Censorship shaped Eastern European moviemaking

Typewriters melted for steel, pots, crucifixes and baby cribs were amongst the clutter of confiscated items in the background of the Czechoslovakian movie, “Larks on a String.”

According to Herbert Eagle, professor and chair of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Michigan, these seemingly insignificant items hold a world of power — they are metaphors of dissent.

Herbert Eagle addresses filmaking in smaller Eastern European countries. (Lianna Lazur)

On Thursday, April 4, Eagle spoke about combating tyranny during the Czechoslovakian New Wave, a period characterized by the emergence of films protesting the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

“This geographical area, I don’t know how much is discussed in school … so it’s nice … to address some of those smaller countries in Eastern Europe that you don’t always hear much about,” said junior history major Melanie Stanek.

Eagle spoke about different approaches that filmmakers took in order to protest the regime.

“Professor Eagle’s lecture … really made me understand the conversation that the filmmakers were having between communism and their experience in World War II,” said sophomore special education and history double major Diane Iannacone.

Because the arts were harshly censored, filmmakers often resorted to more elusive approaches, according to Eagle.

Much of “Larks on a String” takes place in a labor camp where members of the bourgeoisie were “reforged” for a new communist society. The confiscated items in the background subtly protested areas that communism controlled: typewriters representing free speech, crucifixes representing religion and household items representing families’ private lives.

“The communist regime of this period steadfastly insisted that what it was doing was humane and democratic, as if … it could trick people into believing what … is obviously false,” Eagle said.

However, despite the film’s dark themes, it remains hopeful. At the end, as three prisoners are forced into a labor coal mine, one says, “Even now, we are free.”

“Maybe this is the one optimistic lesson,” Eagle said. “It turns out, fortunately for us human beings, that we’re not so easy to reforge.”

Some of the films were made in the genre of “theater of the absurd,” centered on abstract, nonsensical themes that often slipped past censors.

In the film, “The Party and the Guests,” picnickers in the woods are invited by well-dressed strangers to the birthday party of their host whose mannerisms mirror those of Stalin.

Eagle explained that when the host notices that one of the guests has left, he explodes into a rage, representing communism’s obsessive, often unreasonable, control over society.

However, the best-kept secret is found not in the characters themselves, but in the actors who play them.

Many were actual dissenting playwrights and writers in real life, according to Eagle.

“It was like the whole Prague intellectual community turned out to be extras in this scene,” Eagle said. “It was like the whole film industry is in on it.”