The Only Thing (dir. Jack Conway, 1925). Image: AMPAS, Margaret Herrick Library
The Western perception of the Balkans has been always ambiguous – somewhere between enchantment and contempt, on the edge of excitement and discomfort, premised on the enigmatic idea that “they are completely different from ‘us’ and exactly as ‘we’ used to be,” as Vesna Goldsworthy suggests in her book Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination.
Le Giornate del cinema muto, the world-leading festival of silent cinema, has just celebrated its 42nd edition in the Italian city of Pordenone. For the second year in a row, the 2023 festival dedicated a strand to the world of “Ruritania”: a rare species of silent films, described by the festival’s artistic director Jay Weissberg as “fantasy movies on mythical kingdoms”. Drawing on Goldsworthy’s theoretical elaborations and Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), which takes place in a fictitious land called Ruritania, located somewhere between Bohemia and the Orient, Weissberg and his co-curator, the film historian Amy Sargeant, trace a thrilling cinematic route through the Western imagination about the European East, proving once again how prejudiced views of the unknown Other come to be.
A romantic denominative for wilderness, savageness, lawlessness, and exoticism, Ruritania and its numerous offshoots – other imaginary countries like “Cornucopia”, “Silistria” or “Jestphalia” – are the settings for turn of the century novels in which adventurous but civilised Westerners collide with self-styled Eastern aristocrats of suspicious heritage and manners. Early cinema jumped on the Ruritania craze: according to Weissberg and Sargeant, around 250 Ruritanian films were produced in the first three decades of cinema’s existence, half of which were US productions. However, this number is likely misleading, as American titles are better catalogued and are therefore more easily accessible. Challenged by the lack of proper categorisation of those titles in the archives, the curators suspect that there must be more Ruritanian films made in Europe that remain, for now, undetectable in the vaults.
Across two years, Pordenone’s Ruritania program has also provided a reality check by including an extraordinary selection of historical newsreels in which the actual eastern European royalties of the time are documented: the flamboyant Queen Marie of Romania; the eccentric, self-proclaimed King Zog of Albania; the respectable King Nikola of Montenegro; Peter I of Serbia, known as The Liberator; the unconventional Boris III of Bulgaria, who died in mysterious circumstances.
We sat down with Jay Weissberg to speak about his personal motivations in bringing Ruritana back to theatres, the exciting findings he made along the way, and the need to defend his decisions even among professional archivists – as well as the seemingly ineradicable Balkan stereotypes that the Ruritania program is dedicated to deconstructing.
A map showing the location of “Silistria” in the Balkans in Eine Frau von Format (dir. Fritz Wendhausen, 1928)
You have been preparing the two parts of the Ruritania program for a very long time. What was your personal reason to start this research?
This is going to sound really strange, but that’s what I was looking for – something strange. I’ve been kind of obsessed with Queen Marie of Romania since I was child – she was a real diva! I first discovered her when I was around 13 years old and bought her autobiography, which left me completely enchanted as it was written beautifully and with an insight about the people whom she dealt with. At the same time, there was also very much self-promotion – she was so canny in how she adapted her image to what she wanted to project onto the masses. In the late nineteenth century, she was wearing these flowing, fake Romanian peasant costumes and orientalising herself to an extreme. If you have seen photographs of Ferdinand [I of Bulgaria] dressed like a Byzantine emperor, Marie was doing something very similar, but she was beautiful. She decided early on that she was going to put Romania on the map and make it look something that it was not, so that people would talk about it rather as a romantic than as a primitive place. Of course, her predecessor Queen Elizabeth of Romania did that before her, but Marie took it to another level because she was really smart – all her public manifestations were calculated. And of course, she was playing the propaganda game.
She was my entry into Ruritania. Then, I was taking classes in eastern European history at university, and the more I was developing my interest, the more I was thinking about how the West has viewed eastern Europe and why it has taken that approach. It is easy to exoticise people who are very far away, like the Chinese, for example. But eastern Europe is just across the border – there is no border, really, one could take a horse there. It became a fascinating question for me: why would the West “other” the other side of Austria by presenting these people as primitive, violent, and excessively sensual?
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that most of these countries were protectorates of the Ottoman Empire, and everything Muslim was to be othered. Historians are really looking into how the question of development and non-development became a kind of propagandistic trope, particularly referring to the Balkans. Whereas it seems that all the extraordinary trade that was going on between Genoa, Venice, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Damascus during the Renaissance was sort of forgotten.
However, the Ruritanian films from the program never refer to Istanbul or its predecessor Constantinople, the core of the Ottoman Empire. Why is that, in your opinion?
Good question! There is more reference in the novels to Muslim identities, but they are not really delved into, only mentioned. Let’s keep in mind that almost none of the writers of Ruritanian novels ever went to the Balkans. There is evidence about a couple who went to Montenegro – Frank and Henrietta Savile. He was a prolific novelist who wrote Seekers: A Romance of the Balkans (1909), clearly inspired by his visit to Montenegro, renamed by him as Montenera. One of the interesting things about it is that he incorporated the geopolitical situation of his own day, in which the Austrians stirred up trouble with the Albanians in order to take land away from Montenegro.
Going back to the question about Istanbul/Constantinople, there is a reference to Turkey at the very beginning of the Eine Frau von Format (1928, dir. Fritz Wendhausen) where a hand draws some hilariously inaccurate map of the region placing a country there called “Türkisien”. But that’s all and I do not have an explanation of this neglect.
It is easy to exoticise people who are very far away. But eastern Europe is just across the border – there is no border, really, one could take a horse there
Perhaps because the city symbolises power. If Ruritanian countries were presented as inferior, displaying their mighty symbols does not really serve in the process of othering?
It could be. The region is terra incognita, very suitable for projecting an image. That’s why not only American but even western European directors did not bother to cross the border and see what was over there, beyond those mysterious mountains. They knew exactly what they wanted to show and did not need to see the real thing because it was never about the real thing. It was about this fabricated image of the Balkans. Only two of the films that we included were partially shot in eastern Europe. The already-mentioned Eine Frau von Format which was partly shot in Dubrovnik and Titi the First, King of the Scamps (1926, dir. René Leprince), which is set somewhere around the Baltic states, was partly filmed in Budapest. That is not even Balkan, it is Central Europe. But most films were made in Hollywood, anyway.
Also, in many American parodies the denouement would put an end to a troublesome monarchy, so in order to destroy European kingdoms, the filmmakers needed to mythologise them, to invent fake countries. It could not work with Western Europe because its geography was well known. However, few people really knew what was beyond Vienna.
Even the newsreels, which you are showing in order to juxtapose reality versus imagination, were not shot by Balkan people.
Of course not, the only ones originating from the Balkans are the Serbian ones. At that time, newsreels were almost always made by French and British cameramen; it was a standard all over the world. It would be the same case if we were looking for films from, let’s say, Egypt, from that same period. The gaze was mostly Western because the Balkans were not filming themselves enough.
Prince Nikolo of “Jestphalia” in When a Man’s a Prince (dir. Eddie Cline, 1926). Image: AMPAS, Margaret Herrick Library
Could we then say that since the film medium was dominated by Westerners, the stereotyping of the Balkans in the twentieth century went even further as a result? The Balkans themselves did not really offer their own “home-made” image to the world.
Absolutely. We have [Balkan early cinema pioneers] the Manaki brothers but they are not really showing royalty, rather ordinary life. Some Serbian filmmakers were focusing on royalty – last year we screened Ceremonies at Banjica: The Transfer of Old Flags to New (1911-1912) and Races at Banjica (1912), both produced by Svetozar Botorić – but that’s not enough. The fact that Western cameramen were filming all these people and these locations through the lenses of an exoticised vision increased the Western understanding of them as exotic. Zog, the king of Albania, is perceived as exotic not only because of his white boots and eccentric behaviour, but precisely because he’s the king of Albania, while people forget that Queen Maria of Romania was received in New York with a huge parade in 1926. She was so famous that reportedly tens of thousands of people lined Broadway.
What has been frustrating for me – but I also see it as a challenge which confirms the meaning of what I am doing – is that so many people in the film history and the archival world do not understand the purpose this program. Last year, when we launched the first part, there were comments that this was just silly. The theme was not seen as rigorous enough, as something that has validity as an intellectual avenue.
Nevertheless, the reason why Europe looks like Europe today is partly because of these people, the involvement of Russia and Austro-Hungary with Britain and France, and the way they shifted things. Аll these historical figures – Ferdinand of Bulgaria and his son Boris, Queen Elizabeth of Romania, known as Carmen Sylva, Queen Marie of Romania, Peter of Serbia, Zog of Albania, and Nichola of Montenegro – they are part of European history but remain widely unknown. The only reason why people in France know about Peter of Serbia is because one of the main boulevards in Paris is called Avenue Pierre 1ièr de Serbie, but few of them know about his importance in the twentieth century. Undermining this history now, I find it frustrating.
the reason why Europe looks like Europe today is partly because of these people. Аll these historical figures are part of European history but remain widely unknown
Eastern Europeans are simply not good image-makers. Queen Marie and Ferdinand of Bulgaria were talented at self-promotion, but she was born into a British family, while he is of German origin. While western Europe, shiny and tidy like a museum, proudly promotes its history, eastern Europe and especially the Balkans are more about living in the moment, without caring too much about the facade.
I absolutely agree. Even the newsreels of eastern royalties are not accessible: figures like King Carol I of Romania, who loved cinema, made home movies, but, unfortunately, I could not find them. We don’t see the images that were produced by themselves either, which is another problem. In contrast, Kaiser Wilhelm II left a huge amount of audiovisual footage filmed with the purpose of propagandising his image. While in The Palaces of Sinaia (1913), a newsreel by Pathé Frères shown last year, we see the beautiful buildings and the garden as in a touristic video of some exotic place, and then suddenly Queen Elizabeth comes in her usual white robe looking like a fairy princess. This makes her look unreal.
Apropos, one of the things I also try to do with the festival is to show the audience how things are interconnected. This year, for example, is the 100th anniversary of the death of Pierre Loti, the French travel writer who was important in terms of establishing the concepts of Orientalism and Japanism. He wrote an important novel called The Fisherman of Iceland (1886), which was filmed, and we are showing its new restoration, as well as a small section of shorts about Loti’s interests. But Loti also wrote a book about Queen Elizabeth of Romania who, on her side, was the first person to translate Fishermen of Iceland into German. So, it suddenly turns out that this seemingly ridiculous Romanian queen, who looks like she was so full of herself and walks around as if she was a fairy, made a significant contribution to European culture.
What about the stereotype that Balkan people are ugly? In When a Man’s a Prince (1926, dir. Eddie Cline) Prince Nikolo of “Jestphalia” is cross-eyed, while The Only Thing (1925, dir. Jack Conway) focuses on the toothy king of a Balkan nation whose degenerate dynasty is most notable for their supreme ugliness – both are hilarious movies! This is just the opposite of the current popular stereotype, which postulates that Balkan women are beautiful and “easy”.
Oh, that’s an easy answer. Anything that was of a darker colour – skin, hair, and eyes – was instantly considered inferior. Anyone who was not blonde, pale, and blue-eyed. The Only Thing is such an interesting example of that because the original script was far more racist. There was almost no humour at all, it was all put very seriously. And the actress who plays the blonde princess forced to marry the ugly old king was not really blonde: they put a blonde wig on her in order to make her comply with that ideal of beauty. Today, as you said, the Balkan people are not referred to as ugly anymore, but there is lots of human trafficking for prostitution purposes from the East to the West, for example, which also puts the region in an inferior position. I think that the Middle East and the Arab world, in a sense, has become our Balkans now, through the underlying element of Islam that we talked about at the beginning. And the fact that I found all these films from Scandinavia and Spain shows that this is not simply an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, but much bigger than that.
Mariana Hristova is a Bulgarian film critic, cultural journalist, and programmer, with a special interest in the cinema of the Balkan countries and Eastern. She is a regular contributor to Cineuropa, Talking Shorts, and Filmsociety.bg, a holder of Altcine.com’s film critic award, and member of FIPRESCI. She also acts as a Program Adviser at Sheffield DocFest.