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East, West, Home is Best: Cold War Animation from East Central Europe

A program of short animations and experimental film screening in the Walker’s Mediatheque on March 30 at 7 pm, East, West Home is Best is presented in conjunction with the University of Minnesota symposium “Remapping European Media Cultures During the Cold War: Networks, Encounters, Exchanges” (March 30–April 1). The story of Josef Kluge’s East, West, Home is […]

Josef Kluge's East, West, Home is Best (Všude dobře, doma nejlépe). Image Courtesy of the Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection

Josef Kluge’s East, West, Home is Best (Všude dobře, doma nejlépe) (1969). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

A program of short animations and experimental film screening in the Walker’s Mediatheque on March 30 at 7 pm, East, West Home is Best is presented in conjunction with the University of Minnesota symposium “Remapping European Media Cultures During the Cold War: Networks, Encounters, Exchanges” (March 30–April 1).

The story of Josef Kluge’s East, West, Home is Best (1969) has little to do with the geopolitics suggested in its title. Indeed, the film—whose Czech title, Všude dobře, doma nejlépe, is an idiom literally translated as “I’m happy everywhere, but happiest at home”—is about a young chicken. Bored with the daily routine at the nest, the tiny protagonist ventures out, finds the world outside darker and more menacing than expected, and returns home.

Nevertheless, during the Cold War, the film played a role in the transnational movement of moving images between the “East” and “West” that is this symposium’s subject—movement that was complex, and often had to do not with a film’s subject or themes, but with its production and dissemination. Kluge’s film, for instance, was donated to the Ruben/Bentson collection from Film in the Cities, the renowned Twin Cities film-education program of the 1970s and 1980s, which had received the print from American avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Conner. It’s unclear how Conner got hold of the film, but the 16mm print bears opening titles in English, prepared by Czechoslovakia’s film-export company, Czechoslovak Filmexport.

Animation was an important component of media exports from postwar Eastern Europe, many of which were sent west. Usually short, colorful, and unburdened by heavy dialogue, animated films were eminently “translatable” and brought returns in the form of hard currency and prestige. As East, West, Home is Best makes clear, they also often had a helpful openness: one can read Kluge’s chicken as an allegory for Soviet post-1968 exile and return, or for adolescence, or merely in its own absurd terms. Witold Giersz’s Fire (Pożar) (1975), similarly—which, like Kluge’s film and Jan Lenica’s A (1964), is part of the Ruben/Bentson collection—is about the natural world, and as much about painting as it is about cinema.

Witold Giersz's Fire (Pożar). Image courtesy of the Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection

Witold Giersz’s Fire (Pożar) (1975). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

The films in this program circulated beyond and within postwar Eastern Europe in multiple ways, one of which was television. The Our Sandman films that bracket the program are a case in point: Created by puppet maker and director Gerhard Behrendt for East German television in 1959, the films were adapted into children’s television in several Western European or neutral countries, especially in the Nordic region. Travel was a key theme of the films: adopting imaginative modes of transport, the Sandman visits children around Germany and other socialist countries, as well as beyond the socialist world. The films’ popularity in the Nordic countries probably inspired one of the films in this program (written by a Finnish scriptwriter), in which Sandman travels to Lapland.

Film festivals were another locus for East-West exchange. Of the films in this series, at least three were screened at Oberhausen, the West German short-film festival whose motto, “The Path to Neighbors” (“Weg zum Nachbarn”), signaled its cultural-diplomatic aspirations. In 1965, Lenica’s A was awarded the festival’s Grand Prize, and in 1977, Giersz won the Catholic Jury Prize for Fire. At the 1962 festival—the same year that he directed Weimar Republic Signs—Haro Senft originated the groundbreaking Oberhausen Manifesto, which called for a “new German cinema.”

Jan Lenica's A (1965). Image courtesy of the Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection

Jan Lenica’s A (1965). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Yet Senft’s and Lenica’s careers underscore that East-West dynamics in Cold War media cultures are also traced in biography. Senft was born in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, in the city of České Budějovice, in 1928. Midway during the war, at the age of 15, he was drafted as a Luftwaffenhelfer (“assistant” in the German air force), and from May 1945 to May 1946 he found himself interned in the country of his birth, in camps for German expellees. He soon emigrated to Wiesbaden, West Germany, where he studied film.

Lenica, who was also born in 1928, started his career as a graphic artist and poster designer in his native Poland, and began collaborating on animated films with celebrated director Walerian Borowczyk in 1957. After encountering problems with his work’s distribution, he emigrated to Paris, then West Germany, where he taught animation in Kassel and poster design and graphic arts at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste. Throughout his career, Lenica collaborated with playwright Eugène Ionesco, who, like Lenica, moved between Eastern and Western Europe (in Ionesco’s case, Romania and France); A is an adaptation of themes from Ionesco. If film prints and television broadcasts moved through space, then, so did people, with Senft’s and Lenica’s careers offering two different models for emigration: one forced by World War II’s cataclysmic geopolitical shifts; one rooted in the often-constricting nature of East European media industries.

This constriction is both the subject and the condition of possibility for Helke Misselwitz’s Tango Dream (1985). Here, Misselwitz, a key director in East Germany’s DEFA Studio for Documentary Films, depicts an East German filmmaker confronting the question of how she can make a film about Buenos Aires and Montevideo without being able to travel there. Movement, in the film, thus occurs through other means: as the film’s title suggests, in dreams and in sound, the latter a means of transmission to which physical and geographic borders mean little.

Contemportentary: The Archive Is a Port in the Squall

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?”  We […]

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Antoni Muntadas, Video is Television?, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?” 

We need cinema right now, because we need a moment. And not just any moment: We have been in the streets, with candles and signs, and sometimes tear gas and broken glass. We have been in public, sizing each other up and/or just trying to blend in, weaponizing our small talk and surveilling each other’s tantrums. We have been in the feeds with our index fingers like inchworms infinitely scrolling and clicking, and clicking, and sharing, peripatetic, our tabs proliferating in the windows. We have been on either side of the protest lines, screaming and brandishing conflicting signs. Now we need a moment in the dark to be alone together, in a different kind of covenant, with a different kind of discourse. In a way, we are all alone in the dark together already.

I need a moment. I have whiplash from the breaking news cracking across my timelines, and I can’t tell if I’m being served or summoned by the algorithms. I’m really starting to feel differently about the arc of history and I know it’s not just me, baby. I’m coming down with a bad case of that time warp feeling. Things seem like they are moving very, very quickly, but we’re hurtling towards an inevitability, rather than a possibility. These are times characterized by bombardment—of opinions, emotions, narratives, calls to action, commodities—within greater systems of control that operate in various states of visibility. This demanding abundance grating against the creeping, camouflaged austerity is the white noise whine that we have had to learn to live with.

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Miranda Pennell’s You Made Me Love You, 2004. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

I turned to the archive with a mind to find works that might whine back, in the key of my own emotional maelstrom. I have been curating film and video for the better part of the last decade—programming film festivals and touring with screenings—but I have never made selections from a repository like the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection at the Walker Art Center. I approached the archive as I would an oracle, looking for new ways to look at my own reality. I came away with an array of movies that echo my processing of this post-truth, casually brutal, winkingly authoritarian, rapidly accelerating present tension. At first, I framed my selections in hauntological terms:

Each of these movies is a ghost that haunts our contemporary condition. As a collection, they zigzag across the decades and conjure the morass, the cacophony, the nihilism, the absurdity, the dissonance, and the violence that we have internalized. That we have normalized. The howl of the wind is the growl of an engine is the groan of orgasm is the moan of anguish. The gaze refracts back. The body is a political act. The ghosts are screaming through the screen. Can you hear them?

But then I started thinking about the energy I felt moving through the works, the charge I was trying to harness, the breath behind that screaming. It was pain. Ghosts can be seen as pure pain made manifest. The body may rot away, but suffering is what anchors a spirit to the material world. This playlist is about fitting the suffering of the now into the continuum of cinema, with movies that act as the medium between the now and the then as well as between ourselves and others.

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Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising, 1964. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

So if these works are challenging, discomforting, or destabilizing, it is because I am discomforted and destabilized. We all should be. Comfort gets us nowhere anymore, and by the way, there is just as much comfort to be found in outrage as there is in pleasure.

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Tony Oursler, Grand Mal, 1981. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are absurd, it’s because reason has no place in our new resonance-based economies of attention, so why shouldn’t we just push through the low-level tragedy of irony and into the glorious, discordant realm of the absurd? Absurdity is the alchemy that transforms anguish into resistance. It’s the epiphany that when meaning can no longer be made, it must be un-made.

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Leslie Thornton, Strange Space, 1992. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are vulnerable almost to the point of confrontation, it’s because so many vulnerabilities have been reified and revealed. The zeitgeist openly mocks open vulnerability, lumping it in with its dismissal of “special snowflakes,” “safe spaces,” and “political correctness.” That bullying impulse has now ascended to the highest echelons of power, so it’s a considerable act of courage to turn the other cheek or roll over to show off a soft underbelly in the face of it.

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Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn, The Deadman, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are profane, like Kenneth Anger’s flashy fashy fashionable fetishizing of toxic masculinity or Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s stripped-down, balls-to-the-wall adaptation of a Bataille text (complete with unsimulated sex), it’s because I think it’s time to Make Cultural Gatekeepers Disgusted Again. Turnabout is fair play. The grants aren’t going to be coming through anymore anyway and besides, the more threatened they feel by unrepentant, revolting resistance, and the more they debate and try to legislate the perceived obscenity and blasphemy in art, the less time they have to otherwise destroy the world. Artists can and should push their envelopes into public art spaces with their abject, unapologetic, indecorous best, because in order to keep freedom of expression for all and not just for some, we need to keep putting it to the test.

In the cinema, there is no clickbait. There are no think pieces; there is no comments section. The discourse is not at your itchy, angry fingertips here in the dark, away from the targeted ads (and the target audience) and the endless superlative listicles and the weirdly distributed network of everyone you know, and the deluge of their banalities and their extremes. It’s a space to feel your subjectivity again, unhooked from the monetizable response industrial complex. It’s a space to let media mediate, between you and your core, without the roar of commentary. It’s a space to process individual and collective pain, so that when the lights come back on, it has transformed for us.

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