Emotional and Family Life in Eastern-Bloc Cinema
Gender Check — the first film-related thing that comes to mind when one thinks of gender checking may be the popular cross-dressing comedies that play with body and gender visibility in cinema (and in society). Think of Wojciech Pokora disguising himself as a housemaid in Stanisław Bareja’s Man — Woman Wanted (1973) or Eugeniusz Bodo imitating May West in Leon Trystan’s Neighbours (1937). There is, of course, a second bottom to those funny scenes (and perhaps a third one too). The comedy role of Stanisław/Marysia, played by Pokora, became a pretext for tongue-in-cheek qui pro quos and light homosexual allusions (in Polish culture, homosexual themes usually appear under a pretext and under disguise). At the same time, the problematic issue of gender meets here the no less problematic issue of social class: a husband-come-housemaid is more useful at home than a husband-art historian, but the domestic help in the supposedly emancipated socialistic society has to be a woman. Bodo, in turn, imitated an American actress whose curvaceous torso lent the name to WWII-era aircrew life preserver jackets — only the very Mae West image was an imitation in itself, a representation of femininity, super-femininity embodied. Thus filmic narratives and the gestures of film characters reflect social praxes, but also reproduce and copy them, disseminating them in effect. At the same time, demonstration is sometimes destruction and an ostentatious super-visibility of femininity (masculinity) exposes them as nothing but constructs.
Belief in the causal power of images was something that guided socialist-realist artists — the essence was supposed to become more marble-like and real bodies were to model themselves upon the designed ones, becoming a bit less sexually different, a bit stronger, channelling their sexual energy in work. The costume of a worker or peasant (the latter less preferred, though), or at least a member of the Komsomol, covered all that could be the non-political body (Adventure in Marienstadt). Post-socialist realist cinema — from Warsaw to Moscow and from the Baltic to the Black Sea (in all those places where the censors left artists an at least narrow margin of freedom) — will unanimously steer towards the private sphere: intimate emotions and family issues. The bloc’s film dramas became either repeatable and bland or did not show happy families.
The family (though there were exceptions) was a field where social tensions could be safely explored. In a way, it was also the only one, because critically reviewing the public sphere and openly polemicising with the official political rhetoric was not allowed. Nonetheless, it is in the family and the sphere of sexuality (Innocence Unprotected) that the various aspects of human existence are all present and the individual meets the collective: the work (and pay) of men and women, their consumer and emotional needs (and their (un)fulfilment) (Adoption, A Woman Alone), relationships between parents and children, spouses or partners, the politics of the body and fertility (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), but also politics in the common sense of the word, invading privacy in the shape of war or institutional violence (How to Be Loved, Grbavica, Another Way). What could be shown was determined by the level of censorship — a ‘thaw’ in Soviet politics and cinema in the 1950s spawned protagonists who sometimes gave precedence to the lyrical (e.g. enamoured) self over one’s social duties; the perestroika, in turn, brought a foamy wave of chernukha [pessimistic neo-naturalism] art (Little Vera), under the pressure of which no stable values held ground. Cinema accompanied those changes, but it also helps us to examine them more closely. When we see working women, we also see a lack of respect for their work, low pay and lack of institutional support (A Woman Alone). When we see frustration of men at home, we see their inability to fulfil themselves in the closed public field (Jak być kochaną). All that is left to them are reminiscences of a past war and their heroic role in it (Innocence Unprotected) — sometimes leading to a new war (Grbavica).
Showing quickly rechannelled youth discontent (e.g., paradoxically, Daisies, 1966) or actually young people’s inability to rebel and a destruction of the domestic and family sphere (Inner Life, Ecce Homo Homolka, Little Vera), filmmakers were actually showing a society in a state of implosion. All attempts of transgression and non-normative gestures were sternly punished in it (Another Way) and the atrophy of social bonds (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is reflected in the disintegration of the stable self (Inner Life, A Woman Alone).
When a social explosion took place, cinema did not explode at all. It opened itself towards new subjects and new types of protagonists, but remaining a step behind the transitions, not so much redefining the space of the debate as capturing, like a radar, the changes taking place in both the public and private spheres. It has been diagnosing rather than designing, acting like a scalpel rather than like a hammer. This is because a fundamental transformation requires a radical language on the part of the medium itself and that is present more often in the other visual arts.