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Europe's rising nationalism is putting pressure on film directors and the stories they tell

Europe's rising nationalism is putting pressure on film directors and the stories they tell
Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski shows off his director prize for the film "Zimna Wojna (Cold War)" at the 71st Cannes Film Festival in France on May 19. (Loic Venance / AFP/Getty Images)

European cinema is reflecting a continent shaken by immigration, terrorism, identity and faith. But it comes at a time when nationalism and alt-right movements are challenging the artistic freedoms of filmmakers nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of liberal democracy.

Existential threats and unsettled ghosts have shaped Europe for centuries, but newly emboldened populist leaders, some of whom echo the blunt nativism of President Trump, have ignited cultural wars aimed at anything that disrupts their self-serving narratives. The idiosyncratic filmmaking tradition that inspired Italian neorealism and the French New Wave is under pressure as histories are re-invented and old heroes discarded.

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Fears among directors, writers and artists are likely to deepen when President Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. The summit arrives as Trump has damaged relations with European allies while praising Putin, whose authoritarian government in recent years has arrested a prominent Moscow theater director, jailed members of the protest band Pussy Riot and been accused of killing journalists. There are warnings that repressive tactics may spread.

“There is now a blacklist of books, theater directors and filmmakers,” Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose “Ida” won an Academy Award for foreign language film in 2015, told the press in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where he won the director award for “ Zimna Wojna (Cold War).” “I have the honor to be on this list. With the new [Polish] government, which has taken control of public television, it is just like under communism.”

Polish authorities have denied a blacklist, but “Ida,” the story of a Jewish orphan raised by Catholic nuns after her parents were killed in World War II, touches on the sensitive question of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. The nationalist government, controlled by Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, amended a bill last month, making it essentially a civil violation to accuse Poland of having had a role in those horrors. It was part of a broader effort by the establishment to whitewash any hint of transgression and celebrate Polish identity.

“They are obsessed with rewriting history,” said Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director and Academy Award nominee. “They want to change the history into this heroic, nationalistic legend where all Poles are wonderful and all others are guilty of everything.” She added that the government explored the “quite naïve idea” of producing an epic film on Polish history — spoken in English — that would be distributed by Hollywood.

Political harassment against filmmakers is felt across Europe, notably in Russia and former East Bloc countries. Human Rights Watch reported last year that a filmmaker was threatened at a Moscow film festival by Russian ultra-nationalists over her documentary about war in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, right-wing politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky condemned “Leviathan,” a movie by Andrey Zvyagintsev about Russian corruption, from the floor of the nation’s legislative assembly.

Aleksey Serebryakov in a scene from the film "Leviathan."
Aleksey Serebryakov in a scene from the film "Leviathan." (Anna Matveeva / Sony Pictures Classics)

It is an era when art is colliding with hardliners and deciphering a world increasingly insecure over political, economic and technological upheaval. A resurgence of nationalist and populist European leaders, including Kaczynski, Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have played on folklore and tugged their nations to the right. Similarly, ultra-conservative parties in countries such as Germany, Austria and Italy have won more power in government by capitalizing on fears over immigration, crime and terrorism. Headlines evoke “dark clouds” and flashbacks to the 1930s.

Filmmakers have responded with satire, irony, tragedy, comedy and drama. In his film “In the Fade,” which won the Golden Globe this year for foreign language movie, Fatih Akin, a Turkish-German director, highlighted neo-Nazi terrorism. The story of the grief and rage of a German mother whose son and Kurdish-born husband are killed in a bombing by right-wing extremists is a cautionary tale for a country where the alt-right won 13% of Parliament in a backlash against the government allowing in 1 million refugees.

“Neo-Nazi attacks in Germany have happened all my life,” said Akin, who was born in Hamburg. “They started in the 1980s with skinheads. It always seemed like a personal attack on me, so I needed a catharsis. That’s why I did my film. But somehow this project of mine became relevant all over the world, including the U.S.

“The need for catharsis seemed to be everywhere. What happened with neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., is not just a coincidence. This is a globalized world we’re living in. What happens in the U.S. is connected to what’s happening in Germany.”

Fatih Akin works directs a scene during production of "In the Fade."
Fatih Akin works directs a scene during production of "In the Fade." (Gordon Photographie / Magnolia Pictures)

Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is a bleak love story set from the late 1940s through the 1960s, when Poland was in the grip of Soviet oppression. It was a time of lies and delusion, when the authoritarian state peddled myths, quieted dissent and demanded fealty. Despite today’s nationalist leanings, Poland and other former Soviet bloc nations have free presses and open political campaigns. But “Cold War” is a reminder of how such things — the Polish leadership has tightened its hold on state media and this month purged the Supreme Court — can erode and slip away when demagogues come to power.

Czech director Vit Klusák’s film “The White World According to Daliborek” documents the life of a skinhead with an affinity for Nazi flags, black boots and slogans like “Welcome to my hell.” He drinks a lot of beer and muses: “I know I should make kids for the sake of the race.” He lives with his mom, lifts weights and has a spray-painting job; he seems, despite his racism and gun shooting, more a hapless soul than a threat. But perhaps that is a wink by Klusák not to underestimate voices on the fringes.

The right-wing movements that have jolted Europe — and the continent’s at times uneasy balance between human rights and fear of the other — have cast immigrant stories through different prisms. In “Layla M.,” by Dutch director Mijke de Jong, years of discrimination lead to the radicalization of a young Muslim woman in Amsterdam. Chadian director Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s “A Season in France” is a tale of an African refugee — a father with two children — stripped of dignity as he makes a new life in a country where for years the National Front, which recently rebranded itself, has been one of the continent’s most xenophobic.

“The Citizen,” a new Hungarian film by Roland Vranik, follows the self-inflicted and imposed disappointments of a Nigerian immigrant applying for citizenship. The migrant, Wilson Ugabe (Cake-Baly Marcelo) falls in love with a Hungarian woman and takes in a pregnant Iranian refugee. “May fortune’s hand bless you or beat you,” he says of his ordeal, “here you must live and die.”

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The repercussions in 2004 over a Dutch film critical of Islam underscored how immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries, were influencing Europe’s culture, politics and film industry. Director Theo van Gogh was stabbed and shot to death by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent who considered his film “Submission,” which criticized Islam’s treatment of woman, an affront. The killing emboldened filmmakers and artists across the continent not to be intimidated by Islamic extremism, but it was also exploited by right-wing populist parties to stir anti-immigrant agendas.

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Provocative films coming out of eastern and central Europe, however, have been more concerned with life after communism, similar to the Italian neorealism movement that arose after World War II and glimpsed a working class caught amid political and economic turmoil. Romanian directors Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu have made a series of movies in recent years about the disillusionment, uncertainty and moral equivocations brought by capitalism and democracy.

Scene from the 2011 movie "In Darkness." Agnieszka Holland (director).
Scene from the 2011 movie "In Darkness." Agnieszka Holland (director). (Krzysztof Opalinski / Sony Pictures Classics)

But increasingly, governments like the ones in Poland and Hungary want to control the message. Hundreds of European directors condemned last year’s move by Culture Minister Piotr Glinski to fire Magdalena Sroka as head of the Polish Film Institute. Filmmakers claimed it was an attempt by the government to purge an independently financed institution. German director Wim Wenders, head of the European Film Academy, wrote in an open letter saying the firing “shows how shortsighted governments are when trying to subjugate culture and art to their own political interests.”

The government claims Sroka violated her “professional responsibilities” and “jeopardized the image of Poland” when the institute sent a letter to the Motion Picture Assn. of America requesting Oscar footage to promote Polish filmmakers. An investigation by the institute found that the letter had been sent by an underling without Sroka’s knowledge. Filmmakers said it was an attempt by authorities to intimidate the arts.

“The minister of culture said there is no blacklist, but of course there is. We know it,” said Holland, who has also directed episodes for HBO’s “Treme” and Netflix’s “House of Cards.” “But they want to prove they are liberal and not doing censorship. It is pretty messy. It all depends on how long they will be in power and how strong the solidarity of the film community will be. The government is trying to change things slice by slice.”

Holland recently finished shooting a historical drama that has resonance in today’s “post-truth” times. It follows Gareth Jones, a British journalist, who in the 1930s reported on the ascent of Germany’s Nazi Party and traveled to the Soviet Union to document mass starvation caused by Joseph Stalin’s farm collectivization. His reporting was denied by the Soviet Union and its propagandists, and it was discredited by New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty.

Jones was right. Millions of people died.

The film is about “the courage of the journalist,” said Holland. “But it is also about fake news and the alternate realities in the world.”

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