the next two chapters, Bruce Williams and Alexandar Mihailovic continue to analyse the various representations of queer bodies in Eastern European cinema. While examining Prague as a centre for Western commercialism and orientalist mysteriousness – the protagonists are both consumer possessions and proactive marketeers – Williams investigates Wiktor Grodecki’s ‘Gay Hustler’ trilogy. In the next chapter, Mihailovic analyses Vladimir Sorokin and Ilya Khrzhanosky’s 4 (2004), which – via present-day Russian nationalism and its manifestation encrypted in male fear – sends the message of homophobia. As the second section of the volume demonstrates, taboo-breaking topics have always been present in Eastern European cinema. What is more, in the post-2000 filmic corpus they seem to proliferate on the screens of the region.

The last section of the collection, “Carnal Bodies”, dissects historical change that influenced material and corporeal entities. It starts with David Sorfa’s phenomenological analysis of films of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Sorfa examines František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967), Karel Kachyňa’s Kočar do Vidně / Coach to Vienna (1966) and Noc nevěsty / Night of the Bride (1967) with reference to the way they represent the body and its tactile experiences. Marketa Lazarová, a story set during the transition from paganism to Christianity in the 13th century, emphasises the texture of the images and their connection to historical engagement via formalist elements (close-ups, obscuring elements in the foreground of images, freeze-frames and point-of-view shots). The mise-en-scene of Marketa Lazarová embeds the viewer into the film world, which according to Sorfa, could not have been done through classical narrative methods. That is, acts of touching and the vulnerability of the body, as well as the tactile (formalist) images “encourage a phenomenological engagement not only with the films but with history itself” (ibid.: 204). In the next chapter, Małgorzata Bugaj returns to Hungarian cinema and investigates the allegorical dimensions of the body in György Pálfi’s three-generation family saga, Taxidermia (2006). Deprived of its biological forms – the protagonist’s grandchild eviscerates himself at the end, – the film, she argues, reclassifies the body as an aestheticised object. Bugaj offers three possible (corporeal) readings to the film. The first concerns political representation and biology. From the outer world (skin) we enter the abstracted interior body and with this gesture, we travel from fascism to socialism and then capitalism. Finally, we enter carnivalesque corporealities based on Baudrillard’s argument of the body as a consumer object. Thus, the film also works as a commentary on our perception of physical nature – that is, in the era of capitalist consumerism, “the individuals’ bodily life is left unchecked and the state does not interfere'' (ibid.: 210). Based on Virilio’s ideas on “speed society”, Dorota Ostrowska then examines the body-technology representation in the socialist aerial films of Polish cinema. She investigates the way Cold War politics have affected corporeal cinematic representations, and argues that the “socialist aerial body”, governed by historical shifts, ideologies as well as technical advancements in Leonard Buczkowski’a Sprawa Pilota Maresza / The Case of Pilot Maresz (1956), Hubert Drapella’s Przeciwko Bogom / Against Gods (1961), Zniszczyć Pirata / To Destroy the Pirate (1973), and Julian Dziedzina’s Na Niebie i Na Ziemi / On the Earth and in the Sky (1974) demonstrate “the way in which human bonds and physical disability work as a kind of prosthesis of flying technology in relation to the body” (ibid.: 223).

Overall, The Cinematic Bodies of Eastern Europe and Russia. Between Pain and Pleasure is a crucial (starting) volume to dissecting corporeality in Eastern European cinema. Given the rich historico-political framework of the region, one that went through fascism, socialism and now a severe neoliberal transformation and crisis, the 20th-21st century investigation of the era in corporeal cinematic terms brings new insights to studying body on screen, while also fostering the very need to investigate the relationship between ideology and body in Eastern European cinema. In this manner, a collection on this crucial topic is, I believe, only a starting point – one that encourages scholars to further investigate this rich and largely neglected area.

Anna Batori
Babeş-Bolyai University
anna.batori@gmx.net

Bio

Anna Batori is an Associate Professor in Film and Television Studies at the Babeş-Bolyai University (Cluj-Napoca, Romania) with an MA in Film Studies (Eötvös Loránd University, 2012) and a PhD in Film Studies (University of Glasgow/Screen, 2017). Her recent book, Space and Place in Romanian and Hungarian Cinema (2018), is published by Palgrave Macmillan. She writes and teaches on European and world cinema, modern film theory and digitised narrative techniques.

Bibliography

Baker, Catherine, ed.. 2017. Gender in the 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR. London.
Coleman, Edmond and Theo Sandfort, eds. 2008. Sexuality and Gender in Postcommunist Eastern Europe and Russia. London.

Filmography

Buczkowski, Leonard. 1956. Sprawa Pilota Maresza/The Case of Pilot Maresz. Wytwória Filmnów Fabzlarnych.
Drapella, Hubert. 1961. Przeciwko Bogom/Against Gods. Zespól Filmowy Panorama.
Drapella, Hubert. 1973. Zniszczyć Pirata/To Destroy the Pirate. Zespól Filmowy Panorama.
Dziedzina, Julian. 1974. Na Niebie i Na Ziemi/On the Earth and in the Sky. Zespól Filmowy Panorama.
Gavrin, Gustav. 1948. Život je naš – Ljudi s pruge/Life is Ours – The People from the Railway. Avala Film.
Gavrin, Gustav. 1950. Crveni cvet/The Red Flower. Zvezda Film.
Hanžeković, Fedor. 1951. Bakonja fra Brne/Monk Brne’s Pupil. Jardan Film.
Kachyňa Karel. 1966. Kočar do Vidně/Coach to Vienna. Filmové Studio Barrandov.
Kachyňa Karel. 1967. Noc nevěsty/Night of the Bride. Filmové Studio Barrandov.
Mundruczó, Kornél. 2006. Taxidermia. Amour Fou Vienna.
Tarr, Béla. 1994. Sátántangó. Mozgókép Innovációs Társulás és Alapítvány.
Tarr, Béla. 2012. Torinói ló/ The Turin Horse. TT Filmműhely.
Vláčil. František. 1967. Marketa Lazarová. Filmové Studio Barrandov.
Wajda, Andrzej. 1955. Pokolenie/A Generation. Zespól Filmowy Kadr.
Wajda, Andrzej. 1956. Kanal. Zespól Filmowy Kadr.
Wajda, Andrzej. 1958. Popiół i diament/Ashes of Diamond. Zespól Filmowy Kadr.

Suggested Citation

Batori, Anna. 2020. Review: “Ewa Mazierska, Matilda Mroz and Elżbieta Ostrowska (eds.): The Cinematic Bodies of Eastern Europe and Russia. Between Pain and Pleasure. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00010.217

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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