Pan-European Partisan Film

In the aftermath of World War II, several (especially newly formed) European states started reconstructing and reimagining their identities and recent histories through a vast production of films that celebrated and commemorated their guerrilla struggles against fascism. These films ranged in scope and ambition from intimate psychological dramas to overblown military spectacles, from elegiac remembrances to pure pulp fiction. Particularly in former socialist federations of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, they performed a significant role identical to the one the American western played in constructing and whitewashing United States of America’s sense of history. Similar to westerns in Hollywood, partisan films were for a long time the major defining genre of socialist film industry. Much like westerns, partisan films were proclaimed dead a long time ago: both genres were swept aside by contemporary approaches to historiography, which – at least seemingly – evolve our sense of history through deconstructing ideological simplifications of the past. Both genres produced and reinforced myths about the formation of a community, and both performed their ideological operations on the backdrop of a concrete “landscape in turmoil” that needs to be either “civilized” (the western) or liberated (partisan films). Moreover, in the late 60ies and early 70ies, both genres reinvented themselves and underwent a political revision that ended the “classical period”, steering the western away from its racist, genocidal roots and slightly more towards liberalism, and complicating the partisan narrative by pointing out that not everything was so simple under the overbearing blood-red ideological umbrella.

There is no – and there can’t be any – single all-encompassing definition of partisan film as a genre, much like the actual armed resistance against fascism took many different shapes in various locations and under various regimes of occupation and levels of oppression. It is also apparent that contrary to popular belief Eastern Europe was not the sole producer of partisan films, albeit it remains by far the most prolific. Italy and France produced some of the finest examples of partisan cinema (some of which we have been considering as neo-realist masterpieces alone), and even though the armed populace did not call themselves “partisans”, countries like Denmark or Norway celebrated the same stories of armed grassroots resistance.

Hence, these films are also part of our retrospective: not only in the spirit of solidarity that these films advocate for, but to make evident the international dimension of this cinematic production. Can we consider the partisan film phenomenon as the first genuine example of modern (as in post-war) pan-European cinema: a set of narrative tropes, themes and devices linked by a shared historical experience and aimed at what should become, decades later, a unified market for values, beliefs and entertainment product?

And a popular product the partisan film was indeed. Yet despite being hugely successful in their domestic markets and very often cinematically accomplished, many examples of the partisan films never traveled abroad, and most film prints today remain locked up and in dire need of preservation in various national film archives.

Eighty years after the commencement of the war that spawned the genre of partisan cinema, we find ourselves sliding towards stupefaction and revisionism of basic civilizational values we have been taking for granted in the decades following World War 2 and the victory over fascism. Ideas of isolationism, nationalism and populism have invaded the public and (social) media discourse across the European Union, and chauvinistic discourses previously considered extremist are slowly but steadily inching their way towards widespread legitimacy. Time is therefore ripe to (re)discover the rich cinematic legacy of the partisan film, in all its diversity, and in rare archival prints. In this, we celebrate these films as artworks and as historical records of an era where, across the divisions and the barbed wire separating the continent, one could still call a spade a spade, and a fascist by their name.  (Michael Loebenstein, Jurij Meden

October 25 – December 4, 2019
The Austrian Film Museum, Augustinerstraße 1, 1010 Vienna
Phone: 0043 (0)1 533 70 54 •