In 1966, two young filmmakers were able to film their journey across Communist Eastern Europe. Available now on DVD, Red Reflections is a fascinating insight into a period rapidly receding into history.
|The austere, Cold War Moscow of 1966|
This documentary is an enthralling piece of social and political history. If you like the 1960s you’ll love it: the film starts – in black and white, appropriately enough – as a young man, fashionably dressed in a polo neck, says goodbye to a dolly-bird girlfriend. He then hurtles across a London railway station to catch a train to Europe, in an equally fashionable jumble of A Hard Day’s Night-style, excitable hand-held camera work. From there, though, Red Reflections leaves the youthful mischief of '60s English cinema behind to embark on a sobering, enlightening and quite possibly unique journey into the heart of Communist Europe.
|The popular image of the Soviet bloc|
Young filmmakers Eric Mival and Richard Owen film on the streets and in the countryside of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Russia in an accomplished verite style. It was a time when the closest most Western young people, and Westerners generally, got to Communism was through the villains in the spy fiction of Danger Man or The IPCRESS File, among many others TV series and films of the period. As the 1960s was the height of the Cold War spy craze, it’s an appropriate period touch that Mival secured Patrick McGoohan, best known at the time as the secret agent John Drake in Danger Man, to provide the voiceover for a quote about Western tourists being kept under surveillance, for possible recruitment as Communist agents. In terms of status, it’s like getting Daniel Craig to do it today.
Owen is a gifted writer, and his narration (synced audio being too expensive, apart from a couple of scenes) is perceptive, lyrical and forthright. The East Germany the filmmakers’ party of young English, American, Indian and Africans travellers find, that Owen memorably calls ‘a polemical world of deep blacks and harsh whites’, is easily recognisable as the frontline in Cold War fiction and fact. It’s the perspective of the ordinary people living there – which hardly ever, or perhaps never, features in spy stories – which makes you stop and think and reconsider what you’d previously thought about the political situation. One resident tells Owen that the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’, which included the Berlin Wall, was constructed to deter an attack from West Germany in 1961; the automatic reaction is to dismiss this as propaganda, but who knows? In that environment of plot and counter-plot, nothing was ever certain.
|The spires of the East|
Decades of preconceptions about the Communist bloc tumble further when Owen and company reach the countryside and rural towns, finding a ‘pride in the past… far removed from the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four and “Workers of the World Unite”’. In particular, in Czechoslovakia’s Prague – one of Europe’s oldest cities – Owen reflects on the ‘peaceful sanity’ where ‘Communism lies like a surface skin on this city. It is history which dominates.’ Of all his observations, with hindsight this is the most ironic, as two years after Red Reflections was completed, the Russians ruthlessly suppressed the liberal ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968. 24 months before the uprising, Owen could clearly tell there was something in the air.
With a noticeable absence of consumer goods like cars and televisions, young (and not so young) Eastern Europeans devote their spare time to music, either classical or folk, played in concert halls, restaurants, or, in one charming instance, as an audience dutifully assemble outside a young piano player’s house to hear him give a recital from his living room. The citizens’ dedication to making their own entertainment is moving and somehow inspiring. You can’t help feeling this attitude is culturally and socially more enriching than being in thrall to white goods and TVs.
Arriving in Moscow, Owen wryly notes the propaganda posters in Red Square ‘not advertising Omo or Daz [washing powder].’ This shift in perspective signifies the film as a balanced view of life behind the Iron Curtain: as well as all they’d found in the Eastern bloc that was positive, notably the Economics and Space Achievements Exhibition, Owen and Mival highlight the downside, challenging Russian students that their country is ‘a dictatorship’ and the ‘bureaucracy gone wild’ that blights everyday life. Perceptively, the filmmakers conclude that in the Iron Curtain countries it’s the ‘red tape’ that strangles freedom rather than military oppression. In a telling image, border guards carry a tray round their necks with an intimidating variety of official rubber stamps, while in Moscow, shoppers have to queue for a ticket to buy something, then queue to exchange it for the item they’ve chosen.
Rediscovered documentary gems like this should be cherished, as they challenge the preconceptions offered by the broad brush strokes of ‘official’ history. Red Reflections is well worth your time.
Copies of the DVD are available from www.theunmutual.co.uk/villageshop.htm. If emailing the site to order, please mention my blog to receive a £4 discount.