Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 5 
4 Mar
2002

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Robert Glinski's Czesc Tereska (Hi Tereska, 2001) YOUTH ON FILM
Teenage murderesses and monster babies
The portrayal of young people in recent central European film

The innocence of the young is often used in film to highlight social forces. Felicitas Becker looks at how youth is depicted in Czeœĉ Tereska, Lovely Rita and other recent works.


The child's inarticulate subjectivity is a well-tried cinematic means to give immediacy to the experience of helplessness in the face of the way society, or the protagonist's life or just plain where the plot of the film is going. Hence, for instance, the central role of children in some memorable films about war.

In a similar way, young people appear as protagonists in quite a few recent films from central Europe, such as the Polish Czeœĉ Tereska (Hi, Tereska, 2001) and Lovely Rita (2001) from Austria. Here, too, they are seismic devices—this time to chart the social changes, or simply the social anomie, of the second post-communist decade. Their troubles reveal something disconcerting about "adult" society. These are films about, but hardly for, young people.

Meanwhile, Czech filmmakers continue their use of children's pohádky (ie fairy tales) in films which may well also have more appeal for grown-ups than for jaded youths of the sort appearing in the films of their colleaguesabroad. These films would not easily be suspected of using youngsters to reflect on the state of present-day society. But actually, they, too, play with uneasiness about social relations.

Violent adolescents

The Polish film Czeœĉ Tereskais relentlessly bleak, the protagonist caught among impoverished, marginal people. The random violence which she eventually resorts to is traceable to this brutalizing environment, but is hardly a proportionate response.

The Austrian film Lovely Rita has a similar climax but is more bewildering. The girl Rita is shy and, like her mother, rather silent in a household dominated by an imposing, excessively orderly father. Still, with petty lies and secretiveness, Rita manages to steal moments of excitement and awkward-cum-pathetic romance from her daily routine.

The bleakness, if any, is the rather more benign one of kleinbürgerlich (petty bourgeois) bad taste. The strengths of the film lie here, in the deadpan humour with which it treats the parents' love of order and flowery wallpapers and the girl's sly moments of defiance.

Against this background, the eventual violent turn is actually a let-down. The lightness of touch goes out of the window as the protrait of a difficult teenager dissolves into the image of a mentally unhinged murderess. The intended message of the film lies in the way it weaves the murders seamlessly into the girl's routine. As in Czeœĉ Tereska, the suggestion is that the violence was already lurking in the family's everyday life .

The viewer has to cover a longer distance from the fashion crimes of Rita's parents to their daughter's violent crime than from Tereska's bleak life to her outburst. Still, in both cases, the lack of motivation as far as the violence is concerned is crucial to the impression of the film. Whether this is a weakness or a strength is debatable.

From fascism to wallpaper

In spite of the similarities, the two films address quite distinct debates in their respective home countries. According to the distributor of Czeœĉ Tereska, the film, based on actual occurrences, was intended as almost a warning, certainly as a resounding question, regarding the increase in teenage violence in Poland. It refers to a real fear of anomie in Polish society.

Lovely Rita is different. The careful examination and the denunciation of oppressive family structures by now have a tradition in Austrian, as well as in German film. They are motivated by the desire to address a past that won't be laid to rest, to understand, if possible, how the character of intimate social relationships helped prepare these societies for fascism.

Yet Lovely Rita is not explicit in identifying or denouncing proto-fascisms; this is one of the strengths of the film. Nevertheless, the ending suggests a connection between the oppressive pettiness of this family's life and Rita's disregard for the lives of others. Thus, Lovely Rita speaks to the politics of taste; it posits a relationship between ugly wallpaper and narrow-mindedness. In this, it is typical of the confusion, in public debates in the German-speaking world, between lifestyle choices and political allegiances. In this world, you can set out to denounce proto-fascism and end up satirizing wallpapers.

Intense emotions and failed idyls

It would seem that the Czech film Kytice (Wild Flowers / Bouquet, 2000) could hardly be more different. Its subject matter consists of seven fairy tale ballads by the Czech poet Joachim Erben. They are visualized in quite a literal way. Witches have crooked noses, watermen splash in lakes, magical objects sparkle.

Still, the film's appeal lies not in its easily accessible poetic qualities, but in its attention to intense, and often nasty, emotions which its prim presentation half conceals, half showcases. With their careful, sumptuous use of colour, the images are almost too easy on the eye. But if the viewer suspends disbelief in the fairy-tale means and objects of the protagonists' desires, taking the emotion at face value—much as a child would—the dreamlike perfection adds to the eeriness of these failed idylls. In this, the film stands out as a reminder of the merits of disregard for realism.

Yet, as in the films about violent teenagers, close relationships are at fault in Kytice. While the destructive forces, the witches and ghosts, are outsiders, tensions in the domestic realm give them power over the household's inhabitants. It is the mother's anger at her screaming toddler that gives the noonday witch the power to enter the house and kill the child.

Almost all the relationships portrayed are among women, or between women and children—a reminder of the place of fairy tales in the domestic realm. Also, it suddenly seems that the tales themselves portray the tension between circumscribed social environments and the individual impulses, the covetousness and desires poorly contained within them. Emotions become thwarted, double-edged—the loving mother drives her daughter mad—and trust is dangerous: What seemed to be the Holy Virgin's response to an ageing woman's prayer for her lover to return, turns into a ghost's attempt to take her to hell.

Unhinged desires

While Kytice looks smooth and overtly poetic, Jan Švankmajer's Otesánek (Little Otík, 2001) lives off the grotesquerie of its fairy tale subject. During the opening credits, the screaming, pink, larger-than life babies filling the screen are anything but cute. The recurring close-ups of stodgy stews and watery soups somehow lead straight to the image of the postman's bones gnawed clean by Otesánek, the ever-hungry baby carved from a root (a present by an infertile husband to cheer up his wife). But the film is too clever and, in a way, too pessimistic to pass as a parable on the dangers of too-desperate a desire for family happiness.

Švankmajer gleefully has the neighbours' little daughter reciting the list of the monster baby's victims from the rural folktale ("a girl and her clover, a herdsman and his pigs..."). Otesánek's urban incarnation meanwhile starts by munching the family cat and gets through the neighbours one by one, with the postie and the social worker thrown in. We are made to share the director's delight at his own cleverness, but ,at the same time, the seamless insertion of the fairytale character into a mundane urban present is the most disconcerting thing about the film.

The unflinching sense of the grotesque embodied in Otesánek extends to all the banal protagonists of life in a nondescript, slightly decrepit, apartment block somewhere in Prague. The interiors are crammed, frilly and heavily coloured, the TV is always running and advertising absurd, often edible, products. The lack of space and the attention given to food create an intense, uneasy physicality.

There is a lot of spying through curtains among the neighbours and a lot of good-humoured collective raising of glasses, but nothing to stop Otesánek's appetite. The old man living under the roof fancies the neighbours' young daughter. The daughter feeds him to Otesánek, on whom she has taken pity. The husband, come to take a chainsaw to the monster he created, can't bring himself to do it, overcome by paternal love. The old woman who eventually takes her hoe to the monster is motivated by anger at the loss of her cabbages. Somehow, everybody's emotions seem out of balance, all objects of desire or affection suspect.

Here, Otesánek chimes with Kytice. In turn, these two films, while more phantastic than Czeœĉ Tereska or Lovely Rita, arguably confront the fragility and ambiguity, the explosiveness of close domestic relationships at least as clearly as those. Although the send-ups (eg of TV ads for food in Otesánek) are tempting, it would be taking it a bit far to make a connection between the world of these fairy tale films and the brave new world of consumer capitalism. Still, it is worth noting that the use of animation and fairy tale motifs, which served complex purposes in the communist past, clearly hasn't become obsolete along with communism.

Felicitas Becker

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About the author

Felicitas Becker is a PhD candidate in East African social history at Cambridge. She is soon to start teaching a course on Africa and globalisation in Budapest. Her previous writing includes work for travel guides, radio and journals.

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