Angels

In order to characterize a prominent group of East and Central European films about adolescents, I am borrowing the image of angels from ''Gangsters and Angels,'' the Hungarian critic Sandor Turcsanyi's article about Arpad Sopsits' film Torzok (Abandoned, 2001). Turcsanyi argues that representations of innocent, ethereal, vulnerable, often orphaned5 young people are central to understanding Hungarian—and, by extension, East and Central

European—cinemas and cultures. Torzok exemplifies the continuity that such real-symbolic adolescent figures, predominantly boys, have created between socialist and postsocialist teen representations. It is an autobiographical film admittedly made to process the director's own traumatic memories of growing up in the 1960s in an institution of parentless boys, thrown at the mercy of sadistic teachers.6 The angel motif comes from the protagonist teen boy's somewhat sentimentally presented dreams, in which he flies off on angel wings to transcend his suffocating environment in search of a utopian family.

While there is no question about the truthfulness of the film's sordid depiction of an era, the allegorical relevance of the film remains attached to the past and is thus somewhat self-serving. It is also hard to look past the sense of personal psychological urgency that underlies the film: the boy protagonist is less important than the remembering filmmaker. The film's grim dialectic is a little outdated. The parallel between the prison-school and the outside world of totalitarianism is specific to a bygone historical era. The film's black-and-white aesthetic, with its eternal winter outside and dark rooms inside, the barred windows, the stereotypical opposition of cruel but victimized and good but suicidal teachers, its sentimental lyricism coupled with the relentlessly depressing storyline, can hardly count on audience success.

This is a film that has more in common with fin-de-siècle literary models of symbolically and also often literally imprisoned boy groups than with young people in the present.7 However, it also provides a platform for reassessing certain suppressed aspects of earlier representations of boys; most important, its commentary about the continuity between male homosoci-ality and homosexuality is more explicit than that of earlier models. The physical intimacy that the two main characters experience in the institution becomes the ground for unbreakable emotional bonds against the cruelty of the outside world. This bond is vital for the boys' survival in the conspicuous absence of female nurturing. The one female character, Marika, is more of an object of titillation than a source of comfort, to be peeped at while she is bathing.

Male intimacy and missing or uncaring mothers become increasingly conspicuous features in ''boy films'' of the 1980s and 1990s. In Istvân Szabo's Colonel Redl (1984), based on John Osborne's play A Patriot for Me, as well as on the life of the actual, historical Alfred Redl, and set during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the young Redl is sent to military school by his mother. As his family disappears from his purview for good, the young cadet falls in love with his handsome upper-class schoolmate— a lifelong love that is explicitly identified as homosexual only just before he dies. Sándor Pál's Herkulesfürdoi emlék (A Strange Masquerade, 1976), another film set in the aftermath of World War I, features an angelic young soldier who cross-dresses as a female nurse in order to hide in a sanatorium from political authorities. While the film's allegorical concern is evident in the way in which its poetic cinematography depicts fear and claustrophobia, it has now become not only possible but also imperative to discuss how gender subversion and the suggestion of homosexuality are employed as tools to convey political subversion.

Iskolakerülok (Truants, 1989) centers on yet another group of boarding school boys. Their heroic geography teacher, played by popular Hungarian actor Károly Eperjes, accomplishes an impossible task: besides teaching his subject, he also needs to save a student from suicide, consistently reject the advances of a sex-hungry female colleague, and undo the work of a narcissistic mother unfit for parenting. This scenario is so unrealistic within a profoundly patriarchal society such as Hungary that the misogyny of the representation is almost too easy a target. One is prompted to search for more systemic reasons for such an intense need to assert masculine power and degrade femininities deemed threatening. The problematics of Sergei Bodrov's S.E.R. (Freedom Is Paradise, 1989), released in the same year, is remarkably similar: 13-year-old Sasha, whose mother died early and whose father is in jail, repeatedly escapes from the prison-like reformatory where he lives in order to search for his father. After several such attempts and many adventures, he manages to locate his father; the film ends on a note of hope inspired by the father-son reunification. The Witman Boys (1997) goes even further in blaming bad women for producing a miserable generation (of boys). Another literary adaptation, based on the fiction of fin-de-siècle modernist writer Géza Csáth, the film is a stylized, bleak rendition of the visceral Freudian adventures of two teenage brothers. After their father dies, their mother's hatred causes the boys to vent their frustration by torturing animals and indulging their growing interest in sexuality. A prostitute's warm embrace welcomes them to sexual bliss, but her love is costly. They murder their mother to get her jewelry and to secure for themselves a kinder mother.

There is a lighter, less tragic trend within the Eastern and Central European boys' coming-of-age group of films. The social symbolism of individual stories and the parallel between psychological and social upheaval are still on the surface, but the tone is bittersweet and the edge of tragedy is softened by humor. Emir Kusturica's early film, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981) evokes nostalgia by its very title. The film is about Dino, a teenage boy, who lives in a household of brothers dominated by a tyrannical father. Dino becomes entangled in the world of petty crime and blackmailed into hiding a young prostitute, ''Dolly Bell,'' in the family's attic. Dino and the girl fall in love and eventually stand up to her pimp in a romantically gratifying turn. The film celebrates, or retroactively constructs, an era of optimism and courage, when there were women to be saved from dumb criminals. The background is a nostalgic image of 1960s Sarajevo, remembered as a time when socialism was still in its full idealistic swing, and when Sarajevo was itself a swinging town, with all ears tuned in to Italian rock 'n' roll.

Obecna skola (The Elementary School, 1991), the Czech Jan Sverak's preparation for the Oscar-winner Kolya (1996), takes us back to immediate postwar times and to the school setting, but the theme and mood are updated to suit more contemporary, nostalgic viewer expectations. The war is already a sepia-tinted memory evident only in ruined buildings in the background and teenage boys' war games. In fact, the film opens with a visual trick that blurs the distinction between real war and boys' games by showing us documentary footage of battle, which turns out to be the boys' playful fantasy images. But the film is less interested in adolescent subjectivities than in the figure of the new teacher, the intimidating but enchanting war hero, Igor Hnizdo. Hnizdo arrives with a slightly questionable Partisan history and an irrepressible weakness for women. The boys, who have already destroyed the weak nerves of their female teacher, are impressed by Hnizdo's military garb, real pistol, and tough manners. However, he evolves into a true role model only after he reveals an artist under the uniform, whose real tools are his musical instruments and stories about the Czech national hero Jan Hus. The director's real concern seems to be with salvaging this Byronic East European artist-hero and his masculine ethos as a model for a new generation, recreated through the admiring eyes of adolescent followers.

Recent Hungarian variations on this theme are similarly invested in sustaining the bohemian-Byronic role model, whose very validity is thrown into question by the desperation with which he is being reinvented. In Robert Koltai's popular films of the '90s, Sose halunk meg (We Never Die, 1993) and Ambar tanar ur (Teacher Ambar, 1998), adolescent boys are learning how to be men from the invaluable lessons that only likable and poetically inclined scoundrels of a previous generation can impart to them. While the earlier film rides the wave of postsocialist optimism and resurgent nationalism to popularity, the later one is bogged down by its own skepticism and a contrived romantic subplot between the lustful middle-aged teacher and a female student.

There are some crucial aesthetic differences between tragic-somber and comic-nostalgic films about teen boy-angels. The latter group of films, with its less demanding symbolic agenda, less realistically remembered historical memories, and more emphasis on the titillating sexual aspects of the teenage transition, has proven to have much greater audience appeal. At the same time, the two groups embody different approaches to the same crucial problem: the pressure to redefine masculinities amidst the processes of the East and Central European transitions from state socialism to global capitalism. Both groups of films are eager to disavow their underlying concern with representing masculinity by distancing their plots from the ongoing gendered crisis of nationalism. Makers of ''tragic boyhood'' films tend to draw on literary models in order to universalize the boy's psychological transformation into a man. They evoke the allegorical monster of communism in order to nostalgically reclaim the public spheres of national politics and art as inherently masculine islands in the rising, emasculating sea of global consumerism. ''Boyhood lite'' films of the second group, while they are also invested in evoking sympathy for lovable, almost-extinct masculinities, take this unspoken mission less seriously. That is precisely why they are more effective at reaching entertainment-deprived East European audiences.

Neither group has a particular interest in addressing teen audiences. What is really at stake in both kinds of scenarios is not the desires of today's boys but the losses of yesterday's men: teachers and fathers who are struggling with their own coming-of-(middle-)age. Taken as a group, one can read these films as their makers' efforts to reconcile the contradiction between their own absent or inefficient postwar fathers and the inordinate public importance afforded to men and masculinity within Eastern and Central European nations. Their ultimate goal of revisiting masculinity in its protean, adolescent form is to redeem their own past and assert their own continued importance in a radically different present and future. Whether they celebrate the womanizing wisdom of middle-aged clowns or wallow in the self-pity of the national intellectual dethroned by the business entrepreneur, these films are mourning. They are mourning an era not too long ago when manhood was allegedly absolute and unquestionable, rather than a set of performances, and when women were content raising their children alone, and endlessly forgiving instead of threatening to break into politics and business.

This idyll of the past is, to a great extent, a wish-fulfilling projection of a situation that never quite existed. However, it is undeniable that the relatively isolated nationalisms of the socialist era were conducive to maintaining a suffocating masculinist order. It was unproblematic to represent allegorically the supposedly homogeneous social-political field of the nation as a boys' school or other kinds of homosocial playing grounds without even addressing the blatant omission or demonization of women and other marginalized groups. The prospect of rejoining Europe and the eruption of global capitalism into postsocialist nationalisms have brought more visibility and relative empowerment to many women, offering a greater variety of public identities than nationalism made available to them before. Most obviously and dubiously, women have been distinguished by the new commercial media as the primary consumers.8 National media, in turn, have responded to the perceived feminine threat with a regionwide backlash.9 It is hard not to see the string of films about boy communities striving to emulate men of the past as continuous with this defensive media backlash.

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