Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, 2004, 131 min.
The theme: borders as they appear in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia after the fall of the wall and just before the countries enter the European Union. The idea is brilliant and the film is good. One can always argue, of course, that in compilation films such as this, the quality of the films will always differ. Here, too, the differences in tone and approach are enormous, but they are overshadowed by the fact that the Austrian initiators from Geyerhalter Films brought this – in their own words – ‘episodically structured project’ to a successful result with visible respect for the individual directors. The differences in tone and approach underline the always so praised European diversity. Eastern Europe is not just one thing, as many Westerners might think. In this respect the film is wonderfully varied.
That will be my focus. Content-wise it is quite simple: if you want to know something about the countries involved, the films offer you human portraits that arouse your curiosity about the history, social conditions and politics of your neighbours.
The journey along the borders goes from north to south. Polish Pawel Lozinski is thus the first to give us his masterly managed micro-look at a small village at the German-Polish border. The old people who live here came from the former eastern border region after WWII when the Soviet Union seized Polish land. Lozinski depicts his characters with a sure hand in beautifully photographed tableaux: shoeing a horse, building a shelter for the dog, slaughtering a duck and sitting down to drink one more vodka and talk about the past.
Czech Jan Gogola displays a completely different style when he goes to the border town of Ceske Velenice to investigate whether such a thing as a European identity even exists. Gogola employs this special comedy trick where he appears in the film himself, dances with a bar woman, plays catch with a plastic border ‘stone’, teases a mayor who has a prostitute standing behind him, and so on. He uses many more gimmicks that serve to point out that all this talk of identity is nationalistic and makes no sense.
Slovak Peter Kerekes presents the most interesting element of the border theme. He has tracked down a bunch of people who were once informers for the police when refugees were about to cross over to the West. He superbly combines archive footage with contemporary material, including scenes in which the ‘helpers’ (their own term) illustrate what they did during the Cold War. Served in a very relaxed and humorous manner Kerekes lets us see that this informer gene, i.e., wanting to report people who deviate from the norm, still exists.
The gypsy couple in Hungarian Robert Lakatos’s documentary act as if it was all fiction. They go to Vienna for business, they live from day to day, take an easygoing approach to life, wander around, sleep in the car and go back to Transylvania to check up on their family. It is not very deep, but it has this fresh, charming, straightforward style and a dialogue that works well. Finally, the sea emerges after a lot of East and Central European claustrophobia. Slovenian Biljana Cakic-Veselic takes us on a trip with a fisherman who has to cope with strict quotas to fish along the tiny strip of Slovenian coastline. The director uses a lot of words to explain the background of the problem. Unfortunately this slows down the film’s rhythm and makes it a bit like a lecture.