The 1990s coinage ostalgie, which combines the German words for “east” and “nostalgia,” describes a particular sort of longing. Ostalgie is not so much a yearning for the vanished Communist past as it is an adult fascination with the youthful, formative reality lost, save to memory, in the social upheaval that came with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
A childhood is a childhood, no matter where it occurs. Still, as suggested both by the Romanian movie ironically titled Tales From the Golden Age and “Ostalgia,” the New Museum’ s current five-floor exhibit pondering the ways in which a wide range of East European artists coped with Communism (or its absence), a personal history can also be the history of one’ s times.
Tales from the Golden Age, an anthology film organized, written, and co-directed by Cristian Mungiu (best known for his 2007 abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), addresses ostalgie in its Romanian form. Each of its six essentially comic episodes dramatizes an urban legend from the 1980s, the worst period (and self-described “golden age”) of Nicolae Ceausescu’ s Communist dictatorship, as well as the decade in which Mungiu and the four novice directors who work with him here were in or about to enter their teens. Bracketed by the Ceausescu anthem, the movie recalls a social disaster in painstaking detail and with a measure of ambivalent love.
In retrospect, the most obvious thing about Ceausescu’ s golden age was its fraudulence. Like classic socialist realism, but even more so, Romania’ s official culture trafficked in the beautiful lie and pretended it was truth—the representation of current social reality as airbrushed by authority. The movie’ s opening tales show Romania as a golden facade: “The Legend of the Official Visit” (in which a rural town, coincidentally hosting a traveling carnival, must be hastily “improved” in advance of a government motorcade that never arrives) and “The Legend of the Party Photographer” (which details the official media’ s panicky, foredoomed attempt to reconcile the height differential between Ceausescu and visiting French premier Giscard d’Estaing).
Less finely tuned (and not as funny), Tales‘ third episode, “The Legend of the Zealous Activist,” is a labored account of a gung-ho Party organizer (looking not unlike Albert Brooks) hoisted on his petard in an attempt to eradicate rural illiteracy. Although gumming the movie’ s momentum, the episode does serve to introduce the milieu of shortages, overcrowding, schemes, bribes, and barter economics that will characterize the remaining tales. Everybody from primary-school kids to cops is involved in petty black marketeering in “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” (an episode further enlivened by the presence of a large pig in a small apartment).
Although Mungiu only directed two episodes, Tales has a strong continuity of style and sensibility (the look is subtly cartoonish, the humor broad yet deadpan). Although individual segments are not credited, it was assumed when the movie screened at Cannes in 2009 that Mungiu’s were the more nuanced and relatively lengthy final segments. “The Legend of the Air Sellers” and “The Legend of the Chicken Driver” both concern scams. In “Air Sellers,” a teenaged girl, much impressed by Bonnie and Clyde (shown at a party on VHS), joins forces with a slightly older guy to “rob” the people of their redeemable glass bottles. The final tale, “Chicken Driver,” which ends with its protagonist in jail, is the subtlest and most melancholy episode, in which a love-starved trucker opens a forbidden door (in the back of his van) and, thanks to the modest treasure he discovers there, finds himself briefly more attractive than he could have imagined.
In the rampant dishonesty and brutal deprivation of the golden age, even the most plodding, least imaginative Romanians had to steal to survive. Sardonic as it may be, Tales From the Golden Age is basically affirmative—its true subject is resilience. Romania suffered under a regime of dangerous stupidity. Drawing on popular memory, Mungiu has orchestrated a contribution to local folklore, a suite of stories in which those rendered witless by oppression were compelled by circumstance to live off their wits.
Dense and provocative, “Ostalgia” is richly “underground”—an array of unmarketable underdog art, infused with forbidden impulses, all, however obsessively private, unavoidably political. While some works suggest the liberated libido of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, the exhibit as a whole is a kind of Soviet equivalent of the social disgust articulated by Ken Jacobs’s Star Spangled to Death.
The most ambitious pieces are serial in nature—Nikolay Bakharev’s candid photos of Moscow sunbathers and teenaged Evgenij Kozlov’s sweetly pornographic drawings of the Young Pioneers in his collective apartment—are forms of crypto-cinema. Movies are crucial to the exhibit. Jonas Mekas’s six-track, four-hour-plus Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008)—a compilation of TV news reports that the Lithuanian filmmaker recorded between 1989 and 1991 off of his home TV screen in New York— easily fits into this orchestrated chaos. Some works document performances (Romanian performance artist Ion Grigorescu’s psychodramatic bouts of naked shadowboxing or his Lithuanian colleague Andris Grinsbergs’s alfresco pagan rituals), but more than a few are films or videos in their own right.
Made for Hungary’ s experimental Bela Bálazs Studio, Tibor Hajas’s Self Fashion Show (1976)—in which a cross section of passersby are persuaded to pose for the camera—is a proletarianized version of Warhol screen tests or a diminished take on August Sander’s photo-project “People of the 20th Century.” The film was shot silent but Hajas added a voiceover, at once reassuring and authoritarian, which addresses his stolid subjects as well as the public: “You don’t need to follow alien patterns . . . . You are free . . . . There are no rules . . . . You are the model of your own life . . . . You are a star.”
Giving voice to the onetime proponents of an obsolete philosophy, British video artist Phil Collins’s 2010 marxism today (prologue) interviews several middle-aged former East German women who, having made their careers as teachers of Marxist-Leninist economics, were compelled, after unification, to live with the notion that, as one puts it, “your entire life was just a mistake.” Still, all managed to apply Marxist education to the capitalist world. One retrained as a social worker, while another worked for a computer dating service, and the third (who had written her dissertation on neoliberal economic theory) smoothly transitioned to investment banking.
Olga Egorova makes expert use of Marxist rhetoric in her sad and hilarious Partisan Songspiel (2009). A quartet of Serbia’ s newly oppressed (given archetypal status as Disabled Veteran, Romany Woman, Lesbian, and Worker) stage a self-dramatizing performance at the foot of a pedestal upon which their disdainful new oppressors (entrepreneurs, bankers, neoliberal academics) perch. There’ s an absurd, tragic dimension found here that is missing from Mungiu’s film—perhaps because, unlike Romania, no-longer-extant Yugoslavia had a noble anti-fascist past, a truly lost golden age.