Good Bye, Gottwald!: Communist nostalgia in Czech cinema

The German hit film Good Bye, Lenin! brought communist nostalgia on everybody’s lips. Box office hits in the Czech Republic have also depicted the communist past in light-hearted ways. Yet these films never caused much controversy. One reason may be that unlike in Germany, they are primarily regarded as films made to entertain, not to educate.

Photo: CreativeCommons/[john]


Films set in the past tend to sell well. They also tend to cause controversy about which aspects of the past merit recuperation from the realm of the forgotten. Moreover, the aesthetic choices of filmmakers often contradict the expectations harboured by politicians and the public as to what is a “good” or “proper” representation of the past. Putting the communist past on the silver screen seems to invariably unleash such discussions.

In Germany, the two surprise box office hits, Leander Haussmann’s Sun Alley (Sonnenallee, 1999) and Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), were accused of waxing nostalgia for the defunct German Democratic Republic. Dissatisfaction with the unification and the transition to Western capitalism became so prevalent that a neologism was invented to describe it: Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the East. Critics condemned such discontent as a reactionary liability to liberal democracy, and an organization representing victims of communism threatened the makers of Sun Alley with a lawsuit for belittling the crimes of communism. One reviewer even likened the Ostalgie comedy to Nazi era entertainment. 1

In Czech cinema, a string of comedies and musicals have also been light-hearted about the recent past. Yet a glance back over the Czech post-communist film history shows that no Czech films have caused controversies similar to the German debates over post-communist nostalgia. Is the Czech audience more nostalgic or less sensitive about fictitious renditions of the problematic past?

The first film produced after 1989 that was described by reviewers as nostalgic was Jan Svěrák’s Elementary School (Obecná škola, 1991), and it was praised precisely for its, “careful retro-evocation of the post-war period” and its “nostalgic reminiscence through children’s eyes.” 2 The film depicted the childhood of the director’s father, Zdeněk Svěrák, the first year of peace after 1945. The hope for the future, which was characteristic of that period, was presented, but the audience knew it would eventually be wrecked by the communist take-over in 1948. Thus the nostalgia in Elementary School was for the human ideals that were lost with the ascendance of communism.

Two years later, Jan Hřebejk’s romantic musical, Big Beat (Šakalí léta, 1993), set in late-Stalinist Prague opened to lukewarm reviews. The film, seen by more than half a million Czechs, was criticized as a toothless and ahistorical take on the dark years of the 1950s, yet it was not termed a nostalgic film. In 1993 that concept was not yet used to criticize light-hearted comedies set under communism.

Nostalgia’s breakthrough as a concept through which films about the communist past could be understood only came in 1997 with the premiere of Petr Nikolaev’s Those Wonderful Years that Sucked (Báječná léta pod psa). This tragicomedy followed a family’s experiences for 20 years, from the Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution, and this time the director primed journalists to think of the film as “nostalgic”.

Nikolaev explained in pre-premiere interviews that he considered the plot a “slightly nostalgic look back at what we once experienced ourselves.” Though he did not intend to, “airbrush everything unpleasant” away, Nikolaev also emphasized that he did not want to accentuate the, “grey and ugly.” 3 “With the choice of decoration and the camera style we tried to create a nostalgic picture of the time, without trivializing the things that we hated back then,” 4 he said. The reviewers followed the cue and explained to their readers that the inclusion of “nostalgic” elements in a film about the communist past was by no means an illegitimate artistic strategy. On the contrary, they explained that the balanced portrayal of the normalization period as a lively “coming-of-age” era, as well as a time of political repression, was to be applauded.

A similar discussion arose with the premiere of Jan Hřebejk’s hugely popular Cosy Dens (Pelíšky) in 1999. The comedy followed two families during the volatile period of the Prague Spring, but the events were barely mentioned. Instead, the film focused on patriarchal squabbles and two teenage boys vying for a girl. This elision divided critics. One journalist noted disapprovingly that the filmmakers did “not capture the complete spirit of the times, but chose only the suitable, tasty morsels,” to portray. The reviewer concluded that the Cosy Dens filmmakers were too neutral, not passing judgement, especially against those who collaborated with the regime. 5 Hřebejk refuted the accusation that he was being apologetic towards the Communists and he maintained that he had no interest in passing judgment about right or wrong, or about collaboration and resistance. In response to the criticism, the director exclaimed, “We are not a court!” 6

To other reviewers, that sufficed; some even applauded the overt avoidance of complicated politics. This apolitical film about everyday life in the late 1960s was praised for its “pure intimacy” and “authentic atmosphere,” 7 and audiences loved it. It sold more than one million tickets which means that a staggering 10% of the adult population saw it in theatres. Thus, the same year that Haussmann’s Sun Alley prompted Germans to discuss whether communism provided an appropriate backdrop for a nostalgic teenage comedy, Czechs went in droves to see Cosy Dens – and no reviewer decried it as nostalgic.

Nevertheless that same year truly fierce discussions about how to approach the communist past erupted. The cause was Czech Television’s decision to rerun the popular 1970s television series, Thirty Cases of Major Zeman (Třicet případů majora Zemana). Major Zeman was something akin to a communist Colombo, but the series was laced with communist propaganda and inverted histories befitting the official interpretation of the post-war period. The events mangled to suit the Party line included collectivization (disrupted by recalcitrant kulaks), the Prague Spring (a counter-revolutionary witch-hunt), and the hippie underground (deranged, drug-addicted terrorists). The propaganda was woven into the criminal detective stories with varying degrees of finesse, but the genre was a novelty on Czechoslovak television and the overall product was comparatively well produced. In the 1970s, the show achieved impressive ratings between 85–95%; it was even picked up by East and West German broadcasters.

The most vocal critic of the series’ return to prime time was an organization representing the victims of communism. Like its German counterpart, the organization filed a complaint against the television station, claiming that broadcasting Major Zeman violated a law against the promotion of communist ideology. To guard itself against such critiques, Czech Television (CT) included a discussion about historical obfuscations after each episode. Still, parliamentarians lambasted the programmers and sought to discipline the Czech Television Council. The television station even received a bomb threat on the day the series first re-aired in September 1999. Criticism eventually subsided, prosecution was aborted, and the reruns became a commercial success with 23% of Czech adults watching regularly; however significantly fewer chose to watch the debunked propaganda afterwards. The series has since been rerun (without the accompanying debates) and released on DVD.

By the turn of the century, the communist past had become a reservoir from which innocuous, entertaining stories could be extracted and old production like Major Zeman recuperated without causing too much of a stir. “Communist nostalgia” was rarely used disparagingly as it was in Germany. On the contrary, the return of Major Zeman marked almost a “normalization” of the normalization era.

This relaxed relationship between the present and the artifacts of the communist past were expressed in Petr Zelenka’s 2005 contemporary feature film, Wrong Side Up (Příběhy obyčejného šílenství). In the film, since, “people are nostalgic for those days,” an old newsreader recites newsreel voice-overs from the 1970s in a modern art gallery. The film thus puts the very production of nostalgia for the past on display, while stressing that this longing has more to do with the warm and pleasant voices of the childhood than with a desire to return to a communist political system.

This is the crucial point that must be made about communist nostalgia in Czech and German cinema. The commercial history film bows to the interests of entertainment, which makes it a problematic history teacher. While Germans do what they can to criticize the dubious and promote the edifying cinematic history teacher, the Czechs appear more at ease. When filmmakers turn to the communist past they tend to use it as nothing more than an intriguing backdrop. Making historical claims about the reality of those times is rarely the main objective for commercial fiction films. After all, very few long for Lenin, Gottwald (Chairman of Czechoslovak Communist Party and President of Czechoslovakia 1948–1953) and one-party rule, and no Czech or German feature film has ever advocated anything of the kind.

One reason why German films depicting the communist past in sepia hues has caused more debate is arguably that film, as a medium, is taken more seriously in Germany than in the Czech Republic. German authorities regularly imbue historical films with cultural and political significance. Deutsche Film- und Medienbewertung 8 is an institution that evaluates film quality, bestowing the best with an “especially valuable” label; and the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 9 publishes study guides for films it considers particularly useful for the political education of German pupils. Special screenings of films such as Good Bye, Lenin! and Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) have even been arranged for the German legislators.

Czech films set in the communist era do not cause as much controversy as German films, precisely because they are regarded as films, made to entertain – not educate. The Czech historical profession is slowly taking up an interest in cultural studies, but most history teachers are still trained to teach history wie es eigentlich gewesen, or “how it really was”. Although a 2012 study 10 ranked television and film as the most important sources of historical knowledge for Czech pupils, visual media continues to play a minor role in history education. Didactical pioneers of the NGO, People in Need (Člověk v tísni) and the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) are struggling to change Czech class rooms’ attitudes about feature films, but the results of their efforts remain limited.

Notes:

  1.  Claus Löser, “Die Lümmel aus dem Sperrgebiet,” Tip, 1999. 
  2.  Sdk [Petr Sládeček], “Svěrákovské retro,” Lidové noviny, 5 December 1991.
  3.  Anon., “Ironie Michala Viewegha poprvé ovládne i filmové plátno,” ZN zemské noviny, 21 March 1997.
  4.  Radka Červinková, “Úžasné dobrodružství,” Reflex, 20 March 1997.
  5.  Barbora Chvojková, “Obrázková knížka let šedesátých”, Týden, 12 April 1999.
  6.  Tomáš Baldýnský, “Krásné věci přicházejí samy,” Reflex, 16 September 1999.
  7.  lík, “Příběh mezi slzami a smíchem,” Hospodářské noviny, 9 April 1999.
  8. Deutsche Film- und Medienbewertung
  9. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, “Filmhefte.
  10. Ústav pro studium totalitník režimů, “Stav výuky soudobých dějin,” Výzkumná správa, 25 June 2012.
Sune Bechmann Pedersen

Sune Bechmann Pedersen

is a PhD-candidate in History at Lund University. He holds MA in History with distinction from University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and was a visiting fellow at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology in 2013–14. He specialises in contemporary Czech and German history, memory culture and cinema.