To me there never was much of a difference: under Communism my films were subjected to political censorship, after, to economic censorship.”

—Věra Chytilová

Compared to the cultured arrogance of other big festivals and their catwalks of polite hypocrisy, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is a quasi-communal affair. Almost everyone and everything is genuinely welcoming, from the Russian-owned thermal town to the festival staff. People can take advantage of a convenient bike rental service to reach out-of-the-way venues, and all screenings and other festival areas are accessible to visitors on wheelchairs. A jovial and unassuming atmosphere prevails at the festival where sundry audiences meet rather than parade, and an unadulterated enthusiasm for cinema fills lines, theaters, and conversations. The branding strategy of the festival reflects this unimposing yet effulgent approach to cultural production and exhibition. The minimalist festival logo unequivocally states the age and cultural tonnage of an event eager to avoid putting non-initiates off, accompanied by a self-ironic campaign featuring past KVIFF Lifetime Achievement award-winners.

Made in Ash

Inaugurated in the early Nineties after the fall of Communism, the East of the West competition epitomizes the regional expertise associated with the festival: Eastern European cinema. “We figured that if we wanted to stand out and be distinguishable we should focus on what we’re known for,” Karel Och, KVIFF’s artistic director, said of the growing relevance of the sidebar competition. As far as its geopolitical vocation is concerned, Och observes that the East of the West section “used to have a more political inference—they were films coming from the former Soviet Bloc” while now “we’re trying to shift the focus to the territorial, as we feel that this political undertone is no longer relevant.” There was in fact a tension across this year's selection, as if a forward surge pushing away from the gloomy past was met by the necessity of dissecting its ghosts. A number of films in East of the West dealt, directly or indirectly, with the burdensome corpse of Soviet hegemony and, less critically so, with the unexpected harshness of neo-liberal fundamentalism.

The cinematic ramifications of this shared preoccupation varied from the reactionary and pitiable tones of Yuma (Piotr Mularuk, Poland) to the fertile contradictions of Dear Betrayed Friends (Sára Cserhalmi, Hungary). Thankfully historical oblivion is not an option for contemporary Eastern European cinema, but there seems to be a lack of balance when past and present are explored. While the nightmare of Communism’s official vision is minutely dissected and criticized, the colorful illusions of Consumer Democracy and its horrors are mostly condoned. It is as if, overwhelmed by two consecutive failures and, most significantly, by the betrayed promises of the free world, Eastern European cinema is unable to frame the current causes of its social malaise. Jury member and Czech film critic Jaromír Blažejovský remarked in a recent article how “films expressing disillusion with capitalism are not usually welcome in the Czech lands—critics respond to them with irritation and audiences do not flock there.

Flower Buds

The film that best captures this dead-end sensation is Flower Buds (Zdeněk Jiráský, Czech Republic), a motionless tale of repeated failure besieged by a claustrophobic absence of horizons. Allegorically crossed by a railway track that doesn’t take anyone anywhere, the film conveys the monotonous circularity of provincial life trapped in misery and hopelessness. Confined in a cabin by a railroad crossing where he works, Jarda, a family man obsessed with gambling and bottled miniature ships, opposes the rush of oncoming trains with his still resignation. Everything and everyone around him, in a town that significantly remains unnamed throughout the film, is mired in the same, seemingly inevitable existential apathy. Jarda’s introvert son falls in love with a local stripper and ends up buying off her criminal boss (after having sold the grass he had been cultivating with a friend). Social relations are a tired and opportunistic ritual guided by no principle, ideal, or feeling. What strikes deepest about this unsentimental piece of livid realism is the implosion of any sort of generational clash; the old and new generations face the same absence of prospects with the same dispirited attitude.

Made in Ash (Iveta Grófová, Slovak Republic) is another unflinching piece of crude realism following two Slovak girls on their way to neighboring Czech Republic in search of a less miserable life. There is no fortune to be made, only racism to be encountered, humiliations to collect, and the eventual sale of their bodies to be silently accepted. While their arc may be predictable, the film excels at avoiding sentimental extortion and steers clear of the clichés of melodrama. Its credible story of misery is all the more painful for its sadly ineluctable banality. On a similar but definitely feebler note is People Out There (Aik Karapetian, Latvia); this time, the protagonists are two young men trapped in a cheerless housing block in an anonymous post-Soviet suburb. Though dreaming of an improbable escape, the two friends passively undergo the squalor of their daily lives, their sole distraction being the occasional outbreak of violence.

Back in the days when there was no Facebook, it was the secret police that meticulously tracked people’s tastes, opinions, and ideas, as seen in The Exam (Péter Bergendy, Hungary). This stylish period thriller plunges deep into the labyrinth of ubiquitous paranoia but, unlike the The Lives of Others, offers neither redemption nor a post-Communist conclusion. A young agent is tested by his superiors in the wake of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, when order and compliance had to be reinstated by any means necessary. With the same austere composure of a secret police officer, Bergendy investigates the deadly grip of mutual mistrust and the way it erodes the communal basis of society. The Exam shows how a totalitarian regime thrives on the intimidating projection of its supposed omnipotence rather than its actual implementation and how fear remains the best social unifier.

Dear Betrayed Friends

Dear Betrayed Friends tackles the same subject but deals with its aftermath and the aching ethical complexity that lingers after walls come down and “freedom” triumphs. Andor, a man in his sixties, decides to consult the files the secret police kept on him under Communism, which are now available at the national archives. To his bitter surprise he discovers that his friend János had spied on him in order to successfully continue publishing, while Andor had to struggle through menial and unstable occupations though he too, we learn, wanted to be a writer. Immediately Andor starts tailing and harassing the man whom he thought had been a friend, publicly naming and shaming him. János openly admits his vileness only to point out that while he had been “forced” to do what he did, nobody forced his betrayed friend Andor to pillory him. The elegant strength of this film consists in plainly exposing the lacerating moral litigation among these dearly betrayed friends without absolving or condemning any of them.

In comparison to the creative irreverence and insubordinate symbolism Czechoslovak cinema displayed almost half a century ago, freedom of expression and democracy have not much helped new generations finding their own voice or style. Digitally restored for its 50th anniversary, The Sun in a Net (Štefan Uher, Czechoslovakia) contains the seeds of what would later bloom into one of the most original and liberating new waves of Sixties cinema. The centrality of youth, its existential demands, and the restless longing for something different are all encapsulated in this early Nová Vlna “manifesto.” Though seemingly trapped by the tedium of existence, the two young protagonists are clearly animated by a stubborn faith in what the future might hold for them. The film’s sparse, rarefied air at times has an almost Antonioni-esque quality, but unlike the emotional deserts of the Italian master, relations here are still touched by a sense of possibility and meaning.

The Sun in a Net

Another restored wonder was Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (67), in which the director affectionately deconstructs the inner workings of “socialist” rule through a behavioral diagnosis of its ossified procedures, epitomized by the grotesque staging of communality. It is the intrinsic comicality of indoctrination that indicts the stern regime rather than declarations about civil liberties and other democratic illusions. Against the grey artifice of a failed utopia, the film rescues the glimmer of resistance from the dark waters of compliance and reclaims the inalienable right to imagination. It is significant that Forman’s work in the U.S. rarely boasts quite the same expressive insolence, as if the awareness of unfreedom was more stimulating than the statuary illusion of liberty.