The mise-en-scène of the Cold War

The Long, Cold War

After last year’s look at the mise-en-scène of World War II, we present a logical continuation with the mise-en-scène (or often the lack of it) of the Cold War, featuring harsh realities and immense absurdities, both in fiction and documentary, from all the camps involved and from a range of countries: the Soviet Union, Hungary, Spain, Italy, and of course the United States, with many rare films, including the long-awaited chance to see Leo McCarey’s legendary My Son John. Critic Robert Warshow wrote a few lines about that film in 1952 which should be repeated here in the way of general introduction: “The hidden logic seems to be: since we cannot understand Communism, it is likely that anything we cannot understand is Communism.” In film as well as in life, our two main exponents are of course the two main antagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries produced a highly interesting output of films, often miserable in quality but always providing an amazing mirror of those troubled times. An eerie feeling of similarity emerges from the collage of films like The Iron Curtain and I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. on the Hollywood side, and Meeting at the Elbe or Conspiracy of the Doomed from the East. Although still awaiting – but hopefully not forever – the opportunity to screen the remarkable film Ingmar Bergman directed in 1950, This Can’t Happen Here, we nevertheless have good compensations from “third countries”: from Hungary, State Department Store, a musical comedy combining images of consumer paradise and class struggle; and from Spain, El canto del gallo, a remarkable and gloomy film which proves that a Cold War film doesn’t have to be a careless B-film of the Hollywood type.

Even in Italy, where the Cold War had no great influence, there were remarkable examples, like Zampa’s Cuori senza frontiere, shot in the zone of Trieste. But most important of all, we dedicate an homage to Marcello Baldi.

The American film Armoured Attack is a crazy demonstration of the modus operandi of those times: a recut version from 1957 of Lewis Milestone’s 1943 film The North Star, which transformed a pro-Soviet wartime hack job into an anti-Communist vision and an even lesser film.

A related theme will be films about the Marshall Plan (which inspired the joyful Spanish film ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! by Luis García Berlanga), a period especially well documented in the propaganda films destined for Italy; and, to complement this, examples of French Communist Party propaganda. All this of course offers a fine contextual introduction to the experience of Chaplin’s A King in New York.

Peter von Bagh