It may come as a surprise, but that most quintessentially American genre, the western, was enormously popular behind the Iron Curtain. Of course, it was seldom possible for Eastern Bloc audiences to see Hollywood films. No matter; even though socialist states deemed the Hollywood western decadent in propagating foundational frontier myths, they took to the production of westerns with great relish. Inevitably granted culinary-inspired monikers linked to the country of production – “borscht” westerns from the Soviet Union, “sauerkraut” from East Germany, “goulash” from Hungary – two subgeneric traditions emerged. “Osterns” transposed generic western tropes onto lands Sovietised at the time of production (The Wind Blows Under Your Feet, 1976, and Nobody Wanted to Die, 1965), 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 (The Sons of Great Bear, 1966) or satire (Lemonade Joe, 1964). 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. Moreover, the genre remains vital in post-socialist Eastern Europe, as proven by two remarkable contemporary films. Tensions and power dynamics in contemporary East-West relations are probed in Valeska Grisebach’s knowingly titled Western (2017); while Radu Jude excavates a dark chapter in 19th century Romanian history in the extraordinary season opener, Aferim! (2015). This season of imported prints offers a grand primer in the Eastern western, boosted by two famed animated shorts which further testify to the East’s affinity for all things western.
Radu Jude (2015) 108 mins – Unclassified 15+
Using western tropes to explore the overlooked topic of the Romani slave trade in 19th century Europe, Romanian maverick Jude’s fourth feature is also his most extravagant, its luscious, 35mm-shot black-and-white imagery recalling both Red River and Stagecoach. With the intention of historicising the racism against Romani people in present-day Europe, the film is a potent and entertaining formal mix, including dialogue spoken in authentic 19th century Romanian.
Preceded by Song of the Prairie Jiří Trnka (1949) 23 mins – Unclassified 15+. Trnka’s brilliant puppet animation is the first screen outing for Jiří Brdečka’s Lemonade Joe character. 16mm print courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia.
9:30pm 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 topoi onto the quintessentially Hungarian puszta landscapes familiar from the work of Miklós Jancsó. Set in the 1830s, it concerns the antagonism between an outlaw (charismatic Bulgarian actor Đoko Rosić) and a sheriff (István Bujtor – the Hungarian Bud Spencer) against a backdrop of canalisation threatening each of their traditional ways of life. With striking cinematography from Elémer Ragályi and a plaintive folk score by Ferenc Sebő.
Digital print courtesy of the Hungarian National Film Archive.
Valeska Grisebach (2017) 121 mins – Unclassified 15+
Writer-director Grisebach’s superb third feature, a German-Bulgarian-Austrian co-production, transposes western tropes onto a mountainous Bulgarian frontier where German construction workers are to build a hydroelectric plant. However, their EU-endorsed presence assumes colonialist dimensions and is inflected with a poisonous masculinity. Amongst their number is the enigmatic Meinhard (craggy non-actor Meinhard Neumann), who rides a white horse…
Preceded by Cowboy Jimmy Dušan Vukotić (1957) 13 mins – Unclassified 15+. A cartoon western hero spills out of the silver screen only to have his mettle tested in the real world. Digital print courtesy of Zagreb Film.
9:35pm 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 Mitić 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 NOBODY WANTED TO DIE
Vytautas Žalakevičius (1965) 107 mins – Unclassified 15+
This cult “red” Lithuanian western is both a partial reworking of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and a complex accounting for the legacy of Sovietisation and World War II. In 1947, a small farming community is torn between allegiances to the Soviet Union and its Partisan “brothers in the woods” after the village council’s chairman is murdered. Brilliantly shot by Jonas Gricius (Kozintsev’s Hamlet and King Lear), this heightened pro- and anti-Soviet drama draws intriguing comparisons with the McCarthyist Hollywood westerns of the 1950s and is directed by one of Lithuanian cinema’s most celebrated figures.
Digital print courtesy of the Lithuanian Film Centre.
9:00pm LEMONADE JOE
Oldřich Lipský (1964) 95 mins – Unclassified 15+
In this enduring cult comedy, Lipský and co-writer Jiří Brdečka 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 (Karel Fiala, Miloš Kopecký, Květa Fialová) grace this relentlessly inventive, colour-tinted CinemaScope parody of the virtuous, crooning cowboy musical B-westerns of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter.
35mm print courtesy of the National Film Archive in Prague.