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Iron Curtain memories at fest

The Eastern Bloc is still monolithic in these tales of love and war, and dreams of freedom.

March 09, 2007|Clare Aigner | Special to The Times

Scars from decades of socialist oppression, and the escapism and magical realism they ruefully evoke, dominate the works of Eastern European filmmakers these days. Revolutions, war and genocide frame new films from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania that were shown recently at the Berlin film festival.

Some are told with wit and wisdom, such as the whimsical "I Served the King of England," another award-worthy adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's work by Czech director Jiri Menzel, and "The Way I Spent the End of the World," a Romanian entry that views the toppling of Nicolae Ceausescu through the eyes of a young boy. Other films sink beneath the sadness, such as "Happy New Life," about a Roma orphan's search for his past; "It Gonna Get Worse," a drunken crawl through the underbelly of Czech society; and "Men in the Nude," a sexual romp dissolving into rootlessness and loss in Budapest.

Yet another Hungarian film, "Children of Glory," is already a hit on American college campuses with its epic tale of love and war during the 1956 Olympic water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union.

"The novel 'I Served the King of England' is, for me, one of his greatest achievements," Menzel said in a press release, "a view of the modern world and a segment of 20th century history as reflected in the life of one man. My aim in bringing this story to the screen was to remain true to Hrabal's lyrical yet unsentimental response to that world."

The film tells the story of Jan Dite, a young waiter in the first half of the last century. Jan's ambitions take him from a lowly pub to a grand hotel, where he falls in love with Liza, a German girl who is proud of her Aryan blood. It is the late '30s then, and Jan finds himself serving up semen samples at a Nazi master-race clinic that soon doubles as a rehab hospital for German amputees. Menzel weaves the magical with the grim in elaborately orchestrated scenes reminiscent of musicals from the 1920s.

Romania, the newest member of the European Union, offered "The Way I Spent the End of the World," one of about 20 films now made in that country annually. The film is predictable enough with its dreams of freedom, stirrings of young love and silly old village men who have long since given up with help from the local brew. It is the details culled in the telling, memories merged from the two scriptwriters, that are mesmerizing: the muddy, unpaved roads outside Bucharest, the ubiquitous posters of the hated despot Ceausescu, the ragged clothing, the peeling paint in the grim hospital, the arching presence of the military -- the somberness of it all.

In "Happy New Life," an 18-year-old Roma boy -- like 70,000 other young people in Hungary, we are told with the opening credits -- leaves an orphanage with little more than a file enumerating his destructiveness and antisocial behavior. The film switches from lingering shots of mundane life to the even more boring. In between, our amnesiac victim searches through his memory for bits of his family.

A clump of nasty cigarette butts is a "treasure trove" for Olin and his buddy in "It Gonna Get Worse." Their rebellion against the Communist regime in 1970s Czechoslovakia is to do nothing more than party and get kicked around by the authorities. This black-and-white homage to Jan Pelc's cult novel reaped healthy applause at the film festival last month.

"In Men in the Nude," veteran Hungarian television filmmaker Karoly Esztergalyos explores the bewildering and ultimately sordid downsides of aging through the eyes of Tibor, a 50ish writer with a beautiful wife who finds herself relegated to acting in regional theater. A young male prostitute seduces Tibor and the couplings begin: Tibor and the boy, the boy and the wife, the boy and a girl, Tibor and his wife.

War and sports combine in "Children of Glory." This Hungarian film, conceived by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Krisztina Goda, frames the "Blood in the Water" match, a violent water polo game played against the Soviets in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne just after the Hungarian uprising crumbled beneath Soviet tanks. Softening the mayhem is a romance between an earnest student and the splendid Ivan Fenyo as Karcsi. The director of the festival, Dieter Kosslick recalled that period after the screening of "Children": "Fifty years ago, when I was 8, the Russians went into Budapest; the whole film is about how you should resist. Today, we still must resist, and that's why the movie is important."

What filters through many of these films is the joy and resilience of young children, even when barefoot -- as long as they have buddies and food -- and the passions of teenagers, even when dreams seem thwarted.

We glimpse other beauty: the elegant manners of a European city, the arched bridges and cobbled streets of Prague and Budapest, and the sweet violins filling the spaces. But for most of the adults who have survived the dark days of Eastern Europe in the 20th century, the music has died.

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