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9.9.2011

The Celluloid Curtain – Europe´s Cold War in Film

The term 'Cold War' was popularised by the American political commentator Walter Lippmann in the late 1940s. It describes the dangerous confrontation between two powerful, opposing political systems (Capitalism and Communism), which culminated in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. This conflict is reflected in the history of the cinema.

The curators of the film series: Nikolaj Nikitin (l.) and Oliver Baumgarten. (Still from video on film series)

For a brief period in 1945 the world seemed to unite in a collective show of strength against Germany and its allies before fragmenting into countless separate interest groups and, above all, into two camps: East and West. The American writer Walter Lippman came up with the term "Cold War" in 1947 to describe the menacing conflict ignited by two powerful political systems in opposition to each other and which culminated in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. This border within Germany became a concrete barrier between East and West, a tangible und visible frontline of a conflict based on permanent threat.

Big Brother is watching you: the spy film originated in an era of ideological paranoia. Film poster for "For Eyes Only". (© The Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive)

And so it was Europe that became the definitive playground of the Cold War. This is where the superpowers pushed their pieces about the board, where weapons were stored, where concrete policies and espionage were pursued, and where the secret services engaged in a battle for information at a subdural level. Because of the Iron Curtain, Europe became the centre of a rampant paranoia caused by mistrust and spying. It is therefore no coincidence that the espionage film in all its guises was one of the most successful film genres of the 1950s and 1960s in Europe. European popular culture – whether in the East or West – reacted to this permanent sense of fear and threat by processing it filmically. The espionage film is not simply a superficial genre of opposites in which the ideological concept of East and West is discussed. Espionage films take this apparent dualism of the world as a starting point from which to deal not only with the political but also with other polarities: good and evil, man and woman, illusion and reality. The agent in a film does not simply hunt down diplomatic secrets but discusses and interprets the state of society at the same time. The deeply ironic way in which this often happened on either side of the Iron Curtain clearly led to the success of the genre with audiences.

However it is this discourse, this commentary on society that sometimes led espionage films to become tendentious; they were used to get political messages across, maybe only subconsciously, but nevertheless they were to a certain extent steered and instrumentalised by both East and West. And so it is the reflection of polarities in espionage films that consistently contributed to the ideological formation of the two blocs. The boundaries between good and evil, illusion and reality, East and West can be discussed at a profound level, but these opposites are hardly ever actually resolved in the films. In the end someone does always gets away – and if there is any doubt, then it has to be the hero. Another gripping sociological feature of the genre is the fact that the heroic agent is characterised very differently depending on which country is producing the film, regardless of which bloc he might or might not belong to.

Fifty years after the construction of the Wall and the start of the hottest phase of the Cold War, "The Celluloid Curtain" film series presents a cinematographic perspective of the Cold War period. Eleven contemporaneous fictional films from various European countries situated both sides of the Wall represent different perceptions and interpretations of the political and social climate at a time when Europe was divided. Filmmakers from countries such as England, France, Spain, the FRG, the GDR, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary tackle the theme in different ways, thus offering up fascinating insights. Moreover the films selected for "The Celluloid Curtain" are deliberately outside the usual canon, instead, popular and entertaining productions that are normally excluded from the history of film have been chosen. Retrospectively the social and historical gain turns out often to be so much richer with popular films – and that not only according to Kracauer.

This film series places two contributions at the beginning of the spy film chronology that anticipated the pinnacle of bloc building, namely the construction of the Wall. From the West, it could be said that Fritz Lang's 1960 film Die 1.000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse laid the cinematic foundations for the spy film in Europe. In a hotel that is constantly monitored by cameras and where everyone is watching everyone else, a shadowy and powerful antagonist in the shape of Dr Mabuse tries to gain power through information. The Cold War is discussed with such exactness and the monitoring is illustrated so impressively that the journey to Dr No and Blofeld is only a very short one.

And from the East, Romanian director Ion Popescu-Gopo, a well-known graphic artist and animation filmmaker, anticipated the height of this East-West paranoia in his feature film S-a furat o bombă. That was in 1961, the year the Wall was built. The film, a farce with occasional slapstick elements, is entirely without dialogue; its innocent Hitchcockian anti-hero embodies the impotence of officialdom and the all-pervading fear of the bomb - an allegory of the faceless key to power.

These two genre-defining forerunners provide the prelude to nine variations. What is striking about spy films from both East and West is the fact that the films from the East are more loaded politically and ideologically than their western equivalents; this is reflected in the programme, for example the Soviet contribution attacks the opposing ideologies not only in a subtly dramaturgical way but also head-on in the narrative. And on both sides agents plunge into their enemy's communities for long periods of time: Russians turn out to be more effectively German than the Germans (Skvorets i Lira), a capitalist interloper remains undetected in Poland until he is betrayed by his lack of values (Spotkanie ze Szpiegiem), a Bulgarian agent gets lost in the anarchic madness of western hippie culture - without ever forgetting his mission, of course (Nyama nishto po-hubavo ot loshoto vreme).

The package contains humorous parables (S-a furat o bombă from Romania or Les Barbouzes from France/Italy) as well as dark and apparently realistic scenarios presented with great seriousness (The Spy Who Came In from the Cold from England), action-packed entertainment (Comando de asesinos from Spain/Portugal or For Eyes Only – Streng geheim from the GDR) and carefully developed genre examples (Fotó Háber from Hungary) as well as avantgardistic and seemingly psychologising studies of character (Smyk from Czechoslovakia). Frequently at the heart of films from both East and West is that symbol of the Cold War, Berlin, where at the height of the paranoia every second adult is alleged to have worked for a secret service (from The Spy who Came in from the Cold, England, via Nyama nishto po-hubavo ot loshoto vreme, Bulgaria, to Smyk, Czechoslovakia).

The spy film genre began to bloom in Europe 50 years ago with the construction of the Wall in August 1961, the physical manifestation of the formation of the blocs. Countless well-known and very successful films took advantage of any means available to them to deal with themes of separation and perceived threat between ideologies. The film series "The Celluloid Curtain" illustrates both the similarities and differences in perspective from both sides of the Wall.


Translated by: Penny Black
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