When it comes to cinema, the idea of a European ‘New East’ might just be a mirage. The term is often used in the Western media as a simple category to keep lumping post-communist countries together, as if they still have something distinctly in common. Perhaps they don’t, and do not wish to be forever cursed to be ‘not West’, an imaginary other defined in opposition. But no great cinema exists outside history, or the past’s legacy, even when its project is breaking free from tired limitations and labels, and transforming the world anew. In tribute to where the past decade has taken countries of the New East, or rather, where they have taken it, and their identities, creatively, we have compiled a list of 10 of the best films. These are 10 of the era’s best, from the region, sure, but from anywhere, full stop. So oppressive groupings or labels need not apply. Other strong examples of what these 10 films do so well also get special mentions.
All These Sleepless Nights
If there’s any film of the last decade that embodied a young generation’s optimistic hope, it has to be Michał Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights (2016), an intimate and fluid blend of documentary and fiction. “I Hear A New World”, a pop number by experimental trailblazer Joe Meek, sounds out as the camera glides across Warsaw’s night skyline, fireworks exploding around the Palace of Culture. As a gift from Stalin, the gargantuan building has been a symbol of oppression, but this opening signals a readiness to remake the capital anew, shaking off the grasp of troubling memory. We join two art school friends, Krzysztof (Krzysztof Bagiński) and Michał (Michał Huszcza) through a summertime haze of parties. They are open to new experiences, yet introspective, at a crossroad in their lives. Warsaw appears as a city that has come into its own identity, a vanguard of vibrant creativity, with no insecure need to imitate some hipper elsewhere. Infused with buoyant possibility, the film came out before the Brexit vote, before Trump’s election, before a sharp rise in nationalism across the globe, and before heightened anxiety over the climate crisis. The energy of a transformative youth culture also infuses And Then We Danced (2019), shot in Tbilisi by Levan Akin. Partly shot within the Georgian capital’s thriving nightlife, it focuses on a taboo gay romance in a traditional dance troupe, embodying the clash between old and new ways of thinking.
The Turin Horse
Far from reaching for a new world, Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse (2011) blew out the candle on a dying one. The film, which he declared his last, begins as it ends, in pitch darkness. In 1889, the philosopher Nietzsche saw a carriage driver whipping a horse, a scene that made him so upset he lost his mind. The film grew out of this incident, which conjures the breakdown of a rational world. The horse’s ageing driver (János Derszi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) carry out their gruelling, austere routine in an isolated cottage. Dressing, fetching water, and eating potatoes with their hands, they barely speak, as a storm batters the land. The horse loses its will to eat, a portent, it seems, of apocalypse. An outsider who visits in search of brandy rants about the world’s degradation. A funeral lament for a form of European arthouse cinema that is burning out in our superficial digital era, it is a film of sublime, old-world essence and weight, majestically shot in black and white. The howl of the relentless gale is as intrinsic to its aural beauty as the organ-heavy score. Hard to Be a God (2013), Aleksei German’s medieval sci-fi, based on a novel by famed Soviet writers the Strugatsky Brothers, drenches its no-holds-barred vision of primal brutishness in mud and blood. It seemed another epic obituary to a form of black-and-white grandeur of times past.
The Soviet Union no longer exists as a concrete territory, but its persistence as a painful mental legacy can be felt in many films from its former republics. Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s vision of Russia as a morally-degraded colossus is at its most bitter and blackly satirical in My Joy (2010). The film shifts between the present and World War II, as a trucker takes a road trip through a crime-blighted land where life is cheap, just as it was for its ghosts of history. Many inside the country deemed it Russophobic, but not director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who called it the decade’s best Russian-language film. That was before he made his own biting critique of his homeland, Leviathan (2014). It is the majestically sombre, sardonic tale of a car mechanic, Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), who lives in an alcohol-sodden provincial settlement. His marriage is unravelling, and his home is on a prime spot of land which the mayor wants to seize to build a luxury dacha on. Kolya’s power clash with officialdom escalates rapidly, as he decides to fight back with the help of a slick lawyer friend from Moscow. The film takes on the weight of existential parable, its title evoking the all-consuming, mythical whale, and the Old Testament fable about a good family man who has everything he holds dear taken from him by God in a series of trials, and struggles to understand his fate.
Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy’s The Tribe (2014) goes all in on the uncompromising bleakness that has become a cliché conception of Eastern European cinema in the West, but with such rigorous flair it is as exhilarating as it is brutal. In this eerie vision of institutionalized neglect and exploitation, teenager Sergey (Hryhoriy Fesenko) is forced to adapt to the demands of life as a pupil in a boarding school for the deaf that operates as a crime syndicate on the side, dabbling in robbery and prostitution for truckers. When Sergey falls for Anya (Yana Novikova), one of the girls at the school, his rise up the ranks of the gang is complicated. The film is entirely in unsubtitled sign language, a bold move that, in an underworld almost free of the guidance of adults, emphasizes the youths’ alienated remove from the main currents of their society all the more, as an elaborate dance of emphatic gesture and tension-infused silence unfolds before us. The film stands out as an unforgettable revelation in a decade with no shortage of powerful examples of what we might call the ‘it’s grim out east’ arthouse genre, such as Kazakh director Emir Baigazin’s riveting tale of bullying and revenge, Harmony Lessons (2013), and Godless (2016), a deep dive into social degradation and opportunistic corruption from Bulgaria’s Ralitza Petrova.
The Romanian New Wave has over the years brought us a string of arthouse hits exploring the failures of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s totalitarian rule, and Romania’s struggles transitioning to a free-market capitalism that promised more than it has delivered. While it continued its fine run through the decade, it arguably reached its peak with Cristi Puiu’s ruminative, enigmatic Aurora (2010). The film begins in a grey Bucharest dawn, and follows a divorced engineer (played by Puiu himself) through a day in which minor setbacks and irritations push him toward breaking point, and he commits murder. This meditation on existential alienation, the limits of the social code, and the mystery of what drives people to kill, is both a masterpiece of dark, absurdist humour, and a very human acknowledgement of our inability to control or explain the universe in a manner that ensures our security or belonging, or even our basic sanity. Another of the Romanian New Wave’s leading lights is Radu Muntean, whose wry take on marital breakdown and mid-life crisis Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) was one of the decade’s most finely observed relationship dramas. As much as all the wave’s directors hate to be lumped together as a ‘movement’, the strong echoes between their films – their talky, black-humoured naturalism, their no-nonsense minimalism, and their philosophical concern with freedom and limitations – point to an inspired creative moment in the nation’s cinema that is more than the sum of its parts.
Touch Me Not
A new Romanian star is on the ascendant, whose cinema couldn’t be more different to the New Wave tendency for male-driven films about family strife. Adina Pintilie won the top award at the Berlin International Film Festival for her debut feature Touch Me Not (2018), a divisive decision that sparked an outcry from more conservative quarters, including the vocal far right in her home country. Experimental and intimate in its blend of documentary and fiction, it acts as a kind of therapy laboratory. Laura (played by Laura Benson) seeks a solution to her discomfort at being touched by consulting others who feel more at home in their sense of being different, from a Munich transsexual, who says there is no human body classifiable as “good or bad”, to a man severely disabled with spinal muscular atrophy who nevertheless enjoys a physically-satisfying marriage. Some didn’t know how to assimilate a film so outside their own comfort zone, but others praised its emotional risk and radical spirit. Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska’s Body (2015) is another example of challenging cinema of the most personal of worlds, aimed at psychic healing. In its tale of a bereaved teen with an eating disorder, it examines the gulf between the corporeality of flesh and bone, and the spiritual beyond.
Nana Ekvtimishvili based the script for In Bloom (2013) on her own youthful memories. Co-directed with Simon Gross, the coming-of-age tale focuses on the friendship of two teenage girls, Eka (Lika Babluani) and the more outgoing Natia (Mariam Bokeria), in 90s Tbilisi. These are the early days of independence, in an uncertain society still teetering on the brink of violence. Macho posturing and possessiveness characterize the rivalry between Natia’s two prospective suitors. Events spiral out of control when one of them gifts her a gun for protection – a gesture that echoes the unpredictable volatility all around. The soul-searching of a nation trying to find its footing in a changing world might explain the creative dynamism driving Georgia’s New Wave, as the Caucasus state becomes cinema’s new talent hotspot. A number of impressive recent films by a young directing generation, in a country with a rich history of cinematographic flair now recovering from years of conflict, turn on today’s clash between familiar social fabric and tradition, and a new liberalism and individualism more aligned with the European Union. In Ana Urushadze’s wildly surrealistic and playful Scary Mother (2017), for instance, a woman who has penned an erotic vampire novel is determined to get it published – despite the opposition of her husband, who does not recognize any role for her outside the family.
History is never finished. Reckoning with its ghosts means a willingness to re-evaluate the past and the stories we tell about it. Paweł Pawlikowski grappled with this in Ida (2013), an elegantly shot road journey that takes us back to the early 60s, and a Poland in which dark wartime crimes had not been fully confronted or laid to rest. A young novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska), raised by a convent, seeks out her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her only surviving relative. The former state prosecutor is now a hedonistic heavy drinker, who finds little meaning in life beyond worldly pleasures. Startling revelations about Ida’s Jewish identity, her family’s fate and her nation’s troubled history offer context to Wanda’s disillusionment – and prompt Ida to question her own future plans and place in the world. Striking black-and-white cinematography boxes the characters into a composed, atmospheric space in which that which is unsaid takes on multitudes, and secrets stifle the lives of all. It’s the first Polish film to have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, though not the only Polish film of the last decade to have brought new layers to our understanding of the Holocaust. Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2011), a dramatization of the sheltering of Jews by a Polish Catholic sewer worker in Lwów during the German occupation, and Marcin Wrona’s dybbuk horror and wartime allegory of the return of the dispossessed, Demon (2015), are also strong guardians of memory.
Alina Rudnitskaya emerged as one of the region’s boldest voices in documentary, in a decade that has seen non-fiction cinema finally granted more of the attention as an art that it deserves. She had already achieved renown for her short film Bitch Academy (2008), which documents women in St. Petersburg attending a course on how to snag a husband, when she made Blood (2013), which follows a medical team across regional Russia as they collect blood from donors. As absurdly humorous as it is rawly honest, the film takes an almost Gogolian delight in chaos and vulgarity as it shows the nurses relieve the stresses of the day with boozy jaunts, after grappling matter-of-factly with the undernourished donors fainting, and other challenges. But this is a film also infused with human empathy, conveying how difficult it is to live with dignity in a political climate rife with desperation. The donors are not so much civic-minded, as reliant on the income they receive, in areas rife with unemployment. In this sense, it’s hard not to associate the buckets of blood they fill with a state that has vampiric designs on its citizens. It’s impossible, too, not to mention the name of Sergei Loznitsa in the decade’s documentary achievements, his observational rigour having given us some of the finest films in recent memory, such as Maidan (2014) on Ukraine’s revolution, and Austerlitz (2016), which casts a critical eye on the behaviour of tourists at Holocaust sites.
Son of Saul
The invention a new cinematic language for portraying the Holocaust: given the sensitivity around this historical cataclysm and the fact that it’s often deemed beyond depiction, it’s a risky project. But Hungarian director László Nemes pulled it off with his debut feature Son of Saul (2015), coming away with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for his audacity. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. He is part of the Sonderkommando, tasked with scrubbing down gas chambers and dragging bodies to the crematorium. In numbness he goes about his labour, blocking out as best he can the sensory tumult of horrors around him. We see the camp only from his limited perspective, so close in to a visceral experience of his trauma that we never see his whole body in the frame. The predominant language we hear is Yiddish, which was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust along with its speakers. Within the camp’s nihilistic void, Saul reaches for vestiges of spirituality to retain his humanity, in a film that finds a way to charge historical memory with a fresh sense of urgency. Radu Jude also went for bold innovation in I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (2018), blending Romanian New Wave naturalism with shocking performance re-enactment in his powerful indictment of nationalism and the way in which history’s worst crimes may repeat, if enabled by a lack of societal vigilance.