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Notes on period supernatural films from Communist Eastern Europe

Abandon all sciences. You are about to enter realm of supernatural, from Middle Ages to Early Modern Period in Eastern Europe.



Fantasy, magical realism and surrealism with superstitions, folklores, demons and God(s) - Western filmmakers had explored dark supernatural films since Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921), Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage (1921), Häxan (1922), Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926). But it's Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)**** [watch] that was arguably the most influential Medieval fantasy film ever.
... Political climate of 1950s, with death of Stalin in 1953, allowed new-wave film directors to emerge in Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe. This genre also appeared in 1960s with many masterpieces.


A hyterical nun in 17th century convent believed to be possessed by demons in Mother Joan of the Angels (1961, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Poland)*** [watch] This slow-burn film brilliantly walks on a fine line between superstitious horror, philosophical film about demons, and psychological tale of depressive nun's life.

In 17th century a priest investigates a mysterious case of a miller that may involves witchcraft. The Devil's Trap (1962, Czechoslovakia)*** [watch] is Frantisek Vlácil's first film in trilogy of faith, which all of them are actually not belong in this list. Because early in this film, audience will find out that those "miracles" are in fact science. This thought-provoking film portrays science against superstition, and free-spirit against authorities/serfdom.
... His second film in trilogy, Marketa Lazarova (1967)*** is about bloody transition from Paganism to Christianity in feudal state. It was considered by many critics as the best Czech film ever made, though very confusing in its first half (I need to read synopsis), the conclusion in the last 30 minutes is so beautiful.
... The last one, The Valley of the Bees (1968)***, tells story of a boy submitted to God by joining the Order of Teutonic Knights in 13th century. This film explores religious doubts of two main protagonists while showing contrast between strict world of Christianity and chaotic-but-natural world of Paganism. Its ending involves protagonists' dealing with their sins, and subtly hints their homosexual relationship.


It all began with discovery of a book during Napoleonic Wars.The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojciech Has, Poland)**** [watch] spans around 100 years in 18th century, back and forth. Story upon story upon story and so on, this clever narrative-game shows power of stories and complexity of human connections. It also blurs the line between the end of reality and beginning of fantasy.

Tragic story of forbidden love told in style of folklore in Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965, Ukraine, Soviet Union)**** [watch]. When a film was filled with excessive cultural artifacts, it is usually to hide emptiness of the story and inability to show essence of the culture. But in Parajanov's film that cultural display is more like details in exquisite Medieval paintings. The camera movement and angles also create magical brushstrokes. His films are always dense with ethnic traditions and religions (Christian Orthodoxy and Paganism) which are absolutely opposite from Soviet ideologies. This film is one of his most accessible films.
... Parajanov's unique style would be fully precipitated in The Color of Pomegranates (1969)****, which loosely based on life of an Armenian poet in Medieval Period. It was told not in style of surrealism nor magical realism, but what I would call the paintings that move. Parajanov singlehandedly created his own cinematic language. These heavily symbolized paintings were also obviously homoerotic. (He might be influenced by Pasolini's works which he adored.) With very little plot I would hilariously summarize this film as "homosexual denial of a lonely poet". Parajanov himself will later be jailed on charge of homosexuality that he denied the accusation all through his life.


Witchhammer (1970, Otakar Vávra, Czechoslovakia)*** is really tough to watch. A small superstitious act led to wide persecution of witches in 17th century. Knowing that this realistic film was based on real trial records made it become even more sad. It also pointed out that wars and financial situation were important factors responsible for widespread witch trials. This might be allergorical tale about communist justice system.

Sexual awakening of 13-year-old girl was portrayed in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovakia)**. I'm not sure why this film was highly praised since it's just some sexually-exploitative softcore porn in lightweight experimental style with some vampires. It might be because its message about sexual liberation was quite daring at that time.


A man visited his father in remote mental institution where time and space changed all the time. The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973, Wojciech Has, Poland)*** is mindbending feverish dreams mixed with unreliable memories that will go on and on until you're tired, then its twist ending will make you sit still for awhile. My problem is that this surrealist film is kind of intellectual game without message. (Someone pointed out that ruins of mental institution were metaphors for Polish authorities, I think that's a bit of stretch.) Inspired by Bruno Schulz's book, this film has many parts involving Jewish traditions that irritated antisemitic authorities. As a result Has was banned from directing for ten years.

A beastly ruler longing for love from manipulated citizen in Beauty and the Beast (1978, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia)**. Watching it without any information, I was surprised by the look of the Beast, it's more of animal than fairy-tale being, making their relationships feel even more pervert. This gothic horror film is very unique but is inconsistent and abruptly ends. It had potential to be a great film but fell short. In this version I'd considered the girl's father a hypocritical manipulator, he is the other villain of the story.


Surreal history of Slovakia told through three generations of a large family from 19th century to World War I. The Millennial Bee (1983, Juraj Jakubisko, Czechoslovakia)*** has so many characters that it confused me in fast-paced first hour, then their lives were affected by the expansion of Austria-Hungary Empire, Socialist uprising, assassination of the Archduke followed by the war. Supernatural events occurred regularly in this magical realist film, some changed their lives, some predicted their futures and some comforted their souls. Though uneven story, the ending involving resistance to Austria-Hungary Empire is very memorable.

A boy adopted by a fairy fell in love with a girl on earth. Juraj Jakubisko's fairy tale Perinbaba (1985, Czechoslovakia)**** [watch] is literally magical. This naively charming film is celebration of mortal life and power of love. The fairy was played by the great Giulietta Masina, Fellini's muse. It's like combination of Fellini and Kusturica. Simply amazing.


Suram Fortress had been built and crumbled all the time, so the Tsar decided to seek help from a fortuneteller in The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985, Georgia, Soviet Union)*** [watch], Sergei Parajanov's first film after being in-and-out of prisons for almost ten years on false charges of rape, homosexuality and bribery. It was a Georgian nationalist film, eventhough Georgia was still in Soviet Union. The clash of sound and colours are prominently alive in this moving-painting style of Parajanov. There always are somethings I could learn from watching his films repeatedly.

A singing beggar has 1001 days to find money for his girl's dowry in Sergei Parajanov's last film, Ashik Kerib (1988, Azerbaijan, Soviet Union)***. This film and The Legend of Suram Fortress (the better one) have the same theme about main characters in disguise of new identities sliding into new cultures, new religions and sometimes new gender. Though both films glorify stereotypical orientalism of the Middle East, Parajanov managed to make them rich and mesmerizing as expected from a genius.
... The last shot of Ashik Kerib was dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky who died in 1986 with lung cancer, which he might get from shooting locations of Stalker. Parajanov died in 1990 due to deteriorated health from hard labor in prisons.

Paradjanov made films not about how things are, but how they would have been had he been God.
- Alexei Korotyukov





P.S. Fantasy versus Magical Realism [source]
... Fantasy films often create a divide between the natural and magical worlds. This consequently allows protagonists the freedom to escape from the real world to the magical place.
... Magical realism, meanwhile, introduces elaborate and or minute supernatural elements to a realistic world... Characters within the realistic worlds of these stories do not question the fantastical attributes of their worlds. Instead, by not acknowledging the mystical aspects of their worlds as supernatural, these components become part of their realities.
... Fantasy explicitly acknowledges and questions the ‘other' world and its supernatural attributes. Magical realism, meanwhile, raises more subtle internal questions facilitated by treating the supernatural like everyday stimuli. 


Posted: July 2022


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