They have irreversibly influenced the way things are seen, thought and talked about through small screens. Some of the lines from these films have made their way into day to day vocabulary as witty remarks, jokes as well as insightful quotes about serious matters. Often characterized by strong political and social remarks, Eastern European cinema is filled with gems that feature ridiculous, often eccentric and above all, realistic representation of life. Here is our pick of 10 Cult films from Eastern European cinema you definitely need to watch.
Teddy Bear (Miś), Poland, 1981.
Using eccentric and quirky humor, Teddy Bear actually delivered a harsh critique on a Communist regime. The story unfolds after the main character and his ex-wife race each other in attempt to withdraw money from their joint account. After the lead character, Rysiek discovers his wife has torn his passport and disabled him from leaving the country, he is forced to go into black market for help. During his adventure through the illegal part of Communist regime, we get to see state criticism skillfully disguised in many layers of surreal humor. Considered a niche classic in Poland, along with The Cruise (Rejs), this is a perfect example of a film using outrageous humor in a bid to avoid censorship.
The Marathon Family(Маратонци трче почасни круг), Yugoslavia, 1982.
Widely acclaimed as a Yugo cinema classic, this black comedy is a story of an all-male family Topalović, which consists of six generations of undertakers who own a funeral business named ‘’Long Rest’’. Despite being reputable and well known, funeral business of Topalović family is not entirely legal. They collaborate with a local gangster Billy Phyton, who visits graveyards at night, digs up the old coffins and brings them to Topalović family, who then refurbish and sell them as new ones. However, their relationship with Billy deteriorates due to their debt to him, which they have no intention of paying. After the oldest member of family Pantelija dies, and leaves his inheritance to himself, a war inside of the family begins. Filled with laughter and ridiculous lines, it’s understandable why The Marathon Family remains one of the most-loved and watched films in the Balkans.
Moscow doesn’t believe in tears(Москва слезам не верит), Soviet Union, 1980.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981., it is said Moscow does not believe in tears was played on repeat by US President Ronald Reagan before meeting with Gorbachev, in order to understand Slavic mentality better. A simple, yet very realistic portrait, this film shows lives of three young women who arrive to Moscow from provincial towns to look for a better life. Each of them represents a stereotype: a conservative traditional-minded Antonina, hard working and independent Yekaterina and a gold-diggerish Lyudmila. The three of them befriend each other, as they are placed in the same working dormitory upon arrival in Moscow. This feature not only underlines differences between them perfectly, but also draws parallels between them and the men they meet and fall in love with during a span of 20 years.
Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledovane vlaky), Czechoslovakia, 1966.
One of the key representatives of Czechoslovak New Wave, Closely Watched Trains was awarded with numerous recognitions and accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1968. and a Golden Globe nomination. Set in the time period of WW2 during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, this film follows a story of a young Miloš Hrma. After he gets his first job as an apprentice at a local train station, Miloš has his first romantic and sexual encounter with a conductor named Maša. Unfortunately for him, this encounter ends prematurely and, due to embarrassment and disappointment in himself, a day later Miloš attempts a suicide. Later on, an older rail station worker Zdenička sets Miloš up with experienced Viktoria in an attempt to set him free from his past trauma. After he indeed succeeds, Miloš gets a surge of courage and bravery which eventually shows in the most unexpected way when a Nazi collaborator appears at rail station and provokes the workers.
Underground (Подземље), Yugoslavia, 1995.
Winner of Palme D’or at 1995 Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film at Boston Society of Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics, Underground is widely regarded as one of the most influential Balkan films ever made. A humorous critique of Socialist regime, Variety’s film critic Deborah Young said ‘’if Fellini had shot a war movie, it might resemble Underground’’.Praised for its surreal, raw aesthetics and quirky humor brought to the screen by incredibly persuasive actors, Underground is also known for its, today legendary soundtrack. Composed by one of the internationally most acclaimed Balkan musicians Goran Bregović, it contains masterpiece tunes such as Kalašnjikov, Mesečina and Čoček. As Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times critic said, Undeground is ‘’sprawling, rowdy, vital film laced with both outrageous absurdist dark humor and unspeakable pain, suffering and injustice’’.
Burnt by the Sun (Утомлённые солнцем), Russia, 1994.
Winner of Grand Prize at Cannes Film Festival and Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Burnt by the Sun has achieved great popularity both in Russia and internationally. Set during the 1930s Stalinist Great Purge, this film focuses on a destiny of a revolutionary hero Sergei Kotov and his family. Appreciators of the Soviet regime, Kotov family members live a peaceful and quiet countryside life. Yet, one visit will change everything; After a charming Muscovite Dimitri visits Sergei and his family both their peace and appreciation of Communism will quickly disappear. Described as warm and heartbreaking, Burnt by the Sun has been one of the most internationally successful Eastern European films ever.
The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko), Czechoslovakia, 1967.
Possibly the most important film of Czechoslovakian New Wave, The Firemen’s Ball is a ridiculous satire on the absurdity of Communist regime. Set in a fire station of a small town, the film revolves around a birthday celebration workers at the station prepare for the retired and ill chairman. After things go awry regarding the Miss Fire-Department beauty pageant, which was a part of celebration, prizes for the contestants start missing. Grotesque and comical all the way through, The Firemen’s Ball was censored in Czechoslovakia by Soviets in 1968. and made Forman go into a self-induced exile, yet many claim it was the best of his many brilliant films.
A short film about love, (Krótki film o miłości), Poland, 1988.
Winner of the major awards at San Sebastian International Film Festival, Sao Paulo International Film Festival and Venice Film Festival, this film is a romantic drama featuring a young, kind hearted boy Tomek who falls in love with his older and promiscuous neighbor Magda. Madly in love, Tomek performs all sorts of stunts like spying on Magda through binoculars, only to find himself disappointed and hurt in the end. Described as ‘’a compelling portrait of love’’ by San Francisco Chronicle, and ‘’unforgettable and unrelenting experience’’ by Cinema Sights, A short film about love has cemented its spot in Polish cinematography as a must-watch classic.
Who’s singin’ over there? (Ко то тамо пева?), Yugoslavia, 1980.
A staple dark comedy of Yugoslav cinema, it takes place in days just before Axis occupation. Possibly the most quoted film in the Balkans, it was voted the best Yugoslav film of the 1944-1995 period by the Yugoslav Academy of Art and Science. Featuring an ensemble cast, the story is situated in a bus that is en route to the capital, Belgrade. During this ride travelers, WW1 Veteran, Germanophile, Hunter, Budding Singer, Newlyweds, Consumptive, Bus Owner and Gypsy musicians tell stories about themselves with often ridiculous and bizarre embellishments. Despite its tragic ending, Who’s singin’ over there remains one of the most-loved and frequently watched comedies in South Eastern Europe.
Andrei Rublev, (Андрей Рублёв), Soviet Union, 1966.
Voted as the second greatest film of all time by The Guardian and The Observer and 87th on the 100 Essential list by Toronto International festival, Andrei Rublev is consistently praised as one of the greatest films of all time. Based on a life of a 15th century Russian icon painter Rublev, it is a black and white arthouse masterpiece. Featuring minimal identification of characters, little dialogue and non chronological events, this film may not be for everyone, but it has certainly made an irreplaceable mark in the world of art films. A visual labyrinth, Tarkovsky’s perhaps most well known 205-minutes long work guarantees to leave viewers in both wonder and awe.