The Viennale has quite a reputation among the global cinephile crowd. Not only because of its rather uncompromising programming of some of the finest work of the cinematic year, but also for its retrospectives. For years, the Viennale retrospective has been organized by the Austrian Film Museum. The 2019 edition under the title “O Partigiano!” was the first one put together by curator Jurij Meden. I met Jurij for a talk about his ideas for the retrospective as well as some general thoughts on curating.
Rainer Kienböck: I want to start with a simple question: Why now? Is there a particular reason why you chose the 2019 edition of the Viennale for your retrospective of partisan films?
Jurij Meden: Not really, the time of this retrospective was determined by the Viennale. Eva Sangiorgi, Michael Loebenstein and I met in January 2019 and we were discussing several ideas – partisan films were only one of them. I was passionate about this idea, simply because something like this hasn’t been done before and because I knew that a lot of the films I wanted to show were in really bad shape. The film prints were rotting away in terrible conditions in various national film archives. Maybe in two or three years it would be too late. Those films would be destroyed as most of them are not on some big list for restoration in the near future.
I was pushing this idea, Michael and Eva liked it as well, and only after we decided that this year’s Viennale retrospective would be about partisan films did I realize that 2019 is also the year that we commemorate the beginning of the Second World War. There’s one other thing about the time of the retrospective: We live in an era where a certain right-wing discourse is very present – a kind of discourse that couldn’t have happened in Europe in the immediate post-war years, when lines were drawn more clearly than today. Therefore, we did this show also to remind people of values that are disappearing today.
RK: We will get back to the political implications of the retrospective later, but first I’d like you to talk a little bit more about the condition of the prints. Because the films I saw didn’t seem to be in particularly bad shape.
JM: Sometimes when you’re looking at a film, what you’re seeing on the screen might look great – especially if it’s a black-and-white print. But you don’t know how many hours were spent in our archival department to fix the print, to repair all the broken perforations, to clean it, reinforce the existing splices, etc. It took us almost an entire year to find the best available film prints and in many cases those prints were unique and rare prints.
For example, we showed an extremely worn print of Bitka na Neretvi. Although this was a big production and quite celebrated, we had to show a print from the Slovak Film Archive in Bratislava. There was only a 16mm print in the Croatian Film Archive and a totally ravaged 35mm print in the Yugoslav Film Archive in Belgrade. By pure coincidence we found the print in Bratislava which turned out to be complete, with decent colours too. This is just one example. The majority of the forty-one films we screened in the retrospective are endangered.
Bitka na Neretvi, © Filmski centar Sarajevo
RK: That’s frightening, because these films, as I understood it, were popular productions in their time. Their countries of origin are in danger of losing part of their popular history, of their media history, of their cultural history. That brings me to another question: Has this situation to do with a change in reception in their home countries? Especially regarding the change of political systems in Eastern Europe.
JM: Both the East and the West have been neglecting this genre. In the East this has obviously to do with the change of governments. And new governments couldn’t really care so much about certain types of films with strong ideological signatures that were made before the changes in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
But this is not a problem that’s pestering only the film archives in Eastern Europe. Our opening film Un homme de trop which was made by an internationally well-known filmmaker like Costa-Gavras has only been restored two or three years ago by Cinemathèque Française.
The same can be found in Italy. One of the films I really wanted to show in the retrospective was an Italian film called I sette fratelli Cervi by Gianni Puccini which is a wonderful example of how you could oppose fascism from a catholic point of view. That film is lost. Negatives exist, but I couldn’t find a projectable 35mm print. Some other films like Gli sbandati by Francesco Maselli are even more neglected by Italian film history – and you could find similar examples in other countries – because it provides another angle to the dominant narrative in Italy. Italy has been remarkable in reinventing itself on the spot as a victim of Nazi Germany after the armistice. Some of the films in the retrospective played an important role in this “whitewashing” of history after the war. Gli sbandati tells a certain dirty truth that people didn’t really want to hear.
RK: How did you choose which films to include in the retrospective, apart from the availability of projectable prints?
JM: As there is no such a thing as a clearly defined partisan genre, when we selected films for the retrospective we had three basic criteria: First, the resistance had to be anti-fascist. That’s why we don’t show any Finnish films although they have their own tradition of partisan films because those partisans were anti-Soviet. The second criterion was to only show films made in countries that have actually experienced resistance. That excludes, for example, all Hollywood films that feature partisans. And the last criterion was that the resistance had to be armed. These three elements connect all forty-one films although there are, of course, exceptions to the rule.
RK: Why didn’t you include German or Austrian films where these criteria would apply?
JM: We do have a German-Austrian film in the retrospective: Am Galgen hängt die Liebe by Edwin Zbonek.
RK: Right, but it’s about Greek resistance. I was thinking about a film about German or Austrian resistance groups.
JM: That’s maybe the fourth criterium: These are all narratives produced by occupied territories. We wanted to show resistance in countries that were occupied by the Third Reich, we were not as interested in what was happening inside. But this could be the subject of another retrospective.
RK: I wanted to ask you about the title of the retrospective. “O Partigiano!” is Italian, whereas most of the films don’t use the word. Why did you use the Italian phrase?
JM: Indeed, the term “partisans” was used to designate members of the anti-fascist resistance only in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Slovakia and Italy. But we chose the title for a very simple reason: to point out the pan-European element. It refers not so much to the Italian word for partisan but to a line in the song Bella Ciao which was adopted by the whole European antifascist movement and is in use to this day. We were thinking about other titles as well. One of them, which I liked very much in the beginning, was “Red Tides”. But then again, it wouldn’t be the right title because Communists were far from the only group that was involved in antifascist resistance.
Slavnyi malyi, © Österreichisches Filmmuseum
RK: The lack of outright Communist films was actually one thing that surprised me in the retrospective. Even when they were made in countries under Communist leadership at the time.
JM: This is a popular misconception. People were expecting this to be a parade of propagandistic paroles but it’s not true. Most of these films are ideologically very complex. They were produced in specific ideological conditions but most of them complicated these conditions, not wearing their politics on their sleeves but questioning them. Out of forty-one films there are only two really bland, propagandistic ones: Molodaya gvardiya by Sergey Gerasimov and Sekretar‘ raykoma by Ivan Pyryev. Even the other two Soviet films (beside Sekretar‘ raykoma) that were made during the war – Raduga by Mark Donskoy and Slavnyi malyi by Boris Barnet – are suspiciously devoid of ideology. This is not the result of me carefully picking and curating exactly these films that are particularly complex and discarding more simple films. These one-dimensional films just don’t exist in great numbers.
RK: I expected more endings like that of Muži bez křídel where the Red Army liberates the Czechs in an epilogue…
JM: …and even there this kind of stupid ending looks like something that was strapped onto the film later on because it doesn’t really fit with what this film really is – a psychological examination of people under stress trying to decide what to do in this tricky time.
RK: The films in the retrospective are very diverse in form and content. With most retrospectives, after seeing three or five or ten films you slowly get an idea of what to expect in terms of style and tonality. That’s clearly not the case with “O Partigiano!”. Could you talk about your view on curatorship?
JM: I take your question as a great compliment because as a curator I’m very skeptical about curating film programs. I get really nervous when I see an announcement of a retrospective of a certain filmmaker that claims to be “curated by” someone. Why do you need to sign your name under a retrospective of, let’s say, Billy Wilder? What is there to curate? Nothing. When it comes to shows like “O Partigiano!” that are not focused on a single director, I believe that the role of a curator is not to prescribe, not to tell you, the viewer: “This is good for you. These are great films and I will not show you bad films”. The role of a curator is to offer you a chance and it’s up to you to do something with it. You could choose to get lost, you can create your own narrative out of it but it’s about offering you a choice.
Today we live in a world that’s completely saturated with images. If you want to get really knowledgeable in the subject of partisan films today, you wouldn’t know where to start. There aren’t any comprehensive books written on the subject and you can’t find most of these films online – not even on sites like Karagarga. My role as a curator here was simply to bring under the same umbrella a certain number of films, each of them representing a different aesthetic or ethical point of view, but then it’s up to you to decide what you want to do with it.
We are not saying that the films shown are the masterpieces of partisan cinema but certain select representatives of a loosely defined genre. We created a context and we explained in the catalogue and in introductions to the screenings why a certain film was chosen. However, we did not decide upon the narrative of the show. This is completely up to the viewer. The 20th century was the era of authoritarian positions, of people defining a certain canon. We can’t do that anymore. There is simply too much image production and film production out there. I think the role of curator today is different: somebody who will do the hard work of filtering out the worst trash for you and create a strong conceptual framework that allows for the audience to discover and create a narrative.
RK: But that’s a complete turnaround compared to what the Austrian Film Museum did before, right?
JM: What the Film Museum did in the past was fantastic. They established a very clear position: “This is cinema and other things are not of interest to us”. Which is a legitimate, valid position. You first have to establish a canon before you can challenge it. The Film Museum did a great job in establishing its canon. But there are other approaches and, especially today, the time has come for a different approach.
Kanal,© Österreichisches Filmmuseum
RK: Has this shift in curatorial work been noticed by audiences?
JM: I was actually terrified because I was afraid that the attendance would drop after the end of the Viennale. But I was pleasantly surprised that people are massively attending the screenings even though most of the filmmakers and titles are completely unknown. Of the forty-one films there are maybe four established canonized classics: Kanał by Andrzej Wajda, Idi i smotri by Elem Klimov, Roma città aperta by Roberto Rossellini and probably Proverka na dorogah by Aleksey German. The rest are all films that are known almost exclusively locally. And yet people are coming. I’m very surprised about that.
RK: I’m actually not that surprised because I made this observation over the years that in Vienna certain communities are largely ignored by cultural institutions. There are a lot of people with strong ties to Eastern Europe but there are hardly any Eastern European films shown in the city (the same holds true for other art forms). This is something about Viennese film culture which I never really understood. There’s an abundance of cultural and historical ties between the city and these regions but this never really showed in the programs of Austrian film institutions. Therefore, I’m not surprised that the retrospective is well-attended. This is a kind of program that is apparently in demand.
JM: We don’t do our programs to cater to the demands of anyone but I’m happy that we have reached out to certain communities which previously did not feel that a place like the Film Museum was a place where they would be welcome. I do believe that the Film Museum should cater to everybody, not only to those who perceive cinema as high art, so that’s great.
RK: But this whole element of catering to those communities wasn’t something you were thinking about when proposing the subject of the retrospective to the Viennale?
JM: No, when I initially proposed it, like I said, I was thinking first and foremost about the precarious state of the film prints. When I dig deeper into my motivations, what I really wanted to do was to create a framework to show ten films that I think are masterpieces of world cinema but are completely unknown outside their production countries.
For example, to my mind, one of the best and at the same time completely overlooked European filmmakers of all time is Živojin Pavlović from Yugoslavia. He had this brief window of fame in the West when he had a retrospective at Pesaro Film Festival in the early ‘80s but other than that he’s virtually unknown outside of former Yugoslavia. To do a whole retrospective of his films would be a massive, almost impossible project, but I could show two of his films within the “O Partigiano!” retrospective. This was a chance to share some “masterpieces” if you want to use this old-fashioned term.
RK: Are there some films that didn’t made it into the retrospective that you would like to mention?
JM: We were limited by space and time. My initial shortlist of films I really wanted to show and where I could find all the prints consisted of fifty titles. I realized though that there is not enough time to show all of them so we had to cut ten films. For example, I’m very sad that we’re only showing two films from Slovakia because they had this glorious and interesting tradition of partisan films.
There also practical reasons like with Tri by Aleksandar Petrović which I really wanted to show but which had just been shown at Filmarchiv Austria early in the year. The film is remarkable in how much it complicates its ideological partisan narrative. I’m also very sorry that we couldn’t show Most and Partizanska eskadrila (a partisan version of Top Gun – made before Top Gun) both by Hajrudin Krvavac because we limited ourselves to a maximum of two films per director and settled for Diverzanti and Valter brani Sarajevo instead. I already mentioned earlier I sette fratelli Cervi of which there are no projectable prints available. There’s also a brilliant French film, Le vieux fusil by Robert Enrico, with Romy Schneider and Philippe Noiret. It’s a cross between a partisan film and a revenge film. Noiret plays a completely depressed husband whose wife was brutally killed by the Nazis. He rejects the assistance of the resistance and single-handedly fights all the Germans in his castle. Obviously, there’s also a ton of Soviet films we could have shown.
People have been complaining about the lack of films by female filmmakers. In fact, women didn’t get a lot of chances to direct partisan films or just weren’t interested in the subject. One prominent exception is Larissa Shepitko’s Voskhozhdeniye which we didn’t show because it had already been screened in the last edition of the Viennale. There’s also Pyatnadtsataya vesna by Inna Tumanyan which just didn’t make the final cut of the forty-one films.
Which was your favorite film of the retrospective?
RK: I’d probably say Idi I smotri although I’ve seen that one before. Of all the films that were new to me I probably liked Trenutki odločitve by František Čap the best. One of the recurring themes of the retrospective that is most interesting to me is the subject of collaborators. Most of the films in the retrospective deal with partisans not only fighting German soldiers, but also their own compatriots who support them. There is a lingering question of how all of them can live together after the war ends. Trenutki odločitve deals with this question and is magnificently crafted at the same time.
JM: That’s truly a very important subject in the retrospective. It’s a simple fact that there were collaborators in all occupied countries and they were very strong because they were backed by the Nazis. In most countries it was a two-tier struggle against the occupying forces and the collaborators. It’s remarkable that a lot of these films openly address this issue and are not hiding it. Trenutki odločitve is a crucial film because it’s ahead of its time. It acknowledged the fact that people are very divided, but it also provided a blueprint for a possible reconciliation after the war.
There’s another other important thing about Yugoslav partisan films: in countries like Poland or Czechoslovakia or Italy the partisan struggle was a simple struggle – a fight against occupying forces. In Yugoslavia the partisan struggle was at the same time a revolution. Not only were they fighting to push the Germans, Italians and Bulgarians out of the country, but theirs was also a struggle for a new world order. All the Yugoslav partisan films therefore not only talk about the fight against the occupying forces but also to some degree about the revolution. What’s interesting is that quite a lot of them are actually quite critical of the revolution. Hajka by Živojin Pavlović, for example, has a rather pessimistic attitude towards the revolutionary slogans that the partisans are supposed to be fighting for. That complicates matters further.
This division of who did what during the war became all the more important after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the democratization of all these countries. Very unfortunately, right-wing groups in these countries use this divide as a political tool. They are looking back saying that the partisans were basically butchers who slaughtered their own people forgetting that the people they were slaughtering were fighting with the Nazis and the partisans were trying to liberate the country. It’s a very tricky situation.
Hajka, © Slovenska kinoteka
RK: Are there actually films about right-wing resistance groups who were fighting against the Nazis?
JM: There are definitely films about catholic resistance movements. To call them “right-wing” would be a bit too harsh though. But especially in Poland there’s a lot of emphasis on resistance groups that were not on the leftist political spectrum. But it was basically the same in all occupied countries. In Slovenia, where I come from, the antifascist struggle was started by a group of different organisations, among them communists, catholics, a gymnast group, boy scouts, etc. The communists took over as the leading force within the Liberation Front only in 1943.
RK: Are there any films depicting this inner struggle?
JM: There are no films that would specifically address this division within the communist party but in films like Hajka or both of the films by Antun Vrdoljak in the retrospective (U gori raste zelen bor and Kad čuješ zvona) show the internal division of the partisans. Because in all these films you have one character who is the political commissar and usually the partisans hate him. They have their own commander whom they love, who is a father figure. The regular fighters are usually apolitical. They are religious or don’t care about politics at all. They treat the political commissar with suspicion and even in films from the ‘50s and ‘60s they make fun of this character.
RK: Is there anything you would like add at this point?
JM: Not really, I think we covered a lot of ground. I’m really happy about your questions because they prove that what we tried to do with the retrospective was not to provide any answers or give a conclusive definition of the genre. It was the opposite, to open up questions.