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Banner stills L to R:  Innocence Unprotected, courtesy Dušan Makavejev; Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, courtesy Anthology Film Archives

History's Shadow

The power and influence of World War II in shaping 20th-century history was immeasurable. It split the century in two, and its effects in the postwar period (the term itself is telling) reverberated for decades. For Europe, it remains the defining event that shapes the Continent’s identity, especially in Eastern Europe—the territory on which millions lost their lives and where many of the war’s most infamous and tragic events, including the Holocaust, unfolded. Since its end, World War II has been represented dozens of times in the national cinemas of the former socialist bloc, often shedding light less on the war per se and more on the social changes that allowed for its new interpretations.


Still from Ashes and Diamonds, courtesy Milestone Films

Examples of Eastern European war films that became vehicles for writing and seeing history anew are abundant. In the first decade after the war, in Poland, both de-Stalinization and the emergence of the Polish Film School were announced by Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of war films (A Generation [1954], Kanał [1956], and Ashes and Diamonds [1958]), which gave form to a new conception of Poland’s tragic history and complex sense of national identity.[1] As Ewa Mazierska notes, for the next generation of Polish filmmakers, the so-called third generation, tackling the subject of the war was also essential as a reflection on their position vis-à-vis national history. Writing of a group of what she calls “soft avant-garde” films, she notes, “The very fact that the protagonists of these films did not fight in the war torments them because in 1960s Poland (as, to some extent, in other national contexts), the memory of the war is still very alive and plays a major role in the formation of national and individual identity. To put it bluntly, only the war veterans are regarded as having their masculine destiny fulfilled. The personal style of all these films, combined with our offscreen knowledge that their authors are in some ways similar to their characters, suggests that the directors share their concerns."[2]

As in Poland, in the Soviet Union, the first cinematic masterpiece to be created after Stalin’s death, The Cranes Are Flying (1957), was also a newly humanist representation of the war in which the narrative shifted from patriotic duty to a story of personal loss and perseverance. One of the best-known films of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966), was, likewise, a war film that applied the movement’s hallmark irreverence and absurdist attitude to a subject previously treated only with gravitas. Among other well-known Eastern European auteurs, Andrey Tarkovsky, István Szabó, Miklós Jancsó, and, more recently, Roman Polanski, Agniezska Holland, and Emir Kusturica have all made films that touch on aspects of World War II and its legacy.


Still from Innocence Unprotected, courtesy Dušan Makavejev

Given the long shadow that the war cast over the lives of people from the Eastern Bloc, the first program of this film series explores its impact as it is presented in two remarkable films that narrate stories of personal and communal trauma and resilience while also experimenting with the artistic formats in which such stories can be told. Made in a period that itself was marked by truly global social upheavals, Dušan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (1968) and Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) transcend and complicate the genres of both fiction films and traditional documentaries through which the war had previously been understood. The filmmakers give up on “objective” revelations and reliable narrators in order to present the war in new ways: as a half-tragic and half-farcical subject of modern-day mythology for some and a wound that will not heal for others.  — Ksenya Gurshtein

Listen to Audio Podcast (50:53 minutes)
Podcast of a panel discussion of Innocence Unprotected and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania and their historical contexts held at the National Gallery of Art on the opening day of Artists, Amateurs, Alternative Spaces, in conjunction with the symposium “The Filmmaker’s Voice: The Essay Film and the Circulation of Ideas,” organized by the Graduate Film Committee in Film Studies and the Film Studies Program at the University of Maryland. Panelists include Luka Arsenjuk, University of Maryland; Eric Zakim, University of Maryland; Mauro Resmini, Brown University; and Ksenya Gurshtein, National Gallery of Art.


1. In the context of Hungarian cinema, in her essay “Traumatic Memory, Jewish Identity: Remapping the Past in Hungarian Cinema,” Catherine Portuges notes the example of the film Somewhere in Europe (1947) as a work that sensitively addressed the complexity of the war experience in Eastern Europe. Notably, this film, with a script by Béla Balázs, was “one of the last postwar films to be released before the communist takeover of Hungary.” Portuges notes that the film industries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland devoted “substantial attention” to films, not just about the war, but also about the plight of the Jewish population, yet did so “through the lens of socialist and communist ideological preoccupations, with their characteristic antifascist themes of resistance and their celebratory narratives of the values of international solidarity.” She notes that aside from films produced between 1947 and 1949 (and cites no examples besides Somewhere in Europe), the next wave of war films that showed sensitivity to individual experiences of the war was produced between 1959 and 1968. In Anikó Imre, ed., East European Cinemas (New York, 2005), 122–23. (back to top)

2. Ewa Mazierska, “Retelling Polish History through the ‘Soft Avant-Garde’ Films of the 1960s,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 53 (2012): 22–39, 28. (back to top)