NEW BOOKS: European Civil War Films: Memory, Conflict and Nostalgia by Eleftheria Rania Kosmidou
Eleftheria Rania Kosmidou’s book European Civil War Films: Memory, Conflict and Nostalgia is a monograph on the study of the neglected subject of European civil war films that attempts to displace frameworks for the understanding of historical trauma and its role in cultural memory from a preoccupation with World War II and the Holocaust to the subject matter of Civil War.
The book examines the problematic of cinematic postmemory through a series of comparative case studies of late twentieth-century European films about the civil wars in Spain, Ireland, Former Yugoslavia, and Greece. Through a close study of Fernando Trueba’s Belle Époque (1992), José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly’s Tongue (1999), Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996), Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001), and Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players (1975), Kosmidou explores how these films break with historical taboos of representation, what type of historical allegorizations they advance and what kind of cultural memory they create. According to the writer, the films make use of various stylistic and representational elements and succeed in making decisive contributions to cultural memory. Film narratives often take a romanticised and melodramatic approach to the Spanish Civil War, the Irish Civil War is pictured through personal and family relations, satire and comedy are prominent modes of representation in the films about the Former Yugoslavian Civil War, while Theo Angelopoulos’s Brechtian treatment of the Greek Civil War invites critical distance from the audience.
The book has a six-part structure and each chapter is prefaced by a historical background overview, since all the films under discussion implicitly or explicitly engage with questions of historical agency. Kosmidou’s analysis of the films is both thematic and stylistic, while her methodology is interdisciplinary and draws not only from film studies, but also from cultural studies, cultural history, literary studies, philosophy, cultural memory, and feminist studies.
The Introduction (Chapter 1) provides an overview of the various scientific ways in which memory has been examined over the years (psychological, psychiatric and neurological), pointing to the fact that memory is not only a major field of scientific inquiry but also of the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Moreover Kosmidou argues that existing studies on cultural memory engage primarily with World War II and the Holocaust at the expense of other historical traumas. Yet, civil wars are an integral part of the collective cultural memory within the countries where they occurred; they are different wars and the violence produced in them is of a different form, and thus they require a new model of investigation.
Chapter 2 gives a comprehensive background of the book’s analytical framework and explores various theoretical approaches to the notion of memory such as Maurice Halbwachs’s collective memory and Jan Assmann’s cultural memory, as well as recent contributions to this debate, including among others Hobsbawm and Rangers’s concept of invented traditions and Fuchs and Cosgrove’s term of memory contests, before introducing the concept of postmemory. After these methodological reflections, the writer discusses the principal issues that guide her analysis such as nostalgia, allegory and emplotment, melodrama, the carnivalesque and the gaze.
Chapter 3 analyses Fernando Trueba’s Belle Époque (1992), José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly’s Tongue (1999), and Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995), three films about the Spanish Civil War, which, as Kosmidou demonstrates, are permeated with nostalgia for the past they represent. The films evoke an idealized image of the past that disguises the reality of the civil war in Spain, producing a nostalgic discourse of loss and longing without, however, being didactic. The films also articulate concerns that were contemporary to the time of their production, especially a loss of ideology and a utopian political horizon in the aftermath of 1989. In addition, melodrama, nostalgia, and the carnivalesque emerge as powerful modes of representing the Spanish civil war.
In Chapter 4 the focus shifts towards two films about the Irish Civil War, Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1996) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006), that provoked much controversy before and after their release in Ireland and the UK. The writer argues that both films use the civil war as a key historical moment to comment on the northern ‘troubles’ and they are cinematic examples of historical, hence political, narratives within a contested Irish historiography. Apart from their explicit subject matter, both films are allegories of the present, namely of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Ireland and of the Northern Peace Process. Furthermore, Michael Collins depicts a heroic past, whereas Loach problematizes the past and points to a history that might have happened but did not.
Chapter 5 is concerned with the Former Yugoslavian Civil War and the films Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995) and No Man's Land (Danis Tanović, 2001). The writer maintains that both films are postmemorial representations and they are pervaded with Boym’s reflective nostalgia for the past they represent, while inviting historical allegorizations. Kusturica uses the emplotment of comedy, as well as the carnivalesque to allegorically comment on the present and at the same time to criticize Yugoslavia and the Tito years. On the other hand, Tanović uses satire to criticize the contemporary view of the past and to point to the need to question that past. He also criticizes the UN involvement and the role of the media in the conflict.
Chapter 6 discusses the Greek Civil War and The Travelling Players (Theo Angelopoulos, 1975). Through a close analysis of the film’s uses of Brechtian techniques and intertextuality, this chapter argues that Angelopoulos’s cinematic statement is a different one. In The Travelling Players viewers take sides as a product of their own reflections and meditations, in contrast to Loach’s and Jordan’s films where the reality is ready-made. As the writer argues, the film creates a left-wing cultural memory of the civil war, while the audience becomes a collective witness. However, in contrast to Brechtian epic theatre and despite the filmmaker’s left-wing ideology, the film is an example of left-wing melancholy. Angelopoulos represents history in terms of a tragic narrative, and his stylistic choices advance his disillusionment with history and the Left. Hence, despite his use of Brechtian techniques, the film is not Brechtian as it is widely believed. The filmmaker’s aesthetics do not suggest a progressive and teleological Brechtian version of history, but rather, the filmmaker’s use of dramatic intertextuality (tragedy and melodrama) points to a pessimistic and circular view of history.
In her Conclusion, Kosmidou summarizes each chapter of her book and she concludes that, with the exception of The Travelling Players, nostalgia, paradoxically, is a prominent register in the films examined. The writer states that in terms of politics all the films adopt a centrist to left-wing political perspective. Furthermore, the films are all allegories of the present – when the films were produced – and their metatextual message is informed by a present-day perspective that reflects the filmmakers’ view of history and their concern for the loss of ideology and a utopian political horizon.