Concrete satire: before High-Rise, these filmmakers brought social critique to the screen

Concrete satire: before High-Rise, these filmmakers brought social critique to the screen
Jitka Cerhová in Daisies (dir. Věra Chytilová, 1966) and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise (dir. Ben Wheatley, 2016). Image: Yoana Pavlova

English novelist J. G. Ballard’s critique of class inequality, High-Rise — recently adapted into a major film — is a classic of western satire. But his message resonates in the East, too, where both before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain directors have brought social satire to the screen in innovative and controversial ways

16 August 2017

When Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s ideas about urban planning first started to gain popularity, nearly a century ago, they resonated on both sides of Europe. His vision of a future with tall concrete buildings, clean lines and unified green spaces, where beauty is identical to functionality, was championed in equal measure by Taylorists and Stalinists. It took decades to realise that the Radiant City utopia was, as Witold Rybczynski put it, “authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic.”

This was the line taken by J. G. Ballard to in his novel High-Rise (1975), recently adapted for the screen by Ben Wheatley (2016) with Tom Hiddleston in the lead role. Ballard’s cult classic tells the story of Robert Laing, a doctor who moves into a 40-storey block whose structure mirrors the social hierarchy of brutal class domination. Ballard’s is a punishing critique of capitalist social relations, but his ideas were also echoed by artists subjected to Brutalist architecture on the other side of the Berlin Wall. However, these artists had to employ an Aesopian language, as socialist filmmakers were under an enormous pressure to deliver ideologically proper work, on time and without exceeding production budgets. Nonetheless, they were also highly sensitive to the invisible, “vertical” structure of pre-1989 existence: Ballardian disparity, oppression, nepotism, social climbing, conformity and vanity were as much a part of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain as they were in the West.

Eastern directors found their own way to address the dynamics within socially engineered communities forced to inhabit modern housing projects: there were comedies about poorly constructed living blocks and feuds over communal facilities; there were sentimental dramas where young families were torn apart by the mere ambition of owning a newly built apartment; there were unforgettable children’s films where juvenile newcomers roamed these grey non-spaces. And there are also a few truly radical works, very close in spirit and mood to High-Rise’s zestful anarchy, powerful examples of properly socialist satire. Maybe Wheatley watched these for inspiration?

When speaking of artistic insurrection and vigour, the logical starting point is the Czechoslovak New Wave, and its most distinguished “enfant terrible,” Jan Němec. In the years preceding the Prague spring of 1968, Němec appeared on the filmmaking scene as someone ready to part ways with traditional storytelling. After debuting with the innovative and immersive Diamonds of the Night (1964), his second full-length film A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966), a collaboration with his then-wife Ester Krumbachová, is visually more restrained. Nevertheless, the concept behind A Report is so cheekily profound that Němec had to leave the country until the fall of the regime after its release.

It is no coincidence that the story is set in plain nature, without a single building in sight. By abandoning the traditional, socio-politically charged urban environment, Němec exposes a system of corrupt ties and correlations was transparent all along. On a hot day in the woods, the camera traces several nicely-dressed couples who picnic and make small talk. Once the dainties and the drinks disappear, the group — seemingly representative of the socialist intelligentsia — leaves to join another celebration. After an unsettling encounter with what appears to be a working-class gang, they reach a lake where a commandeering host is celebrating his birthday along with some villagers’ wedding. The dialogue is obscure and ambiguous, even surreal; the film is preoccupied with rhythm and inconvenient silence.

Confused by this satirical psychodrama and its lack of classic narrative reinforcement, Czechoslovak censors declared that the actor who plays the host in white, Ivan Vyskočil, looked a little bit too much like Lenin, and this is where the trouble began. As Němec later recalled, he had not this and yet after rewatching the film with the supposed similarity in mind, it was impossible to un-see it. And if the censors were capable of decoding the film’s “message” about the faulty theatrics being staged at every level of society and run by a personage that reminds a lot of High-Rise’s architect Anthony Royal with his “mania, narcissism and power failure”, so was the audience.

With the socio-political tension in former Czechoslovakia on the rise in the 1960s, the New Wave gang went on acting as active protagonist of change. Ester Krumbachová, as well as several other “agent-provocateurs” from A Report on the Party and the Guests, contributed to an even more scandalous film. Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) is probably one of the most well-known and most discussed works from the Czechoslovak New Wave. Its quirky imagery long ago turned it into a modern classic, and yet it is difficult to imagine the disruptive effect of this film 50 years ago, like a battering ram against the walls of propriety. On the one hand, Daisies “reconstructs” a patriarchal society plagued by petty bourgeoisness and mundane repetition. On the other hand, there is nature in domesticated, quantified, curated form. Similarly to A Report on the Party and the Guests, the presence of nature speaks to the socialist obsession with abundance, but also to European art history and the way women have been represented and consumed.

Ballardian disparity, oppression, nepotism, social climbing, conformity and vanity were as much a part of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain as they were in the West

In a world where citizens are fundamentally “fixed”, tied to their place of residence and work, Daisies introduces us to two flâneuses (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová) who embark on a very particular journey. They decide to cut themselves out of the picture and deconstruct with gusto the different classes of society and their attributes, with the experiment eventually descending into bacchanalia. The duo inhabits some sort of psychological limbo, beyond time and space, even if their most militant acts vis-à-vis aesthetics, ethics, or identity take place at “home”. Even though we rarely get to see any architectural facades in the film, Chytilová masterfully encapsulates the existential claustrophobia of the socialist edifice.

Ultimately, though, the film’s apotheosis occurs inside an anonymous multi-store building, where the two take a food lift to the top floor when all other doors appear to be closed. As we ascend with the protagonists, we briefly notice layers of the environment acting out their exemplary functionality — the key storage, the butcher, the concert auditorium, up to the banquet hall, where the grand finale is both a feast for the senses and a bonfire of the vanities. Again, a parallel to High-Rise is palpable, particularly in this liberating climax; only the chaos in Daisies is, in the spirit of 1960s feminism, that of a symbolic order in collapse.

Given the degrees of censorship involved, it is no wonder some of the most critical and outstanding works tackling the socialist system appeared after 1989. Such is the case with Bulgarian director Andrey Slabakov’s Wagner (1998) — a film that triumphed at numerous international festivals and then, sadly, sank into oblivion — possibly due to Slabakov’s lifelong urge to ridicule the figure of the auteur.

Elena (Ernestina Chinova, Slabakov’s wife and regular lead) is a factory worker in a very affectionate relationship with her Wagner hydraulic press. One day the Party fulfills Elena’s dream and grants her an apartment in a housing block. Elena visits her flat in the tall building, only to fall asleep on the empty mattress. When she wakes up, it is late in the evening, and she is very hungry. Up and down the floors, looking for a piece of bread, she meets her future neighbours and also navigates a panopticon of distorted personages quite similarly to Robert Laing, High-Rise’s protagonist. Elena enters a variety of homes and hears all sorts of stories, yet the faces seem to be the same (with key actors appearing in more than one role), and so are the mattresses.

Apart from triggering an association with Le Corbusier’s famous dictum, “A house is a machine for living in,” Wagner is also a tribute to Brazil by Terry Gilliam (1985), with the real-life capital city of Brasília — another starchitect’s utopia gone wrong — only one reference away. At the same time, Wagner is an ironic gesture towards socialist-era comedies set in concrete high-rises, with the comedic overtones turned tragic. Slabakov and his black-and-white feature do not shy away from mocking our collective faith in a paradise that was supposed to be colourful and fulfilling: the regime might be over as a historical fact, but we are still trapped inside the concrete labyrinth of a grey reality; the one inside our heads.

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