The Watchlist is Klassiki’s series of themed viewing recommendations drawing from the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. To mark this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which kicked off this week, we highlight eight classic films from the region that have landed the most prestigious prizes on the Croisette.
Tatiana Samoilova in The Cranes Are Flying (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)
This week saw the annual pilgrimage of the great and good of the international film world to the south of France for the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Few institutions have such power to fashion taste and garnish reputations, and any win on the Croisette can cement a director’s place in cinema history. Cannes has not traditionally been a happy hunting ground for Eastern European and Caucasian film, which has often fared better at rival festivals like Berlin and Locarno, but the exceptions to this rule are among the most celebrated that the region has to offer. Here are eight films from the East to have bagged either the Palme d’Or or the Grand Prix – the jury prize often considered Cannes’ “silver medal”.
The Cranes are Flying (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov)
Palme d’Or, 1957
Czech director František Čáp’s Men Without Wings and Soviet stalwart Fridrikh Ermler’s The Turning Point had, along with nine other films, shared the inaugural “Grand Prix du Festival” in 1946, the precursor to the famous Palme award. But the first major breakthrough for cinema from the Eastern Bloc – and the only Soviet Palme d’Or – came over ten years later. Mikhail Kalatozov’s vivid wartime melodrama, with its innovative, dynamic camerawork by Sergei Urusevsky, electrified Soviet cinema and marked the early peak of the post-Stalinist cultural Thaw; its win at Cannes briefly made a global star of its ingenue lead, Tatiana Samoilova.
Watch Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia here.
I Even Met Happy Gypsies (dir. Aleksandar Petrović)
Grand Prix, 1967
Aleksandar Petrović was always the most accessible of the directors who made up the “Black Wave” – the Yugoslav avant-garde of the 1960s and ‘70s that also featured the punkier likes of Dušan Makavejev and Želimir Žilnik. His fifth feature certainly found its international audience, garnering a Golden Globe nomination alongside its Cannes win. Known as The Feather Gatherers in Petrović’s native Serbia, the film builds a complex, humanistic narrative out of the lives of Roma villagers in Vojvodina. One of the first films from Eastern Europe to explore the lives of the Roma in sympathetic detail, and to cast Romani-speaking Roma in order to do so, its significance as a milestone in the onscreen representation of a much-persecuted population transcends its festival success.
Bekim Fehmiu and Olivera Vučo in I Even Met Happy Gypsies (dir. Aleksandar Petrović, 1967)
Siberiade (dir. Andrei Konchalovsky)
Grand Prix, 1979
The success of this sprawling historical epic marked a turning point in Andrei Konchalovsky’s peripatetic career. He cut his teeth as a screenwriter on Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal Andrei Rublev, and a promising Soviet career beckoned – but his sophomore feature, 1967’s Asya’s Happiness, met with the ire of the censors, forcing him into the safer territory of literary adaptations. After Siberiade’s triumph at Cannes, he was able to secure passage to the US, where he carved out an improbable mainstream career that included such treats as the Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell vehicle Tango and Cash. Anchored by a typically charismatic performance from Konchalovsky’s brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, Siberiade charts the rise and fall of rival families, the Solomins and the Ustyuzhanins, over the first 60 years of the twentieth century. Konchalovsky’s novelistic tendencies and his blend of cynicism and sentimentality are on full display.
Watch Konchalovsky’s Asya’s Happiness here.
Man of Iron (dir. Andrzej Wajda)
Palme d’Or, 1981
One of many peaks in the long career of the Polish maestro, Man of Iron is a sequel to Wajda’s 1977 drama Man of Marble. Mateusz Birkut, the Stakhanovite hero of the earlier film, is dead. His son Maciej is a dockworker who becomes involved in the struggle to establish Solidarity, Poland’s first independent labour union and the force behind the eventual fall of communism in the country (real-life Solidarity leader and future Polish president Lech Wałęsa appears in the film as himself). Wajda was able to complete the film during a brief interregnum in state censorship of little over a year before the imposition of Martial Law; and while it was never allowed to reach its domestic audience, Wajda’s non-chronological narrative and his capacity to situate intimate drama within the sweep of popular history won him the top prize at Cannes – widely understood, fittingly, as an act of solidarity with the artists of Poland then suffering government crackdown.
Explore our collection of Polish titles here.
Zsuzsa Czinkóczi and Jan Nowicki in Diary For My Children (dir. Márta Mészáros, 1984)
Diary For My Children (dir. Márta Mészáros)
Grand Prix, 1984
The first in an autobiographical trilogy that concluded with Diary for My Lovers (1987) and Diary for My Mother and Father (1990), this Grand Prix winner represented a merited moment of international recognition for one of Hungarian cinema’s most consistently challenging auteurs and a pioneer of Eastern European women’s film. The narrative centres on the early years of the director’s onscreen avatar, Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi), who like Mészáros has returned to post-war Hungary from the USSR – where her artist father was arrested and disappeared – to live with her staunchly Stalinist aunt. Mészáros is renowned for her ability to blend naturalistic, quasi-documentary scenes of everyday life with lyrical characterisation and sharp political insight, all of which are put to powerful effect here. Her refusal to judge any of her characters lends the autobiographical elements of Diary for My Children a moving redemptive quality.
Explore our collection of Hungarian titles here.
When Father Was Away on Business (dir. Emir Kusturica)
Palme d’Or, 1985
Emir Kusturica, the one-time enfant terrible of post-Yugoslav filmmaking, burst onto the cinephile scene when his sophomore feature won Cannes’ top prize. For better or worse, the Sarajevo native’s mix of crude humour, absurdist fantasy, and jarring violence came to define Balkan cinema for many outsiders, and his influence is still apparent today in the likes of Srđan Dragojević. When Father Was Away on Business explores the intrusion into childhood innocence of harsh political reality. Set in the 1950s Yugoslavia of Kusturica’s own youth, it follows a young boy, Malik, who is unaware that his father Meša has been sent to a labour camp. Less outré than later Kusturica efforts such as his cult classic Underground, this is a surprisingly subtle, even tender account of paradise lost and regained.
Edisher Giorgobiani and Avtandil Makharadze in Repentance (dir. Tengiz Abuladze, 1984)
Repentance (dir. Tengiz Abuladze)
Grand Prix, 1987
One of the most artistically and political significant of Georgian films, Repentance arrived belatedly to audience both within the Soviet Union and abroad – but its impact when it did was profound. The final film in a loose trilogy that began with The Plea (1968) and continued with The Wishing Tree (1971), Repentance represented the first instance of a Soviet filmmaker directly confronting the legacy of Stalin’s purges. Made for Georgian television in 1984, the film was predictably banned until the cultural reset of perestroika three years later. As well as its daring political intent, it is a fine example of the Soviet Georgian auteurist tradition, rich with blackly comic allegory, lyrical gestures, and spiritual concerns. When the corpse of the recently deceased mayor of a small town is repeatedly disinterred, its citizens must face up to the horrors of their buried past. A powerful act of cinematic testimony, combining religious symbolism with knowing references to the various ghosts of 20th-century totalitarianism.
Watch Repentance on Klassiki here.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
Palme d’Or, 2007
A watershed moment for Romanian cinema, and the point at which the country’s “New Wave” became common knowledge, the Palme d’Or win for Cristian Mungiu’s abortion drama marked one of Eastern European film’s great 21st-century breakthroughs. Set in the dog days of Romanian communism, the film tracks the human consequences of Ceaușescu’s infamous abortion ban, Oleg Mutu’s alternately roving and claustrophobic camera following two female students as they attempt to procure an illegal termination. The film’s win on the Croisette is indicative of the power that Cannes still has to form opinion and create trends. Mungiu’s triumph came after consecutive awards for two of his compatriots at the preceding two festivals (Un Certain Regard for Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lăzărescu in 2005, Caméra d’Or for Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest in 2006) – cementing the aesthetics and politics of the New Wave and validating it as a worthy of international recognition. Mungiu and co’s minimalist, dialogue-heavy naturalism, handheld cameras, and mordant cynicism became the new norm for Romanian film abroad. 4 Months is also representative of the New Wave’s concern with the social effects of Romania’s transition from communism to capitalism. Filmmakers who came of age in the 1980s turned to that recent-but-receding history to both caution against its abuses and to draw out the connections between the sins of the past and the crises of the present.
Explore our collection of Romanian New Wave film here.