It may come as a surprise to many, but that most quintessentially American of genres, the western, was enormously popular behind the Iron Curtain. Of course it was seldom possible for Eastern Bloc audiences to see films produced in Hollywood. No matter; even though they deemed the Hollywood western decadent in exemplifying and propagating the United States’ foundational frontier myths, socialist states took to the production of westerns with great relish.
Two subgeneric traditions comprise the extraordinary corpus that entailed, inevitably granted culinary-inspired monikers linked to the country of production – “borscht” westerns from the Soviet Union, “sauerkraut” from East Germany, “goulash” from Hungary. “Osterns” transposed western generic topoi upon lands Sovietised at the time of production, often setting their action during the Russian Revolution or amid the opening of new Eastern European frontiers in the wake of either World War, while “red westerns” utilised local environments as stand-ins for the American west, situating their action in America but subjecting it to revisionist ideological agendas, or even satire. Combined, osterns and red westerns stand in fascinating dialogue not only with classical Hollywood westerns and their revisionist variations, but also with those films produced in parallel with them in Western Europe, such as the Italian spaghetti western, which they rival in aesthetic and thematic innovation.
This season of wholly imported prints offers a grand primer in the Eastern western, offering six key features spanning the gamut of the genre, boosted by two Lemonade Joe-inspired animated shorts which further testify to the Cold War-era East’s paradoxical affinity for all things western.
7:00pm AT HOME AMONG STRANGERS
Nikita Mikhalkov (1974) 93 mins – Unclassified 15+
This legendary, action-packed, Brezhnev-era ostern, set just after the Russian Civil War, represents Mikhalkov’s bravura feature-film directorial debut; he also enjoys a starring role. Pavel Lebeshev’s cinematography alternates colour sequences with black and white, while Eduard Artemyev’s Morricone-inspired score bestows a spaghetti western flavour upon the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-styled proceedings – except here the anti-heroes are, of course, card-carrying communists.
35mm print courtesy of Gosfilmofond.
Jimmy Dušan Vukotic (1957) 13 mins – Unclassified 15+.
A classic cartoon in which a western hero spills out of the silver screen, only to have his mettle tested in the real world.
Print courtesy of Zagreb Film.
9.00pm THE WIND BLOWS UNDER YOUR FEET
György Szomjas (1976) 90 mins – Unclassified 15+
The first of Szomjas’ two stylish, violent, Leone-influenced “goulash” westerns transposes genre tropes onto the quintessentially Hungarian puszta landscapes familiar from the cinema of Miklós Jancsó. Set in the 1830s, it concerns the antagonism between an outlaw (charismatic Bulgarian actor Ðoko Rosic) and a sheriff (István Bujtor – the Hungarian Bud Spencer) against a backdrop of canalisation threatening both of their traditional ways of life. With striking cinematography from Elémer Ragályi and a plaintive folk score by Ferenc Sebo.
Digital print courtesy of the Hungarian National Film Archive.
7:00pm NOBODY WANTED TO DIE
Vytautas Žalakevicius (1966) 107 mins – Unclassified 15 +
This scorching, Lithuanian village-set black-and-white CinemaScope revenge drama – the first Soviet film about the post-WWII Lithuanian partisan resistance movement – famously smuggled in a scathing critique of the Soviet occupation of the small Baltic state through adopting the generic traditions of the western. Screenwriter and director Žalakevicius, cinematographer Jonas Gricius and actors Bruno O’Ya and Donatas Banionis (best known as the lead in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, this was his breakthrough role) were nonetheless all awarded the USSR State Prize for their work on this film. Digital restoration.
Digital print courtesy of the Lithuanian Film Centre.
9:00pm THE SONS OF GREAT BEAR
Josef Mach (1966) 93 mins – Unclassified 15 +
An East German “sauerkraut” western directed by a Czech communist, with Serbian actor Gojko Mitic cast in the lead role as a Lakota resistance fighter betrayed by white settlers, this is the first of DEFA’s audaciously revisionist red westerns. With the mountains of Montenegro standing in for the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mach turns the cowboys-and-Indians trope on its head to critique the mythology of the west, expose the lie of Manifest Destiny and offer a coded indictment of Cold War-era American imperialism.
35mm print courtesy of DEFA-Filmverleih.
7:00pm A MAN FROM THE BOULEVARD DES CAPUCINES
Alla Surikova (1987) 99 mins – Unclassified 15 +
This remarkable, extremely popular, late-communist era red western is a rarity for being one of the few entries in the genre directed by a woman. Surikova’s film is also an unusually self-reflexive affair, and an uproarious comedy, deconstructing the mythology of the western as it also unravels its own making. Shot in Crimea, it concerns a zealous cinematographer’s (Andrei Mironov) fin de siècle visit to the fictional Wild West town of Santa Carolina to propagate Paris’ new sensation, cinema, and its putative morally uplifting qualities.
35mm print courtesy of Gosfilmofond.
8.50pm LEMONADE JOE
Oldrich Lipský (1964) 95 mins – Unclassified 15 +
In this enduring cult comedy, Lipský and co-writer Jirí Brdecka draw on the latter’s serialised stories and plays to satirise the golden age of the western, as well as the competing ideologies of the West and the East. An all-star cast grace this relentlessly inventive, colour-tinted CinemaScope parody of the virtuous, crooning cowboy B-westerns of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter.
Song of the Prairie
Jirí Trnka (1949) 23 mins – Unclassified 15 +.
Trnka’s brilliant puppet animation is the first screen adaptation of Lemonade Joe. 35mm prints of both films courtesy of the National Film Archive in Prague.