Post-Crisis European Cinema: White Men in Off-Modern Landscapes [1st ed.] 9783030450342, 9783030450359

This book explores the cinematic representations of the pervasive socio-cultural change that the 21st century brought to

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Table of contents :
Front Matter ....Pages i-xviii
Introduction: Post-Crisis Europe, White Masculinity and Art Cinema (György Kalmár)....Pages 1-33
Rites of Retreat and the Cinematic Resignification of European Cultural Geography (György Kalmár)....Pages 35-66
Unprocessed Pasts (György Kalmár)....Pages 67-107
Addiction and Escapism (György Kalmár)....Pages 109-147
Narratives of Migration (György Kalmár)....Pages 149-181
The Lads of the New Right (György Kalmár)....Pages 183-218
Angry Old Men (György Kalmár)....Pages 219-253
Conclusions (György Kalmár)....Pages 255-265
Back Matter ....Pages 267-273
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Post-Crisis European Cinema White Men in Off-Modern Landscapes

György Kalmár

Post-Crisis European Cinema

György Kalmár

Post-Crisis European Cinema White Men in Off-Modern Landscapes

György Kalmár Inst English & American Studies University of Debrecen Debrecen, Hungary

ISBN 978-3-030-45034-2    ISBN 978-3-030-45035-9 (eBook) © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: Philippe Gerber, Getty Images This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland

To my intellectual heroes and heroines, for whom true thinking means risking everything we used to know for the sake of what we need to know.

Preface: Living the State of Crisis

Towards the end of 2016 several newspapers declared 2016 to be the “worst year ever”. Apparently, every self-respecting (and less self-­ respecting) newspaper and magazine, from The Guardian to The New York Times, from The Evening Standard to The New Yorker felt the need to run something on the subject, be those dramatic declarations, sad lists of loss, fact-based corrections or half-joking, champagne-in-hand, end-of-the-­ year pieces. Penguin even published a whole book, entitled F∗ck You 2016: A Look Back on the Worst Year Ever, and, needless to say, social media was teeming with memes demonstrating how terrible the year was. Just for the record, or for the sake of those who forgot during the Tsunami of equally terrible later years, 2016 was the year that David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen died, and (more importantly for this book) also the year of the Brexit vote, Trump’s election, Aleppo’s siege and destruction in Syria, an unprecedented series of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, and the Zyka outbreak, to mention only a few. Even if one takes away the effects of end-of-the-year-champagne-by-the-laptop journalism and Twitter-crazes, one can sense the overall feeling of a cultural shock-wave going through first-world societies, a general sentiment that this is not just the usual terrible stuff, that what we are living through is bad in historical proportions. It seems as if this feeling kept haunting us, as if we were living through a series of terrible events that probably started with 9/11 in 2001, got even worse with the 2008 global financial crisis, led to Brexit, Trump and who knows what else. To make things worse, the post-crisis analyses indicated time after time that these were not mere accidents, but rather symptoms of much wider and more fundamental issues concerning vii



democracy, liberalism, technology, environmental change or the late 20th century  forms of neoliberal capitalism. Thus our time is that of shock, bewilderment, cognitive disorder, regressive escape from reality and the painful task of readjusting one’s sense of normalcy year after year. Oftentimes, the general sentiment is that there is something wrong with the twenty-first century, this is not what history was meant to be, there is something awfully off. Though the first wave of the financial crisis seems to be behind us, and the most catastrophic economic scenarios have been avoided so far, I would argue (in agreement with the picture painted by most of the films to be discussed in this book) that the crisis is definitely not comfortably behind us. Thus, when I refer to “post-crisis” Europe in this book, it should not be understood as a period simply after the crisis, when the crisis is over, but rather as the time when the effects of previous critical breakdowns are played out (in a manner similar to how post-modernity stands for a peculiar form of modernity). The chain reaction that the security and financial crises set in motion in the first decade of the new century is still very much rolling on: contemporary Europe is very much defined by political instability, social inequality, polarisation and unrest—all in front of the background of an ever more frightening global environmental crisis. At the time of finalizing this manuscript, when the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic is still raging throughout Europe, it is clear that there is no way of looking at this time of crisis from an outside vantage point: we do not know where it will lead us, there is no finality about this. We are in this state of crisis, living through it, living it, every day. This state of crisis is also a time of confusion, when understanding the world can be quite a challenge. Most of our master-plans and grand narratives that we used to rely on for decades have been shaken or seriously damaged in the first two decades of the new millennium. Our previous ideas about progress, liberal democracy, neoliberal capitalism, multiculturalism or our notion of history as a gradual evolution of societies towards more and more affluence, justice and human happiness have all been seriously questioned. We must realise that the twenty-first century has a completely different cultural logic than the previous one had: most of our social, ideological, political, financial and ecological paradigms are either changing or will (or must) change soon. As most of our critical concepts, intellectual tools and ideological frameworks were made during the boom years of the late twentieth century, they are clearly outdated and inadequate today. Now we cannot escape the feeling that at some point in the past we got it really wrong, and our blindness has a high price to pay. Suddenly we do not know where we are and where we should be



going. Since the general cultural logic of the previous decades is changing, which affects all aspects of life and all academic disciplines, arguably there is no intellectually relevant academic approach in the human and social sciences today that should not also include the critical re-examination of our inherited, pre-crisis intellectual and ideological tool-boxes. In this book I wish to look at how European art cinema makes sense of our present loss of sense, what narratives it constructs out of our contemporary loss of grand narratives, and what identities it constructs at a time of the dramatic realignment of opinions, social affiliations and identities. It uses cinema and its representation of changing white masculinities to dive into the heart of the present socio-cultural transformations, and it analyses cinema’s responses to these “hot” issues, as well as the solutions it may offer. What I propose to do, therefore, is thinking through cinema in both senses of this expression: on the one hand, I try to think through the different qualities, shifts and effects of twenty-first-century European cinema in an effort to understand it and make critical observations about it; and on the other hand, I try to use cinema as a critical tool itself that allows for making observations about the world around us, as a means of asking questions about the new century. The idea is to perform a critical analysis of cinema’s explorations of a rapidly changing world, in which process we do not only comprehend our world better, but also come closer to understanding our own patterns of understanding, together, needless to say, with its possible strengths and shortcomings, insights and blind spots. At this point a quick note is due on the politics of representation and the representation of politics. From the above passages it may have already transpired that this book will necessarily have to reflect on political issues as well: there is simply no exploring the socio-cultural rearrangements of the twenty-first century (on- and off-screen) without keeping the idea of the political (in a general sense) in mind. Thus, in this book, while analysing and contextualising European art films, I critically explore the implications, strengths and drawbacks of all ideological constructs that I discover in them. And since a majority of European quality films are shaped by Enlightenment humanism and the progressive-liberal political paradigm, my critical remarks about these films may give readers the idea that I, like the “bad” politicians of our time (Le Pen, Orbán, Trump) have serious issues with twenty-first-century liberalism, democracy, the “political mainstream” or the values and practices of the European cultural establishment. Ironically, this is not so far from the truth: some of the criticism I



formulate in this book is driven by my disappointment with our cultural and political establishment, and the way we uncritically try to rely on our much-cherished twentieth-century ideas, ideologies and policies, and still regard them as the last bastions of civilisation, our only protection against resurgent barbarity. My disappointment and ensuing criticism, however, does not stem from a deeply felt love for populism or autocracy. Quite the contrary: it is motivated by the dismay felt over the way our cultural, financial and political establishments let the hard-earned results of the last 50 years of socio-cultural development be gradually undone. As I will argue in more detail in the Introduction (Chap. 1), the twenty-­ first-­century crisis of the modern international liberal order is to a large extent caused by its own shortcomings, mistaken assumptions, unforeseen weaknesses, unpublicised compromises, unchecked corruption as well as the intellectual laziness that comes so easily with decades of peace, prosperity and unchallenged dominance. Orbán, the AFD, the UKIP and Le Pen are not the primary causes, but rather the symptomatic consequences of this social, intellectual and political crisis. One of my basic assumptions in this book is that with 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis (and a whole number of other symptomatic events) the dominant cultural paradigm of the last 50 years reached its tipping-point, and became counterproductive with regards to its original goals. What used to be brave, intelligent, anti-­ establishment, eye-opening, subversive and progressive in the 1970s, have become, by the time the crisis hit, established, rigid, dogmatic, hyper-­ normative, status quo, averse to self-correction, and often little more than a bunch of empty commonplaces reiterated by professors, politicians and journalists in the echo-chambers of their ivory towers. I think the new century requires the renewal of this old paradigm. It is high time to take into account everything that has gone wrong with these ideas, face their weaknesses, hypocrisy, false assumptions or the ways they were corrupted by those who appropriated them for the protection of the status quo. The sooner we do it, the less painful this intellectual and political transition will be. And the more time we waste by desperately defending them, denying our old mistakes and the new conditions of the twenty-first century, the more ground we give over to demagogues and autocrats, who happily take advantage of the quick self-discrediting of the mainstream. The time of denial should be over. It is time to rethink and sort out our intellectual, political and artistic heritage, so as to be ready for the new challenges of the new century.



If one wishes to understand the true causes and nature of the present crisis, one must look beyond the obvious symptoms, the scandals of the day, the all-too-comfortable left wing / right wing or democratic / populist dichotomies, and explore the socio-cultural field in depth. The most important art form providing such depth of field is, I would argue, cinema, especially the European arthouse kind, influenced by the aesthetics of realism and the ethos of social responsibility. Thus, exploring the cinema of these turbulent years may have ramifications beyond film history or the studies of masculinity. Reading films is a valuable way of looking behind the scenes, behind the spectacular symptoms, and seeing the social matrix in its complexity. Films connect with the social conditions of their times in a million ways. Narratives, the problems they show and the resolutions they provide may reveal deeply hidden assumptions about a whole community’s sense of history. Characters and their struggles and destinies reveal concepts about identity, human values or gender. Films, especially the ones shot on real locations, connect with the life-worlds of the times and the practicalities of everyday life in countless ways. Simple cinematic vehicles, such as setting, lighting or camera communicate the atmosphere associated with certain situations, opinions on social issues, or value-­ judgements about geographical locations or character types. Thus, cinema simultaneously depicts social conditions, records human responses and concepts about its challenges, and shapes our communities’ sense of history. Fans of European cinema will not be shocked when I claim that reading this book may require the willing suspension of one’s beliefs, especially one’s political and ideological beliefs. It is meant for people who are not simply looking for an affirmation of their world-view, or ammunition to use in the culture wars. Rather, it is meant for readers who enjoy when cinema confronts them with difficult questions or disjoints their comfortable beliefs and opinions, for readers who are interested in critical thinking, debunking false concepts, pointing out ethical dilemmas, and unearthing the (cognitive) patterns from which our world (and our films) are made. Indeed, one of the most awarding aspects of writing this book was that I was forced to read and study outside my cognitive echo-chamber. I wanted to carry out this work with as much intellectual honesty and critical insight as possible, therefore I had to explore all kinds of views, opinions and theories, which would inevitably take me beyond the confines of my more or less safe and comfortable academic bubble. In an attempt to



challenge and correct my cognitive, political and academic biases, and to get to know all that was stirred up by the current crisis, I searched and read books from authors I never heard of before, listened to podcasts about issues far from my usual research areas, watched public debates on YouTube, with as little academic, political or ideological prejudice as possible. To be honest, in spite of some grim topics, it all turned out to be joyfully and thrillingly inspiring. I realised, for example, that in case of such a project one sure sign of being on the right track is the ability to confuse intelligent algorithms. When I showed my YouTube profile to my wife one night, that is, what YouTube would recommend to me, what it thinks about my identity and interests, she laughed so hard she had tears in her eyes. She also suggested that I never show this to any psychiatrist if I wanted to keep my teaching position. Besides the usual and expectable film studies and social theory stuff, YouTube recommended Scandinavian white supremacist heavy metal bands next to Maajid Nawaz, the British Muslim counter-extremism activist, muscular male bodies of urban street-workout culture next to emaciated hard-drug addicts, ContraPoints next to Jordan Peterson, podcasts by BBC Radio 4 and The Guardian next to the troll Sargon of Akkad, or Christian Picciolini, the 120 kilograms full body tattooed ex-neo-Nazi next to Yuval Noah Harari, the skinny, vegan, gay, Jewish historian. I also made a habit of regularly asking the opinions of friends from all sides of the political spectrum: liberals and conservatives, new Marxists and alt-right followers, feminists and Orbán-fans, Brexiteers and remainers, university professors and the last forum of old-school democratic public discussion, the old ladies at the local flower market. These conversations also taught me a fair amount of humility, made me understand that I can always be (painfully) wrong, that others may always have another perspective that I could in no way foresee, taught me to listen carefully, with as little preconception as possible, and to presume that the other has understood something that I have not. I realised that this was possibly the only good thing about the crisis, the opportunity to learn, to reconsider, to see the world differently, and it would be silly of me to miss it. I also had the feeling that what really distinguishes between dangerous extremists and decent people was not that much the ideological content of their ideas, but rather whether they were open to rational (re)considerations and respectful dialogue or not. This strategy of respectful listening, the will to understand differently, and to play the devil’s advocate for the sake of more complex understanding, was a method that I could use in my work



with the films as well. In this respect, I owe thanks to my university students as well for discussing these films with me at various seminars and film club events. They are of all sorts of cultural backgrounds, identities and opinions, but invariably people who were raised in this volatile, digital-by-­ default, off-modern, post-crash world. Without them I would not have had a chance to understand anything about the cultural logic of the twenty-first century. I wish to thank all these people on- and off-line, who talked to me, lectured me, questioned my assumptions, recommended films, documentaries, authors. I am most thankful to those people who showed me how to think outside one’s bubble, how to let go of beliefs for the sake of knowledge, people who can argue and reason with the sole interest of understanding, without any secret agenda or resentment. They are my intellectual heroes and heroines, and I would like to dedicate this book to them. Finally, I wish to thank everybody who supported my research or helped me with the preparation of this book: the János Bolyai Research Grant of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Research Grant of the New National Excellency Programme of the Hungarian Ministry of Human Resources, as well as all the great people at Palgrave Macmillan for their continuous support and professionalism. Debrecen, Hungary

György Kalmár


1 Introduction: Post-Crisis Europe, White Masculinity and Art Cinema  1 The Post-Crisis and the Off-Modern   2 White Masculinity  10 Post-Crisis European Cinema  22 The Outline of the Book  27 Works Cited  31 2 Rites of Retreat and the Cinematic Resignification of European Cultural Geography 35 The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner  43 Delta  50 Suntan  56 Conclusions: Men in Retreat  63 Works Cited  65 3 Unprocessed Pasts 67 Amen  77 Days of Glory  85 Cold War  95 Conclusions: Unprocessed Pasts 103 Works Cited 106




4 Addiction and Escapism109 Billy Elliot 116 T2 Trainspotting 126 Kills on Wheels 136 Conclusions: Addiction and Escapism 145 Works Cited 146 5 Narratives of Migration149 Terraferma 154 Morgen 161 Jupiter’s Moon 167 Conclusions: Narratives of Migration 176 Works Cited 179 6 The Lads of the New Right183 The Wave 191 This Is England 199 July 22 206 Conclusions: Lads of the New Right 215 Works Cited 216 7 Angry Old Men219 Tyrannosaur 225 I, Daniel Blake 231 A Man Called Ove 239 Conclusions: Angry Old Men 249 Works Cited 252 8 Conclusions255 Works Cited 265 Index267

List of Figures

Fig. 2.1 Fig. 2.2 Fig. 2.3 Fig. 2.4 Fig. 2.5 Fig. 2.6 Fig. 3.1 Fig. 3.2 Fig. 3.3 Fig. 3.4 Fig. 3.5 Fig. 3.6 Fig. 4.1 Fig. 4.2 Fig. 4.3 Fig. 4.4 Fig. 4.5 Fig. 4.6 Fig. 5.1 Fig. 5.2 Fig. 5.3 Fig. 5.4 Fig. 5.5 Fig. 5.6

Film still from The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Stephan Komandarev 2008) Film still from The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Stephan Komandarev 2008) Film still from Delta (Kornél Mundruczó 2008) Film still from Delta (Kornél Mundruczó 2008) Film still from Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos 2016) Film still from Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos 2016) Film still from Amen (Costa-Gavras 2002) Film still from Amen (Costa-Gavras 2002) Film still from Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb 2006) Film still from Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb 2006) Film still from Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski 2018) Film still from Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski 2018) Film still from Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry 2000) Film still from Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry 2000) Film still from T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 2017) Film still from T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 2017) Film still from Kills on Wheels (Attila Till 2016) Film still from Kills on Wheels (Attila Till 2016) Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011) Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011) Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011) Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011) Film still from Morgen (Marian Crisan, 2010) Film still from Morgen (Marian Crisan, 2010)

47 49 51 55 59 60 80 81 88 94 98 99 119 125 129 132 138 141 156 157 160 160 164 166




Fig. 5.7 Fig. 5.8 Fig. 6.1 Fig. 6.2 Fig. 6.3 Fig. 6.4 Fig. 6.5 Fig. 6.6 Fig. 7.1 Fig. 7.2 Fig. 7.3 Fig. 7.4 Fig. 7.5 Fig. 7.6

Film still from Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mundruczó, 2017) Film still from Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mundruczó, 2017) Film still from The Wave (Dennis Gansel, 2008) Film still from The Wave (Dennis Gansel, 2008) Film still from This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) Film still from This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) Film still from July 22 (Paul Greengrass, 2018) Film still from July 22 (Paul Greengrass, 2018) Film still from Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011) Film still from Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011) Film still from I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016) Film still from I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016) Film still from A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm, 2015) Film still from A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm, 2015)

169 169 192 195 201 203 209 210 229 230 236 236 241 245


Introduction: Post-Crisis Europe, White Masculinity and Art Cinema

This book explores the cinematic representations of the pervasive socio-­ cultural change that the twenty-first century brought to Europe and the world. Its main assumption is that the series of crises that started with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 changed some of our fundamental expectations about history, debunked some of our grand narratives, and thus changed the cultural logic of our (thoroughly globalised) civilisation. Thus, the book focuses on the ways cinema reflects (and interprets and shapes) a rapidly changing world: the hot new issues of the times, the new formations of identity and the shifts in cinematic representation. The book mostly focuses on films featuring white heterosexual men, mostly because I tend to agree with the statistics suggesting that the recent changes in (typically less privileged) white male communities lie at the heart of the new century’s most dramatic ideological and political changes. The book’s main goal is to put these markedly gendered representations in a complex, theoretically informed and socially committed interdisciplinary perspective that is capable of mapping the newly emerging formations of masculinity at a time of rapid socio-economic transitions reshaping the continent. Thus, this is an interdisciplinary research that combines the perspectives and results provided by such academic fields as sociology, film studies, masculinity studies and white studies. I am equally interested in what new the twenty-first century brought about, most specifically to Europe and to its white men, as in film and the cinematic responses to these socio-­cultural changes. The book is also clearly defined by its historicity, that is, by its © The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




locatedness at a very specific moment in time: through its discussion of motifs and themes running through the European art cinema of the new millennium, it explores the most burning issues of post-crisis Europe at a time when we are still very much affected by that crisis. In this chapter I am going to lay out some of the basic socio-cultural conditions, key concepts and academic interests informing this book. This will effectively contextualise the studies of films and social phenomena of the later chapters. Let us start with time.

The Post-Crisis and the Off-Modern One does not need to be a social scientist to note that since the beginning of the new millennium the developed societies of the so-called Western World have been going through dramatic changes. These are usually attributed to a set of crises that these societies have recently gone through. The sweet dream of “the end of history” and the victory of global neoliberal capitalism seems to be over. Today it may be painfully awkward to recall to what extent public and academic thinking as well as public policies in the 1990s were defined by Francis Fukuyama’s vision of a united, happy global human community. In his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man (which was an elaboration of an 1989 article), Fukuyama contended that with the fall of the Eastern European communist regimes, “liberal democracy as a system of government … conquered rival ideologies” and therefore it “may constitute the endpoint of humankind’s ideological evolution and the final form of human government” and as such brings about “the end of history” (xi). He claimed that “the twin principles of liberty and equality” are flawless, and thus “the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved on” (xi). In The End of History and his few following books, Fukuyama envisioned a future in which stable political formations, thriving liberal democracies, uninterrupted economic and technological progress would lead to a “posthuman future” where most traditional causes of human suffering would be eventually overcome. According to Fukuyama’s vision, liberal democracies are close to the materialisation of a global utopia, in which people live for centuries, artificial intelligence and robots provide for all needs, a self-regulating neoliberal economy runs perfectly, everybody agrees on human rights and core democratic principles, and in the ever more integrated, happy and rich global village there is simply no reason for war anymore.



In defence of Fukuyama, one must note that the 1990s produced several “best years ever” of human history: not only did the Eastern European communist dictatorships collapse, bringing about the end of the cold war and its continuous nuclear threat, but neoliberal capitalism coupled with a postmodern ethos seemed to produce unprecedented material and cultural affluence. Such outstanding works of the decade as Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996), Zygmunt Bauman’s Globalization: The Human Consequences (1998) and his Liquid Modernity (1999) or Jean Baudrillard’s writing from the 1980s and 1990s all try to make sense of this rapidly growing and globalising world where the spread of democracy, financial affluence, technological development, dropping violence statistics and growing social justice were almost unquestionable elements of any vision about the future. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once noted, we were all Fukuyamaists for a decade. The end of the twentieth century apparently made (a considerable part of) humankind intoxicated by the fruits and promises of late modernity. It seemed that for the first time in history, we were on the brink of transcending the human condition. This utopian tone was much in line with the general spirit of modernity. By modernity, I refer to that long historical period which started sometime in the Renaissance, and is characterised by a secular, rational, scientific world-view; a future-oriented, anti-traditionalist approach; the constant seek for the new; the pursuit of worldly happiness and material wealth; individualism; the belief in freedom, human agency and progress; the idea that human beings and human societies can be improved with the help of rationality and science; and the values of Enlightenment humanism. As this brief list may also imply, the utopian idea of transcending the present condition (of our society or humanity in general) is a logical part of the cultural logic of modernity as such. As the industrial revolution, the French revolution or the communist revolutions have shown, modernity has a weak spot for both utopia (that it regards as the natural result of progress) and the revolutions necessary to take us there. Unfortunately, modernity likes to imagine one clear path towards its progressive goal, and it has little patience with those who stand in its way, thus (in spite of its fondness of democracy and egalitarianism) it has a distinctively dogmatic and totalitarian potential (Foucault 1977; Bauman 1989, 2000). As I will argue through several socially contextualised film analyses of this book, this dogmatic aspect of modernity, which has regularly distorted the social implementation of its own core principles, may have to do with its often



unacknowledged eschatological underside: that in spite of all the rational, enlightened and pragmatic principles, modernity can still be (and is) practiced as a secular faith-religion. Today, of course, Fukuyama’s 1990s vision seems as utopian and naïve (and potentially dangerous) as that of Robespierre or Marx. As Fukuyama himself also recounts with unparalleled clarity in his 2018 book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, a whole series of previously unrecognised negative processes came to fruition in the new century, which brought about a dramatic change of the tide. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the ensuing wars in the Middle East and North Africa, the 2008 economic crisis, the subsequent destabilisation of political life, or the disastrous events of 2016 enlisted in the Preface, have waken us up to the fact that the historical causes of human suffering, which are responsible for all the nightmares of history, cannot be erased by simply feeding people more food, drinks, drugs and internet. To such Eastern European intellectuals as Svetlana Boym (and myself), who experienced the false promises and eventual downfall of the communist version of the “end of history” narrative, the fact that history did not have a sublime end-point (contrary to Hegel, Marx and the early Fukuyama) did not come as much of a surprise. Instead of Fukuyama’s markedly modern notion of a “coherent development of modern societies” to “liberal democracies and technologically driven capitalism” (Fukuyama 2003, xii), Boym recognised the utopian wishful thinking underlying the project of modernity, the inevitable instability of the modern world, as well as the ways the human thrive towards progress is regularly compromised by our longing for (the fantasy of) a home outside (or before) the time of history. A key point that Boym understood is that this phenomenon of longing (and home-sickness and nostalgia) is inextricably intertwined with the very idea of progress: in her view, “the sentiment (of nostalgia) … is at the very core of the modern condition” (2001, xvi), and “nostalgic manifestations are side-effects of the teleology of progress” (10). Reading Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (2001) alongside with Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future (2003) in the early years of the new century, one could have the impression that in spite of all the well-­ informed, data-based intellectual power of Fukuyama’s predictions, as well as the intoxicating possibility of a super-human future, Boym’s analysis of human beings’ relation to historical time “feels” more right: it is more sensitive and observant, and it works with a more complex, less head-­ heavy view of the human being. Thus, today we can safely state that after



all, it was not surprising that Boym had more predictive power too: for once, an analysis based on cultural and art history proved better at seeing the future than clear intellectual analysis based on discoveries from the hard sciences. At the time of Trump’s nostalgic glorification of American industrial past and Britain’s saying no to what, at least on paper, is supposed to be the most progressive supra-national political formation of the planet, Boym’s analysis of modern nostalgia and its consequences is as timely as ever: Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space: before entry into history. (Boym 2001, 8)

Clearly, this nostalgic longing tends to get the upper hand each time modernity encounters a crisis and fails to deliver its glamorous objects of desire. Arguably, that is exactly what is happening today: the crisis of security (caused by terrorism), the financial crisis, the more and more manifest environmental crisis are also causing an ideological crisis, a questioning of our previous world-views, and gradually undermining the entire belief system of modernity. According such intellectuals as Stuart Sim, this amounts to reaching the end of modernity as such: Financial crisis, environmental crisis: what is the combination of credit crunch and global warming telling us about the way we live? I would contend that such events signal modernity has reached its limit as a cultural form. In consequence, we have to face up to the prospect of life ‘after modernity’ where a very different kind of mental set than the one we have been indoctrinated with will be required. Modernity, my argument will go, has collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions; the modern world’s insatiable need for technologically driven economic progress has finally been revealed as unsustainable and, even more importantly, potentially destructive of both the planet and the socio-economic systems so painstakingly developed over the past few centuries. We have been encouraged to believe that those systems would roll on into the indefinite future, yielding ever better returns as they went; now, we shall have to think again. (Sim 2010, ix)



On basis of all these troubling twenty-first-century issues, I would argue (in concord with Sim) that the cultural logic and fundamental belief system of modernity as a cultural system have been seriously challenged in the first decades of the new millennium. It does seem, as Bauman and Bordoni argue in State of Crisis, that “the crisis facing the Western world is not temporary, but the sign of a profound change that involves the whole economic and social system and will have long-lasting effects” (2014, vii). Though Sim’s diagnosis of a present socio-cultural rupture in his The End of Modernity is sound and convincing, and one cannot deny that we are living in a “state of crisis”, it is yet to be seen whether what we are experiencing is truly “the end of modernity” as such. Perhaps, paradoxically, it is still the cultural logic of modernity that tempts us to declare yet another end-point, this time the end of modernity. Indeed, it may be too early to speak of an after-modern world, where we regard the whole project of modernity doomed and done for good. Thus, to designate the kind of time of post-crisis, twenty-first century modernity, I will rather use the term off-modern, initially coined by Svetlana Boym in the context of art history. In the twenty-first century, modernity is our antiquity. We live with its ruins, which we incorporate into our present. Unlike the thinkers of the last fin de siècle, we neither mourn nor celebrate the end of history or the end of art. We have to chart a new road between unending development and nostalgia, find an alternative logic for the contradictions of contemporary culture. Instead of fast-changing prepositions—“post,” “anti,” “neo,” “trans,” and “sub”—that suggest an implacable movement forward, against, or beyond, I propose to go off: “off” as in “off the path,” or way off, off-Broadway, off-brand, off the wall, and occasionally off-color. “Off-modern” is a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project. It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side alleys of modern history, at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic, and technological narratives of modernization and progress. (Boym 2017, 3)

By off-modern, appropriating Boym’s term and crucial insight, I wish to refer to a sense that though the world (and many of its inhabitants) are seemingly still following the modern paradigm in many respects (e.g., they expect economic growth to rise again, take conspicuous consumption for granted, assume to rely on ever improved technological gadgets, or to live in increasingly more egalitarian liberal democracies), it is increasingly difficult to imagine that we are still on the forward-moving, progress-oriented



trajectory of modernity, that we have not gone off the track. It is increasingly harder to ignore the feeling that something smells off with all this, with the present state of the grand project of modernity. Thus, the offmodern signifies more of a socio-cultural dysfunction, a disintegration of our clear-cut concepts of time, progress and our place in a teleological narrative, than a new era. The Zeitgeist is that we have lost our way, and do not really know where we are. We look like a group of hikers in the high mountains (if you have a cinematic imagination, you can picture the story in the style of a Danny Boyle thriller), a group that has realised that they are no longer on the nice path they had planned to walk. We are tense and anxious, trying to keep panic under control. The more disoriented we are, the louder we repeat our own version of which direction we should take, and of course we keep blaming each other, desperately trying to scapegoat someone else for all this trouble. As in Boyle’s films—at least in Shallow Grave (1994), 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007)—such an unforeseen event easily lets loose the pathological, destructive underside of human beings, so we have to understand where we are and find the best possible track while also wrestling with all the dirty human stuff that was buried (in shallow graves) underneath the nice and proper surface we maintained during the good days. Unfortunately, history is likely to follow the narrative structure of the above films, which means that we are to go through plenty of gory before we can reach any kind of narrative closure. It is obvious that the early twenty-first-century version of the modern project is a compromised, twisted, bizarre one, which includes more and more “ghosts of the past”, smelly, obscene creatures that do not belong here, social phenomena that simply do not fit our (often unacknowledged but still virulent) grand narrative of modernity. Our off-modern time recycles leftovers from previous eras of human civilisation that are off-sync with the official spirit of the time, alien bodies that reveal the existence of inclinations, emotions, social responses we thought we had passed beyond long ago (Boym 2017, 5). As the utopian future got shattered, the old maps got discredited, many of our bewildered fellow travellers opt for going back to a point where we still knew who we were, what we wanted, and where we were going. Thus, today significant groups of Western societies are caught in the regressive, distinctively off-modern recycling of such ghosts of the past as industrial capitalism (Trump), religious fundamentalism (the Islamists), nationalism (conservatives, right-wing populists, the alt-right), sexism, racism, and of course more affirmative, distinctively not politically correct masculinities. In the contemporary



ideological landscape, these regressive answers (that try to go back to different historical or mythical times) are at war, at the culture war, with the (increasingly more confused, irrational, dogmatic, militant and panicky) modernist progress-beliefs. This confused and confusing, off-modern dispute takes place in an institutional and legal environment that was designed during the good days, for the good days to come (no wonder that it fails so often and so spectacularly in times of crisis), and is mostly still run by a political elite and its supporting technocracy and epistemocracy (journalists, academics, government advisors, think-tanks) who were educated and rose to their status during the glorious pre-crisis years. It is easy to see the relationship between pre-crisis and crisis as that of a simple contrast, arranged in a straightforward temporal sequence. Books and newspaper articles abound in such metaphors: we had a beautiful dream, but we are awake now, or we had a great party (or even an orgy— as Bauman says), but it is over now and we have a terrible hangover. Yet, this is only the most obvious level. At more thorough inspection, one realises that their relationship is also that of cause and effect: it was the boom that caused the bust, it were processes that started during “liquid modernity” that finally washed away our castes of sand. One may also note several troublesome post-crisis social processes (such as growing economic inequality, the birth of the precariat or the re-tribalisation of the public sphere) that started in the pre-crisis era, but remained hardly visible as long as the economy was thriving. There were many social and political processes, established economic or cultural policies even, that no one saw the dark underside or consequences of, or no one took seriously. Any social system has a tolerance of anomaly that it can endure without serious systemic disturbance or loss of legitimacy. The years 2001 and 2008 did not break the system: it is more precise to say that these were years that amplified some of the erosive processes that had been already on the way, and produced further anomaly, which, together, reached a critical level that actually undermined the credibility of the whole system. It needs to be noted that this de-legitimisation happened in spite of the efforts of many people and institutions who had an interest in maintaining the status-­quo and keeping the system going the way it did. Thus, the crisis was also a breakthrough of information: sobering news, previously buried stories, unpublished statistics, now came to light. Perhaps the fake news industry could strike precisely because these “real” news had already made us question our previously held beliefs. Thus, the pre-crisis paranoid fantasies of wolves became the sobering realities of today. In this sense, the



time of post-crisis is also the time when modernity’s previously closeted dark secrets have come to light. Ironically, our “post-truth” era has revealed several “truths” of late twentieth-century capitalism and liberal democracies that were effectively covered up or neglected during our intoxicating pre-crisis dream of the end of history. The events of the early twenty-first century also called attention to several potential problems with the fundamental project of modernity, which will arguably stay with us even if our economies do eventually revive. The 2008 financial crisis highlighted how much the stability of liberal democracies is closely tied with, or perhaps even dependent on economic development. Apparently, several aspects of this particular type of socio-economic model work only with the “oiling” of affluence and the addictive promise of even more affluence. In this sense, the financial crisis has been an important warning, which indicates that should the world face harsher times (because of future economic crises, Europe’s declining competitiveness, the damaging effects of climate change, demographic issues or whatever other reason), without its fantasmic (ideological) support of an ever better future the stability of liberal democracies could quickly be endangered. Thus, the off-modern is intimately connected to the state (and sense) of crisis, which is not only financial or environmental, but (more importantly for cinema) also social, political, cultural and ideological (Bauman and Bordoni 2014, 21–25). One of my key arguments shaping this book is that the above discussed time of crisis, the time of the off-modern is so disorienting for so many of us because it amounts to nothing less than what Foucault used to call a coupure épistémologique, an epistemological break (Foucault 1997). In other words, in the twenty-first century the meaning of things (in the most general, radical and philosophical sense) has changed. Democracy, progress, citizenship, free will, equality, liberalism, capitalism—none of the key words of our late twentieth-century world-view were left unaltered by this profound shift. It seems that we have to accept that the twenty-first century brought about not only an “age of acceleration” (Friedman 2016), when change speeded up to a level hard to control or comprehend, but also a breaking up of previous ideological meta-structures, a radical undermining of our core principles about the concept of history, individual identity and agency, or liberal democracy, to mention only a few. Things simply do not mean the same as they did before the crisis, and probably never will. Furthermore, similar to Gaston Bachelard’ use of the term epistemological rupture, because of recent events, suddenly many of our pre-crisis concepts seem ideologically



motivated, naïve and based on false assumptions (Fraser 2007, xvii–xviii; Foucault 1997, 4). Thus, I would argue that the temporality of crisis is also that of a cut, a break, a moment when the constructedness and discontinuity of history comes to light (Foucault 1997, 4–22; Webb 2013, 12). We are disoriented beings living the times of an epistemological rupture, a profound and radical socio-cultural and political rearrangement that Western societies have not experienced since the Second World War. I will come to the detailed analysis of these various aspects in the individual chapters below, in the context of the specific social phenomena and their cinematic representations. Now it is time to turn to the other aspects of the interdisciplinary explorations of this book: the questions concerning white masculinity.

White Masculinity This book explores the European cinematic representations of the present state of crisis with a particular focus on how this crisis appears in the lives of heterosexual white male characters. Following the dominant pre-crisis cultural paradigm, this could seem like an awkward research choice: Why white? Why men? After all, for more than two millennia, European cultures were almost exclusively that of white men: produced by white men, about the thoughts, concerns, and ideas of white men. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to investigate something else for a change? Does not such a book risk reaffirming the old, entrenched, retrograde hegemonies that we have been trying so hard to loosen? At a time when right-wing nationalism and populism are on the rise, when most of the intelligentsia are busy defending the late twentieth-century values of liberal democracy, isn’t it (at least) politically unwise, or (at worst) morally wrong to write about white men and their contemporary troubles? And is such a study feasible at all? In our heated and polarised media environment, is it possible to pursue rational, academic research in this field at all? My answers to these objections and questions are key to the understanding of the intellectual relevance of this book. Throughout this volume, I will demonstrate that the study of white masculinities is of utmost importance today, for academic, political as well as ethical reasons. I am aware that this topic is, in many ways, as difficult and risky as timely, not the least because of the twenty-first century resurgence of white ethno-­ nationalisms, militant online political activism (on all sides of the political spectrum), the toxic debate cultures on social media, and the click-bait,



scandal-hungry, increasingly tabloid-like tendencies of the contemporary news media market. However, I still have the (perhaps old-fashioned) belief that books backed by thorough research and thinking can still serve as a platform where we can work our ways through even the most hotly debated issues of our times. I also agree with Iman Amrani (who runs the Guardian’s Modern Masculinity YouTube series) that “we need to have uncomfortable conversations if things are going to move forward” (Amrani 2019, E.01). So let us dive into some of those uneasy issues, and let me lay out some of my reasons for focusing on such an off topic, as films about white men. First and probably most importantly, what seems to be an “off” topic from one certain (pre-crisis) cultural paradigm, may be a key issue when considered from the point of view of the new century. It is increasingly clear that one cannot understand the key socio-cultural tendencies of the early twenty-first century without adequate attention paid to white men. For example, surveys indicate that political shifts among white male voters (usually without college education) played a significant, if not decisive, role in such historical events as the rise of right-wing populist parties in Europe, the Brexit vote, or Trump’s presidency in the US. Also, as I have understood during researching for my previous book about men in post-­ communist Hungarian cinema (Kalmár 2017), and as some of the chapters of this book will indicate, fundamental cultural or political change often occurs when the waves of (economic, social or demographic) changes reach the (formerly) more privileged parts of society as well. Not researching the social and cultural shifts within these groups arguably leaves us clueless about contemporary conditions. One needs to realise that there is a potentially dangerous deficit of knowledge in this field. Apparently, there have been a number of socio-cultural processes in the white male community that neither the competing mainstream political parties, nor professional think tanks or social studies registered in time, or cared to adequately respond to. These processes went unnoticed for long, before bringing consequences that changed the face of our societies in dramatic and unpredicted ways. Thus, there seems to be a great deal that we do not understand about white men: there is a deficit of knowledge that needs to be addressed (see: Beynon 2001, 143). So as to understand the causes of this systemic blindness, the related contemporary debates, or the newly emerging new cultures of masculinity, one needs a bit of a historical perspective and recall some of the events and trends of the pre-crisis era. For a start, it is important to realise that white



masculinities have gone through dramatic transformations in the last half a century (Beynon 2001, 119). Arguably, one could hardly pick any other historical period of peace when our concepts, expectations, normative ideals of white masculinity changed so much during such a short span of time. This rapid change was partly due to a set of social movements that aimed at creating more egalitarian societies, and partly due to the dominant intellectual paradigm of the second half of the twentieth century. Since the great counter-cultural, anti-establishment, democratic political movements of the late 1960s, intellectual life and social egalitarian movements have been going hand in hand, closely connected, transforming politics, journalism and the humanities. These “post-sixties liberationalist discourses” (Robinson 2000, 4) produced a number of (more or less) new academic disciplines, such as postcolonial criticism, feminist criticism, black studies, LGBTQ studies, which revealed much of the cruelty and exploitation that the white man’s culture historically involved. Facing the previously often concealed dark side of Western civilisation, these discourses did not only aim at the deconstruction of the grand narratives of our cultural heritage (á la Lyotard or Derrida), but, in order to create more egalitarian and democratic societies, they also wished to undermine and undo the social, political and psychological causes of exploitation. Most political, sociological or philosophical schools of this era saw white men in general as privileged by definition, heirs to the so-called patriarchal tradition, a contentious cultural, political and historical legacy. This was a time of reckoning, which brought about a set of new and revelatory insights, revolutionary perspectives, formerly buried narratives, as well as new ethical standards which made developed societies much more democratic than ever before. Since the late 1960s, especially in the human and social sciences, the new norm was that any kind of credible, ethically sound intellectual or political position had to necessarily include acknowledging the dubious historical heritage of the white men’s culture, and the unambiguous disavowal of the colonialist, racist and sexist trends of our past. Since the great social movements of the 1960s, intellectual trends were accompanied by a new set of social policies. Late twentieth-century first-­ world societies attempted to amend historical injustices and inequalities by various means: through legislative measures (making human rights universal, granting women and people of colour the right to own and inherit property, vote, work and study), through a new set of social policies (creating the welfare state, and the positive discrimination of minorities in



certain fields of social life), and through the regulation of public discourse, most specifically by the culture of political correctness. While these measures and policies proved productive in several fields of social, cultural and political life, the kind of identity politics practised in it also produced some unfortunate extremities, such as presenting white men as by definition “malicious and jealous protectors of the status quo” (Robinson 2000, 5), or making the expression of hate felt about white men socially acceptable (or even fashionable). One of the problematic long-term side effects of these trends was that issues of whiteness and masculinity were pushed to the margins of “proper” public and academic discourse, and were often regarded as ideologically and even morally suspicious (Robinson 2000, 6–7). One effect of these trends was the cultural resignification of white masculinity. During most of the last 500 years of Western expansion and globalisation white men enjoyed “the privilege of inhabiting an unmarked body” (Robinson 2000, 1): heterosexual white masculinity was seen as the unmarked norm, an almost invisible standard against which all forms of sexual, gendered and racial differences were measured. While these various forms of otherness were marked by their difference from the assumedly superior white masculinity by discourses of sexism and racism, whiteness was a taken for granted cultural ideal, seldom questioned but well-­protected together with the status quo that it was intertwined with. The above-mentioned decades of historical reckoning, however, marked white masculinity with its dubious historical heritage (Robinson 2000, 2). When the previously marginalised voices (women, people of colour, sexual minorities) could finally appear with their own accounts of history, white masculinity became resignified, newly meaningful, “marked”, tainted with the horrors of centuries of racial and sexual exploitation, and loaded with derogative meaning in somewhat similar ways as “black” or “Jew” were (and are) in racist discourses. Perhaps for the very first time in known history, white masculinity became visible, and white male identity became de-idealised, troubled, contested, a challenge, something to-be-worked-through. The post-1960s socio-cultural changes were driven by the politics of subversion and reversal: as the first stage of challenging the old oppressive discourses, it produced an over-arching counter-narrative (not less “grand” as the previous one that it replaced), which was widely accepted not necessarily because it was historically absolutely accurate, but because it was necessary for the desired social changes, and because its acceptance became



the new norm in our quickly transforming cultural institutions. Thus, what the post-1960s’ era achieved is not so much the production of a complex and unbiased account of social history, but rather the inversion of the well-known old trends: replacing white pride by white guilt, replacing the inherently sexist and racist “old proper” language by the strictly policed, normative, “new proper” linguistic regime of political correctness, turning the glorious history of white man into the infamous story of patriarchal tyranny, and turning white masculinity from an object of pride into something shameful and potentially toxic by default. One of the questions post-crisis intellectuals may ask themselves is how the long-term counter-productivity of such a strategy (let alone its necessary destructiveness concerning social cohesion and solidarity) could be disregarded for so long. At this point it is worth recalling that Jacques Derrida, arguably one of the most influential figures of this post-1960s trend, insisted throughout his oeuvre that such strategies of subversion and inversion usually create very similar power structures that they replace, and thus, in the process of intellectual or social progress they should be thought of only as temporary solutions, during a necessarily inadequate first step (Newman 2007, 86–87). This postmodern culture of difference simultaneously fuelled the rapid transformation of white masculinities, “marked” them as the perpetrators of a horrible history of global exploitation, while also turning academic, journalistic and artistic attention towards historically marginalised groups. The key insight to grasp here is that this post-1960s cultural shift coincided with a major economic transformation of most of the developed world. Globalisation, deindustrialisation, the new service economy, the tech-boom and the implementation of neoliberal economic principles may have made our societies more affluent on the whole, but they also radically increased social inequality, and robbed whole segments of society from both decent livelihood as well as the feeling of social worth and dignity (Fukuyama 2019). I would argue that it was the combination of these intimately interlinked processes that created the above mentioned dangerous deficit of knowledge: these processes redrew the lines and causes of social inequality (education becoming the number one factor), and they made white masculinities underresearched, their transformations uncharted, their problems underrepresented, and their frustrations untended for. Possibly, this was one of the systemic blind spots of the late twentieth-century culture of difference and diversity, which largely contributed to the present social, political and ideological crisis.



The early twenty-first century crisis, as it becomes more and more obvious, brought about the gradual collapse of this cultural logic, pulling out some of its fundamental pillars (Trenz et al. 2015; Bauman and Bordoni 2014; Fukuyama 2019; Assmann 2016, 126), which had significant consequences regarding white men as well, both on and off the silver screen. Historically, such meltdowns of the political centre, such fundamental rearrangements of power and ideology are usually due to the simultaneous presence of both external pressures and the system’s integral malfunctions. This pattern is definitely recognisable in this case too. First, the 2001 terrorist attacks undermined the “end of history” narrative and the vision of a happily globalising, ever more democratic world. 9/11 as well as the general resurgence of religious fundamentalism in first world societies clearly indicated that the late twentieth-century model of consumerist capitalism and liberal democracy was in no way an uncontested ideological system. The resurgence of terrorism in first world societies and the general feeling of being under threat rebooted more combatant versions of masculinity, resulted in new anti-terrorist legislation and the curtailing of individual human rights in both the US and the EU (in the name of public security), it led to the birth of the digital surveillance state, the rapid decline of trust and tolerance, the resurgence of white ethno-­ nationalisms and the deepening of a new political tribalism. On the social theory best-selling lists, Fukuyama’s The End of History was quickly replaced by the new editions of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (first published in 1996), and later by Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (2017). Another major blow to the old cultural logic was the dismantling of the welfare state. This was already well on the way by the time the crisis hit, but the 2008 financial crisis led to further, exceptionally drastic cuts in public spending (the so-called policy of austerity), which inevitably hit the poorest the hardest (Smith 2015, 26–27). The way the crisis was handled had severe consequences with regards to the credibility and ethical soundness of the financial, intellectual and political elites. While homes and jobs and welfare benefits were lost, banks were rescued with taxpayer money. And while social inequality was rapidly rising, and the gap between the (so-called) winners and losers of globalisation was growing faster than ever, most decision-makers, policy-makers and opinion-formers seemed to be at a loss as to what was happening and what was to be done about it, and no reassuring new solution was on the offer.



One of the crucial points of this dark chronicle was the fact that the political, financial and intellectual establishments never seriously admitted to their responsibility in the crisis, did not start systematically questioning the old policies and ideologies, and also did not recognise that these radical socio-cultural transformations required new approaches, new policies and a whole new political discourse. This was probably most striking among the “epistemocracy”, at universities and many mainstream media outlets, where the crisis usually did not bring about the questioning of former assumptions, but rather the repetition of the old (and now threatened) arguments in more militarised, dogmatic and irrational forms. It was at this point that it became clear how rigid and normative our dominant socio-political discourses became in the decades since the 1960s. As Aleida Assmann notes, the victory of the so-called ’68-ers amounted to their defeat (2016, 95): when this originally subversive, emancipatory, anti-establishment discourse became the new (and only) “proper” way of talking and thinking, when it became part of the status quo, and when the new generation of intellectuals, who started out as subversive, creative thinkers got older and comfortable in their institutional positions, this intellectual trend lost its vitality, freshness, became increasingly normative, regulative, and thus incapable of responding to new social challenges (Assmann 2016 95, 126; Fukuyama 2019; Bruckner 2010; Schlink 2009, 23–31). In other words, by the time the crisis hit, our post-1960s dominant intellectual paradigm, which used to liberate thinking from the former, essentialist order of “the proper” (la propre, as the early Derrida used to call it), has become a new regulatory regime, once again connecting proper, property and propriety (see: Derrida 1982, 4). In the decades before the crisis, this system of thought did not only claim to be intellectually superior, more progressive and democratic than its competitors, but regrettably also canonised itself as morally superior, the only “correct”, ethically sound approach. As a result, as Assmann concludes in her critical evaluation of political correctness, the dominant culture of the 1990s and 2000s was characterised more by pious moralising than real critical thinking (2016, 119). This system’s firm belief in its continuing progressiveness, its successful camouflage of the status quo as productive subversiveness, its strictly regulated vocabulary and obsession with hyper-correctness, its institutionalisation and ensuing loss of its critical edge, as well as the resultant generation of increasingly conformist politicians and intellectuals made this discourse disastrously ill-fitted to handle the new realities and challenges of the new century.



Thus, one could claim that one cause of the ensuing political and ideological crisis was the ways the political and cultural establishment became hostage to its former victory and dominance. In academia and mainstream journalism white men remained an off topic (similarly to everything that smelled off according to the late twentieth-century orthodoxy), which also contributed to a widening gap between the political establishment and the recently reshaped underprivileged groups. This was a severe deficit of (political and media) representation, which, as we see all too clearly now, played right into the hands of Euro-sceptics, populists, new nationalists, protest parties and previously marginal public intellectuals, who were more than eager to fill this representational void, state all the obvious things that no one bound by the rules of the old episteme would dare say, and step up as the voices of the underrepresented. The more reluctant the old establishment was to question its old positions, the more ill-fitted it seemed in the eyes of the electorate to solve the problems of the new century, and thus the more opportunities it gave to those new leaders who often had little interest in preserving the true benefits of the pre-crisis era. The series of economic, political and intellectual crises produced new discourses on both whiteness and masculinity. The popularity of these discourses suggests widespread demand for new modes of discussing masculinity, ones that break with the ideological confines of the pre-crisis paradigm. Some of these are simply driven by resentment, some can be clearly described as part of a power-struggle, usually a backlash against second-wave feminism, but some of these discourses accurately pinpoint weaknesses, self-contradictions or potentially damaging concepts in our pre-crisis paradigms, and some point towards less over-politicised, psychologically more accurate (and thus healthier) conceptualisations of gender relations. The complexity of this situation is well indicated by the fact that the most popular publication of these trends, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (which was the best selling book in the US, Canada and the UK in 2018) takes the form of a self-help book, aiming to help disoriented men live better lives, and (in light of all the political scandals around him) deals surprisingly little with politics. Indeed, one of the interesting characteristics of these new discourses on masculinity (and perhaps the most surprising one for many readers) is that they cannot be as easily associated with any clear-cut political strands as one would think. Though right-wing political movements tend to have quite conservative views of masculinity, our current countercultural discourses cannot be conflated with or reduced to such movements as the alt-right or the far



right (as it often happens in sloppy journalistic accounts). These discourses are more connected by their critiques of the official gender politics of our political and cultural establishments than by their ideological affiliations. Let me refer at this point to two influential and informative takes on contemporary masculinities from two sides of the political spectrum: first, Peterson’s ideas in the above mentioned book and in various lectures, and second, those of the Guardian journalist Iman Amrani’s Modern Masculinity documentary series (2019). Peterson’s basic argument is that our culture systematically (and probably deliberately) produces disoriented and dysfunctional men, who are therefore in much need of psychological coaching and encouragement. His more theoretical points include a rejection of the idea that gender is a purely cultural construct unshaped by biological and evolutionary heritage and thus infinitely malleable by top-down social engineering; concern about the psychological effects of discourses about “toxic masculinity”, “white guilt” and “patriarchal tyranny”, and therefore a rejection of purely negative definitions of either masculinity or whiteness; a critique of victimhood-culture and emphasis on self-responsibility and self-reliance; a critique of postmodernist moral relativism; a critique of the contemporary culture of political correctness and the support of truthfulness; a critique of lad cultures shaped by consumerism and hedonism; the idea that the approach of identity politics somewhere got it really wrong, and its obsession with categories of identity causes more problems than it solves; the denunciation of gender quotas; the affirmation of equality of opportunity, but the rejection of the goal of equality of outcome. When it comes to more practical ideas about the upbringing and behaviour of boys and men, he warns against the overprotection (and spoiling) of boys; encourages men to be more responsible, truthful, better listeners, reliable and caring in relationships, and be better fathers and better husbands; he insists that men should resist infantilising and emasculating cultural forces, and to grow up, face life’s challenges, be more responsible and productive members of society. However, he also encourages men to indulge in small acts of kindness, such as petting a cat in the street. His messages are often summarised in as simple imperatives as “toughen up”, “get real” and “get your shit together” (Peterson 2018). Peterson’s most important novelty is that he moves the debate about gender (and masculinity in particular) into an entirely new phase. In this history of gender trouble, the post-1960s “liberationist” movements constitute the first phase. These, as I have noted above, have been emphasising the underprivileged, disempowered and victimised qualities of minority



groups in their plea for equality. Inadvertently, through their half a century lifespan, these movements created a sort of identity politics that entailed the brewing of a controversial “victimhood-culture” (Campbell and Manning 2018) together with the not any less problematic “politics of resentment” (Fukuyama 2019), practised by antagonistic and increasingly polarised identity groups. The next chapter in this story is when, since the late 1970s, white men established their own versions of identity politics, started voicing their problems, established the men’s rights movement and started narrating their own stories of disempowerment and victimisation. It is in this historical perspective that Peterson’s novelty and popular appeal becomes visible: as opposed to the usual approach of men’s right movements, he rejects the whole approach of identity politics, together with its tendencies of self-victimisation. When he calls on men to reject resentment and the role of the victim, and take responsibility for their own lives, he arguably steps out of the dominant pre-crisis cultural logic, and establishes a new discourse (with old roots) for one’s negotiations of identity and power. Iman Amrani’s findings in her Modern Masculinity documentary series (2019) are perhaps less theoretical and less generalising, as episodes are built on encounters with real people, yet the series gives a fairly comprehensive picture of contemporary European urban masculinities. The first and probably most important idea that Amrani and the spectator learn about is that contemporary masculinities are much more varied, layered and interesting than the stereotypes of media-representations suggest. When visiting one of Jordan Peterson’s lectures in Birmingham, Amrani realises something closely related to what I referred to as a deficit of knowledge: it becomes clear that Peterson fills a lack in our cultural discourses on masculinity. To her surprise, she realises that Peterson’s lectures are attended by a great number of women, socialists and liberals too, who enjoy Peterson’s arguments even if they do not agree with everything. The next surprise is that her most interesting and eloquent post-lecture interviewee is a big, bold, muscular white guy covered in tattoos, who turns out to be a fairly creative and successful businessman who got his life straight with the help of Peterson’s advices. The series also highlights several key issues about the challenges men face today. One is fatherhood: the interviews suggest that good fathers are hard to find, and missing fathers or bad father-son relationships may damage whole generations. Another such point concerns the negative effects of media: media representations (and the stereotypes and expectations one picks up from them) put a lot



of pressure on boys and lads, cause anxiety as well as behavioural anomalies. Disavowing these often seems to be a crucial step towards a healthy masculinity. The most general conclusions with most far-reaching consequences in the whole series is probably that a lot of problems that men face (and which may lead them to aggression or criminality) are due to fundamental socio-cultural characteristics of contemporary societies, which lead to disintegration, alienation, emotional disconnection and the lack of healthy communities. This suggests that there is a kind of systemic destructiveness in the way our modern, individualistic, post-industrial societies are organised, which cannot be amended by all the government-paid counselling services, therapy groups or pious lectures in the world. One of the common themes running through the two takes on contemporary men and masculinities is this very recognition of a cultural dysfunction systematically causing all sorts of psychological issues for men. This is also what I referred to as the ethical dimension of researching men and masculinities at the beginning of this part of this chapter. The present crisis gave a new meaning and social significance to the concept of “the crisis of masculinity”. As a number of psychological studies indicate, the years following the economic crisis saw a dramatic increase in suicides among men. The number of “economic suicides” in Europe are in the thousands, and “the increase was four times higher in men than women” (Haiken 2014, 5). This newly revealed vulnerability, as I will repeatedly demonstrate in this book, is part and parcel of the very social privilege that white men traditionally enjoy: as recent studies indicate, it is mostly “because men feel greater pressure and shame when faced with financial failure, and are less likely to seek psychiatric care” (Haiken 2014, 5). This vulnerability of men (that proud men, overly devoted feminists and corporate leaders had an  equal interest in overseeing) is well documented by studies in biology, psychology and sociology. In his seminal study of suicide, Elime Durkheim had already pointed out the intimate connection between masculinity, social expectations and vulnerability: If therefore industrial or financial crises increase suicides, this is not because they cause poverty, since crises of prosperity have the same result; it is because they are crises, that is, disturbances of the collective order. Every disturbance of equilibrium, even though it achieves greater comfort and a heightening of general vitality, is an impulse to voluntary death. Whenever serious readjustments take place in the social order, whether or not due to a



sudden growth or to an unexpected catastrophe, men are more inclined to self-destruction. (Durkhein 1952, 206–207)

Thus, what we can comprehend only now, after these dramatic ideological and political shifts of the last two decades is that masculinities are much more fragile than they seem. Due to their traditional association with the public sphere, power, knowledge and financial productivity, masculinities are especially vulnerable with regards to social, economic or epistemic transformations. In other words, hegemonic masculinities tend to be grounded in and depend on specific socio-cultural orders, the changes of which necessarily lead to the rapid demise of the grounds of hegemony together with the sense of self-esteem and social worth. The feminist critique of all that tends to go wrong in patriarchal societies can easily make one overlook that fact that masculinity is not only connected to spectacular dominance and success, but also with equally spectacular vulnerability, failure and underachievement. Most contemporary, data-based sociological studies seem to agree that masculinity in the Western world is not only associated with power, dominance, assertiveness, better paying jobs, or higher positions in high-prestige social positions, but also with shorter life-spans, a more fragile biological constitution designed for spectacular but short-term success, a body more vulnerable to almost all common diseases, as well as higher rates in terms of alcoholism, dropping out of school, unemployment, homelessness, violence, crime and suicide. Thus, I would argue that the much-referred to “crisis of masculinity” is no mere whining over lost privileges: it is connected with plenty of real human suffering. Contemporary European cinema regularly calls attention to the strain between traditional social expectations and the fragile human beings who are expected to conform to them. Even in cases when one lives up to these cultural expectations, even when films show successful, powerful men, closer looks may reveal a great deal of fragility and anxiety behind the surface (for recent examples, see Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and The Square). The affluence of post-war societies has also taught us that the lives associated with fame and fortune, the lives most envied in our societies, which more and more women and people of colour can share, come with psychological challenges most human beings are simply not too well-­ equipped to handle.



Post-Crisis European Cinema At times when large segments of European societies feel disaffected and abandoned by the cultural and political establishments, cinema’s ability to show sympathy for the troubles of the losers of the times and tell stories of people in crisis is of crucial cultural importance. In their editorial introduction to a recent issue of Studies in Eastern European Cinema on Europeanisation, Constantin Parvulescu and Claudiu Turcus recall a similar situation from the past, the role of cinema in Eastern Europe during state socialism. They argue that at a time of political and ideological antagonism between East and West, between state socialist regimes and liberal capitalist democracies, auteur cinema was one of the ways Eastern European citizens could connect with (an ideal) of pan-European (high) culture. With reference to Randalle Halle’s The Europeanization of Cinema, they argue that in a variety of ways that escape state control, cinema produces European transnational creative and reception experiences. Thus, the traditional understanding of cinema as a window to the world, and spectatorship as the act of looking through this window, gains an extra connotation in the socialist context. European identity is articulated in relationship to this window. One belongs to Europe if one owns the gaze of looking through it. One exists as artist and consumer of art (and entertainment) in a European space as long as one has such windows at his/her disposal. (2018, 5)

Politically or ideologically oriented accounts of the cold war era often fail to mention how the two parts of Europe were connected by cultural products, and later generations would probably be surprised by the fact that during most of its history Eastern European state socialist regimes did not ban Western European art films, on the contrary: the culture of attending art cinemas, watching and discussing the latest work of Europe’s great directors was an integral part of cultural life. This state-socialist experience, which many post-communist films scholars share (including myself), is an apt example of the way cinema is capable of effectively creating a sense of pan-European cultural belonging, shared values in spite of ideological antagonisms. Apparently, in a deeply divided post-crisis Europe, this role of cinema is as important as it was during the cold war. As several analyses of films in this book will indicate, European quality cinema, following its long-established tradition of social commitment and empathy for the marginalised, achieved a lot in terms of filling the above-discussed



deficit of representation produced by the blind spots of mainstream politics. In the new millennium, European filmmakers produced a number of important and sensitive works about people wresting with the newly arisen problems, films depicting a life after the collapse of old social and ideological formations, works symptomatic of our new, off-modern Europe. In many ways, during the time of growing political dissent and a global commercial culture effacing true local differences, these films keep contributing to the production of Europe as an identifiable cultural space. In European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (2005), Thomas Elsaesser also highlights this aspect of European cinema, when he regards it as “the space of a certain mythology, the only one in a secular world” (Elsaesser 2005, 50). Though Elsaesser recognises the current crisis as a force moving towards cultural fragmentation and re-tribalisation (2005, 54), his book also bears witness to a “cautiously optimistic” recognition that “there is a common heritage of story types and myths, of deep structures of feeling, genres of symbolic action and narrative trajectories that create recognizably European protagonists and destinies” (2005, 24–25). Strangely enough, this function of forging shared mythologies supportive of shared value systems and identities suffered most during the boom years of the 1990s. Apparently, the end of history, the global victory of neoliberal capitalism, ever growing affluence, or the commercialisation of culture do not constitute the best conditions for cinematic mythmaking, for producing narratives of lasting value for long-term identification. In this respect, the twenty-first century crisis may bring a new era of European art cinema, a time when quality film can regain its social function, address the issues of the time on a level of complexity that most media-representations fail to, and thus work as an important cultural glue. After all, European cinema still forms a well-recognisable cultural tradition, which may have become somewhat marginalised in the larger context of world cinema (Elsaesser 2019, 2), but still maintains its cultural identity due to a number of distinctive characteristics. Among the long list of such features, one finds European art cinema’s traditional opposition to commercial (mostly American) genre film, the auteur tradition (which includes a post-romantic concept of the director, and thus connects to centuries of European literary history), its roots in Enlightenment humanism, liberalism and individualism, its profound interest in the non-normative, the marginal and the excluded (which, however, have the capacity of figuratively standing for the human in general), its openness to “political as well as aesthetic renewal” (Elsaesser 2005, 9), its slower pace allowing for



self-consciousness and reflection, its resistance to the idea of unambiguous narrative closure, and last but not least, the above mentioned idea of social engagement, which also makes this kind of cinema capable of imaging the most pressing issues of the times, thus also functioning as a cultural glue holding together politically divided societies (Elsaesser 2005; Galt 2006; Wayne 2002, 20). Thus, this book only deals with feature films of this above outlined “auteur” or “quality film” tradition (disregarding profit-oriented cultural commodities) in order to explore the narratives and identity-formations through which post-crisis Europeanness and white masculinity are currently understood. The auteur film enjoys quite a unique status in European cultural life and media policy. It is one of the most protected cultural treasures of the EU, whose financial and relative cultural autonomy, active engagement with issues of identity, as well as policies of diversity are guaranteed by the exemption rule for cultural goods within the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and such EU programs as MEDIA and EURIMAGES (Parvulescu and Turcus 2018; Sarikakis 2014, 58; Wayne 2002, 12–13). Under the current regulations, European art cinema’s relative independence from the harsh realities of market capitalism is achieved at the price of soft but detectable ideological streamlining. As the so-called Euro-pudding phenomenon and some of the close readings of this book point out, such pressure to promote the values of the EU’s current ideological strands may sometimes lead to aesthetic compromises, predictable narratives, failures in authenticity, “a somewhat affirmative, consensual, and uncritical cinema” (Wayne 2002, 20), or even worse, a clearly “confused end product” (Wayne 2002, 17). The point to keep in mind in this respect is that even if the official declarations of the EU’s film-­ funding bodies may sound laudable (as they usually do), one should be suspicious of any ideological influence, especially in an artistic tradition that traditionally privileges authenticity, non-conformism and anti-­ hegemonic critical attitudes. When films are funded by a very limited number of sources (with transparent expectations), and their evaluation mostly happens through the juries of established film festivals (with, again, quite predictable tastes and preferences), such challenges of echo-­chamber-­ trapped conformism and predictability are not to be disregarded among the “perennial temptations of festival films” (Elsaesser 2019, 3). One motif running through this book is the concept of a victory that amounts to defeat (Assmann 2016, 95) or, to put it more moderately, a victory that comes with several unforeseen collateral dangers and



damaging effects. This is one of the key themes of my explorations of European cinema’s account of history in “Chap. 3: Unprocessed Pasts”; this pattern can be recognised in the untended vulnerabilities of seemingly privileged white men discussed above; and perhaps a similar paradoxical logic can be identified in the way European cinema’s continuous cultural prestige and stable funding does not abate its sense of crisis. Indeed, as Elsaesser notes, “such a crisis situation is a given in the Europe of the twenty-first century, both artistically and politically” (2019, 2), which is closely connected to “the downsides to the upsides of the European Union” (Elsaesser 2019, 9). The new century’s turmoil also affected European cinema’s approaches to identity, and to masculinity in particular. The question of identity, of course, has been one of the key concerns of European cinema for several decades now, and it is probably also the aspect that makes cinema so important for EU institutions. Unsurprisingly, identity and the ways it is presented and understood have also become one of the most hotly debated issues of post-crisis Europe. Outlining the debates around the theories and methods of identity politics, as well as its role in the socio-cultural changes of the past decades would exceed the limitations of this introduction. What needs to be pointed out, however, is the specific historical situation in which we find twenty-first-century European cinema in this respect. The most significant trend from the point of view of the representation of white men is that “Europe no longer has a heroic narrative of self-identity and self-creation” (Elsaesser 2019, 10). Due to the era of post-1960s’ historical reckoning, which I described in the previous part of this introduction, heroic narratives became uncomfortably associated with those parts of the European past (e.g., colonialisation, imperialism or slavery) that most of us are not so proud of anymore (Elsaesser 2019, 10). Thus, heroic men (and the kind of spectacular narratives one can tell about them) have become scarce in European quality cinema. However, complicating Elsaesser’s above account, I would argue that some sort of heroism has remained an integral part of European identity and European cinema. To put it shortly, this unacknowledged, clandestine, paradoxical heroism can be traced in Europe’s heroic renunciation of heroic narratives, by which excelling in heroic deeds was successfully inverted (or sublimated) into excelling in despising heroic narratives. This operation, which lies at the heart of the concept of the European Union itself (see Chap. 3), can be often recognised when European politicians or public intellectuals pompously denounce cultural products of heroic narratives:



whenever these denouncing statements are paired with the air of moral superiority and a thinly veiled disgust for such examples of cultural inferiority, one can feel the energy of these repressed and tempting heroic ideals. According to the well-known principles of repression, the more feelings of disgust and moral superiority we can sense, the more sacrifice the speaker had to make to get rid of what he or she condemns today. Thus, it often seems that Europe (and European cinema) would still like to lead the world, but this time this heroism of leadership takes the form of the rejection, repression and renunciation of former, compromised manifestations of heroism. My point is that, despite appearances, we have in no way reached a post-heroic condition. Furthermore, times of crisis (when we are once again caught up in fights with very real stakes) are likely to pose unusual challenges for our repressions, and easily lead to a return of heroic ideals. Let me turn now to European cinema’s role in the EU’s media policies. In “Identity and Diversity in European Media Policy” Katherina Sarikakis argues that in the present European context, identity is articulated in three specific ways: There are largely three interconnected dimensions in the debate of identity and its role in media policies in European media policies. These are (i) the construction or preservation of existing cultural identities, understood to derive from existing national bases of member states; (ii) the construction of an additional layer or dimension of identity, the European identity, which is seen as a vehicle for legitimation of the EU integration project; and (iii) the level of identity as a personal choice and experience and a state of being that might be considered of relevance to media policies regulating the terms and conditions of media production and distribution, but also occasionally content regulation in terms of representation. (Sarikakis 2014, 59)

This complex system creates a playfield of expectations, representational strategies and interpretive approaches that influence the various players of the film and cultural industry. These three dimensions of identity, as outlined by Sarikakis, also call attention to the importance the EU attributes to film’s role in the production of European identities. These dimensions, one may argue, reflect the social-national, supranational and micro/individual contexts of identity formation and representation. They have preoccupied the EU policy-makers in various legal and other official documentation by way of aspiration (how to become European),



‘soul searching’ (what it means to be ‘European’) and cultural policy (representation of cultures and identities) throughout the historical development of media policies. They demonstrate at the same time the struggle for clarity and direction within the cultural, symbolic domain of a public sphere in construction, the EU sphere. (Sarikakis 2014, 59)

These roles enlisted by Sarikakis, which cinema plays in contemporary Europe, do not only highlight its cultural importance, but also point out the reasons why they can be a useful object of study for projects (such as mine) that are interested in both cinema and the socio-cultural changes that it is part of. It may have been these very reasons that led Elsaesser in his latest (and sadly last) monograph, to regard European films as thought experiments through which one can dig into some of the fundamental issues of contemporary Europeannes. According to Elsaesser, one way to think of cinema is to regard it as a space that confronts us with our “being in the world”, welcoming cinema as an ever surprising or startling encounter, one that touches us in our ethics and politics, that challenges not just specific ideas or beliefs, but entire value systems, maybe even proposing quite radical insights into how life can be lived and imagined—as individuals, as social beings, as part of humanity. (Elsaesser 2019, 5)

Elsaesser’s words, as well as the approach to films that his words indicate, may serve as a motto for my explorations on the following pages. Indeed, while working with these films and working through the issues they present, the chapters attempt to maintain both the openness and the sharp, critical eyes that one needs in encounters that may question one’s most fundamental beliefs about our ways of being in the world.

The Outline of the Book Thus, the book focuses on films, all made in the new millennium, which feature white (and mostly heterosexual) men, arguably the majority in European societies. These men, in theory, belong to the privileged social caste, they are white, they speak the local language, most of them are legal citizens with social security numbers and full political rights, yet, for various reasons they find themselves losers of contemporary social transformations, and thus feel marginalised, neglected or explicitly exploited. Almost none of my analyses focuses on representations of successful, hegemonic



masculinities of the new century, not the least because these kinds are hardly ever represented in European arthouse cinema. In other words, both these films and I are more concerned with the ways our contemporary ideological fantasies fail to materialise in some men’s lives, than in the fantasies themselves. Therefore, the book explores films about men who do not live the (ideological) dream, who did not make it, who cannot incorporate the dominant fantasies. For both European art cinema and this book, they function as dark mirrors in which our world can be contemplated, reimagined and explored. The films I wish to analyse in detail fulfil complex roles: they comment on contemporary social issues, represent the shifts in gender roles, and they also often say farewell (or pay homage) to life-worlds, livelihoods and masculinities that are disappearing in today’s globalised, “advanced” capitalism. The book identifies and outlines a number of social issues or “discursive themes” that I recognise as distinguishable concerns of contemporary European cinema, issues symptomatic of twenty-first-century socio-­ cultural shifts, “hot” topics salient in the identity politics of (some) white European men. Each chapter outlines the theoretical and historical context of one of these issues, and groups together a handful of films about it, so as to explore the changes in cultural logic, the shifting ethical and aesthetic paradigms of art cinema, as well as the formations of white masculinity. My choices of films were informed by several goals. Besides the obvious aim to choose films that represent such a social issue in meaningful and complex ways, within each chapter I placed more well-known films side by side with less renowned titles. Furthermore, it was my aim to include examples from different regions (or national film cultures) of Europe. This way, the similarities of key concerns can be contrasted by the different approaches resulting from local geopolitical situatedness, socio-­ political specificities, cultural heritage or the individual films’ aesthetic approaches. In line with this, my aim was also to contrast the films’ different cinematic, aesthetic or ethical approaches. The chapter following this introduction, Chap. 2, entitled “Rites of Retreat and the Cinematic Resignification of European Cultural Geography” explores some meaningful shifts in the cultural geography of twenty-first-century European cinema: changes in cinematic journeys that reveal a resignification of such terms as East, West, margin and centre. On basis of three European films of the last decade, The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Stephan Komandarev, 2008), Delta (Kornél Mundruczó, 2008) and Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos,



2016), the chapter investigates a special sub-category of so-called return films, one that I will call retreat films. In these films returns become ritualistic retreats with masculinities on regressive journeys. Their spatial trajectories may typically lead from Western cultural centres to Eastern homelands, from cities to the countryside, from the public sphere to the private, sometimes symbolically from the future to the past, and often from the realm of desire to that of Thanatos. The men of these films tend to struggle to find places of their own on the margins of society, away from public spaces: what they seem to have in mind is a place to hide, somewhere to retreat. Chapter 3 deals with Europe’s unprocessed pasts. It explores the fierce disputes and post-crisis realignments in Europe’s memory politics. Here I argue that the twenty-first century has brought about profound shifts in this field as well: as our prospects of the future have changed (from the sweet utopia of the end of history to the gloomy, off-modern dystopia of our post-9/11 and post-crash age), our narratives of the past also started to change rapidly. Due to the series of crisis that serves as the backdrop to this book’s explorations, a widespread sentiment of unease and discontent arose about the European culture and politics of memory, resulting in the systematic questioning of Europe’s pre-crisis historical narratives. Chapter 3 endeavours to outline Europe’s post-war history of memory, its pre-­crisis dominant paradigm of remembering, the role of historical memory in the formation of the European Union and its official identity politics, as well as some lines of criticism that this official memory-politics faces today. I focus on three films, Amen (Costa-Gavras 2002), Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb 2006) and Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski 2018). All three explore different parts of Europe’s troubled historical heritage, but while the first two can be regarded as variations of Europe’s official memory politics (together with its shortcomings), the third reveals a different model, and thus also sheds light on the cultural differences between Eastern and Western Europe. Chapter 4 explores films about addiction and other escapist practices. In my opinion, including a chapter on addiction-related films in this book is not only important because of the well-known severity of substance abuse problems, the astonishing destruction it leaves behind, or the prevalence of males in the grim stories drug abuse produces. This chapter is essential for this book because addiction, I believe, is not only a result of individual psychopathology, bad genes or moral weakness, as many people and public institutions would hold. More importantly, addiction can be



regarded as a symptom of distress: in other words, addiction, similarly to most escapist practices, is a desperate response to distress, a result of an individual’s unsuccessful inner struggles, which, on closer inspection, reveal deeply rooted social and cultural issues. Thus, exploring such social “anomalies” as addiction may be essential to understanding how “normality” works or what “normality” means today. The chapter discusses three films with three very different conceptualisations of addiction and escapism in twenty-first-century Europe: Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry 2000), T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 2016) and Kills on Wheels (Attila Till 2016). Chapter 5 focuses on the representations of international migration, one of the most hotly debated issues of contemporary Europe. In this chapter I argue that the phenomenon of large-scale international migration in a post-2008 Europe creates new challenges for European cinema too, a crisis of cinematic representation. In this chapter I concentrate solely on post-2008 examples of migrating people and host-migrant encounters, paradigms that reveal the symptoms of this cinematic crisis and the struggle for authentic representations. Focusing on three recent films, the Italian Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese 2011), Morgen (Marian Crisan 2010) and Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mundruczó 2017) I explore the ethical, epistemological and cinematic paradoxes of encounters with otherness, and investigate the ways narratives of crisis may (or may not) turn into crisis of narratives. Chapter 6, “Lads of the New Right”, explores the cinematic representations related to European politics’ general swing to the right, and the emergence of far-right political movements. I argue that these are probably the clearest signs of the devaluation of the pre-crisis grand narratives of modernity and the ensuing widespread ideological disorientation, which inevitably led to the (still ongoing) rearrangement of the political system. These extremist movements have a long tradition of cinematic representations, characteristic stylistics with a strong visual appeal, as well as an intimate, undeniable link with white masculinities. Chapter 6 reconstructs the events that led from the economic crisis, through austerity measures and the experience of subjective deprivation to the rising of the new right, together with its violent extremities. The film analyses focus on three paradigmatic examples: This is England (Shane Meadows 2006), The Wave (Dennis Gansel 2008) and July 22 (Peter Greengrass 2018), in order to outline three different stylistic, ethical and political approaches in the representation of radicalising white men.



Chapter 7 explores the representation of angry old men, and thus also focuses on fairly recent cinematic developments. Narrative cinema, historically, mostly favoured stories of young people, and, similarly to television, contributed to the systematic underrepresentation of elderly people in visual media. As a result, up until quite recently, old age as a central theme was mostly confined to well-defined quarters of the medium. In the twenty-first century, however, one may notice a shift in this cinematic treatment of elderly people, and the number and types of age-focused narratives have noticeably grown. Chapter 7 outlines the conventional ways of the cinematic representation of elderly people, lays out the twenty-first-­ century shifts in these trends, and explores some of the socio-cultural reasons behind these. It discusses three films in more detail, Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine 2011), I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach 2016) and A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm 2015), together with the post-crisis social issues they present. Finally, in Chap. 8 I collect and summarise some of the findings of the book, and put them in a wider historical perspective. I compare two important books with my own results, one published during the pre-crisis boom years, Screening Europe: Image and Identity in Contemporary European Cinema (1992), and one published in 2019, Thomas Elsaesser’s European Cinema and Continental Philosophy. The differences and similarities between these two comprehensive volumes help me point out the novelties of my own work, and serve as the background for my provisional ideas about the direction European quality cinema may be going.

Works Cited Amrani, Iman. 2019. Modern Masculinity (Documentary). The Guardian’s YouTube Channel. Assmann, Aleida. 2016. Rossz közérzet az emlékezetkultúrában (Memory Culture and Its Discontents). Translated by Ágnes Huszár. Budapest: Múlt és Jövő. Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ———. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press. Bauman, Zygmunt, and Carlo Bordoni. 2014. State of Crisis. Polity Press. Beynon, John. 2001. Masculinities and Culture. McGraw–Hill Education. Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books. ———. 2017. The Off-Modern. Bloomsbury. Bruckner, Pascal. 2010. The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.



Campbell, Bradley, and Jason Manning. 2018. The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces and the New Culture Wars. Palgrave Macmillan. Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Harvester Wheatsheaf. Durkhein, Emile. 1952. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Routledge. Elsaesser, Thomas. 2005. European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood. Amsterdam University Press. ———. 2019. European Cinema and Continental Philosophy: Film As Thought Experiemnt. Bloomsbury Academic. Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin Books. ———. 1997. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge. Fraser, Zachary Luke. 2007. Introduction: The Category of Formalization: From Epistemological Break to Truth Procedure. In The Concept Model. An Introduction to the Materialist Epistemology of Mathematics, ed. Alan Badiou. Edited and Translated by Zachary Luke Fraser and Tzuchien Tho. Melbourne: Friedman, Thomas L. 2016. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Farrar: Straus and Giroux. Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press. ———. 2003. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Picador. ———. 2019. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Profile Books. Galt, Rosalind. 2006. The New European Cinema: Redrawing the Map. Columbia University Press. Haiken, Melanie. 2014. More than 10 000 Suicides Tied to Economic Crisis Study Says. Forbes, 12 June. 2014/06/12/more-than-10000-suicides-tied-to-economic-crisis-study-says/ #550204ba7ae2. Kalmár, György. 2017. Formations of Masculinity in Post-communist Hungarian Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan. Newman, Saul. 2007. Power and Politics in Poststructuralist Thought: New Theories of the Political. Routledge. Parvulescu, Constantin, and Claudiu Turcus. 2018. Introduction: Devices of Cultural Europeanization. Studies in Eastern European Cinema 9 (1): 3–14. Peterson, Jordan. 2018. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Penguin Random House. Robinson, Sally. 2000. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. Columbia University Press.



Sarikakis, Katharine. 2014. Identity and Diversity in European Media Policy: Crisis Changes Everything(?). In The Palgrave Handbook of European Media Policy, 54–69. Palgrave Macmillan. Schlink, Bernhard. 2009. Guilt about the Past. Toronto: Anansi Press. Sim, Stuart. 2010. The End of Modernity: What the Financial Crisis Has Taught Us. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Smith, Dennis. 2015. Not Just Singing the Blues: Dynamics of the EU Crisis. In Europe’s Prolonged Crisis: The Making or the Unmaking of a Political Union, ed. H.J. Trenz et al., 23–43. Palgrave Macmillan. Trenz, H.J., et  al., eds. 2015. Europe’s Prolonged Crisis: The Making or the Unmaking of a Political Union. Palgrave Macmillan. Wayne, Mike. 2002. The Politics of European Cinema: Histories, Borders, Diasporas. University of Chicago Press. Webb, David. 2013. Foucault’s Archaeology. Science and Transformation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Rites of Retreat and the Cinematic Resignification of European Cultural Geography

Europe is not simply physical or geographical: it is also a cultural space.1 Its borders and geography are not only determined by rivers, seas and mountains, but also by imagination, fantasies, narratives and interpretations (Rietbergen 2015). “Places are thereby constructed and experienced as both material ecological artefacts and intricate networks of social relations, being the focus of the imaginary, of beliefs, desires and discursive activity, filled with symbolic and representational meanings” (Sharp et al. 2000, 25). Consequently, the meaning of the word Europe, together with the concepts and values associated with it, has been changing throughout its history, producing multiple interpretations spread and varied across space and time. Europe’s present-day cultural geography is also immensely complex: the European Union’s twenty-first-century efforts to forge a shared concept of the “old continent” is set against the background of a wide range of historically entrenched differences that separate East from West, North from South, Catholics from Protestants, former Eastern-bloc countries from western liberal democracies, industrial areas from agricultural territories, urban centres from rural areas, English from French, 1  Some of the concepts developed in this chapter were first formulated in the article “Rites of Retreat in Contemporary Hungarian Cinema” in the journal Contact Zones (2017/1), and later expanded, still in the context of Hungarian cinema, in the edited volume Affective Geographies: Central Europe and the West (edited by Ágnes Győrke and Imola Bülgözdi, Brill 2020). I owe thanks to all editors, readers and colleagues who read, quoted and commented on these previous texts. Without their help, I would not have been able to develop my key concepts further so as to use them in this analysis of twenty-first-century European cinema.

© The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




French from German, German from Polish, Polish from Russian, and so on, ad  infinitum. All these categories are heavily loaded with meaning, historically set biases, values, moral judgements as well as various ideological constructs, therefore the identities of people inhabiting these spaces are necessarily rooted in these interpretations of space and place. In the twentieth century, cinema was one of the major cultural forces that shaped and disseminated these concepts throughout the continent (Elsaesser 2005), and it is arguably still one of the mediums where shifts in the meaning of Europe can be best registered. The present chapter explores the relationship of place, space and spatially defined masculine identity in three twenty-first-century European films: The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (2008), Delta (Kornél Mundruczó 2008) and Suntan (2016). All three films received considerable critical attention, were presented and often awarded at international film festivals, and are arguably intimately linked with some key themes in contemporary discourses about Europe, identity, and twenty-first century socio-cultural changes. Importantly for the purposes of the present book, all three films tell stories of white men in some kind of crisis, and the drama of these crises is played out in spatial terms. The spatial movements and trajectories one finds in these films may be interpreted as ritualistic retreats, where (typically as a result of some kind of frustration or trauma) characters turn their backs on popular, culturally valued identity-formations and the associated desires, and withdraw into secluded places so as to hide, heal, reconnect with their roots, or simply die. It is not by accident that this book starts with the analysis of the retreat-motif: these spatial movements, as well as the politics of identity employed in them, reveal a typically post-crisis disillusionment with modernity’s progressive grand narratives. It is also not by accident that all three films discussed in detail here are from the Eastern or Southern fringes of Europe: as at several other points of this book’s explorations, one finds that certain symptomatic disorders of modernity become visible first at the margins of Europe. Crises, be those economic or ideological, tend to hit the less affluent and less privileged first, yet, importantly, these critical symptoms may reveal pervasive, deeply-rooted problems characteristic of the cultural system as a whole. Thus, this chapter is devoted to men on regressive journeys, men who seem to have turned back so as to find a place to hide: a closet of one’s own. This latter expression deliberately collapses two spatial metaphors standing for markedly different movements: Virginia Woolf’s concept of a room of



one’s own, and the popular phrase of coming out of the closet. Arguably, in 1929 for a woman to move into a room of her own was an important step forward (regardless of whether she wanted to be a writer or not), while today coming out of the closet stands for leaving a claustrophobic, clandestine, compromised identity behind for the sake of a more transparent, authentic and liberated one. However, there are a set of assumptions that connect these two seemingly distant spatial metaphors. Both express a belief in forward movement and historical progress, they share a belief in a better future and one’s ability to see which direction that future lies, and they also trust the existence of the human agency that can take us there. It is a most revealing aspect of the twenty-first-century shifts in European concepts of identity and history that “return films” have become a recognisable trend in European cinema (see Gott and Herzog  2015, 13). By now it has become clear that we can talk about a cinematic trend that tells stories of typically white male protagonists who tend to withdraw from the open, public (traditionally masculine) spaces of self-liberation, who renounce the possibilities of establishing more authentic, publicly accepted identities, and who thereby create unusual spatial trajectories with corresponding, peculiar masculinities. As Hajnal Király argues in the context of Eastern European cinema: In Hungarian and Romanian films of the last decade, the central dilemma frequently revolves around mobility, that is, whether to stay or move on, whether or not to leave (the country, the family, a traumatic situation, a beloved person, or ultimately life), which frequently escalates to a deep existential crisis and which signals the ultimate impossibility of either staying or moving on/leaving. Places and spaces performed by bodies in distress become sites of a dysfunctional society, often revealed in the narrative of an aborted, circular, interrupted or regressive journey. … Additionally, many Hungarian and Romanian films feature characters who return from Western Europe, only to realize that home is not an ‘authentic’ place anymore… (Király 2015, 170)

The present chapter explores a special, twenty-first-century version of these “return films”, one that I have named retreat films. Such films present returns as highly symbolic and ritualistic retreats, with protagonists on “regressive journeys” driven by some sort of frustration, defeat, disillusionment or trauma. These journeys tend to lead from Western cultural centres to Eastern homelands, from hi-tech urban environments to the



rural countryside, from the public sphere to the private, from the (progressive, modern) future to the (nostalgic, pre-modern) past, and often from the realm of desire to that of Thanatos. The men in these films usually struggle to find a place of their own on the margins of society, away from the rapidly changing, volatile public spaces of twenty-first-century Europe: what they seem to be seeking is a place to hide, somewhere to retreat, that is, a closet of their own. I would argue that neither retreat films, nor the spatial movements of their male protagonists can be fully understood without the “profound disillusionment” (Shaviro 2012, 25) experienced in many parts of Eastern and Southern Europe in the decades since the fall of communism. My birth of origin, Hungary, seems to be a par excellence case here. According to most post-communist social surveys, this is the most pessimistic country of the region with the most critical views of the arrival of global capitalism. It should come as no surprise, then, that return and retreat films abound here, and (as Király also notes and the second film analysed in detail in this chapter will indicate) they do not tend to end well for the protagonists. I would argue that these pessimistic narratives critical of global capitalism, contemporary Europe, or simply “the West” cannot be understood without “the problematic and largely unfulfilled fantasies of integration and redemption that have accompanied Hungary’s [and by implication Eastern and Southern Europe’s] so-called ‘return to Europe’” (Jobbit 2008, 4). As Steve Jobbit argues apropos of Kontroll (Nimród Antal 2003), another film showing the same symptoms of men in crisis and retreat: For some, Hungary’s entry into a much-expanded European Union was seen as the culmination of a long and arduous struggle waged by liberal-­ minded democrats to rescue the nation from nearly seventy years of political intolerance and dictatorial rule, and to reclaim their rightful place amongst Europe’s civilized, progressive, and enlightened nations. For many others, however, the post-communist efforts of Hungarian Europhiles to reintegrate and even redeem themselves in the eyes of the west had come at an enormous cultural and even psychological cost. For a number of Hungarians, the interconnected hopes, or more accurately fantasies, of integration and redemption that had guided liberal-democrats in Hungary over the course of nearly two decades proved to be as much of a burden as they had a promise. (Jobbit 2008, 1)



The decades following the fall of communism revealed that Eastern Europeans had much idealised views of the West, that is, of consumerist capitalism and liberal democracies, as well as of their chances of turning into such a society from one day to another (Krastev and Holmes 2019; Kalmár 2017). They were clearly (and painfully) naïve about several issues. First, transforming a society does not only entail changing the constitution and having free elections, but also includes changing people’s (historically formed and deformed) attitudes, which may take quite a long time. Consequently, totalitarian history is not so easy to leave behind, as one would imagine. And second, even if substantial change is achieved, consumerist liberal democracies are not necessarily the “culmination of all human effort and hope” (Shaviro 2012, 26). As Gáspár Miklós Tamás argues, the regime change in Eastern Europe led to “an inhuman, unjust, unfair, inefficient, anti-egalitarian, fraudulent, and hypocritical system that is in no way at all superior to its predecessor, which was awful enough” (Szeman and Tamás 2009, 24). I would argue that such stories of “disillusionment and demoralization” have shaped the recent history of several formerly underdeveloped Eastern and Southern European regions, which clearly shows in the spatial journeys that some protagonists of their films take (see also: Sághy 2016). It seems that the social history of Eastern and Southern Europe includes several unpredictable turns, ones leading away from the well-established liberal narrative of gradual emancipation and self-fulfilment. No doubt, for twenty-first-century men to find themselves in Woolf’s 1929 shoes must come as an unforeseen and shocking surprise. As it turns out, some room (or place) of one’s own was not only desirable for women in 1929: the films analysed in this chapter imply that being a woman is not the only form of marginalised subjectivity, and the twenty-first century is not as much fun as we thought it would be. In these films men may also find themselves homeless and lost in the brave new Europe of the new millennium. The dream people had in the state-socialist Eastern bloc, in the military-junta-ruled Greece, or Francoist Spain, the dream of freedom, affluence and happy self-realisation has been severely unravelled. The protagonists of most retreat films have seen liberal democracy and consumerist capitalism, they may have even tried their luck in the West, yet they have all turned their back on it, bitter and disillusioned, so as to return to the local home(less)land, to the past and their (real or imaginary) roots. Their stories are not the victorious stories of progress, liberation and acceptance (coming out of the closet), but rather those of retreat, hiding,



escape and exile. By the time the films’ narratives begin, the main battles of these men’s lives have already been fought, and we find them defeated or seriously wounded in various ways. What the films’ narratives unfold is already plan B (or C or Z), the last resort, their last try to be someone, someplace. Retreat films typically present non-hegemonic masculinities on the margins of culture and civilised space, which are symptomatically different from the idealised images of mainstream commercial cinema. According to Connell, “hegemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell 2005, 77). Though hegemonic masculinity may take various forms and change together with geographical place and historical time (and is thus an elusive concept with more functional and relational value than theoretical rigour), one can safely state that the protagonists of the above mentioned films are characterised by their difference from the more popular and more privileged types of masculinities within contemporary European societies. These reactionary and regressive identities are based on the rejection rather than the affirmation of dominant cultural formations. In the context of the films’ narratives, the vulnerable, amnesic Sashko, banished to Germany in The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, Mihail, the silent, mysterious hero of Delta, who comes home from abroad so as to build a log-house in the Danube Delta with the help of his sister-lover, or the bolding doctor of Suntan, who seeks refuge in a small Greek island, are all telling cinematic examples of non-hegemonic twenty-first-century masculinities. The distance these characters keep from hegemonic and normative identities often appears in these films through spatial arrangements, as distance from human communities and settlements. Retreat films recount how these defeated men attempt once more to establish a room or place of their own, a habitat or a home where their dishevelled embodied identities may take place. Needless to say, finding a place to be, a home to live, a room of one’s own, are deeply symbolic acts closely connected to the motif of alienation, arguably one of the most common themes of European art house cinema. In the introduction of Home/Bodies: Geographies of Self, Place and Space, Wendy Schissel also highlights the multiplicity of meanings such acts may acquire: “home is a fluid concept that needs to be constantly ‘negotiated.’ Home is also, variously but not exclusively, a homeland—indigenous or



adopted—a sexuality, a body prescribed by moral or ableist codes, cyberspace, a community, or a place where caring occurs, sometimes at substantial cost to the caregiver. On the other hand, it may also be what we are prevented from achieving” (Schissel 2016, 1). Indeed, one can interpret cinematic retreats as spatial renegotiations of selfhood, or desperate relocations of embodied identity. These spatial trajectories integrate the personal with the social and the political, connect the body with cultural and geographical space, and bring into play such issues as national belonging, personal dignity, connection to one’s roots, finding spaces in which one’s preferred sexuality can be practised, establishing an accepting, caring relationship with others, feeling at home in the world, creating a habitable place where one is accepted and loved, escaping fields of defeat and frustration, or at times simply survival. My interpretations of these regressive journeys on the following pages follow a conceptual model according to which human identity is partly produced by such spatial arrangements and effects of power. As Lefebvre puts it, Socio-political contradictions are realised spatially. The contradictions of space thus make the contradictions of social relations operative. In other words, spatial contradictions ‘express’ conflicts between socio-political interests and forces; it is only in space that such conflicts come effectively into play, and in doing so they become contradictions of space. (1991, 365)

It is worth recalling that Foucault’s meticulous explorations in Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization and other works also regularly rely on the productive relationship between space, power and identity. The spatial arrangement of the prisoners in the Panopticon (as analysed in the last part of Discipline and Punish), or the forced relocation of the mentally ill in the institutions left behind after the disappearance of leper from Europe (as described in the introduction of Madness and Civilization) have created a most productive paradigm for such researches. Indeed, film studies may benefit considerably from cultural geography’s Lefebvrean-­ Foucaldian axiom that “geography matters, not for the simplistic and overly used reason that everything happens in space, but because where things happen is critical to knowing how and why they happen” (Warf and Arias 1). In cinema, as well as in real-life social phenomena, “the geographies become vital: far from being incidental outcomes of power, they



become regarded, in their ever-changing specifics, as absolutely central to the constitution of power relations” (Sharp et al. 2000, 25). There is one point, however, where this well-established Lefebvrean-­ Foucaldian academic paradigm needs to be complemented to be truly useful for my purposes. The cinemas of Europe’s traditionally underdeveloped margins cannot be convincingly analysed solely with the all-pervading Foucauldian concept of power, without a theory of resistance. I share the scepticism of the editors of the volume Entanglements of Power: Geographies of domination/resistance: “if power is so nebulous, so ‘unauthored’ [as Foucault suggests in the above mentioned works], can we have any optimism in the potential for individuals or groups to find ways, and we might also say spaces, of resisting the all-encompassing cloak seemingly spun by power in its dominating guise?” (Sharp et al. 2000, 15). As retreat films focus precisely on this drama of finding identities and spaces outside dominant social formations, I will appropriate the later Foucault’s concept of practices of self, which appears in his History of Sexuality as well as in the interviews he gave at that time. Practices of the self can be generally understood as embodied practices of self-fashioning and self-discipline, activities that produce a sense of selfhood through interlocking repeated bodily activities with specific cultural and geographical locations. Thus, also in accordance with Connell’s approach to masculinity, I will treat identity as something produced through bodily practices, and will read scenes from these films as gestures of such practices of self, as bodily, spatial, performative acts, in which distance from hegemonic norms of identity and sexuality can be expressed and lived. Bettina van Hoven argues that “there has been a notable lack of attention to the formation of masculine identities and spaces” (van Hoven and Hörschelmann 2005, 5). Moreover, I argue that this lack is even more striking in the study of cinematic spaces and masculinities from the Eastern and Southern margins of Europe. When compared to North-American or Western European standards, gender politics tend to be quite conservative in these regions, which makes masculinity “invisible”, “natural” and also underresearched. Thus, there is a lot to discover, map out and theorise about these marginal masculinities, their cinematic formations, spatialities and bodily practices. As the following analyses will indicate, these films, masculinities and spatial trajectories from the margins of Europe sensitively indicate significant shifts in Europe’s twenty-first century, post-crash or post-crisis cultural formations.



The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner Stephan Komandarev’s 2008 film rounds up the most characteristic features of the retreat motif discussed above, while creating a complex and sensitive analysis of post-crisis Europe. The film narrates the identity-quest story of Sashko, a Bulgarian young man, whose family fled from Bulgaria to Germany during communism when he was still a child. The film starts with a five minutes long pre-title sequence consisting of two scenes, which set the temporal and geographical coordinates as well as define several of the major ideas and sentiments. The first of these is about Sashko’s birth back in the Bulgarian small town, somewhere on the Balkans, where, as the narrator Sashko notes, “Europe ends, but never starts”. This introduction relies on tropes and a verbal rhetoric rooted in traditional oral story-­ telling, and uses golden filters and slow-paced panning shots so as to produce a nostalgic evocation of the golden days before history and the film’s main narrative could begin. From the golden image of the baby Sashko in his mother’s arms, the film cuts to the more realistically coloured, bluish image of him as an adult in his early 30s, sitting in the back of his parents’ car on a German highway. After a few moments, only enough to establish him as an observer and create a few glimpses of contemporary industrial Germany (with straight, wide motorways, wind-turbines, and city-scapes defined by factory buildings and industrial chimneys), the family suffers an accident. The car flies off the road leading to the industrial city, bounces around, killing Sashko’s parents and leaving him badly injured. The rest of the film recounts how his grandfather, called Bai Dan, sets out from Bulgaria so as to visit the injured Sashko and take him back home. Upon visiting the hospital Bai Dan finds Sashko alive, but suffering from amnesia, not remembering anything prior to the accident. This situation sets the two characters (and the film) on a journey of quest for lost identity, in a sentimental, sensuous search of lost time. As a means of regaining lost memories and identity, Dan and Sashko set out on a tandem bicycle journey back to Bulgaria. On the way they revisit the places of the family’s escape from Bulgaria, thus the road back to the Balkans becomes a journey back in time. As the revisited places evoke the forgotten memories, the spectator’s and Sashko’s journey to the past and to the eastern homeland finally manages to recover the time lost, thus leading Shasko (back) to a happy, well-rooted, home-like identity.



As this brief description of the basic narrative, temporal and geographical trajectories of the film may indicate, The World Is Big reverses several fundamental myths of modernity, as well as the dominant value judgements of European cultural geography: “to emigrate, the film suggests, is to condemn oneself to a life of alienation and loneliness” (Trifonova 2015, 133). The goal of Sashko’s journey is not set in a bright, utopian future, but in a quasi-mythological past, and true happiness is not to be found in affluent (post-)industrial Germany, but in the homeland of pre-modern, small-town Bulgaria. Through the metaphor of the car-crash, the beginning of the film also defines recent Eastern-European history as traumatic, resulting in amnesia, and suggests that healing is to be achieved not by a leap forward, but rather by two leaps backwards, to a state of affairs (and mind) before capitalism, communism and all the other dubious inventions of modernity. As Temenuga Trifonova notes, the film suggests that “the only cure for national amnesia is a road trip from the host country back to the lost homeland” (Trifonova 2015, 133). Tellingly, the means of return avoids the contemporary solutions offered by hi-tech civilisation, for example booking the first flight back to the homeland. In The World Is Big the sensuous, nostalgic, non-mechanised journey on small country roads on a tandem bike together with one’s grandfather becomes a veritable practice of the self: a means of reconnecting with a bygone  world and a forgotten form of selfhood, with things one had left behind while chasing modernity’s glamorous (but potentially disastrous) objects of desire. These spatial and temporal journeys rely on well-established cinematic tropes of nostalgia. Thus, the general European cinematic context of the film would include British heritage cinema (especially in its fetishisation of the past), but it also owes a lot to Kusturica’s construction of the Balkans as a pre-modern paradise on the margins of civilisation, as well as to a whole series of post-regime-change Eastern-European films expressing post-communist nostalgia. Nostalgia, as well as the temporal turn-back that it entails, have become one of the most visible markers of the developed world’s post-crisis ideological disorientation. Trump’s “Let’s make America great again!” slogan clearly expresses a wish to return to a previous form of industrial capitalism; the Brexit vote can be interpreted as a regressive emotional response to the EU’s forced march into a futuristic supranational technocracy, as a wish to return or retreat to good-old Little England; but Europe’s resurgent nationalisms also express a widespread anxiety about the future, and the wish to go back to a well-known world that feels safe and comfortable.



However, when facing such nostalgic cultural phenomena, it is worth remembering that nostalgia is not just a post-crisis phenomenon, not simply a panicky, regressive emotional reaction activated by the seemingly contingent, thoroughly destabilising series of recent events. The sentiment of nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym has rightly pointed out, “is at the very core of the modern condition” (Boym 2001, xvi). Boym’s definition of nostalgia also calls attention to the more general anti-modernist critical edge of the film’s spatial trajectories: “At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress” (Boym 2001, xv). One key point here, affirmed by the above socio-political phenomena as well as such nostalgic films as The World Is Big, is that though “modernity has been founded on a cult of progress” (Sim 2010, 5), its forward-­ looking temporality has not erased a much older means of cultural orientation, the tying of identity to one’s past, early memories, homeland, ancestors or childhood, which survives in various cultural processes, typically outside of or at least distinct from modernity’s dominant progressive belief-system. One of the points recent socio-cultural phenomena seem to indicate is that the rationally engineered, head-heavy, future-oriented socio-cultural models of modernity fail to answer to many of the emotional and spiritual needs of human beings, and therefore remain vulnerable to its anti-modern critics and political opponents. Another noteworthy observation, in my opinion, is that nostalgia often works as a symptom of the shortcomings of enlightened secular modernity: the worse the latter fares, the stronger the former becomes. After all, so as to reiterate a metaphor used in the introduction of this book, when one feels lost on one’s journey, it seems logical or at least psychologically understandable to slow down, to stop so as to look around, or even return to a previous point where one still knew where one was. Regarding the nostalgic trends in post-communist Eastern European cinema, the first and most important issue to be grasped is probably that the sentiment of nostalgia is less of an affirmation of the values of communism (almost all such nostalgic films are very critical of communist dictatorships), and more of an expression of the disorientation and disillusionment felt about real-existing capitalism (Kalmár 2017; Nadkarni 2010, 192). Ironically, the fall of the Berlin wall and the dismantling of the iron curtain separating the capitalist West from the communist or



state-socialist East did not only mark the end of the Marxist-Leninist social experiment in Eastern Europe: it also marked the end of Eastern European citizens’ fantasy that Western type capitalism was a fundamentally better form of human existence, that once that social-economic system was introduced, all the well-known human miseries would suddenly vanish. As numerous surveys indicate, the quick installation of capitalism and its painful side-effects (such as sky-rocketing unemployment, political and economic instability, or widespread corruption) in the decade following the 1989–1990 Eastern European regime changes were experienced by many (in some countries the majority) of people as a bitter and humiliating story of disillusionment, as “collective coming of age” bringing about the painful “loss of innocence” (Nadkarni 2010, 199). In The World Is Big the car crash plays the role of the traumatic event that cuts time into two, to the incompatible “before” and “after”. When recounting the news of the tragic accident to his wife, the grandfather uses the word “catastrophe” (or its verbal form in Bulgarian), an expression clearly marking the allegorical potential of the crash. Regarding the temporal and spatial arrangements of the film, the crash is the key point of reference: it defines the time of the film as post-traumatic; it associates contemporary life as beset by the disease of amnesia, a disconnection from the past; it sets the goal of a return to a pre-crash (prelapsarian), idyllic time and place; and it defines the nostalgic homecoming as a cure to the modern, urban, cosmopolitan diseases of alienation, amnesia and homelessness. Interestingly, in the introduction of The Future of Nostalgia Svetlana Boym describes nostalgia in cinematic terms, and offers an almost exact description of the narrative and cinematic strategies employed by The World Is Big: “nostalgia … is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy… A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images: of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life” (Boym 2001, xiv). In the film the recovered memories of the family’s past are superimposed on Sashko’s and Bai Dan’s homeward journey. The eastward bicycle trip (which gradually grows into a practice of the self in the Foucauldian sense) becomes a means of sensual reconnection with time lost, and thus uncovers the memories of the westward trip that the family took a couple of decades before.



This eastward trip also turns around the systems of cultural geography associated with East and West. While pre-regime-change Eastern European films often featured fantasies and desires about journeys to the West (imagined as the place of freedom and affluence), such films of the new millennium as The World Is Big reverse this pattern and tell stories of disillusioned or wounded protagonists returning from the West (this time presented as a cold place of alienation and homelessness). In The World Is Big, due to the symbolic event of the car-crash, Sashko’s return can be seen as a retreat, a move backwards to the familiar place of childhood for the sake of healing. The film embodies most characteristic features of the retreat film, outlined above: it leads from West to East, from the global to the local, from the city to a small town, and from the digital to the sensuous (see Fig. 2.1). Much of these ideologically charged differences are inscribed in the cinematic depiction of places and spaces. Sashko’s place in Germany represents the kind of life many Eastern European immigrants share in Western Europe, and it could be seen as one possible image of the off-­ modern condition. It is a small, functional, one-room apartment in a poor area of the town. When Bai Dan enters (he breaks in while Sashko is still in hospital), he tries to switch on the light, but it does not work. Considering that one of the film’s key themes is history, and that it

Fig. 2.1  Film still from The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Stephan Komandarev 2008)



performs a conscious and consequent critique of secular modernity, it may be no stretch to associate this lack of light in Sashko’s apartment as a reference to the breakdown of the project of enlightenment. When Bai Dan looks around in the dim light, he finds that much of Sashko’s stuff is either lying around in a mess, or kept in cardboard boxes. The fridge is empty; there are pizza boxes and empty bottles everywhere. There is nothing warm, cosy or home-like, there is nothing to suggest that anyone ever felt at home here. Nor does the spectator see anything that would mark the locality of the place: everything, from the door handle to the rudimentary furniture or food leftovers are things that one could find almost anywhere on the planet, in any such cheap and functional room used by the losers and day-labourers of global capitalism, from Munich to Moscow, from Belgrade to Buenos Aires. These are the seldom-advertised other places behind the glorious facades of historical monuments, the inner city ghettos inhabited by the precariat, the off-modern supplements of the super-­ modern, chic and fancy Europe. Sashko’s office-home could also easily qualify as the shabby version of a non-place in Marc Augé’s sense of the term, a typical place of globalised capitalism lacking any mark of locality or individuality (Augé 2009). Sashko, as we get to know, used to live and work here as a translator. It is quite telling that his last, unfinished job, as a message on the answer-phone reveals, was a user’s manual for a vacuum-­ cleaner: the West, apparently, is not a dreamland of personal fulfilment. The ideological counter-point, the old family house in Bulgaria is markedly different: it is a cosy little house with a small garden in a peaceful street. The weather is nice and sunny in every scene we see it (except when the family leaves it), and the soft, golden-coloured filters used also enhance and emphasise the mythological or fantasy-like qualities of the place. We often see the house through slightly blurred images with little depth of field and strong affective power, similarly as dreams or memories are shown in the film. The atmosphere is defined by the grandmother’s hobby of baking traditional sweet pastry and cookies, and the house is filled by old household objects and pieces of furniture that surely bring up pleasant, nostalgic memories from many Eastern European spectators. This is a secluded, protected place, where time stands still, and one can enjoy the simple joys of life, such as family dinners, afternoon cookies or gardening (see Fig. 2.2). This old, mythological, nostalgic place stands at the heart of the value-system of the film, as well as at the goal of its journey. This is where the little flower carried back from Germany will be replanted, suggesting that identity must be rooted in one’s sensuous homeland.



Fig. 2.2  Film still from The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Stephan Komandarev 2008)

Another issue that associates this nostalgic homecoming with the concept of retreat is that it is also a journey to the private sphere, to a very limited local community, far from the digitalised global public sphere. While in Germany Sashko communicated with his clients through internet and telephone, and no friend ever visits him at the hospital, the house in Bulgaria seems to be an “analogue” place where human interaction takes place face to face. No computer screen or mobile phone ever appear on the screen here, and people probably pass their time exactly as they did 100 years ago (with board games and pastry cooking). Significantly from the perspective of the present analysis, the nostalgic and regressive journey of The World Is Big lacks any nationalistic or patriotic overtones: the homeland is not defined through political terms, quite the contrary. As several signs indicate, Bulgaria’s political life has not become any better since the fall of communism, the same old corrupt ex-communist apparatchiks run at the democratic elections that once forced Sashko’s family into emigration. The political, together with much of the public sphere are disavowed here: the point is precisely to withdraw from its corruption into a well-­ known little world of family and close friends. Finally, the film’s nostalgic ritual of retreat, in line with typical post-­ communist cultural trends, is gendered according to easily recognisable, conservative policies (see Mazierska 2008, 120). First of all, the subject of



nostalgia (and return) is male, while the magical place of the homeland, the house with the garden and the scent of freshly baked cookies, is associated with the grandmother and therefore gendered feminine. Through the evocation of the homeland-as-womb metaphor of nineteenth century Romantic poetry, the film’s imagery mirrors the narrative’s key idea of returning to one’s roots. As we shall soon see, this association between the prelapsarian and the pre-Oedipal is not uncommon in retreat films. The second noteworthy feature of the film from the point of view of gender concerns the father-grandfather relationship, which calls attention to the generational issues underlying the film’s journey of return. When Sashko sits on the tandem bike with his grandfather, he also breaks with his father’s dream of going West. Thus, the film associates the father’s generation (people who grew up in communism and state-socialism) with the well-known “Eden is West” cultural mythology (a fantasy still present in films of migration, as in Costa-Gavras’ 2009 film, Eden Is West), while associating the disillusionment with the West with the younger generation. In The World Is Big, similarly to most Eastern European films of retreat, it is this younger generation that was already socialised in capitalism that decides to turn back, and seek a more meaningful existence through the re-exploration of its roots. Though such an act of retreat can be read both in terms of individual trauma and as a critique of twenty-first-­ century global capitalism (both of which readings are clearly supported by the film), in light of Eastern Europe’s resurging populist nationalisms it is hard not to associate this return to the world of one’s forefathers with political paternalism, which well indicates the political ambiguities involved in the early twenty-first-century time of crisis.

Delta The regressive movement featured in stories of retreat seldom show their intimate connection with death so clearly as in Kornél Mundruczó’s Delta (2008). Similarly to The World Is Big, Delta recounts a story of return to one’s sensuous homeland. The film’s protagonist, Mihail, suffers no spectacular car-crash, as Sashko, we never actually learn what it exactly was that made him come home from Western Europe, yet his brooding silences, melancholic attitude and conspicuous alcohol consumption all seem to signify emotional injuries. Mihail returns from the West so as to resettle back home, in the South-East corner of Romania. His plan is to build a log-house on the river in the astonishingly beautiful and untamed



wetlands of the Danube Delta (where his father used to have a fishing hut), so as to hide away from the world. However, he is no tough guy, no survivor-type of man: from the very first moment that we catch sight of him, among the ruinous houses, grazing cows and rusty, half-sunk ships of the off-modern, post-communist village where he sets foot (see Fig. 2.3), he seems an odd one out, more of a Romantic artist in escape than a lumberjack returning to mother nature. As Hajnal Király points out, “Mihail looks fragile, shy and stylish in his cord velvet jacket, a trademark of the Western bohemian. Significantly, his character is played by Félix Lajkó, an ethnic Hungarian violin virtuoso from Serbia” (Király 2015, 179). Mihail, as his clothes and banknotes reveal, has been to the West, he has seen that world, and is back now. Yet, in this dark, Eastern European version of the prodigal son narrative there is no loving father to welcome the returning son. The living members of his family, his mother, sister and his mother’s tyrannical, bad-tempered lover live in a village in the Delta, in pervasive physical and emotional deprivation. They run the local pub, a run-down place for faces well known from Béla Tarr’s films (to whom the film is dedicated). The first encounter upon Mihail’s arrival is full of symbolic resonances. When he arrives to the house, the family is in the middle of a traditional pig-killing, we hear the animal’s screams, and see the men, wearing traditional black, holding and wrestling with the poor animal. The killing is

Fig. 2.3  Film still from Delta (Kornél Mundruczó 2008)



orchestrated by Mihail’s step-father (or his mother’s lover, as Mihail prefers to refer to him), who seems to be some sort of a shady local patriarch. When Mihail’s sister, Fauna steps forward, she has blood on her hands and apron. The blood, death and screams foreshadow the film’s ending, but they also reveal something about the cruelty and primitivism of this human community in general. The connection between cruelty, deprivation and escapism becomes even clearer when Mihail’s mother presents the pálinka (the strong, local, homemade brandy) and the glasses, traditional elements of Eastern European pig-killings, saying “Here is the main thing”. The mother and the two siblings reunite in this bloody event, through the type of alcohol that has not ceased to be the number one cause of early deaths of men in such rural communities since as long as such statistics go back to. When his mother asks Mihail how long he wants to stay, he does not answer. Apparently, he has come back for good. Delta does not care much about the social, economic or historical circumstances of the story. Following the footsteps of his master, Tarr, Mundruczó uses the recognisably post-communist landscapes as markers of universal human deprivation. Time is surely out of joint in the Danube Delta, objects, technological instruments and human behaviour patterns from different historical periods mix and pile up on each other, yet this is not due to any specific economic or political situation. The off-modern appears in Delta more as the temporality of wounded, dishevelled, post-­ crisis humanity, moribund and slightly dystopian. In other words, here off-modern landscapes come to signify a more general malfunctioning or corruption of the human world, the state of affairs we come to once the glamorous wish-fulfilling narratives of success and progress are broken. This may also explain why several details of the story are left in mystery: we do not learn why Mihail had left, where exactly he was and for how long, or why he comes back now. What matters in Mundruczó’s poetic and almost mythical piece is beyond or beneath such practical or rational details. Mihail’s return seems simply inevitable, just as his leave was. His above-mentioned behavioural traits indicate a troubled past, but that is taken for granted in this tradition of Eastern European arthouse cinema. It is worth recalling that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in the context of war neurosis (what we call PTSD today), Freud associated such returns and repetitions with trauma and death. According to this Freudian logic, returning to the traumatic site, as well as the symbolic gesture of abandoning the search for a better future may easily lead outside the realm of what Freud called the pleasure principle, the world of desire and satisfaction,



and take one back to the inorganic. In this sense the time of the film is as important as the place: similarly to such other cinematic narratives of retreat as Lajoska’s story in Taxidermia (György Pálfi 2006) or that of Szabolcs in Land of Storms (Ádám Cászi 2014), Delta is set after the time of desire, action, adventure and conquest, when all these have been tried and all have failed. Time as measurable forward movement, taking one towards new hopes and new objects of desire, has been exhausted, renounced, repudiated. So it is time to return. In the context of Hungarian cultural history, the inevitability of return to one’s loved-and-hated homeland is a well-known, long established artistic trope. One of the canonical examples is Endre Ady’s poem, A föl-­ földobott kő (The Tossed Stone 1909), a poem most students have to learn by heart in Hungarian secondary schools. The poem is an allegory that identifies the speaker-poet as a stone thrown up again and again only to fall back to the ground, to the (home)land from which it was taken. Thus, Ady’s poem addresses precisely the above-discussed movements, the desire to go away, to fly from the dire conditions, and the inevitability of coming home, falling back to where one came from. As in Delta, this almost fate-­ like necessity to return is associated with a certain sadness or melancholia (that Ady saw as one of the characteristic features of Hungarians). In this poem Ady also reshapes the nineteenth-century romantic vision of the motherland in ways that prefigure the intimate connection between incest, the homeland and death in Mundruczó’s film: whereas in the Romantic paradigm the motherland is typically envisioned as holy and pure, something deserving sacrifice, in Ady it rather appears simultaneously as a (slightly possessive) mother-figure and a lover of a passionate love-hate relationship. Perhaps it is due to this cultural heritage that the Eastern European spectator is not surprised at all when Mihail and his newly found sister, Fauna, who follows him to the log-house in the Delta, eventually fall in love and form a strange, incestuous couple. Their relationship is not driven by romantic love or erotic passion, and never evokes the happiness one associates with romantic love. It rather feels like a melancholy retreat of two battered people: both withdraw from the human communities that have only caused them pain, so as to resettle somewhere beyond the pleasure principle, on the frontier between nature and culture, life and death, soil and water. Incest is just another marker of this outside of culture and desire: their “return” to each other is inevitable, without words or concepts, consistently avoiding the well-known cinematic clichés and dynamism of sexual desire.



Similarly to the above-discussed The World Is Big, the characters’ motivations are mostly told by evocative, sensuous images of highly metaphorical spaces (see Király 2015, 179). The most important spaces, in this respect, are the village and the river. The village (and the human community that it is associated with) is mostly represented by the pub, a place of cruel, worn-out faces, human degradation, alcoholism, and the surrounding post-industrial wastelands of the river bank (where the fleeing Fauna is raped by her foster-father). These are the spaces of a cruel, corrupted, patriarchal order, where—in a twisted folk-tale-like fashion—the “good father” has been killed and replaced by the “evil step-father.” Here the off-modern acquires distinctively dystopian overtones: the human order has gone to usurpers, criminals and rapists. Delta suggest that something is rotten in the Eastern borderlands of Europe, a murderous step-father has taken the place of the good father in the mother’s bed, and the returning son finds himself in a tyrannical and cruel patriarchy where his life is under constant threat. However, the river, the place of retreat, is not a harmonic, idealised, bucolic Eden either. In contrast to The World Is Big, the sensuous place of retreat is not the place of happy self-fulfilment where one may reach some sort of higher consciousness. The river in Delta is the space of the sublime, beyond human comprehension, beyond good and evil, a place where life and death flow together inextricably and inexorably. Mihail’s most important embodied practice of the self is building the house on the water (see Fig. 2.4). Similarly to Sashko’s bicycle trip, it is an embodied, multi-sensual, analogue activity that connects him with his local roots and forefathers. A more optimistic (and probably more superficial) interpretation would regard it as an attempt at creating a new life, close to his roots (the dead father’s hut), far from the corrupted human world, which he has renounced. Building a new house, after all, on screen and off, usually means finding a new place, a new way of connecting with the affective world, as well as a new spatial-physical arrangement of identity. However, one must notice that this new house is built on the water, a symbolic element that stands at least as much for death as for new life at least since Ulysses decided to head back to Ithaca. This associative link between retreat, a new life and death in Mihail’s building project is foreshadowed by several details. First, one learns that Mihail cannot swim, thus his attraction to the water as a place of escape may already reveal a secret death-wish, and reinforce the symbolic connection between ritualistic retreats and death. Second, in Mundruczó’s mythopoetic film language, the house on the river is clearly defined as a place outside, or rather



Fig. 2.4  Film still from Delta (Kornél Mundruczó 2008)

before the patriarchal order. It appears as a pre-Oedipal, incestuous paradise for traumatised people, a place to escape from the evil step-father’s rule, and (as Fauna’s case after her rape also indicates) a place to heal from the wounds caused by the human world. The radical (or mythical) “otherness” of this place is not only indicated by Fauna’s symbolic role as nature, or the incestuous brother-sister relationship, but also by the couple’s “totem” animal, the small turtle, Fauna’s old pet that the evil foster-father secretly banished. The turtle may also symbolically stand for the child-like innocence of the siblings’ relationship, as well as the regressive trajectory of their journeys. Having noticed all these metaphorical foreshadowing elements, the spectator is hardly surprised when the drunk villagers finally come to the log-house to kill the law-breaking lovers. Their return to the sublime river seems as inevitable to the spectator as Sashko’s finding peace in his home-town, or Ady’s return from Paris to the Hungarian wasteland. Through these symbolic and narrative features, Delta manages to create a non-nostalgic version of the retreat-film that is markedly different from The World Is Big. Though both films’ protagonists are wounded, in Delta this post-traumatic condition lack historically specific features, and is rather presented as a mythical or metaphysical (and therefore incurable and unchangeable) condition of the human being.



Suntan Similarly to the films discussed so far in this chapter, the Greek film Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos 2016) is strongly influenced by the motif of retreat, it comes from the geopolitical margins of Europe, and expresses the sense of socio-cultural crisis often felt there, yet it investigates such aspects of the return and retreat motifs that remain hidden in the previous two examples. My choice of Eastern and Southern European films is also motivated by current political trends: in the 2010s both regions were regarded as problematic, rebellious and rogue, places of strong anti-EU sentiment and ideological resistance, with states threatening the financial or ideological trajectories designed in Brussels and Berlin. It is worth recalling that the most serious economic-crisis-related threat to the Eurozone so far was posed by Greece in 2010, which led to an EU-IMF-­ founded bailout (which was followed by two more later, the total cost of which now stands around 290 billion euros), and it is also probably here that the IMF-dictated austerity measures are seen with most hostility. Post-crisis Southern and Eastern Europe seem to be the places where such narratives rise that radically challenge Western European accounts of historical development and the ideological frameworks supporting them. These are the places where the glamorous designs of a new Europe were first questioned, places where the personal is always already connected with the political and the ideological. Suntan’s first scene is a variation of that of Delta: it also shows the ferry bringing the male protagonist to a place of escape and retreat. This time it is a middle-aged physician, Kostis, who is about to take up the position of the local doctor at a tiny Greek island. It is winter, off-season, Kostis is the only passenger on the ferry. He is bolding, pale and slightly plump, and his eyes express a mixture of morose, anxiety, introverted sensitivity, resentment, bitterness and defeat. Some later conversations reveal that he had faced frustrating failures in both his professional and private life, but the opening scene also already makes it clear that this is more of an escape or a withdrawal than a vacation or romantic exploration of new territories. There is a memorable moment when Kostis gets off the ferry and looks around hesitatingly on the pier: in this long shot he is the only human being in the frame, a small, dark figure, slightly lost between the sea and the land. The first, introductory sequence of the film shows his arrival and settling in the small village. His apartment is small, old-fashioned, with



markedly used, old-fashioned furniture and a small, old TV (obviously, not flat-screen). It is quite telling that he does not change anything about the place: he buys no new furniture, cosy blanket, colourful picture, bigger TV or fancy coffee-machine, as most people would, when starting a new life in a new place. It is clear that he has no expectations about his life here, he has given up on both big dreams and the small pleasures of life. He watches silly TV programmes, shops deep-frozen food and spends most of his time alone. When another middle aged villager tells him about the abundance of sexual opportunities awaiting them due to the crowds of young, single women that will come to the island in the summer, he shows no interest. He says that he is too old for that. The last image in this intro sequence shows him through the small window of his apartment, on Christmas Eve, sitting alone in the dark, watching TV with a blank face. With this prelude, Suntan gives a perfect definition of a defeated man in retreat, someone beyond the pleasure principle, who has lost the main battles of his life, and has therefore withdrawn to a quiet place to sit out the rest of his days. This place, at least in its original definition in the opening sequence, lacks both the nostalgic sensuousness of The World Is Big and the sublime, tragic, metaphysical qualities of Delta associated with the place of withdrawal. Suntan suggests that the strategy of retreat is possible, common and ordinary. What the film is really interested in, however, is what Kostis is hiding from the world, what he is keeping in the closet. This is where Suntan goes further than the previous films investigated: it experiments with what may happen when such a silent, lonely, wounded man is unexpectedly called back to the light, to the world of pleasure and desire, when he is led to believe that he does have another chance. This new chance appears in the form of Anna, a Greek tourist aged 21, exactly half the age of Kostis. In the first scene after the above mentioned intro and the main title, the main plot starts. As opposed to the long silences and slow camera work of the prelude, we suddenly find ourselves in the buzz of the summer: we hear the mixture of sounds of crickets, chattering people, laughter and clinking glasses well known from such Mediterranean holiday resorts. The screen is filled with people, movement, colours and sunshine. This shift in film language and the sensuous qualities of the film already indicate the basic opposition structuring the narrative, that between winter and summer, the time without sunshine, pleasure and desire, and the time when all these are abundant and overflowing. In the first scene of the summer Anna walks into Kostis’s small clinic. She is young, beautiful, and though this is her first day on the



island, she already has a nice suntan. It turns out that she had a small motorcycle accident, and one of her legs needs disinfection and bandages. While examining Anna, her group of friends also break into Kostis’s secluded world: they come uninvited and loud, they speak in English, invade the examination room, play with the medical instruments and fool around him. At this point, the above-mentioned figurative contrast between winter and summer is extended: the first scene of the summer associates the notoriously pale doctor with winter and the suntanned gang with summer. While he the local doctor is middle-aged, slightly overweight, far from good-looking, shy and pale (meticulously protecting himself with large amounts of sun-cream), the tourists are young, easy-going, pretty, golden brown, hip and handsome, with international backgrounds. There are three young women and two lads in the group, but none of them form traditional couples: apparently they are here to have fun, and—in a neo-­ hippy or post-monogamous fashion—they are happy to share their bodies and joys with each other without any traditional constraint. Kostis, who has fled to the local, away from cultural centres and people in general, suddenly encounters contemporary globalised youth culture. His ascetic life of a hermit is invaded by a cult of boundless hedonism and connectivity. The conflict between the local and the global, or the losers and winners of contemporary globalised world, is also emphasised by Kostis’s encounter with Orestis, a physician he knows from university. Their contrast adds to Kostis’s characterisation, and also calls attention to the radically different trajectories offered by our contemporary world. Orestis seems to have accomplished everything Kostis have dreamed of but failed at: he has an international career, he got rich (he used to work at a plastic surgery clinic in California), he is married to a woman much younger than him, he is a happy father, and also owns a house on the island. These details further explain Kostis’s morose attitude, elucidate his desperate desire to be like Oristes, and also highlight the vast distance he needs to bridge to get there. The rest of the film is about how Kostis tries to hang out with the youngsters, hook up with Anna, bridge the distance between them and fulfil the dreams that he had previously given up. This “experiment” of reconnection can be associated with a whole set of contemporary social issues with far-reaching consequences. When experimenting with the possibilities of Kostis and Anna as a couple, or Kostis and the tourists as a group of friends, Suntan also poses questions with far-reaching implications concerning our deeply divided twenty-first-century world: is



connection between these seemingly different people possible? Can the older generations meet (and share time, ideas, joys) with the younger generation? Can the traditional and the local encounter the new and the global in a productive way? Do people like Kostis have a chance to catch up with the winners of a quickly changing, globalised world? Much of what happens in Suntan is told through spatial metaphors that resonate with the figurations of open and closed spaces outlined in the beginning of this chapter. The young group breaks in Kostis’s world, and he starts going out with them. Kostis spends less and less time in his dark apartment, and more in the open, on the beach, or at open-air discos and night clubs. Instead of seeking solitude and isolation, he seeks other people and human connections. Moreover, while closed spaces are associated with loneliness and desperation, open spaces are metaphorically connected with sunshine, suntan, happiness and the joys of human connection. The scene best representing the positive potential of this trans-cultural, trans-­ generational and trans-local connectivity is when Kostis and the youngsters drive together on a motorbike and a quad. They decided to have dinner together, all six of them mount the two available vehicles, they hold on to each other, drive together, laugh and fool around together. It is the end of the day, the setting sun’s light creates beautiful colours, and the film shows in slow motion how the people on the two vehicles driving side by side on the small country road reach out to touch each other’s hands in a gesture of joyful connectivity (see Fig. 2.5). Suntan, however, is not very optimistic about the possibilities of such different people reaching out to each other, and thus ends up being a sobering, realistic commentary of our deeply polarised and divided

Fig. 2.5  Film still from Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos 2016)



societies. This is already foreshadowed in the above-mentioned scene, which is cut before Kostis’s hand could reach that of the others, thus the fulfilment of the symbolic union is left undecided. Kostis simply cannot adjust to the relaxed behaviour norms of the youngsters: when the others leave on a boat trip for two days, he gets jealous and makes a scene; when he finds himself alone on the dancefloor, his mood instantly goes back to the pre-summer morose, indicating that he can only “get high” on others’ joy; he is too stiff to follow the “you either kiss everyone or you kiss no one” rule of Anna’s friends; and while Anna seems to be motivated by sheer sympathy and joy-seeking, he follows the old script of human relationships, the all-too-human pattern of desire, attachment, possessiveness, jealousy and anger. Thus the film associates the binary opposition between the two generations with different psychological attitudes as well, where Kostis is mostly defined as ordinary, petty and selfish, while the others are presented as beyond such worldly human emotions. One of the clearest manifestations of these differences is the ill-fated rendezvous, when Kostis shows Anna a beautiful, secluded beach of the island. Every condition seems to be given for the perfect romantic date: the couple drive to the secret beach, where they are the only people. Anna immediately throws off her clothes and jumps into the water, while Kostis sits down in the shade of a tree, in his iconic (notoriously unfashionable) bucket hat, to light a cigarette and watch her (see Fig. 2.6). Here the contrast between the joyful play of the beautiful Anna and the withdrawn voyeurism of the pale Kostis gains an almost metaphysical dimension. When Anna emerges from the water, Suntan seem to deliberately echo Greek mythology’s account of Aphrodite’s birth, the often depicted

Fig. 2.6  Film still from Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos 2016)



emergence of the goddess of love from the sea. The mythological allusion is not only iconographical. Anna visits Kostis exactly like the gods of Greek mythology visit the humans that they fancy: without shame, reserve, attachment or any sense of responsibility. Having had her fun in the water, Anna runs up the beach to Kostis, throws away his hat and cigarette, undresses him, and after a short oral interlude, sits on top of him, thus also reproducing their vertical, “metaphysical”, goddess/human differences. After the above-mentioned contrasts between them, it comes as no surprise to the spectator that this does not turn into a fulfilling, sensual, romantic sex-scene. The act lasts only a couple of seconds, as Kostis comes almost immediately. “Was that it?”—Anna asks with some ironic tease, smiling down on him. “I’m sorry,” says Kostis, embarrassed and mortified. Predictably, Anna goes back to swim, but soon gets bored of the beach as well, and the couple drive back to the village. After this incident, scene after scene, Kostis seems more and more pathetic, frustrated, possessive, miserably attached to Anna, ever creepier and finally monstrous. The last third of the film is his walk through hell, looking for Anna, being rejected and humiliated, getting paler and paler, like a lost soul or (in more mythological terms) a human turned into a grotesque satyr. As the last desperate attempt, he drugs the girl in the toilet of a night club, and carries her to his clinic so as to rape her. However, in the very last moment he breaks down: instead of raping Anna, he starts crying and then slowly gets to tending to the wounds and bruises she suffered during the kidnapping. It is remarkable how Suntan turns whiteness into a meaningful metaphor of this psycho-social drama. As the title also suggests, suntan works as figurative attribute in the film: it marks the younger generation, and associates the joys of summer, youth, beauty, hedonism, relaxed carefreeness with moving beyond the traditional, “human, all too human” constraints of human beings, such as gender, race, national belonging, monogamy or possessive relationships. For the group of young tourists, similarly to the antique Greek gods, these traditional sign-posts of human identity and behaviour seem petty, childish and even shameful: they have moved beyond the world of skin colour, pre-set gender roles or stiff expectations about relationships. Kostis is an odd one in this bunch from the very beginning. His long rituals of putting on sun-cream, as well as never parting from his hat are visually ever-present markers of his difference. The camera work and editing also positions him as a voyeur, looking at what he desires, but always slightly withdrawn, at a distance from the main action



and main spectacle (the fun of the youngsters). What prevents him from successfully connecting with Anna, however, is not so much associated with these embodied practices, but rather with whiteness and all that it comes to signify. Through the metaphor of the pale, reserved, middle-­ aged white man in the middle of a sunny Mediterranean holiday resort, the film effectively makes whiteness marked (also in the sense that Sally Robinson uses this term), and associates it with everything petty and confining in humans. Thus, through its (failed) intergenerational romance, Suntan also explores different configurations of identity, and explicitly contrasts the “old” patterns (that have been a source of drama, war and human suffering throughout history) with a post-race, post-patriarchal, post-national, post-monogamous one in which the most important test of any behaviour is whether it is fun for everybody or not. Thus, at the end of the day, Suntan attests to the impossibility of bridging the gaps separating different social and age groups. It features a white man in his early 40s, who lacks all the positive attributes traditionally associated with such people: agency, power, dignity, decency or social status. All he is left with are the desires for all these, and the set of (stiff, confining) roles inherited from his culture, which make him simultaneously clumsy and vulnerable. Thus, while attempting to “upgrade” to the next generation (or at least pretend to do so in order to “get” Anna), Kostis eventually fails to meet the standards of both worlds: he does not only fail as a lover of the young, hip goddess of contemporary globalised youth culture, but also fails as the trusty local doctor. In Suntan the ground rules of the traditional local community are also clearly depicted: on the island everybody calls each other by their first names, there is a pre-capitalist (or even pre-modern) culture of solidarity, connectivity and trust, as people care for and help each other without relying on institutions or expecting financial compensation. In his mad addiction to Anna (and all she represents to him), however, Kostis neglects his work and responsibilities, drinks too much, spends more time in discos and night clubs than at his clinic, which leads to his losing his position as the GP. Thus, Suntan tells a story of a defeated white man in retreat, who, for a short while, thought that he could still have a life of desire and joy. The seemingly divine, superhuman life of millennials tempts him once again, but when a goddess wants to lift him up, he proves too heavy. He falls back, falls hard, and falls deeper than he ever was, into the hell of rejected desire and hurt pride. His story, however, gains its full dramatic weight in the last scene of the film, when he breaks down, does not rape Anna, and starts attending to her



wounds. This is when Kostis’s mythologically inspired socio-psychological journey runs full circle: having travelled through heaven and hell, now, in a moment of catharsis, he accepts his position as a limited human being, together with its ethical imperatives of compassion and care.

Conclusions: Men in Retreat When considering the popularity of the return and retreat motifs in contemporary cinemas on the margins of Europe, it may be important to recognise the historical roots of this practice, as well as its long-time connection with troubled or defeated men. Accounts of antique Roman history, for example, indicate that statesmen and other public figures who either felt frustrated in carrying through with their political designs, or were crossed by rivals or lost face in the eyes of the public, often chose withdrawal into the private sphere, often into their family estates far from the capital. Such self-imposed banishments were also common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Eastern Europe: under Habsburg rule, for example, it was quite usual for artists or noblemen supporting national independence to accept the overwhelming power of their oppressors and withdraw from public life altogether, usually moving to rural areas far from cultural and political centres. This connection between political defeat, life under oppressive regimes, and men on such regressive journeys was further strengthened in the post-war period of Eastern Europe. Withdrawal from the public sphere was a common, strategical answer at times when the oppressive communist regime made public political activity dangerous or impossible. As Jacqui True argues, “in the 1970s and 1980s because possibilities of exercising influence in an outward direction in the public sphere no longer existed, people diverted more of their energy in the direction of the least resistance, that is, into the private sphere” (2003, 34). Discussing the Czech and Slovak films of the 1970s, Ewa Mazierska also calls attention to this tendency of withdrawal and its effect on men: During the period of ‘normalisation’ the family remained a privileged zone for Czech and Slovak filmmakers… This was partly due to … the character of life during this period, when the vast majority of Czechs and Slovaks withdrew from political and indeed, communal life into the private space of their houses as the only place they perceived to be sheltered from the state… The increased domesticity, encouraged by the political authority, impacted



more on Czech and Slovak men than women because domestication was the accepted cultural norm for women anyway … making the men feel out of place, emasculated and powerless. (Mazierska 2008, 110)

I would argue that post-communist cinematic returns and retreats can be interpreted as a reinvention of this old, well-used pattern of behaviour on the part of Eastern-European men. As Maya Nadkarni argues, “the paternalist regime constructed its citizens, regardless of age, as childlike. That is … the retreat into a private realm of action seemingly free of political concerns was in fact the very condition of political subjectivity” (2010, 200). After the regime change the euphoria of the end of state-socialist dictatorships may have empowered men to change this much-practised pattern and venture out so as to try living more open, active and progress-­ oriented masculinities. The films of the 2000s, however, show that this empowering myth of emancipation, connectivity, modernisation and progress has been seriously shaken and discredited in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Men (in films as well as in life) often chose tactics of retreat, turning back towards their roots, and seeking simpler lives in the private realms far from the public battles they have given up fighting. The return and retreat motifs often have political resonances, they are conservative and regressive answers to trauma, frustrations, overwhelmingly stressful situations, or simply to being disappointed with the superficial and alienated life worlds offered by globalised capitalism’s urban centres. Usually both the more optimistic and more pessimistic trends share an implicit critique of the West, urbanisation, hi-tech environments and global capitalism, and therefore indicate the inevitability of turning back towards the local, the marginal, the organic, the pre-modern and the sensuous. One significant difference one may notice among recent retreat films is whether they regard retreat as a viable life strategy at all. Apparently, films from different regions of Europe give diverse answers to this question. The trend, as Király has already noted in the context of return films, is that in Hungarian and Romanian cinema protagonists are bound to fail and meet tragic deaths (as in Delta, Land of Storms, the last episode of Taxidermia or Beyond the Hills). As Király notes, in these films home is never as the returning protagonists imagined them (Király 2015). Apparently, in the local cultural mythologies of these countries, fate is not something that one can easily escape from. These films suggest that the real issues that the protagonists are struggling with cannot be solved by



changing place. In the above-mentioned Hungarian and Romanian films even if the homeland still possesses these sensuous, idyllic qualities, the returns are poisoned by the backwards local human communities. In the Hungarian context, as I have noted before in this chapter, the dominant tradition of one’s relation to the homeland is usually ambiguous and tragic: among the quality pieces of the “high art” tradition, one can hardly find any literary or cinematic example of unproblematic, positive view of the local. Moreover, both literature and films tend to rely on the trope of the wasteland, and reveal the damaging effects of backwards, cruel human communities. On the other hand, in Slovak, Bulgarian and Greek examples retreat seems a much more viable strategy, as is clear in The World Is Big, Suntan, and such Slovak examples as The Garden or The Country Teacher. In my opinion, however, seeing retreat as a possible and viable answer is less of a political statement in these films: rather, it follows from deeply rooted local cultural traditions. The Slovak and Bulgarian examples usually lack the gloomy atmosphere of the Hungarian films, and often rely on a bucolical or Romantic tradition of seeing nature and the homeland in idealised terms, as places where some sort of sensual and even spiritual richness can be experienced (there are “miraculous” events in both The World Is Big and in The Garden). In The World Is Big and Suntan the beauty and sunshine of these idyllic southern landscapes clearly contribute to the feeling that turning one’s back to the Western, metropolitan centres is possible, because the local sensuous homeland has plenty to offer. It is telling that the similar situation of a young gay man returning to a small village leads to a successful coming out, acceptance and reconciliation in case of the Czech The Country Teacher, but ends in tragic death in the Hungarian Land of Storms.

Works Cited Augé, Marc. 2009. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. Verso. van Hoven, Bettina, and Kathrin Hörschelmann, eds. 2005. Spaces of Masculinities. London and New York: Routledge. Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books. Connell, R.W. 2005. Masculinities. University of California Press. Elsaesser, Thomas. 2005. European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood. Amsterdam University Press. Gott and Herzog. 2015. East, West and Centre. Reframing Post-1989 European Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.



Jobbit, Steve. 2008. Subterranean Dreaming: Hungarian Fantasies of Integration and Redemption. Kinokultura. kontroll.shtml. Accessed 15 January 2020. Kalmár, György. 2017. Formations of Masculinity in Post-Communist Hungarian Cinema: Labyrinthian Men. Palgrave Macmillan. Király, Hajnal. 2015. Leave to Live? Placeless People in Contemporary Hungarian and Romanian Films of Return. Studies in Eastern European Cinema 6 (2): 169–183. Krastev, Ivan, and Stephen Holmes. 2019. The Light That Failed: A Reckoning. Allen Lane – Penguin Random House. Lefebvre, Henry. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell. Mazierska, Ewa. 2008. Masculinities in Polish, Czech and Slovak Cinema. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Nadkarni, Maya. 2010. But It’s Ours: Nostalgia and the Politics of Authenticity in Post-Socialist Hungary. In Post-Communist Nostalgia, ed. Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gilla, 191–214. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Rietbergen, Peter. 2015. Europe: A Cultural History. 3rd ed. Routledge. Sághy, Miklós. 2016. Irány a nyugat! – filmes utazások keletrõl nyugatra a magyar rendszerváltás után. In Tér, hatalom és identitás viszonyai a magyar filmben, ed. Gyõri Zsolt and Kalmár György, 233–243. Debrecen: Debreceni Egyetemi Kiadó, ZOOM könyvek. Schissel, Wendy, ed. 2016. Home/Bodies. Geographies of Self, Place and Space. Calgary: University of Calgary Press. Sharp, Joanne P., Paul Routledge, Chris Philo, and Ronan Paddison, eds. 2000. Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance. London and New York: Routledge. Shaviro, Steven. 2012. Body Horror and Post-Socialist Cinema: György Pálfi’s Taxidermia. In A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas, ed. Anikó Imre, 24–40. Oxford: Wiley and Blackwell. Sim, Stuart. 2010. The End of Modernity: What the Financial Crisis Is Really Telling Us. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Szeman, Imre, and Gáspár Miklós Tamás. 2009. The Left and Marxism in Eastern Europe: An Interview with Gáspár Miklós Tamás. Mediations 24 (2): 12–35. Accessed 15 January 2020. Trifonova, Temenuga. 2015. Contemporaray Bulgarian Cinema: From Allegorical Expressionism to Declined National Cinema. In East West and Centre: Reframing Post-1989 European Cinema, ed. Gott and Herzog. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP. True, Jacqui. 2003. Gender, Globalization, and Postsocialism: The Czech Republic After Communism. New York: Columbia University Press.


Unprocessed Pasts

Europe’s relation to its past has been a constant and hot debate point (at least) since the end of the Second World War, and, as most readers would know well, is still the subject of fierce disputes. The twenty-first century has brought about profound shifts in this field as well: as our prospects of the future have changed (from the sweet utopia of the end of history to the gloomy, off-modern dystopia of our post-9/11 and post-crash age), our narratives of the past also started to change rapidly. Due to the series of crisis that serves as the backdrop to this book’s explorations, a widespread sentiment of unease and discontent arose about the European culture and politics of memory (Assmann 2016), resulting in the systematic questioning of Europe’s pre-crisis historical narratives (Schlink 2009; Bruckner 2010). Indeed, if one looks around in the first decades of the twenty-first century, one may easily get the impression that Europe’s relation to its past is still post-traumatic: we seem to be living under the shadow of our bloody past, overburdened by the horrors caused and suffered. Our relation to history is still dominated by a sense of unease, contesting historical narratives and unprocessed guilt (Assmann 2013/2010, 2016; Schlink 2009; Bruckner 2010). Our memory culture, as its contemporary critics repeatedly point out, shows all the important signs of PTSD: it seems to be stuck in the past, focused on painful and traumatic events, repetitive to the point of tediousness and nausea, haunted by the same old images, accompanied by the feelings of discomfort and anxiety, thus making our present © The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




decisions clumsy, irrational and sometimes dreadfully misplaced. In our present-day test cases it repeatedly turns out that we have neither managed to digest our past or went through a successful and complete healing process: the “unprecedented atrocities” (Silva et al. 2010, 1) of the past do still constitute a deadlock, confining us in our present identities and actions, creating divisions within the EU and hostility between its communities. In order to understand the contemporary crisis of historical meta-­ narratives and European cinema’s shifting approaches to the representation of history, one has to understand how crucial these narratives are for post-war European identity in general. First, one has to see that the slowly evolving concept of the European Union was based on a general international consensus that the new Europe must be founded on the remembrance and condemnation of historical atrocities such as the Holocaust, on the memory politics of “remembering in order to never forget” (Assmann 2013/2010, 12), that is, on a (seemingly) shared international determination not to let history repeat itself. In that sense, a certain kind of memory-­ politics must be recognised as a foundational element of the EU itself. When the Preamble of the EU’s Constitution defines the present Europe as “reunited after bitter experiences”, it is clear that it is a set of very well-­ definable historical events and their canonised interpretation that motivates present nation-states “to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny” (Treaty 2004, 9). In other words, contemporary Europe is built on remembering the worst part of its history: as opposed to the previously widespread tribal, sectarian, patriotic, imperialist or utopian-revolutionary ideologies that used (and abused) positive feelings (e.g., pride, honour, belonging, sense of historical mission or solidarity) to forge communities, contemporary Europe seems to be a continent mostly kept together by our (supposedly) shared guilt about the past. It is in this sense that Aleida Assmann can refer to the Holocaust as the “negative foundational myth” of Europe (2016, 94), which defines European politics as a “politics of regret” (Assmann 2016, 93). However, facing one’s responsibility in heinous past deeds has never been among humanity’s uttermost strengths, and coming to terms with Europe’s past has always been a contested project with controversial results. Part of the reason for this is that it was never very clear what forms that condemnation of the past should exactly take, what aspects of the past this memory-politics of guilt-ridden condemnation should apply to, or



how we should regard all those present spoils that our terrible past deeds brought us. It is equally unclear how those people can identify with these foundational narratives (and with the new Europe based on it) who do not feel responsible for the horrors of the past. It is worth noting how much this narrative of guilt about Eurocentrism shows all the typical signs of Western European Eurocentrism, exclusivity and blindness to otherness: this foundational narrative, which was produced by the strongest and richest nations of Europe, and defines itself as a position of moral superiority, excludes or marginalises the perspectives of former anti-fascist partisans, people who helped Jews, countries that had no colonial pasts to feel guilty about, countries that the Nazis simply occupied by force, as well as the millions of post-war immigrants (see Assmann 2016, 164–188). A further issue undermining the moral foundations of this culture of remembering stems from the fact that the other’s guilt can so easily be turned into a powerful political weapon, and that in such a cultural milieu self-victimisation it is an obvious and easy mode of gaining power. Through such tactics, this laudable programme of “ethical remembering” (Assmann 2016, 93) was (and still is) often hi-jacked and perverted by people or groups with markedly less laudable intentions (Bruckner 2010, 9–26; Assmann 2016, 87, 95). Needless to say, the troublesome events of the twenty-first century have quickly shaken this fragile consensus, and made our debates over the past much more heated and polarised than ever since the Second World War. The reasons why our discourses about history got so messy recently are not very difficult to discern. As human identity is grounded in one’s relation to the past (in our memories, the stories we tell, the trends we recognise in time that point towards possible futures), these debates have very sizeable stakes with regards to the present (who we are) and the future (what we should do). Little wonder, then, that these debates are far from being fact-based and balanced (that is, academically regulated) discussions of history: they are necessarily also struggles over representation, ideology and power (Assmann 2013/2010, 9; Nieger et al. 2011, 3; Nguyen 2016). Though the ideologically informed, over-politicised appropriations of the past one meets in the media today may often seem extreme, irrational and misinformed (on all sides of the political spectrum), one must agree with the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs that there is nothing unusual about social groups’ constant shaping of their pasts for the sake of their present needs. In his seminal study, On Collective Memory, Halbwachs highlights the importance of the collective frameworks of memory, and



argues that “it is in society that people normally acquire their memories”, that “it is also in society that they recall, recognize and localize their memories” (Halbwachs 1992, 38), and that the fashioning of the past for present purposes is one of the key processes through which human communities (with shared values and goals) are forged (51). As the editors of the recent volume On Media Memory succinctly put it, social groups construct their own images of the world by constantly shaping and reshaping versions of the past. This process defines groups and enables them to create boundaries that separate them from other groups that share different memories of the past, or perhaps, different interpretations of the same occurrences. Collective memories do not exist in the abstract. Their presence and influence can only be discerned through their ongoing usage. There can be no ‘collective memory’ without public articulation hence so many memory studies focus on various forms of public expression such as rituals, ceremonial commemorations, and mass media texts; in short, collective memory is an inherently mediated phenomenon. (Nieger et al. 2011, 3)

In this regard cinema has a special cultural importance, for several interrelated reasons. First, cinema has a social-constructive function: the way a certain community imagines and evaluates historical events, or fashions the past for its present identity, is much influenced by the films the members of that community watched about the past. In other words, films effectively shape the present’s images of and relation to the past. They actively contribute to the popular construction of history, or the way the past appears in cultural memory (Nieger et al. 2011; Murai 2008; Nguyen 2016; Assmann 2016). It is due to this social-constructive function that Viet Thanh Nguyen refers to the cinematic visualisation, narrativisation and interpretation of the past as a significant form of soft power, through which countries with strong media industries can effectively shape the meaning of historical events, and thus also influence current international affairs (Nguyen 2016). This power of the memory industry, of which the film industry is a key player, to shape the meaning of the past is not to be underestimated; as Nguyen succinctly puts it, “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory” (Nguyen 2016, 4). Second, cinema has an analytical-reflexive function too: precisely because of the above-mentioned constructive function, films can also



reveal those shared cultural patterns according to which cultural memory or popular history are constructed. In other words, the analysis of films may help one reveal those deep, and usually little understood patterns, master tropes and ideological assumptions according to which a certain group of people select, arrange and interpret past events into meaningful, coherent narratives. It is this function of the moving image that motivated Siegfried Kracauer’s seminal From Caligary to Hitler (1947), and it is also this function that made Aleida Assmann analyse the ZDF’s recent mini-­ series Ünsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (2013) as a crucial piece of Germany’s twenty-first-century memory-politics (Assmann 2016). Thirdly and finally, cinema, similarly to other art forms, may have a function in the healing process as well. Films can break the silence about events that official memory-politics decided to forget; films can offer alternative perspectives to official ones, thus voice the experience of oppressed people or the losers of historical conflicts; films can create communities of memory and memory cultures, connecting people around to world, thus helping the formation of communities where traumatic events can be processed and empathy expressed; through their narrative and emotional journeys films can contribute to emotional ventilation and psychological hygiene, including reliving and processing painful memories; films can be capable of showing the fallible human being behind a previously demonised villain-figure, but it can be equally capable of revealing the inhumanity in ordinary human beings put in extraordinary circumstances. Arguably, with these mechanisms cinema can effectively contribute to communities’ or individuals’ working through difficult pasts. It is this healing function of cinema that enables cinema therapy, an established form of supplemental therapy for mental health issues, but it is also this function that turned such media events as the European broadcasting of the American TV series Holocaust (1979) or the above-mentioned Ünsere Mütter, Unsere Väter into starting points of potentially therapeutic intergenerational conversations. The current debates concerning Europe’s (highly mediatised) memory culture are partly due to the contesting narratives produced by different approaches to the past by different social groups, political trends and ideological influences. For a start, it is worth differentiating between the most influential trends of evaluating and representing the past, the so-called heroising and victimising types of historical narrative (Assmann 2016, 192), which influence both cinematic storytelling and popular memory-­ culture. The first, more traditional approach aims at creating glorifying



accounts of the national past, boost patriotism, forge identification with idealised heroes, while the second one calls for identification with the victims by way of recounting their lost battles and vicissitudes (Assmann 2016, 192). The first, heroic narrative type tends to show history as unproblematic, uplifting, devoid of moral ambiguity, but full of positive roles for identification. It creates an us-versus-them logic, presents clear, solvable conflicts, distinct roles (as hero, villain or traitor), and it usually employs a conservative politics of ethnicity and gender (where the men of the in-group are the main heroes to be remembered). In such accounts human death is often pictured as a noble sacrifice for the sake of the (almost religiously depicted) nation or Cause. These accounts also tend to “externalize” responsibility and guilt, presenting out-groups as culpable for all evil (Assmann 2016, 148). Cultural products of this trend (from medieval chronicles to Hollywood blockbusters, from British heritage cinema to a whole series of recent historical films sponsored by Eastern European right-wing populist governments) are in danger of becoming thinly veiled ideological tools for nation-building, forging positive, uplifting, proud and strong identities. Needless to say, such accounts must “forget” or cover up a lot of historical detail, context and complexity so as to reach their ideological goals and produce psychologically comforting visions of the glorious past. In terms of narrative storytelling, such accounts are usually well-shaped, with clear narrative closure and unambiguous moral messages. Their main characters typically manage to retain their higher moral principles in spite of all the difficult circumstances. In order to outline possible alternatives to this well-known paradigm, I will elaborate on Werner Konitzer’s and Aleida Assmann’s typologies of historical narratives (Assmann 2016, 203), and distinguish between two different kinds of victim-narratives. Both call for identification with victims, but the first, more traditional type victimises the in-group as one that has been oppressed by various out-groups, while the second type tends to present an out-group as that of victims that we, the members of the in-­ group have wronged. The first, self-victimising kind is fairly well known, as oppressed groups, smaller nations, subjects of colonisation, or losers of historical conflicts have often resorted to these narrative patterns in order to depict their roles in history. For example, former Eastern Bloc countries have the tendency to define their twentieth-century roles as victims, used, abused, occupied and oppressed by such larger authoritarian regimes as Nazi Germany or the communist Soviet Union. Diasporic immigrant communities in Western Europe or people in third-world countries also



often resort to such self-victimising narratives, casting the white man (or more specifically their former colonisers, or the US) as the source of all their troubles. Though these victim-narratives usually differ from the above discussed heroising ones in terms of narrative patterns as well as character types, they also share many of their characteristics: for example, they “externalise” responsibility and guilt (put the blame of all the horrors of history on the powerful oppressors), therefore they create a “comfortable”, morally superior position for the in-group, and thus allow for uplifting endings via moral victories. Through their uplifting tropes of sacrifice and victimhood, these accounts can be successfully used to forge group-­ identity, social cohesion, positive identification and the feeling of moral superiority in the face of loss and defeat. The second type of victimising narrative, which Konitzer calls the victim-­focused one (Assmann 2016, 203), is more characteristic of Western European accounts of history since the 1990s, when the culture of ethical remembering and politics of regret became canonised as the only morally sound approach to history. This type of narrative is motivated by the feelings of (transgenerational, transferred) guilt and responsibility felt over the dark underside of European history. It takes account of all the gory behind the glory, that is, the dirty, unethical deeds and cruelties that heroising historical narratives tend to disregard. These accounts tend to focus on the victims, sympathise with them, tell their hereto untold stories and give voice to their often silenced versions of history. As opposed to the idealising tendencies of the heroising type, these accounts tend to call attention to the human costs, the ugly details, to that kind of loss without redemption that passive victims suffer, the kinds of loss and suffering that cannot be idealised as noble sacrifice for a Great Cause. Here history appears as lacking justice, truth or purpose, and it is the responsibility of the historical narrative to restore some sense of justice by becoming a testimony, a sombre account, and remember those victims that glorifying accounts usually exclude from history. In this light it is quite understandable why these kinds of stories lack or have a “weak” narrative resolution, and why they present passive characters downtrodden by greater powers. Though this seems to be the latest trend in historical storytelling and popular memory culture, as it became a prominent form in 1990s’ Western Europe, its roots go deeper than one would think, as Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the facies hippocratica of history in the context of the German tragic play indicates (Benjamin 1998, 166).



This last kind of narrative that focuses on victims and oppressed people is typically produced in characteristically privileged socio-cultural contexts. This can also be ideologically influenced, yet usually in less crude ways, motivated by a sense of justice, critical self-examination, empathy for the oppressed, dislike of the privileged groups of the past, attention to the hardly visible ethical moments that can make a difference. In a sense, this last trend is the product of the global success of (so-called) Western civilisation: these became prominent in Western Europe after the collapse of the Eastern European communist regimes, at the time when most of us believed that we have overcome all previous forms of war, oppression and misery, and reached the “end of history”. After all, during the cold war (as in any other difficult or conflict-ridden historical situation) strong social and ideological cohesion was necessary for survival. Undermining these community-building narratives by critical self-examination, and attention to the losers of history seems to be a luxury that very few cultures allowed themselves in the course of history. In our crisis-ridden times, this approach seems more and more like a first-world luxury, affordable only to people who feel safe enough to turn to self-scrutiny or approach history from the point of view of ethics. This may also explain why these victim-focused narratives suffered a crisis when it turned out that history is far from being over, and we are likely to go through plenty of difficulties that are hard to handle without sufficient social cohesion. It was only during the twenty-first-century age of crisis that one came to realise how little Europe managed to overcome or work through its troubled past. The films analysed in this chapter will demonstrate the irrational (and often religious) roots of our most dominant and widespread narratives, thus indicating the ideologically influenced shortcomings of all the above listed approaches and narrative types. It is precisely because of these shortcomings of our present approaches to history that twenty-first-­ century Europe’s relation to its past is still beset by “battles of memory”, that it may appear that “the twenty-first century was born under the shadow of past events”—as the editors of the recent edited volume, Conflict, Memory Transfers and the Reshaping of Europe put it (Silva et al. 2010, 1). In light of the dominant late twentieth-century (Western European) trend in memory politics, it may be difficult to comprehend the true reasons behind the widespread unease and the attempts at a paradigm-shift of the post-crisis era (Assmann 2016). One would think that the sentiments of guilt, shame and regret, as well as the ethical imperative of focusing on



the victims are logical consequences of Europe’s coming to terms with its own dubious history. After all, how else could one relate to such historical events as the slave trade, the Holocaust or the communist gulags? And if so, what is the source of all the contemporary unease and resentment? Without going deep into the analysis of the contemporary paradigm-­ shifts in our politics of memory (which I will elaborate more on in the context of the concrete film analyses), at this point let me only briefly mention a few thought-provoking insights and paradoxes that may indicate why Europe’s relation to its past may be more complicated and twisted than the above-mentioned, simple, sin-and-guilt, cause-and-effect logic would indicate. I put forward these observations also in order to indicate the complex system of expectations and considerations in which cinematic accounts of the past must navigate. The first, general insight concerns the empirical ambiguity of any historical account. Our view of the past necessarily involves an error of perspective: as popular memory of the past is always a present cultural construct, it reveals as much about our present as about the past. In other words, the present (political or cinematic) messages are never simple logical consequences of (empirically given, positive) past events: we find them logical (and truthful and transparent) only as long as we identity with the political-representational-ideological paradigm that produced them. One must accept the fact that no account of history, no matter how “logical” or “natural” it may seem, is completely free of struggles over power and ideological domination, and such media representations as cinema also function as political weapons shaping the way the past is remembered for the sake of short-term political gains. This, of course, does not mean that “anything goes” as far as historical narratives are concerned, that anything may pass as a legitimate representation. On the contrary: it entails the imperative to read all historical accounts critically, including the ones that affirm our beliefs, with eyes always open to ideological manipulation. The second observation concerns the assumedly natural cause-and-­ effect logic between European history and our current cultures of guilt. When regarded in their historical development, one realises that most of the messages we repeat in our contemporary cultures of guilt and regret were not produced at the aftermath of traumatic events at all. As Assmann aptly demonstrates (2016), the present culture of guilt, as well as our focus on victimhood, the contemporary passion to dive into the dirty details of the European past is almost exclusively characteristic of generations that have no first-hand experience of either war or the Holocaust



(not to mention slavery or colonialism), and whose relation to history is a highly mediatised one (often produced through cinema and television). In other words, paradoxically, our guilt about the past has been growing together with the distance between us and the events we feel guilty about. Next, one need to keep in sight of the issue of conformism. Due to the 1990s’ changes in Western European memory politics, the critical, self-­ examining, hyper-ethical approach to the European past (which was first promoted by the leftist, anti-establishment, progressives born towards the end of the war and were university students in the late 1960s) became widely accepted, canonised and institutionalised. According to Assmann, one of the ironic twists in the recent social history of remembering is the way this once subversive and emancipatory approach to history became part of the status quo: a part of school curriculums, compulsory classes, much hammered moral lessons, complacent political speeches and an unquestionable prerequisite of public decorum (Assmann 2016, 95). In this situation, one is tempted to agree with Assmann that “victory amounts to defeat” (2016, 95): the successful institutionalisation of Europe’s negative foundational myth runs the risk of turning subversion into dogmatism, and transforming genuine concern for the victims of history into a culture of pious conformism, hypocritical virtue-signalling and narcissistic poses of moral superiority. According to Bernard Schlink, the famous German law professor (and writer of The Reader), who also belongs to this generation of the ’68-ers, the repeated discussions of the Third Reich and the Holocaust and the general strategy of “remembering in order to never forget” has become self-defeating: resulting in “banality”, turning the Holocaust into “small change”, and making new generations “careless” or even “cynical” by forcing them to be “steeped in comparisons whose heavy tone of moral pathos does not always carry a corresponding moral weightiness” (Schlink 2009, 27). In The Tyranny of Guilt, The French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner (another rogue representative of this formative generation) describes this process of canonisation and institutionalisation in even more sardonic terms: An eternal movement: critical thought, at first subversive, turns against itself and becomes a new conformism, but one that is sanctified by the memory of its former rebellion. Yesterday’s audacity is transformed into clichés. Remorse has ceased to be connected with precise historical circumstances; it has become a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency. (Bruckner 2010, 2–3)



Thus, when one analyses and evaluates cinematic representations of the past, one should also keep an avid eye on the issue of conformism. After all, as Bruckner puts it ironically, “nowadays all it takes to attack Europe is a bit of conformism” (Bruckner 2010, 9). One needs to ask whether the film in question presents genuine interest in different characters with different roles, or is it simply repeating the old clichés? Does the film wish to take its ethical principles seriously, or does it only wish to please the institutions (and the guards) of post-1990s orthodoxy? Finally, when evaluating narratives about history, one must take into account the needs and limits of human psychology. For better or worse, our historical accounts must pass a test of group psychology: they do not only have to be good enough to live with, but they should preferably also encourage healing and a healthier sense of identity (which necessarily includes coming to terms with past misdeeds and mistakes). From a psychological perspective it is obvious that neither the denial of responsibility about past (mis)deeds, nor eternal guilt about them can be regarded as healthy states: they have their specific time in the process of dealing with traumatic material, but on one’s way to a healthy and balanced psychological state both should be experienced and left behind. This issue is of particular importance in the EU, whose “negative foundational myth” can easily turn into a guilt-trap. The contemporary critics of our culture of guilt have repeatedly denounced the ways history has been appropriated for an ideological project, how it has been reduced to a tool for social engineering, a political weapon, a vanguard against fascism, ethnocentrism and colonial pride, thus producing a one-sided, demeaning view of European history. They have been arguing that our late twentieth-century lessons of history have become counter-productive, that our focus on fascism as public enemy number one has made us overlook (and more forgiving towards) such other threats to European values as (Stalinist style) communism, (exploitative) corporate capitalism or (Islamist) religious fundamentalism (Bruckner 25–26).

Amen Our cultures of guilt are also cultures of remorseful remembering, dramatic public confessions, ritualised (and often mediatised) self-­flagellations, as well as regular public apologies. Pope John Paul II, for example, formally apologised in the name of the Catholic Church for over 100 wrongdoings that the Church or its members committed during its history. The



long list, which includes apology for the crusades, Galileo’s trial, the burning of heretics, the violation of the rights of all sorts of minorities, religious wars, as well as the silence of the Church during the Holocaust, is now expanded almost on a yearly basis, as later popes apologise for newly revealed atrocities, such as the large-scale sexual harassment of underage boys on various continents. The cultural embeddedness of this Catholic practice is well indicated by the fact that it started out in the 1990s, at the same time when Western Europe’s above-discussed new, victim-focused cultures of remembering became widely accepted. The French-German-Romanian coproduction Amen (Costa-Gavras 2002) revisits one of the most painful and shameful elements of this long list, the Catholic Church’s inactivity and silence during the Second World War. The film is also a good starting point for the discussion of unprocessed pasts in twenty-first-century European cinema as it exemplifies the post-1980s Western European trends in memory culture in various ways. It was made at the beginning of the period this book explores, and it exemplifies the paradigm, the background against which later films may (or may not) attempt to create new approaches. Amen takes place during the Second World War and focuses on the efforts of two white Christian men, Kurt Gerstein, a (real-life) Waffen-SS officer, and Ricardo Fontana, a (fictional) Jesuit priest to call the Vatican’s attention to the large-scale deportation and murdering of the Jews, and make Pope Pious XII raise his voice against it. The film primarily aims at the critical exploration of the role of the Vatican during the war, most explicitly Pious XII’s infamous silence about the mass extermination of European Jews, however, its goal is much more complex than that of an anti-clerical manifesto or the cinematic demonstration of the corruption of the Church. Though the film’s moral message is clear, it never relies on the well-known (and highly controversial) commonplaces of films about the war or the Holocaust: there is no caricature-like evil Nazi, no cheap sentimentality about the victims, and no simple, self-evident forms of heroism for the protagonists. Amen presents a wide range of possible behaviour patterns and roles that people resort to in such extreme situations. Thus, Amen can be read as a critical examination of people and institutions in extreme historical situations, people thrust well outside their moral comfort zones, as well a study of the ways institutions in general tend to hinder the implementation of the very values on which they are founded. Furthermore, by exploring the relationship between moral responsibility, guilt, Christianity and the Holocaust within one context



and from the point of view of the above outlined culture of guilt, the film also poses more general questions about the historically rooted connections between monotheistic religions, irrational belief systems, tribalism, morally biased cognitive patterns, the possible shortcomings of normative social behaviour, the historical ordinariness of genocide, as well as the definition of sin and guilt in our cultures. As readers familiar with the oeuvre of Costa-Gavras are no doubt aware, the director is famous for his “distinctive passion for exposing state complicity and corruption” (Bradshaw 2002, 2) as well as for “asking tactless and provocative questions” (Bradshaw 2002, 3) about such controversial issues of our cultural history as French collaboration under the Vichy regime (Special Section, 1975), US involvement with shady Latin-American regimes (State of Siege, 1973; Missing, 1982), the treatment of illegal immigrants in Europe (Eden Is West, 2009) or the dirty dealings of power in contemporary global capitalism (Capital, 2012). Costa-Gavras’s disdain for institutional corruption and hypocrisy, and his sensitivity towards the oppressed and silenced clearly manifests in Amen as well. The film matches the above-discussed notion of victim-focused or victim-oriented historical narratives. Though the protagonists are not among the primary victims of genocide, their perspective is clearly determined by the suffering that they happen to witness, and by the call to ethical behaviour that this experience initiates. The conflict at the very heart of the film is the one between institutions and individuals: the apparatus of the Third Reich and the Catholic Church against the two protagonists, Gerstein and Fontana. The key drama that ensues concerns the disenfranchisement of the individual when addressed by an ethical call that causes a cognitive meltdown and turns him or her against the surrounding society. The film recounts the way Gerstein and Fontana are forcefully awoken from the deceptive slumber of normativity and start to feel obliged to act against the routines of their social and institutional surroundings. Thus, the film also asks a question that is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was during the Second World War: what happens when the individual sees something that no one else wants to see? For example, that our temporary political allies are not any better than our enemies? Or that our peaceful daily routine involves plenty of institutionalised cruelty and a thousand invisible atrocities? How can one emotionally “process” all the violence, cruelty and pain that one’s home country, tribe or religion caused or is still causing? How does the subject deal with



the conflicting choice between accepting normative immorality and becoming a whistle-blower? In Amen the moment of “awakening”, when the above-mentioned fateful gap first appears between one’s previous beliefs and the terrible realities, is one of the most dramatic and memorable scenes. Gerstein, who works as a hygiene expert of the German army (constructing water-­ cleaning machines, doing disinfection, organising the extermination of rats and cockroaches in army barracks) is taken to a place unknown to him, a place that the spectator quickly recognises as an extermination camp. It is important that Gerstein does not know anything about his new assignment, or about the existence of extermination camps in general. Whenever he asks the fellow officers about why they need all the toxins, he gets enigmatic, evasive answers. The scene of his arrival is built mostly from close-­ ups of the faces and subjective shots taken from the inside of the black car, as it drives between forests and barracks in the cold winter day. The car is constantly moving, its windows are small and dirty, which further strengthen the feeling of impaired vision, uncertainty and the lack of control over one’s life (see Fig. 3.1). This is significant because this way the film manages to establish a crucial connection between the drama of ethical behaviour with the drama of knowledge (that the early twenty-first-­ century spectator, exposed to click-bait journalism and fake news, is all too

Fig. 3.1  Film still from Amen (Costa-Gavras 2002)



familiar with). In contrast to our “comfortable” post-war thinking about past atrocities, where we have most of the facts of the past right, have time to think them over, and have a widely supported master-narrative to set our cognitive maps “right”, Amen indicates that our most important ethical decisions tend to take place in situations where we do not have any of these “comforting” circumstances, when knowledge is scarce and unreliable, our perspective is limited, and we may have to act against the master-­ narratives of our surrounding social milieu, thus breaking with the expectations of normative society. In the awakening scene of Amen, this horizon of social expectations and the pressure to conform to it are repeatedly emphasised by shots of the other officers looking at Gerstein’s reactions to what he sees. After a while the car stops in front of the closed steel gates of an industrial building. One of the officers, the “Doctor” orders two soldiers onto the top of the building, from where they pour cans of Cyclone B into the ventilation openings. The officers step to the gate, open the peepholes and look inside. As they approach the peepholes, strange thumping noises increase from behind the doors, which start shaking as if crowds of people were banging on them from within. Gerstein is invited (or rather, politely ordered) to look. In a close-up we see his face slowly approaching the peephole (see Fig. 3.2). Then, suddenly, he startles, as if he were stabbed

Fig. 3.2  Film still from Amen (Costa-Gavras 2002)



at the eye. He looks at the other officers, shocked as if what he saw was simply not possible. The noises from inside slowly die down. We never get a look at what they saw: the key spectacle of the film, the traumatic sight that organises the rest of the action and determines the fate of the two protagonists, is left blank. Yet, this is the void, the black hole that creates the force field that sets the narrative in motion, jettisons the protagonists from the sphere of peaceful normativity, alienates them from the institutions that they used to believe in, and sets them on a course of desperate action that seems to tend naturally towards death. The ellipsis at the crucial moment suggests that what Gerstein saw lies beyond comprehension, meaning and representability. This sense of meaning-shattering traumatic experience is further strengthened by the soundtrack: during the scene we do not hear screams, shouting, crying or anything other directly human or meaningful. Instead we hear industrial, shrieking metallic noises, thumping, and the clattering and ponding of trains. This key scene seems to confirm Europe’s late twentieth-century consensus of treating the Holocaust as the negative foundation of European identity, as a unique and (almost) holy event beyond any possibility of comparison. Post-war (Western) European identity is clearly rooted in the events that Gerstein witnesses, and the memory-places of the former concentration camps function very much like religious places of pilgrimage that we must visit time and time again (either physically or in media representations) so as to reconnect with our culture’s foundational narrative, purify our souls and make solemn vows not to let such things happen ever again. This quasi-religious, pilgrimage-like quality of re-visiting the concentration camp as a holy place, as a site where meaning is anchored to something barely comprehensible, is also indicated by the way German political leaders are expected to visit former camps and address their electorate from there. Another telling example of our current cultures of remembering through the holy-traumatic-foundational site is that since the 2015 refugee crisis (and its controversial social impact) trips to concentration camps are specifically organised for Muslim immigrants in an attempt to defuse their home-grown anti-Semitism and connect them to European values. These practices suggest that being shocked by Nazi crimes functions as our rite of initiation, which establishes our culture’s master-narrative, creates empathy for the victims, and creates a subject-­ position of (transferred) guilt. All post-Second-World-War generations are supposed to identify with Gerstein, with the role of a traumatised witness who pledges to stop all such atrocities. Amen puts the spectator into the



shoes Gerstein, who can also be regarded as the par excellence post-war subject: someone with a bad conscience, with unintended complicity and compromised moral standing, whose existence cannot be imagined without some sense of terrible guilt. At this point it is worth recalling all the ways in which this culture of guilt-ridden remembering is rooted in our religious traditions, most importantly Christianity. When Amen puts two deeply religious people, the German Protestant Gerstein and the Italian Jesuit Fontana into the above outlined role of the compassionate witness who feels obliged to stop atrocities, it also calls attention to the connection between our contemporary relation to the Holocaust and a Christian religious sense of witnessing (e.g., Christ’s martyrdom), as well as to ritualised remembering as a religious practice that organises spiritual life. The film highlights the fact that our cultures of remembering the war and the Holocaust take place in a (post-)Christian cultural context, where the human subject has already been defined as guilty or sinful (see the Christian concept of original sin), where the key symbol of religiosity is a device of torture and murder (thus, the gas chamber can easily occupy the position of the cross), and where remembering the bloody event and visiting the place where it happened are key elements of spiritual life. The similarities are obvious: there is an event in the past when something terrible happened that included the murder of the innocent (Christ or Jewish families); the values thus destroyed are interiorised and preserved by later generations; one’s relationship to that event is that of remembering and guilt; identifying with the murdered one(s) becomes the foundation of subjectivity; evoking and re-living those events becomes a religious practice and the means of purification from sin; and finally, there is a class of professionals (the clergy and the European intelligentsia), whose duties include the maintenance of the cult of remembering, organising community rituals and making sure that the original meaning of the holy event is not corrupted by later generations or heretics. In Amen, Ricardo’s character is especially important for this Christian context. He walks us through a number of possible, historically established social roles that one can assume in such situations. First he becomes a secondary, transferred witness: while his bishop choses to conveniently reject Gerstein’s highly emotional confession of his Auschwitz experience as SS provocation, Ricardo wakes up from the slumber of normative complacency. The experience makes him a secondary witness and an activist, who does all he can so as to wake up the church, and make the Pope speak



out against the death camps. Finally, at the end of his inner journey, when he witnesses the failure of his activism, when he realises that no one wants to hear what he says or see what he and Gerstein see, he becomes a martyr. He puts the Star of David on his monk’s clothes, and joins the Jews at the Rome train station. Crucially, his action, which is seen by the Church authorities as an act of tactless defiance, is the manifestation of the par excellence Christian ideal of identification with the murdered innocent. Thus, his journey shows the proximity and filiation between these different secular and religious roles, between being the conscience of a community (e.g., as European art film traditionally tries to be), and turning evil against oneself in a religious ritual of self-sacrifice, thereby also taking the sins of others upon oneself. His character, similarly to Gerstein’s, also establishes a link between the religious devotee and the post-war intellectual, and thus places Amen, together with Holocaust cinema in general in the context of religious rituals. As the above passages may have made clear, acts of remembering Europe’s negative foundational narrative can be regarded as followers of a 2000-year-old cultural paradigm. This historical continuity makes these acts of remembering even more complex and paradoxical, not the least due to the fact that a considerable percentage of historical atrocities were initiated or supported by the faith-based world-views of monotheistic religions that our post-Holocaust secular religion of tolerance unknowingly imitates. In this context Amen is very supportive of people who believe in such positive values of European humanism or Christianity as love, compassion, helping the weak and the poor. On the other hand, it is very critical of all the institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church) that use, abuse and corrupt such values. For example, the film repeatedly juxtaposes the richness of the Vatican with the abominable conditions at concentration camps, in a manner similar to how it contrasts Fontana’s and Gerstein’s behaviour with the loyal, conformist servants of the Reich and the Church around them. Importantly, what the film criticises is not faith itself or faith-based world-views, but rather the corrupted institutions that act in their name. In a similar manner, while Amen, perhaps in spite of its own intentions, highlights the connection between Christian religious faith and post-war Holocaust-memory-culture, it does not distance itself from the latter. Though the film detaches itself from the more controversial practices of the “Holocaust-industry” (such as black and white characters, consumer-friendly sentimentality and moralising), it seems to wholeheartedly identify with its approach to history. As I have indicated, the film



propagates the Holocaust as the foundational myth of European identity, and associates the role of the twenty-first-century intellectual/artist/filmmaker as one similar to that of Gerstein and Fontana. In this context it is worth remembering that after the fall of the Third Reich Gerstein does not try to escape, but surrenders to the French and gives a written testimony of everything he saw before he hangs himself in his Cyclone-B-­ colour cell. With these details Amen exemplifies another key notion of European memory-politics: it indicates the way acts of remembering may become historical deeds themselves. When the film’s protagonists decide to become witnesses, give testimonies, share information, they also become parts of history. In this sense, Gerstein’s act can be read as an allegory of the film’s intentions: to reveal something hidden, to testify about something that humankind must know and therefore open a new chapter in human history. In hindsight, perhaps it was precisely the recognition of this aspect (that a testimony is not only about history, it is also part of history) that led to Gerstein’s official rehabilitation 20 years later.

Days of Glory Days of Glory (Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb 2006) explores a most thought-provoking yet thoroughly underrepresented instance of European history: the participation of Algerian and Moroccan men in the Second World War for the liberation of France from German occupation. From 1943 on “hundreds of thousands of ‘indigenous soldiers’ fought against the Axis under the French flag, but their experiences have had at best a marginal place in popular histories of the war” (Scott 2006, 3). The film recounts the story of a handful of colonial soldiers, from the time of their recruitment in North Africa, through a series of battles in Italy and France. As the narrative takes us closer and closer to the French heartlands, the men become more and more painfully conscious of the racial double standards of the French army, and gradually lose their initial patriotic enthusiasm, as well as their illusions about their war effort bringing them equality in the eyes of the French. Thus, Days of Glory tells two parallel stories: one about physical or geographical movement towards the heart of Europe, and an ideological one about the disillusioning effects of French racism and the lies that the colonial relationship is based on. The “film sets out to show how these members of L’Armee de l’Afrique were used, exploited, humiliated and then cast aside” (French 2007, 1), and is undoubtedly a



“powerful exploration of injustice and resilience that arrived six decades too late, and just in time” (Scott 2006, 12). The timeliness of the film needs no detailed explanation for readers familiar with the contentious heritage of French colonisation, or the news about how twenty-first-century French governments struggle to handle it, often navigating between colonial nostalgia, the enjoyment of the present spoils of neo-colonialism, and the growing pressure from international organisations and the media to come to terms with the ugly parts of that history and give up explicitly exploitative practices. Shifting French policies from an attitude of dominance to that of multilateral partnership was also one of Emanuel Macron’s promises during the 2017 presidential elections, yet that shift has hardly taken place to this date. Macron’s decision in 2019 to use French warplanes in Chad against anti-government rebel groups was also criticised as yet another act of neo-colonialist interventionalism. As several newspaper articles pointed out, while the planes were officially stationed in Chad for the war against Islamist terror, they were used to keep Idriss Deby in power in much the same way as former French governments used to prop up shady African leaders. Days of Glory revisits one of the decisive events of this seemingly never-­ ending story of French colonialism. It was mostly due to the effects of the Second World War that France’s colonial grip on Africa started to loosen. For a weakened France in an ever more integrated international post-war community and a world of growing public scrutiny, maintaining the old colonial relations of dominance over its large territories was simply not a political reality any more. However, while the decolonisation of sub-­ Saharan Africa (so-called Françafrique) was relatively peaceful, that of Algiers and Indochina involved brutal wars, torture, bombings, lynching, a widespread political crisis in France, and the fall of the Fourth French Republic in 1958. These events still haunt the French public imagination, as Michael Haneke’s seminal film Hidden (Caché, 2005) also testifies. In the context of the present chapter’s focus on unprocessed pasts, it is crucial to see that this is in no way a (dirty) past that could be comfortably separated from (a presumably clean) present. Even in case of France’s sub-­ Saharan colonies, which France granted independence by 1960, France’s policies can be better described as neo-colonial, rather than post-colonial. These policies involved creating the franc zone and teaming up with big business for the sake of economic domination, propping up and maintaining close ties with shady African leaders (where loyalty to France often served as an excuse to corruption or despotism), military presence and



regular interventions, and allegedly a whole series of clandestine operations of the French secret service (including political assassinations) for the sake of maintaining French political and economic influence. Mark Langan describes the current situation as follows: During the Presidency of Jacques Chirac in the 1990s … there was increasing focus on how France might insulate itself from international criticism for its perceived unilateralism in African affairs. The fallout from the Rwandan genocide, perpetrated in 1994, shook Gaullist foreign policy assumptions. France stood accused in global fora, including the UN, of having first supported—and then abetted—Hutu extremists who later fled the country with the apparent assistance of France’s Operation Turquoise. In response to this—as well as economic pressures upon the French state itself—France’s policy approach towards Africa was more fully internationalised, or perhaps more properly, Europeanised… Importantly, however, there is mounting concern that France—while embracing the opportunities for collective endeavours in Africa under the EU umbrella—has not truly dissipated its neo-colonial instincts when approaching questions of security (and regime preferences) in its former colonies. Rather France now stands accused of utilising the EU as a means of ‘camouflaging’ or veiling its underlying economic and security national interests in Africa via recourse to the normative discourse of Europeanisation. France is seen to have worked within the EU to cultivate a normative discourse on ‘fragility’ and state security in Africa, emphasising European values associated with democracy, individualism and human rights. By relying on the credibility of ‘normative power Europe’, France has been able to continue its geopolitical pursuit of core economic and security interests while developing greater international acceptance of its actions. (Langan 2018, 154–155)

This continuous, contentious and unprocessed historical heritage is clearly referenced by Days of Glory: the last scene takes place in present-day France, where the only survivor, Abdelkader visits the graves of his former brothers in arms. The very last image of the film shows the military cemetery with the Muslim gravestones and the French flag flying over them (see Fig. 3.3). The closing captions inform the spectator that in 1959 the French government stopped paying the pensions of its colonial liberators, as soon as their countries decided on a politics of liberation from their French colonisers. The pensions of these soldiers remain unsettled despite a 2002 law and the promises of several French Presidents.



Fig. 3.3  Film still from Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb 2006)

Perhaps the easiest way into the complexities of the key issues of the film is to explain why it is included in this book about white men in twenty-­ first-­century European arthouse cinema. First of all, one could question whether Days of Glory is an “art film” at all. Without doubt, it can be watched as a genre film: the above-mentioned physical or geographical aspect of the action (leading from the margins of Europe towards an important mission in the heartlands) is a well-known structuring principle of the war film; similarly, the ideological framework created by the liberation narrative, together with the heroic characters who sacrifice themselves for the Noble Cause are easily recognisable generic elements for most spectators. In a similar manner, the cinematic style of the fighting sequences, the film’s editing and rhythm (balancing between fast, spectacular action sequences, and slow episodes focusing on building characters, motivation and ideological subtext), or the focus on male in-group dynamics, all seem to follow the well-established generic patterns of war movies. Yet, it does not take too long to realise that the issues explored within this generic structure go much deeper than conventional genre cinema, and (probably more importantly) the ideological message explicitly contradicts that of the idealising, patriotic genre film universe. One could even argue that the issues that lie closest to the heart of the film unfold precisely at the points where Days of Glory differs from the generic formulae. This difference first registers in the spectator as a feeling of frustration, sadness and ideological disenchantment. Of course, almost all war films



have sad or tragic moments. However, what distinguishes them from Days of Glory is the idea that the loss of human life is not in vain: in the numerous and well-known examples of war films death tends to be meaningful, presented as a sacrifice for the Noble Cause, for something whose relevance goes beyond individual life. In other words, in the standard war film life may be lost, but it is preserved in the idealised Noble Cause (which is, by definition, more important than any human life). It is this timeless Cause that preserves and ennobles human life in and through death, it is by reference to this Cause that films can lift up ordinary human life, in a gesture essential to the notion of heroic masculinity, into the realm of myth or fantasy. Similarly to the Christian concept of transubstantiation, or the Hegelian notion of Aufhebung, individual, ordinary human life is preserved and elevated through (and in spite of) its destruction. The key twist of Days of Glory is the gradual withdrawal of this kind of belief in the Noble Cause: step by step, the African soldiers’ fantasies about France are eaten away by bitter experiences, as they understand that France will never be their homeland. They come to see that their deaths will not bring about any such elevation, that they are simply used, abused and thrown away. Their deaths will not be remembered in glorious and grateful French chronicles, their effort will not bring them equality, liberty or true brotherhood, and they will never be at home in this land. This is history without idealising master-narratives: by the time the film’s narrative reaches its end, we are left with forgotten soldiers, untold stories and meaningless deaths. Another, similarly telling point concerns the question whether Days of Glory can be regarded as a European film at all. The opening credits, as well as the film’s official IMDB page inform us that it is a coproduction of four countries, Algeria, France, Morocco and Belgium. To make things even more complicated, in 2006 the film was Algeria’s official nomination for best foreign film at the Academy Awards, yet the director Rachid Bouchareb is accounted for as a “French director of Algerian descent” (Scott 2006, 1), that is, as an European artist. Though most of the action is set in Europe, the film comments on Europe’s relation to its colonial past from the Other’s point of view. What transpires from all this is not so much that Days of Glory could be appropriated for European arthouse cinema, but rather the fact that in the present, post-colonial situation the concept of European cinema is much more problematic, fuzzy, open and potentially untenable than we usually assume. My point here is that the film demonstrates a situation of complex, layered and intertwined



identities most characteristic of twenty-first century conceptualisations of the “old continent”: that the history of Europe (or at least Western Europe) is inseparable from its colonial history and the ex-colonial Others. Our histories have been mutually intertwined, we share many stories (that we seldom tell the same way), and the “indigenous Europeans” often feel obliged to integrate these “other” perspectives into “our” own view of history in a manner similar to the perspective of the silenced victims of the Holocaust. Interestingly, this inseparability of European self and colonial other in twenty-first-century European identity, and the resulting collapse of clear-cut individual identities, was also reflected by the decision of the jury at Cannes, where the best actor award was given to a whole group of actors of the film, for a collective cinematic effort of people with various ethnic and national backgrounds. Finally, one could question whether this film is about white men at all. Days of Glory problematises the issue of whiteness, and specifically calls attention to some of the paradoxes of post-colonial whiteness. Its protagonists are all colonial subjects, their skin hue varies (from completely white to completely black), they may or may not have ethnic French ancestors, but they all (seem to) consider France as their home nation (i.e., until they are convinced otherwise by French ethno-nationalism). Days of Glory presents identity as a complex, multi-layer issue, which is context-dependent and is constantly renegotiated. The film’s battles are also battles of identity and belonging, dramatic renegotiations of who we are, what we value most and where we belong. Thus, the film calls attention to the heterogeneity and necessarily problematic nature of such categories of human identity as “white” in the twenty-first-century post-colonial situation. This dynamic relationship between Europe and non-Europe, white and non-white is complemented by a similar dynamics between past and present. Through its Second World War narrative, the film also effectively comments on what Western Europe looks like in the twenty-first century. Its narrative of the way colonial soldiers liberate the coloniser mainland (which they call their home), depicts Europe as a place where the colonial past is an integral part of the European past, where “whiteness” already includes (or relies on) the non-white. Through the example of the colonial soldiers, the film reminds us of all the ways Europe would not be Europe without the non-European, for example without its (ex-)colonial Others. It reminds us that many of the iconic buildings that function as anchoring points of nationalism and patriotism in Western and Southern Europe were financed by the economic gains from colonial enterprises (thus,



indirectly, by the labour of colonial subjects); likewise, that the scientific and technological development that turned Western Europe from a “miserable backwater” (Ferguson 2012, 4) in the Middle Ages into a modern global superpower was partly financed by “the material advantages of commerce and colonization” (Ferguson 2012, 46). Importantly from the point of view of whiteness, this (often unacknowledged) interconnectedness is preserved in our social relations and even our bodies as well. There are fewer and fewer people in Europe whose circles of friends or larger family would not include non-whites, whose racial or ethnic background usually matters little in their inclusion in the family or group of friends. This mutual indebtedness is most intimate when it comes to bodily heritage: similarly to the example of Sargent Martinez in Days of Glory (who is first identified as white French by the soldiers, and his more complex ethnic background is revealed only later), a considerable (and increasing) percent of the population of Western Europe can be called “mixed race”, that is, people in whom the genes (and biological heritage) of European self and non-white Other mix indivisibly. Their shared efforts and companionship (as in case of the liberation of France or in the production of this particular film) indicate the ways Western Europe could step out from “the long shadow of its past guilt” (Schlink 2009, 2) and function successfully in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, the opposite route, that of racial and/or economic segregation (presented in Days of Glory as an integral part of French institutions), indicates a direction that probably only leads to ever more social inequality, disillusionment and dysfunctional societies. If one takes a look at the social dynamics of the “sensitive urban zones” of French cities, with their segregated, parallel societies, with high rates of unemployment, school-drop-out and crime, this second route seems more of a reality than a remote danger. Days of Glory explores the dynamics of social interactions that could lead groups of people this way or that way, therefore, it is as relevant for our policies in twenty-first century Europe as for our understanding of history. This situation turns the concept of “colonial debt” into a symbolic and paradoxical notion. Originally, “colonial debt” was the money France’s colonies were required to pay, had they opted to become independent: the sums of money that were meant to compensate for all the “benefits of colonialism” that they received from France. It was partly through this tax that France managed to maintain its neo-colonial influence over its former African colonies. However, by the time one finishes watching Days of



Glory, one is likely to understand this concept as the financial and moral debt France (or Europe in general) owes to its former colonies. This sort of paradoxical resignification, which I have also tried to indicate above with regards to the film’s view of whiteness or Europeanness, can be recognised as one of the key strategies of the film. This may refer to the meaning of the English title as well. The film’s original, French title is Indigènes, meaning “natives” in English. The English title, meant for international distribution, Days of Glory, could be somewhat misleading, as it suggests that this is a typical war film about glorious historical events. One has to dig a bit deeper, or be more familiar with the cultural context to comprehend the ironic twists of the title. For most French citizens and former colonial subjects Days of Glory is a clear reference to the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, which starts by calling into arms the children of the Fatherland, as the day of glory has arrived: Allons enfants de la Patrie/Le jour de gloire est arrivé. Significantly, the Marseillaise is also sung enthusiastically once in the beginning of film, by white and non-­ white soldiers together, on the ship from Africa to Europe, after an incident where the “natives” finally do manage to get equal treatment. Thus, later, when the film shows how the colonial soldiers lose their illusions about the glory of la Patrie, the resignification of the concept “jour de glorie” acts as an ideological virus. Step by step, this disillusionment, what Kaja Silverman calls the “withdrawal of ideological belief” in the post-war American context (Silverman 1992, 55), spreads to the very ideals of the French Revolution and to the ideological fundaments of the French Republic itself. As in case of any film that features any kind of culturally marked forms of otherness, one crucial question to ask is how its representations relate to popular, yet little reflected concepts, images or fantasies of otherness. Similarly to Amen, here we also find a whole range of different roles. Some of the soldiers signed up driven mostly by patriotic enthusiasm, some because of a hope for a military career, some in order to escape from poverty or confining families. Thus, at this point the film does not idealise the colonial soldiers, but tries to show a fairly realistic, socially and psychologically varied palette of motivations. In a similar vein, during the rest of the film we see all sorts of behaviours, more and less heroic men, victims, witnesses and a whole range of mixtures. There is only one conventional role that is conspicuously missing: none of the soldiers becomes a traitor or a conscious deserter. Though most of them get thoroughly disillusioned



and resentful, and many of them commit small acts of insubordination (always in the face of blatant racism), none of them betray the cause even if they have lost faith in its nobility. Probably this is the only place in the film where one may sense a sort of unrealistic idealisation: despite their unequal treatment, all the protagonists decide to do their duty, complete the mission assigned for them by their white French superiors, and even die for France. In line with this, they also refrain from all morally questionable acts that regularly occur in wars: they never loot, never get drunk, never make devaluing comments about other countries, religions or ethnic groups, and they are all exceedingly polite and kind with French women. In this tendency to idealise otherness one may recognise one of the typical trends of European cinema, a deeply rooted, yet somewhat controversial strategy, which I will also discuss in the chapter on films about migration. In the context of Days of Glory, these details shaped by idealisation may reveal the way the film is aimed for the European (or international) audience: arguably, it is for this European spectator that the demonstration of the moral superiority of the colonial soldiers is a point worth making. The idea that these soldiers decided to die for France could be irritating (or even revolting) for, let us say, an Algerian familiar with what the French did after the war. Thus, the soldiers’ decision not to abandon the final mission is meant to bring home a message most importantly to the white European spectator, and is to be understood in the context of European history and the situation of ex-colonial subjects in twenty-first-­ century France. Their stories embody what Afua Hirsch calls “the dilemma of the ‘Good Immigrant’” (Hirsch 2018, 283), an internalisation of the host society’s expectations about what a well-behaving, grateful immigrant Other should be like, even if this entails the internalisation of the idea of one’s cultural inferiority (Hirsch 2018, 282–284). Thus, in Days of Glory the relationship between self and other, just like that of past and present, could be described as one of co-dependence, inseparability and mutual embeddedness, all of which come with plenty of mixed emotions. Abdelkader, the only survivor of the group, who in different scenes of the film arguably embodies all the historical roles of hero, witness and victim, is a good example of this, and is especially important for the film’s commentary on Europe’s unprocessed pasts and the institutionalised production of an alienating sort of official history (which both the characters and the film in general disown). In one of the last scenes of the film, after the last battle, we see an official



army correspondent filming, presumably creating the footage that will soon travel to cinemas, to be watched by ordinary citizens and later archived as part of official history. In this scene, as Abdelkader also witnesses, the correspondent-cameraman asks some of the locals with some of the (later arrived) white French soldiers to stand together so that he can film them. We see the scene from behind the cameraman, and as Abdelkader walks by, in one of the most symbolic shots of the film, he walks between the two cameras (see Fig. 3.4). Abdelkader is thus placed between the army correspondent’s diegetic camera (just producing a fake, “official” history), and the extra diegetic movie camera, which offers us, spectators a more reflected, more layered version of history that includes one’s critical and conscious acknowledgement of the former, official view of history as well. Through this, in a manner similar to the way Amen places Gerstein’s perspective in the middle of the Nazi vision of history, Days of Glory inserts a witness outside the “dominant fiction” (Silverman 1992, 41), a critical perspective that disrupts the (more or less) smooth surface of official history. Abdelkader’s presence literary disrupts the scene, as he walks by in front of the camera: his blurred image becomes the symbolic stain on the historical tableau produced by highly ideological, nationalist narratives. His character, producing ideological disruption and counter-history, therefore aptly symbolises the perspective and aim of Days of Glory as a whole.

Fig. 3.4  Film still from Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb 2006)



Cold War The Polish-British-French coproduction Cold War (2018), for which Pawel Pawlikowski won the best director award in Cannes, approaches Europe’s troubled past in ways markedly different from the above discussed examples. This “meditation on love, memory and invented history” (Hornaday 2019, 1) explores “the warping effects of totalitarianism” (Hornaday 2019, 7) in ways that clearly break with the dominant paradigm of Western European memory culture. Thus, through the analysis of Cold War, one may not only explore a time period undiscussed so far in this chapter, but also gain insights into a different, recognisably Eastern-­ European culture of relating to history. In the context of the twenty-first-­ century socio-political crisis, which re-polarised the recently reunited Europe and often produced sharp conflicts between East and West, understanding this other kind of cultural logic is of crucial importance. The film is set after the Second World War, and recounts the love story of two Polish artists, the musician Wiktor and the singer Zula. They meet in rural Poland where Wiktor is recording authentic folk music and recruiting dancers and singers for a new cultural institute of communist Poland. Zula is one of the volunteers, who grabs Wiktor’s attention not only with her voice, but also with her character, when, for example, at the audition she decides to sing something from a recently seen Russian film, instead of a Polish highland folk song expected from her. Zula gets admitted to the group and the two become lovers. Through the international success of the Mazurek group, Wiktor and Zula (and the film) travel to Berlin (where Wiktor escapes to the West, but Zula decides to stay), to Paris (where later Zula, now a wife of an Italian, can legally visit Wiktor), and to Yugoslavia (where Wiktor travels to see her, only to be put back on a train to Paris by the local secret police). Finally, after several twists and turns, and about 15 years, through most of which the lovers are either physically separated or emotionally strained, the film ends exactly where it started, back in Poland, where Wiktor (exhausted by the events, which included two years in a communist work camp) and Zula (exhausted by all the demoralising pretence that comes with being a show-biz star in a communist regime) decide to go back to the place where once they met, so as to end their stories in a self-administered marriage in a ruined church, followed by ritual suicide. When one compares Cold War with Amen, Days of Glory or other paradigmatic examples of Western European cinematic memory politics, one



immediately notices a whole set of meaningful differences. The first of these is what one could call indirect targeting. Cold War, at least on the surface, is not about history or politics: it tells a story about impossible love, where the historical situation, the political separation of Eastern and Western Europe, seemingly only serve as the hindrance that such narratives need to place between the lovers so as to create drama and tension. Similarly to such influential examples of this story type as Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story, Cold War places an objective, external factor that effectively hinders the fulfilment of romantic passion. Thus, the historical situation, the Cold War, and the roles that it forces our characters into, serve rather as a set of structurally necessary difficulties or a dramatic backdrop to the twists and turns of the romantic plot. According to this reading, the title of the film is also metaphorical, war is to be understood according to the age-old trope as the war of love, or war of the sexes. In this sense, the Cold War refers to the impossible “neither with you, nor without you” situation in which the star-crossed lovers find themselves. At closer inspection, however, one may question whether the Cold War functions only as a mere dramatic backdrop to the romance plot. As several reviewers noted, the film’s two “twin themes” (Kermode 2018, 8) are equally important, Cold War is about both “passion and politics” (Kermode 2018, 1), it is an “ode to (both) erotic desire and sociological fate” (Hornaday 2019, 1), and its focus is simultaneously “deeply personal and politically attuned” (Hornaday 2019, 1). Indeed, at closer examination one notices an intricate system of mutual interconnectedness and metaphorical cross-referencing between the romantic plot and the historical one, the foreground and the background, the individual lovers and the spatial and temporal setting. Here one may realise that the “film’s twin themes of freedom and incarceration” (Kermode 5) are relevant in the contexts of both passion and politics: both the lovers and the two parts of Europe are simultaneously connected and divided, causing desire and frustration, drawing boundaries and calling for acts of transgression. In other words, one could argue that the aesthetic complexity of the film partly stems from this intertwining of the personal and the political, which turns the political and historical subtext into an allegory of the lovers’ emotional state, and conversely, turns the romance plot into a historical allegory. In line with these insights, I will argue that Cold War can be read as a historical allegory commenting on the relationship of Eastern and Western Europe as a love relationship of “sympathetic”, yet “fatally



flawed” “imperfect lovers” (Hornaday 2019, 7), for whom ultimate fulfilment or genre-cinema-style happy ending seem impossible. This approach of connecting the individual with the historical and speaking about one through the other, has already been established in Pawlikowski’s previous, 2013 masterpiece, Ida (which, among other awards, won both the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and the Best Film not in the English Language at BAFTA that year). Ida’s search for her roots, family history and identity shows signs of a very similar, “chronic sense of dislocation” that we find among the unhappy lovers of Cold War, one “that isn’t just geographical or political, but also existential” (Hornaday 2019, 7). The opening of Cold War already creates a cinematic intertext that ties together the private and the public, the romantic and the political. For spectators familiar with Eastern European cinema, the opening images of the film may recall Béla Tarr’s The Prefab People, another film exploring the difficulties of a couple living in the claustrophobic spaces offered by the post-World War Eastern Bloc. Cold War, similarly to The Prefab People, starts with the images of musicians standing right in front of the camera, playing their instruments for us (see Fig. 3.5). In both cases the musicians seem real, ordinary people (not professional actors), the image is black and white, the aspect ratio is 4:3, and there is a sense of slightly awkward self-­ reflexivity caused by the men playing directly to the camera. In Tarr’s film the camera slowly turns around in the circle of the musicians, before it cuts to the people standing in the windows of the blocks of flats, watching the musicians and also staring directly into the camera. In Pawlikowski’s film we have a similar arrangement: though we have only two musicians here, thus the film does not create the same sense of claustrophobically encircled existence as The Prefab People, yet it reiterates Tarr’s gesture of self-­ referentiality. The film achieves this, first, by the musician’s staring into the camera (i.e., at us), and second, by moving on from the musicians to a small boy standing a couple of meters away from us, overlooking the scene, and staring at us, at the music-making and the filmmaking. This arrangement, similarly to that of Tarr, calls attention to the fabricated nature of the cinematic image, creates a layer of self-referentiality, highlights the ideological framing of the cinematic image, turns the performing characters into potential mirror-images of the film’s spectator, and thus opens up a whole set of interpretations at a distance from the love story (Kalmár 2017, 1–4).



Fig. 3.5  Film still from Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski 2018)

Thus, with the symmetrical compositions of camera-facing performances, which are notably repeated through all the performances of the Mazurek group, Cold War highlights the processes of history-writing, of turning lived experience into consciously fashioned, well-choreographed performance. From very early on, the film reminds us that what is thus recorded is pre-selected and streamlined according to ethnographic, stylistic and ideological principles. This self-reflexive commentary on history-­ making was a key aspect of Days of Glory as well, however, while there one had a comfortable, intellectually rewarding critical distance between the diegetic and extra-diegetic cameras, between how history is produced and how events really happened, here there is no such comfortable distance. While in Days of Glory the spectator and Abdelkader are both looking at the diegetic camera, at the act of history-making, here the little boy standing close to the musicians is looking at us, to the ethnographers’ camera’s perspective that the film at this point shares. This implies that our gaze is always already caught up in history, and thus manipulated, what we see is staged, composed and ideological from the very beginning. In a similar manner, as the film’s ending also stresses, the protagonists are framed (in



all senses of the word), by both the camera and history. Having uttered the marriage oath, and taken the pills in the ruined rural church, the last shot shows the couple sitting silently, on a bench under a tree by a country road, holding hands (see Fig. 3.6). “Come to the other side. There will be a better view from there”—says Zula, and they get up and walk out of the frame. Thus, the resolution suggests that the place with a better view can only be reached through death: in life one is always framed and constrained. In other words, according to Pawlikowsi’s allegorical vision, for the protagonists the only place outside the terrible historical situation of the Cold War is outside the film Cold War: it is represented by the space behind the camera, that is, the space outside representation. This leads us to the next crucial difference between the memory politics of the previously discussed films and that of Cold War: there is no settling of accounts here, no hope of getting outside history, or reaching a morally pure and flawless position from which truth could be finally spoken. Apparently, Cold War regards this neither-with-you-nor-without-you

Fig. 3.6  Film still from Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski 2018)



situation (on both personal and political levels) as an existential given, something that can hardly be changed or set right. Both Amen and Days of Glory included perspectives that could amend the one-sidedness of dominant narratives around the main characters, thus making our view of events more balanced and more ethical. There is no such hope in Cold War: Zula keeps performing what the regime expects her to (be those folk songs or odes to Stalin), Wiktor tries to keep a distance and escape from communism, and often acts rather as a spectator or witness, yet neither strategies seem to work. Zula’s participation in the regime undermines her moral integrity and character (as clearly indicated by her last, drunken performance), while Wiktor’s move to Paris separates him not only from Zula, but also from his roots and the sources of his artistic (and sexual) inspiration. It is important to realise that, as opposed to the previous two films discussed in this chapter, in Cold War there are no “bad people” responsible for the suffering of the protagonists. Though both Amen and Days of Glory are sophisticated enough to refrain from demonising their antagonists, they both draw clear distinctions between those who contribute to the workings of institutionalised inhumanity and those who witness this and attempt to take action. Cold War presents a world where these distinctions are untenable: people are always already caught up in history, corrupted by its cruelty, biased by where they stand and who they are, trapped in the compromises that they were forced to make. Of course, Wiktor and Zula can be regarded as victims of a specific historical situation, yet they also actively contribute to the operation of the regime that they suffer from. This pattern can be recognised in the romantic plot as well: it is clearly not only a historical situation, but also the flaws and weaknesses of the lovers themselves that cause their separation and unhappiness. Thus, the film, in contrast with the previously discussed examples, does not distinguish between good and bad characters, there are no clear-cut heroes, villains, saints, perpetrators, innocent witnesses or passive victims. One cannot put the blame on any well-definable group of people, one is neither completely devoid of guilt, nor completely defined by it, and there is no hyper-ethical position available for any of the characters from which the biased narratives of official history could be corrected. In this context it may be worth briefly recalling the historical context and causes of these different types of historical narratives. One must see that the Cold War was only one example of the long list of historical forces creating divisions and markedly different trajectories of development for



different regions of Europe. First of all, the countries of the former Eastern Bloc did not actively participate in any of the historical events that trigger guilt in contemporary Western Europe: because of their distance from the Atlantic, these countries never took part in colonial enterprises, did not get rich from gold robbed from destroyed indigenous civilisations, and did not participate in the slave trade. Of course, history was as messy and cruel here as anywhere else, yet missing out on colonialisation put these territories at a financial and political disadvantage, which did not only result in less affluence and slower socio-economic development, but also in less power to do damage to others, and therefore less historical guilt to deal with. In the twentieth century, both institutionalised communism and Fascism were forced on Eastern European countries by more powerful countries that they had no real chance to oppose. Though both the communist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany found collaborators in most of these countries, putting their puppet-governments in power usually required forcing legitimate governments out of power and backing their puppet-governments by either military presence or the threat of occupation. Consequently, the dominant historical narratives of Eastern Europe, similarly to the sad folk songs recorded by Wiktor in the beginning of Cold War, tend to emphasise the suffering of the local people, thus positioning them either as victims of history, or as tragic heroes bravely resisting larger historical forces against all odds (Assmann 2016, 147; Kalmár 2017). In light of this history of ideologically oriented subordination to greater powers, it may not be surprising that a considerable percentage of the former Eastern Bloc’s population regards such late twentieth century Western European cultural inventions as victim-focused cultures of guilt, planned multiculturalism or the twenty-first-century version of political correctness as only the latest examples of a long list of potentially disastrous ideas of social engineering, concepts inspired by Europe’s twentieth-­ century obsession with “the idea of changing man, of creating a new man” (Badiou 2005, 8; see also: Assmann 2016, 134). After 1989 Western Europe arguably relied on a set of neo-colonial assumptions, and took it for granted that the poor eastern relatives would be more than happy to assimilate, take over everything the West developed during their forced separation, including the idea of Eastern (social, cultural and economic) inferiority (Imre 2005, 84). Ironically, this happened at the time when the first cracks appeared on the glamorous enterprise of western liberal democracies. The time between the 1989–1990 reunification of Europe (or rather, the Eastern Bloc’s 2004 joining the EU) and



the 2008 financial crisis was definitely not enough for this Wiktor and Zula-like, deeply connected yet very different couple to adjust to each other. Thus, when the crisis hit, the relationship quickly got strained. In Cold War, we witness these processes mostly through Wiktor’s eyes: in the couple’s representation, Wiktor is slightly more often associated with the subject of the gaze, looking at rural landscapes, musicians, Zula and stage performances, while Zula appears more often as a mesmerising (though in no way passive) spectacle. Thus, the film, in line with the general trends of Eastern European cultures (Imre 2009, 168), follows a relatively conservative model of representing gender. Let me note quickly, however, that some of the key formative features of the film are precisely the ones where it modifies the classical paradigm. Wiktor’s character—a sensitive, introverted artist, silently observing the world from a cloud of cigarette smoke, always ready to spot originality and true beauty, which captivates and obsesses him to the point of self-harm—can also be seen as a variation of a fairly well-established artist type, whose roots can be found as much in twentieth-century novels (Proust, Joyce, Thomas Mann) as in the films of Béla Tarr and the French New Wave. The tragic qualities of his story stem from his transnational homelessness, that is, his being lost between his homeland (where he lacks freedom and the chances of a real artistic career) and the West (where he is far from his roots and true sources of inspiration). He is one of those tragic artist figures who realises the significance of his local roots and his connectedness to a certain place and culture only when he has already lost them. This rootedness, however, lacks all nationalistic overtones in Cold War. It is expressed through the dramaturgically unmotivated, silent, beautiful, almost mystical landscapes of rural Poland, and perhaps the sad folk songs we hear at the beginning. When he walks through the military checkpoint in Berlin with one single suitcase, and moves to Paris, Wiktor seems to lose something. Though he makes a living, plays and composes music, his character misses something that used to be essential to him, his creative potential and his sexual energy—as Zula sharply points it out before leaving him. “The sense of emasculation that befalls the Polish male in the diasporic space” is a recurrent cinematic theme (Heuckelom  2019, 189), and Wiktor’s story, no doubt, is recognisable to many people (including all sorts of artists) who fled the Communist Bloc and tried to establish themselves in the West either during the cold war or after the fall of communism. Thus, Wiktor’s story has strong ramifications for the twenty-first century as well. Today, when millions of Eastern Europeans live and work in Western Europe, far



from their homes (and often their families), most of them doing underpaid jobs that the western locals are reluctant to take, this story of a Cold War era dissident, lost between East and West, is as timely as ever (Imre 2012, 5).

Conclusions: Unprocessed Pasts Through the analysis of Amen and Days of Glory, I have attempted to define the basic rules and cinematic features of the most canonical form of memory-politics of Western European societies, which has been dominant there since the 1990s. I also attempted to indicate the possible shortcomings of this victim-focused approach, which indicate the reasons why the present transformation of European memory-culture may cause shifts in our film culture. I tried to make clear that on the positive side the inclusion of the losers and victims of history establishes this trend as probably the most ethical approach to history that human remembering communities ever produced. To a large extent, these films are still historical narratives written by the victors (people who can make films that wider audiences and film scholars can watch are by definition privileged ones), yet at least they are consciously trying to represent the perspective (or at least call attention to the suffering) of all those people who were silenced and killed due to the dirty deals of history and power. One needs to recognise that these films are mostly meant for the descendants of the victors of history, and try to teach them moral lessons in line with the imperative to remember in order not to let history repeat itself. In spite of this clear connectedness to the memory culture of very specific, privileged first-world societies, and including moral messages from the (repentant) victors to the (to be repentant) victors, these films also have the potential to heal old wounds, amend biased records, create effective counter-narratives, initiate intergenerational and intergroup dialogue, and become building blocks of more ethical socio-cultural formations. On the negative side, this approach has the danger of becoming pious and moralising, canonised as the only correct way of thinking about history. Such regulatory norms can easily become hypocritical appropriations of a moral high ground, from where the status quo can be protected while posing as virtue. As the widespread unease felt about this sort of memory culture among the new generations of Germans indicates, this usually brings ambiguous results and inspires resistance from spectators who dislike pious moral lessons, care about independent thinking, or are simply



tired of the same old, worn-out moral(ising) messages. This approach also has the danger of becoming predictable and schematic, and therefore tedious and counterproductive. Mediocre, pretentious and claptrap examples motivated by the aim to move film board members and well-meaning liberal audiences, that is, films that eagerly jump on the bandwagon without sincere ethical concerns or original aesthetic visions, have arguably did a lot of harm to the reputation of this trend. A further problem of this cinematic tradition is that its basic rules are defined by (inherited) trauma, (compulsory) guilt and a set of well-defined taboos, which are hardly the guarantors of free, original, high-quality artistic production. A prime example of such taboos, as Aleida Assmann notes, is the fact that European cinema is continuously avoiding the representation of one of the crucial realities of oppressive historical regimes such as the Third Reich, that is, showing how masses of ordinary, decent, generally well-meaning people could support political regimes that we, in retrospect, reject in horror (see Assmann 2016, 59). In this regard the cinema of Western Europe seems quite conservative in the sense of usually refraining from altering the 1990s paradigm of “politics of regret” and “ethical remembering”. Most of the time our films about history are still reiterating the old, canonical formulas of this quickly ageing orthodoxy that, outside cinema, is not only questioned by non-­ democratic political extremists (as before the crisis), but increasingly also by a growing number of democratic-minded intellectuals of all sorts of political orientation (Assmann 2016, 85). Though such memorable and original works as The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008), The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) or Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015), and to a certain degree the above-mentioned ZDF Our Mothers, Our Fathers seek different approaches, in the polarised political climate of post-crash Europe most Western European filmmakers rather risk being predictable and mediocre than breaking with the pre-crisis consensus (and be blacklisted). The question is, to what extent victory amounts to defeat in this case as well, that is, how much European art cinema loses from its commitment to originality, free critical thinking and anti-establishment attitude in its effort to support a political trend that is losing ground by the minute precisely because of its uncritical, status quo-bound inflexibility. Cold War is a meaningful counter-example, partly because of its subtle, indirect targeting of historical issues, and partly because it calls attention to the differences between Eastern and Western European memory cultures. The way the film lacks all hopes for settling historical accounts, or



creating more truthful historical narratives, reveals a lot about the post-­ communist disenchantment with consumerist capitalism and liberal democracies. This approach separates the film from the more directly politicised and politicising accounts of the other two films. Its focus on the small, individual, emotional and marginal, on the ways individual humans suffer because of politics or the great movements of history, however, makes it much more in sync with the twenty-first century than the films faithfully following the “old” (post-1980s) paradigm. Cold War’s imaging of people gradually worked up by historical circumstances, its gloomy ending and overall lack of any utopian fantasy of putting history right associates it more with such critics of contemporary German memory-­ culture, as Bernhard Schlink: What is past cannot be mastered. It can be remembered, forgotten or repressed. It can be avenged, punished, atoned for and regretted. It can be repeated, consciously or unconsciously. Its consequences can be managed either to encourage or discourage their impact on the present or the future. But what is done is done. The past is unassailable and irrevocable. The word “mastering” in its true sense applies to a task at hand that must be worked on and worked through, until it is completed. Then the task no longer exists as such. That the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung, i.e. mastering the past, is used and recognised in Germany but has no corresponding word in English and French reveals a longing for the impossible: to bring the past into such a state of order that its remembrance no longer burdens the present. (2009, 43–44)

Cold War, the latest film of the three discussed in this chapter, indicates that the Zeitgeist of the post-crash era knows no such utopian fantasies of mastering: as a matter of fact, one of the defining features of our off-­ modern age is precisely the collapse of such utopian, teleological historical metanarratives. Perhaps by the end of the twentieth century, humanity got more cautious about revolutionary alternative social models for the future, and learned to let go its obsession with engineering a wholly new future, which we have learned to recognise as an obsession with power, triumphant will and mastery (Badiou 2005). Was it the same hubris that, losing its original object, turned towards the past after 1989? “Is German memory culture a clandestine continuation of German hubris?” (Assmann 2016, 85) Wherever that hubris of mastering the past came from, apparently it has run its course: it has made political life more ethical, through cinema it told many stores that had to be told, but seems to be fairly



exhausted by now. Not the least because this memory culture, as so many policies that we see changing in the twenty-first century, was designed during the good days, for the good days. In 2003, John Torpey, the editor of Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices could still comfortably claim that “We are all Germans now” (Torpey 2003, 3) in the sense that “all countries … that wish to be regarded as legitimate confront pressures to make amends for the more sordid aspects of their past” (3). Yet, apparently, by the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century even Germans are tired of this preoccupation. The turn of the tide in memory politics may be well indicated by the success of the British-­ American coproduction 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2020), a historical film that returns to the heroism of ordinary white men in extraordinary historical situations.

Works Cited Assmann, Aleida. 2013/2010. From Collective Violece to a Common Future: Four Models for Dealing with a Traumatic Past. In Conflict, Memory Transfers and the Reshaping of Europe, ed. Silva et al., 8–23. Cambridge Scholars. ———. 2016. Rossz közérzet az emlékezetkultúrában (Memory Culture and Its Discontents). Translated by Ágnes Huszár. Budapest: Múlt és Jövő. Badiou, Alain. 2005. The Century. Translated by Alberto Toscano. Polity. Benjamin, Walter. 1998. The Origin of the German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne. London and New York: Verso. Bradshaw, Peter. 2002. Bruckner, Pascal. 2010. The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. Ferguson, Niall. 2012. Civilization: The West and the Rest. Penguin  – Random House. French, Philip. 2007. Days of Glory. The Guardian, 1 April. Halbwach, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Translated by Lewis A. Coser. University of Chicago Press. Van Heuckelom, Kris. 2019. Polish Migrants in European Film 1918–2017. Palgrave-Macmillan. Hirsch, Afua. 2018. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. London: Jonathan Cape. Hornaday, Ann. 2019. ‘Cold War’ Is Already Getting Oscar-Buzz, Because It Is a Near-Perfect Movie. The Washington Post, 19 January.



Imre, Anikó. 2005. Whiteness in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: The Time of the Gipsies, the End of Race. In Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader on Race and Empire, ed. Alfred J. Lopéz. New York: State University of New York Press. ———. 2009. Identity Games: Globalization and the Transformation of Media Cultures in the New Europe. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press. ———. 2012. Introduction: Eastern European Cinema From No End to the End (As We Know It). In A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas, ed. Anikó Imre, 1–22. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Kalmár, György. 2017. Formations of Masculinity in Post-Communist Hungarian Cinema: Labyrinthian Men. Palgrave Macmillan. Kermode, Mark. 2018. “Cold War Review – Love in a Communist Climate.” The Guardian, 2 September. Langan, Mark. 2018. Neo-Colonialism and the Poverty of ‘Development’ in Africa. Palgrave-Macmillan. Murai, András. 2008. Film és kollektív emlékezet: magyar múltfilmek a rendszerváltozás után (Film and Collective Memory: Post-Regime-Change Hungarian Films About the Past). Szombathely: Savaria University Press. Nguyen, Viet Thanh. 2016. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Harvard University Press. Nieger, Motti, et al., eds. 2011. On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Palgrave Macmillan. Schlink, Bernhard. 2009. Guilt about the Past. Toronto: Anansi Press. Scott, A. O. 2006. Yes, Soldiers of France, in All But Name. The New York Times, 6 December. Silva, et  al. 2010. Conflict, Memory Transfers and the Reshaping of Europe. Cambridge Scholars. Silverman, Kaja. 1992. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. London: Routledge. Torpey, John, ed. 2003. Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices. Rowman and Littlefield. Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. 2004. european-union/sites/europaeu/files/docs/body/treaty_establishing_a_ constitution_for_europe_en.pdf.


Addiction and Escapism

The 1998 UN special session on drugs ended with the international community setting the goal of creating a “drug free world” by 2008 (Glenza 2016, 13). Looking back at that agreement from the time of writing this book—when the opioid crisis is going global, claiming more lives every year, when life expectancy for men have started to decrease in the countries most affected by drug-related violence or the overdose epidemic— that 1998 goal seems as painfully naïve as Fukuyama’s predictions about the end of history. Needless to say, the world has not become drug-free. On the contrary, our drug-related problems have only increased. On the global scale, all the significant statistical numbers have been steadily on the rise: the share of population with drug use disorders, the number of deaths directly or indirectly caused by it, or the financial burden put on our societies by drug-use, such as healthcare costs, damage caused by drug-related crime, the cost of prison facilities or the economic damage due to the loss of labour force (see the drug-related statistics at Obviously, such statistics cannot indicate the immense emotional, psychological and social damage, caused for example, by fractured families, destroyed lives or the masses of children growing up with one or both parents addicted or incarcerated, which is likely to have severe long-term consequences. The naïve utopianism of the UN’s 1998 goal is an apt reminder of how little our societies, institutions and political leaders understand about the gravity and complexity of the drug-related issues the world is facing. © The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




Apparently, by the time of the next UN special session on drugs took place, in 2016, the global community had become more divided and more confused on the issue. Today, the “War on drugs” (in)famously declared by the American president Richard Nixon in 1971, seems more and more exhausted, futile, if not directly counter-productive. The war was promoted by most American administrations as a global policy, made drug use (and often the user) “public enemy number one”, criminalised use as well as drug trafficking, put billions of dollars into drug control agencies, military organisations fighting traffickers in several countries, into building and maintaining prison facilities, but never managed to reach its goals. Though it had immense costs, not only in terms of money, but also in human lives, broken families and shattered communities, this policy never managed to decrease illicit drug use. Furthermore, as a result of its limited, criminological view of the drug-problem, it failed spectacularly at creating effective prevention or rehabilitation programs, not to mention the deeper exploration of the social or cultural roots of addictive behaviours. In 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy drew a clear balance of the strategies the majority of governments were applying. Its “Executive summary” states: The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed. Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-­ effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

In spite of the dramatic failure of the war on drugs, the 2016 UN General Assembly could not agree on any alternative strategy. “The rift between countries interested in drug policy reform and those with repressive drug control regimes was evident” and could not be bridged (Glenza 2016, 7). Thus, the old and inefficient policies focusing on prohibition



and criminalisation were left in place, and only a few general recommendations were made for harm prevention measures. Significantly for the present book, our drug-related problems also tend to have a bias in terms of the sex and gender of the users and traffickers. The American National Institute on Drug Abuse clearly states that Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, and illicit drug use is more likely to result in emergency department visits or overdose deaths for men than for women. "Illicit" refers to use of illegal drugs … and misuse of prescription drugs. For most age groups, men have higher rates of use or dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than do women. (1)

According to a study of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the same imbalance can be found in Europe as well, where “males outnumber females among drug users and clients attending drug treatment services” (1). According to UN studies, the sex ratio is even more off-balance when it comes to drug-related violent crimes, in which men are several times more likely to be involved than women, on both the perpetrator and the victim side. I have decided to include a chapter on addiction-related films in this book not only because of the well-known severity of substance abuse problems, the astonishing destruction it leaves behind, or the prevalence of males in the grim stories drug abuse produces. After all, European drug policies tend to be more balanced and progressive than American ones, and the numbers of drug-related violent crimes, incarcerations, death tolls and other social harms are therefore also significantly lower. This chapter is essential for this book because addiction, I believe, is not only a result of individual psychopathology, bad genes or moral weakness, as many people and public institutions would hold. More importantly, addiction, in the words of Alice Miller, “is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood” (2009, 126). In other words, addiction, similarly to most escapist practices, is a desperate response to distress, a result of an individual’s unsuccessful inner struggles, which, on closer inspection, reveal deeply rooted social and cultural issues. Thus, addiction is also a symptom of social problems, and therefore the cinematic narratives about it can be regarded as a dark mirror held out to our culture. I agree with Gábor Máté that “no society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side” (Máté 2018, 2),



therefore exploring such social “anomalies” as addiction may be essential to understanding how “normality” works or what “normality” means today. Thus, in line with Alice Miller or Máté, I would argue that cases of addiction reveal a whole set of social and cultural malfunctions that one, as long as things go well, usually tries to disregard or dismiss. As Máté, one of the field’s best-known experts put it, addiction is neither a choice or primarily a disease. It originates in a human being’s desperate attempt to solve a problem: the problem of emotional pain, of overwhelming stress, of lost connection, of loss of control, of a deep discomfort with the self. In short, it is a forlorn attempt to solve the problem of human pain. (2018, xix)

Máté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction is an outstanding and inspiring effort to create a complex and balanced “multilevel exploration” (129) of addiction, free from the prevailing reductive (medical, moral or criminological) approaches. Building on recent studies in neuroscience, as well as his long years of medical work with the hard-core drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Máté outlines all the layers and factors that contribute to addiction: from genetic, neurobiological and neurochemical aspects, to brain science and the intricate connections between brain development and such socially determined factors as stress or trauma. The results he lays out thoroughly undermine the legitimacy of both the criminological-moral(ising) approach that motivates the world’s drug policies today, and the strict medical view that regards addiction as a brain disease caused by genetic predisposition. First, Máté outlines the connections between early brain development, the anomalies of the addicted brain, and predisposition to addictive practices (2018, 180). He also calls attention to such environmental causes of addiction-prone brain development as the lack of physical and emotional safety or emotional nurturing (183), the absence of consistent parental contact (189), stress or the loss of control (198), or poor parent-child attunement (241), together with their neurochemical consequences that “wire” patterns of addictive behaviour in the brain. In his opinion, due to various social, cultural and technological conditions, “under ordinary peacetime circumstances there has never before been a generation so stressed and so starved of nurturing adult relationships” (233). As a consequence, “misattuned parent-child interactions are



increasingly the norm” (241), which makes contemporary young adults especially vulnerable to addictive behaviours. As Máté repeatedly demonstrates, these childhood influences and the resulting maladapted brains and addictive behaviour patterns are easily triggered in adult life by such experiences as stress, the lack of meaningful activity, absence of a real sense of community, the loss of feeling of control over one’s life, and by emotional or spiritual emptiness (233). Máté’s book makes clear that the form of technologically advanced global consumerist capitalism in which citizens of the developed world live, and the social models that it advocates, are not designed for healthy psychological development or human wellbeing, and are partly responsible for such harmful phenomena as addiction. In this chapter I am going to analyse only one film directly about drugs and substance abuse. The other two films are about escapist practices that, on the surface, may seem far from the hell-bound train of hard drug addicts. The reason for this is that together with Máté I see addiction as a wider cultural issue that concerns much more people than those who try to soothe emotional pain, anxiety or discomfort by the use of illicit substances. I share Máté’s view that “substance addictions are only one specific form of blind attachment to harmful ways of being” (Máté 2018, 258). I am even inclined to agree with Friedrich Nietzche’s remark that “the whole history of narcotica … is almost the history of culture” (Nietzsche 1974, 328) and thus see addictive and addiction-like escapist practices as part and parcel of the by now globalised, (so-called) Western Civilisation (see Alexander and Roberts 2003; Lee 2012). This is yet another point in this book where specific cinematic narratives and themes are not only connected with a certain post-crisis situation, but also with unresolved deeper issues about modernity, materially oriented cultures, capitalism, as well as the lack of attention our civilisation in general tends to pay to human wellbeing. In this regard, it is essential to notice that “Western social models engender” a whole set of “disruptions, dysfunctions and diseases” (Máté 2018, 263), which make pain and suffering, most importantly among disempowered people, “transmitted from one traumatized generation to the next” (264). Furthermore, regarding the wider cultural context, it is crucial to notice how much ours is an escapist culture, where “much of our economic and cultural life caters to people’s craving to escape mental and emotional distress” (Máté 2018, 258). Recent brain research makes it clear that in terms of neurochemical mechanisms and the brain processes involved, there is no essential difference



between dramatically self-destructive opioid users and those of us who practice such socially better tolerated or even cherished forms of addiction as shopping, overeating, alcoholism, smoking, gaming, sex- or internet addiction, or workaholism. Behind all these activities we can recognise the same experience of inner emptiness, discomfort and the same painful longing for a more comforting and fulfilling experience of oneself. These activities may differ in their social acceptability or economic utility, yet they may very well be symptoms of the same cultural malady. Recent brain research affirms that there is only one universal addiction process. Its manifestations are multiple, from the gentler to the life-threatening, but in all addictions it utilizes the same brain-circuits of pain relief, reward and motivation; it imposes the same psychological dynamics of shame and denial, the same behaviours of subterfuge and dishonesty. In all cases, it extracts the price of inner peace, harm to relationships, and diminished self-worth. (Máté 2018, xxv)

This, of course, does not erase the obvious differences between different forms of addiction, nor does it equate addiction with escapism. In line with Máté and Alice Miller, I would argue that all addictions (drug or non-drug) are forms of defence, denial and escape (see Miller viii), but not all escapist practices fulfil the definitional criteria of addiction (see Máté 128–129). However, even if one keeps these terminological nuances in sight, it is ironic and shocking to realise how much developed societies— which, at least on basis of the values of Enlightenment modernity, come close to the best of all possible worlds (so far)—are dependent on all sorts of pharmacological supplements, pain killers, anti-depressants, mood enhancers, on self-harming addictions and countless escapist practices. Similarly to Huxley’s 1930s dystopia, our twenty-first-century brave new world could not remain functional (and would probably collapse within a couple of days) without the help of all those chemicals (from alcohol to Prozac and fentanyl) and addictive-escapist behaviours (from watching commercial TV to overeating and shopping) that people use on a daily basis. Apparently, the socio-cultural conditions among which we grow up and live our lives make room and create the need for plenty of painkilling, anxiety-soothing and chemically aided stress-relief. Thus, films about addiction and escapism pose a series of uneasy questions about the societies we live in. To what extent are our modern societies dependent on addictive behaviours? What do we do when the “normal”



is not emotionally healthy? How is it possible that liberal democracies, in which individual freedom is one of the key values, can only be maintained with the help of addictive chemicals and practices that radically limit one’s inner freedom? What is the emotional price of our social and financial achievements? How fit and prepared are we to face the challenges of contemporary life? To what extent did the financial crisis worsen the addiction-­ problem on a social scale? Why are the men of affluent first-world societies, who belong to such a privileged social group, more affected by the more dangerous forms of addiction? As this short list may also indicate, there is plenty of drama in this field, many questions with far-reaching social, psychological or cultural consequences, and plenty of unresolved socio-cultural material to process. Little wonder, then, that addiction, especially substance abuse, have been a popular theme for cinema since the birth of the medium. As Susan Boyd points out, the birth of cinema temporally coincides with the birth of drug prohibition, and the first drug film, The Chinese Opium Den dates back to as early as 1894 (Boyd 2008, 1). In this wider historical context it may also be worth remembering that films did not only represent addiction and escapism, but played an active part in that story: through much of its history commercial cinema has been operating as one of the most popular escapist practices, an addictive painkiller without which employing large numbers of the population in industrial jobs or (equally monotonous) post-industrial office jobs would have been much harder to achieve. If one considers addiction and escapism in the wider cultural sense, as I have outlined above, the list of quality films is a long one with many items that reached cult status. From the European quality film segment, memorable titles would include Christiane F. (Uli Edel 1981); Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson 1987); The Big Blue (Luc Besson 1988); Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 1996); Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet 2001); Dealer (Benedek Fliegauf 2004); Shame (Steve McQueen 2011); Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier 2011); Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier 2013); Liza, the Fox-Fairy (Károly Ujj Mészáros 2015); and The Prayer (Cédric Kahn 2018). The first thing that strikes one about this list is the lack of any overarching trend or dominant cinematic convention. While in case of the well-known international hits of addiction-related American commercial cinema the filmic, moral and ideological trends are easier to map, in European quality cinema one can find all sorts of approaches. There are films that follow the traditional social realist style (Dealer), while others break that by visually evoking the subjective experience of the addict (Trainspotting). Most of



them clearly indicate the dangers of any kind of addiction or escapism (thus their “moral message” includes that addiction is bad), but a large percentage of them are sympathetic to the escaping individual, do not present him or her as simply an immoral person, and tend to show the world into which they escape as a fun place to be, a true and valuable alternative to the “real” one (The Big Blue, Amélie, Liza the Fox Fairy). As a twist on the strict (and relatively simplistic) moral code of American cinema, these films often criticise real-existing society (and therefore arguably accomplish something socially responsible) by indicating the temptations that an alternative world can present. These films are usually very careful with cultural stereotyping, the addict almost never appears as a demonised or criminalised Other, and addiction is not associated with particular identities in terms of gender, economic status, race or ethnicity either. While in American cinema, for example, “criminalized drugs and the people who use them are racialized” (Boyd 2008, 7), these European films usually present addiction and escapism as a pervasive social issue that may affect everybody regardless of skin colour or social status. In line with this, most European films (among them all three analysed below) avoid portraying addicts as “isolated from the social, political and economic factors that shape them” (Boyd 4) by establishing subtle but clear links between wider socio-cultural trends and addiction.

Billy Elliot Perhaps it is best to start this chapter with the discussion of Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry 2000), as it is a film that is fairly well known, actively and consciously engaging with the crisis of rapid social change, and highlights some of the key shifts in contemporary masculinities as well as the difficulties of escapist self-reinvention. Furthermore, it deals with these issues in an optimistic, upbeat, progressive manner, mostly relying on the pre-crisis logic of individualistic liberal humanism, within the frameworks of a cultural mythology that was severely undermined during the ensuing series of crises. As I will argue below, though the film was made in 2000 and is set in 1984, it taps right into a set of issues crucial for the twenty-first century, ones that are key to both this chapter and the book in general. Billy Elliot tells the story of an 11-year-old boy, living in a small town miners’ community in the North-East of England, during the famous 1984–1985 strikes. The main conflict lies between Billy’s inclinations (most importantly, his passion for dancing) and the norms and



expectations of the white working-class community around him. While his father expects him to do boxing (at which he is spectacularly bad), he prefers practising ballet with the girls, thereby transgressing the strict gender segregation of extra-curricular activities. The narrative follows Billy’s clandestine pursuit of dancing, developing friendship with Mrs. Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher (who also becomes a sort of surrogate mother figure for the half-orphan boy), his conflicts over dancing and masculine identity with his father, and final admittance to the Royal Ballet school, his individual escape from the dire social and moral conditions of his hometown. While the plot may imply an ordinary coming of age story with the usual generational conflicts and clash of value-systems, the stage director Stephen Daldry’s first feature film manages to create a layered film text that successfully presents a whole set of key social issues in a memorable and enjoyable style, making it “a bold, attractive and generous film” with “a lot of charm, a lot of humour, and a lot of heart” (Bradshaw 2000). The social backdrop, against which the young dancer’s story is played out, is as crucial to the film as the iconic image of the young boy in the middle of a group of young girls in tutus. The 1984–1985 coal miners’ strike was probably the most outstanding example of the painful and bitter social, economic and political readjustment of Britain under Thatcher-­ governments, which eventually led to the defeat of the unions and the closure of almost all British collieries. Jonathan and Ruth Winterton’s description in their 1989 book already foreshadows those aspects of the strike and the social changes behind them that make its story acutely relevant for the twenty-first century: The 1984–85 coal strike represented the most important industrial stoppage since the General Strike and coal lock-out of 1926. The 1984 strike entailed a loss of about 38m working days in the coal industry alone… Like the 1926 dispute, the political significance of the 1984 strike far outweighs these statistics, for both stoppages assumed the character of historic battles between labour and capital. The 1984 conflict could have been fought out in almost any industry, because the same conditions were afflicting the whole economy. The Union was attempting to resist unemployment, preserve communities and protect long-term national policy. The Government was aiming to subordinate labour, restructure industry and impose the imperatives of the market. The coal industry became the terrain for the confrontation because of the symbolic importance of the miners in the labour movement and



because the effect of Government policies was becoming acutely apparent in coal. (Winterton and Winterton 1989, 1)

Outlining this socio-historical background of the film’s narrative is not only important for one’s better understanding of Billy Elliot: it is also necessary for one’s better comprehension of the kinds of conditions that may lead one to choose an escapist route as a life-strategy. The sense of defeat, the loss of agency, the experience of the local community’s being overcome by a far-away, calculating government and profit-seeking companies, the feeling that one has no influence over one’s life, seeing the disintegration of the community and life-world in which one grew up—these are precisely the events that may lead large numbers of people to often self-­ destructive escapist paths (see Máté 2018, 188–208), as post-2008 history has also shown in Europe as well as in the US.  In this respect, Billy’s example is a positive one, as he manages to escape into something productive and joyful. However, the last few scenes of the film also make it clear that he is more of an exception than the general rule. The rest of the community is simply left behind, physically as well as historically. After Billy’s leave, we never see them again: they have become a lost cause, a fossil of history, a defeated culture to be left behind so as to be dumped at the ever growing junkyard of history. As it has become evident by the second decade of the new millennium, Britain’s 1980s’ economic readjustment from a declining economy rooted in traditional heavy industry and manufacturing to a more modern, market-­oriented, neoliberal, service-based one, was only one in a series of such moves throughout Europe that attempted to keep first-world economies on top of global trends. In that sense, Thatcher’s programme of privatisation, globalisation, rolling back the state and cutting back on social spending, her choice of favouring economic growth at the price of destroying local human communities and increasing social inequality is something that most European societies went through in the last decades of the twentieth century (see Elliott 2013). Moreover, Thatcher’s policies also foreshadowed what European societies experienced after 2008. Clearly, in a post-2008 Europe, where very similar measures were taken in order to abate the financial crisis and re-boost economies, the memory of the 1984 strikes is a meaningful one. Also, given the prospect of further accelerating technological changes, such radical and painful readjustments are likely to be the new norm of twenty-first-century life.



Fig. 4.1  Film still from Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry 2000)

The strategic use of this social-historical background, and more specifically the juxtaposition of the individual and the social, arranged into the foreground and the background of the image, is one of the most important formal-stylistic devices of the film: while Billy and Debbie discuss the gender politics of ballet, they walk in front of a line of riot police (see Fig. 4.1); behind the cemetery where Billy and his grandmother visit the grave of Billy’s mother, there are huge, deserted industrial buildings oppressing the tiny human figures; and Mrs. Wilkinson explains the story of Swan Lake to Billy on a ferry that they share with a police vehicle, in a deserted post-industrial dockland. Billy’s lively dance performances, the acts of kindness within the narrative, the events of individual struggle all make sense in this slightly dystopian, off-modern social and visual context, where the emotional drama partly stems from the characters’ profound disenchantment about the social order and their disorientation about the possible courses of history. The film relies on liberal humanism’s cultural mythology, and thus focuses on Billy, the outstanding, talented individual, who is different from the people around him, poorly understood by others, but manages to break away from oppressing social conditions, fulfil his dreams, and go up in the world. In line with the rules of this well-known narrative pattern and its ideological support, the dramas that others go through are left



undeveloped: we learn very little about the inner difficulties and struggles of Billy’s father, who almost becomes a strike-breaker when he understands Billy’s plea and wants to finance his son’s dance education, about Mrs. Wilkinson, who helps Billy break out, but remains locked up in a bad marriage and in the role of a provincial ballet teacher, or her daughter Debbie, who, similarly to the protagonist of Swan Lake, is left behind by Billy, who is more interested in dancing than in heterosexual romance. Though these underdeveloped characters may suggest that the film’s only real interest lies in the exceptional individual’s upwards journey, I would argue that this social background contributes substantially to the film’s multiplicity of meaning. There are several issues through which this context is intimately connected with my interests in this book: it clearly sets the film’s narrative in a time of crisis (and this temporality of crisis, together with its dystopian visuals, as I will argue later, operates as an effective counterpoint to the feel-good scenes of the musical-like scenes); this crisis is associated with the vanishing of old communities, life-worlds and value-systems; and finally, this crisis is pointedly gendered, and connected with the lack of femininity as well as the embittered, frustrated, stiff and fossilised condition of the community’s traditional masculinities. Billy Elliot is set in a world where men are “useless” (as Tony, the elder brother declares of their father) or “made redundant” (as Debbie says of her own father, Mr. Wilkinson), where the most prevalent forms of male self-expression are boxing, violent protests, shouting and fighting, where the miners’ strike is defeated, ordinary men are beaten and humiliated by the police, and the grandfather’s stinky boxing gloves are happily exchanged for ballet shoes. In this sense, the clash of the riot police and the angry miners functions simultaneously as a conflict as well as a homogenous backdrop of male violence, further highlighting the difference and value of the harmless dancing boy. (The scene at the film’s 24th minute, when the ballet class is intercut with the protesters’ clash with the police, serves exactly this purpose.) This visual conflict between the different forms of self-expression is accompanied by a set of other thematic and aesthetic conflicts. The first of these is the father-son conflict, which perfectly demonstrates the generational shift that took place between different ideals of masculinity in the 1980s and 1990s: in Billy Elliot the father clearly belongs to the world of “old, industrial man”, the working-class version of the breadwinner type, “made redundant by the decimation of the heavy industry” (Beynon 105),



while the son is associated with the more sensitive, artistic, cosmopolitan, and more narcissistic “new men” that the 1990s’ affluent, urban, yuppie consumer-culture gave birth to (see Beynon 99–107). Thus, the film taps into one of the crucial and critical shifts in late twentieth century masculinities. In John Beynon’s analysis, the shift from manufacturing to servicing, and from industrialization to electronic technology, was immensely damaging for working class men. The old industrial labourers, along with skilled and semi-skilled workers, were rendered obsolete by the technological advances they had helped to implement. Jobs that depended upon physical strength vanished in their millions, and in their place came, at best, short-term contracts and part-time work. (Beynon 107) Increasingly style marked off young men from old, rich from poor, powerful from powerless, gay from straight. What emerged was a hierarchy of masculinities based on appearance and which abolished the traditional masculine divisions based upon work roles, ownership and sexual orientation. (Beynon 108)

This conflict and shift is symbolically represented in the film by Billy’s refusal to wear his grandfather’s seedy boxing gloves, and his choice to take up a career of performance art in the capital instead (which, by the way, is no longer “only for poofs”). In terms of value-systems, the film clearly stands on Billy’s side: while the father’s initial disgust about and angry prohibition of Billy’s dancing is represented with irony and scorn, Billy’s dancing regularly breaks the diegetic/non-diegetic boundary and takes the spectator into his private world, a rich and joyful “musical bubble” (see Király 2019, 95). This escape into a sensuous, colourful alternative universe of music and dancing is valorised by the film: apparently, in the film’s value-system individual fulfilment, artistic self-expression, and feeling good in an alternative world removed from the stark realities of ordinary life, are more important than social commitments, class struggle, or doing something with the real-existing world “out there”. In terms of political ideology, this goes parallel to the shift from the traditional, labour union centred, Marxist Left to the more liberal, less class-bound “New Labour” of the Blair era (1994–2007), which happily embraced the rule of the market, as well as neoliberal economic practices, the cult of individualism (even against collectivism), the consumerisation of identity, and the global culture of the spectacle. Little wonder that the film, which was



one of the few global successes of British filmmaking, received mixed reviews from critics more suspicious about the above ideological deal. Patrick Marmion, for example, critically points out that working-class men are all depicted as backward “Palaeolithic bigots”, that in the film “the politics of solidarity are clearly traded in for the politics of identity”, that the film’s “global success is due to its ability to sustain consensus by disavowing its central contradiction between collectivism and individualism”, and that behind its seemingly sympathetic nostalgia for the miners’ communities that Billy leaves behind, one can recognise the very spirit of Thatcher’s “resourceful individualism” that destroyed those communities (Marmion 2015). It is probably no coincidence that such a scornful rejection of the film’s ideological message was formulated in 2015, after the financial crisis, at a time when the price of the Left’s embrace of global neoliberal capitalism was much clearer to see than in 2000. In this post-­ crash review Marmion argues that Billy Elliot is a direct product of the New Labour era which dressed up Thatcherism in the tutu of nostalgia for what it had destroyed. The governing principle of the story is not the solidarity of the community, but an absolute belief in the power of self-realisation. The only escape from the police and their riot shields is a form of uncompromising independence that demands we follow and monetise our dreams. This kind of individualism was Thatcherism in a nutshell. (Marmion 2015)

In terms of cinematic representation, this ideological shift from the Old Left to New Labour meant a clear break away from the Ken Loach type of British social realism, towards more playful, self-reflexive, postmodern aesthetics. The immediate cinematic context of Billy Elliot includes Loach’s 1969 masterpiece Kes, a film about another working-class boy, whose escape from his grim circumstances takes the form of caring for and training a pet falcon. Both Kes and Billy Elliot present working-class half-­ orphan boys named Billy, dissatisfied with the life choices offered by their mining communities and tormented by the cruelties of elder males, and both boys engage in escapist practices that are defined through the metaphor of flying. However, Kes approaches the subject through a traditional realist aesthetics and ends with the death of Billy’s bird and the burial of his dreams, while Billy Elliot takes us into its protagonist’s musical-like alternative universe, lets Billy and the spectator escape together, beat gravity, and fly into the glaring light of success and stardom. Cinematically it is



a giant leap from Ken Loach and British social realism into postmodern playfulness, ironic self-referentiality, sentimentality, nostalgia, flirtation with kitsch and unashamed enjoyment of the escapist (audio-)visual pleasures film as a medium can offer. Thus, in its stylistic choices and ideological foundations, Billy Elliot is closer to such British films of similar story lines as The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo 1997) or Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha 2002). The ideological baggage of this kind of escape into a personal-musical fantasy land shows better when contrasted with the way Lars von Trier treats the situation in Dancer in the Dark, made in the same year. While the protagonist of Trier’s film, the Eastern European immigrant living in the US, Selma (played by Björk), also escapes into singing, dancing and Hollywood-style fantasies, and her day-dreams come to life in even more hyperreal fantasy-sequences than those of Billy, her story ends in tragedy. In Dancer in the Dark personal fantasy or artistic self-expression cannot save one from the harsh realities of everyday life: as Selma’s final execution by hanging brutally suggests, there is always a chance that art cannot beat gravity. In Billy Elliot, the protagonist’s escape into dance goes hand in hand with the spectator’s escape into audio-visual enjoyment and into a form of cinema that functions as a means of escape. As opposed to Dancer in the Dark, neither him, nor the spectator is punished for these pleasurable escapades. The “musical bubble” logic of the dance scenes, as well as the contrast between dance and public protest create a certain philosophy of escape in Billy Elliot. According to it, escape is an individual act, a reaction to harsh social circumstances or to the feeling of being misunderstood or defeated. Escape is personal, it leads through a peculiar characteristic of the individual, it is a retreat from the public sphere into a well-fortified place (understood both as physical and mental place). There is a scene in Billy Elliot where this escapist-healing aspect of dancing is clearly presented: this is when Billy witnesses the confrontation between his family and Mrs. Wilkinson, after having missed an entrance exam to the ballet school because of his brother’s arrest. Here he runs away from their house in anger and frustration, and he “dances his anger out”, kicking all the confining walls he finds. Thus, he simultaneously escapes from the emotional burden of a real-life conflict, finds refuge in his own world of music and dance, and eventually turns his frustration into something culturally productive. Of course, such an escapist practice can be totally addictive as well, mostly because it is often the only way one manages to establish a relation



with agency, self-esteem or a more liveable selfhood, which in the film’s liberal individualist vocabulary translates as one’s true self. It is worth remembering that Billy’s mother’s farewell letter ends with the imperative “Always be yourself”. Though many spectators may be sceptical about the idea of finding the One True Self (finding which amounts to a lived-­ happily-­ever-after kind of ending), many of us also experience that growing up (which is one of the tasks in front of Billy) more often than not entails a gradual distancing from the richness of inner life one experienced during one’s younger years. In this sense, regressive escapist practices (as well as nostalgia, which the film’s last part abounds in) can also be seen as attempts to go back to a previous form of selfhood, which used to be more fulfilling, or to re-establish a connection with all those parts of the self that got buried or forgotten through one’s journey towards normative adulthood. Billy Elliot seems to suggest that in difficult life conditions any connection with a form of subjectivity that is more meaningful, home-like or colourful than the ordinary, normative one can easily become addictive. The clearest expression of the film’s philosophy of individual escapism is to be found in its usage of the metaphor of flying. In the present context, it is important to stress that “to fly” in English also means to escape, to flee, as well as to achieve success and popular acceptance. The metaphor’s significance is also highlighted by the fact that the film both opens and ends with images of “flying”, thus framing the narrative. Billy Elliot’s very first scene with the opening credits, for example, shows Billy putting a record on and jumping on his bed. As the camera cuts from the old record player to the boy jumping in front of a flowery wallpaper (that colour-matches his clothes), his jumps turn into flights shown in slow motion, all other objects disappear from the frame, and the music turns hi-fidelity. As the height and space of jumping grow into hyperrealistic proportions (which is further emphasised by Billy’s regular looking straight into the camera), we see him fly higher than the original room or the original bed’s springs would allow, we enter a musical bubble, a performance of joyful flying in the middle of a painted set, the realm of dreams and fantasy (see Fig.  4.2). Thus, from the very beginning, the spectator is invited to “get high” together with Billy, to share his passion and joy, his “flight” from his dire circumstances. This is verbally formulated at the audition scene, when Billy confesses that while dancing he is “just there, flying. Like a bird. Like electricity”. The film also ends on a similarly upbeat note, with another act of flying. Now Billy, as an adult star dancer, performs in London. While his father and brother, as well as his gay friend



Fig. 4.2  Film still from Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry 2000)

Michael are sitting in the audience, we see him enter the stage at the most dramatic moment of Tchaikovsky’s The Swan Lake with a fantastically high jump. The camera takes a lower position, and the jump is shown in slow motion, and thus reiterates the film’s fundamental motif about flying, beating gravity, leaving the roots behind and entering a wholly different sphere of existence. The frame slows even more, than finally freezes completely, showing Billy flying in mid-air. At this moment, the whitish spotlights on his body gain a yellowish hue, and suddenly the original wallpaper with the yellow flowers transpire through the image, thus connecting the beginning and the end of the film. This kind of individual escapism, as I have remarked above in connection with Marmion’s sharp criticism, definitely seems more ideologically suspicious today, when the world of neoliberal capitalism and its cult of unregulated free enterprise and individual resourcefulness has shown its drawbacks. Today, it seems that we live in a world where the challenge is rather to re-establish disintegrated real-world, offline communities, to control growing inequality, and to increase the sense of collective responsibility for the planet. Ours is a time when individual escape may easily contribute to collective suicide. However, the film is not as far detached from the post-crisis world as its ideological baggage would suggest. The dystopian mise-en-scene compensates for the escapist traits, and effectively connect Billy Elliot with the



post-crisis world. The theme of human manual labour becoming redundant, bringing whole communities to crisis is a typically post-2008 phenomenon, and will probably be one of the defining characteristics of the decades to come. Automation, ever since the first industrial revolution, has resulted in the crisis of masculinity, the feeling of human insecurity, and fantasies of machines overthrowing the now redundant humans. The sight of the superhuman industrial structures framing almost each and every outdoor scene in the film is much in line with this more than a century-old dark imagery. It is quite likely that with the rapid contemporary development of automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning, new and new jobs will be replaced by machines. Thus, the experience of economic redundancy, as well as the need for self-reinvention are already strong motifs of life in the developed world, but are very likely to be so even more. In this twenty-first-century context, Billy’s desperate need for individual escape even at the price of abandoning his family, hometown, local community and their struggles, his success at “getting high” in the world of art seem to constitute a rather ambiguous ending that feels much less celebratory than in 2000. Today, when anti-elite sentiment is one of the strongest political factors, the sight of Billy flying high on the stage of a metropolitan theatre, separated from his poor, fossil-like, bemused relatives in the audience can also be regarded as a reminder of growing social inequalities and dangerous social disintegration.

T2 Trainspotting Danny Boyle’s original Trainspotting (1996) about the Edinburgh drug scene, as well as Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same title, were key cult items in the late twentieth-century world of urban misfits, humanities departments, counter-cultural nonconformists and ordinary drug addicts. The film tapped into a whole series of end-of-the-century anxieties and damaging social issues that have not abated since then. As a recent survey indicates, Scotland’s heroin-related overdose record has been constantly on the rise in the new millennium, the most drastic growth in overdose fatalities happening since 2008. As a result, overdose deaths doubled since 2008, reaching 1187 in 2018, “putting the country on a par in terms of the fatality rate per capita with the United States, where synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have devastated drug-using populations” (Brooks 2019, 1). “According to the latest annual figures … most of the increase in fatalities was in the over-35 age-group, the so-called ‘Trainspotting generation’



of ageing, long-term users, although there was also a rise in deaths among younger people” (Brooks 2019, 3). The cultural importance of the original 1996 Trainspotting is not only indicated by the fact that it provided addictology with the technical term “trainspotting generation”. The film also proved Umberto Eco’s point about cult films, namely that their success partly comes from their being well-quotable and adaptable to various situations outside the original context of the narrative. Renton’s “Choose life” monologue, indeed, captured some of the key features of the 1990s Zeitgeist: at the turn of the century it was not uncommon to hear parts of it being quoted in various conversations, from pubs to university classrooms. Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life … But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

My reason for quoting the full monologue is not only to pay homage to the original film: it also serves as a reference point, in T2 too, against which socio-cultural change can be measured. As exactly 20 years passed by in both “real” historical time and the fictive world between the 1996 original film and its 2016 sequel, their contrasts offer a historical perspective connecting and contrasting past and present. T2 seems to know this very well: it simultaneously shows, plays with and critically examines some of the most formative socio-cultural phenomena of the early twenty-first century. Similarly to Trainspotting, which managed to express and criticise the spirit of the times so well, most importantly by its portrayal of people left out of or discontent with the brave new world of the global consumerist utopia, T2 attempts to create a sensitive and clever in-depth analysis of the times when that utopia was shaken, and history, against all expectations,



proved to be alive and kicking. Renton’s reference to choosing mortgage repayments in the above quote has gained a very special significance since its original utterance: as we know it by now, it was precisely that kind of easy money and cheap credit that fuelled the 1990s economic boom that caused the ensuing burst, the 2007–2008 global financial meltdown. In other words, in his truly classic soliloquy Renton defines the prime addictions of late twentieth-century neoliberal capitalism, which gave such a high to all important players (from ordinary customers and house-owners to bankers and government officials) that successfully disabled their more rational, risk-evaluating faculties. T2’s first scene takes place in a gym in Amsterdam, with people running on treadmills. This remarkably layered two minutes long opening introduces both the film crew (through the stylish credits) and some of the main motifs. The dynamic music, the constantly moving camera, the physical movement of the sporty bodies, as well as the shiny modern gym with its mirrors and intelligent equipment imply that Renton (Ewan McGregor) managed to escape his old life of a heroin-addict in Edinburgh, and now lives the (mainstream cultural) dream, the shiny-happy-yuppie life in one of the economic and cultural centres of Europe. While the spectator is enjoying the music, the music-video-like camera work and editing, as well as the runners’ being nicely and conspicuously in sync with the beat of the music, we see colourful, touristy images of Amsterdam and the Netherlands intercut for short seconds, further enhancing the feeling of a picture-­ perfect, postcard-like life of joy and success. However, another figure appears as well in these short intercuts: a blurred image of the Renton of 1996, walking towards us with a cheeky smile and the bag of money he stole from his friends, thus simultaneously evoking and reversing the last scene of the first film. We, the spectator as well as Renton, recall those events, his betrayal of friends and walking away with the money. At that time he was running away, escaping even at the price of betrayal, towards a better life. Now, that old Renton seems to be coming towards us, catching up on this life of the runaway. The camera in the gym gets closer and closer to the face of a runner who we can now positively identify as Renton; parallel with this, the intercuts of the 1996 Renton are getting sharper and sharper, his face is slowly coming into focus. At the moment he arrives, and his now clearly recognisable face fills the screen, the music abruptly stops and Renton in Amsterdam collapses. The treadmill throws him off, and leaves him lying in a somewhat foetus-like position next to a mirror. At this point the film cuts to what must be Renton’s vision: a misty,



beautiful image of Edinburgh in the early morning, then sepia-like, grainy and nostalgic images of the past, schoolchildren playing together on a sunny afternoon in slow motion. The nostalgic vision is accompanied by the theme melody of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day played slowly and softly on piano. This opening is worth recalling because of the ways it contextualises the rest of T2’s plot, that of Renton, now rather referred to as Mark, going back to Edinburgh to visit his friends, face his past, and perhaps pay back what he owes them. The scene creates a contrast between Amsterdam and Edinburgh, two places of radically different meaning in terms of cultural geography. The first film, as well as most of T2, take place in run-down districts of Edinburgh, which both films show as off-modern, post-­ industrial wastelands on the margins of Europe where wasted human lives abound. Reminiscent of some of the Eastern European off-modern landscapes discussed in the second chapter of this book, most people here are poor, and the cityscapes are regularly marked by ruins, ugly housing towers, and junkyards (see Fig. 4.3). The above-mentioned touristy images of Amsterdam in the first scene of T2, however, create a counterpoint. They evoke the fantasy of the progressive, affluent Europe, a place that did not suffer but gained much from colonialism, a place where the benefits of a different history were used to build a radically different culture. While all the main characters of Trainspotting were busy escaping from themselves,

Fig. 4.3  Film still from T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 2017)



their lives and their social surroundings, in Amsterdam people seem to enjoy themselves. Here the main cult is not to escape into heroin, but rather to enjoy the amusements of a culture of hedonistic individualism, which include the narcissistic pleasures of watching your healthy body running in the mirror of the gym. These are the images of the successful consumer culture of global capitalism, with its cult of health, beauty, material wealth and narcissism-oiled normativity. Here the glasses and mirrors are clean, the treadmills look brand new, they are all occupied and arranged in a geometrical order, intelligent machines work in harmony with the human bodies attached to them, counting distance, heartbeats and calories burnt. However, through the metaphor of the treadmill, the scene also seems to suggest that this glamorous life is not really getting anywhere, at least as long as Renton is concerned. He is still on the run, but he is stuck in this narcissistic fantasy, and while he is not moving forward, his unsettled past is slowly catching up with him. As this introduction already indicates, T2 connects with and comments on several social issues that I discuss in this book as the key socio-cultural phenomena of post-crisis Europe: the collapse due to the minor heart-­ attack marks the film’s time as that of (post-)crisis, Renton’s geographical journey evokes the motif of return to the homeland, the 1690 gathering scene shows the effects of political polarisation, and the film’s use of nostalgia comments on contemporary reinventions of the (individual or national) past as well as the new means of political escapism. Most of these themes and motifs are contextualised by and expressed through the temporal dichotomy between past and present, Trainspotting and T2, 1996 and 2016, and are related, in one way or another, to nostalgia. In terms of the characters, the major difference between 1996 and 2016 seems to be that whereas in the first film we saw young men in their early twenties, who could not or would not fit into the consumer-culture of their time, and instead turned to heroin, here we see men encountering a sort of mid-life-crisis. In T2 all the main characters, not only Renton, look back on their pasts in order to understand what went wrong, what is worth reconnecting with, trying to sort out what to do with the rest of their time. Probably Renton’s crisis and turning back is the most spectacular because of the heart failure and the dramatic treadmill incident. Later we learn that it was not just his heart: his marriage derailed (partly because of fertility problems), he was about to lose his job (due to a merge of the company he worked for). “I am forty-six and I’m fucked!”—he exclaims to Simon (former Sick Boy), as he moves back from Amsterdam the way



he went there, with nothing but one single bag in his hand. However, as it turns out, nobody from the gang has been doing very well. Begbie (now rather called Franco) spent these 20 years in prison for homicide, and when he escapes, he follows the same old life of violence and petty crime. Sick Boy (now Simon) runs his aunt’s old pub in the ruinous outskirts, which only a few local drunkards visit; we see him trying to make some money on the side by growing weed and blackmailing people with sex videos that he secretly filmed with the help of his girlfriend, Veronika, a Bulgarian girl in her 20s. It is not by accident that we pick up his story line exactly when his latest blackmail backfires, and the police is about to come knocking at his door. Finally, we learn that Spud has been a good-hearted misfit all his life, constantly on and off rehab programmes, missing all the important appointments of his life, now living separated from his ex-­ girlfriend and son; when Renton visits him, he is just about to commit suicide. Thus, nothing has really moved forward with the lads, they are still back at square one. Yet, in spite of this spectacular lack of change (or lack of forward movement), Renton’s return does not turn out to be the kind of nostalgic homecoming that he (and the spectator) may have imagined. The other obvious issue that quickly meets the eye is that the members of the old junkie gang have stopped using heroin: as it turns out, they have shifted to other “drugs”, more in tune with the spirit of the times, and have been continuously experimenting with “channelling” their addictions. As Renton explains to Spud during an experiment with jogging on the hill over the city: RENTON: Detox the system?! What does that even mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not getting out of your body that’s the problem. It’s getting out of your mind. You are an addict. … So be addicted. Be addicted to something else. SPUD: Like running until I feel sick? RENTON: Yes! Or something else. You’ve got to channel it. You’ve got to control it. People try all sorts of things… SPUD: So what did you channel it into? RENTON: Getting away. This conversation on the hilltop over the city in the soft light of the late afternoon is as important in the film’s view on twenty-first-century life as Renton’s retake on the “Choose life” monologue later on in the film. On



Fig. 4.4  Film still from T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 2017)

the most literal level, it suggests that junkies remain junkies, only their choices of addiction changes. However, the idyllic setting of the conversation, with the two friends in the foreground, facing the city laying at their feet in the background, highlights the more philosophical implications of Renton’s point (see Fig. 4.4). The way the friends are looking at human culture from a philosophical distance may even remind one of Plato’s dialogues, most importantly Phaedrus, where Socrates, driven by his daimon, decides to go outside the city gates, to an idyllic place so as to discuss issues of love, obsession, divine madness, and the different drives humans must manage (or channel). Socrates’s allegory of the soul as a charioteer, that must handle two very different horses, one beautiful and one ugly, one pulling the chariot upwards and one dragging it down, is much in line with Renton’s ideas on channelling potentially destructive inner drives. On this more philosophical level, Renton’s words seem to suggest an intimate connection between ways of being and means of addiction. It implies that there is no life without some sort of addiction, the only question is what it is that one manages to channel one’s cravings into, where it is that one escapes to. Looking at the group of friends, one finds all sorts of such escape routes and addictions. They definitely seem to prove Renton’s point: none of them is truly clean or free from the difficulties of managing the darker horses of their chariots. Renton has shifted his addiction from heroin to an



escape into nostalgia and “getting away”; Simon, in line with his enterprises in the sex industry, uses cocaine; while Spud (after a short and disastrous experiment with boxing) finds writing. In the context of addiction and escapism it is quite telling that his first writing is a farewell letter before his attempted suicide, but his later writings are also inspired by the gang’s gloomily poetic, heroin-related past adventures. Significantly from the point of view of different masculinities, Begbie is the only one whose addiction does not change: he still gets high on violence. Apart from the notorious and unredeemable Begbie, the general tendency is that the characters have become slightly more functional, and their addictions do not isolate them from the rest of society as much as they did 20 years earlier. The heroin-using youngsters used to live in a bubble, without jobs, alienated even from the closest family members. Now they all interact with others, make more or less money, and maintain some sort of a connection with the rest of the world. None of them integrates ideologically, none of them lives the ideological dream, none of them thinks that they should follow the docile normativity of the “proper” early twenty-first-century citizen. The crucial fact to realise, however, is that not only the lads learned to channel their addictions (to a certain degree). Society has also changed around them: the dominant social logic has become closer to that of addiction. While watching T2 one easily gets the impression that contemporary societies have developed a whole series of socially tolerated (or even supported) addictions. The social imperative is not so much to work hard and honourably sacrifice yourself for work and family (as in the earlier, more ascetic, industrial form of capitalism), neither it is to enjoy the bliss of the consumerist utopia (as at the time of Trainspotting). Apparently, the time spent with heroin (one’s “only true friend”, as Spud calls it) has created such an existentialist perspective compared to which hardly anything one can do makes much sense. Thus, the goal seems to be to find pastimes that help one spend the rest of one’s time without much suffering, above the water, something that keeps one hanging on (so as to recycle Lou Reed), in other words, something that diverts one’s attention from the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. T2 seems to take us into a world where no one really expects you to believe in the normative dream, in the ideological fantasy that supposedly keeps society together: you are only meant to do some basic duties, with or without conviction or enthusiasm, and channel your thirst for something more into addictions that do not disturb basic social processes too much.



Ironically, the only addiction-free main character in the film, and the one with the most integrity, is the Eastern European sex worker Veronika. She is also a stand-in for a younger generation of spectators, for whom these middle-aged Scottish ex-junkies look a bit odd. She is also the one who asks Renton about the meaning of “Choose life”, thus, it is to her generation (of spectators) that that film updates its social critique: “Choose life”. “Choose life” was a well-meaning slogan from a 1980s anti-­ drug campaign and we used to add things to it, so I might say for example, choose… designer lingerie, in the vain hope of kicking some life back into a dead relationship. Choose handbags, choose high-heeled shoes, cashmere and silk, to make yourself feel what passes for happy. Choose an iPhone made in China by a woman who jumped out of a window and stick it in the pocket of your jacket fresh from a South-Asian Firetrap. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and a thousand other ways to spew your bile across people you’ve never met. Choose updating your profile, tell the world what you had for breakfast and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, desperate to believe that you don’t look as bad as they do. Choose live-blogging from your first wank to your last breath, human interaction reduced to nothing more than data. Choose ten things you never knew about celebrities who’ve had surgery. Choose screaming about abortion. Choose rape jokes, slut-shaming, revenge porn and an endless tide of depressing misogyny. Choose 9/11 never happened, and if it did, it was the Jews. Choose a zero-hour contract and a two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and maybe tell yourself that it’s better that they never happened. And then sit back and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s fucking kitchen. Choose unfulfilled promise and wishing you’d done it all differently. Choose never learning from your own mistakes. Choose watching history repeat itself. Choose the slow reconciliation towards what you can get rather than what you always hoped for. Settle for less and keep a brave face on it. Choose disappointment and choose losing the ones you love, and as they fall from view, a piece of you dies with them until you can see that one day in the future, piece by piece, they will all be gone and there’ll be nothing left of you to call alive or dead. Choose your future, Veronika. Choose life.

Significantly, Veronika seems to be free from all the faults and weaknesses of these new trends. The fact that at the end of the film she gets to walk away with the money is of symbolic relevance. While the men she leaves behind, the last “aboriginals” as Spud calls them, are mostly caught



in addictive substitute activities (including bathing in nostalgia) and pseudo-lives, she has real human connections and a real future waiting for her back in Bulgaria, connections that the film treats with sentimentality and unquestionable value. It seems to suggest that real human values are to be found only in real human connections, which are scarce in this lost generation of Western European men. The film’s ending suggests that neither the official purpose of the EU money (turning the old neighbourhood into a cultural centre), nor Simon’s planned scam to spend it on building a brothel are worth being sorry about. The last scenes of T2 clearly leave one with the message—reminiscent of the films discussed in the retreat chapter of this book—that the only way forward is to go back. In this film that came out in the year of the Brexit vote, when Britain decided to leave the EU and go back to being Good Old Britain (or even further, to being Little England), Veronika goes back to Bulgaria to her family; Spud takes his writings (probably the script of Trainspotting) to his ex, Gail, and his son “Little Fergusson”, and manages to reconnect with them through writing; Simon goes back to reopen the old pub, the site of many nostalgic memories; Begbie/Franco gets back to prison; and Mark returns to his parents’ house, to his old room, and puts an old record on. In case of the male characters, this regressive tendency, as in The World Is Big, Delta and Suntan, is a result of giving up on forward-looking, more cinematic, progressive and desire-­ driven plans. Yet, this is not just renunciation: in T2 the reconnection with one’s past is also a reconnection with an identity rooted in specific places and the human connections associated with them. These last scenes include a conspicuous amount of embraces, which would have felt kitsch in the pre-crisis days, but here, probably due to their being closer to the spirit of the times, seem more of a logical narrative conclusion. Veronika embraces her son that she had left with her mother, Spud holds his manuscript in an embrace while walking to Gail with it, Mark embraces his father, and Franco, ironically, is just about to be held tight by three prison wardens. These physical embraces also symbolise the way our characters tend to embrace their pasts as well as the identities that stem from those pasts (though in Begbie/Franco’s case, it is rather being trapped by his past). In that sense, these men are not escaping any more. The elegiac ending of the film also reflects this gesture of acceptance and the end of their previous, and sometimes obsessive tendency to run, escape forward. The more subtle differences between the characters is to be found in the kind of (more or less addictive) connections they go back to. Let me



emphasise here only the difference between the male lead, Mark, and the only female character, Veronika. Their similarities and differences are expressed visually as well: both return home, both embrace someone they love, in both cases there is the sense of reconnecting with the past and one’s beloved ones, yet while Veronika’s train runs through real and natural surroundings, and arrives at an idyllic Bulgarian small town railway station with golden sunshine and lots of greenery, in the very last trick shot of the film Mark is caught in an infinite, repetitive, digital loop. We see him enter his room, put the old record on and start dancing. The scene is intercut with momentary images from the first film, where Renton is going through the same bodily motions, only in that case on a drug-­ induced trip. The fact that nostalgia is an addictive escape replacing heroin is further highlighted by the camera’s backwards motion, which turns his room into an ever longer train or corridor. Veronika’s train moved from right to left on the screen, thus also implying backwards movement, yet its goal was organic and human. By contrast, the final image of T2 leaves Mark caught in and endless, repetitive, digital loop, at the bottom of a well of nostalgic simulation.

Kills on Wheels Kills on Wheels (2016), the second feature film of the Hungarian director (and TV show-host) Attila Till was marketed as a wheelchair-action-­ comedy, and was one of the few Hungarian films that attracted larger number of domestic audiences. It tells the story of a disabled teenager, Zoli, who lives in a rehabilitation centre in Budapest. Zoli (played by Zoltán Fenyvesi, an amateur actor and real-life wheelchair user) was born disabled, his father left the family when he was little. He blames himself for their parents’ break-up, thinking that his father left them because he could not live with a “cripple” son. Now he is confined to a wheelchair, and his spine’s gradual collision is pushing his organs together. While his mother is trying to organise the expensive life-saving surgery for him, which his father agreed to finance, Zoli decides not to accept his father’s help, whom he has not seen or talked to for fifteen years. Thus, he lives with pain and painkillers, in a life-threating situation. His only escape seems to be the production of dark, crime-related comic books. One day he and his best friend and room-mate in the rehab centre, Barba meet Rupaszov, an ex-­ firefighter, who got into a wheelchair after he fell through the floor of a burning house. As it turns out, Rupaszov lost both his fiancée and



livelihood after his accident and became a hitman—probably the first wheelchair user hitman in recorded history—helping the Serbian mobster Rados getting rid of his rivals in Budapest. The three broken, disabled men start hanging out together, Rupaszov takes the lads to clubs, buys them drinks and quickly becomes a substitute father of a sort, who seem to take life’s troubles with courage, humour and traditional masculine resilience. The boys get hooked on the excitement and human connection that Rupaszov offers, and start helping him with his ever more challenging jobs. These bring plenty of uniquely original action into Kills on Wheels, which manages to balance compassion with humour, the everyday drama of life as a wheelchair user with genre cinema style entertainment. Following a long tradition of Eastern-European self-depreciating comedy, and reliance on such complex aesthetic qualities as irony and black humour, the spectator simultaneously grows fond of the “lame” gang, gets emotionally moved by the drama of their daily struggles, and learns to laugh with them about their miseries. In Kills on Wheels every action sequence is balanced by some touching scene of bonding, dark comedy or social criticism. The generic patterns that structure the narrative and define some of its stylistic qualities do not hinder the more “serious” drama, but manage to work hand in hand. On this deeper level, Kills on Wheels is about downtrodden men desperately struggling against all odds, working through the heritage of their troubled pasts, in seek of living more agreeable lives. The intricate connection between the drama and the generic elements becomes clearest at the film’s ending. At the final showdown, which takes place between the three handicapped friends and the Serbian mobster himself, Rupaszov also gets killed. Zoli, after putting a bullet into the Serbian, takes the money they were owed from the safe. The short final scenes of the film show Zoli finishing his comic book entitled Kills on Wheels, with a drawing of Rupaszov in a wheelchair on the cover, show Zoli agreeing to the life-saving operation, and also show his father receiving the comic book in a mail. The film’s twist is that the real-life father, who lives now in Germany with his new family, is none other than the man we knew as the hitman Rupaszov. It is only at this point that the spectator realises that the whole crime-story was Zoli’s fantasy about reconnecting with his father. While we watch Zoli being prepared for his surgery, we understand that it was this fantasy that helped him work through his trauma of abandonment, and thus helped him to reconnect with his father and accept his money (which, in his fantasy, they earned together). Thus, by the end of the film the spectator



understands that all the generic elements were part of an abandoned son’s day-dreams about his father. What one may have perceived as an action-­ comedy genre film, has turned out to be a creative, witty and sophisticated study of escapist fantasies, a double-decker story demonstrating the ways one may try to flee from the harsh realities of one’s life. The first thing to notice about the “real story” behind the action film is the extent to which it matches Máté’s definition of addiction. The original question Máté asks when meeting addiction, “Why the pain?” is clearly explained here: Zoli has suffered extensive emotional and physical trauma, he is confined to a wheelchair, lives in a rehab centre, his back gives him constant pain, and he thinks that his father abandoned him and his mother because of his physical deformation. His way of dealing with pain is constant reliance on painkillers: for the physical pain he takes pills, while for his emotional trauma he has devised an intricate and creative system of day-dreaming and escapist fantasies, which also manifest as drawings and narratives eventually evolving into a comic book. The lads’ first encounter with Rupaszov also hints at his addictive function: as the lads play with a stolen fire extinguisher in the alley, inhaling the gas, Barba asks “Can you get high on this?” It is immediately after this sentence that Rupaszov’s figure appears from the smoke, suggesting that he is an addictive fantasy, a figure (and a narrative universe) on which the downtrodden lads can get high, one that helps them escape from the dreary realities of their lives. Of course, having grasped the final twist, one immediately understands the significance of all the other clues, such as, for example, why we repeatedly

Fig. 4.5  Film still from Kills on Wheels (Attila Till 2016)



see Zoli lying in bed before the Rupaszov scenes, or the intermedia-play between film and comic book, which technically often manifests as drawings intercut into the action, or as scenes that come to life from static drawings. These cinematic devices create a playful, self-reflexive film text and effectively undermine the ontological status of the cinematic image even before we understand that they are mere fantasies (see Fig. 4.5). Though day-dreaming, or regular escape into mediatised fantasies may seem a world apart from the devastation left behind by the opioid crisis or hard drug addicts’ slow but steady descent into emotional hell, one must not forget Máté’s reminder that these addictive practices share the same neurobiological and cultural logic: by getting high on a fantasy-coloured life, Zoli, the protagonist of Kills on Wheels, tries to escape physical and emotional pain, and perhaps boredom, anxiety and discomfort experienced in a not-fulfilling-enough-life, in much the same way as millions do while developing addictions to TV, internet, overeating, work, sex, shopping, smoking, online political activism, religious fundamentalism, workout, alcohol or illicit drugs. As Máté makes clear, it is not the activity or substance itself, but one’s relationship to it that defines a habit as addiction. As the experiments he quotes point out, even repeated heroin use can occur in a way that does not qualify as addiction, while even the most socially normative habits, such as watching TV or checking on social media can (Máté 138). The cultural relevance of such escapist practices is hard to underestimate today. In fact, it often seems that such behaviours lie very close to the heart of the cultural logic of twenty-first-century developed societies. The field of addiction and escapism is a well-researched one, and there is hardly any question about the fact that addictive and escapist behaviours are part and parcel of the kind of technologically advanced, secular, capitalist consumer societies in which most people of the developed world live today. One might regard it as an illness, but then it is not so much a biological one, but rather cultural-civilisational in origin. One gets the impression that the long period of peace and prosperity that the developed world has been enjoying since the end of the Second World War did not bring about the kinds of social utopias that the progressives of the post-WW2 era envisioned. In fact, we have been doing really badly at finding out what to do with all the space left behind by the demise of such “grand narratives” as tribalism, institutionalised religion, or the terrible twentieth-century experiments of National Socialism or communism. Our statistics of self-­ harming addictive behaviours suggest that in spite of the tremendous



development in human rights, personal liberties, medical science or material comfort, the majority of people in the late twentieth and early twenty-­ first centuries could not use these opportunities to live truly fulfilling lives, ones that do not need any escaping from (see Delsol 2003, xxv–xxvi; Lee 2012). Such recent large-scale drug-related social experiments as Portugal’s new drug policy or the Youth in Iceland programme also indicate that changing socio-cultural patterns and focusing on qualities often neglected in “advanced” capitalist societies are what can truly make a difference: by helping teens participate in meaningful social activities that increase the sense of wellbeing, promoting quality time with parents and friends, and teaching them about the “natural highs” that come with sports, arts, dance or martial arts can radically reduce the number of young adults that escape into addictions of alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs (Young 2017). Kills on Wheels also highlights this cultural or psychological symptom-­ like logic of addiction, according to which it is a “symptom of distress” (Miller 2009, 126) that must be read, or a “dark mirror” (Máté 2018, 2) in which we can recognise the socio-cultural issues that we all suffer from. This viewpoint is especially revealing with regards to the relationship between Zoli and (the fantasy figure) Rupaszov. By the end of the film the spectator understands that Zoli has dreamed (and drawn) himself a father in place of the one that left him, that the Rupaszov-figure is a symptom that signals lack and emotional pain. The way this fantasy-father is dreamed and drawn, however, provides us with the “dark mirror” Máté talks about: in the figure of Rupaszov one can recognise the face of the escape(ing) artist Zoli. First, Zoli’s dream has “punished” his father with the same physical problems that he has. Now they are in the same shoes, struggling with the same issues. The way father and son imitate each other is quite typical of the film’s smart (and psychologically motivated) twists. In the “real world” both father and son seem to be in denial and escape: the father escaped to Germany “into another world where there is nothing disturbing” as Zoli bitterly puts it; while Zoli escapes into a noir fantasy, another world where there is nothing disturbing, unwilling to face the fact that without his father’s financial help his days are numbered. In the realm of fantasy, however, Zoli creates a different kind of father figure for himself, one that he can learn better survival strategies from: in his escapist fantasy-universe Zoli has a non-escapist father. One must notice that the fantasy-Rupaszov embodies all the qualities and conditions that Zoli and his best friend Barba lack in real life. He is a tough guy



always ready to defend himself, he has an exciting life, with his money and connections he gets into night clubs, and has a way of getting along with women. Most importantly, however, Rupaszov possesses true human agency: he is active, has his own value system, way of thinking, philosophy of life, goals, as well as the willpower to act, no matter what. Though he has lost everything due to his accident, and even spent some time incarcerated (for an accident that he caused while he freaked out after his accident), he is determined to walk again: he practices with the leg braces, no matter how hopeless and painful that seems, does pull-ups with the wheelchair tied to his body, and even tries to get his old fiancée back (who is now engaged to another man). In all these examples, Rupaszov embodies a kind of traditional masculinity built from hard-boiled detective fiction, a resilient, solitary hero from a film noir. It is through this escapist fantasy about non-escaping, non-defeatist, active men that Zoli learns to take responsibility for his life in the real world (see Fig. 4.6). Rupaszov’s figure is also crucial in the film’s subtle symbolism. The key existential drama of the film, as well as Zoli’s motivation for escape, is told through metaphors of gravity and weight, which gradually come to stand for all the heavy matter of human existence that can make life difficult. As we learn, Zoli’s spine is gradually shrinking, the disks are colliding, unable to hold the weight of his body. He is pulled down, dragged down: ordinary existence has an unbearable weight for him. Physically, this is clearly due to his physical deformity that he was born with, yet emotionally this goes back to his childhood experience of being abandoned by his father.

Fig. 4.6  Film still from Kills on Wheels (Attila Till 2016)



As the film’s narrative gradually explains, it is this painful experience, and the ensuing feeling of worthlessness that makes him give up the fight with gravity, life, or the depressing weight of his daily existence. In Kills on Wheels it is this heaviness and downwards pull that provide the psychological motivation for escapism and addiction, for Zoli’s need to “get high” on the fantasy of a super-cool, gravity-resistant father. Rupaszov was wounded by the same forces that Zoli is suffering from. He fell when the floor of a burning house collapsed beneath his feet, thus it was also gravity and the weight of his body that damaged his spine. The difference between them, however, is that figuratively Rupaszov’s backbone is never broken: he manages to retain human dignity and a sort of bitter perseverance in spite of all the humiliating and painful conditions of his daily life. He does not give in to that downwards pull, and even manages to take advantage of his poor condition (as no one suspects a wheelchair user to be a hitman). In this regard, the most expressive scene in Kills on Wheels is when Rupaszov is hanged by Rados, his former employer. A key part of the context of this scene is that Rados tries to kill Rupaszov precisely because of the latter’s “moral backbone”, that is, because, against his order, Rupaszov did not kill the two lads, the witnesses and accomplices of his previous job. This is why Rados takes Rupaszov to a deserted, empty factory building, where the noose is already waiting for him. Rados hangs Rupaszov and leaves him there to choke slowly: his hands are tied, his wheelchair is close but out of reach, and though his feet touches the ground, they cannot give him any support. Though some critics saw this scene as unnecessarily long, disrupting the rhythm of the action, I would argue that Rupaszov’s two and a half minutes’ of slow and detailed struggling with gravity is essential to the film’s symbolic framework. The scene’s metaphorical meanings are highlighted by the montage-like editing, the close ups on Rupaszov’s face and hands as he tries to grab the rope to pull himself up, as well as the slow, sad music (“World without delight” by the Volkova Sisters), which guides one’s attention away from the narrative action towards its figurative significance and the emotional drama it entails. As my previous reference to film noir have already indicated, Zoli’s fantasy about a man defeating gravity has a socio-cultural-cinematic dimension as well: it can be understood as the nostalgic turning back of millennial men towards a 1940s style hard-boiled version of masculinity. According to John Beynon, this retrospective, nostalgic seeking of masculine ideals is a fairly typical trend in the new millennium:



Contemporary men are frequently presented as physically and mentally soft because they have been seduced into abandoning traditional masculine values. At its most extreme (certainly in the hands of those who wish to re-­ establish patriarchal hegemony) this takes the form of asserting that ‘real masculinity’ belongs to the past. Even in the view of some liberals there is an enduring nostalgia for hard and stoical, traditional masculinity, the antithesis of his narcissistic, fashion-driven contemporary. (Beynon 2001, 127)

Indeed, it is easy to see why the ideals of masculinity produced in and for the boom years of the late twentieth century are ill-suited for the turbulent social transformations of the new millennium. And similarly, one can interpret this story of wheelchair-bound men living in a rehab centre as an allegory about the disorientation and disenchantment of the (allegedly) emasculated, millennial “snowflake” generation, who need an admittedly cartoon-like, hard-boiled father-figure so as to regain agency, self-respect and responsibility. In this respect, it is worth recalling the similarities between the time of the classic noir cycle and the early twenty-first century. Similarly to Kills on Wheels (and many other films discussed in this book) film noir was much defined by a profound socio-cultural crisis, distrust and disillusionment in the social order, decreased sense of agency, and the emphasis on men in crisis. As Frank Krutnik puts it in In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, “the noir ‘tough’ thriller reveals a particular obsession with the representation of challenges to and problems within the ordering of masculine identity and male cultural authority” (Krutnik 1991, 25). One must note that the kind of masculinity featured in “tough” noirs is not a successful heroic one at all. Neither Zoli nor Kills on Wheels escapes into a world of heroic masculinity, but into one where men tend to be beaten, wounded and betrayed, yet their responses to this situation reveal stoic courage, resilience and action (even if that action is against a corrupted world, or is bound to fail). As Krutnik points out: In place of this conventional affirmation of heroic masculinity, these 1940s thrillers offer a range of alternative or ‘transgressive’ representations of male desire and identity, together with a manifestly more sceptical framing of the network of male cultural authority… The conventionalised figuration of ‘tough’, controlled and unified masculinity is invoked not so much as a model of worthwhile or realistic achievement but more as a worrying mark of what precisely is lacking. (Krutnik 1991, 88)



In this sense, Kills on Wheels can be read as an ironic commentary on what contemporary young men may be lacking, an allegory about the productive use of escapist fantasy, as well as a self-reflexive excursion of art cinema into a comic-book style version of hard-boiled, ‘tough’ film noir. Though the film’s playful visual style is very much in line with twenty-first-­ century cinematic trends, its representation of men in crisis clearly breaks with some of our dominant contemporary conventions. It is hard to miss the deeply felt humanism of Kills on Wheels, its sympathy for its misshaped characters, or its concern for the ethics of representing disadvantaged people. However, the film skilfully avoids the pitfalls of contemporary victimhood culture: these men are not presented as mere victims of a cruel world, their representation is never designed to evoke pity. The film does not become emotionally manipulative, never plays with the good-hearted humanist spectator’s empathy for the handicapped protagonists, or try to trigger the bad conscience of the more privileged. The “feel-good” moments of the film do not stem from the spectators’ narcissistic self-­ congratulation for being such nice people (who feel touched by the misery of the less privileged), but rather from seeing these downtrodden men regain healthy adult responsibility over their lives. Thus, Kills on Wheels manages to connect humanism and empathy for the underprivileged with the affirmation of male agency, and a traditional masculine resilience in the face of emotional and physical pain. The film’s original title, Tiszta szívvel (literally: with a pure heart) refers to the Hungarian poem by the poet Attila József by the same title, which expresses the pain, desperation, destructiveness, yet utter purity of someone completely outcast from “normal” human contact. In line with the title (and its resonances for Hungarian audiences), Kills on Wheels takes the spectator to emotional territories outside of normalcy, to a place where physical and emotional pain, humiliation and the feeling of worthlessness are daily experiences, to the realm of hungry ghosts whose souls have been laid bare and pure by daily suffering. However, as opposed to the poem Tiszta szívvel, Kills on Wheels shows how, through a creative escapist fantasy and art, one may find one’s way back to the human realm. As opposed to Billy Elliot, Zoli’s escape into art does not lead him away from the human community around him. Rather, it creates a bridge of understanding and empathy through which he manages to reconnect with it. Thus, while the film manages to provide a psychologically sophisticated, reliable account of one’s escape into addiction, it also succeeds in indicating how fantasy, art and creativity in general may also come to protect one from truly self-harming behaviours.



Conclusions: Addiction and Escapism At the end of this chapter it may be useful to sum of the common trends in the three films analysed in detail. All three aim at working through heavy social, cultural and psychological issues, all are closely connected to the social phenomena of the time of their making, all apply basically realist approaches coupled with humanist value-systems (well known from European art-cinema), yet all three play a bit with realism, rely on more creative, exciting film-texts, colour realism with fantasy-scenes (or fantasy-­ tinted ones), and various non-realist filmic techniques. All three attempt to create a sort of mid-cult cinema that has the best of both worlds: entertaining and escapist (as genre cinema), yet intellectually and aesthetically appealing, socially engaged, and ready to face the hard-to-solve difficulties of human existence (as art-house cinema). It is also noteworthy how heavily two of the three films rely on figurations of weight, gravity, heaviness, how the addictive high is defined in relation to feeling down, being pulled down, or crushed under the weight of certain historical circumstances or life conditions. While this symbolic field of high and low, depression and exaltation create an existential layer of meaning for both Billy Elliot and Kills on Wheels, it is noteworthy how the former still believes in a flight into another sphere (of art, fame and fortune), while for the latter Eastern-­ European example finding the inner strength to pull oneself up just enough to escape suffocation seems to be a good enough goal that qualifies as a happy ending. The three films also mark out some significant cultural trends of changes that took place in the first two decades of the new millennium. The earliest film, Billy Elliot, though set during the socio-economic crisis of the 1980s, relies mostly on our future-oriented pre-crisis mythology of individual liberation and escape. Though it depicts heavy social and economic issues, one gets the impression that these are somewhat pretext-like, and rather function as the dramaturgically necessary background against which the individual’s escape into stardom can be truly appreciated and celebrated. Thus, the film’s aesthetic weaknesses may very well be the results of the “unbearable lightness of being” characteristic of the pre-crisis years. By contrast, the more recent films show signs of the crisis of this upbeat world-view and cinematic universe, and thus recount stories of addiction and escape without unreflected reliance on these uplifting fantasies. T2 and Kills on Wheels—two films from the Western and Eastern margins of Europe, from two “rogue” countries at odds with current EU



policies—are much more sceptical with regards to this cultural mythology. Though their film language retain a similar kind of playfulness and hyperreal self-­reflexivity as that of Billy Elliot (which also evokes the subjective experience of the escapist), they are more realistic due to their psychologically more complex view of the human being. The men in these later films cannot simply and happily fly away, they never feel on top of the world, they all struggle with the weight of their pasts and are forced to work through their previous mistakes and traumas. In these films crisis is depicted as a permanent part of the human condition, thus escapism and addiction are tempting solutions that one cannot either embrace wholeheartedly (as in Billy Elliot) or get away from for good.

Works Cited Alexander, Anna, and Mark S. Roberts, eds. 2003. High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity. SUNY Press. Beynon, John. 2001. Masculinities and Culture. McGraw–Hill Education. Boyd, Susan C. 2008. Hooked: Drug War Films in Britain, Canada and the United States. Routledge. Bradshaw, Peter. 2000. Billy Elliot. The Guardian, 29 September. https://www. Accessed 1 May 2020. Brooks, Libby. 2019. Scotland Records Huge Rise in Drug-Related Deaths. The Guardian, 16 July. scotland-records-huge-rise-in-drug-related-deaths. Accessed 29 October 2019. Delsol, Chantal. 2003. Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Differences in Patterns of Drug Use Between Women and Men. 2005. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. http://www.emcdda. Elliott, Larry. 2013. Did Margaret Thatcher transform Britain’s economy for better or worse? The Guardian, 8 April. European Drug Report 2019: Trends and Developments. http://www.emcdda. TDAT19001ENN_PDF.pdf. Glenza, Jessica. 2016. UN Backs Prohibitionist Drug Policies Despite Call for More ‘Humane Solution’. The Guardian, 20 April. world/2016/apr/19/un-summit-global-war-drugs-agreement-approved.



Király, Hajnal. 2019. Pop Music, Nostalgia and Melancholia in Dollybirds and Liza, the Fox-Fairy. In Popular Music and the Moving Image in Eastern Europe, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Zsolt Győri, 83–98. Bloomsbury Academic. Krutnik, Frank. 1991. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity. Routledge. Lee, Jason, ed. 2012. Cultures of Addiction. Cambria Press. Marmion, Patrick. 2015. Why I’m Not Celebrating Billy Elliot’s 10th Birthday. Spiked, 14 May. Máté, Gábor. 2018. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Vermilion. Miller, Alice. 2009. Breaking Down the Wall of Silence. 2nd Rev. ed. Translated by Simon Worrall. Basic Books. Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1974. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books. Outcome Document of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem. postungass2016/outcome/V1603301-E.pdf. Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published online. War on Drugs. Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. 2011. Winterton, Jonathan, and Ruth Winterton. 1989. Coal, Crisis and Conflict: The 1984–85 Miners’ Strike in Yorkshire. Manchester and New  York: Manchester University Press. Young, Emma. 2017. How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs. The Atlantic, January 19. Accessed 28 October 2019.


Narratives of Migration

In the first scene of Morgen (Marian Crisan 2010), we see an old motorcycle with a sidecar stopping at the Hungarian-Romanian border in the early morning.1 The driver, a Romanian white man in his late 50s, is carrying a fish in a bucket, his catch from his routine early morning fishing trip in Hungary and is going back home. This ordinary scene becomes complicated as the Hungarian officer insists that carrying living animals out of the country is against regulations, so it must be left at the border. “But we are all in the European Union, aren’t we?” asks the motorcyclist, Nelu (András Hatházi), the film’s protagonist. “Don’t you give me that”—the guard responds crossly—“There is no European Union for the fish!” Nelu does not say anything. He takes the bucket and pours it out right in front of the guard. As he drives away, we see the fish toss about and slowly die on the road. This scene, which serves as a prelude to the film, acts as a metaphor for what is about to unfold. Morgen recounts the story of how Nelu meets a Turkish illegal immigrant (Yilmaz Yalcin), who is on his way to his family in Germany, and decides to help him get through the Hungarian border. Though we never see that fish (or any other, for that matter) in the film again, the sight of the dying animal keeps haunting the spectator. The scene breaks the cinematic regulations concerning 1  A previous and much shorter version of this chapter has been published in Betty Kaklamanidou and Ana Corbalán (eds.), Contemporary European Cinema: Crisis Narratives and Narratives in Crisis (Routledge, 2019). Special thanks to the editors for their productive suggestions and for Routledge for the republishing permission.

© The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




cruelty against animals and may very well shock the unprepared spectator while it associates European arthouse cinema with exploitation movies. However, with this ethically ambiguous scene, Morgen accomplishes something ethical in a radical sense, something that has to do with the recognition of suffering of those we do not understand, and with listening to those who have no voice—something that many films about international migration (even with the best of intentions) fail to do. The phenomenon of international migration is not only experienced as a crisis by those leaving their homes, or by the population of the host countries who face such unprecedented masses of newcomers. In this chapter, I argue that the phenomenon of large-scale international migration in a post-2008 Europe creates new challenges for European cinema too, a crisis of cinematic representation. The life of immigrants and diasporic communities in the continent has been a recurrent topic of European cinema for several decades now, and has been widely discussed (see Nacify 2001; Berghahn and Sternberg 2010; Loshitzky 2010; Rings 2016). Here I wish to concentrate solely on post-2008 examples of migrating people and host-migrant encounters, paradigms that reveal the symptoms of this cinematic crisis and the struggle for authentic representations. Focusing on three recent films, the Italian Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese 2011), Morgen (Marian Crisan 2010) and Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mundruczó 2017) I explore the ethical, epistemological and cinematic paradoxes of encounters with otherness, and investigate the ways narratives of crisis may (or may not) turn into crisis of narratives. The claim that international migration has become one of the most pressing issues of contemporary political life in Europe hardy needs much justification today. It has become “a battleground election issue” (Murphy and Romei 2017) and, according to the 2005 report of the Global Commission on International Migration, it “has risen to the top of the global policy agenda” (2005, vii). It played a decisive role in the 2014 European elections, the 2016 Brexit vote, the 2016 US and French elections as well as the 2017 German elections. In many European societies, international migration has become the most visible face of the post-2008 crisis, the issue where frustration and anger are easiest to ventilate, where consumer-friendly answers are easiest to market, and—not the least importantly—an issue much more visible, dramatic, sensational and cinematic than, let us say, the regulation of banks or the controversies of neoliberal capitalism (Schuster 2001, 14).



Since the summer of 2015, international migration has been connected with a sense of crisis (McAdam 2014, 10). As a rapidly growing bulk of literature indicates, leaving one’s homeland, friends and relatives is usually experienced as a crisis, even if the living conditions were deplorable back home. It usually happens, when the “push and pull factors” reach that particular tipping point that the original Greek word crisis stands for (Zimmermann 2005; McAdam 2014, 10). Being on a dangerous journey, vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, humiliation and abuse is obviously a most critical condition, but arrival to one’s destination and realising that it is not the fantasy-land one imagined can be at least as frustrating and disheartening (Wood and King 2001, 3). However, the situations created by mass migration may similarly evoke the sense of crisis for members of the host community. Intercultural encounters can often be puzzling or traumatic: when one realises that the people one wanted to help or host have radically different goals, values and opinions than one expected, one is easily shocked or disheartened. The political speeches and advertising leaflets of pro-immigration campaigns typically stay within the conceptual frames of European enlightened humanism’s universalist paradigm, without ever confronting humanism’s unacknowledged Eurocentric, colonial heritage (as the work of Edward Said, Emmanuel Lévinas, Luce Irigaray and others convincingly did). These campaigns, newspaper articles and feature films seldom refer to Lévinas’ passages about the radical exteriority of the Other, warnings about the dangers of regarding the Other as essentially the same as oneself, or reminders about the limits of intercultural understanding. This rift between meaningful (political, journalistic, visual) representations on the one hand, and concept-breaking encounters with otherness on the other is symptomatic of the cognitive or conceptual crisis that international migration often entails (Bauman and Bordoni 2014, 2; Donn 2017). Arguably, such a cognitive crisis poses a challenge to contemporary European cinema as well, the task to produce images and narratives that are able to make sense of our perplexing times. The post-2008 European sense of emergency has an epistemic dimension as well: due to the displacement of large numbers of people and the quickly transforming life-worlds, one’s knowledge and view of the world also tend to change rapidly, which is likewise a crisis in itself. This turning point in the way certain experiences undermine one’s former beliefs is one of the most characteristic features of the twenty-first century. In the past decade a large number of long-standing political parties, economic policies, ideologies, political guidelines, legal regulations and ideological



trends went through rapid change, or disappeared entirely, resulting in a crisis of knowledge “unheard-of in the history of modernity” (Romano 2014, 3). The twenty-first century regularly poses challenges to people even in first-world countries that cannot be routinely solved with old answers, methods or principles. The way the EU was unprepared for the 2015 refugee/migration crisis, and the disastrous lack of competence of its political leaders, is only one, though very dramatic example of this epistemic shift, when old policies and know-hows devalued overnight. The way the issue of immigration upset all sorts of people (for all sorts of reasons) and has thus polarised European societies is another sign of this epistemic conundrum. One could argue that these strong emotions partly stem from people’s loss of control: not only loss of control over what is happening to our societies (as was clearly the case in the Brexit vote), but also loss of control over the field of knowledge. This migration crisis has a strong ethical aspect as well, something that European filmmakers eagerly responded to. Indeed, much of the heated discussions in the European media during 2015, when over a million (mostly undocumented) people entered the EU within a year, focused on such issues. To many Europeans these dramatic events also demonstrated how ineffective our existent moral and judicial guidelines can be during critical times. In this context it is worth recalling that most formative thinkers of the humanities’ “ethical turn” start out precisely by problematising such pre-existing, normative moral guidelines. They define ethics “in opposition to what Alain Badiou calls ‘ethical ideology’, i.e. prescriptive moral codes and rules” (Downing and Saxton 2010, 2), and tend to emphasise (following Lévinas) the ways ethics is concerned with questioning (one’s own assumptions, habits, judgements), thus defining it more as “a process of interrogation” (Downing and Saxton 2010, 2). The summer of 2015 has shown (again) that the true time of ethical thinking is the time of crisis. It is when the ordinary, “business as usual” ways of the world are upset, when our previously held, consensual moral guidelines fail in a radically new (and therefore critical) situation that ethics suddenly emerges from the deceptive slumber of peaceful normativity. As the editors of the volume Media and Migration point out, the role and responsibility of media representations in this situation “are not just a subject for academic research, but impinge on the consciousness of the ordinary European citizen on virtually a daily basis” (Wood and King 2001, 1). Indeed, the current migration/refugee crisis has highlighted the problem of representations again, which has given new vent to the study



of cinema. Such influential figures of this line of criticism as Lévinas, Arendt and Susan Sontag tend to be sceptical about the ethical soundness of mediatised spectacles of pain and suffering. Throughout his oeuvre, Lévinas repeatedly refers to the Second Commandment prohibiting visual representations, highlighting the dangers of reducing the Other’s face to an object of visual perception (Saxton 2010a, 98–100). In a similar vein, in Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag contends that “there is something morally wrong” with “effortless” and distanced visual representations (Sontag 2003, 108). Vision was praised by antique Greek philosophy precisely because it “requires spatial distance” (108) and thus allowed one to stand back and contemplate. However, in a contemporary perspective, it is precisely this “standing back” (108) that is problematic. Perhaps “our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities” (105) and thus “one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power” (108). Contemporary critics of this field repeatedly warn about the dangers of the “altericidal practices and numbing ‘unreality-effect’ of mainstream media” (Saxton 2010b, 69), and the ethically problematic pleasures of watching the Other’s pain from a distance (Sontag 2003; Saxton 2010b, 66). The question is whether European cinema has the will and the means to address this sense of (social, humanitarian, epistemic and ethical) crisis, even if that means confronting the unacknowledged drawbacks of its own roots in Enlightenment humanism, roots that shape the kinds of stories and characters it can accommodate. Thus, through the analysis of Terraferma, Morgen and Jupiter’s Moon, I wish to explore some of the ways contemporary European films attempt to deal with the above outlined set of challenges. The representation of otherness, the issues of its ethics and epistemology, inevitably call attention to a number of questions concerning film form and cinematic representability in general. To what extent is there a danger that the classical film form will cover up traumatic gaps, cracks and schisms and lead everything back to the closure of the classical humanist world-view? What must necessarily be left out of a feature film, so that there would be a unified plot, a recognisable protagonist, a narrative not destroyed regularly by the horrors that many of these people go through? Thus, what are the definitions and limits of authenticity in such a case? What must be covered up, even if it compromises authenticity, so as to tell a story at all?



Terraferma Terraferma takes place on a small Italian island, where one day the fisherman Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) and his grandson Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) rescue a few “illegals” (or “clandestines” as they are called in Italian) from the sea. When they reach the shore, most migrants simply flee (presumably in order to move on towards their destinations), but a pregnant Ethiopian woman (Timnit T., a real-life refugee), as well as her son remain with Ernesto’s family. In an effort to make ends meet, Ernesto’s house is rented to tourists for the summer, so both families take shelter in the garage. It is there that the rescued woman gives birth with the help of Filippo’s mother, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro). Ernesto follows the ancient ethical code of the sea, according to which one never leaves anybody in the water, and must give shelter to the ones in need. However, as a consequence of saving an illegal family and thereby breaking the law, the police seize his boat. The days that pass show Giulietta’s struggles to reconcile her fear of arrest with her compassion for the African mother, the grandfather’s struggles with the law, and Filippo’s coming of age as a result of the difficult situation. Finally, Filippo smuggles the woman and her two children to the mainland in his grandfather’s boat. The film’s narrative is moved by a set of dramatic conflicts and difficult choices: the clash between the law of the sea and contemporary legal regulations (which prohibit helping illegal migrants), the ethical doubt between responding to the Other when that means breaking the law, the choice between protecting one’s family and protecting the “illegals”, the conflict between the police and the local community, and the antithesis between the old ways of life (fishing) and the new (the tourist industry). These struggles already create a “multi-faceted story” (Merry 2013), a multiplicity of perspectives that transcend the “us and them” world of most mainstream media representations. However, Terraferma manages to make this picture even subtler by revealing several individual stories and perspectives. Though the film mostly focuses on Filippo’s coming of age, almost each and every character has a different perspective on migration. The grandfather would stubbornly follow the old ways (even though he is the last one in the village to do so, and would get 100,000 Euros for dismantling his boat), the mother Giuliana would move to the mainland to get a regular job and start a new life, the uncle Nino (Beppe Fiorello) choses to make money in the tourist industry (running a bar on the beach, renting



sunbeds, organising boat trips), while Filippo seems to be just happily drifting along with the events. Similarly to a good number of recent European films about migration, Terraferma focuses on the encounter between a white local family and an African family in need, shows how the European family overcomes its fears (of the law, of strangers) as well as its internal differences so as to help the Other, shares a distrust (or dislike) of authorities, and ends with the protagonist obeying the higher ethical command by helping the migrants move on. Yet, despite including often-used narrative elements, Terraferma manages to create an expressive and complex picture of the situation. The film starts with a missed encounter, when Ernesto and Filippo find the pieces of a migrant boat in the sea. Just before that, the images create a beautiful, almost mythical, super-human perspective that will contextualise and perhaps even evaluate all human action. Both grandfather and grandson seem content and happy; Filippo even dances on the front deck in the morning sunshine. It is this idyllic, slightly romanticised view of the old lifestyle that is disrupted by their noticing the sunken ship. First, the fishermen spot a piece of floating wood in the distance, and then, another piece with Arabic letters painted on it, presumably the name of the boat, bends their propeller. These traces of otherness call attention to the inherent and unseen tragedies, and effectively disrupt Ernesto and Filippo’s old ways of life (physically as well as metaphorically). Filippo’s father was also lost at sea three years before, so when the scene ends with the lad staring silently at the floating pieces, an implicit figurative connection is created between the Self and the Other, between the lost father and the drowned migrants (see Fig.  5.1). Although the locals only see traces of the migrants/refugees, the absence and silence of the Other combined with the hint of tragedy already open new perspectives for both Filippo and the film. The protagonist becomes the witness of unfathomably dreadful events, but (with an omission reminiscent of Lévinas’s reminders of the Second Commandment prohibiting representation) it leaves the Other’s position empty. The legally non-existent illegals, the sans-papiers are presented here as the faceless, the sans-visage; an emotionally and ethically compelling absence. Whatever happens later will be set in the context of this missed encounter and the possibility of painful losses of life. The key scene for Filippo’s development takes place at night towards the ending of the narrative, when he takes Maura, a tourist girl (Martina Codecasa) on a supposedly romantic night trip. Similarly to the opening sequence, we see a beautiful, optimistic episode turn shocking. The



Fig. 5.1  Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011)

romantic plot unfolds in due order: the couple steal a small boat, safely get out to sea, share a joint, light the spotlight used to watch sea-life at night, and the slightly tipsy Maura takes off her dress and jumps into the strikingly lit water. At that moment, however, Filippo hears distant shouting and the splashing of water, and upon turning up the spotlight, he notices a dozen African men hastily swimming towards them. Romance quickly turns into panic and horror as the surprised couple try to flee. Filippo helps Maura out of the water, and desperately tries to “defend” his boat from the “attack” of the unknown men, hitting them with the row as they try to grab the edge of the boat. Filippo finally manages to start the engine and reach the shore. It is only the next day that he becomes aware of the consequences of his actions, as several half-dead black men are fished out at the beach. The “illegals”, who appeared threatening black figures in the dark waters in the previous scene according to white anxieties of black men sexually threatening white women, now gain a human face, and are recognised as vulnerable victims (see Fig. 5.2). This episode is significant for several reasons. First, it seems to consciously call attention to the questionable authenticity of one’s images of the Other. The “boat attack” scene explicitly evokes horror films: the mise-en-scène, the motif of invasion of the protagonists’ space, contrasting speaking white and incomprehensible black bodies, as well as the dramatic lighting and fast-paced editing rely on the well-known clichés of zombie movies. Contrasting this representational strategy with the next scene may make the spectator conscious of the mediatised nature of one’s



Fig. 5.2  Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011)

anxieties of otherness, and can thus reveal the dubious truth-value of such images. Thus, by contrasting the two presentations of the Other, Terraferma disinvests and debunks the spectator’s (mediatised) fantasies of the threatening Other. However, it is questionable whether this process of going through the fantasy in order to get free of it leads to a more truthful or authentic image of the Other. In Terraferma the debunking of derogatory fantasies is achieved by providing the spectator with ethically different, yet equally manipulative and mediatised images. The scene when the half-drowned men are helped to the shore also raises concerns about the ethics of representation: here, the soft and beautifying lights, the focus on nice faces, the use of close-ups and slow motion turn the Other’s suffering into an emotionally moving and sensuously entertaining spectacle. Filippo is tormented by guilt and jumps into the sea. Under the water he glimpses the lost personal belongings of the migrants, which further highlights their being ordinary human beings. It is this experience that leads to the young protagonist’s change and eventual coming of age, which is later expressed as a rejection of Nino’s new ways and a return to Ernesto’s old ways of the sea. When the last scene shows him taking the black family towards the mainland, the terra firma, his steering Ernesto’s boat signifies his identification with his grandfather’s value system. Also, the perspective of the final aerial shot (as opposed to the underwater shot of the opening scene) indicates the “higher perspective” Filippo has acquired during the events.



Terraferma is informed by the ethics and politics of liberal humanism. However, in spite (or perhaps because) of this clear ideological influence, it leaves a whole set of disturbing questions open, which may as well reveal the crisis of representation behind a seemingly unambiguous picture. Some of these symptomatic issues concern power and gender. First of all, in most encounters the film presents active and strong whites meeting vulnerable and weak blacks, underlining that it is white people that have the power to decide what happens to migrant others. One may find it conspicuous that the family rescued and hosted by the Italians has no adult male member. This choice neutralises fears of third-world male immigrants as potential sexual predators, yet it also risks reducing or simplifying otherness to the passive, harmless image of the female victim in distress. This narrative erasure can be reminiscent of colonial fantasies as well, which tend to present the oriental Other as feminised or infantilised, and in need of the (strong, brave, enlightened) European’s help (Hall 2003, 262–263; Said 1977, 139). In other words, the price of emphasising universal human values and raising compassion may cinematically involve an obliteration of certain forms of otherness that may not so readily fit our existing, Eurocentric categories. To put in in more theoretical terms, Terraferma indicates that one possible price of the humanist agenda to create emphatic images of otherness that raise compassion is the failure to meet the other ethical imperative (highlighted by Lévinas, Said, Hall and others) that warns against depicting the Other in an “altericidal” manner. Another such symptom is that Sara, the hosted Ethiopian woman, turns out to speak (some) Italian. With her the film creates an image of otherness that is not only harmless and easy to empathise with, but also one that is easily understandable. The fact that Sara shares her rescuers’ language can also be read as a symptom of a representational strategy that avoids radical (e.g., non-comprehensible) otherness. Generally, the “illegals” in Terraferma do not really do anything that would make the well-meaning humanist spectator in Europe feel confused or question one’s own set of terms through which one tends to understand otherness. In this sense, the film risks simply reiterating the prevailing liberal humanist European belief system. The only representational “subversions” Terraferma opts for are the two most traumatic scenes of the film, the one where the sunken ship is discovered, and the one where Filippo “defends” Maura from the “illegals”. In a manner reminiscent of Lévinas’s reference to the Biblical prohibition of images, in neither of these scenes can we “read” the facial expressions of the Other: in the first, there are no faces at all, and in the



second they are shown only for split seconds in a dark and action-packed, quickly cut scene. The meaning of alterity, in other words, is kept at a distance, and the feeling of mastery (over meaning) is denied to the spectator. Moreover, the characters never discuss these events: they never debate what could have happened to the sunken boat and its passengers, or whether Maura would have been safe with those men on board. In addition, there is no extra-diegetic music that would “translate” these shocking sights to ordinary human emotions. Apparently, Terraferma consciously leaves us with these disturbing images, without anchoring their meaning in the safe waters of European humanism. My argument is that while the cinematic attitude in these two scenes may very well threaten the strict coherence of the film’s narrative, make it more enigmatic and difficult to grasp, or weaken its ideological message, these scenes’ resistance to our understanding may also create a cinematic space of otherness. In other words, these under-explained scenes, where the film relies on the raw power of images, may create a gap in our conceptual frameworks, and thus enable a representation of more radical Otherness that is less subject to the usual domestication of difference. This cinematic hesitation or balancing between different representational (and ethical and ideological) models is paired by a similar negotiation between different types of masculinity. Terraferma’s balancing is somewhat similar to that of its protagonist, Filippo, who must find his own approach to the puzzling situation that his family faces. On the one hand, he is lured by Nino, the middle-aged, gigolo-like, commercially oriented uncle, who gives him employment in the tourism business, while on the other hand he is inspired by Ernesto, whose traditional masculinity entails resilience, a firm moral backbone, strength and a traditional life-­ style with an ethical code that goes back to Antiquity. While Nico’s iconic scene is his lead dance on the front deck of his tourist-filled boat on the disco trip, wearing only a speedo with a penis-imitating toy attached to it, doing moves that look explicitly feminine in most parts of Europe, Ernesto’s iconic image is that of standing alone in a dark, cave-like workshop, repairing the propeller of the boat with a grinding machine (see Figs. 5.3 and 5.4). While Nico is associated with contemporary, narcissistic, slightly gender-fluid men shaped by consumerism and the global entertainment industry, Ernesto’s surroundings define him as a pre-­ modern man, the lack of protective gloves or glasses suggest heroic resilience, and the cave and the flying sparks may even elevate his figure into a mythological domain (associating him, for example, with Hephaistos, the god of blacksmiths and craftsmen).



Fig. 5.3  Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011)

Fig. 5.4  Film still from Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011)

Filippo, somewhat similarly to Terraferma, has to negotiate his way through the plot between these remarkably different options, and similarly to many returning sons of retreat-films that I discussed in Chap. 2, he reaches back, over the head of his uncle, to his grandfather. The film’s resolution, when Filippo smuggles the African woman and her children to the mainland on Ernesto’s boat, attempts to solve the ideological conflicts by conflating the most humanitarian approach with the most traditional value-system. The closing aerial shots of the boat may also remind the spectator of those human concerns and ethical imperatives that surpass in importance the ideological debates of the day.



Morgen At first sight, Morgen looks very different from Terraferma, at least in terms of visual style. Terraferma is dominated by images of the sea, the beauty and infinity of which literally frame every human action. This constant visual reference to the timeless can effectively elevate the story to a superhuman, even mythological register, which is regularly highlighted by the music and the characters’ framing. On basis of their looks, actions and the way they are photographed, both the grandfather Ernesto and the mother Giuliana could be mythological characters, inherited from Antiquity. Morgen, on the other hand, employs the well-established visual language of Romanian New Wave Cinema’s “more or less flaunted reflexive-­modernist cinematic language” combined with “supressed naturalism” (Strausz 2017, 161), and thus systematically downplays all such beautifying. Nelu is an ordinary security guy at an ordinary supermarket, living in a shabby, common Eastern European farmhouse. He does not have big dreams; he would only like to mend his leaking roof and perhaps go to the Danube delta for a fishing trip. He does not have “high-flying”, noble ethical principles or superhuman strength (as Ernesto seems to possess when grinding the boat’s bent propeller). He is not smart, heroic or remarkable in any way: he is just a good old Eastern European everyman. As opposed to the sea in Terraferma, the frontier between Romania and Hungary where the film takes place is a flat, visually boring, agricultural land. It is early autumn, but even the colours seem to be toned down so that everything looks grey and faint blue. Morgen completely lacks extra-­ diegetic music, relies on hand-held cameras that move with the characters, further emphasising the ordinariness and contingency of the events: this is neither the dramatic clash of the old and the new ways, nor a mythical communion between black and white people. These differences are relevant when one considers the structural, thematic and narrative similarities between the two films. Both focus on the topic of post-crisis European migration and host-migrant encounters. Both feature a European family temporarily giving shelter to an international “illegal” migrant, thus facing trouble with the local police. Both involve a clash of ethical principles and approaches, a conflict between different loyalties or obligations. Finally, both films feature a slowly developing companionship and understanding between the hosts and the migrants, and both reach narrative closure when the migrants successfully move on with the protagonists’ help. In Morgen the host-migrant



encounter, one of the most sensitive points of relevant films, has symbolic and clearly self-reflexive aspects to it that indicate an awareness of many of the political and theoretical issues mentioned above. Two simple men meet: Nelu, a Romanian farmer and security guy, and a Turkish or Kurdish man on his way to his family in Germany. From the perspective of selfOther relations, it is significant that the migrant man does not have a name. According to the cast list, he is called Behran, but we hear his name only once during a police investigation towards the end of the film. However, it is not only his proper name—one’s primary anchoring point in the social-symbolic order—that is missing. The film deliberately holds back all information that could help us place him in our contemporary regulatory systems: it is unclear whether he is Turkish or Kurdish, whether he is a political refugee or an economic migrant (Strausz 2017, 175). Both men are over 50 years old and both are ordinary and essentially goodhearted people. Like Ernesto in Terraferma, Nelu is a representative of a traditional lifestyle (though the film does not make a big deal out of it with lower camera angles and chiaroscuro lighting as the Italian production). Similarly to the way Ernesto is pressed to dismantle his boat for a large sum of money, Nelu is regularly urged by his brother-in-law to sell his land and house to a foreign investor. Both films are critical of the “new” capitalist entrepreneurs through the representation of the uncle in Terraferma and the brother in-law in Morgen, two morally susceptible men, clearly younger than Ernesto and Nelu, who try to make a living according to the new rules of market capitalism without spending too much time brooding over ethical questions. Nelu’s first encounter with the refugee/migrant is foreshadowed by the very first scene of the film to which I referred in the introduction of this chapter. The fish left to die at the border creates a broad frame of reference, rich in figurative meaning and ethical references. The fact that the fish is an old and established symbol of Christ makes it especially significant that in both films the “illegals” are associated with fish or found in water, and both films involve a scene where fish are poured in front of border control agents as a sign of protest. In Morgen it is during one of Nelu’s morning fishing trips to a nearby canal that he spots the stranger, who desperately tries to hide from the approaching border patrol van by descending into the water. This first contact already clarifies Nelu’s (wellfounded) dislike of authorities. The police are presented as following the letter of the law rather than its spirit, interested in regulations more than



people. However, they are also ready to bend the rules, if that is more convenient, pays better, and would not reach their superiors. Thus, when the police approach and the stranger hides in the water, Nelu pretends that he does not see anything. His motivation, here as in many other scenes, is unclear: we do not know whether he answers a noble ethical call or is more interested in simply not assisting the police (who took away his fish the other day). One of the most noteworthy aspects of Morgen’s approach is the representation of the ways the local European characters relate to alterity. First, Nelu and Behran share no language: Nelu speaks only Romanian and some Hungarian, while Behran only speaks Turkish (or Kurdish?) with a few German words. Their “conversations” are therefore strange, nonsensical and often funny (the only word they both seem to comprehend is Morgen). The film consciously shares its characters’ lack of comprehension when it does not subtitle the Turkish (or Kurdish?) sentences, so when the Other speaks, the average European spectator tends to look as confused as Nelu. This non-understanding is an essential quality of the film, distancing Morgen from the standard humanist approach, which tends to emphasise universal human qualities, such as empathy and understanding. The fact that Morgen leaves the Other’s identity undefined, outside our conceptual frameworks, can be interpreted as an attempt not to domesticate otherness, not to understand him through our concepts, and not to integrate the Other into the order of the Same. In his recent book about contemporary Romanian cinema, László Strausz convincingly demonstrates the way the characters’ (and the camera’s) “hesitant” spatial movements can produce blurred spatial identities (2017, 174–180), and in my own analysis of György Pálfi’s Hukkle, I interpreted a similar strategy of bypassing language within the context of a more general Eastern European scepticism towards language as an instrument of ideological manipulation (Kalmár 2017, 49–66). Indeed, we can only guess why Nelu does not try to take Behran cross the border the day after they first seem to agree on the escape plan by saying “Morgen” several times. Similarly, the spectator has no clue why Behran (in one of the most funny scenes of the film, where he is smuggled to Hungary with a busload of drunken Romanian football supporters) decides to follow Nelu and join the fist-­ fight between the Hungarian and Romanian football supporters, which effectively takes him back (together with Nelu) to a Romanian hospital ward.



Another example of the film’s ironic, self-reflexive and under-politicised approach is the question of money. Presumably following the business protocols of illegal migration, Behran offers Nelu money several times. However, Nelu repeatedly and plainly refuses, that is, up to a certain point, when he simply takes the money and puts it in his pocket. Neither his previous refusals, nor his eventual acceptance is explained in any way. The two characters do not discuss prices, do not make agreements, and Nelu does not promise anything. It is entirely left to the spectator to judge Nelu’s possible motivations or the ethical relevance of his actions. We simply watch as he goes to town, exchanges the money, buys new roofing panels and replaces the destroyed ones with Behran’s help. In fact, Morgen breaks most of the conventions of mainstream cinematic storytelling. It has no well-defined characters with clear goals or motivations and lacks a narrative made of a single, clear, logical line of actions. However, these filmmaking choices result in a light-hearted, ironic but empathic vision of ordinary human encounters. This deviation from classical storytelling becomes a productive attitude of observant distancing, which does not want to pretend that human beings can be fully known or controlled. The film employs a hermeneutics that allows for the presence of non-­ understandable alterity. What really matters is told through simple symbols or events with figurative potential: for example, that Behran finds himself in the sidecar of Nelu’s motorcycle (where the fish used to be), or that the two men silently peel potatoes together when Nelu’s bossy wife orders them to (see Fig. 5.5).

Fig. 5.5  Film still from Morgen (Marian Crisan, 2010)



It is probably the most self-reflexive aspect of the film that this “epistemic break”, this empty space of knowledge between the migrant/refugee and the locals is filled with the characters’ own concepts, fantasies and projections, which leads to several (somewhat painfully) funny scenes. For example, Nelu’s (generally quite scrappy) wife repeatedly blames him for keeping an illegal alien at their house: “He could be some kind of terrorist. He could have who knows what disease. Don’t you watch TV?” In these scenes, Morgen “effectively criticises the populist rhetoric of xenophobia that has surfaced widely across the continent” (Strausz 2017, 160) as well as mainstream media representations of migration in general. Importantly, Nelu always undercuts these dramatic monologues in his plain, down-to-­ earth manner. His regular answer to his wife’s complaints is that the guy is just a gipsy that he keeps to help him with the house. In such instances, typical of the film’s slightly sarcastic, understated humour, Nelu domesticates otherness in order to avoid quarrels with his wife by way of referring to well-established tropes of Eastern European racism, which sit much more comfortably with his wife’s world-view. The authorities and the in-­ law (who is in good terms with them) also try to solve the conceptual and bureaucratic issue by putting the Other in the familiar category of the gypsy: “If he wants to be Romanian, we’ll get him papers. We have a lot of gypsies around here anyways”—they argue. Of course, these “solutions”, which Behran (luckily) does not even understand, only annoy Nelu, who keeps reminding people that the man simply wants to go to his family in Germany. Morgen creates an image of an ordinary encounter between Nelu and the Turkish/Kurdish migrant/refugee, a picture that leaves a lot unexplained, observes human interactions without a controlling, omniscient insight into the characters’ innermost motivations, and makes fun of polarised and politicised representations. Yet, the film does not pretend that a depoliticised, ideal encounter could be possible. Though Strausz contends that Morgen provides “a humanitarian response to the large-scale crisis” and is about the “solidarity between the fleeing refugees and the locals” (Strausz 2017, 160), I argue that it cannot be reduced to such a one sided humanist message. My point is that one of the strengths of the film is that Nelu is not such an idealist follower of an ancient (humanistic) tradition. Though Morgen ends with Nelu taking Behran across the Hungarian border on his motorbike, risking his own arrest, he is not a hero. After all, he finally did take Behran’s money, from which he also bought fishing equipment, had Behran help him with the farm and the new the roof panels



(obviously, without paying him for the work), made him sleep in their fruit cellar (and thus treated him as underclass), and, it is suggested that he even regularly beat Behran in cards, by way of bending the rules (that he explained only in Romanian anyways) (see Fig. 5.6). In spite of this clear, and usually comic lack of heroism and idealisation in Morgen’s depiction of masculinities, the encounter with the migrant Other does change Nelu’s character towards more traditionally masculine traits. In the beginning of the film he is quite a passive, silent and submissive figure, who accepts the bossiness of both border patrol agents and his wife with resignation. However, his encounter with Behran seems to dislodge him from his usual complacency. This is a situation where he is forced to act and make decisions: after all, the man is cold and wet, he needs warm clothes, after all, this man could help with the farm, after all, this man’s money could cover the cost of the new roof-panels, and after all, this guy wants to see his family that he is separated from. Thus, similarly to Filippo in Terraferma, Nelu also goes through some sort of a rite of initiation, learns to handle a bit more responsibility and gains a bit more agency too. Finally, after several failed attempts, he does not only take Behran through the border himself, but he even makes the decision (that his wife has always vetoed so far) to fulfil his dreams and take his wife to the Danube delta for a summer holiday.

Fig. 5.6  Film still from Morgen (Marian Crisan, 2010)



Jupiter’s Moon During the summer of 2015 more than a million, mostly undocumented refugees and other migrants entered Europe through the Balkan route. The causes of “Europe’s biggest migration emergency since the second world war” (The Guardian) can be traced back to the destabilisation of the Middle-East and North-Africa (the so-called Arab-Spring), the resulting Syrian Civil War and its massive humanitarian crisis, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s (in)famous open invitation to all Syrian refugees in 2015, the ensuing collapse of the EU’s immigration legislation (the Dublin Convention), and the Hungarian government’s decision that same year to fortify its (and the EU’s) southern borders with a razor-wire fence. The effects of the crisis are hard to underestimate: it has “reshaped the European political landscape” (The Telegraph), “damaged the cohesion of the EU” (The Telegraph), further distanced the EU’s liberal political elite from both its electorate and its Eastern member states, supplied Eurosceptics and right-wing populists with plenty of anti-EU ammunition, and significantly contributed to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU. These events also produced some of the most haunting images of Europe’s latest history, and received immense (and usually politically overcharged) media-response from news reports and social media debates to photography, documentaries and political propaganda films. These events and the related media products also turned the Hungarian border into one of the iconic places among the symbolic landscapes definitive of contemporary European identity, signifying its internal schisms as well as the clash of conflicting ethical imperatives that keep destabilising it. In this light, the news that the established Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó started working on a feature film on migration, and was shooting scenes on the border, came as no surprise. After all, Mundruczó’s previous work White God (2014), which won Un certain regard prize in Cannes, could be also read as a thinly veiled political allegory. Jupiter’s Moon reconnects the spectator with the iconography and atmosphere of this piece of not too recent history: watching it one recalls the masses of people walking through the Serbian-Hungarian border area, the temporary camps on roadsides and in Budapest Keleti railway station, the violent clashes between the migrants/refugees and the Hungarian riot police, the stormed border gates, the tear-gas and the water cannons, as



well as the general atmosphere of radical confusion, political instability and heated debates characteristic of the times. While cinema’s response to the crisis of 2015 was expectable, Jupiter’s Moon’s mode of response is far from being either predictable or stereotypical. It handles its material in ways that are markedly different from the established cinematic trends, in ways that effectively cut through some of the above discussed ethical dilemmas characterising critical discourses on the representation of illegal migration, or the cinematic representation of the suffering Other in general. The film combines the traditions of the European art film with that of American genre film (mostly action, sci-fi and the mystical thriller), and probably owes more to such films as Blade Runner or Children of Men than to the films of Béla Tarr, Mundruczó’s mentor. The film’s narrative follows the relationship of a young Syrian refugee, Aryan, who gets shot at the Hungarian border, and doctor Stern, the physician who treats him at the border camp’s emergency ward. Their story is determined by two crucial facts: first, that Aryan, after receiving the supposedly fatal wounds, quickly heals and mysteriously acquires the skill to levitate, and second, that Stern is a cynical, embittered alcoholic, who is trying to get the money to pay the compensation for a past medical mistake by trafficking people through the border. Thus, when he sees the boy rising to the air, he quickly recognises the situation’s financial possibilities: he helps Aryan escape to Budapest, where they visit and perform the miracle in front of terminally ill and well-paying customers. As they go from one customer to the next, Stern gradually goes through an inner transformation: Aryan’s humility, simplicity, kindness and angelic miracles gradually turn him from a disillusioned cynical to a true friend and—by the end of the film—a redeemed man. This story of spiritual awakening is combined with the action-thriller plot of the police investigation following Aryan’s and Stern’s escape. The hunt becomes even fiercer when two terrorists who came through the border with Aryan and his father, and have stolen their passports, commit a suicide bombing on the Budapest metro. The film ends with a showdown in a hotel where the two fugitives took shelter. Here Stern saves Aryan from the anti-terrorist squad at the cost of his own life, while the boy jumps through a window. In the last scene of the film we see Aryan hovering above downtown Budapest, with two slowly approaching military helicopters and all the nearby people looking up with something like religious awe (see Figs. 5.7 and 5.8). Jupiter’s Moon is bolder than most European films with respect to the taboos concerning the representation of illegal immigration. For example,



Fig. 5.7  Film still from Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mundruczó, 2017)

Fig. 5.8  Film still from Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mundruczó, 2017)

the opening action sequence, when a large group of migrants try to cross a border river at night takes the spectator unusually close to the frightening realities of international migration. There is nothing sentimental here; there are no beautifying shots, or sweet music accompanying these people’s quest for a new home. The faces are tense, our understanding of the situation and the space is as limited as probably that of most of the characters involved, who are led out of trucks and put on small dinghies. The camera’s view is often limited, blocked or disturbed by rapid movement. The people arriving are not beautified and domesticated by the usual means, that is, by showing mostly women and children, or recounting touching stories: here as well as later in the camp, most of the immigrants



are young men, whose motivations for coming to Europe are left unclear. Though Aryan is obviously a highly idealised figure, the film does not shy away from showing the dirty realities of immigration: police brutality, the sordid living conditions inside camps, the violence of the asylum-seekers, the business transactions of trafficking people, or the associated terrorist threat. One of the formative novelties or twists of Jupiter’s Moon, however, is that this unusually gritty realism is infused with mysticism, as well as an exploration of issues of spirituality and religion. This “twist” takes place quite literally when Aryan is shot by a police officer in the woods after the river crossing. Here, when Aryan floats between life and death, the camera starts twisting and circling in a dizzying way, relativising up and down, living and dead, reality and miracle. Suddenly, together with the involuntarily levitating Aryan, we enter a space we have never been to, and acquire a perspective from which we have never seen events from any time before. From this moment on, through the repeated twists and turns of the camera at all the levitation scenes, the spectator as well as all the characters who witness Aryan’s “miracles”, gain a new, most special, “twisted” and Wholly/Holy Other perspective of events that leads to the reinterpretation and re-evaluation of our contemporary master-narratives. Thus, Jupiter’s Moon combines the migration issue with a heavily allegorical story of spiritual awakening (placing the figure of the refugee in the role of saviour), and that of a dystopian, mystical action-thriller-sci-fi. While this combination may seem bizarre, the action plot and the dynamic camera work effectively save the religious theme from becoming too demagogical, and the gloomy, dystopian picture of Europe’s south-east borderlands creates the image of a wasteland in which levitation does not seem as awkward as it may sound. As it may have become clear, Jupiter’s Moon breaks with the realist traditions of European auteur cinema: though the film supposedly takes place in 2015 (people refer to the new anti-­ immigration laws introduced that year, the cars and buildings and clothes look contemporary), some subtle modifications of the mise-en-scene, lighting and colour, as well as the dystopian vision of a police-state, make this world look more like as if the time of that bewildering summer was prolonged for an indefinite amount of time. The film is packed with religious symbolism to a degree unforeseen in European cinema about migration. According to the dystopian landscape created in Jupiter’s Moon, twenty-first-century Europe is a spiritual wasteland where “people have forgotten to look up”, as doctor Stern puts it in one of the key dialogues



towards the end of the film. The film is party organised by the narrative pattern of the lost soul’s redemption, yet generally it manages to avoid sanctimonious moralising with the help of numerous ironic or funny details that juxtapose the Messianic with the mundane, the high-flying with the down-to-earth. For example, we learn that Aryan’s favourite food is French fries, and his image of the perfect home is a room with a bed, a desk and a PlayStation. Another such example is when, during one of his flying-miracle-performances, he falls down as a lightly dressed pretty woman enters the room. These details arguably create some sort of self-­ conscious reflexivity, moments of ironic detachment and regular comic relief that effectively undercut the religious pathos. Beyond this, I would argue that these details also create a mutuality of religious fantasies and a complexity of intercultural expectations: while Aryan functions as the long-awaited Messiah, who may awake the spiritually depraved Europe from its hollow, soulless, mundane materiality, European freedom and material wealth (symbolised by sexy girls, PlayStation and French fries) function as the earthly paradise for the third-world refugee. Thus, one of the “twists” of Jupiter’s Moon is the way it manages to turn the migration film into the in-depth analysis of twenty-first-century European culture, in which process it creates an interplay of mutually supplementary perspectives that reveals the needs, fantasies and perceptions of both the European host and the immigrant wholly/holy Other. Jupiter’s Moon manages to surprise the spectator with several other similar “twists” on the conventions of the refugee film. One of these twists concern the film’s fundamental moral message. Similarly as many twenty-first-century European refugee films (e.g., Terraferma, Morgen or Le Havre) Jupiter’s Moon implies that one’s encounter with an immigrant Other could be the ultimate ethical moment, one’s best (and perhaps only) chance to look up from an otherwise not too meaningful, mundane, “horizontal” life. However, the film’s key message (if there is one) is not simply that we should be nice and hospitable with refugees and immigrants. Arguably, Jupiter’s Moon wishes to explore much more about contemporary European issues and values than our policies and attitudes concerning refugees or immigrants, or even our concepts and fantasies of self-other encounters. This cinematic approach of multi-layered explorations is perhaps best exemplified by the film’s multiple objects of curiosity. In terms of cinematic attention and spectacle, the film focuses on Aryan’s levitation, it is this miracle that structures the field of vision, that serves as the object of curiosity (and awe) for both characters and spectators. However, one



could argue that this angelic spectacle is not necessarily at the heart of the film’s narrative and psychological interest: the film’s plot and character-­ building are rather structured by Stern’s inner transformation, and the film seems to be rather interested in the thought-experiment of what such an unexpected angelic or Messianic presence may reveal about twenty-­ first-­century Europe or ordinary human existence. One could argue that the flying Messiah is only a time-specific pretext for the camera to rise above the ordinary, and show twenty-first-century life from a different perspective. One can find the same ambiguity concerning the representation of spirituality or religion. While highlighting the importance of “looking up” and the higher perspectives supported by spirituality, the film avoids associating that spirituality with one specific religion. In Jupiter’s Moon a young Syrian becomes the next Messiah, who saves people regardless of their religious orientation, the only prerequisite being the inclination to look up. Furthermore, the film clearly denounces religious fundamentalism: after the terrorist attacks, which the police attributes to Aryan and his father (Father?), Aryan states “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my father”, which clearly separates him and his (divine) Father from the two Islamist terrorists who act in their God’s name. I would argue that the film can afford talking about taboos and getting close to some of the dirty realities not only because of the distancing, unrealistic elements (such as the levitation and the slightly dystopian setting), but also, and perhaps more significantly, because of its focus and pervasive critique of the host culture and the kinds of lives lived in it. Sonntag would probably find it difficult to denounce the film for capitalising on images of the other’s suffering, when the self-other encounter actually highlights the hosts’ miserable spiritual condition. With its critique of “horizontal”, Western secular culture, the film also undermines the idea of Western cultural superiority (the unpronounced assumption of many well-­ meaning European films about migration), as well as the idea that what Europe can offer to third-world migrants is of much real value. The key vehicle of this pervasive cultural critique in Jupiter’s Moon is the concept of the Messiah-as-immigrant and the change of perspective he brings about. At first sight, this concept may seem fantastic, far-fetched or even surreal: I distinctly remember the first time we discussed the forthcoming film’s key ideas with a group of film scholars in one of the coffee breaks of an international conference in Budapest. The summer of 2015 was not far behind us, the effects of the media hype, the social and political



turmoil, and the heated emotions were still around, and in this context the idea of a resurrecting, flying, superhero-like Syrian Messiah-immigrant seemed like an exciting, but potentially far-fetched, head-heavy concept that would be difficult to implement cinematically in convincing ways. Yet, the public and media reactions to mass immigration in Western Europe proved that our concepts of international migration reveal as much about our cultural assumptions and fantasies as about the other, and Messianism is a significant part of our expectations when hosting the Wholly Other. At the time, before the scandal of large scale sex-assaults committed by immigrant men in Cologne during the New Year’s Eve of 2015/2016, the media was still full of pictures of Germans happily greeting the newcomers at Munich’s Central Station, handing out food, clothes and cash, and the newspapers often referred to the economic and demographic gains Europe could expect from the event. However, some sceptical voices (usually outside Germany) argued that the almost religious awe on the faces of volunteers at the Munich Hauptbahnhof had much to do with a sense of relief in German war-guilt, and the joy that now the trains are not taking away the “others” to be killed but bringing them in so as to be saved. Life, in other words, proved that the film’s concept is not far-fetched at all, quite the contrary: the upwards-looking people in the streets of Budapest at the end of the film call attention to the same deep, irrational, fantasy-based roots of our visions of otherness as the idealistic, enthusiastic (and sometimes completely impractical, dangerous and self-defeating) Western European reactions did. In this context it may be worth digging a bit into the cultural roots of these fantasies, and recall Jacques Derrida’s explorations of the return of the religious, the (usually unacknowledged) messianic structure of much of European thinking, as well as concepts of messianic hospitality and impossible hospitality in various interviews and books, such as Spectres of Marx, The Gift of Death, Politics of Friendship and Of Hospitality. Building on Lévinas, Derrida refers to the ethical imperative of unlimited or impossible hospitality by which he means “to give the new arrival all of one’s home and oneself, to give him or her one’s own, our own, without asking a name, or compensation” (Derrida 2000, 77). This approach is informed by an ethics that associates “the infinitely other as God and the infinitely other as another human” (Derrida 1995, 84), and thus defines ethics as “the order of and respect for absolute singularity” (Derrida 1995, 84). This radical, and intentionally impractical attitude—which, by the way, seems very close to the spirit of Chancellor Merkel’s 2015 decision to take



in one million immigrants (without checking their names, intentions, countries of origin or whether they have any criminal records)—is clearly rooted in religious messianism. In “the religions of the Book”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which define European thinking to such a large extent to this very day, waiting for the Wholly Other (tout autre) to come is a key aspect of religiosity. One of the crucial points in Derrida’s atheist messianism (and the ideas of hospitality it inspires) is that the messianic designates “a structure of experience rather than a religion” (Derrida 2006, 211). Practically, it means that the Messiah, in opposition to the Messiahs of the above-­ mentioned monotheistic religions, is not to be imagined as a specific, divine being, as a shiny, glorious figure arriving at the sound of fanfares. In the above-mentioned books Derrida refers several times to Maurice Blanchot’s story, in which the Messiah arrives to the gates of a city in rags, only to find that he is not recognised by people at all. It is only a beggar who recognises him after a while, but the only thing he can think of saying to the Messiah is the question “When will you come?” Blanchot’s story is to exemplify the way the Messiah is someone to be awaited, whose arrival is an impossibility, also in the sense that when he finally does come, it ends the (possible) world as we knew it, together with all its laws and regulations of (possible) hospitality. In Derrida, the messianic structure of existence (or subjectivity) means that the subject is constituted by one’s waiting for the impossible, the Wholly Other, the Messiah, that is, by a ceaseless and unconditional openness to an incomprehensible encounter. Throughout these writings, Derrida’s (impossible) mantra is tout autre est tout autre, meaning that every other is the wholly other, which also entails that every knock at the door, every person in rags could be the Messiah, the Saviour that one has always been waiting for (even without knowing it) (see Derrida 1995, 82–115; 2006, 210–212). To be fair with Derrida, let me note that he inscribed this impossible hospitality within a deconstructive double bind with the set of practical and possible laws of hospitality, which entail border control, checking passports and the limitation of the impossible principles of unconditional hospitality. Moreover, importantly for the historicity of my own explorations here, most of these texts of Derrida were written before the well-­ known series of crisis hit the first world (starting with 9/11), at a time when first-world societies had good reasons to believe that we have reached the end of history, with the fall of communism there is no more external enemy or threatening Other at the gates, and thus the most dangerous



enemies of global human happiness reside within our societies, such as xenophobia, racism, sexism, and (importantly in this context of ethics and otherness) “the monotonous complacency” of our moral and political discourses (Derrida 1995, 86). As we all know, this late twentieth-century belief system has been thoroughly challenged by the events of the early twenty-first century, not least by social phenomena related to immigration. It is precisely in this context of radical cultural resignification and shifting world-views that the messianic subtext of Jupiter’s Moon acquires special significance, and becomes a piece of relevant, pervasive cultural criticism. The film depicts Europe as an old and tired continent, a cold and forsaken land beset by cultural fatigue and hollow secularism, as a place where people have forgotten to look up, given up their hope for something or someone wholly other to come. The film suggests that in this spiritual vacuum only the arrival of the Wholly Other can make a difference, which can only happen if we recognise the Messiah (the infinitely other of God) in the suffering migrant Other. In this sense, the film, in line with the three messianic religions, regards the self (or the subject) as fallen, in need of salvation, yet incapable of acquiring that by oneself. These messianic religions (as opposed to such far-Eastern schools as Buddhism or Taoism that teach inward journeys towards a wholly other inner state) “outsource” the role of spiritual development or elevation, and thus define the subject as by definition in need of an Other. As Jupiter’s Moon clearly indicates, these fantasies inform not only our religious practices, but also our fantasies of otherness. The film, in line with Derrida’s later writings, clearly indicates the messianic structure of European secular liberalism’s cult of otherness, which automatically regards the land as a (spiritual) desert in need of a saviour. Thus, Jupiter’s Moon does not only call attention to these religious roots of our European fantasies about otherness, it also takes these fantasies literally, so as to carry out a thought experiment about the impossible event of singularity that brings about the end of time. In this sense, the film’s ending follows logically from the messianic structure underlying its narrative: it entails both the death of the subject-of-­salvation, the end of time in a moment of impossibility, and the transformation of the cinematic image (in the last, “frozen” frames) into a (slightly dystopian), twenty-first-century religious icon. Let me finish this part of this chapter by pointing out a few paradoxes and questions that the film (perhaps unintentionally) poses, ones key to the hotly debated issues of contemporary European identity, ones that I



do not wish to unfold, answer or bring to a reassuring resolution in any way. The first paradox concerns the pragmatic usefulness of Europe’s messianic cultural heritage. It can be formulated like this: are the non-upwards-­ looking characters of Jupiter’s Moon spiritually deprived in spite of or rather because of the messianic structure of European systems of belief, ethics and politics? To put it more theoretically: does this definition of the (spiritually) lacking subject (who needs to wait for an Other to come) make the European subject more ethical, open towards the other, woken from “the smooth functioning” of its “monotonous complacency” (Derrida 1995, 86)? Or, on the contrary, does the messianic function rather as a debilitating performative trope of extraordinary dramatic power that defines the European subject through its waiting and longing for a (messianic, eschatological, revolutionary) Other, and thus, through such films as Jupiter’s Moon, (re)inscribe (spiritual) lack at the heart of the European subject? Furthermore, so as to push this socio-psycho-political paradox to its most general (and most contentious) conclusions: to what extent does this messianic structure make the European subject vulnerable to such political messianisms as communism, National Socialism, utopian progressivism or political Islam? There is yet another paradox that almost every film about migration raises in some ways. It concerns the ethics of representation and the otherness of the other thus encountered. It can be put like this: if we regard the migrant other through the messianic fantasies informed by our cultural heritage, are we really seeing (and filming) otherness, is it really a wholly other that we see? In other words, does following the imperative of regarding every other as wholly/holy other create images of true (radical) otherness, or are we merely reiterating the fantasies of our own, unacknowledged religious fantasies?

Conclusions: Narratives of Migration Terraferma and Morgen, the two more conventional “auteur films” of the three examples discussed above, may call our attention to the (almost) impossible double binds that contemporary cinematic representations of migration face in a troubled, twenty-first-century Europe. Following a humanitarian call, these films are meant to highlight injustice and human suffering, to “evoke the anguish, hardship and precariousness of those displaced by poverty, repression or war” (Wood and King 2001, 13), yet they should avoid turning the Other’s suffering into a sensationalist or



aesthetically pleasing spectacle, or a user-friendly commodity (Sontag 2003; Saxton, 2010b, 66). This paradox of representation is intimately linked to another, epistemic double bind, the imperative to make the suffering Other visible to the privileged European host societies, but to do so without domesticating otherness or reducing the Other to the Same (Lévinas 1974, 43). Since the 2008 economic crisis these—by now fairly classical—representational oxymora are accompanied by yet another one. As the welfare state has passed away, and an increased number of European citizens feel insecure, alienated from the political, economic and cultural establishment, it has become increasingly important to achieve the above-­ mentioned representation of the Other’s suffering without effacing the troubles of the European hosts. If one considers Terraferma and Morgen, one discovers several “symptomatic” similarities that may reveal the compromises filmmakers working in the auteur tradition have to make in order to meet (at least some of) the challenges outlined in the introduction of this chapter. The most visible is the erasure of all images that could evoke xenophobia or play into the hands of populist right-wing ideologues. Neither film features single male migrants that belong to the 16–30 age group, when men in general tend to be statistically more violent and prone to sexually predatory behaviour (Carrabine et  al. 2009, 200). This strategy is probably used to defuse European fears of criminal behaviour of sexual violence, one of the most neuralgic debate points today. This narrative avoidance is discernible in many immigration films, including such critically acclaimed works, as La Promesse (1996), Le Havre (2010), Illégal (2010), Live and Become (2005) or the documentary Fire at Sea (2016). Interestingly, even films that do feature young or middle-aged migrant men do not depict them as sexually active. Okwe, the good Samaritan in Dirty Pretty Things (2002) is never tempted to have sex with any of the women around him, and Elias in Eden Is West (2009) is presented as the passive object of desire, seduced and used by a white woman who provides him with temporary shelter. Though the motivation of undermining racist stereotypes (e.g., of coloured men “taking our women”) is understandable in the present political situation, the strategy to erase inter-racial sexuality from the screen may very well be a self-defeating solution (e.g., as it runs the risk of reintroducing the racial regulations of 1950’s Hollywood cinema in twenty-first-century Europe). Moreover, as I have indicated above, these approaches often lead to reliance on such colonial rhetoric as the infantilisation or feminisation of otherness. Jupiter’s Moon is somewhat similar to Dirty Pretty Things in this



regard: though its protagonist is a young man in his 20s, his “angelic” innocence protects him from the usual racist stereotypes. The second symptomatic similarity, which all three films share, is that none of the migrant protagonists do anything that would be at odds with European moral standards. They do not even get irritated or angry when ill-treated, apparently they never even have bad days or foul moods. These extremities of characterisation clearly underline the extent to which these characters are trapped in the representational system of the Same: they are not real or radical Others, but idealised European fantasies of otherness. Admittedly, these are benevolent, well-meaning fantasies, but still fantasies, and ideologically and politically motivated ones for that. Furthermore, the migrating protagonists in all three films are driven by such “universal” personal needs as the wish to see one’s long lost family members or escaping war. Migrants with unclarified motivations are only allowed in minor roles, and from the three films only Jupiter’s Moon is brave enough to refer to the security risks that mass migration may entail. Apparently, in contemporary Europe where social benefits are quickly shrinking for the local citizens themselves, the idea that the protagonist migrants travel “simply” to achieve better life conditions is to be circumvented. The fact that the host-protagonists in most films are socially marginalised white men may also mark a growing concern for those European citizens who are placed on the losing end of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the casting of such underprivileged locals as hosts successfully downplays the colonial overtones, facilitating the establishment of a tacit affinity between migrants and local underdogs. These narrative solutions, conspicuous erasures and taboos suggest that in post-crisis European cinema the fear of showing images that could be appropriated for racist or xenophobic interpretations may compromise the imperative to create complex, authentic, balanced representations. It seems that European auteur cinema is rather giving up on its long-­standing tradition of breaking taboos and privileging “aesthetic substance” over ideological conformity. I claim that in this way European cinema runs the risk of becoming similar to the self-affirming contents circulated in well-­ guarded internet communities based on shared ideological, political or religious beliefs: a set of self-assuring messages that tactically evades anything that could disturb the belief-system of the Same. As Jupiter’s Moon shows, the darker aspects of migration can only be represented if they are placed within the critique of the host culture. Mundruczó’s film is not only a refreshing piece of the refugee film genre because of its dystopian



stylistics and combination with the action-sci-fi genre, but also because it uses the refugee theme to explore some of the fundamental questions of Western, secular, off-modern cultures. On the positive side, all three films occasionally break some of the conventional rules of cinematic storytelling and suggest that in a crisis-ridden twenty-first-century Europe conventional, well-rounded realist narratives may feel less and less authentic when it comes to the representation of the migrant Other. Sudden ruptures in visual style, the use of ellipsis at key moments, narrative gaps, complex aesthetic qualities (e.g., irony), unexplained decisions, or a simple refusal to completely control the narrative may create multiple interpretations and some space for the Other to appear outside the conceptual framework of the Same. It seems that the very concept of Jupiter’s Moon stems from understanding this very problem of credible and ethical realistic representations, it is this recognition of cinematic crisis that it attempts to avoid by way of twisting realism, openly questioning the concept of realistic representation, creating more varied migrant characters, and magnifying idealisation to self-consciously transcendental proportions. The lesson these films seem to suggest is that European cinema can only meet the demands of the quickly transforming socio-cultural conditions if it changes with the changing times. At the same time, these cinematic shifts may be also regarded as reaching back to the defining roots of European auteur cinema, namely to its sense of cultural autonomy, its distance from political ideology, its openness to aesthetic renewal, as well as its commitment to a representation of otherness that challenges both the spectator’s beliefs and the existing social-­ symbolic order.

Works Cited Bauman, Zygmunt, and Carlo Bordoni. 2014. State of Crisis. Polity. Berghahn, Daniela, and Claudia Sternberg, eds. 2010. European Cinema in Motion: Migrant and Diasporic Film in Contemporary Europe. Palgrave Macmillan. Carrabine, Eamonn, et  al. 2009. Criminology: A Sociological Introduction. Routledge. Derrida, Jacques. 1995. The Gift of Death. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. ———. 2000. Of Hospitality, Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. Stanford: Stanford University Press.



———. 2006 [1996]. Specters of Marx. New York and London: Routledge. Donn, Katharina. 2017. A Poetics of Trauma after 9/11: Representing Trauma in a Digitized Present. Routledge. Downing, Lisa, and Libby Saxton. 2010. Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters. Routledge. Hall, Stuart, ed. 2003. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage. Kalmár, György. 2017. Formations of Masculinity in Post-Communist Hungarian Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan. Lévinas, Emmanuel. 1974. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority.. Translated by Alphonso Martinus Lingis. Nijhoff Publishers. Loshitzky, Yosefa. 2010. Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema. Indiana University Press. McAdam, Jane. 2014. The Concept of Crisis Migration. Forced Migration Review (45), February, pp. 10-11. Merry, Stephanie. 2013. Terraferma Movie Review. The Washington Post, September 5, 2013. Murphy, Hannah, and Valentina Romei. 2017. In Charts: Six Issues That Will Shape the French Election. The Financial Times, April 22, 2017. https://www. Nacify, Hamid. 2001. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton University Press. Rings, Guido. 2016. The Other in Contemporary Migrant Cinema: Imagining a New Europe? Routledge. Romano, Onofrio. 2014. The Sociology of Knowledge in a Time of Crisis: Challenging the Phantom of Liberty. Routledge. Said, Edward. 1977. Orientalism. Penguin. Saxton, Libby. 2010a. Blinding Visions: Levinas, Ethics, Faciality. In Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters, ed. Lisa Downing and Libby Saxton, 95–106. Routledge. ———. 2010b. Ethics, Spectatorship and the Spectacle of Suffering. In Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters, ed. Lisa Downing and Libby Saxton, 62–75. Routledge. Schuster, Liza. 2001. Political Asylum in Germany and Britain. In Migration and Mobility: The European Context, ed. Subrata Ghatak and Anne Showstack Sassoon, 109–123. Palgrave. Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador. Strausz, László. 2017. Hesitant Histories on the Romanian Screen. Palgrave Macmillan.



Summary of the Report of the Global Commission on International Migration. 2005. United Nations. fourthcoord2005/P09_GCIM.pdf. Wood, Nancy, and Russell King, eds. 2001. Media and Migration: Constructions of Mobility and Difference. Routledge. Zimmermann, Klaus F., ed. 2005. European Migration: What Do We Know? Oxford University Press.


The Lads of the New Right

The rise of nationalist populist parties and the resurgence of far-right political movements have been among the most worrying symptoms of the ideological and political crisis of twenty-first-century Europe. The Front National in France, the UKIP in Britain, the AFD in Germany, the True Finns in Finland, the Golden Dawn in Greece, or the pan-Nordic neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement have been gaining in popularity and making more and more headlines ever since the beginning of the financial crisis. The general trend seems to be that “throughout Europe, we see how the far right is gaining votes, power and influence at the expense of other, more mainstream parties” (Kinnvall 2014, 316). The revival and growing popularity of these movements, as well as their retrograde, tribalist ideological and emotional characteristics, are among the most obvious signs that there is something off with our current formation of modernity. These trends do not only show in opinion polls and the rising number of far-right party representatives in European parliaments: the rise of the new right, as well as the shifts in public opinion about the political mainstream, have far-reaching consequences for both on- and off-­ screen identities. Significantly for the present volume, these movements have a long tradition of cinematic representations, characteristic stylistics with a strong visual appeal, and an intimate, undeniable link with white masculinities (Kinnvall 2014, 321). Writing about these issues in 2020, one must mention that these trends have also produced their violent extremities: the expression “terrorist © The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




attack by white nationalists” has become an all too well known one all around the world. In 2019 one such attack took place in Christchurch, New Zealand (51 dead) and El Paso, US (22 dead). Both were committed by solitary white male shooters. Though “modern white nationalism … first emerged in America after the civil war” (“What is ‘White Nationalism’?” 2019, 4), and the vast majority of white supremacist terrorist attacks take place in the US, the phenomenon is far from being a non-European one: as it turns out, many of the perpetrators are inspired by Anders Breivik’s 2011 massacre in Norway, which left 77—mostly under aged—people dead. According to Lois Beckett’s recent account in The Guardian, in the last eight years more than 175 people around the world have been killed in at least 16 high-profile attacks motivated, or apparently motivated, by white nationalist conspiracy theories, including the far-right racist belief that non-white immigrants and refugees are ‘invaders’ who pose an existential threat to the white race. (Beckett 2019, 1)

Obviously, these terrorist attacks are only the most terrible and most visible examples, but it should be clear that more or less overt expressions of white supremacist ideology, racism or ideas left over from colonial cultural imperialism are, once again, almost “natural”, daily occurrences of contemporary European life. In this chapter, in line with the book’s key questions, I will focus on how these issues manifest in films about white men. However, it should be noted that racism, or other exclusive and depreciating ideologies are far from being exclusively characteristic of white communities. In fact, though human societies vary to a large degree in terms of their tolerance of difference, it is hard to find any society where the production of depreciated out-groups based on ethnic background, skin colour, sex, gender or religion is not an integral part of common practices of identity-making (Rattansi 2007, 2). European politics’ general swing to the right and the emergence of far-­ right political movements is one of the clearest signs of the devaluation of the pre-crisis grand narratives of modernity and the ensuing widespread ideological disorientation, which inevitably led to the (still ongoing) rearrangement of the political system. The chain of events that led here seem quite clear by now. The 2007 American housing bubble burst and credit crunch grew into a widespread global economic crisis by 2008, to which the IMF and the EU reacted with a set of austerity measures, the effects of which manifested in drastic cuts in public spending, massive youth



unemployment, the reduction of employment rights and falling real wages (Smith 2015, 26). The fact that the banks mostly responsible for the crisis were bailed out by governments, that is, by ordinary taxpayers, or that the less well-off were most harshly affected by the austerity measures (Smith 2015, 27) easily gave the impression that the political elite was under the influence of business lobbyists and well-paid Brussels technocrats, who cared much more about rescuing the banks (which were, to a large extent, responsible for the crisis), or about retaining the status quo than about the “large dose of humiliation” that “Europe’s citizens have been handed” (Smith 2015, 23). To make things worse, most members of the political establishment, similarly to most of the European mainstream media, seemed quite reluctant to question the pre-crisis orthodoxies (be those financial, political or ideological), failed to address the problems of the quickly growing precariat, kept reiterating the old, discredited messages, and missed the opportunity to open honest, outspoken, democratic public debates about the causes and consequences of the crisis. The EU’s often noted and almost “natural” democratic deficit had drastic consequences this time. Though a second great depression was probably avoided, this was achieved, as a comprehensive article in The Economist recently summarised, through “last-minute backroom deals”, actions taken over the head (and often at the expense) of ordinary citizens, and by bodies (such as the IMF, the EFSF and the ESM) without any direct democratic legitimacy or accountability (“The Democratic Deficit” 2015). For better or worse, the financial crisis was dealt with in distinctively non-democratic ways, with the assistance of a remarkably non-critical, pro-establishment media, which gave a historical chance to Eurosceptics, conspiracy-theorists, nationalist populists and basically everybody who had any inclination to fill the newly created political-ideological vacuum, to capitalise on the demise of the old order. One significant consequence of these events was “to undermine parliamentary politics, not least by increasing relative support for parties of the far left and far right, meaning that centre left and centre right parties are liable to be drawn together for survival into shifting coalitions increasingly susceptible to the long-term influence of business lobbyists” (Smith 2015, 27). Unsurprisingly, President Barroso’s famous 2013 warnings proved to be well founded: the economic crisis (and its handling by the political elite) quickly led to “far-right parties gaining ground in several member states” (quoted in Smith 2015, 28).



According to recent studies in political psychology, “there is a strong documented relation between ‘subjective deprivation’, that is, the subjective feeling of being unprivileged and far right support” (Kinnvall 2014, 318). Thus, it is the feeling of frustration and powerlessness, that is, being deprived of not only financial safety but also of political agency and fair media representation that makes one’s critique of contemporary socio-­ political events bitter and easy to radicalise. In other words, the present resurgence of far-right movements is not simply the consequence of dire economic conditions and opportunistic populist politicians, but also that of a failure of democratic communication and representation. It is this void left open by politicians and journalists that can be filled by demagogues who claim to speak for “the ripped-off, lied-to little people” (Kinnvall 2014, 317). As Catarina Kinnvall argues, the discursive construction of fear, anxiety and threat can be as real to those seemingly affected as are any actual economic and physical dangers. These constructions can be related to a number of reactions to globalisation and post-industrialism, such as economic and political change, party realignment, the weakening of the welfare state, crises of legitimacy for ordinary parties, social marginalisation, migration, unemployment, crime, changed gender relations but also to a more general feeling of cultural and/or national ‘loss’—feelings that are often related to living in an increasingly modern and globalised world in which narratives of who we are and where we come from seem to affect everyday life. (Kinnvall 2014, 318)

Kinnvall’s above summary also points to a more general cultural criticism, which takes us one level deeper into the understanding of contemporary political extremism. This criticism, which cinema also reflects in numerous ways, relates to such underlying issues as the unfulfilled “demand for recognition of one’s identity” (Fukuyama 2019, xv), the spiritual deficit of contemporary Europe (Delsol 2003), or the difficulties of living meaningful lives in modern consumerist societies. There is a growing concern that the recent crisis is also testing the fundamental values and assumptions of enlightenment secularism, capitalism and liberal democracy, and that none of these cultural constructs are faring too well. For example, there is a well-documented and widely accepted trend in social and political psychology that understands fascism and Stalinism as quasi-religious movements or “civic religions” that readily supplement the lost or weakened meaningful world-view of pre-modern religious societies



(Mosse 1996, 245). The effects of the present crisis may also indicate that the ideological underpinnings of enlightenment modernity have not become much more stable or deeply rooted since the fall of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, that we have not really found a solution to Europe’s spiritual deficit, and that the danger of political ideologies becoming new secular religions is still prevalent. On the most general and most fundamental level, one must agree with Fukuyama’s concerns (formulated in his latest book, Identity) that perhaps our mainstream economic and social policies have been informed by a misunderstanding of human beings, and therefore we cannot build more stable and happy societies unless we develop “a better theory of the human soul” (Fukuyama 2019, 11). One indicative factor of this profound cultural malfunctioning is that today we do not only face far-right extremism: left-wing and progressive political activism also produced some sectarian and militant branches in the last decade (acting less and less rationally and more and more as a dogmatic belief-system), not to mention Islamic radicalism in Europe. All these movements are connected by a shared, deeply felt resentment about of the present state of affairs in European societies, by its harsh (and often dogmatic) critique, a strong sense of mission, an unshakable belief in the supremacy of one’s political sect and its values, the presentation of their rivals as morally inferior beings, a quasi-religious devotion towards political goals, their refusal of rational dialogue with out-groups, and their view of (verbal or physical) violence as a legitimate political weapon. As some of the films analysed in this chapter will indicate, Europe has difficulties offering lifestyles, value-systems, spiritual practices that could create an overarching sense of connectedness (across identity groups), or provide a large percentage of the population with a deeply felt sense of meaningfulness and purpose, which could therefore successfully beat religious fundamentalism or political messianism at times when one’s identity and world-view are being threatened by large-scale socio-economic forces. Europe’s mainstream politicians often tend to overlook (or deliberately cover up) these considerations, and reiterate the soothing argument that the cause of the recent rise of extremist political movements is solely the financial downturn, and thus it is bound to abate as soon as our economies heal, readjust and start producing the kind of results that they did before the crisis. My point here is that even if these predictions were to prove right, and the gradual healing of our economies would eventually undermine such disconcerting socio-political movements, these events still call



attention to the fragility of our social systems. For example, the way the financial crisis (which was much less drastic than the Great Depression in the 1920s that led to European fascism) quickly led to a deep ideological and political crisis, highlights the extent to which the stability of our late twentieth-century socio-political formations were based on the promise of endless financial growth and ever growing material consumption. Such phenomena indicate that the stability of the system was not necessarily guaranteed by its present-time qualities, for example by the well-being of the consumerist subject, but rather by the promise (or rather fantasy) of having more and more. Post-industrial capitalism, and the kind of subjectivities it produces, seem to be founded on such addictive practices as shopping, commodity-fetishism, the production, constant refashioning and continuous mediatising of a narcissistic self, and being “high” on the promise of having ever more. In this system the present lack of general human well-being is always soothed by the fantasy of an even more glamorous future; in other words, the stability of the present is always guaranteed by the (highly ideological) fantasy of the future. Modernity, as I have discussed in more detail in the chapter on addiction and escapism, has proved capable of producing addiction-based, escapist cultures that are harmful for both individual well-being and the global eco-system. As the recent socio-political destabilisation of democracies have revealed, when one removes the addictive (and ecologically disastrous) promise of continuously growing consumption, individual fantasies as well as the whole socio-political construct may quickly crumble. The rise of anti-­ establishment, extremist political movements, therefore, can be regarded as a desperate ideological response to the collapse of our pre-crisis ideological systems and the addictive pleasures that they entailed. One question that this situation logically leads to is why European quality cinema is still so exclusively concerned with right-wing extremism, neglecting the above-mentioned other forms of similar social phenomena. The film analyses of this chapter will suggest that the answer to this is only partly ideological, and also historical and cinematic. In order to clarify the historical and cinematic context of the films I will closely look at, it may be useful to refer briefly to the peculiar history of the cinematic representations of right-wing radicalism and specifically fascism. When one considers European cinema’s relation to fascism, there are three major points to acknowledge. First, that fascism (understood as a historical phenomenon, as well as a certain ideological trend, and certain visual style or aesthetics) is a major source of cinematic inspiration,



providing both engaging narratives and a bizarrely appealing aesthetics. As literally hundreds of films testify, from The Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935) to the images of the Empire and the First Order in Star Wars movies, there is something visually appealing about fascism and the kinds of right-wing extremism that recycle fascist iconography. There seems to be something emotionally fascinating and visually memorable about the geometrically ordered crowds of Nazi rallies, of the huge red flags, of neat uniforms and shiny boots, of the rituals of devotion and self-­ sacrifice to the Cause, or in specifically contemporary settings, of tattooed white bodies and outbursts of physical violence. Importantly, this intimate connection between fascism and visual fascination has been a defining feature of the movement from its very origins. Thus, as George L.  Mosse argues in his introduction to the Aesthetics and Fascism special issue of The Journal of Contemporary History, fascism can be understood as much as a visual art of power as the power of visual art (Mosse 1996, 245). The second point to be reckoned with is that regarding its ideological and political orientation, European art cinema tends to be mostly liberal and progressive, following the tradition of European Enlightenment humanism (Wayne  2002). This trend is further strengthened today by both the EU’s anti-fascist laws, which prohibit any kind of fascist propaganda, but are seldom as strict with regards to other forms of radical ideologies, and the clear liberal and pro-diversity ideological coordinates of such film-funding bodies as Eurimages. However, there is a third point as well, arguably one that makes this so far fairly clear picture messy and complicated. The relation between point one and point two, between the fascist show of power and European cinema’s liberal, pro-diversity stance, is not simply that of antagonism. The critical observer may often have the uncanny (but intellectually stimulating) perception that many of these anti-fascist films gain much of their visual appeal and narrative drive from the fascist iconography and fascism-­ related themes they incorporate. In other words, oftentimes at the heart of the anti-fascist film, one can still find a fascination with fascism, an unacknowledged flirting with fascism, which one is allowed to enjoy only to ultimately refuse. Thus, the most provocative questions in this respect are: to what extent do anti-fascist films rely on the aesthetic appeal of fascism? And, to what extent does the aesthetics and visual pleasures of these films compromise their ethical or political messages? In order to create the context of the films discussed below, it may be useful to enlist some of the socio-cultural and visual characteristics of



classical fascist culture, so as to see what elements contemporary European films incorporate and how. First of all, the main ingredients of the intoxicating drug of fascism are as follows: the creation of a secular religion with rituals, holy places, well-defined liturgy and shared symbols, which forge strong communities, give a sense of belonging, and create firm identities; having a Cause that transcends the individual, inspires devotion and self-­ sacrifice, and endows human life with the sense of meaningfulness; the existence of a white male Leader as a messianic figure; practice of rituals of male bonding and a cult of aggressive masculinity; well-defined out-groups (that are enemies or obstacles to the Cause); a cult of physical beauty (inherited from classical antiquity); a preoccupation with the body as expressive of supreme inner qualities and marker of difference from out-­ group members (Mosse 1996). Studying the culture of fascism in its complexity teaches one not to trivialise or dismiss it as an aberrant, erratic or idiosyncratic historical phenomena: among the items of the above list one may recognise several “anthropological constants”, that is, basic needs that humans tended to have throughout history. Another crucial issue one should acknowledge is that fascist culture, in its “classical” form, was not something radically different from the European culture of its time: as Mosse also points out, while fascism’s political profile was undoubtedly radical and new, most of the above-mentioned characteristics of the culture of fascism, were deeply rooted in European culture as such. Both these observations should serve as cautionary remarks regarding the easy recognisability of fascist traits in cultural products, as well as regarding the possible complicity of one’s views, tastes and practices in the general cultural logic of fascism. In the context of the present book, the role of white masculinity and the white male body in fascist culture need to be particularly emphasised. Let me quote Mosse’s seminal piece at length here: The beautiful male body was an important symbol in all European fascist movements. However, significantly, such a body was not merely a fascist symbol, but one which had already been adopted by society at large. … The beautiful male body, as the eighteenth-century Greek paradigm had it, projected both self-control in its posture, and virility in the play of its muscles; it symbolized both the dynamic and the discipline that society wanted and needed. Here, order and progress, often in conflict, were reconciled through the symbolism of the male body modelled on the harmonious form of the Greek sculpture. … The true fascist man, through his looks, body and ­comportment, project the ideal of male beauty. Men of flesh and blood were



given a symbolic dimension, a fact which added to the fascist appeal. Here was an aesthetic that was not confined to the public realm, but one which penetrated daily life. (Mosse 1996, 248)

Thus, contemporary European films about fascism or far-right movements can build on a rich cultural heritage that only a few extreme political movements truly have. This heritage, as the film analyses below will also indicate, includes a thick network of established symbols and recognisable narrative patterns, it often highlights the relationship between the private and the public, is closely linked with the identity politics of white masculinities, and usually relies on the male body as a symbolic site and performative instrument. Furthermore, this heritage tends to involve asking critical questions concerning such basic human issues as the purpose or meaningfulness of life, the role of community, the psychological effects of love and hate, acceptance and rejection, and the need for a Cause that transcends individual existence. In the rest of this chapter, I am going to analyse three films from the above outlined set of perspectives: The Wave (Denis Gansel 2008), This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) and July 22 (Peter Greengrass, 2018).

The Wave Dennis Gansel’s 2008 film The Wave (Die Welle) is part of Germany’s post-war artistic and intellectual wrestling with its totalitarian past, a rich tradition that includes Edgar Reitz’s Heimat series, and such recent films as The Downfall (Der Untergang, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Sophie Scholl—Die letzten Tage, Mark Rothemund, 2005) or The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher, Stefan Ruzowitzki, 2007). The film was inspired by an infamous 1967 high-school experiment in California, where, in order to make his students understand the logic and power of fascism, Ron Jones attempted to recreate the social conditions that produced Nazism in Germany. The experiment, which later Jones wrote a short story about, quickly spun out of control and had to be quashed. Gansel places the story to a peaceful contemporary German town, with an arguably similar ideological climate to the original experiment, but definitely different historical resonances. Here Rainer Wenger, a popular and hip high-school teacher (wearing in his introductory scenes an iconic Ramones t-shirt) gets the unwanted task of exploring autocracy with a group of students during the project week. As the disaffected



students express their nausea at the idea of listening to yet another moralising lecture about the crimes of the Third Reich (“The Nazis sucked, OK, we all get it!”), and no one seems to believe that fascism could be any real threat today, he decides to take another, more paradoxical and (as it turns out) more dangerous way. The group decides to test autocracy by experimentally recreating it: they enlist all the necessary ingredients, and put them into practice. They vote Rainer to be their leader, who they address as Herr Wenger, they sit straight at class and stand up when they talk, they choose a name (The Wave), a uniform (jeans with white shirt), a salute, an out-group (the anarchy class) and even create their own logo. They quickly develop a shared group-identity with in-group equality, solidarity and comradeship. At first, things seem to go well, in fact, the first steps towards autocracy paradoxically help the implementation of core democratic principles. For example, less narcissistic individualism and more in-group cohesion, tolerance and team-spirit seem to improve both the water polo team and the theatre workshop. Furthermore, the new equality dissolves old hierarchies based on social status or ethnicity, and the students find the new sense of community, belonging and purpose thrilling. However, towards the end of the week, things start slipping out of hand: the students vandalise some public buildings with the graffiti of the Wave logo, non-members and non-conformist members are bullied, and the polo team’s next game turns into a bloody fight. At last, Wenger, in a dramatic and theatrical scene with all members present in an auditorium (see Fig. 6.1), demonstrates how his students got hooked up on a totalitarian order, and then calls the Wave to an end. Shocked by the unexpected turn

Fig. 6.1  Film still from The Wave (Dennis Gansel, 2008)



of events, Tim, the movement’s most devoted follower, draws a revolver, shoots and wounds another student, and finally shoots himself in the head. The film ends with the sight of shocked students and teachers, while the police takes Wenger away. While the plot may seem somewhat didactic, and the political message predictable, The Wave paints a complex and painfully acute picture about the lure of fascism in contemporary Europe. The first remarkable trait of the film is that it places its political allegory in a decent German town into arguably one of the most affluent and tolerant societies human history has ever created, where none of the participants are suffering from poverty, physical abuse, harsh racial or sexual discrimination, or any other typical “push-factors” motivating political extremism. This lack of the usual suspects effectively sharpens the film’s social criticism, highlighting the more profound malfunctions and deficiencies of contemporary European societies. These cultural and generational deficiencies are clarified by an early scene of a school party. Nothing extraordinarily wrong happens here: students dance, chat, drink and play the usual human games of power and desire. The point is probably precisely that there is nothing extraordinary in all this, that this hedonistic and narcissistic individualism is somewhat tedious, pointless and base (as a male student’s imitation of masturbation with a beer bottle on the stage makes clear). Through this scene The Wave defines the cause of autocratic desire as a cultural deficit. We observe the party from a slightly detached position, from the point of view of two friends sitting at the bar (the second one is played, significantly, as a cameo by Gansel, the film’s director). The first student summarises the symptoms: “Tell me, Martin, what are we supposed to rebel against nowadays? Nothing means anything anymore. We all just want to have fun. What our generation lacks is a common goal to unite us”. Martin responds: “That’s just the Zeitgeist. Look around. The most googled name on the Internet is Paris fucking Hilton! No shit!” The next shot concludes the diagnosis by showing a guy vomiting outside, while the nerdish Tim is bringing marihuana to his classmates as a vain effort to be accepted. The causes of autocracy are defined in this scene less as a resurfacing of primitive, tribal, aggressive reflexes, but rather as a quite understandable dissatisfaction with a narcissistic, hedonistic (and slightly nihilistic) form of consumerist capitalism. The film’s stance on twenty-first-century youth culture seems quite consistent with Delsol’s definition of contemporary people: “modern man is not a zombie or a monster, but a drifter with an



unhappy conscience, because, having the right to everything, he is fulfilled with nothing, and due to this dissatisfaction, he does not even know the name of what he is looking for” (Delsol 2003, xxvi). This would imply that the film does not simply want to repeat the well-known moral lesson that autocracy is dangerous and bad, but it also aims at investigating the conditions and possible reasons for its emergence through a critical analysis of contemporary culture. The second noteworthy point about the film is that in spite of its grim ending, the picture it paints of autocratic social formations is quite ambiguous. As I noted above, the experiment brings a number of benefits that both the students and the spectator can applaud: they realise that sitting with straight backbones helps concentration, that it is better to listen to people who actually have something to say, that community values and social cohesion are important, that in some aspects of life (like team sports) less individualism works better, that in some other fields of life (like theatre performances) a more authoritarian (directorial) voice is necessary to bring good results, that in-group solidarity may strengthen the sense of safety, belonging and general well-being, or that working together with others for shared goals of value can be rewarding. In other words, The Wave makes a point that also came up in the chapter on addiction: that the contemporary combination of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism, though it is officially designed for individual freedom and happiness, tends to encumber a whole range of activities and modes of being-in-the-world which could make human life feel more valuable, happy and meaningful. This ambiguity concerning the advantages and dangers of autocracies is further highlighted by the film language. Many of the scenes where Wave members are having fun are shot with dynamic camera work, images of happy faces and actively moving bodies, quick editing, and energetic music. Significantly, later in the film we have another party scene, where the movement’s members (and some others) are partying happily at a lakeside with camp fires, inter-ethnic bonding, and without drugs or vomiting. In other words, the group’s activities, which the film’s last scene rejects as proto-fascist and dangerous, are actually shot in ways that produce good vibes and visual pleasures in the spectator. These are scenes that an old-­ fashioned leftist may very well regard as the pleasures of collective effort liberating one from alienated individualism produced by capitalism, that a sociologist or evolutionary biologist may define as the human being’s discovery that, after all, it is a social being (and thus, that the search for happiness is not an individual enterprise), or that Delsol could regard as the



Fig. 6.2  Film still from The Wave (Dennis Gansel, 2008)

joyous moment when a modern individual finds something that can endow one’s life with meaning, something that can establish “a link with a value, an idea, an ideal beyond oneself” (4) (see Fig. 6.2). This effect is further strengthened by the representation of the non-­ Wave members: Karo, the smart, upper-middle-class, liberal girl who leaves the movement, is not depicted as a heroic anti-fascist at all. Though she is smart, diligent and sensitive, she tends to put on airs, enjoys (and perhaps exploits) her economic and cultural privileges, tends to be bossy with her less wealthy boyfriend (who is from the former state-socialist provinces), takes it for granted that she plays the lead role in the theatre play they practice, and even considers including fake news in her anti-Wave flyer in order to make her point. Her scenes seem to suggest that her existence is boring and without real joy: these are without music, taken with static camera work and there is something claustrophobic, anxiety-ridden and joy-killing about them in spite of the nice house, fine clothes and beautiful face. She is presented as an intelligent but spoiled princess, who is OK with less democratic arrangements as long as it is to her advantage (as in case of her lead role in the play), and whose fight for democracy is not without selfish motivations or hypocrisy. One of the dark ironies of the film is that initially, when the old hierarchies and social groups are rearranged by Wenger, the social formation also gains in terms of democratic values, transparency and egalitarianism. It is noteworthy that most decisions of the group are actually made through direct voting, and Wenger is a democratically elected leader.



Another such irony is that most of the points that the group’s ideological core is built from, such as the critique of consumerism, of neoliberal capitalism, of growing social inequality or narcissistic individualism, are points that most sensible spectators of the film can easily agree with. These circumstances complicate the film’s ideological message to a great extent: the spectator gets that (up to a pint) the Wave is fun, socially productive and progressive, and as the students are having more fun in socially productive ways, both their grades and their general well-being are improving. In other words, the film amply demonstrates the reasons why one could turn away from our current cultural formations, and it also reveals all the reasons why ours is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Significantly for the perspective of the present book, the drawbacks of the movement are all associated with male figures, such as Wenger, the easy-to-radicalise ex-weirdo Tim, or the schoolyard bully (who can now bully others with a seemingly more noble reason). Through this association of masculinity and violence, as well as by casting two girls as the ones who prove more immune to the lure of the new community spirit, The Wave indirectly defines men as beings who carry the autocracy virus, and whose innate thirst for power is a constant threat to social order. The Wave’s ambiguous political message becomes even more contradictory and paradoxical by the film’s ending. At the final assembly, Wenger reads out some quotes from the students’ essays evaluating the Wave. “I always had everything I wanted. Clothes, money, whatever. But what I had most was boredom. But the last few days have been really fun”— writes one boy. “It doesn’t matter who’s the best-looking, most popular or successful. The Wave has made us all equal”—writes a girl. “Race, religion and class don’t matter anymore. We all belong to a movement”— writes the Turkish guy. “The Wave gives our life meaning, ideals worth standing up for”—writes another girl. “I used to bully other kids. But the more I think about it, the lamer it seems. It’s much better to be part of a good cause”—writes the school bully. The film’s last twist comes after these convincing points are made: Wenger pushes things further, makes a typical populist speech mixing legitimate concerns with angry calls for revolutionary mobilising, to which the students react with enthusiasm. When Marco voices his reservations, they are also ready to drag him to the stage as the traitor to be punished. It is at this point that Wenger stops the scene, steps out of his role as leader, so as to rub the students’ nose into the fact that in spite of their initial opinions, they gladly created a fascist movement in a week’s time.



In contrast to most reviewers of the film, and possibly contrary to its own intentions, I would argue that the ending reveals not only the dangers of autocratic movements, and the film’s only possible message is not that we should all be very careful about the lure of autocracy because Hitler could be back before we knew. I would rather propose a reading that regards the ending as symptomatic of a deep contemporary ideological crisis, which leads to moral panic, which in turn, results in intellectual degradation and cinematic compromises. I would argue that the film’s ending reveals as much about the European intelligentsia’s twenty-first-­ century disorientation, loss of perspective and panic, as about the dangers of fascism. It may be important to mention here that in the 1981 young adult novel by Todd Strasser, which served as the base of the script, there is no high-school shooting at the end, and the teacher and the movement’s most devoted fan actually reconcile. It is only in Gansel’s 2008 film that the experiment’s outcome must be so radical and tragic, which I would interpret as a response to our post-crisis anxieties, rather than as a dramatic or psychological necessity. With its radical ending, The Wave actually tries to turn itself into yet another much-hammered, boring lecture about the dangers of fascism. It seems as if the film itself got scared of its own critique of contemporary culture and of its display of joyful community activities that do not suit the neoliberal ethos. In the last scene The Wave resorts to a propagandistically reductive view of a black and white political landscape in which there are only two options, the status quo’s nihilistic, individualistic consumer culture, and fascism. Wenger does not try to channel the newly released creative energies, communal spirit and sense of purpose to socially productive and progressive goals, he does not attempt to get rid of such unwanted side-effects as the group’s occasional power demonstrations (e.g., with a non-violence rule). He allows his students to see the vanity and futility of their previous lives, awakens them from their previous apathy, lets them experience something more rewarding and meaningful, only to eventually snatch it all away from them, to scold and humiliate them from the position of the moral high-ground. With this, I would argue, he effectively fails as a teacher, precisely at the moment, when he conforms to the expectations of the political establishment. Wenger’s attitude, due to the solutions of film language mentioned above, is repeated by the film itself: we experience the pleasures of the students’ newly found life, only to feel guilty about them in the end. I would argue that the either-or view that the film concludes with can be



seen as an artistic compromise imposed by a confused and panicky political reaction that reiterates some of our current liberal political doctrines in an arguably dogmatic, hyper-normative way. As this cinematic reaction also reveals the cluelessness of the European cultural elite, its lack of any viable progressive alternative or answer to the crisis we are facing, it further darkens the message that human beings can be drawn to less democratic social formations. With this resolution, The Wave suggests that anti-­establishment social critique is dangerous, and our only option is renunciation of a qualitatively better life, as well as the acceptance of living without any sense of meaningfulness. With the resolution it offers, the film reveals much more about the contemporary crisis and its sectarian politics, than it would admit to: ultimately it denies any dialogue about different value systems or possible ways of improving the present political system. It deems public opinion and human feelings dangerous, it suggests that the step from a sense of community to aggressive exercises of group-power is not only easy but inevitable, it reveals a deep mistrust in human beings (especially men), and fails to calculate with all those human skills that could compensate for the violence and autocracy pathogens (such as rationality, tolerance and compassion). Thus, I would argue that at the end of the day the film communicates a most demoralising, anti-democratic message: after all, Wenger’s only truly autocratic decision (that he made against the will of his students) was abolishing the Wave. Thus, the film is not only depicting the possibility that autocratic social formations may return. It is set in a seemingly brightly modern, yet covertly off-modern world, which is always already tainted with easy-to-­ recycle leftovers of past political regimes and age-old tribal instincts, a world in which there is always something potentially quirky and foul lurking behind the scenes, tainting human behaviour, undermining rational social formations and hi-jacking progressive politics. Significantly, this dangerous and deeply compromised world does not seem to have any real, convincing alternative or response to the autocratic threat. Our only answer is a regressive one that aims to reinstate the status quo, by force if necessary, comfortably disregarding the fact that it was people’s dissatisfaction with that cultural formation that gave rise to the new autocracy in the first place.



This Is England Throughout the years since its making, Shane Meadows’ masterpiece This Is England (2006) has grown into a cult film in several European countries. This, no doubt, is partly due to the affinities between the 1980s Britain—characterised by war, economic readjustment, nationalist political rhetoric and social unrest—and the contemporary spectators’ off-modern, post-crisis Europe. Arguably, the film’s cult status also stems from its emphatic view of socially marginalised, disenchanted youths, who feel abandoned by and left out from the glamorous success-story of modernity. After all, since 2008 the number of such people have considerably grown, the disintegration and economic decline of working-class communities only got worse, the split between the winners of rapid socio-­ economic change and its losers has only grown deeper, therefore the film’s realistic depiction of damaged communities, deserted youngsters and violent counter-cultural movements has only become more pointed and timely (see Butler 2017). The film received the BAFTA for best film in 2007; however, its popularity also manifested in several official and unofficial sequels and run-offs, such as the TV mini-series This Is England ‘86 (2010), This Is England ‘88 (2011) and This Is England ‘90 (2015), narrating the future life of the film’s protagonists, shot on the same locations with practically the same actors and actresses. Though this extended audio-visual intertext offers a wonderful opportunity to explore the socio-­ cultural changes in pre-Brexit Britain, as well as our shifting twenty-first century approaches to the past, such a study would require much more space than I have here. Therefore I will focus mostly on the original 2006 film, with only occasional references to the TV-series or other related films. This Is England tells the story of a 13-year-old, half-orphan schoolboy Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) living in the British coastal town of Grimsby in 1982, during and after the Falklands war, where Shaun’s father served and died. We see a troubled, isolated boy picked on and bullied by schoolmates (mostly for his dad and his untrendy trousers), and spanked by teachers (for his angry responses to insults involving his father). The main narrative sets off when Shaun, on the way home from another day of misery, violence and humiliation at school, meets a gang of skin-heads in a dodgy underpass. In contrast to his schoolmates and teachers, the gang’s leader Woody shows real sympathy and understanding, and Shaun quickly joins the gang. The most feel-good parts of the film show Shaun getting accepted and initiated, with the appropriate shirt and boots and haircut, as



well as the gang’s playful counter-cultural activities, where its members seem happy, comradeship forged and re-forged every day, and Woody acts as a sensitive and just leader. Interestingly, these activities of the gang are shown in similarly entertaining scenes as in The Wave, with dynamic music and music-video-like editing. In other words, both films include, and perhaps are even built around, scenes that show bonding, togetherness, human connectivity and the joys of transcending such standard cultural experiences as alienated individualism and isolation. However, as opposed to The Wave, these joyful scenes and experiences are not disavowed later. Though sloppy political journalism and commercial cinema regularly equate skinheads with neo-Nazis, true to historical accuracy, Meadows represents the early 1980s gang of British skins as an inclusive, non-racist, ethnically mixed group of social outcasts with anarchist traits and a shared love of West-Indian music. In contrast to The Wave, in This Is England the gang’s harmonious times are not finished by the unleased violence associated with tribal instincts and the divine intervention of a sermon of moral(ising) high ground, but rather by the appearance of Combo (Stephen Graham), a former friend who just got out of prison. Combo is yet another social misfit, an emotionally damaged but ambitious heavy, who got into trouble, served some time in prison where he got radicalised, and is now determined to convert the old gang into a National Front cell. Thus, Shaun gets a second substitute-father as well, and the story of his mourning and socialisation processes is partly told through the competition of the two father-figures. This way, This Is England manages to create a perspective that successfully and intricately connects the personal with the social, Shaun’s working through the loss of his father, his search of human connections, the social unrest of the Thatcher-years, the social cost of Britain’s forceful readjustment to a post-­ industrial service-economy, the human cost of the Falklands war, the neo-­ Nazi turn and split of the skinhead movement, and the rise of British far-right extremism. Shaun’s story can be understood as that of a vulnerable, traumatised, isolated young boy, who finds refuge in a gang, an alternative social formation, where he is open to all sorts of productive and destructive, benign and malicious manipulation. We see how Combo and the National Front’s political rhetoric manages to pull him out of Woody’s gang, and we also see how he gets disenchanted and disgusted when he witnesses the violence that Combo’s way necessarily leads to. When, at the end of the film, Shaun throws the Union Jack into the sea, it can be read as the rejection of the National Front’s violent nationalism (as he got the



flag from Combo after a rally), as a symbolic burial of his soldier father, Shaun’s abandonment of his desperate attempts to find a surrogate-father, and the end of his mourning-process. The complexity of this symbolic act reaffirms the connection between Shaun’s father-complex, his emotional vulnerability and the seductiveness of radical political movements. As the above summary may also imply, This Is England is mostly about males: it focuses on a boy and his relation to father-figures, his involvement with a gang whose core members are all males, the production of liveable alternative identities through male homosocial bonding in a counter-­cultural gang, and his flirting with and rejection of a political ideology that is very much associated in the film with strong, white, manipulative and violent men. From the point of view of gender- and racial politics, it is worth noting that in the film emotional health and human happiness are clearly associated with more inclusive social practices, mostly with Woody’s gang, where there are girl members as well as non-white men. By contrast, Combo’s NF cell is made of single, socially and sexually frustrated white men. This context highlights the ambiguity of Shaun’s patriarchal heritage: the enigmatic and iconic picture of his father (in uniform) on his nightstand simultaneously signifies loss, trauma, the lack of fatherly love, emotional pain, militant masculinity, as well as Shaun’s exclusion from normal, healthy social life (see Fig. 6.3).

Fig. 6.3  Film still from This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)



These motifs also serve as an explanation of Shaun’s involvement with violent nationalism, and are key parts of his character’s definition from the beginning of the film. There is a conversation between Shaun and his mother, on the sofa of their unpretentious council apartment after the above-mentioned bad day at school, where he clearly expresses his alienation, unhappiness and isolation in his present environment: “I don’t like it here, Mum”—he says—“I liked it better when we were with Dad”. “Well, I liked it better when we were with Dad, but Dad is gone now”— his mother responds. It is after this conversation that the film takes the spectator closer to Shaun’s world; it is this feeling of loss that fills the next shots with symbolic and emotional resonance. We see the solitary pastimes of a sensitive little boy: how he watches the shifting shapes drawn by the clouds on the apartment building’s concrete wall, how he rides on his bike on the empty streets and abandoned industrial buildings, how he practices with his slingshot on deserted dockyards, or how he wanders around on the seaside. Shaun is alone in all these scenes, there is no other human figure in any of the shots that make up this poetic montage, accompanied by slow, acoustic guitar music. His individual loss and ensuing social isolation are associated here with the nostalgia for a bygone age of a thriving, industrial Britain: Dad is gone now, together with that older kind of Britain. Nothing seems to function in these off-modern landscapes, nobody seems to feel really at home. Emotional security, social cohesion and economic prosperity seem to be things of the past, it is a wasteland both inside and outside, a dysfunctional society with alienated youngsters like Shaun, who must look for alternative means of survival, washing others’ cars for pocket money, carrying a sling-shot and stones, retreating into an isolated, personal universe, or joining gangs that provide one with physical and emotional safety (see Fig. 6.4). The film seems to suggest that these are logical and almost unavoidable steps taken at times when “normal” social structures disintegrate, or the modern state fails to carry out its duties and promises. It is highly symbolic that when Woody’s gang go “hunting”, they attack a dysfunctional, deserted, ruinous complex of houses in the middle of the fields. They dress up in costumes imitating or rather ironically mimicking various military or hunting outfits, arm themselves with toy weapons, steak hammers and other household items, and go rampage on the houses. On one hand, they playfully re-enact the ongoing war (that Shaun is listening about on the radio immediately before the “hunt”), but also take revenge on and take their anger out on the dysfunctional society in which



Fig. 6.4  Film still from This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)

they feel marginalised and neglected. Thus, the film simultaneously blames “adult politics” for youth delinquency, defines social malfunctioning as the cause of violent countercultural movements, and also contrasts the playful, ironic, relatively harmless play of the boys with the Falklands war and its much more tragic consequences. This way, the film offers an emphatic, insider’s view into the world of these angry young men of the 1980s, alienated by a “fatherless culture”, and “literally and figuratively orphaned by the times” (Bradshaw 2007). By this, the film also associates susceptibility to radical political movements with socio-economic crisis, and with tactics of survival on off-modern social landscapes that can offer no attractive vision of the future. Thus, both This Is England and post-crisis social phenomena suggest that political radicalisation can be seen as a desperate and potentially destructive answer given to clearly legitimate problems that individuals or whole social groups may encounter. “Maggie is a twat”—says a memorable graffiti on a wall behind the solitary Shaun, and indeed, the connection between dysfunctional societies, broken families and violent youth cultures is not at all accidental either in the film or in real life. In This Is England the story of Shaun and the gangs he joins is put in the context of the turbulent years of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, which I also discuss in the addiction and escapism chapter of this book. This Is England and Billy Elliot take place during two of the most iconic events of 1980s Britain, the 1982 Falklands war and the 1984–1985



miners’ strike, and both have significant consequences for post-crisis Europe. Britain’s economic reshaping may have contributed to the country’s economic success in the next decade, but it also entailed the loss of millions of blue-collar jobs, the destruction of entire working-class communities, the decline of industrial masculinities, the disintegration of thousands of families under financial stress, rapidly growing social inequality, the outsourcing of public services, the withdrawal of the welfare state, and the growing influence of international corporate interests (Beynon 2001, 107–108; Elliott 2013)—unsurprisingly, very similar to the kinds of social phenomena that 30 years later led to Britain’s leaving the European Union. Today it is clear that the social price of such forceful socio-­ economic readjustments includes a growing sense of powerlessness and exploitation, loss of dignity, increasing distrust in the political system, growth in the number of dysfunctional families and children brought up without fathers, and the birth of violent counter-cultural movements. As a 2016 EU report states, Families in the European Union (EU) were hit hard by the financial and economic crisis of 2008, which, together with its after-effects, also triggered a social crisis. If measureable changes in family patterns and the breakdown of families may not be immediately observable and directly related to the downturn, the knock-on effects of the economic and financial crisis on families are far more apparent. Throughout the EU, single-parent families (16 % of all families) are exposed to the highest risk of poverty or social exclusion. Single-parent families are predominantly composed of single mothers, who face a higher poverty risk than single fathers. The adverse impact of the economic crisis on families placed children at greater risk of poverty or social exclusion than the rest of the population in 23 of the 28 EU Member States in 2014. In the same year, there were 27.4 million children under the age of 18 living at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU. (“How Families Have Coped with the Financial Crisis” 2016, 1)

As we know all too well now, such situations almost inevitably produce destructive, counter-cultural and anti-establishment movements. It almost instantly mobilises crowds of young disenchanted men (Kinnvall 2014, 317). However, as both This Is England and the above quoted EU briefing makes clear, in the long run such historical situations may also have the effect of damaging or distorting the socialisation-process of entire generations. As Kinnvall argues,



while the connection between a particular kind of masculinity and violence must be understood as symptomatic of men’s perception that they are losing power within a constantly changing, multicultural landscape—and that the use of violence may somehow curtail this loss—it also needs to be regarded as a psychological process of individual identity making in response to anger, marginalisation, alienation and frustration felt by many men in similar situations. (Kinnvall 2014, 329)

One of my reasons for including This Is England in a book about the cinematic representations of post-crisis Europe and its masculinities is the above list of similarities between 1980s Britain and post-crisis Europe. Without doubt, accelerating social, technological and economic changes put greater stress on families, which were already under siege due to the undesirable side-effects of neoliberal capitalism. As Kohli and Azra point out, this new, post-Fordist model of transnational capitalism entails a whole set of features that undermine social, financial and emotional security. Among these one finds “flexible production and individualized work contracts”, “a rise of discontinuous careers with more flexibility and insecurity, and, more generally, a destandardization of life course patterns” (2011, 254). Furthermore, in such an economy, “family models shift towards delayed and partial marriage, high divorce rates, low fertility, and, consequently, pluralized family forms” (254). In other words, the sort of global capitalism that most first-world societies embraced in the late twentieth century may have brought about unseen economic growth and prosperity, but it did not necessarily serve the interests of human well-being, as it weakened and disrupted families, increased social marginalisation, deepened polarisation, inevitably producing unrest and anti-establishment radicalism. One of the uneasy questions that films like This Is England pose to the spectator concerns the democratic qualities of societies where financial interests so clearly outweigh human well-being. In this context it is highly ironic that in the only truly direct and democratic vote of recent decades, that is, the Brexit vote, such a great percentage of the population expressed their wish to change course in a radical way. This Is England, like so many other films of its kind, warn the spectator of the social consequences of critical times, which definitely include the formation of potentially violent anti-establishment groups. It also successfully relativises one’s concepts of democratic and anti-democratic: while the distinction between Woody’s inclusive gang and Combo’s racist NF group is clear in the film, the



difference between the Thatcher-government and the NF is much less clear. Though one serves the interests of multinational capital and GDP growth with the ideological “oiling” of nationalist rhetoric, and the second proclaims to protect the nation from this, in the film they rather seem two sides of the same coin, cause and effect, both exploitative, manipulative and anti-democratic, unconcerned about the complex needs of ordinary people or the welfare of their communities.

July 22 On July 22, 2011, the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a van-bomb in the government district of Oslo, killing eight people. Amid the ensuing confusion he drove to the nearby Utøya Island, to the summer youth camp of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF), fully armed and dressed as a police officer, and murdered 69 of its participants, mostly teenagers and children. In his manifesto, which he published online on the morning of the attacks, he talked about Europe’s cultural suicide, blamed mass immigration, Islam, Marxism and feminism. Later he stated that his goal with the attacks was to publicise his views, call attention to the dangers Europe is facing, and strike a blow on the pro-­ multiculturalism left-wing political elites that he saw responsible for the situation. This was, by far, Norway’s most horrible massacre since the Second World War, and the events shocked both Norwegian and European citizens. At a time when the media and most people were concerned with Al-Qaeda (the Salafist Islamist terrorist organisation responsible, among others, for the 9/11 attacks), the fact that an ethnic-Norwegian, born and raised in one of the most tolerant societies on the planet, could be capable of such a crime was beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, the event proved those security advisers right, who had warned that the rise of Islamist terrorism (as well as other immigration-related social issues) in first-world societies may strengthen far-right extremist political movements and could trigger a far-right terrorist backlash. Thus, Breivik’s attacks may mark a watershed moment in Europe’s early twenty-first-­ century history as well: the moment when it became clear that general social stability and the political centre were not only endangered by the shortcomings (and 2008-style breakdowns) of neoliberal capitalism, growing social inequality, Islamist religious fundamentalism, or the mounting dissatisfaction about the multicultural project, but by the



resurgence of militant white ethno-nationalism as well. Today, such more or less radical right-wing movements, as well as the heroic Nordic identities they promote, are well-known elements of Scandinavian political culture. It seems that the monstrosity of Breivik’s acts, as well the deep wounds it left in Norwegian society made the attacks a topic that no filmmaker dared or wanted to touch. In 2018, however, seven years after the attacks, suddenly two films were released, July 22, directed by the British filmmaker, Peter Greengrass, and Utøya: July 22, directed by the Norwegian Erik Poppe. As the former focuses on white men, while the latter shows the events from the perspective of a teenage girl on the island, I will analyse Greengrass’s film, with occasional references to Poppe’s work where comparison seems productive. For many film critics and spectators, Greengrass’s choice to make a film that is fashioned more for art film audiences came as a surprise. Most spectators knew him as a British-born Hollywood director, who made fame with such big budget genre films about sensitive political issues as The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93, Green Zone and Captain Philips. With July 22, Greengrass turned back to the more art-film-oriented origins of his career, such as Bloody Sunday (2002), which recounts the events of the 1970’s Irish civil rights protests and the ensuing massacre committed by the British military. July 22 keeps a distance from generic clichés (probably even more than Bloody Sunday), it relies on a documentary-style dramaturgy and cinematography, and (helped by the advice of survivors of the massacre) attempts to create a fact-based, realistic account that makes the spectator remember, think and reflect. The most noteworthy aesthetic quality of the film is its emotionally detached, documentarist style. It shows the events by way of following the activity of a few selected people involved: Breivik (the perpetrator), a family with two brothers on the island (witnesses and victims), the Norwegian prime minister, and (in the second half of the film) Breivik’s lawyer, who acts as a secondary witness, and allows the film to explore some of the background and consequences of the events. Thus, Greengrass’s film follows the idea (long since established in socially engaged realist cinema) of the camera as witness: a considerable number of the film’s shots (especially in the first half of the film, which shows the attacks) are “witness-shots”, similar to some I have discussed in Chap. 3 about “Unprocessed pasts”. These are often taken through windows, doorways, security cameras, thus creating a sense of recording without participation. There are several aerial



shots about important locations, and long shots (further strengthening the sense of recording, observation and witnessing), there is no emotionally expressive extra-diegetic music, and the film includes some real documentary footage (e.g., of the explosion), as well as archive media coverage (usually going on TVs, or on the radio behind the main action). This emotional detachment seems to be a key part of the film’s ethical and political strategy. First, though Breivik is the “protagonist” of this story, it is clear that the film, for understandable reasons, wants to impede identification with him. If we want to reconstruct the events of that day, we must see what he does and what he sees, yet this must be done in a way that does not invite the spectator to identify with him, even if that means a loss of excitement. This should not be regarded as “merely” an ethically or politically motivated artistic compromise. This strategy may successfully evoke a disturbing experience often encountered in large urban centres, a typical sentiment of contemporary developed societies that most of us have got used to as a taken-for-granted part of city life: the experiences of distanced observation and alienated co-habitation. Thus, the film evokes what it is like to see an “alien body” of society, a radical Other that lives with us, moves among us, yet remains always at a distance, always beyond the possibility of comprehension or integration to our universe of meaning and our community of trust (Küpper and Zick 2014, 255). A recent counter-example would be the arguably more radical Joker (2019), where the film ventures to reconstruct how the well-known fictional psychopath was “made”, that is, how an abused and unstable person could turn into a sociopathic monster. Of course, while it may be easy to be daring and radical about fictional characters who did not hurt anyone alive, the ethics of representation can be an especially sensitive and even paradoxical issue when it comes to atrocities with living survivors. Breivik’s life history and psychological profile could allow for the kind of psychologically oriented narrative focus that we see in the 2019 Joker: Breivik was also abandoned by his father, and was raised by a single mother who reportedly abused him emotionally and psychologically. However, the film does not (and arguably cannot) show any of these. It never offers a comprehensive view of either Breivik’s psychological profile, socio-cultural background, emotional problems or even the details of his political views. Everything that he said, thought or has touched is frozen, taboo, meaningless, always to be separated from us, our world, and our sense of humanity. Apparently, due to the shock and suffering he caused, he must not be humanised: he must be remembered as a terrifying, enigmatic



Other beyond human comprehension, about whom no human emotion can be expressed. The film indicates a state of shock, emotional and intellectual lock-down. In this sense, July 22 creates a psychologically precise picture of the post-traumatic society that suffered and witnessed these horrors. July 22, similarly with much of Greengrass’s previous feature films, focuses almost exclusively on white men in a situation that involves politics, power and violence. It is both surprising and revealing to spot the similarities between his presentation of Breivik and the fictional Jason Bourne (an anti-establishment ex-super-agent who reveals the dirty secrets of the CIA) or Miller, the US Army officer in Green Zone (who unveils the truth of Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction). These solitary white male characters who stand against the system have much more in common than their different political motivations would suggest. In spite of all its suture-blocking, and identification-inhibiting techniques, the most memorable spectacle of July 22 is very similar to these other films: the figure of a solitary, young, white man with a dangerous and violent mission, this time dressed in black, military-style uniform, roaming the woods of the island with an assault rifle (see Figs. 6.5 and 6.6). Thus, the Greengrass-­ intertext may call one’s attention to the ambiguities involved in such characters, the deep cultural roots of such solitary white male figures in Western

Fig. 6.5  Film still from July 22 (Paul Greengrass, 2018)



Fig. 6.6  Film still from July 22 (Paul Greengrass, 2018)

cultures, as well as the socio-cultural link between the terrorist “genre” of the shooting spree and certain cultures of white masculinity. In twenty-first-century global media culture the solitary mass shooter has become one of the popular icons of destructive white masculinity: in the popular imagination this kind of crime is usually associated with white men with dangerous views, and in the media mass shootings are often referred to as examples of male entitlement, the danger of white supremacist ideologies or toxic masculinity. There is more statistical data from the US, which shows that about 98% of mass shootings were committed by men (Duwe 2007). How much of these men are white is a more difficult question, partly because no government agency collects data on the ethnic and racial background of criminals. The famous Newsweek headline from 2017, stating that “White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group” (Haltiwanger 2017) hardly justifies the popular myths. The data quoted by the article, that since 1982 54% of mass shootings in the US were committed by white men does not suggest much about the connection between whiteness and such crimes in a country where 60%–80% of the population are white. Thus, the available statistics indicate that the popular racial profiling of mass shooting is more the product of popular cultural imagination than facts. Studies also seem to undermine the other popular misconception that such men must be mad, that is, that their acts are caused by serious mental disorders. “The link between



mental illness and mass shootings” is “tenuous, at best” (Carey 2019, 10). The available statistics indicate that only 14%–20% of mass shooters are mentally ill in the clinical sense (Kiesel 2018; Carey 2019). Similarly, in Breivik’s case, after several professional evaluations, the final psychiatric diagnosis stated that he was not psychotic, but only suffered from narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders. Thus, in order to understand such men as Breivik, perhaps it is more productive to look at factors other than madness or race. The common characteristics of the profiles of such men tend to cross racial or ethnic boundaries. What is most relevant from these for studies of cinema is the shared cultural mythology and common psychological profiles of the perpetrators. Perhaps nothing indicates better this cross-cultural heritage of violent masculinities than the similarities between Breivik’s views and behaviour and those of his arch-enemies, the Muslim Jihadists. The first and most significant commonality is the experience of threatened identity, the feeling that one is in danger, or under attack by an out-group because of one’s (ethnic, racial or religious) identity (Küpper and Zick 2014, 255–256; Kinnvall 2014, 317). Studies suggest that this kind of masculinity is unstable and therefore hyper-compensated with the help of an ideological prosthesis. These men often had difficult childhoods, are emotionally wounded, feel alienated from their social surroundings, feel discontent, frustrated, humiliated or threatened, and therefore resort to some sort of an ideological prosthesis, or Cause, which compensates for all these negative effects, and calls them to arms against the perceived threat. Some of these social and psychological factors are indicated by July 22 as well. The introduction of the characters in the opening scenes already contrasts the lonely killer with the youngsters on the island. He is alone at a farm, silent, surrounded by forests, preparing the bombs. His face is focused, without any sign of emotions. The isolated barn in the middle of the forest, his dark overall, rubber boots or the gas protection mask he wears for the making of the explosives evoke the paraphernalia of horror films, and therefore the concept of the psychological monster. The youngsters, by contrast, are cheerful, always in groups, happily connected with others, smiling and hugging as they arrive. They do everything that grants social cohesion, trust and the sense of inclusive belonging: they sing songs by the fire, exchange romantic looks, play football (girls and boys together), cheer for and tease each other playfully. The film matches these behavioural traits with political ideas: when the kids gather in the main hall to play “If I were prime minister…” they listen and support each other, and



express the politics of diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism. By contrast, Breivik does not talk to anyone. He slips into his room at his mother’s rundown apartment (without even greeting her) so as to get dressed for the attack, and post his manifesto “A European Declaration of Independence” on the Internet. His world is an isolated one, his communication is one-dimensional: he only looks at himself in the mirror, posing with his gun, and his communication with others is restricted to sharing his political views through the Internet. In line with the above-summarised studies about radicalised and violent men, July 22 defines the white male terrorist as an isolated, alienated person without human contacts and loving relationships, as someone for whom the Cause compensates for the lack of these. In case of most politically motivated, radicalised men, the Cause is the “magical” entity that grants dignity and coherence, gives purpose, makes life seem meaningful, integrates one in an imaginary community of like-minded men (Carey 2019, 6), and it makes one look powerful and heroic. The less people recognise the Cause, the more heroic and messianic one seems (in one’s own eyes), thus such psychological constructs may have a natural connection with paranoid personality disorders. It is quite telling that though Breivik’s character in the film is in accord with the above-mentioned studies that link radicalisation with the perception of threatened identity, the film does not reveal any reasons of that perception of threat. As opposed to the other two films discussed in this chapter, July 22 avoids references to psychological, social, cultural motivations of the radicalising man it depicts. Apparently, Breivik must be shown as a monstrous individual, whose actions are purely motivated by his own delusions. Some readers may remember that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US some European intellectuals pointed out the possible cause-and-effect links between US foreign policy and anti-US Islamist terrorism, thereby, no doubt, upsetting the Bush administration, and probably hurting the feelings of many Americans who preferred to see the attacks and the terrible loss of human life as the deeds of evil, rather than (at least partly) caused by their own political mistakes. Pointing out similar causal links in case of the Norwegian case would have been perceived as agreeing with Breivik, and was clearly taboo. I distinctly remember the horror of my Norwegian friends when, only a few weeks after the attacks, one of my (perhaps insensitive) Hungarian friends pointed out the possible link between the shortcomings of the multiculturalist project, inadequate social integration and resurgent right-wing extremism. Apparently



the same taboos are in place in case of cinematic representations: both July 22 and Utoya: July 22 carefully avoid all references that could indicate that such terrible deeds could be seen as a violent backlash against established mainstream policies. The crucial distinction between revealing the social motivations of the killer’s radicalisation on one hand, and agreeing with his deeds on the other was apparently considered to be too difficult to maintain in the increasingly polarised political climate of early twenty-first-­ century Europe, and therefore both the mainstream press, and these cinematic representations avoided the subject. Keeping this taboo in place and erasing important parts of the social context may serve political goals (supporting the present form of the multicultural project, protecting the status quo), they can be motivated by ethical concerns, and they may be aimed to avoid further suffering of the survivors and their traumatised relatives. The sad truth, however, is that these decent omissions may undermine the film’s realistic intentions, hinder one’s coming to terms with the complex causes of radicalisation, and are therefore counterproductive with regards to the efforts to fight socially disruptive political extremism. Sociological studies about political radicalisation in Europe seem to agree with the often voiced public sentiment and increasingly accepted (originally conservative) argument that the pace with which multiculturalism was installed in Western and Northern-­ European countries disturbed the “powerful drive to maintain the sense of one’s identity, a sense of continuity that allays fear of changing too fast or being changed against one’s will by outside forces” (Sigel, quoted in Kinnvall 2014, 324), and therefore triggered the old tribal responses (in both the local and the immigrant communities). Kinnvall calls this dangerous process “securitisation”, which she defines as “the process in which an issue once presented and accepted as an existential threat, prompts reactions outside the normal bounds of political procedure” (Kinnvall 2014, 322). According to Kinnvall, “the fact that mainstream parties are not able to meet the concerns of these groups of (predominantly) young men, have made it increasingly difficult to channel and change perceptions of masculinity, fear and anger” (Kinnvall 2014, 330). Securitisation and various violent reactions to perceived threats (to one’s identity, ethnic group, or value-system from out-groups) are more characteristic of men, regardless of the Cause they subscribe to as a remedy (Kinnvall 2014, 321). Be that Cause defined by religious Jihadism or the secular ideology of white supremacy, the Cause is by definition something for which everything can and should be sacrificed. Masculinity is



associated in all such cases with a devaluation of life for the sake of the idea or Cause, and a strange, but deeply rooted cultural connection between masculinity and death. It is quite telling in this respect that in his 1500 pages manifesto, Breivik referred to the planned attacks as “martyrdom operation”, which further highlights the similarities between Jihadism and his idea of anti-Jihadist heroism. The issue of responsibility is one of the key, albeit often hidden, questions of the films discussed in this chapter. The narrative resolution of all three films includes the arrest and imprisonment of men responsible for radicalisation or criminality. As I have indicated above, in July 22, similarly to The Wave, this involves some compromises that are meant to create a sanitary corridor between the films’ moral messages and the dangerous substances of radical political ideologies that they depict. In July 22 this sanitary corridor is not only established by the above-mentioned “polite omissions” about those aspects of Norwegian social realities that could trigger right-wing extremism, but also by a set of performative denials. These are necessary, because the film, true to its realist and documentarist intentions, shows some of the ensuing events, most importantly Breivik’s trial, but also the public enquiry about the government’s responses during the situation, thus, responsibility is very much in the focus of the second half of the film. The first of these denials occurs during the trial. When Breivik expresses his opinions about Norwegian politics, he is bluntly corrected: “Not Norway is on trial. You are” to which he responds “Are you sure?” This is an important piece of dialogue because such events, obviously, do put countries on trial. As anyone even vaguely familiar with the media coverage of such events knows, after mass shootings or terrorist attacks, there are usually official investigations (the results of which are typically published), as well as widespread public debate about the possible causes of the events, and what the government should do about them. Similarly, even if the film tries to underrepresent this question, the Oslo attacks put Norway on trial, at least its security forces, gun control laws, protective measures, immigration policies, social solidarity, justice system, mental health counselling system (and in Breivik’s case even its child protection system, which decided not to intervene when Breivik’s abusive mother was reported to them). At this point, by including Breivik’s response to the official denial, July 22 stays considerably unbiased, leaving it to the spectator to decide what is on trial and what is not. The necessity of the ideological sanitary



corridor becomes clearer and more artistically confining towards the end of the film, where the filmmakers may have felt that a clear moral statement is due, even if that undermines the realist policy of unjudging recording. In one of the last scenes of the film we see the prime minister’s meeting with the parents of the victims, where they are meant to discuss the results of the official enquiry about the government’s responsibility. At this point, surprisingly, the film resorts to another, this time unquestioned, performative denial. Though the official report clearly points out the shortcomings of the Norwegian government’s preparedness and response, and indicates that plenty of lives may have been lost because of these, the parents (as well as the film) acquit the prime minister of all responsibility: “We all think that the responsibility lies with the terrorist. Only him. Not you. And Norway still needs you.” This strategy of denial at the end of July 22 is symptomatic of the European cultural elites’ reactions to the series of crisis that hit first-world societies in the early twenty-first century. Arguably, when the film acquits the ones in power from their responsibility of growing political radicalism and the general crisis of liberal democracies, it repeats the same response of denial, protection of the status quo, and shifting of responsibility that led to the crisis in the first place.

Conclusions: Lads of the New Right One of the shared features of these three films is that one finds the image of radicalised men at the centre of visual fascination. The straight lines of uniformed students in The Wave, Combo’s threatening presence and outburst of violence in This Is England, or the silent, determined figure of the fully armed Breivik in July 22 are among the most memorable, emotionally charged and haunting images of these films. How the films relate to this visual fascination with radicalism and violence, however, follows two completely different paradigms. In The Wave and This Is England, where the schoolkids and Woody’s gang do not commit anything hideously harmful, transgression and violence can be cinematically represented, and even its joys can be evoked. In line with this, these characters can have psychological depth: here they are not monsters, but vulnerable human beings like us, whose learning process may lead through difficult and morally ambiguous phases. These films follow art cinema’s well-established interest in young individuals at odds with the established social order. In these two films political radicalism is presented as a psychologically motivated



temptation in the face of social marginalisation, emotional distress and loss of nurturing human communities. The cinematic languages of these films also allow for playfulness, the use of dynamic music, quick editing, and visually entertaining representation of transgressive deeds, which emotionally connect the spectator with these young rebels. July 22 follows a completely different paradigm. Apparently, the more tragic and shocking the depicted actions are, the more difficulties they present for cinematic representation. Such films have to negotiate between the conflicting goals of realism on one hand (which has an interest in an in-depth understanding of both social and psychological processes involved) and social engagement on the other (for which the number one priority is to avoid inspiring future radicalisation). These filmmakers know very well that the fascination with such individuals committing massacres can easily trigger potential devotees and lead to copycat murders. Thus, the visual fascination with these men and their violent behaviour must be kept in check. In these cases the ethics of representation and social responsibility must unambiguously lie with the victims. In such sensitive situations, which our heated and polarised post-crisis world produces more and more of, apparently even art cinema must follow a strategy of dehumanisation, alienating the spectator from the perspective of the perpetrator, withholding empathy from him, and even avoiding the presentation of his psychological motivations. These films must deal with issues that function as cultural taboos, as untouchable elements of our fragile, post-crisis world. Here there is hardly any room for artistic freedom, dwelling on intricate ethical dilemmas, or uncomfortable questions about the complexities of responsibility. As opposed to the likeable and understandable characters of the first two films, the role Breivik’s threatening figure manifests tends to bypass the human realm, and undermines ideals of heroism by their merge with monstrosity and the abject, thereby also calling attention to the dangerous aberrations of our traditional narratives of heroism.

Works Cited Beckett, Lois. 2019. More Than 175 Killed Worldwide in Last Eight Years in White Nationalist-Linked Attacks. The Guardian, August 4, 2019. Accessed August 15, 2019. mass-shootings-white-nationalism-linked-attacks-worldwide. Beynon, John. 2001. Masculinities and Culture. McGraw–Hill Education.



Bradshaw, Peter. 2007. This Is England. The Guardian, April 27, 2007. Accessed August 8, 2019. Butler, Mark. 2017. This Is England Remains a Powerful Indictment of Racism 10 Years On. iNews, August 15, 2017. Accessed August 8, 2019. https://inews. Carey, Benedict. 2019. What Experts Know About People Who Commit Mass Shootings. The New  York Times, August 5, 2019. Accessed January 20, 2020. Delsol, Chantal. 2003. Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books. Duwe, Grant. 2007. Mass Murder in the United States: A History. McFarland. Elliott, Larry. 2013. Did Margaret Thatcher Transform Britain’s Economy for Better or Worse? The Guardian, April 8, 2013. Accessed February 2, 2020. h t t p s : / / w w w. t h e g u a r d i a n . c o m / b u s i n e s s / 2 0 1 3 / a p r / 0 8 / margaret-thatcher-transform-britain-economy. Fukuyama, Francis. 2019. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Profile Books. Haltiwanger, John. 2017. White Men Have Committed More Mass Shootings Than Any Other Group. Newsweek, February 10, 2017. How Families Have Coped with the Financial Crisis. 2016. Briefing of the European Parliament. October 2016. Accessed February 2, 2020. http://www.europarl. 589851_EN.pdf. Kiesel, Laura. 2018. Don’t Blame Mental Illness for Mass Shootings: Blame Men. Politico, January 17, 2018. Accessed January 20, 2020. https://www.politico. com/magazine/story/2018/01/17/gun-violence-masculinity-216321. Kinnvall, Catarina. 2014. Fear, Insecurity and the (Re)Emergence of the Far Right in Europe. In The Palgrave Handbook of Global Political Psychology, 316–335. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Kohli, Martin, and Camila Arza. 2011. The Political Economy of Pension Reform in Europe. In Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, ed. Robert H. Brinstock et al., 251–264. Elsevier-Academic Press. Küpper, Beate, and Andreas Zick. 2014. Group-Focused Enmity: Prevalence, Correlations and Causes of Prejudices in Europe. In The Palgrave Handbook of Global Political Psychology, 242–262, 316–335. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Mosse, L.  George. 1996. Fascist Aesthetics and Society: Some Considerations. Journal of Contemporary History 31(2), Special Issue: The Aesthetics of Fascism (April 1996), pp. 245–252. Rattansi, Ali. 2007. Racism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.



Smith, Dennis. 2015. Not Just Singing the Blues: Dynamics of the EU Crisis. In Europe’s Prolonged Crisis: The Making or the Unmaking of a Political Union, ed. Trenz et al., 23–43. Palgrave Macmillan. The Democratic Deficit. 2015. The Economist, July 17, 2015. Accessed February 2, 2020. the-democratic-deficit. Wayne, Mike. 2002. The Politics of European Cinema: Histories, Borders, Diasporas. Intellect. What Is ‘White Nationalism’? 2019. The Economist, August 14, 2019. Accessed February 2, 2020. 2019/08/14/what-is-white-nationalism.


Angry Old Men

For the most part of film history, old age was far from being one of cinema’s favourite topics. If such a sweeping generalisation can be allowed, narrative cinema, historically, mostly favoured stories of young people, and, similarly to television, contributed to the systematic underrepresentation of elderly people in visual media (Harwood 2007, 151; Harwood and Anderson 2002; Chivers 2011, xv). Though in film history one finds numerous noteworthy examples of films telling stories about older people, in most cases old men and women play minor, supporting roles, a high percentage of which are fairly stereotypical, predictable stock characters. For a long time the silver screen seemed to be no country for old men, and probably even less for old women. One possible reason for this may be that cinema in general, be that American or European, genre or auteur, heavily relies on the visual pleasures that the sights of young bodies entail. Ironically, oftentimes even films teaching (or preaching) the higher moral message that “what is essential is invisible to the eye” prefer to do so with actors and actresses that do look young and pleasing to the eye. The practical filmmaker’s point seems to be that even if the film is to display the worst miseries and tragedies of life, it works better if there is something in the faces and bodies that visually attract, entertain or captivate the spectator. Though this tendency may very well be read as a sign of the irreducible frivolity of cinema, I would argue that there is more to this phenomenon than the simple addiction to voyeuristic pleasures, the secret affinity between © The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




pornography and cinema, or the sexual energies driving the cinematic narrative, as numerous psychoanalytic film theorists have been arguing since the seventies. It appears that there is something in the lack of youthful physical beauty that disturbs the whole socio-cultural process of film-­ enjoyment and cinema-going, at least in its current form, which has been thoroughly intertwined with the cult of youth and beauty throughout its history (Chivers 2011, xv). The lack of youthful protagonists may disturb the cinematic processes of idealisation, identification, affective suture or generally the spectators’ emotional connecting with the film, and this constitutes a risk that apparently most directors (and producers) simply would not take. It is most telling that even in Haneke’s Amour (2012), a film by arguably one of the most notoriously relentless, naturalistic and established (and therefore independent) “star auteur” directors of Europe, the ageing Anne is played by Emmanuelle Riva, who’s face, even at the age of 85, is remarkably beautiful, unfailingly heart-warming and simply a joy to watch. The other possible reason for cinema’s traditional inclination to tell stories of young people is that narrative needs desire, action, drama and excitement, and people in their young age simply tend to have more of that. Besides cinema’s much discussed patriarchal heritage and traditional connection with the perspective of active male protagonists, there is a number of socio-cultural and probably also biological reasons why young men in particular tend to be in the centre of cinematic narratives. History tells us that it is mostly young men who make revolutions or fight in war, criminality records tell us that they commit more crime and especially more of the violent and spectacular ones, and insurance policies are based on the assumption that they are more likely to get into danger or take unnecessary risks. Young age in general means more filmic action, in terms of sex, romance, passion, violence or the will to take physical action in order to change the world, and it is probably through young, innocent eyes that the world’s cruelty and corruption can be seen most clearly. Thus, both social and psychological statistics and the specific necessities of the film medium suggest that young people, and especially young men, tend to make much more visually interesting and action-oriented (and thus filmable) stories for cinema. Beyond our “primate package” of behavioural heritage, as well as the above general cinematic considerations (which can be clearly traced back to the history of film as such), one may also note broader cultural trends underpinning cinema’s long-standing ageist inclinations. According to the



literary gerontologist Kathleen Woodward, “in every culture, age, like any other important category, is organized hierarchically. In the West, youth is the valued term, the point of reference” (1991, 6), and “our culture as a whole has not succeeded in producing persuasive representations of aging—in particular of the aging body—which are characterized by tolerance” (1991, 8). Furthermore, one may notice a systematic disregard of old age in our culture (Woodward 1999, x), which, I would argue, may have something to do with how badly our modern, secular, individualistic culture handles issues of bodily decay, impermanence and death. As a result, up until quite recently, old age as a central theme was mostly confined to well-defined quarters of the medium. Generally, one’s impression is that old-age-related films were either farcical comedies, such as the Jack Lemmon—Walter Matthau Grumpy Old Men (1993) and the British Waking Ned Divine (1998), or contemplative, dark arthouse films about death, impermanence and the meaninglessness of human existence, such as Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) or Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) (see Mandelbaum 2013; Chivers 2011, xvi–xvii). As several film critics have noted, in the twenty-first century one may notice a shift in this cinematic treatment of elderly people, and “the proportion and types of age-focused plots have increased” (Chivers 2011, xviii). Surprisingly, on both sides of the Atlantic, middle-aged and old(er) people have infiltrated several genres previously explicitly associated with youth, such as action cinema, as in The Expendables (2010), Red (2010), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Logan (2017), or romantic comedy, as in The Rewrite (2014), Mamma Mia (2008) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003). In some cases successful sequels and the undiminished popularity of ageing stars also contributed to this trend: Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford played action leads in their 60s, while Hugh Grant still performs in romantic comedies in his late 50s, and the similarly ageing audiences are apparently eager to buy tickets to see them. Such American films as No Country for Old Men, Grand Torino, Last Vegas or The Bucket List were international hits, but even The Straight Story, The Wrestler and About Schmidt got popular outside narrow cinephile circles. As a telling example on this ever-widening palette, we even have a Pixar production about an old man, the remarkably sensitive and expressive Up. There is no shortage of titles demonstrating the trend in European quality film either: besides the above-mentioned Amour, outstanding twenty-first-century titles would include The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 45 Years, The Great Beauty, Youth, The Queen, A Man Called



Ove, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Elling, I Daniel Blake, Tyrannosaur, A Week in Pest and Buda, In Order of Disappearance, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, Toni Erdmann, The Wife, Philomena, and The Darkest Hour. One can detect several causes behind the growing number of films about old people. The first is financial: as a result of ageing first-world societies, and the shifting demography of cinema-going, the film industry increasingly targets middle-aged and older audiences too. The second reason, arguably more relevant to European quality film, is that the series of crises characteristic of the early twenty-first century has hit the elder population particularly hard. In the new millennium, there is plenty of drama about old age, and the cinematic representation of the troubles of the elderly is more and more of a must for any socially engaged filmmaker. Moreover, I would argue, the decreased sense of agency and increased insecurity of elderly people make them apt representatives of the sorts of troubles many people go through in post-crisis Europe. The third and most general reason is that when the overall demographic structure of the population is changing, the meaning of different age groups inevitably shifts as well, which is bound to show in all fields of culture. One of the most exiting aspects of this cultural and cinematic transformation is narrative and stylistic: it would be logical to claim, as Sally Chivers does (2011, xvi), that older populations and older actors and actresses will require different narratives and perhaps different cinematic styles. And it is likely that audience demands will change what harsh critiques of the cult of beauty could not. There are some specific trends to the socio-cultural context of this relatively new tendency in European cinema that one needs to address when examining films. The first is population ageing. As a result of longer life expectancy and decreasing birth rates, Europe’s developed countries, similarly to those in North America and Asia, are going through a demographic transition never seen before in human history. Life expectancy has doubled since 1900; the number of people aged 60 and over has tripled globally since 1950, and researchers predict that in 20 years the largest population cohort in Europe will be those over 65. Though the increase in human longevity is to be applauded, the current demographic situation raises several concerns. In The Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, Brinstock and George point out that



the status of older people holds ramifications for the functioning of entire societies. Even though the near-doubling of life expectancy was a spectacular achievement, there were not concurrent advances in our ability to alleviate the disabling conditions of later life. Nor were there sociological advances to create a world as responsive to the needs of very old people as to those of the very young. (Brinstock and George 2011, xiii)

According to the European Commission’s 2018 Ageing Report, these are alarming trends that already pose serious challenges in Europe: the working-age population is continuously decreasing, the old-age dependency ratio is rising (i.e., the tax of fewer and fewer active workers finance the pensions and healthcare of retired people), ageing-related costs of state budgets are rising, while in the long run the purchasing value of pensions is predicted to fall (2018 Ageing Report). This does not only mean that it will be harder and harder to find someone to fix the boiler or change the tiles in one’s bathroom: it also means that (unless some revolution in robotics quickly changes the whole socio-economic landscape in the forthcoming decades) our present social security systems will not be sustainable, public healthcare and state-guaranteed pensions will gradually be reduced to a minimum, and old age, once again, will likely to entail a poor and precarious existence. The gradual dismantling of the welfare state, as many European citizens are all too painfully aware, has been well on the way before 2008. The main reason for this is that Europe’s glamorous welfare systems were designed for very specific socio-economic conditions, most importantly for a booming economy and high birth rates: After World War II, the welfare state, in what has been called its “golden age,” fuelled by unprecedented economic growth and an active organized labor movement, became the basis of the class compromise of advanced capitalist societies. Pension schemes across Europe were part of a broader welfare system to cover the main social risks, including work injury, sickness, and unemployment. Pension coverage was expanded to most workers and their families. Eligibility became more generous, normal retirement ages were reduced, and early retirement options were introduced in many countries. … By and large, with the expansion of coverage and benefit generosity, pensions became a comprehensive system of income protection in old age. (Kohli and Arza 2011, 252)



Many contemporary pensioners grew up with this generous and caring model of the state in mind, and they had every reason to believe that after an early retirement they will be able to live comfortable, affluent lives. The system started to change in the mid-1970s, when both economic growth and birth rates started to decline. By the 1990s, welfare costs were seen as explicit threats to economic competitiveness, benefits were cut and pension schemes rearranged in most European countries (Kohli and Arza 2011, 253–254). The long-term consequences of this history do not only concern financial policies and entailed the state’s withdrawal from its former, caring responsibilities: it also led to a general decrease in social security and well-being, produced the precariat, the “new dangerous class”, but it also rearranged family structures and gender roles. As Martin Kohli and Camila Arza argue, at the level of production, the shift has been described as one from a “Fordist” mode, characterized by standardized mass production with high-­ level wage bargaining and seniority, to a “Post-Fordist” mode, with flexible production and individualized work contracts. The Post-Fordist mode implies a rise of discontinuous careers with more flexibility and insecurity, and, more generally, a destandardization of life course patterns. … The transition from a Fordist to a Post-Fordist life course regime … also extends into the domain of the family … The male breadwinner model gives way to female career employment, and family models shift towards delayed and partial marriage, high divorce rates, low fertility, and, consequently, pluralized family forms. There are obviously other causal factors beyond transnationalization at play here, but the changes seem to coalesce into a consistent pattern. (2011, 254)

The social and economic arrangement Kohli and Arza describe no doubt shaped the lives of many people in European societies, and seldom for the better. As several post-crisis European films also indicate, the way the state went back on its previous promises have left many with bitter feelings, weakened trust in public institutions, undermined the modern promise of endless progress, and often resulted in the cinematic production of bleak, off-modern landscapes. Of course, in this grim story white men still seem to fare better in most respects than either women or people of colour. Studies show that though age may make white men more vulnerable to such adverse social changes, they still enjoy certain privileges (Harrington Meyer and Parker 2011, 323). The tendency in developed countries is still that men work more



than women, and usually in more responsible jobs (326), which means that old white men tend to be less economically fragile than women. Needless to say, more work and responsibility do not only entail certain economic safeguards, but also heightened stress and additional health risks, which may contribute to the fact that in developed countries men live about seven years shorter lives than women. As Frankenberg and Thomas point out, “men use and abuse alcohol and tobacco at greater rates than women, and men also face greater occupational exposure to hazards. Injury and suicide rates are higher for men than for women” (2011, 82). These statistics indicate the kind of strain times of crisis put on white male identities: at such times, lives and identities based on an “older” construction of masculinity that includes the breadwinner model, performance in the public sphere or financial productivity become particularly fragile and precarious.

Tyrannosaur Few films express the bitterness, frustration and anger of elderly white men who have “eaten shit” better than Paddy Considine’s directorial debut, Tyrannosaur (2011). The film tells the story of Joseph (Peter Mullan), a greying, working-class, alcoholic, unemployed widower with serious rage issues. It focuses on Joseph’s friendship with Hannah (Olivia Colman), a middle-class charity shop worker, as well as Samuel (Samuel Bottomley), a six-year-old neglected boy living opposite the street. The narrative focuses on how the dramatic events around him, most importantly the abuse suffered by Hannah and Samuel, help Joseph channel his inner turmoil towards legitimate goals, and turn him into some sort of a lonely, silent, involuntary protector. This summary should not deceive anyone: Tyrannosaur is not a sentimental journey of two battered people finding redemption and true love in each other’s arms, nor is it a story of a lost soul who finds his true self and becomes a saviour. Though reckoning and redemption are among its key motifs, Tyrannosaur follows the tradition of British kitchen-sink dramas and gritty social realism, and never shies away from facing the darker, deeply compromised, destructive aspects of its main characters, or the profound disillusionment that almost all the characters share. Joseph has “eaten shit” and in his world, “it’s dog altogether”—as Tommy, Joseph’s drinking buddy succinctly puts it. The film’s reliance on authentic locations in Leeds, its interest in the nitty-gritty life of the lower classes, its



refusal of middle-class decency (and hypocrisy), its angry critique of the dog world that (some parts of) Britain has become connect it with a long-­ standing British tradition in literature, theatre and film that involve the 1950’s Angry Young Men movement, as well as the work of such socially committed filmmakers as Tony Richardson, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach or Shane Meadows. With its strong intertextual ties and cinematic references, Tryannosaur creates a historical arch stretching between the angry young men of the 1950s and the angry old men of the early twenty-first century. The first, introductory scene already lays out everything that can go wrong or become toxic about white masculinity. Joseph gets drunk and upset about the bookies, and when he is thrown out, in his rage he kicks his poor dog’s ribs in. In the first two minutes of the film Joseph displays everything that makes one keep away from such men: cursing, verbal abuse, violence, destructiveness, drinking, gambling and taking out anger on weaker ones. Yet, the film does not stop here: it also shows the ensuing remorse and bitterness, the moment of clarity when the cloud of rage has passed, as well as the painful recognition of one’s own destructiveness. Joseph carries Bluey home, through the shabby post-industrial outskirts of Leeds, and buries him in his yard. Rage and reckoning, violence and remorse, aggression and small gestures of kindness constitute the emotional roller-coaster the film follows. Tyrannosaur, undoubtedly partly because of Mullan’s superb performance, manages to take us inside the world of someone that we usually avoid for very good reasons, and thus provides a psychologically accurate, yet compassionate picture of an all too well-known sort of violent white masculinity. The film presents rage as a result of an intimate part of a certain culture of disillusioned, frustrated masculinity, a desperate and distorted expression of human agency and dignity in situations where one is denied any sense of agency. As Peter Bradshaw puts it: Rage is not merely a boiling inner inferno, but a socially created habit, a taste, an addiction, something to be indulged or kept under control like drink: an addiction that erodes the spirit the way chronic bulimia rots the teeth. More than this, rage is a poisonous way of managing or regulating your relationship with the world. For many, particularly those lowest in the food chain, rage is the last pleasure left, or the last respite from unpleasure, and the last source of anything resembling self-respect. For those with no voice, it is a kind of language, but one that distorts and obscures and locks the user into his own unhappy world. (Bradshaw 2016, 1)



The film can definitely be seen as a study of the anger issues of disenfranchised men, the relationship between socio-economic deprivation and anti-social behaviour, or generally of masculinity gone monstrously wrong. After all, most characters are men, and all of them in important roles are terrible people. It is quite telling that there are only two or three women and one child in the film, and all of them are victims of male domestic violence. However, in spite of the above general ramifications, Joseph’s is not a universal, textbook-like psychopathology: it is built from and coloured by hundreds of cultural markers. Race, class, gender, the history of the British working class, the off-modern, decaying, post-industrial landscapes of the Midlands, the usual furniture of the unpretentious British corner pub, the sight of a pint on the table in front of a solitary white man, the grey metal shutters on shop windows in the lower part of town all provide the characters with subtle details, historicity, geographical specificity, and the feeling of authenticity. With the strict segregation of the upper and lower classes into the upper and lower part of the town, the film clearly connects to the world of contemporary globalised capitalism, where those who cannot adapt to the quickly changing circumstances are simply left behind. Hannah’s infertility, and the general scarcity of young people in the film explicitly relate to the above-discussed demographic issues, and contribute to the gloomy, slightly end-of-the-world atmosphere that creeps into the film’s otherwise fairly strict realism. Joseph’s charity shop encounters with Hannah are among the scenes when these nuances are laid out. It is after a pub fight that Joseph seeks refuge in the charity shop for the first time, though it is unclear whether he wishes to flee from the revenge of the youngsters that he has attacked, or rather it is his own bad conscience that makes him hide behind a rail full of used women’s clothing. Hannah tries to help, offers even to pray for him, yet Joseph seems beyond redemption. Though he silently cries behind the clothes, the next day he rebuffs Hannah’s religiously termed help as fake and condescending: God ain’t my fucking Daddy. My daddy was a cunt, but he knew he was a cunt. God still thinks he is God. Nobody told him otherwise. … I met people like you in all my fucking life. Goodie goodies. Make a charity record. Bake a cake! Save a fucking soul! You’ve never eaten shit. You don’t know what it’s like out there. You haven’t a fucking clue!



The rejection of the “goodie-goodies” turns into explicit scorn when it turns out that Hannah lives in Manors Estate, a posh, middle-class part of town up the hill: Manors fucking Estate! How is Manors Estate? How are the five-­bedroomed, double-garaged, nicely trimmed lawn, fondue, coffee-morning fucking lifestyle Manors Estate? How is it up there? Swimming, is it? What the fuck are you doing down here, huh?

These monologues, I would argue, are significant because here it is not only Joseph that is rejecting the sweet narrative of soul-saving as a condescending, dishonest, middle-class fairy-tale. Though he apologises to Hannah the next day, this seems to be a position that the film as a whole shares. It can be read as a statement about Tyrannosaur’s possible interpretations: it warns us never to understand Joseph by the end of the film simply as a redeemed, righteous man, now walking the straight and narrow path. This is not a film with an unambiguous happy ending or an uplifting moral message, and by the end, the well-meaning middle-class spectator will not be able to lay back with the comforting feeling that after all, all people are essentially good, and everything is OK with the world. Joseph’s nasty words warn us against pretending that we completely understand him, that we can fully integrate him into a nice cosy world of meaning, our meaning. This is a film about wasted lives, and its general approach is less that of redemption than mourning. Nowhere does this become clearer than at the funeral of Joseph’s best buddie. The connection between masculinity and death runs deep in our mythologies of gender, and will be fully played out in the other two films discussed below. However, in Tyrannosaur it is not Joseph who dies, but his old drinking mate, who also stands for the nasty part of Joseph’s character. There is only one conversation between the two men before the friend dies, which can be seen as a twisted version of the above-quoted one where Hannah tried to convince Joseph that God loves him. Here, once again, we witness the rejection of idealising and consoling “goodie-goodie” narratives: at this time it is his dying friend that insists that he is “fucked”, that his daughter hates him, and he is going to hell, and it is Joseph who tries (probably unsuccessfully) to convince him otherwise. The friend’s funeral as well as the farewell party in the local pub are key scenes for the film’s take on these kinds of masculinities. Both Joseph and



his friend were abusive husbands, and in their old days both look back on that with regret. To make the scene even more ambiguous, Hannah, who has been just beaten up by her husband, parties with them and finds refuge with them. These ambiguities are never resolved in the film: the party makes it clear that the dead friend was both loved and hated by his daughter. Similarly, when later Hannah asks Joseph whether he loved his deceased wife he says he loved her and hated her. Because of this emotional ambiguity there is no nostalgia associated with mourning and melancholia here. When Hannah asks whether Joseph would like Pauline, his deceased wife, to be alive and here with him, he clearly says no, which expresses the film’s general attitude to the past. We see old types of men dying, the old shed torn down, an old world and old culture of masculinity going by, things that the film both loves and hates, and Tyrannosaur manages to make us mourn these without wanting to bring them back. The most expressive image of this attitude is that of Joseph sitting in his old armchair, in the middle of his side-yard, amidst the ruins of the shed that he had recently torn down (see Figs. 7.1 and 7.2). He wears his usual black trousers and a (once) white undershirt, the kind that is often called in Britain sarcastically a “wife-beater”. In his right hand there is a machete, in his lap the head of the neighbour’s Pitt-bull that attacked the boy Sam. He is a terrible, but spectacular sight, an old patriarch, whose kingdom has been reduced to a run-down side-yard and a torn-down shed, which he

Fig. 7.1  Film still from Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011)



Fig. 7.2  Film still from Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011)

destroyed himself because it connected to too many bad memories. He sits there as a tyrant, a mad king of a terrible bygone kingdom, yet with a sense of justice. This time, the killing of a dog was for the protection of innocence, and Joseph was the only one who decided to do something to end the abuses that Sam had to suffer from his stepfather and his fighting dog. Thus, the two dog-kills map Joseph’s inner journey: from killing Bluey, his only friend in a momentary outburst of rage, to a bloody but premeditated act of protecting innocence in a dog eat dog world. With this act, the film also criticises our all-too-decent ways of turning our heads when seeing injustice, and suggests that perhaps we still need men who are capable of taking action. Joseph may be an old type of man, who has to go, yet the film also subtly calls one’s attention to the uncomfortable question where we will be, how we will deal with such issues without people like Joseph taking action in such situations. One of the telling details and possible strengths of the film is that Joseph’s rage against the world is never given a direct cause. There is no original trauma (that we, well-meaning, educated spectators of art-films like so much to have), we see no past event outside his power that made him a villain, something that would help us see him more like a victim. He knows and explicitly states that he is not a nice person, and the film wants us spectators to accept that, to see him without categorising him as either



villain, a victim or a saviour of the weak. He is simply like that, a man struggling with his own bitterness, anger and rage. His rage is somewhat like his old friend’s cancer: a part of him that he can neither control nor understand. An illness that both he and the ones around him are suffering from, yet something that to a large extent defines him. This lack of psychological motivation makes the film and its critical edge immensely stronger. The way Joseph’s above-quoted monologue pulls him out from God’s providence, this lack of psychological understanding pulls him out from any universal humanist interpretation. This way the film retains a segment of meaning that cannot be translated into words and concepts, something weighty, perhaps even traumatic, that we cannot explain away. He is an Other, also to himself, a symptom, a malfunction, a painful mistake with a consciousness and an ability to suffer. An otherness that challenges our world, while indicating our potential responsibility. Joseph remains intimately close, yet out of arm’s reach: we cannot save him, only mourn him.

I, Daniel Blake Ken Loach’s 2016 directorial comeback, I, Daniel Blake, is probably the most well known of the three films I discuss in this chapter. It was reviewed in most major European newspapers, won the Palme d’Or in Cannes as well as a BAFTA prize for best British film. Though it tells a fairly simple, straightforward story of an ordinary man falling through the cracks of the social security system, it clearly pictures larger social processes, and taps into some of the most pressing issues of our time. I, Daniel Blake is Loach’s “angriest film” (Hattenstone 2016, 1), “a battle cry for the dispossessed”—as Mark Kermode called it in in The Guardian (Kermode 2016). It recounts a few weeks in the life of Dan, a widowed carpenter in Newcastle, of about 60 years of age. After a near-­ fatal heart attack, his doctors tell him that he cannot go back to work, yet the “health-care professional” of the American company to which the government has outsourced benefit allowance evaluation deems him fit and thus not entitled for sickness benefit. So he gets trapped in a series of catch-22 situations, yet another victim of the bureaucratic machine of the contemporary British welfare system. The narrative, which spans between two heart attacks, recounts his struggles with an inhuman system that was not designed for help, his growing frustration and anger, as well as his desperate attempts at preserving human dignity. As in Tyrannosaur, a



female friend becomes a key element in the plot: this time it is Katie, an unemployed single mother with two small kids, who had to move to Newcastle from London, because available council accommodation can only be found there. Unlike Joseph, Dan is basically a nice old chap from the very beginning. The old sort of patriarchy that he represents does not include violence or (self-)destructive attitudes, but rather such traditional working-class values as a dignified work-ethic, honesty, solidarity and a simple, matter-of-course helpfulness with the ones around him. True to Loach, the film was shot on real locations in Newcastle, the social and institutional background is well researched, the traps of the system real. As usual in this type of British realist filmmaking, the cinematography is unaffected, documentary-style, avoiding sensationalism, relying on the sheer force of human drama conveyed by great acting. As in Tyrannosaur, the raw power of the unfolding events, real places and the use of basic cinematic techniques add to the feeling of authenticity and only make the cinematic experience stronger. Loach has been the voice of the silenced and dispossessed all through his career. His socially engaged, politically charged works managed to call public attention to social injustices time and time again. The awareness about single mother and child homelessness raised by his BBC television play Cathy Come Home (1966) led to a parliamentary discussion of the issue, but his films also motivated the establishing of several charity organisations. Loach’s international reception reveals a lot about how the crisis changed our perceptions: while his earlier works met mixed international critical responses, they were often criticised as politically biased and didactic, and were even censored and banned in the 1980s; his post-crisis works are received in a markedly different manner. Perhaps the ageing director’s political message has also become more subtle, but it is also quite likely that Loach has been making more or less the same points all through his life, and it is simply the recent crisis that makes his work less “didactic” and more realistic. Arguably, the economic crisis and the general sense of resentment about where neoliberalist policies led us make his works quintessential expressions of the spirit of our times. I, Daniel Blake is not only about a simple guy in Newcastle, or the controversies around the British social security system. The film came to cinemas in late 2016, in the year of the Brexit vote, and it dives into some of the very social processes that are currently tearing Europe to pieces. I would argue that the film reveals some of the causes of the resentment, frustration and anger about the brave new world of neoliberal capitalism that motivated so many angry



protest voters, and ultimately led to Britain’s leaving the EU. On an even more general level, the film also investigates crucial questions concerning identity in the twenty-first century, such as what happens to a work-based, breadwinner masculine identity when ageing or health issues knock on the door, or when the global economy simply finds somebody redundant. The film’s fist scene, half of which is just a dialogue we hear while watching credits in small, minimalist white letters against a black background, manages to set the main theme and atmosphere of the film as much as the first scene of Tyrannosaur did. Here we listen to the dialogue between Dan and the “healthcare professional” (who turns out to be neither a doctor nor a nurse). It quickly turns out that the questions, such as “Can you walk fifty meters without assisted by any other person” or “Can you raise either arm to the top of your head?” do not have much to do with Dan’s heart condition, which he tries to explain, but to no avail. Clearly, the healthcare professional’s goal is not to understand his particular condition, or to find the best solution to his case, but just to go through the form and tick yes or no after each question. Annoyingly enough, she asks each and every question with the same intonation, sounding almost like a robot. (As a matter of fact, many virtual assistants that operate at the other end of the line at big companies at the time of writing fare better at meaningful intonation.) It is no coincidence that the healthcare professional’s face is never shown in the film: she is the first representative of a faceless, inhuman system that Dan meets. As it turns out, it does not make much difference whether he is talking to real life human beings (e.g., at the Jobcentre Plus), or to answering machines of various institutions that keep him waiting for hours, or someone at a call centre: everywhere he meets the same lack of competence, as well as the lack of useful information, practical help, or will to solve his case. This is not a Terminator-movie, or a Matrix type of dystopia, no secretly self-developed artificial superintelligence has sneaked out from Google to finish off organic life-forms on the planet, yet one gets the impression that an inhuman System has taken over this segment of society, and ordinary human beings hardly stand a chance. Of course, the phenomena of self-serving inhuman bureaucratic systems or male resistance to them are not new at all, as every reader of Kafka’s The Trial or Melville’s Bartleby knows. There is a long and well-­ documented history of male disaffection and discontent in the face of the ever more sophisticated and more bureaucratic systems of first world societies. As Robert T. Schultz contends in the context of American literature



and film in Soured on the System, “in various late nineteenth- and twentieth-­ century cultural texts men’s agency is depicted as being on the decline, and that decline is associated predominantly with the reorganization of social and economic life that accompanied the corporate reconstruction of … capitalism” (Schultz 2012, 7). I, Daniel Blake, together with Kafka, Melville and countless other similar examples may lead one to a key recognition regarding the issue of agency and modernity. Let us recall that Foucault in Discipline and Punish discussed the post-eighteenth-century shifts in the working of power, most importantly the shift from direct physical punishment to inner discipline, in a somewhat celebratory tone, as one of the necessary conditions of the birth of Europe’s first sophisticated modern societies (see e.g., Foucault 1977, 202–203). These films and pieces of literature, however, also attest to the drawbacks of these cultural paradigm-shifts. Discipline, internalised power, bureaucratisation and institutionalisation have surely made human life more civilised, and freer from physical violence. Yet, as these new agents of power are much harder to spot, resist, target and fight, this shift also led to a decline in one’s sense of agency. It is a telling detail, in this respect, that the most important blind spot of Foucault’s theories is that of resistance and human agency (see de Certeau 1984). As several post-crisis social surveys and health statistics indicate, this may have more damaging effects on men, whose gendered identities are arguably still more reliant on activity in the public sphere. Moreover, as most of us know from experience, modern technology took bureaucracy’s frustrating effects to a new and unnerving level: after all, only machines can repeat the same sentence or the same five minutes from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons exactly the same way for an infinite number of times. Unfortunately, this is not just a small, annoying aspect of twenty-first-century life, a small bump on the glorious road to utopia: for those whose livelihoods depend on getting things sorted out as fast as possible, such bureaucratic traps are hell, a gradual descent into desperation and humiliation. First, because when you talk to machines or machine-­ minded bureaucrats, you are reduced to something subhuman: numbers, codes, points, a set of possible and well-identifiable pre-coded answers, ones and zeros, yeses and nos. Second, as the film shows in psychologically precise ways, because fighting such an invisible, all-pervading system gradually deprives one of all sense of human dignity and agency. Thus, one of the questions that the film asks is what happens to human beings, and more specifically with honest, hard-working men who have built their lives



around work, production and activity, when they are deprived of all these. The disheartening answer here is that in twenty-first-century Europe these men have little chance to enjoy any of the respect that they did in either traditional societies or during more affluent times of industrial modernity. “They’ll fuck you around,” the next-door black lad tells Daniel, “make it as miserable as possible—that’s the plan.” And indeed, time after time, Dan finds himself facing problems that were actually generated by the system. All through the film, he tries to reason, to point out the obvious solutions, as one would do in any “normal” human interaction, but no one can or would listen to him. Of course, when one’s sense of agency is taken away, frustration, resentment and anger follow. When you realise that you have no chance to make yourself heard, when you understand that the system is not for, but against you, and you cannot mend it—than you go into protest mode, as Dan does, or just try to break the system any way you can, as arguably many Brexiters (and Trump voters) did. Interestingly, in the film it is Katie’s small son, Dylan, who best expresses this dynamics of frustration and resentment. One day, while Dan is helping the family, mending this, fixing that in the house, Dylan keeps bouncing his ball hard and loud on the stairs, without end, in quite a nerve-wrecking manner. Dan tries to start a conversation, or get Dylan help him, but nothing works: he would not answer questions, and would not stop. Seeing Dan’s bewilderment at the situation, Daisy, the older sister explains: “He does it when he’s angry. People never listen to him, so why should he listen to them?” This scene does two things essential to the meaning of the film. First, it shows the above-mentioned dynamics of frustration and destructiveness: Dylan had to leave his friends and relatives in London because of a system larger than him, which he had no chance to argue with. This frustration leads to anger, which is expressed in destructive protest action, the only meaning of which is its meaninglessness. Second, the scene associates such acts of protest, including Dan’s later graffiti-vandalism (and possible protest votes), with the innocence of a child. The scene suggests that angry protest in such situations is legitimate, and it results from the frustrating lack of power and self-­ determination, rather than malice or the taste for destruction (see Fig. 7.3). Details of Dan’s life enrich his fight with the system with further and less political resonances. He is a carpenter, who has been working on construction sites all his life, and his hobby is carving all sorts of artefacts from wood (see Fig. 7.4). This is a symbolic choice for a number of reasons. Dan’s craftsmanship associates him with the “old” economy of material



Fig. 7.3  Film still from I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)

Fig. 7.4  Film still from I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)

production, where people still produced something material and practical, something you can see, grasp and appreciate (as opposed to most office jobs offered by corporate capitalism where you work at what Marc Augé has called non-places, seldom leave your computer, and never really see the physical results of your work). I would argue that there is much more



at stake here than the demise of the traditional working class, or the crisis of work-oriented breadwinner masculinities. The film also comments on the rapid technological change that has reorganised our societies to an unprecedented degree in the past few decades, the change that makes human life more and more devoid of sensory affect, real objects, organic surroundings, and meaningful, face-to-face human interaction. The world of globalised capitalism in the digital age looks more and more like a giant simulation, designed and run by a narrow and well-paid elite of technocrats (and their algorithms), where people like Dan appear like obsolete organic leftovers. This world is “digital by default”, as Dan is informed at Jobcentre Plus, which is a completely unknown world for an elderly carpenter, who is, as he remarks, “pencil by default”. One wonders to what extent the elderly’s distrust and fear of this “new” technocratic world played a part in the Brexit referendum: after all, the greatest of such faceless, technocratic, digital-by-default bureaucratic institutions is the EU itself. The position of I, Daniel Blake is clear on this. The only valuable help Dan gets during his crisis is coming from people outside these bureaucratic institutions: neighbours, friends, co-workers, that is, ordinary people still operating on basis of an old kind of humanity and social solidarity. The only person at Jobcentre Plus who does help Dan does it by going against protocols, and gets duly reprimanded for it. Thus, I would argue that what the film presents us, perhaps against Loach’s intentions, is not simply a contrast and conflict between the inhuman institutions run by the neoliberal state on one the hand, and ordinary human beings following an old-school community spirit on the other. It is also a contrast and conflict between the new and the old, digital and organic, numbers and affective qualities, bureaucratic responses and genuine human interactions, machines and humans—which may very well be one of the defining set of conflicts of twenty-first-century life. At this point, let me refer briefly to Thomas Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, which was also published in 2016. Friedman makes at least two points that are significant for the context of the film. First, he demonstrates that changes in the most formative aspects of our life conditions have been accelerating exponentially in the last few decades, with a speed that is simply incompatible with the adaptive potential of biologically and psychologically defined human beings. In other words, the technologically driven transformation of modern economies, labour markets, natural habitats or communication patterns can be disorienting and frightening



(especially for older and digitally illiterate people) partly because of the sheer speed of change (Friedman 2016). In the context of the present chapter it is particularly relevant to notice that the fastest transformation of the world during human history takes place in front of the eyes of the oldest (and therefore possibly least flexible) population that ever lived on the planet. The second point Friedman makes that is worth considering in the context of the social processes that the film taps in, is that such historical events as the Brexit referendum or the 2016 US elections (where Donald Trump was elected president) can be seen as signs of a backlash in the developed world against these frightening accelerations. In other words, the conflict between ordinary human beings left behind by the system and the new, quickly developing technocratic establishment that I, Daniel Blake presents is also a conflict that shaped the outcome of arguably the two most important votes with symbolic value in the twenty-first century so far, the Brexit and Trump’s presidency. Thus, the film also comments on the social phenomena of retreat discussed in the second chapter of this book. Indeed, Dan’s journey is that of defeat and withdrawal: from work to his home, from the world of digitalised bureaucracy to such an old-school, real-life mode of public protest as writing graffiti on the wall of a public institution, from attempts at coping with the system to stubborn defiance. The public celebration by passers-by that accompanies his street protest clearly pits the local community of ordinary citizens against the representatives of the inhuman system. The scene, as many others, expresses anti-neoliberal, anti-modern, anti-­ globalisation, anti-establishment sentiments and can be clearly read as a pledge for an old sense of justice, dignity and solidarity. I, Daniel Blake, however, remains realistic about the practical fruitfulness of such public demonstrations. Though the protest is an empowering ritual in which both Dan and the spectator learn with relief that there is a community that can stand together, the ensuing celebration cannot last long. Dan is taken away by the police, and his act remains an angry, spectacular, but ultimately futile gesture. As in Tyrannosaur, such actions, motivated by frustration and anger, are the last and only means through which agency and human dignity can be expressed, also the only acts through which masculinity is connected with power and activity in the public sphere. Importantly for the film’s overall picture of contemporary social issues, these defiant gestures remain mostly symbolic, seldom solve anything, and tend to bring trouble to the desperate men resorting to them.



The film is clearly pessimistic about the chances of these old (kind of) men to enter the twenty-first-century life-world or meet its challenges. Dan’s death can be regarded as symbolic in this respect. Even though a lawyer that his friend Katie got him promises success, he never lives to see it. Thus, his funeral, the film’s last scene, becomes a mourning of more than one man. Similarly to Tyrannosaur’s last shot, which shows Joseph walking away from the camera in a symmetrical composition, this is a symbolic good-bye: there is the sense of a farewell to an old kind of man that simply has no place in our rapidly changing world. The difference is, however, that Dan’s life was not wasted, like that of Joseph: there is no history of violence here, but rather a history of caring and help. Though Dan upholds an old sense of order in an older style of patriarchy that younger generations may dislike (he reminds his young neighbour to take away his smelly garbage from their shared corridor, he shouts and curses at the man who repeatedly takes his dog to shit in their yard), he never becomes violent or physically threatening, and relates to people in need with a spontaneous, down-to-earth, unaffected helpfulness. Moreover, he has a whole set of traditionally feminine characteristics: we learn that he used to take care of his sick wife for years before she died, and he is happy to look after Katie’s children while she is out looking for work. Thus, he has to seek no redemption. Quite the contrary, with Dan’s death, the film mourns the loss of an old type of men and the values they lived by.

A Man Called Ove The Swedish A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove, Hannes Holm, 2015) presents a markedly different take on the issue of ageing white men in Europe’s rapidly changing twenty-first-century societies. Though the number of motifs shared with the previously discussed films is conspicuously large, the approach, the style and the emotional journeys are quite different. In this adaptation of Fredrick Backman’s best-selling novel, similarly to the previously discussed films, one finds a working-class widower, out of work, going through a period of personal crisis, struggling with alienation, loneliness, lack of purpose and absence of meaningful human relations. And as in the previous films, it is through finding new human relationships, face-to-face “neighbourly” connections (and the responsibilities that come with them) that the existential crisis is abated, and some sort of purpose or meaningfulness is found by the end of the narrative.



In spite of all these similarities, Ove offers a completely different experience for the viewer: this time it is not gritty social realism set in “Broken Britain”, but a hyperrealist black comedy set in a neat and well-kept Scandinavian gated community. Moreover, here drama is regularly sweetened by touches of nostalgia and sentimentality, and slightly complicated by irony, black humour and self-reflexive distancing. As opposed to the straightforward heart-gripping-stomach-punching emotional rollercoaster of the first two films, here one generally encounters a feelgood-approach with heart-warming moments, and a delicate balance between nostalgic sentimentality and instances of that particular kind of dark Nordic humour that non-Scandinavian spectators either instinctively get (and thus enjoy) or simply don’t (in which case the film is practically unenjoyable). The immediate Nordic intertext of Ove would include the adventure-comedy The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared (Felix Herngren, 2013) and the comedy-drama Elling (Peter Naess, 2001). As the generic tags also indicate, these also combine the theme of elderly men in crisis with (weird and often dark) humour, as well as surrealistic or hyperrealistic storytelling. Regarding the wider context of Ove, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries must be also mentioned, arguably a paradigm-­setting arthouse film about ageing. While The Hundred Year Old Man and Elling share Ove’s fondness of absurd, dark humour in their approach to ageing, isolated men, Wild Strawberries is a significant precursor rather with regard to its fundamental situation of an embittered, cold, slightly sociopathic man re-evaluating his life before death. Similarly to the other two films discussed above, Ove starts with a short prelude before the main title that serves as an introduction of the main character, as well as an outline of the key social and psychological issues that define ageing and masculinity in early twenty-first-century Sweden. In the very first shot we see an elderly man looking at bunches of flowers in a gardening store, where—as the spectator immediately understands—if you have a coupon you can buy one bunch of roses for 50 Krones and two for 70. The next shot shows the man at the counter, trying to buy one bunch for 35, quarrelling indignantly with the shop assistant, who is patiently trying to explain to him the logic of the deal. Next, we see him at a railway crossing in front of a cemetery, with the flowers in his hand (see Fig. 7.5). At this cut the change of sound marks the change of mood: the smooth shopping music from the store is suddenly interchanged by the harsh noise of the train passing by, than by the silence of the cemetery, and Ove’s clumsy words, as he is trying to explain the flower incident to



Fig. 7.5  Film still from A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm, 2015)

his deceased wife. “That’s all wrong! That’s totally insane!”—he says, which we will soon understand as his general opinion of the world around him. He arranges the flowers, cleans the top of the gravestone with a handkerchief, pauses for a moment and says “Miss you”. These scenes define Ove as the stereotypical cantankerous old grump that everybody avoids, and thus sets the scene for the comic parts to come. However, as some of the above details may have indicated, this prelude also starts building up the emotional history that led to Ove’s embitterment. Arguably, it is this retrospective psychological inquiry that makes the film more than just another absurdist black comedy about a grumpy old man: this is what turns the film into an in-depth study of the recent history of Europe and its ageing men. Similarly to the other two films, the prelude shows the main character getting upset over something ordinary, and thus associates ageing men with frustration, anger and harsh criticism of the current state of the world. This seems to be a logic very similar to the meaningfully marginal perspectives created by old age in general in the Wild Strawberries cinematic paradigm. As the nearness of death may create a perspective from which life can be seen and evaluated as a whole, social and emotional marginalisation may create a perspective from which our current social systems can be critically assessed. In both cases it is exclusion from the centre (or the mainstream) and regarding phenomena from the margins that produces meaningful insights, ones hard to notice when one is still successful and/ or in the middle of life. Ove’s most direct critique in this opening scene concerns consumer capitalism, although (in line with the absurd humour



and constant distancing) it is clear that he is neither right about the specific issue (the flower deal), nor has any chance of winning his case, which is clearly indicated by the fact that in the cemetery we see him with two bunches of flowers. The film’s real narrative, however, starts only a couple of minutes later, with Ove’s loss of his job at the railway wagon factory. Having done his early morning routine social-work-and-security-round-trip at the gated community (collecting cigarette stubs, checking that garage doors are properly closed, double-checking that recycled garbage is properly selected, making notes of improperly parked cars, cleaning kids’ toys left buried in the sandbox, chasing suspicious-looking cats away from the sandbox), Ove goes to work in his old Saab. As a symbolic signifier of the marginality or anachronistic quality of his blue-collar job (or the Swedish heavy industry in general), a static aerial shot shows his blue car turn left at a roundabout where all the other cars go straight. In the factory (where Ove is in a blue overall, among blue machines, inspecting railway wheels with his papers in hand), he is called into the office by two managers, men half his age in white shirts and suits. In the office the managers, who are sitting at a desk with their identical laptops open in front of them, fire Ove according to the rhetorical and ethical standards of contemporary corporate capitalism. With forced, wry smiles they break the news to Ove that after 43 years of work at the company, and even though he is only 59, they thought that he would fancy doing something different, and therefore offer him a government-paid education course about digital literacy. As a clear commentary on the concerning social issues (also seen in I, Daniel Blake), in this scene the white collar/blue collar difference on the two sides of the desk is coupled by the antagonism between young and old, winner and loser (of global capitalism), as well as that of digital and analogue (laptop versus pen and paper). Ove, of course, immediately understands that he is being fired, even if in this cultural environment nobody would call a spade a spade, and thus bluntly recommends to simply walk out the door. When he is about to leave the office, however, so as to make the farcical situation even more pointed, the managers stop him to offer the company’s farewell gift, a spade “for gardening”. It is a telling detail that the “gift” is picked up from a long line of spades placed by the wall behind them, suggesting that many of Ove’s colleagues will soon get the same generous offer. The real critical edge of the scene, as well as the source of Ove’s humiliation, however, stems from the twist in the power/age relations, that is, that in this



scene seniority is associated with disempowerment, lack of competence as well as economic and social redundancy. To make things worse, the managers keep using euphemisms and sweet lies to cover up the moral susceptibility of their decision to fire someone after 43 years of “loyal service” (as Ove calls it), thus associating the new generation and the “new” (global, neoliberal, corporate) capitalism with hypocrisy, inauthenticity and the lack of human responsibility. So far, A Man Called Ove hardly presents anything really new: similar situations of men mistreated by corporate capitalism abound, moreover, in Ken Loach’s The Navigators one finds this well-known drama (of the decline of the working class, of privatisation and outsourcing, men’s economic redundancy, short-term contracts and precarious existences) in the similar setting of a British railway company. What makes Ove unique in this cinematic context is what comes after this almost caricature-like commonplace scene. As he has nothing more to live for, he decides to end his life, and the rest of the film is structured by his repeated and failed suicide attempts. However, each time he tries to commit suicide, some silly, ordinary event ruins his plan. Furthermore, each near-death experience brings up memories and visions of the past. Thus, with each suicide attempt the spectator gets a glimpse into Ove’s past, into the beautiful and the tragic events that led to his present miserable existence. Significantly for the aesthetic qualities of the film, each (often nostalgic) recollection ends with some kind of darkly humorous event forcefully dragging Ove back to life. With this twist, the film manages to evoke a saturated, nostalgic view of the personal and national past, contrast past and present, yet to do it in a way that avoids uncritical sentimentality. These absurdly funny situations often include a family of new residents moving next door. As it is a young family (regarding their age, the parents could be Ove’s children), with two little girls (while Ove and his late wife did not have any children), and the wife is of Persian origin, their interactions set in motion an intricate dynamics of social and political relations, as well as thematise several “hot” contemporary issues. It is their arrival, more precisely the husband’s clumsy manoeuvring with the semitrailer in front of Ove’s window, that first makes the control-freak Ove get the rope off his neck and climb down from the chair, so as to get the trailer in position without any further bumps on the nearby fences or post-boxes. The fact that it is this new, young family that accidentally but repeatedly hi-jacks Ove’s suicide attempts highlights the way the film twists the commonplace relationship of past and present, old and new. Whenever Ove is



about to submerge in his nostalgic near-death visions about his past (hanging from the noose or inhaling his car’s emissions in the closed garage), these annoying but sympathetic newcomers always draw him back into life, inadvertently and gradually endowing his life with new tasks, responsibilities and even new purpose. In their relationship Ove clearly represents an old kind of masculinity, an old sense of order and way of life. In many ways, Ove’s character functions in the film as a connection between past and present, a reminder of the passing of time and all the valuable things being lost. Thus, in this film, the past is not simply obsolete and irritating, but is also something worth mourning. The passing of time, loss and mourning are key issues in both Ove’s character and the film’s approach to recent history. As the spectator learns, before losing his job, Ove lost his mother at an early age, he saw his father hit by a train at the wagon factory on the day of his graduation, he witnessed their old house burning down (probably deliberately set on fire by the “whiteshirt” investors who wanted to build a gated community on the land), lost their unborn baby when he and Sonja suffered an accident during a vacation, and finally saw his wife Sonja die in cancer as well. He still wears his father’s watch, which he got on the day his father died, a detail that clearly indicates that he lives in the past, according to old standards and ideals. In his house not only the young Sonja’s picture is displayed, but her clothes are still hanging in the closet. These details suggest that Ove’s mourning processes have been stuck, and the series of losses that he suffered simply do not let him move on. Though the long list of Ove’s losses is something that (hopefully) very few people share, the above motif of accumulated unprocessed traumas can be recognised as a characteristically twenty-first-century socio-­ psychological phenomena. As I have already mentioned in the previous section in connection with Daniel Blake’s problems with the “digital by default” system he struggles with, as result of ever more accelerated social and technological change, the less flexible (e.g., elderly) segments of our societies are under heightened stress. Old life-worlds and value-systems are vanishing at such a pace, yesterday’s skills are becoming useless so rapidly, one’s knowledge about the world is getting “updated” so often, that the feelings of disorientation, frustration and anxiety are almost inevitable, especially for the less flexible. Adding this social issue to the wider context of Ove may seem somewhat far-fetched for many who saw the film, especially those who are moved by (and thus focused on) its sentimental journey into Ove’s past.



However, the old grumpy man of the first scenes of the film, standing behind the locked entrance of his gated and fenced community, surrounded by signs of prohibition and warning, is already one of the most politically influential figures of our times (see Fig. 7.6). As we learn, it was Ove who invented most of these restrictions (where to drive, where to park cars, what kinds of pets are allowed, etc.), and it is also him who meticulously guards these rules, day after day, expressing direct anger and contempt for anybody who may break them. Thus, the film presents Ove as a guardian of a bygone age, an embittered defender of a fortification that he has turned his habitat into. The film establishes a clear allegorical relation between Ove and a previous, now vanishing Sweden, thus inviting the spectator to see the gated community as (Good Old) Sweden or (Fortress) Europe itself. The stereotypical characters of the film further emphasise this social (or national) allegory: apart from the old grumpy man and whiteshirt agents of the neoliberal capitalist order, there is a gay lad, an overweight lad, a Barbie-doll-like blonde woman with high heels and a Chihuahua, an old couple with a paralysed husband, a well-meaning and socially engaged female journalist, and of course the “immigrants”, that is, the newly arriving Persian-Swedish family. Ove’s anxieties about what the world has come to are placed within this social tableau, and are clearly meant to be understood beyond the individual story, in more general or allegorical ways too. Thus, A Man Called Ove also ventures to explore the psychological profile, or at least one such profile, of people who feel anxious and frightened of our rapidly transforming world, people who like to withdraw into

Fig. 7.6  Film still from A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm, 2015)



their well-known smaller surroundings, who retreat into the local and the personal, who would very much like to turn back time. Today, when the world is still wrestling with the damaging unforeseen side-effects of the Brexit referendum or Trump’s presidency, it could be revealing to ask ourselves the following question (as a sort of thought experiment): If offered a referendum with which Ove could double cross the “whiteshirts” and could hope to turn back the processes of globalisation and accelerated change, would he do it? Or: If such people as Ove, Joseph or Daniel saw a politician who promised them to make their country great again, punish the parasitical financial elites and their opportunistic white-collar servants, and bring back the good old days, would they vote for that politician? And if they did, should this come as a surprise? The film paints a complex picture about the worth and chances of old men like Ove in such contemporary communities. First, it legitimises Ove’s grumpiness by telling the story of his losses. Second, it reveals that the principles that he upholds in such, often annoying ways have much social value. Third, in a manner reminiscent of Joseph’s defence of the young boy in Tyrannosaur, it suggests that this older generation of men were and are still capable of (even heroic) action. (Most notably, in a memory-scene we see Ove running into a burning house to save a child when nobody else dares to do anything.) And finally, the film suggests that with newly established, productive social relations these old men do have a chance of integrating into our changing societies (here it is mostly Ove’s becoming friends with the Persian woman and eventually turning out to be a surrogate-grandfather to her children that serves the function of the essential social link). In its approach to the above-mentioned “hot” and no doubt pressing issues of early twenty-first-century Europe, A Man Called Ove applies an interesting and slightly deceiving strategy. By creating the allegorical association between Ove and Good Old Sweden, and by making the spectator more and more emotionally attached to his figure, the film also makes us feel nostalgic about the old Sweden that was transformed (or destroyed) by the globalised capitalism of the “whiteshirts”. The twist in this artistically successful but politically ambiguous strategy is that by this the film manages to tell a story about the loss of Good Old Sweden through a narrative of personal (and often romantic) loss. Mourning the death of Ove’s father, wife or Ove himself thus becomes a politically unproblematic way of mourning a past version of the nation or the local life-worlds lost in globalised capitalism. Likewise, the nostalgia evoked by the good old



days seems less politically reactionary when it is associated with the memory of genuine, innocent, private happiness. Through the absurd situation of telling a life story through the repeated suicide attempts of Ove, the film also comments allegorically on how difficult it is for this old kind of man to pass away. As many events unfold from his interrupted suicide attempts, in most of the present-day scenes Ove is wearing his “nice”, blue, “to-be-buried-in” suit, which thus also serves as a constant reminder of his imminent passing from this world. As the narrative unfolds, this blue colour starts gradually signifying both working class (blue collar) and the feelings of mourning and melancholia. The connection of these two clusters of meaning through Ove’s figure, who is working himself through situation after situation, while secretly preparing for death, contributes to the film’s commentary of the demise of the traditional working class and its iconic masculinities. Thus, A Man Called Ove is simultaneously an obituary, a farewell, an act of reckoning with the past, and a message to the future, on both personal and social levels. Like Daniel Blake, there are a number of things Ove has to do before he dies. He has to “fix” things, such as punctured bicycles, leaking heating systems, broken relationships and problematic aspects of his own self. The film suggest that these old men still have a lot to do, a lot to fix, a lot to add to the new world, which they do not recognise as their own, before they leave. Moreover, he also has to pass on things: objects, knowledge, skills and useful traditions. He gives the cradle he once made for their baby (who was never to be born) to the Persian-Swedish neighbours, explains how to park with a trailer, he teaches Parvaneh how to drive, and passes on his routines of checking the orderly functioning of the community to the younger generation. In the very last scene of the film, after Ove’s funeral, it is the Persian-Swedish little girl (Ove’s foster-granddaughter) who turns back to properly lock the gate of the community, thus symbolically taking over Ove’s responsibilities. Similarly to Tyrannosaur and I, Daniel Blake, the film sympathises with some of the values of these old kinds of masculinities, and successfully demonstrates the social value of seemingly annoying or disturbing attitudes or personal characteristics. Yet, this acknowledgment of the values of (some of) the old ways of this old white man does not seem to be shaped by any ideological masterplan or political doctrine, or at least not in overt ways: as the gate-checking scenes suggests, maintaining (Ove’s sense of) order in one’s community is



important, but it can be equally well done by unemployed overweight lads, gay kebab-makers or half-Persian schoolgirls. Similarly to its message about orderliness, the film’s criticism of global capitalism also lacks explicit political overtones. This is clearest in the episode when the community stands together to prevent a private caregiver company’s taking away Rune, a paralysed elderly member, against the will of his wife who wishes to keep taking care of him. Though the community demonstratively gathers in Rune’s house to stop his forceful moving into the company’s home (which, in Sweden, is paid by the government), it is the intervention of a female journalist from the local newspaper, who manages to blackmail the whiteshirts to back off, by revealing the company’s secret Channel Islands bank accounts and undeclared millions. Here the confrontation between global capitalism and the local community is physically manifest (the locals basically line up on the lawn), and the conflict between financial interests and human well-being, exploitation and solidarity is obvious. However, this does not translate as a nationalist or populist message: though the crooked “whiteshirt scum” is driven out, and the gate is closed behind them, the community tableau is notably diverse, including young and old, Swedes and immigrants, blue-collar workers and educated people, straight and gay. It is in their standing together, overcoming their differences and the “standard” alienation of modern urban societies, it is their fighting for what they value, that makes Ove reintegrate into the community. It is no accidental detail, then, that it is after this successful mission that Ove has his first heart attack. Apparently, now, having passed on his fighting spirit, values and principles, he is more ready to go. Though the above-mentioned strategy to wrap national nostalgia in terms of personal or romantic mourning may suggest a conservative political stance legitimising the attitudes of the older generation of white men, the film’s ending rather resembles a liberal utopia. The manner in which the community’s internal differences are erased in their common fight against the whiteshirts may call attention to the way difference is systematically underrepresented and downplayed in the film. Paravaneh, the Persian immigrant, for example speaks perfect Swedish, dresses and behaves as a modern European woman, and shares more of Ove’s principles than any other character. Her cultural difference is reduced to the fact that she puts saffron into rice meals (which Ove, actually, learns to appreciate). Similarly, the most damaging conflict that the community has seen, the one between Ove and Rune, stem from their loyalty to different car



brands. While Ove is devoted to Saab, Rune always buys a Volvo, which distances them. The ultimate breaking point in their friendship is when Rune, after their children move abroad, decides to buy a BMW convertible, “the ultimate betrayal”—as Ove calls it. In these and other similar instances there is nothing about differences of age, ethnicity, religion, political opinion or sexual orientation that could not be easily overcome. In a truly idealistic, even Hegelian manner, difference can be overcome and fully integrated into the system of the same. The film suggests that (except for the corrupted whiteshirt servants of global capitalism) all people are essentially good, they share the same values, their conflicts are easy to solve, mutual understanding and respect can be reached, and their living together is essentially unproblematic.

Conclusions: Angry Old Men The most striking characteristic feature that these three films share in their depiction of old men is the association between crisis and ageing. Sometimes it is provoked by one’s retirement, loss of employment, sometimes by the death of a spouse or close emotional support, but all three films are invariably crisis narratives. Though the stories of these crises are told through individual details, richly meaningful local settings, which clearly comment on the time, place and the specific social problems that these involve, all three male protagonists are allegorical figures, signifying (in various ways and degrees) the crisis faced by a whole generation of men, or a whole culture, life-world and ethos. Thus, following arthouse cinema’s traditional approach of using old people as mirrors to the world, as critical perspectives on the life that they are leaving behind, all three films offer a critical analysis of contemporary European societies, and the lives lived in them. One key aspect of the crisis these elderly white men are facing stems from their reduced social status and limited sense of agency. In case of Joseph and Daniel, this goes back mostly to financial and social reasons, such as living on benefits or losing even those benefits, being lonely, isolated, living outside the human and institutional systems of care. Accordingly, in these two British films the sense of crisis is depicted through evocative images of off-modern landscapes, run-down buildings, unheated and unfurnished apartments, closed-down shops and graffiti-­ covered metallic shutters. In case of A Man Called Ove, the crisis lacks the financial aspect and the sense of a physically declining modern world, but



the feeling of social and institutional malfunctioning is clearly there, as well as such other shared problems as isolation, loss of social and economic worth, the experience of redundancy, emotional vulnerability and humiliation. It is partly this more general or figurative sense of social commentary that makes death a key motif in all three films. Through the death of either the protagonist (I, Daniel Blake, A Man Called Ove) or a “substitute” close friend (in Tyrannosaur), the films comment on the passing of these older generation of men. It is quite significant from the temporal perspective of this book that all three films express the idea that the world has changed and is no longer accommodating, comfortable or home-like for these men. They feel dispossessed, neglected and disregarded, they do not understand the new, “digital by default” world of globalised capitalism, run by the financial interests of international capital, faceless computers, difficult-to-operate software, and unfathomable algorithms, as well as by an outsourced-by-­ default “whiteshirt” bureaucracy that is clearly disconnected from the local people and the local issues they have to manage. This also affects the films’ narrative trajectories, which (similarly to the retreat films discussed before in this book) are not driven by forward-looking desire, but by pain, mourning, melancholia, nostalgia and a wish to restore a life-world that has already been lost. This regressive, moribund journey is often presented as a destructive and self-destructive downwards spiral, which stems from one of the possible emotional responses one can give to such situations of defeat, loss and disempowerment. Perhaps the fundamental emotional conflict of these films concerns precisely this inner struggle between progressive and regressive emotional responses. While the above-listed painful and frustrating experiences drag these men down, towards more destructive and self-destructive journeys, we can also witness their desperate efforts to move forward, preserve the values that they cherish, reconnect with people, or to find new purpose for their lives. In this situation another key issue is whether they can channel their frustration and anger in productive ways. The journeys of Joseph and Ove clearly run from more destructive to more productive uses of their bitterness and anger, however, Daniel’s story is that of a series of frustrating attempts to keep up normalcy, and a resulting gradual falling down. Importantly, social institutions fail in all three films: we can witness the crumbling of the great, innovative features of modern societies, most importantly the protective and care-giving function of the state (Porter 1999, 195–230). Thus, besides its personal stories, allegories of older



kinds of masculinities, these films also dramatise the post-crisis shifts in the functioning of the state and the ensuing changes in the definition of citizenship. Many contemporary European citizens experience similar problems, the demise of the welfare state, the reduction of its caring functions, the outsourcing and privatisation of health care, the malfunctions of bureaucracy, less secure streets and increased crime because of under-­ funded police departments, piles of garbage on the streets or unmaintained roads—these are all parts of the post-crisis world and its off-modern landscapes. As the films also attest, such changes also undermine the post-­ war concept of the state as well as the late twentieth-century idea of citizenship, and even forces the characters to go back to pre-industrial human “networks of mutual aid” (Porter 1999, 195) or characteristically pre-­ modern systems of justice (killing the dangerous dog in Tyrannosaur, or blackmailing the private caregiving company in A Man Called Ove). One worrying aspect of this trend (on- and off-screen) is that these social systems of providing and care are probably not only the luxurious fruits of an affluent and politically stable form of modernity, but are also its preconditions. When seeing the anger of either these old men in cinema or the millions of protest voters that come from the precariat, “the new dangerous class” (Standing 2011), it may be worth recalling that in the quickly industrialising German Reich of the1880’s Bismarck introduced a system of welfare policies (which today we regard as the forerunner of the late twentieth-century form of the welfare state) precisely as a means of defusing such anger and undermining proletariat-based revolutionary movements, which he recognised as a threat to the stability of the state (Porter 1999, 198). Perhaps it is precisely this withdrawal or malfunctioning of the modern state that highlights the importance of individual action associated with these older forms of masculinity in these films, which often imply that the pre-crisis affluence and all-providing state created inert, passive, consumer-­ type of citizens, who are simply not prepared for crisis-situations or the gradual withdrawal of the all-providing state. When in A Man Called Ove a man accidentally falls on the rails from the platform, most people simply watch without any idea what to do, and a woman even starts recording the scene with her phone. It is only Ove (who went there to jump in front of the train anyways) who jumps down, lifts the guy, and shouts at the onlookers to help him pull back the poor fellow to the platform. As several other situations in these films indicate, these older men were and perhaps still are capable of taking action in situations where there is no use waiting



for some kind of public service to step in and solve the situation. His angry shouting at the onlookers can be interpreted as a symbolic wake-up call, forcefully dragging ordinary citizens (who are apparently not prepared for such a crisis) out of their slumber of passivity. Such acts of help and solidarity, however, are not necessarily defined in these films as individual, heroic or necessarily gendered masculine. These older men stand, rather, as catalysts, igniting social cohesion, action and a social dynamics of solidarity. In Tyrannosaur it is the death of Joseph’s old buddy that pulls the local community together, in I, Daniel Blake it is Daniel’s desperate street protest that brings ordinary pedestrians to some sort of political consciousness and united protest, and in A Man Called Ove it is Rune’s impending misery and Ove’s angry intervention that makes the whole community stand up together against the greedy “whiteshirt scum”. Their anger, desperation, loud calls and spectacular deeds seem to be necessary for a proper social response to a crisis-­situation, which response would include people, attitudes and styles of responses across divisions of race, class and gender. All three films refrain, however, from idealising masculinity as the source of socially desirable action: on the contrary, all three films hint at the potentially destructive and/or self-­ destructive qualities of embittered old men, and imply that the individual frustration or anger of these men can be turned into socially productive, non-destructive action only with the support or guidance of female companions.

Works Cited 2018 Ageing Report: Policy Challenges for Ageing Societies. 2018. European Commission. Bradshaw, Peter. 2016. Tyrannosaur Review. The Guardian, 6 October 2016. Brinstock, Robert H., and Linda K. Geroge. 2011. The Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. Elsevier—Academic Press. Certeau, Michel de. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. London: University of California Press. Chivers, Sally. 2011. The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema. University of Toronto Press. Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.



Frankenberg, Elizabeth, and Duncan Thomas. 2011. Global Aging. In The Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, ed. Robert H. Brinstock and Linda K. Geroge, 72–89. Elsevier—Academic Press. Friedman, Thomas. 2016. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (ebook). Harrington Meyer, Madonna, and Wendy M. Parker. 2011. Gender, Aging, and Social Policy. In The Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, ed. Robert H. Brinstock and Linda K. Geroge, 323–335. Elsevier—Academic Press. Harwood, Jake. 2007. Understanding Communication and Aging: Developing Knowledge and Awareness. SAGE. Harwood, J., and K. Anderson. 2002. The Presence and Portrayal of Social Groups on Prime-Time Television. Communication Reports 15 (2). Simon Hattenstone. 2016. Ken Loach: ‘If You Are Not Angry, What Kind of Person Are You?’ Interview with Ken Loach. The Guardian, 15 October 2016. h t t p s : / / w w w. t h e g u a r d i a n . c o m / f i l m / 2 0 1 6 / o c t / 1 5 / ken-laoch-film-i-daniel-blake-kes-cathy-come-home-inter view-simonhattenstone. Kermode, Mark. 2016. I, Daniel Blake Review—A Battle Cry for the Dispossessed. The Guardian, 23 October 2016. oct/23/i-daniel-blake-ken-loach-review-mark-kermode. Kohli, Martin, and Camila Arza. 2011. The Political Economy of Pension Reform in Europe. In The Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, ed. Robert H. Brinstock and Linda K. Geroge, 251–264. Elsevier—Academic Press. Mandelbaum, Jacques. 2013. Alive and Kicking: The Changing View of Older People on the Silver Screen. The Guardian, 30 July 2013. Accessed 5 February 2020. film-cinema-age-older-people-france. Porter, Dorothy. 1999. Health, Civilization and the State. A History of Public Health from Ancient to Modern Times. Routledge. Schultz, Robert T. 2012. Soured on the System: Disaffected Men in 20th Century American Film. McFarland and Co. Standing, Guy. 2011. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury. Woodward, Kathleen. 1991. Ageing and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions. Indiana University Press. ———, ed. 1999. Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations. Indiana University Press.



Having witnessed the demise of so many grand narratives that gave convincing, well-rounded and finite interpretations of history and our role in it, who believes in conclusions anymore? At the end of a book that focuses on a major cultural shift and on the cinematic narratives that show how people are confused, trapped, or blown away by it, how could I pretend to have a comfortable overview of it all? In the temporality of the off-­modern, defined by the confusion of teleological historical metanarratives, how could I claim to see a clear and definitive plot-line or pattern? Isn’t it one of the definitive characteristics of crisis (since its first medical definitions in Antiquity) that one is caught up in it, blinded by it, always right in the middle of it, with little agency or certainty about its outcome? Acknowledging and fulfilling a cultural function (this time, that of writing a conclusion) without having all the facts necessary, or fully believing in it, is among the recognisable features of cultural processes in the post-­ crisis age. A productive way forward, which I have tried to employ in this book, proceeds by exploring the sources and conditions of that disbelief and uncertainty in order to actually reach some sort of understanding (at least about our confusion). No doubt, these are the limiting-enabling conditions of this book’s conclusions too. Thus, while acknowledging the paradoxes of making final comments in a book that is about how our metanarratives about finality of meaning collapsed (once again), let me, nevertheless, attempt to lay out some cautious and tentative observations about some general trends that I recognised during writing. © The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




One of my initial assumptions was that such a large-scale socio-­ economic-­ideological rearrangement as the early twenty-first century saw must necessarily entail shifts in the fields of culture and art as well. Indeed, the crisis also brought about the crisis of cinematic narratives: European films have been readily picking up new topics with new significance, told stories in tune with the changing spirit of the times, participated in the public discussion of key social issues, and at times sought new modes of representation as well, ones better suited for the new cultural logic of the twenty-first century. As I have indicated in Chap. 1, one of the most positive and intellectually stimulating aspects of the twenty-first-century crisis is the productive motivational force of uncertainty, that is, the sudden opening up of the field of knowledge due to the new wave of incredulity towards our pre-crisis metanarratives about such key issues as democracy, progress, free will, the source of human happiness, the need for belonging, our compatibility with a rapidly changing technological environment, or human beings’ compatibility with rapid change per se, the uneasy relationship between capitalism and democracy, the unforeseen weaknesses of the project of modernity, the relationship between affluence, social worth and dignity, to name just a few. The artistic and dramatic potential residing in these questions, as some of the films analysed in this book have hopefully indicated, is immense. However, compared, let us say, to the dramatic shifts in the European political sphere or the new trends in social theory, art cinema’s renewal seems less radical or at least less spectacularly crisis-like. This may be partly due to the fact that European art films have traditionally preferred the representation of social or individual crisis, and they have been always open to formal innovation. Thus, twenty-first-century stories of people in crisis, novelties in modes of representation or changes in cinematic story-­ telling hardly occur to the spectator as new or necessarily linked to any particular socio-cultural situation. Yet, there may be other reasons too. If one looks around in the post-crisis world so as to map its transformations, the pattern seems to be that the more privileged and protected a certain field is, the more it can afford to hang on to the old, pre-crisis approaches. European art cinema—with its strong, elite culture traditions, relatively stable funding, and its bubble-like evaluation-system of the festival circuit—seems to be among Europe’s most well-protected cultural institutions. Art cinema, in contrast with Hollywood, does not depend so much on audience satisfaction, box office success or changing popular tastes, but rather on the opinions of a relatively limited number of cinephiles, film



critics, academics and board members. I would argue that this may be yet another instance when victory entails collateral drawbacks, when privilege easily debilitates, and being protected may impose heavy limitations. This may be best seen in films about political or (over-)politicised topics. It is most telling that among the films discussed in this book, the most innovative and authentic ones focus on issues that are less involved in toxic political debates (such as ageing or addiction), while more compromises can be felt with films about such over-politicised issues as immigration, political extremism or the contested chapters of history. Such cases suggest that the most problematic aspect of European cinema’s adjusting to the post-crisis era can be located in its struggle with ideological influence, attachment to pre-crisis expectations, entrapment in its own echo-chambers, its reluctance to question its pre-crisis ideological metanarratives, which may result in aesthetic compromises, “a somewhat affirmative, consensual, and uncritical cinema” (Wayne 2002, 20), or a “confused end product” (Wayne 2002, 17) lost between the old cinematic patterns and the new, post-crisis social conditions. This is only partly due to the well known, ambiguous relationship between the political and the aesthetic, or the incapacitating effects of ideological conformism. It is partly due to the moralising tendencies of our dominant pre-crisis political paradigm, which tends to associate political choices with moral judgements to this very day. In modern political history putting on an air of moral superiority used to be more characteristic of conservative politics, yet since the great social movements of the late 1960s, it has been increasingly characteristic of left wing and progressive politics as well. This moral coding of the ideological and the political, which may have been practically productive, for example, during women’s fight for the vote or equal pay, brought some very unfortunate results in the new millennium. It did not only contribute to the polarisation of the political sphere, the increased dangerousness and scarcity of dialogue between different ideological trends, and the lack of tolerance: the moral and moralising overtones of public discussion, the tendency to over-­ politicise and over-moralise, as well as the excommunicating rituals of public shaming and bashing, have debilitating effects on artists as much as on politicians, journalists or public intellectuals. This toxic, moralising, highly emotional, tribalised, polarised and mediatised culture of public discussion, which is now practised on virtually all ends of the political spectrum, can surely be read as a symptomatic consequence of the early



twenty-first-century crisis, an effect that one must identify as one of the dangerous challenges threatening European cinema as well. Arguably, in light of the gravity of such challenges, European cinema is not doing badly at all. When compared to the deteriorating quality of journalism or political discourse, cinema seems relatively resistant to the damaging effects of the post-crisis socio-cultural environment. As the analysis of many films in this book have shown, European cinema still tends to take its role seriously as cultural commentary, as a space for critical and sensitive artistic reflection, as a medium relatively independent from the crazes of the day. While the number of taboos, which filmmakers must respect, is not decreasing, European cinema does try to be in sync with the times, work through pressing issues and find means of artistic expression that feel responsible and authentic in the twenty-first century. In order to highlight these novelties, let me turn to an important book from the boom years, the 1992 edited volume Screening Europe, and compare it with my own results as well as those of Thomas Elsaesser’s 2019 book, European Cinema and Contemporary Philosophy. The project of Screening Europe started in June 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the birth of a newly united, democratic Europe, when a group of outstanding international film-makers and film scholars gathered at the British Film Institute in London to discuss the questions of European cinema and European identity. The resulting volume is an excellent reference point with regards to both the state of pre-crisis European cinema, and the main concerns, conceptual frameworks and tacit assumptions of film scholarship at the times. Retrospectively, it seems that the scholars and filmmakers at the BFI in 1991 had all the reasons for an optimistic outlook on history, with a clear artistic-ideological-conceptual toolbox to handle their problems with. “The ‘Red threat’ posed by the Soviet Union has receded with the thawing of cold war” (Petrie 1992, 3), the communist regimes have fallen, the imminent threat of nuclear war was over, our neoliberal economies were thriving, and humankind seemed to be sitting on a self-driving machine of gradual globalisation, democratisation, social emancipation and economic development. Of course, this was not necessarily the impression everybody on the continent shared: in the former Eastern Bloc, these years did not look all that rosy at all. The transition to market capitalism brought about a widespread social and economic crisis, life-worlds vanished and livelihoods disappeared overnight, living standards dropped drastically, the privatisation of the former state-owned economic assets often involved



turning former party apparatchiks and Western investors into the new rich of the region. However, these dreadful stories of early capitalism seldom reached the Western newspapers, which were all too busy euphorically celebrating the victory of democracy and liberalism to notice such minor hiccups (which, as I have argued in the context of the film Cold War in Chap. 3, have contributed to the present-day splits in the European project). The major intellectual trend in 1991 was informed by an anti-­essentialist, constructivist cultural paradigm, in which human communities are defined as “imagined” socio-cultural constructs (Petrie 1992, 1), “culture and cultural identities are always in a state of flux, never static or given” (2), and the role of cinema (and film criticism) is to render visible “the cultural heterogeneity, diversity and richness characterising modern Europe” (3) while unmasking “cultural essentialism as a dangerous and reactionary fallacy” (3). It is quite telling that in that pre-crisis, 1990s’ paradigm the danger of cultural essentialism referred exclusively to essentialist conceptualisations of the nation and national identity. During these days, before the socially polarising and politically tribalising effects of identity politics fully manifested, nobody ever imagined that such fundamental concepts of dominant contemporary discourses as black and white, men and women, straight and gay were also often treated in fairly essentialist (and therefore politically dangerous) ways. In academia everybody seemed to have shared the conviction that “German” or “European” are potentially dangerous concepts, that we need to de-centre for the sake of progress, yet nobody seriously raised concerns about the similar treatment of the (equally “imagined”) communities of the fashionable cultural studies and identity politics paradigms. Citizens of the twenty-first century can think back of this time as an almost unreal world-view, a sweet (day-)dream that is definitely too nice to be true, an illusionary safe bubble in which we (at least the better protected members of the epistemocracy) could be confident about the course of history. One envies the time when, for example, concerns about Islamic fundamentalism could be considered a simple example of “Western demonology” (Petrie 1992, 3), and most intellectuals were more worried about Europeans’ fear of the other, than about that other itself (Petrie 1992, 2–3). Thinking back, after 30 years, it is ironic to realise how much this anti-essentialist paradigm of diversity, heterogeneity and the joyful proliferation of meaning granted us a clear, homogenous and treacherously unambiguous world-view in which one could easily tell right from



wrong, progressive from reactionary, as well as proper interpretations of cultural phenomena from improper ones. One of the remarkable and surprising similarities between the late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Europe, however, is the sense of crisis (Petrie 1992, 1; Elsaesser 2019, 2–3). Apparently, with the demise of its external enemies and the self-evident structures of oppositional identification, 1990s Europe was suddenly forced to face the critical questions of what it was and what it wanted to do with all that wealth, freedom and multitude of cultural identities. As Duncan Petrie, the editor of Screening Europe puts it in his introduction, “in a Europe no longer divided by the Iron Curtain, no longer certain where it begins and ends, the search for identity and belonging becomes increasingly pertinent” (Petrie 1992, 1). Thus, the 1990s was also defined by a sense of crisis, but that time it was not environmental, financial or social, but rather cultural, a crisis of identity. Ironically, in a historical situation without material strains or political threats, the question of identity arose as an unnerving one. In 1992 Petrie also noticed the paradoxes inherent in this situation: “The major cultural crisis facing Europe is precisely the manner in which the idea of ‘European identity’ has been maintained in opposition to the underlying diversity and heterogeneity” (Petrie 1992, 1). To put it more sharply, in 1992 Europe realised that the popular decentring and deconstruction of identity, which felt so intellectually rewarding while one faced such fundamentalist political enemies as communism or ethno-­nationalism, became the source of much existential angst as soon as those enemies withered. In the early 1990s it was already visible that the artistic-­ ideological-­intellectual toolbox developed since the 1960s, was always meant to be used as part of oppositional tactics, by intellectuals and artists swimming against the current, and it was not really well suited for either victory (when this left-leaning liberal trend of thought became the proper world-view of the European political mainstream), or for the time of twenty-first-century crisis (when some of the main financial and ideological pillars of the system started to crumble). Some of the most memorable films from the end of the twentieth century, like Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 1999), All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar, 1999), The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), or the American Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) and The Matrix (Watchowski, 1999) all show clear signs of plenty of anxiety and unease beneath the shiny-happy surfaces of late twentieth-century life.



The sense of crisis is also “a given in the Europe of the twenty-first century, both artistically and politically” (Elsaesser 2019, 3), but its causes and nature have changed in dramatic ways. Today European cinema is no longer the prestigious crown jewel of a victorious and prosperous civilisation that has the luxury of eternal self-questioning, infatuation with all sorts of otherness, and an endless narcissistic pursuit of (the ghostly and treacherous) questions of identity. By 2020, Europeans have plenty of existential issues to worry about (e.g., climate change, fragile economies, uncertain pensions, growing social inequality and dwindling healthcare), and European arthouse cinema is just one of the players in the thriving art scene of world cinema. As Elsaesser notes, by now “European cinema joins the prefix ‘Euro’ as not only connoting a beacon of hope shining from the island of prosperity and the rule of law, but often enough also the link to cheapness and crisis, not wealth and welfare: Euro-trash, Euro-­ pudding, Euro-shopper, Euro-crisis” (Elsaesser 2019, 2). By the end of the second decade of the new century, it has become clear that our previous obsession with identity entails the danger of self-exoticism (Elsaesser 2019, 3), and that the artistic-intellectual project ahead of us should not only aim to de-centre Europe (and European cinema), but also to re-­ centre it (Elsaesser 2019, 4). This may very well mark a large-scale transformation of European cinematic trends too, in which, due to the series of twenty-first-century crisis, cinema’s previous self-reflexive preoccupation with identity is replaced by a much more existential cinema that re-­ examines the sources of “Europe’s malaise”, shows the lives of ordinary people suffering from it, and thus contributes to the wider discussions about its “broader political and philosophical context” (Elsaesser 2019, 12). In order to map some of the aspects of these crucial current transformations, let me refer quickly to a little piece of media history, which reveals a great deal about not only European cinema’s inner shifts, but also about the socio-cultural environment in which these changes take place. In early 2020, at the time when this book was about to reach its final form, European cinema was in the focus of unusually intense media attention. The newspaper articles and social media trends were prompted by the 2020 BAFTA Awards. Celebratory overviews and academic accounts of contemporary European cinema, however, were the minority: the celebration of 2019’s artistic achievements was completely overshadowed by BAFTA’s diversity controversy. This was the year when the overwhelming majority of nominations as well as awards went for the British war film 1917 and the American Joker—both telling stories of heterosexual white



men. Moreover, all 20 acting nominees were white and no woman was even shortlisted for the Best Director category. The show’s host, Graham Norton ironically called 2019 “the year that white men finally broke though” which gained an especially critical edge due to the fact that it was uttered only two days after the Brexit, when Britain finally broke out of the European Union, and only a couple of weeks after the so-called Megxit, when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan broke out of the British Royal family, announcing to step back as senior members of the royal family, and eventually move away from Britain (and its toxic media culture, which often treated Meghan with a racially biased double standard). Though most articles lamented “the pervasive lack of diversity among this year’s nominees” (The Independent), it was Steve Rose in The Guardian who pointed out the more general, socio-cultural relevance of the situation. Rose also lamented “the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of this year’s nominees”, criticised BAFTA in general for being “guided by outdated traditions and prejudices” but ended on a note that resonates with some of the issues explored in this book: “Modernising doesn’t happen overnight. But in today’s Britain it’s becoming less a question of rates of progress as how much we really want it at all” (Rose 2020). I am not recalling these events here so as to comment on the diversity issues of European filmmaking and its cultural institutions, the complex cultural functions of award-giving ceremonies, the Americanisation of European media-discourses, or the socio-cultural significance of such events as the Brexit and the Megxit. These would all deserve whole book-­ length studies. There are two motifs, however, that I find particularly relevant in the context of the present book’s explorations. The first concerns our growing uncertainty about historical metanarratives, which I defined in Chap. 1 as one of the defining features of what I call the off-modern condition. Before the crisis hardly anybody would have questioned that modernisation was the general direction of history (definitely nobody at The Guardian), that the future can only bring more of modernity’s benefits, more affluence, intercultural exchange, an ever more globalised cultural scene with more diversity. By contrast, in post-Brexit Britain (and perhaps in post-Brexit EU as well) suddenly all these seem quite uncertain. This uncertainty was also detectable in the films analysed in this book. It was the driving force behind the returns and retreats of the protagonists of not only Chap. 2 that was devoted to this specific motif (The World Is Big, Delta, Suntan), but also in T2 Trainspotting (in Renton’s return from Amsterdam and finally moving back to his father’s house, or in Veronika’s



moving back from Scotland to Bulgaria), or in I, Daniel Blake (in Daniel’s locking himself up in his near-empty home to pass his time with woodwork). This uncertainty about the future or the general course of history was also manifest in the films’ off-modern landscapes, which often created mise-en-scenes with objects and buildings from various historical times, in a slightly chaotic and dystopian disarray. The grazing cows among ruinous farmhouses and deserted industrial buildings in Delta; the council estate tower blocks among scrapyards in T2 Trainspotting; the deserted streets in Tyrannosaur with closed-down shops and graffiti-stained metal shutters; the picture of huge, ominous industrial buildings behind the cemetery where Billy, a tiny, fragile human figure, visits his mother’s grave in Billy Elliot; Doctor Stern’s apartment in Jupiter’s Moon or Sashko’s rent in The World Is Big all seem to follow this logic of the off-modern. They are spaces in a disjointed history for lost and confused men on the fringes of society. The second, closely related motif that I would like to pick up from the media reports around the 2020 BAFTA Awards concerns the return of heroic narratives. 1917, like the films discussed in Chap. 3 about unprocessed pasts, revisits a key historical event, but instead of creating a victim-­ focused narrative driven by guilt and the aim of coming to terms with our own dirty deeds, it focuses on ordinary (white) Europeans forced by circumstances to act in heroic ways. 1917, however, is not a return to an old kind of naive heroism, and its protagonists are far from the idealised violent heroes of either contemporary Hollywood cinema, or those of contemporary Eastern European, state-financed historical films aiming to boost national pride. In both its narrative, its cinematography and its character-­building, the film stays away from the usual processes of heroic idealisation. The men we see are ordinary and fallible, war is not glorious, issues of morality are never black and white, and violence is never celebrated. In fact, the whole goal of the two protagonists’ mission is to avoid further bloodshed. Steve Rose, who seems much more optimistic about European cinema than the fate of modernity in Britain, has even proposed to call such films pacifist war movies: War movies used to celebrate military leaders (George C Scott’s Patton, Lawrence of Arabia) or courageous crack squads (The Dambusters, The Dirty Dozen) but today’s auteurs are less turned on by patriotism and violence, and so are their audiences. … The workaround seems to be a new



kind of war story centred on soldiers who really don’t want to kill anyone. You could call it a “pacifist war movie”. (Rose 2020, 1)

Rose mentions a whole series of recent films that fit this new genre, such international successes as Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker or Hacksaw Ridge. In this new trend, the protagonists may be white men, there may be patriotism, some flag-waving and exciting combat scenes, but the goal of the narrative is to save life, and the protagonists’ heroism is demonstrated by their ability to remain true to their values and principles, or simply remain human. This kind of pacific heroism is also discernible in some of the historical narratives I discussed in Chap. 3 about Europe’s unprocessed pasts. After all, the two protagonists of Amen fight (and eventually die) in order to save lives, and there is nothing gloriously uplifting in the fight of the victimised and disillusioned colonial soldiers in Days of Glory. If one takes fighting in a more figurative sense, one realises that many of the male protagonists are caught up in heroic but pacific fights: struggles with inhuman social institutions (Daniel Blake, Ove, the protagonists of all films about immigration), with violent men in order to save innocents (Joseph in Tyrannosaur), or with their own demons in order to live better lives (T2, Kills on Wheels). Clearly, there is some form of heroism associated with masculinity in all these films, they are not post-heroic narratives at all. What are missing from them, however, are the more reductive and toxic aspects of traditional heroic narratives: the black and white moral coding of the struggle, the demonising of one’s enemies, the idealisation of violence, the glamorising of the Cause, the heroic transubstantiation of the male body, or effacing of the human costs of these struggles. Finally, one may also recognise a new tendency of post-crisis European films to turn their attention back to the European self. Films that belong to this trend do not focus on protagonists who are marked as different by their skin colour, sexuality or religion. Rather, they take a closer look at seemingly unmarked white men, in order to present their struggles and perhaps indicate the ways in which the coordinates of social marginalisation have been redrawn in the last decades. They do not suggest that the old causes of marginalisation and exploitation (along race, sex and gender) have disappeared, or that there are no bigots out there, but they present stories in which the main forces of institutionalised inhumanity simply do not care much about one’s (racial, ethnic or sexual) identity. These narratives are not victim-focused, at least not in the way pre-crisis films tended



to be, they do not victimise their protagonists, and do not wish to evoke pity. They present men who have some amount of agency, usually quite limited but enough to take responsibility and take action. The men in these narratives are usually not wholly innocent, pure or unambiguously good either, and they never grow superhuman (either physically or morally) even in the most dramatic moments of their struggles. And finally, the outcome of their actions, similarly to that of 1917, is compromised, a half-­ success at best. Yet, their decision to take responsibility and take action— no matter how limited their agency, or mixed the results may be—and their readiness to deal with the consequences of their deeds, clearly distinguish them from narratives of (self-)victimisation and self-exoticisation. In this sense, they suggest that the new battles on (and perhaps off) the screen tend to be less about individual identity, and more about agency and human dignity, set in a rapidly changing, and ever more overpowering, turbulent and confusing world.

Works Cited Baftas 2020: Diversity Pledges and 3 Other Talking Points from Awards Ceremony. The Independent, 3 February 2020. Accessed 8 February 2020. https://www. Elsaesser, Thomas. 2019. European Cinema and Continental Philosophy: Film As Thought Experiment. Bloomsbury Academic. Petrie, Duncan, ed. 1992. Screening Europe: Image and Identity in Contemporary European Cinema. British Film Institute. Rose, Steve. 2020. Prince William’s Ticking Off Means BAFTA Must Get Serious about Diversity. The Guardian, 3 February 2020. Accessed 8 February 2020. h t t p s : / / w w w. t h e g u a r d i a n . c o m / f i l m / 2 0 2 0 / f e b / 0 3 / baftas-2020-prince-william-diversity. Wayne, Mike. 2002. The Politics of European Cinema: Histories, Borders, Diasporas. University of Chicago Press.


NUMBERS AND SYMBOLS 2008, 4, 8, 9, 15, 103, 120, 128, 130, 179, 196, 211, 216, 235 2016, 4, 112, 129, 132, 152, 175, 216, 244, 249, 250 9/11, 1, 4, 134, 174, 206, 212 A Abuse, 29, 84, 111, 113, 115, 151, 193, 225–227, 230 Academia, 17, 259 Addiction, 29, 30, 62, 109–148, 188, 190, 194, 203, 219, 226, 228, 257 Age/ageing, 29, 31, 46, 57, 62, 64, 67, 74, 96, 104, 105, 117, 127, 154, 156, 157, 177, 202, 204, 219, 222–226, 231, 234, 235, 237, 239, 242–247, 249, 251, 255, 257 Allegory/allegorical, 46, 53, 85, 96, 98, 99, 132, 143, 144, 167, 170, 193, 245–247, 249, 250

Analogue, 49, 54, 242 Anger/angry, 31, 60, 120, 121, 123, 150, 178, 196, 199, 202, 203, 205, 213, 219–254 Anxiety, 20, 21, 44, 56, 67, 114, 126, 139, 156, 157, 186, 197, 244, 245, 260 Arrest, 123, 154, 165, 214 Art film, 22, 84, 88, 168, 207, 230, 256 Assmann, Aleida, 15, 16, 24, 67, 69–78, 101, 103–106 Austerity, 15, 30, 56, 184, 185 Authenticity, 24, 153, 155, 156, 227, 232 B Bank/banks, 15, 54, 150, 185, 187, 248 Bauman, Zygmunt, 3, 6, 8, 9, 15, 151 Body/bodily, 7, 21, 24, 37, 41, 42, 58, 91, 93, 125, 128, 130–132, 136, 141–143, 156, 185, 189, 191–194, 219, 221, 223, 264

© The Author(s) 2020 G. Kalmár, Post-Crisis European Cinema,




Boym, Svetlana, 4–7, 45, 46 Brexit, 11, 44, 135, 150, 152, 205, 232, 237, 238, 240, 246, 262, 264 C Canon/canonised/canonical, 16, 53, 68, 73, 76, 103–105 Capitalism/capitalist, 3, 4, 7, 9, 15, 22, 24, 28, 38, 39, 44–46, 48, 50, 64, 77, 79, 105, 113, 122, 125, 128, 130, 133, 139, 140, 150, 162, 164, 178, 186, 188, 193, 194, 196, 205–207, 223, 227, 232, 234, 236, 237, 241, 244–246, 248, 250–252, 256, 258, 259 Centre, 15, 28, 29, 35, 37, 58, 63–65, 128, 135, 136, 138, 143, 185, 187, 206, 208, 215, 220, 233, 241 Childhood, 45, 47, 113, 141, 211 Christian/Christianity, 78, 83–86, 89, 174 Cold War, 3, 22, 74, 95–105, 258 Communism/communist, 2–4, 38, 39, 43–45, 49, 50, 63, 72, 74, 75, 77, 95, 97, 100, 103, 104, 174, 176, 258, 260 Conflict, 41, 58, 71, 72, 74, 79, 95, 116, 117, 119–123, 154, 156, 160, 161, 190, 237–239, 248, 250–252 Consumerism/consumerist, 15, 18, 39, 105, 113, 127, 133, 159, 186, 188, 193, 196 Crime, 21, 82, 91, 109, 111, 113, 131, 136, 186, 192, 206, 210, 212, 220, 251

Crisis, 2, 36, 67, 109, 150, 183, 225 Crisis of masculinity, 20, 126 Cultural logic, 1, 3, 6, 15, 19, 28, 95, 139, 141, 190, 256 Cultural paradigm, 10, 11, 84, 234, 259 D Death, 20, 50, 52–54, 64, 65, 72, 82, 84, 89, 91, 99, 109, 111, 113, 122, 126, 127, 170, 175, 214, 221, 223, 228, 239, 241–243, 246, 247, 249, 250, 252 Defeat, 16, 24, 37, 41, 56, 63, 73, 104, 117, 118, 238, 250, 252 Deficit of knowledge, 11, 14, 19 Democracy, 2–4, 6, 9, 10, 15, 22, 35, 39, 87, 101, 105, 115, 186, 188, 194, 195, 215, 256, 258, 259 Demography/demographic, 9, 11, 173, 222, 224, 227 Derrida, Jacques, 12, 14, 16, 173, 175–178 Destructive, 200, 203, 204, 210, 225, 232, 235, 250, 252 Digital, 15, 47, 136, 138, 237, 239, 242 Disenchantment, 88, 105, 119, 143 Disillusionment, 36, 37, 45, 46, 50, 91, 92, 143, 225 Disorientation/disoriented/ disorienting, 7, 9, 10, 17, 18, 30, 44, 45, 119, 143, 184, 197, 237, 244 Drug, 4, 29, 61, 109, 111–118, 126, 128, 131, 134, 136, 139–142, 190, 194


E Eastern Europe, 22, 39, 46, 50, 56, 63, 101 Echo-chamber, 24, 257 Elite, 8, 15, 167, 185, 187, 198, 206, 215, 237, 246, 256 Elsaesser, Thomas, 23–25, 27, 31, 36, 258, 260, 261, 263 Emancipation, 39, 64, 258 End of history, 2, 4, 6, 9, 15, 23, 29, 67, 74, 109, 174 Enlightenment, 3, 23, 48, 114, 153, 186, 187 Escapism, 30, 52, 109–146, 188, 203 Ethics/ethical, 10, 12, 15, 20, 27, 28, 30, 63, 73, 74, 76, 77, 79, 81–83, 100, 103, 105–107, 144, 150, 152, 154–157, 160–168, 171, 173, 175, 176, 178, 179, 189, 208, 210, 213, 216, 218, 242 Ethno-nationalism, 10, 15, 90, 207, 260 European Union (EU), 15, 24–27, 29, 35, 38, 68, 70, 77, 87, 89, 102, 103, 135, 137, 145, 149, 151, 152, 154, 167, 169, 184, 204, 206, 233, 237, 262, 264 F Fantasy, 4, 8, 28, 35, 38, 46–48, 50, 89, 91, 92, 105, 107, 123–126, 129, 130, 133, 137, 139–147, 157–159, 165, 171, 173, 175–178, 180, 188, 190 Fascism, 77, 79, 101, 186, 188, 190–195, 197, 199 Father, 18, 19, 50–52, 54, 58, 117, 119–122, 124, 135, 138–140, 142–145, 155, 168, 172, 174,


199, 201–204, 206, 208, 244, 246, 264 Feminism/feminist, 12, 17, 20, 21, 206 Festival, 24, 36, 256 Financial crisis, 5, 9, 15, 115, 118, 122, 183, 185, 188, 204 Foucault, Michel, 3, 9, 10, 41, 42, 234, 236 Freedom, 3, 39, 47, 96, 102, 115, 117, 171, 194, 216, 260 Fukuyama, Frances, 2–4, 14–16, 19, 109, 186, 187, 189 G Gender, 17, 18, 28, 40, 42, 50, 61, 72, 102, 111, 116, 117, 119, 158, 184, 186, 224, 227, 228, 252, 264 Genre/generic, 23, 88, 90, 97, 137–140, 145, 168, 178, 179, 207, 209, 210, 219, 221, 240, 264 Globalisation/globalised, 1, 13–15, 28, 48, 58, 59, 62, 64, 113, 118, 186, 188, 227, 237, 246, 248, 250, 258, 262 Grand narrative, 1, 7, 12, 30, 36, 139, 184, 255 Growth, 6, 21, 118, 126, 188, 204, 207, 208, 223, 224 Guilt, 14, 67, 70–72, 75–83, 85, 91, 100, 101, 103, 104, 157, 263 H Healthcare, 109, 223, 225, 233, 235, 261 Hegemonic masculinity, 21, 28, 40



Hero/heroic/heroism, 25, 26, 40, 72, 74, 78, 88, 89, 92, 93, 100, 101, 106, 141, 143, 145, 159, 161, 165, 166, 195, 207, 212, 214, 216, 218, 246, 252, 263–266 History, 1, 35, 67, 113, 152, 188, 219, 255 Hollywood, 72, 123, 177, 207, 256, 263 Holocaust, 68, 70, 75–78, 80, 82, 85, 86, 90 Humanism/humanist, 3, 23, 84, 116, 119, 144–146, 151, 153, 155, 158–160, 163, 165, 189, 231 Humour, 117, 137, 139, 165, 240–242 Hypocrisy, 79, 195, 226, 243

206, 210, 211, 213, 214, 216, 256, 259, 260 Immigrant, 47, 69, 72, 79, 82, 93, 123, 149, 150, 158, 169, 171, 173, 174, 184, 213, 245, 248, 250 Individualism, 3, 23, 87, 121, 122, 124, 130, 192, 195, 196, 200 Industry, 8, 26, 70, 72, 117–120, 133, 154, 156, 159, 222, 242 Inequality, 8, 14, 15, 91, 118, 125, 196, 204, 206, 261 Injustice, 12, 86, 176, 230, 232 Intelligentsia, 10, 83, 197 Islam, 174, 176, 206 Islamist, 7, 77, 86, 172, 206, 208, 212

I Idealisation/idealised, 39, 40, 54, 65, 72, 73, 89, 93, 95, 166, 170, 178, 179, 220, 263–265 Identity, 1, 9, 13, 18, 19, 22–29, 36, 37, 40–43, 45, 48, 54, 61, 62, 68, 70–73, 75, 77, 82, 84, 90, 92, 97, 116, 117, 121, 122, 135, 137, 143, 145, 163, 165, 167, 175, 183, 186, 187, 189–191, 201, 205, 207, 211, 213–215, 225, 227, 233–235, 258, 261–265 Ideology/ideological, 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 14–18, 21–24, 28, 30, 36, 44, 48, 56, 68, 69, 71–75, 77, 85, 88, 90, 92, 94, 96, 98, 100, 115, 119, 121, 124, 125, 133, 135, 151, 153, 158, 161–163, 178–180, 183, 185–187, 189–191, 196, 198, 199, 201,

J Journalism/journalist/journalistic, 8, 12, 14, 17, 18, 80, 151, 186, 200, 245, 248, 257, 258 K Knowledge, 21, 80, 81, 151, 152, 154, 165, 244, 247, 256 L Left wing, 187, 206, 257 Lévinas, Emmanuel, 151, 153–155, 158, 160, 173, 177 Liberalism, 9, 23, 175, 259 Loss, 5, 8, 15, 16, 46, 73, 75, 89, 109, 112–114, 118, 152, 154, 155, 186, 197, 200, 203–206, 208, 212, 216, 239, 242, 244, 246, 248–250, 252


M Mainstream, 11, 16, 17, 23, 40, 128, 153, 154, 165, 183, 185, 187, 189, 213, 215, 241, 260 Mainstream cinema, 164 Margin/marginal/marginalisation, 6, 13, 17, 23, 28, 29, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 56, 63, 64, 85, 88, 105, 129, 145, 186, 205, 207, 216, 241, 243, 264 Masculinity, 1–31, 37, 40, 42, 64, 89, 116, 120–123, 133, 141, 144, 145, 159, 161, 166, 183, 190–192, 196, 201, 204, 205, 207, 210–215, 225, 228–231, 237, 238, 240, 244, 247, 249, 251–253, 264 Mastery, 105, 159 Máté, Gábor, 111, 114–116, 118, 138, 140–142 Media, 10, 11, 16, 17, 19, 24, 26, 27, 31, 69, 72, 73, 75, 82, 86, 139, 152, 154–156, 165, 167, 169, 172, 173, 175, 185–187, 206, 208, 210, 212, 214, 219, 261, 263–265 Mediatised, 71, 76, 77, 139, 153, 157, 159, 257 Messiah, 171, 172, 174–176 Messianism/messianistic, 173, 174, 176, 187 Migration, 30, 49, 50, 93, 149–179, 186 Modernity, 3–7, 9, 30, 36, 44, 45, 48, 114, 152, 183, 184, 187, 188, 199, 234, 235, 251, 256, 262, 263 Moral, 3–7, 9, 30, 36, 44, 45, 48, 114, 152, 183, 184, 187, 188, 199, 234–237, 251, 253, 256, 258, 264, 265


N Narcissism/narcissistic, 76, 121, 130, 132, 143, 144, 159, 188, 192, 193, 195, 196, 211, 261 Nationalism, 7, 10, 44, 50, 90, 184, 200, 202 Neoliberal capitalism, 2, 3, 23, 150, 178, 196, 205, 206, 232 Non-hegemonic masculinity, 40 Normative/normativity, 12, 14, 16, 40, 79, 81–85, 87, 89, 124, 126, 130, 133, 135, 139, 152, 154 Nostalgia/nostalgic, 4–6, 38, 43–46, 48–50, 57, 86, 122, 124–126, 129, 131–133, 135–138, 142–144, 202, 240, 243–246, 248, 250 O Off-modern, 2–10, 23, 29, 47, 48, 51, 52, 54, 67, 105, 119, 129, 131, 179, 198, 199, 202, 203, 224, 227, 251, 255, 262, 263, 265 Opioid epidemic, 111 Orbán, ix, x Otherness, 13, 30, 55, 69, 92–94, 150, 151, 153, 155, 157, 160, 161, 163, 165, 173, 175, 177–181, 231, 261 P Pain, 53, 79, 112, 114–116, 134, 136, 138, 140–142, 144, 146, 153, 155, 201, 250 Pathology/pathological, 7 Patriarchy/patriarchal, 12, 14, 21, 40, 54, 55, 143, 201, 220, 232, 239 Polarisation/polarised, 10, 19, 59, 69, 104, 130, 152, 165, 205, 213, 216, 257, 259



Police, 95, 119–122, 131, 154, 156, 161, 164, 165, 167, 168, 170, 172, 193, 206, 238 Political correctness/politically correct, 7, 14, 16, 18, 101 Politics/political, 1, 2, 4, 5, 8–19, 21–23, 25, 27–30, 36, 38, 41, 42, 45, 46, 49, 50, 52, 56, 63–65, 67, 70, 71, 73–79, 82, 85, 88, 89, 95, 98–101, 103, 106–109, 116, 117, 119, 121, 122, 124, 126, 130, 132, 139, 150, 153, 154, 158, 162, 164, 167–169, 172, 175, 178–181, 183, 185–193, 195, 196, 199–206, 208–211, 214–217, 232, 235, 243, 247, 250–252, 256, 259–263 Populism/populist, 7, 10, 11, 17, 50, 72, 165, 167, 177, 183, 185, 186, 196, 248 Post-communist, 22, 38, 44, 45, 49, 51, 52, 64 Post-crash, 29, 42, 67, 104, 105, 122 Post-crisis, 1–31, 36, 42–44, 56, 74, 113, 125, 130, 161, 178, 197, 199, 203, 206, 207, 216, 218, 224, 232, 234, 255, 258–260, 264 Post-industrial, 20, 54, 115, 119, 129, 188, 200, 226 Post-traumatic, 46, 55, 67, 209 Power, 4, 5, 14, 15, 19, 21, 41, 42, 48, 62, 63, 69–73, 75, 79, 86, 87, 101, 103, 105, 122, 153, 158–160, 176, 183, 189, 191, 193, 196, 197, 205, 209, 215, 230, 232, 234–236, 238, 242 Precariat, 8, 48, 185, 224, 251 Progress, 2–7, 9, 14, 37, 39, 45, 52, 64, 190, 224, 256, 259, 262

Progressive, 3, 5, 16, 36, 38, 45, 76, 111, 116, 118, 129, 135, 139, 187, 189, 196, 199, 200, 250, 257, 260 PTSD, 52, 67 R Racism/racist, 7, 12–14, 85, 93, 165, 175, 177, 178, 180, 184, 186, 205 Radicalism/radical, 9, 10, 16, 27, 55, 118, 150, 151, 158, 159, 168, 173, 175, 176, 178, 187, 190–192, 197, 199, 201, 203, 205, 207, 208, 210, 214, 215, 217, 256 Realist/realism, 115, 122–124, 145, 147, 170, 172, 179, 181, 207, 214, 217, 218, 225, 227, 232, 240 Refugee, 82, 152, 154, 155, 162, 164, 165, 167–171, 173, 178, 179, 186 Regression/regressive, 7, 8, 29, 36, 37, 40, 41, 44, 45, 49, 50, 55, 63, 64, 124, 135, 198, 250, 252 Retreat, 28, 29, 35, 123, 135, 202, 238, 246, 250, 262 Right-wing, 7, 10, 11, 17, 72, 167, 177, 188–190, 207, 212, 214 S Sacrifice, 26, 53, 72, 73, 75, 88, 89, 133 Second World War, 10, 67, 69, 78, 80, 85, 86, 90, 95, 139, 167, 206, 223 Sectarian, 68, 187, 198 Sexism, 7, 13, 175


Sex/sexuality, 41, 42, 96, 111, 114, 131, 133, 134, 139, 177, 179, 184, 220, 264, 266 Space, 5, 22, 23, 27, 29, 35–38, 40–42, 47, 54, 59, 63, 97, 99, 101, 102, 124, 139, 156, 159, 165, 169, 170, 179, 199, 258, 263 Spiritual deficit, 186, 187 Status quo, 8, 13, 16, 76, 103, 104, 187, 197, 198, 213, 215 Subversion/subversive, 13, 14, 16, 76, 78, 158 Suicide, 20, 21, 95, 125, 131, 133, 168, 206, 225, 243, 245, 247, 249 T Technology, 121, 234 Terrorism/terrorist, 1, 4, 5, 15, 165, 168, 170, 172, 174, 183, 184, 186, 206, 208, 210, 212, 214, 215 Tolerance, 8, 15, 84, 184, 192, 198, 212, 257 Tradition/traditional, 2, 12, 21–24, 30, 43, 48, 51, 52, 58, 59, 61, 62, 65, 71, 72, 83, 104, 115, 118, 120, 123, 124, 137, 139, 141, 143–145, 159–162, 165, 168, 170, 177, 178, 183, 189, 191, 216, 220, 222, 225, 226, 232, 235, 237, 247, 249, 256, 262, 264 Traitor, 72, 92, 196 Tribalism/tribalist, 15, 79, 139, 183 Trump, Donald, 5, 7, 11, 44, 235, 238, 240


V Victim, 19, 72, 74–79, 82, 90, 92, 93, 100–103, 105, 111, 144, 156, 158, 207, 215, 216, 227, 230, 231, 263, 264 Violence/violent, 3, 21, 30, 79, 109, 111, 113, 120, 122, 131, 133, 167, 170, 177, 179, 183, 187, 189, 196, 199–207, 209, 211, 214–217, 220, 222, 226–228, 232, 239, 241, 263–266 Vulnerable/vulnerability, 20, 21, 25, 40, 45, 62, 113, 151, 156, 158, 176, 200, 201, 215, 250 W Welfare state, 12, 15, 177, 186, 204, 223, 225, 251, 253 White privilege, 20, 25 White supremacy, 184, 186, 210, 213 White/whiteness, 1–31, 36, 37, 61, 62, 73, 78, 84, 88, 90, 92–97, 117, 149, 155, 156, 158, 160, 161, 177, 178, 183, 184, 186, 189, 192–194, 197, 201, 203, 207, 209–213, 224, 226–229, 233, 239, 242, 244, 247, 250, 251, 259, 261, 264–266 Widow, 225, 239 Witness, 23, 79, 82, 84–87, 92, 95, 96, 100, 102, 123, 142, 155, 170, 200, 207–209, 228, 250, 252