Obrazy starého a nového sveta

Filmová a televízna fakulta VŠMU ponúka program študentskej mobility Erasmus+ a KAS zabezpečuje pre zahraničných študentov prednášky o dejinách slovenského filmu. Každý semester sa tak v triede (či už naozajstnej alebo virtuálnej - online) stretnú mladí ľudia z rôznych kútov sveta. Najčastejšie z Európy, niekedy i z Ázie. Slovenské filmy, ktoré študentom premietame, tak fungujú nie len ako kultúrne ale aj generačné mosty. Dôkazom je semestrálna esej Josefine Aagaard – študentky z Dánska – o dokumentárnom filme Dušana Hanáka Obrazy starého sveta (1972).


What I learned about modern society and death from the film Pictures of the Old World by Dušan Hanák


A brief introduction to Pictures of the Old World and director Dušan Hanák

Pictures of the Old World is a documentary shot on black and white film from 1972, although not released to the public until 1988 (IMDB). In a montage the film follows separate older people whose daily lives and experiences are uniquely far from today's urban societies. And even far from common life then. It is Slovakian director Dušan Hanák’s first longer documentary and a masterpiece at the time, breaking with classic genre styles and powerful non-political ideologies. Even though it seemingly has not been meant as political or polarized, the poetic visual essay has a lot of value to add to our modern society and its structures.

Contemporary thoughts

Before putting the film into demographic and political context, I want to explain with what contemporary eyes I have watched it. Being a Danish woman in my mid twenties in 2022, I am far away from the lives of the highlanders in former Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. My world simply looks different. I was born and have lived most of my life in Denmark. My parents made enough money to support me and my two siblings, even though we were a handful and the political parties kept underpaying social workers with old reforms from the 60s. However, the 90s was a dream. Scandinavia was on the rise of increasing wealth, and it felt like everything was somewhat affordable, we just did not know that it also meant more class divide. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer. And in the great middle-pool, people became addicted to the new super capitalistic society. The Swedish furniture giant IKEA did slogans like 'This is why we can have nice things' and 'The wonderful everyday is coming' (Be Next Brand webpage). What later was discovered and published by the Economist in 2006 in the article Flat-pack accounting was that the family behind the megabusiness (of course) had gone to extreme lengths not to pay their taxes. So here I am, watching Slovakian director Dušan Hanák’s one hour long documentary Pictures of the Old World from 1972, wondering if we really need all that stuff. When are people really wealthy and is it the “woke” thing to throw away our phones and live a rural life? What is the film trying to tell us half a century after it was made?

Demographic and political context

Hanák’s work underwent the censorship that dictated the film industry during the increase of Stalinism and the rehabilitation of communism up until the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. With the invasion soon came the normalization also known as Husakism (referring to communist party leader Gustav Husák). Although the 1970s saw the rise of anti-communism and political pressure, Czechoslovakia was experiencing Neo Stalinism under the occupation of the USSR. This meant for filmmakers at the time, that they still did not have complete freedom and the beginning of the 70s had no film debutants. The filmmakers of the Slovak New Wave had their films banned and art could not propagate nihilism, existentialism and skepticism. This forced the directors to make films with “no deeper meaning”. The creative communities were still hit hard, but there were ways to get around for the clever.

I was not familiar with Hanák’s work until I moved to Slovakia. Learning about it, I was intrigued to watch his documentary Pictures of the Old World from 1972, because it seemed like his way of getting around the rules in the early 70s. The film was done the same year as the SNP bridge was completed, connecting the city of Bratislava across the Danube, and in the midst of the post-war rebuilding of the capital (The Slovak National Uprising Bridge in Bratislava). The workers had moved to the cities to be part of the industrialization and urbanization as a smaller crowd of people stayed in the countryside. According to the World Data Atlas, the demographic landscape seemed to have left the older generations behind, to escape for the sweeter life in the city. But what was Hanák saying by turning the lens towards, and giving the microphone to the people that stayed? Before trying to answer that question, we need to look at how he chose to portray them.

Unique portraits

Pictures of the Old World opens with a sort of statement about the people that the audience is about to meet. On the black screen words in white, capital letters say:

“These are stories of people, rooted in the soil they came from. They cannot be replanted. They would perish.”

The documentary follows a wide collection of old people living in the highland of Slovakia. Hereafter referred to as the highlanders. They individually get to tell their personal story. Some of them are sweet, most of them harsh, but all of them very sincere.

While I sat in bed, watching the film for the second time, I noticed something. My screen became a mirror between me and one of the highlanders. Holding a tincup - with what seemed like thin, cold soup - the old man struggled to eat, because his hands were too shaky to hold a spoon still. I paused the film and looked down at my ready-in-one-minute noodle soup and my hand holding the spoon. There we were. In each our time, with each our terms, doing the same thing. It felt like a paradox, but at the same time very obvious. Everyone has to eat.

Hanák portrays the highlanders in two main ways: The first one is following a single person and their story. Whether it is the drunk whose wife left him, the woman who works for the church or the man obsessed with the universe, Hanák gives his unique characters time and space to tell their stories. Without a structure of setups and payoffs or bridges from one scene into another, the coherency lies in the stories themselves. Even though the characters and the stories are diverse, Hanák sets the mood as if it was one long story. With inspiration from photographer Martin Martinček, Hanák uses still images to mix with recordings of huge landscapes and small mechanisms.

The second way of portraying is done in interviews. Hanák gives the microphone to the highlanders with deep face lines and missing teeth in the streets, where they can be spontaneous when answering questions, even though it is not easy. He asks them about the meaning of life and what is most important. Most of the people do not even know what a microphone is or how to speak into it. They are uncomfortable, unsure and confused. This way their answers (when they finally give them) feels extremely honest. It is like they do not expect to be questioned about what they think about life as individuals. Therefore they are caught naked. Analyzing on their answers and reactions I cannot help but think two things about the highlanders in the streets. One: they are very disconnected from society and media at the time - and two: they value work and religion equally. I wonder if Hanák edited the answers together so that it gave this impression, if it is random or if I am reading into it. And then I wonder if it matters. Because it is not only about subjects that everybody understands. The film digs way deeper.

One of the highlanders portrayed in the film is an old shepherd. He plays his bagpipe while walking amongst the sheep. His rural life looks beautiful on film. And then he constructs analogies which makes you want to leave your couch and go write poetry in the wild. He says: “Trees are like men, who keep on being born again. Leaves are like children. They fall of and strike roots. That is eternity.” He reflects on society: “Whoever’s got some, wants more. Who’s got nothing, got a grand time.”

In one of the interviews another old man says: “The rich, the poor, the stupid and the wise. Everyone must go ten feet under. What else can we do in the world?” This could be the conclusion of the essay. We are all going to die. We are all the same. But for me, the film is about the last sentence of his statement. What else can we do in the world, but die?


So - are we (modern middle class society) romanticizing the countryside and the good old days? Even though Pictures of the Old World is tough with all its sickness, alcoholism, broken eggs and dead legs, it somewhat romanticizes the ideology which the highlanders without knowing are preaching to me 50 years down the line: Death is important. To die is a relief. Like one of the portrayed old people says: “I will die this year. I can feel it. Life is life.” We can talk about the importance of God or of working, or of children or cats or homemade liquor or of music, singing and dancing. We can lay on beds of hay or in more comfortable ones. We can have good teeth, bad teeth. We can be missing a hand and have a hook instead. We can smoke cigarettes and dream about warm women and our lost ones. We can feed our chicken and then eat them. We can be vegetarian and drive a Tesla. Some of it are choices, others are just how it is. And then it can be politics, social and cultural. Industrial or rural. Modern or old school. We can make the most of it, or we can leave it up to coincidence. For me Hanák endorses death by talking to the highlanders about their lives. And maybe, if we are lucky enough, the decentralization and post-covid popular idea of minimalism will strike back to remind us that life is nothing but what we surround ourselves with, so let it be a phone. Or throw it out. And then let it be health insurance. If anything at all.

Josefine Aagaard, Erasmus+