When the end of a war leaves an Iron Curtain and a totalitarian communist government in its wake, what is a filmmaker to do? The answer, based on what Eastern European film history seems to tells us, is to create satirical comedies that use bizarre scenarios, zany humor, and anything else available to get dissenting messages across without being shut down by film censors (and possibly imprisoned by the government). Here’s a list of 15 movies you may not have heard of — 14 of which survived the fall of the Berlin Wall — that have all achieved cult status in their European country of origin.
The Diamond Arm (Russian: Бриллиантовая рука), dir. Leonid Gaidai (1968)
Arguably one of the finest comedies of its time, The Diamond Arm follows “ordinary Soviet citizen” Semyon Gorbunkov (played by the legendary Yuri Nikulin) as he becomes the center of a diamond heist mix-up after two inept henchmen, Kozodoyev and Lyolik, mistake him for their courier on a cruise ship. Gorbunkov gets forced into an orthopedic cast with the contraband diamonds inside, and when the ship returns to the Soviet Union, he reveals what happened to the militsiya. Hilarity ensues as the militsiya captain goes undercover as a taxi driver and tries to use Gorbunkov as bait to catch the criminals. Meanwhile, Gorbunkov starts to see trouble at home when his wife suspects that he’s either having an affair… or he’s been recruited as a foreign spy. Since its 1968 debut, The Diamond Arm has since passed innumerable phrases like “Idiot is forever” and “I’m not a coward… But I’m scared…” into mainstream Russian culture.
The Cruise (Polish: Rejs), dir. Marek Piwowski (1970)
One of the earliest films to be considered a cult classic of Polish cinema, the seminal Rejs was shot as a quasi-documentary and parodies life in the communist People’s Republic of Poland. It starts when a nameless Stowaway (played by Stanisław Tym) sneaks onto a cruise ship that is heading down the Vistula River. The captain mistakes him for a Communist Party “cultural coordinator,” and the weekend trip becomes a parody of the absurdity of life under the communist system, as the Stowaway is able to manipulate the passengers and crew into participating in senseless games, whereby he then establishes his own comedic dictatorship. Memorable quotes include, “Great, but what voting system can be used to select the method of voting?” and many others.
She Grazed Horses on Concrete (Slovak: Pásla kone na betóne), dir. Štefan Uher (1982)
One of the biggest successes of Slovak cinema, She Grazed Horses on Concrete uses comedy and irony to explore abortion, sexual freedom, miscarriage, and women’s autonomy in society. The plot centers around a woman named Johanka (Milka Zimková), who has a quick romance with a well-digger (Peter Vonš), the fruit of which is a daughter named Paulina. Eighteen years later, Johanka is still single, but has become a well-respected worker at the local co-op farm. Paulina is of an age to be married, but instead loses her virginity to a soldier and gets pregnant. She Grazed Horses on Concrete was the first film to use the regional variety of the Slovak language.
The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Russian: Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom!), dir. Eldar Ryazanov (1976)
One of the most successful Soviet television productions ever (it is still broadcast every New Year’s Eve in Russia), The Irony of Fate is both a screwball romantic comedy and a commentary on the soulless uniformity of the Brezhnev-era urban architecture. The film opens with an animation in which an architect goes to get his ornate building plans approved by faceless politicians. Before long, the architect’s original plans are destroyed and he’s forced to build bland, identical structures. The movie then centers around Muskovite Zhenya Lukashin (played by Andrei Myagkov), who, due to some drunken mishaps, ends up in Leningrad, but doesn’t realize he’s in a new city because the architecture looks exactly the same as everything in Moscow — down to “his” street name, building, and even “his” apartment. When the real tenant returns, love (slowly) blossoms.
Teddy Bear (Polish: Miś), dir. Stanisław Bareja (1981)
A cult classic film that influenced Polish culture and language (and continues to be quoted today), Teddy Bear used surreal humor to shed light on the absurdity of living under the Communist regime. It centers around a state-sponsored sports club manager named Rysiek (played by Stanisław Tym), who is racing his ex-wife, Irena, to London to be the first to withdraw an enormous sum of money from their joint savings account. Neither wants to share the money with the other, and both have to find a way to get out of the country at a time when the borders are tightly controlled. When Rysiek finds out that his wife invalidated his passport by tearing out some pages, he crafts a scheme with his friend that takes him into the black market and on a hilarious journey through the government’s corruption, bureaucracy, bribery, and general nonsense.
The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Czech: Tajemství hradu v Karpatech), dir. Oldřich Lipský (1981)
A Czechoslovak comedy based on based on Jules Verne’s novel The Carpathian Castle, the film is set in 1897 in the castle town called Werewolfville in the Carpathians. Filled with surreal images, deadpan humor, and retro-scifi gadgets — belonging to a mad scientist — the clever and unpredictable movie also features a damsel with a curious affliction, a superhero whose power is his opera voice, and a villain who is obsessed with beards.
Gentlemen of Fortune (Russian: Dzhentlmeny udachi), dir. Aleksandr Seryj (1971)
Directed by Aleksandr Seryj shortly after his release from prison, Gentlemen of Fortune follows the well-educated Troshkin (played by Yevgeni Leonov), who somehow — with his short, round stature and broad face — looks exactly like a hardened criminal who gets arrested with his gang for stealing Alexander the Great’s helmet at an archaeological excavation. Because the criminal is being held in a different prison from his friends, the police enlist Troshkin to help them. Troshkin gets sent undercover into the prison, and shenanigans ensue when he tries to imitate the prisoners’ behavior and slang.
Men Don’t Cry(Estonian: Mehed ei nuta),dir. Sulev Nõmmik (1969)
One of the most culturally influential movies of the Soviet occupation era in Estonia, Men Don’t Cry is about a group of people who suffer from perpetual insomnia (among other issues). They think they’re being taken to a sanitarium for treatment (“Sanitarium… Sanatarium is vacation, bar, women, music! I am a totally healthy man and I want to have all that!”), but in fact end up on an island built for “work therapy.” The men realize that they’ve been kidnapped and decide to hatch an escape.
Sexmission (Polish: Seksmisja), dir. Juliusz Machulski (1984)
Cult comedy sci-fi action film Sexmission cemented its place in Polish culture almost immediately upon its release in 1984. The film takes place slightly in “the future” — 1991 at the time — when its two male protagonists, Max and Albert (played by Jerzy Stuhr and Olgierd Łukaszewicz, respectively) volunteer to be the first human participants in a hibernation experiment. They wake up in 2044, in a post-nuclear world where all the men have died out because of the radiation, and all the women live underground, ruled by an oppressive all-female regime, and reproduce through parthenogenesis. The men have a choice: death or sex-change surgery. The movie uses satire and zany humor to draw parallels to living under totalitarian communist rule.
Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures (Russian: Operatsiya „Y“ i drugie priklyucheniya Shurika), dir. Leonid Gaidai (1965)
A three-part slapstick comedy, Operation Y follows the adventures and mishaps of awkward, naive, and honest student Shurik (played by Aleksandr Demyanenko) as he tries to help a pregnant woman on a bus; takes his exams at the university; and later defends a warehouse from petty criminals in a battle involving impromptu weapons (like musical instruments). Today, Shurik is recognized as one of the most popular characters of Soviet-era cinema.
Hello, I’m Your Aunt! (Russian: Zdravstvuyte, ya vasha tyotya!), dir. Viktor Titov (1975)
An immense hit as soon as it was released, Hello, I’m Your Aunt starts with unemployed and homeless Babbs (played by Alexander Kalyagin) being chased by the police. Through a series of plot twists, Babbs ends up cross-dressing as a wealthy woman from Brazil — Donna Rossa — in order to help a rich couple with their scheme to seduce a judge. In the end (spoiler alert), the real Donna Rossa shows up and runs into Babbs, but decides to let him keep running his ruse for a while so she can learn about her extended family. Meanwhile, Babbs falls in love… The film’s title eventually became a Russian figure of speech, akin to the English phrase, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”
Kingsize (Polish: Kingsajz), dir. Juliusz Machulski (1987)
Released towards the end of the Soviet era, Kingsajz was enthusiastically received by the anti-communist Polish society at the time and quickly became a classic. The film is set in a world of two kingdoms: the first, Szuflandia (“Drawerland”), is hidden deep underground and is home only to tiny people; the second, Kingsajz (“Kingsize”), is above ground, and — you guessed it — built for big people. The plot follows two friends from Szuflandia, Olo and Adaś, as they discover secrets about both worlds, and go on a journey to save themselves that counter-intuitively involves torture, kidnappings, potions, and telepathy. The movie was an allegory about the ruling communist regime.
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Russian: Moskva slezam ne verit), dir. Vladimir Menshov (1979)
While it should not be an unknown film to Americans — it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1980 — Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears might not ring a bell to viewers under 35. At the same time, it remains a Russian classic. The film is set in Moscow in 1958 and 1979, and follows three young women (Katerina, Lyudmila, and Antonina) who come to the big city as students from smaller towns. They eventually become friends, and the plot follows their lives as they find lovers, get married, find jobs, or have children.
Allegedly, President Ronald Reagan watched the film several times prior to his meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, in order to gain a better understanding of the “Russian soul.”
Here we are! (Estonian: Siin me oleme!),dir.Sulev Nõmmik(1979)
A classic musical comedy from the Soviet era, Here we are! quickly won the hearts of Estonian film audiences. The movie starts on a warm summer day when a car pulls into a farm on Muhu Island. The family that emerges announces that they want to spend their vacation at the farm. The vacation, of course, hits some rough patches almost immediately. Even decades later, their declaration, “We’re from Tallinn, we’ll pay!,” remains a catchphrase.
Kiler (English: The Hitman),dir. by Juliusz Machulski (1997)
The only movie on this list that was released after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kiler is a parody of action and mafia movies. It tells the story of a taxi driver named Jerzy “Jurek” Kiler (played by Cezary Pazura), who is accidentally mistaken for a notorious hitman by the police and imprisoned. But the local mafia quickly get Jurek out of jail — also mistaking him for the notorious hitman — because they need a few “jobs” done. The movie did so well at the box office that there were rumors of an American adaptation in the works, starring Jim Carrey (which turned out, as you may have guessed, not to be true).