1980-1989: Poland Leads Eastern Europe Into the Abyss

The Path of Most Resistance

During the season of its first flower­ing, at the outset of this decade, Halina Bortnowska, one of the foremost theorists of Polish Soli­darity, characterized the move­ment as an expression of the country’s “subjectivity,” by which, she went on to explain, she meant Poland’s renewed ca­pacity for acting “as the subject instead of the object of its history.” The distinc­tion was a fertile one — and perhaps most evocative at a purely grammatical level. Almost continuously for the past two centuries, and certainly throughout the last two generations, Poland, tragically wedged as it was between the German and Russian dynamos, had been forced to receive the actions of other people’s sen­tences, hardly ever being allowed to initi­ate any of her own. Things were done to her, not by her. If, starting in 1980, Po­land recovered her subjectivity, it was precisely through the projections of soli­darity — through the astonishing transfor­mation made possible when 10 million atomized objects began surging as one, demanding as such to be taken into ac­count, indeed to be the ones doing the accounting.

That grammatical formulation in turn helps to clarify what General Jaruzelski and his colleagues were up to with their imposition of martial law, back in De­cember 1981 — they were trying to turn all those pesky renascent subjects back into good little objects once again, just so many passive bricks ready for slotting back into The Wall. The drama of much of Polish history during the rest of the decade came to reside in the contest be­tween those two opposed ambitions: the regime’s relentless repression and civil society’s stubborn resistance. To varying degrees, speeded-up versions of this same drama have been taking place all over Eastern Europe the past few months. If I choose to focus on Poland in these re­marks, it is in part because I know Po­land best, and in part because Poland is out in front, leading the other countries, encountering the difficult and perplexing ironies of victory first. And, indeed, it is one of the most perplexing ironies of Pol­ish society’s recent triumph that that vic­tory may now be opening onto a new atomization, a new objectification.

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WHILE SOLIDARITY, in its first flower, was a decidedly egalitarian phenome­non — its very name tapped into a centu­ry-old reservoir of socialist rhetoric, re­claiming it as its own, demanding in fact that it be made real — the Solidarity that emerged from the half decade of repres­sion is much less selfless, much less com­munitarian, much more individualistic, much more in thrall to the romance of the free market.

In part this transformation is one of desperation — the economic situation, al­ready dire at the outset of this decade, has been rendered all the more calami­tous by the hapless paralysis of the last several years. The zloty is plummeting in value, the country sits poised on the verge of a terrifying hyperinflation. Something drastic clearly has to be done, and classic communistic central planning, as it has been practiced everywhere in Eastern Europe over the past 40 years, has proved itself utterly incapable of fac­ing the challenge; it has caused the chal­lenge; the old model is obviously bank­rupt. Meanwhile, Solidarity’s onetime socialist theoreticians no longer feel they can afford to experiment with such un­proven approaches as worker self-man­agement or decentralized community control. Over and over again, they’ve tak­en to explaining how they feel they have to go with the one system that’s been tested and proven, and that’s the wide-­open free market.

As a result, ironically, Solidarity’s lead­ers are about to launch the country into perhaps the most harrowing macroeco­nomic experiment ever attempted by anyone — a virtually immediate, wholesale shock transition from a centrally planned economy to a vigorously open market. Even the optimists are anticipating at least momentary dislocations for upward of 30 per cent of the country’s workforce, as inefficient, once heavily subsidized in­dustrial behemoths are forced to shut down: the optimists insist that most of those suddenly unemployed will quickly find other, more sensible and more pro­ductive, work. The pessimists aren’t so sure: they anticipate an explosion of worker unrest, the sort of thing they’re seeing over in Bolivia these days.

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THE CRASH PLAN Solidarity will be at­tempting to force through in the weeks ahead is a variation on one first proposed this past summer by Jeffrey Sachs, a bril­liant young Harvard economist who first introduced himself to Solidarity’s parlia­mentarians as, among other things, the man who a few years ago helped bring an end to Bolivia’s horrendous hyperinfla­tion, virtually overnight, through the ap­plication of a similar sort of radical ac­tion plan — combining sudden cutbacks in government subsidies, a balanced budget, stabilization of the currency, privatiza­tion of government-owned monopolies (and, incidentally, suspension of payment on the foreign debt, a twist that has hard­ly endeared Sachs to Western bankers).

A few weeks ago, the Bolivian govern­ment, responding to the growing labor unrest that plan has in the meantime engendered, ended up having to declare a state of siege, and incarcerated over 3000 labor leaders. I called Sachs to ask him what happened. He reminded me that even when he’d first proposed his Boliv­ian plan, he’d told the Bolivians that they lived in an appallingly poor, atrociously unlucky country, one which was further afflicted by hyperinflation, and that all he could promise them was that after they’d instituted his plan, they’d live in an appallingly poor, atrociously unlucky coun­try, one no longer afflicted by hyperinfla­tion. If anything, he went on, their luck had proved even more appalling during the last few years than ever before.

But Poland was different, Sachs as­sured me, Poland had possibilities — if only it could move quickly to stabilize its economy, as difficult as that process might initially be. And how, I asked him, did things seem to be going over there in that regard? “Well,” he said, “they’re inching their way closer and closer to the edge of the diving board, and their knees are trembling.”

The question that comes to mind, of course, is: Is… there… any… water… in the pool? And the answer, frankly, is that no, there is none, at least not at the moment. Even the plan’s proponents in Poland admit as much. They assure their countrymen, however, that the mo­ment they leap, water will start flooding in — that it won’t start flooding in until they do leap, that in effect it will be the leap itself that will provoke the flooding, but that there will be just enough water in the pool by the time they reach the surface to cushion their fall.

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Thus, for example, as quickly as possi­ble, Poland intends to create a stable currency at a unified rate. Today, while it’s true that the average wage in Poland is the equivalent of about $25 a month, it’s also true that subsidies and various currency deformations result in the avail­ability of such things as energy, housing, transportation, and food staples, for zlo­ties (granted, often at the end of long lines), for a fraction of their Western cost. That’s how people survive. Those deformations, however, all but cripple the possibility of profitability for any indige­nous entrepreneurs, let alone for foreign investors. Get rid of those deformations, immediately, and while it is true that coal will suddenly cost the same in Poland as it does in West Germany and Polish sala­ries will not have risen anywhere near enough to make up the difference — still, it can be hoped that the new economic conditions will foster a sudden upsurge in entrepreneurial spirit, both domestic and foreign, and that within a few months, in the nick of time, salaries will start rising fast enough to make it possible for people to live.

That’s the idea. That’s the wager. That’s the experiment. “But really,” Ha­lina Bortnowska, the Solidarity theorist who coined the subject-object distinction almost a decade ago, told me last summer as these ideas were just starting to be bandied about, “we’re not laboratory rats here, and really we’ve had enough of grand experiments.”

But actually Poland is indeed about to revert to being an object once again — this time, the object of a grand economic ex­periment. (“Really,” another theorist commented to me, “economists are too much to the fore these days. It’s like the rabbi and the chicken farmer. You know the story? Chicken farmer goes to the rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi, my chick­ens are all sick,’ and the rabbi says, no problem, just do such and such. Guy comes back the next day and says, ‘Rab­bi, I did exactly like what you said, and, Rabbi, two of the chickens died!’ Oh, says the rabbi, in that case you’d better do this and that. Next day, the guy comes back and five of them have died. Rabbi says, oh, in that case you’d better do this that and the other. Next day the guy comes back and 11 of them have died, so the rabbi offers yet another variation. The next day the guy comes back and says, ‘Rabbi, I did exactly what you said, every single detail, and Rabbi, they’re all dead.’ The rabbi is flabbergasted: ‘All of them?’ he stammers. ‘All of them? Ach, and I had so many more solutions.’ ”)

The point about this specific experi­ment — even assuming it does work — is that it requires that the Poles abandon their earlier solidarity, that they start be­having as atomized, ruthlessly self-inter­ested free-marketeers: each workplace squared off against the next, each indi­vidual squared off against his neighbor, as little government intervention as pos­sible — survival of the fittest. “The Tri­umph of Capitalism.”

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THERE IS NO doubt that some Poles will do well under the new system — perhaps many Poles will. Assuming the experi­ment works, a great deal more wealth will be generated (the old system, in any case, proved woefully incapable of generating any wealth whatsoever). The trouble is, the distribution of wealth across society will become more and more polarized, and many Poles will fall ever farther be­hind. (In capitalism, only the wealthy get to be subjects.)

It is one of the ironies of our age that capitalism appears to be “triumphing” al­most everywhere in the world at the very moment when most of those living under its purview are witnessing, for the first time in several generations, a distinct shrinkage in their own standards of living. Some are getting much richer, but the middle class is being whittled away, and the poor are falling ever farther be­hind. And that’s in the “successful” capi­talisms — Reagan’s America, Thatcher’s Britain. As for the Third World, go ask Brazil or the Philippines or Mexico about the Triumph of Capitalism.

During the past several years it has become fashionable to speak of “real so­cialism” — socialism as it really came to be lived in the world as opposed to how it was supposed to be lived in some ideal­ized simulacrum. But in exactly the same way as one should consider the opera­tions of “real socialism,” one ought to consider those of “real capitalism.” And real capitalism — as a world system — con­sists not just of Germany and Sweden and Japan and the boutiques along Madi­son Avenue; it also consists of Mexico and Brazil and the Philippines and the homeless along Madison Avenue. The latter make the former possible.

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I say this not out of ideological petu­lance. Rather, the question the Poles should be asking themselves at this juncture is what role international capitalism has in mind for them. Are they going to be Sweden (as they so fondly imagine, as they are being invited to imagine), or are they going to be Mexico (a continuous source of cheap labor for the emerging Western European powerhouse, a handy threat that its capitalists will be able to use whenever they need to bludgeon their own uppity workers back into line­ — “Watch out, because we can always just pick up and move our operations to Po­land”)? It might even be better to be Mexico than to be Poland mired in con­tinuing “real socialist” stagnation; cer­tainly it will be for many people. There may, if necessary, be fresh ways of bat­tling out of the terrible contradictions of Third World–style polarization and ex­ploitation — and if there are, the remark­able Poles, if anyone, show promise of finding their way clear to them.

But those are the sorts of issues that lie ahead. (And now, with the simultaneous “openings” in all the other Eastern Euro­pean countries, international capitalism is going to start playing each of them against the others — not only telling indi­vidual Polish workers to accept substan­dard wages and working conditions or else accept unemployment, but also tell­ing all of Poland to accept such ground rules or else Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria or Romania — or the Philippines or Mexi­co or Brazil — certainly will.)

And I just end up wondering how con­cerned Western media are going to be, five years down the line, about the plight of Polish workers laboring, for example, in West German plants in Gdynia or British-owned factories in Lodz, or for indigenous millionaires in Wroclaw and Poznan. What will become of that romance? ■


Strange Angels Flying Into the Next Century
By Laurie Anderson


Following the Ninth Is a Majestic Sonic Travelogue

When Longfellow proclaimed “music is the universal language of mankind,” he may have been referring to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Or at least that’s what Kerry Candaele’s majestic sonic travelogue Following the Ninth sets out to prove, charting the inextricable relationship between music and the human experience. Her results are as moving as the piece of music that inspired them. You don’t have to be a musicologist to know it; whether the thunderous percussion from the fourth movement played in a car commercial or “Ode to Joy” sung during Christmas mass, it remains pervasive. The universality of this aural wonder is on full display here, and its effects inspire genuine awe.

Chinese revolutionaries set up covert speakers in Tiananmen Square to drown out the dictators with it; a grieving German woman tearfully recounts Leonard Bernstein’s celebratory conducting of the piece after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall; dissidents under Pinochet claimed it as a lullaby, serenading political prisoners in Chile; each December, Japan inaugurates the new year through huge choral arrangements and performances, using it as an “objective of well-being.” Each anecdote builds upon the next to create that rarest of films: a documentary as ineffable and transformative in its reach as it sets out to be.

It’s humbling to think that when he composed this, his final symphony, Beethoven was nearly deaf and unable to hear the beauty of what he’d created. The countless millions who haven’t suffered the same fate are greatly enriched as a result.


The Other Dream Team

In the waning years of the Cold War, Americans became more aware of the bad things happening to the good people of the Eastern Bloc, but it wasn’t until the Berlin Wall finally came down that we were able to fully understand what the citizens of the Warsaw Pact had endured. Shining a light on one corner of the former Soviet empire is The Other Dream Team, the story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball squad. The Lithuanians were inevitably overshadowed by the U.S. team, which for the first time included NBA superstars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and . . . Christian Laettner (?) and would go on to win easy gold in Barcelona. But the Lithuanians were no slouches, boasting a lineup that included that country’s first NBA star (Sarunas Marciulionis) and future pro Arvydas Sabonis, players who’d formed the core of the USSR team that won the gold in 1988. Not coincidentally, their defeat of the amateur American team in Seoul led directly to our subsequent all-pro strategy. USA! Director Marius A. Markevicius examines the struggles Lithuanians faced after becoming the first SSR to declare independence while also providing an unvarnished look at the country’s Soviet past. I don’t toss around the expression “feel-good story” often, but after learning how the Grateful Dead came to the strapped team’s rescue by cutting them a check (and providing tie-dyed gear), and then watching Sabonis and company deliver comeuppance to their former rulers on the hardwood, I fully expect The Other Dream Team to join Do You Believe in Miracles? and Undefeated in your inspirational-sports-doc rotation.

Datebook Living Museums & Galleries NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Bloc Party

Do you pine for the Age Of Reagan, when our enemy was a clearly defined “Evil Empire?” The New Museum’s Ostalgia exhibition derives its title from a German word evoking a nostalgic longing for those Cold War days before the communist bloc’s dissolution in 1991. Works by 50 artists hailing from 20 different countries—a few of which didn’t even exist two decades ago—include interviews with Marxist theory teachers who were suddenly jobless after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and portraits of Siberian beachgoers. “Ostalgia” promises to liberate some cultural gems from the ash heap of history.

Wednesdays-Sundays. Starts: July 6. Continues through Sept. 25, 2011


‘Roger Waters: The Wall Live’

Pink Floyd maestro Roger Waters is resurrecting his 30-year-old midlife crisis masterpiece, The Wall, for its first full performances since the Berlin Wall fell. Since then, bands as diverse as the Pet Shop Boys and Kor, have covered songs from the album as they face their own crises. This tour’s singular demonstration of tearing down a wall: Waters’ Pink Floyd bandmate David Gilmour, with whom he’s shared some very bad blood over the years, will sing “Comfortably Numb” at one of these gigs.

Tue., Oct. 5, 8 p.m.; Wed., Oct. 6, 8 p.m., 2010



The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this Monday, and one of the many results of the momentous event was the way two Berlins united into maybe the most awesome city on the planet. Turkish-Muslim-lesbian DJ Ipek Ipekcioglu, a Berliner, brings the capital’s electro beats to Brooklyn tonight at Rise&Fall, an art and music extravaganza honoring the anniversary, while digital art by professionals and amateurs from 19 countries and 19 states, on the themes of “bringing down walls” or “breaking down barriers,” will be projected.

Thu., Nov. 5, 9 p.m., 2009


Judy Fox’s Snow White, El Museo’s Bienal, and Antony Gormley’s ‘Blind Light’

In this paltry newspaper space there’s no way to do justice to this terrific group show, so, like an Academy Award winner interrupted by the orchestra, I apologize to those left out. Augusto Zanela’s huge black-and-white target—painted over walls, ceilings, doors, air ducts, and light fixtures—greets you even as it fragments around you. Sebastián Patané Masuelli’s narrow corridor filled with yellowed pages from the 1945 Congressional Record, a truncated bed, and videos of birds is as febrile a dreamscape as you’ll encounter this side of consciousness. Alejandro Almanza Pereda deftly mixes moods and materials with his lightbulb and cinderblock sculptures; Jessica Lagunas’s video The Better to Caress You With frames a pair of hands applying so much red nail polish that the fingers resemble bloody stalactites; and Tamara Kostianovsky’s fabric sculpture of a beef carcass uncannily evokes bone, fat, and gristle. Politics are handled with trenchant élan in Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck’s black, Calder-esque mobile, which schematizes the complexities of Iraq’s oil infrastructure, and Oscar Oiwa’s surreal, perspective-warping painting of meat formed into national maps; neither artist allows his metaphors to outstrip visual aplomb. Humor and pathos collide in Andrés García Peña’s paintings of arenas in which ghostly, angel-winged bulls (often smoking and drinking) cheer the gory deaths of flailing matadors; Dulce Pinzón’s photos of manual laborers and nannies in superhero garb wittily document workaday steadfastness. We’ll end this feast with Sandra Valenzuela’s photos of vegetables like broccoli, turnips, and squash suspended in colorful knit bonnets. By simply displaying her images upside-down, she turns them into soaring balloon armadas, a magical-realist escape from whatever ails you.

Kanishka Raja

These 18 small canvases initially appear to depict the same vaguely modern space: suspended orange light fixtures, bookshelves, a big TV screen, a pair of doors. But differences quickly become apparent—floor tiles are laid at divergent angles, televisions transmit changing pictures, lights blaze at varying intensities. Raja executed the paintings over a period of three years, each without looking at the previous versions, delivering a dissonant frisson. Similarly, in a larger canvas featuring a mirror-image view of an airline terminal filled with empty cots, the center join is misaligned, like imperfectly married pages in a magazine spread. Tilton, 8 E 76th, 212-737-2221. Through November 17.

Michael Mogavero: ‘Interludes’

Energetic couples—their poses culled from porn websites—are obscured by ornate grilles, as if glimpsed through the windows of a New Orleans brothel. In Mogavero’s oil paintings on paper, these lascivious vignettes are juxtaposed with interlocking arcs of drippy abstract passages that echo the filigreed scrollwork. When the humps of naked backs and curving thighs come into focus and hook up with the flourishes of brushstrokes, the compositions become less a rehash of David Salle’s overwrought ’80s pastiches than a wry and lively take on Brice Marden’s austere—and at times overly precious—abstractions. 511 Gallery, 529 W 20th, 212-255-2885. Through December 1.

Antony Gormley: ‘Blind Light’

Enter this huge glass room and you are instantly
enveloped in thick white mist. Hold out your hand and it will seem to dissolve; other visitors loom as gray blobs before coming into fuzzy focus and then fading away; disembodied voices surround you. Though disorienting, the effect is also soothing, heightening your awareness of your own body, but also of its integration with this seemingly endless vista. It’s Limbo for the living. Sean Kelly, 528 W 29th, 212-239-1181. Through December 1.

Berlin Wall Segment

As our own nation builds a wall across the Southwest to keep desperate foreign workers out, it’s instructional to contemplate a barrier designed to keep citizens in. The huge, bug-eyed heads on what was the western side of this Berlin Wall segment were spray-painted in the mid-’80s by Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny (who fought for royalties when the wall fell in ’89 and East German bureaucrats, with uncharacteristic capitalist insight, auctioned off slabs of it). Although massive cracks now interrupt the garish cartoons, the decay feels almost celebratory in comparison to the spiritless concrete blank of the once east-facing side. This blast from our Cold War past is a blunt reminder of how fearmongering warps a society. Plus, it’s just steps from Fifth Avenue shopping, if you want to do your part in the War on Terror.Adjacent to 9 E 53rd. Permanent.

Judy Fox: ‘Snow White and the Seven Sins’

A hyper-realist, life-size Snow White lies unconscious atop her glass coffin, ebony braids reaching to her knees, rosy nipples and lips contrasting with milky skin. Smaller sculptures surround her—all purples, scarlets, and yeasty browns, they’re dwarf-size manifestations of the seven deadly sins. Here’s Gluttony sporting folds of flabby flesh and pendulous testicles, like an obese puppy; there’s Anger, inflamed vaginal lips erupting from an indigo carapace; and Pride, with Dolly Parton–scale breasts swelling from a labial cloak. Gorgeously decadent, this pungent tableau ain’t your Uncle Walt’s fairy tale. PPOW, 555 W 25th, 212-647-1044. Through November 24.


Wail Bones

In the lobby of the Living Theatre, before a recent performance of Mysteries . . . and Smaller Pieces, a young German man chatted with a few cast members. In passable English, he explained that he had first seen the Living Theatre in Berlin at the age of six, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It was euphoria, that time,” he said, “and the Living Theatre was a symbol of the euphoria, of artist liberty.” But is the Living Theatre now more than a symbol? Is it still producing significant work, or just coasting on its ’60s street cred? The enthusiastic reviews of their last performance, The Brig, argued for continued relevance. Their latest remount, Mysteries . . . and Smaller Pieces, suggests otherwise.

First developed in 1964 during the Living’s European exile, Mysteries consists of activities and exercises inspired by both the Eleusinian Mysteries and Antonin Artaud, with some Brecht, Grotowski, and Chaikin thrown in for good measure. But the chants, wails, and yogic stretches that compose the piece, revolutionary 40 years ago, now seem prosaic, if not faintly embarrassing—particularly an extended re-creation of Artaud’s “The Theater and the Plague.” (In my notes, I see that I’ve written: “Everyone’s dead. Yay!”) As this last act illustrates, it’s nostalgia rather than anything bubonic that plagues this troupe.


Chips Off the Old Bloc

It’s unclear whether Christa Wolf, the former-DDR writer who’s been railing against shifting German governments for 45 years, and Dorota Maslowska, whose first novel (completed at age 19) caused European critics to anoint her the savior of Poland’s literary scene, would consider themselves compatriots. But in novels released in translation in the U.S. this year, they speak to each other in ways probably neither would have imagined, exploring how creativity bubbles through government repression.

Wolf’s In the Flesh is a litany of first-person ramblings from a prominent East German intellectual who lies in a near-destitute hospital shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, a seismic political shift that Wolf herself vocally opposed at the time.

After having her thoughts thwarted for decades by a government that wouldn’t allow them, the nameless (and thereby universal) woman turned her frustrations inward, developing in her “runaway body” an elusive mass of sickness and bile, an abscess where “the glowing nucleus of the truth coincides with the glowing nucleus of the lie.” And no amount of bed rest, surgery, or expensive medicine smuggled in from the West has knocked it out.

Wolf has never been one for subtlety, and it’s clear her patient has the symbolic weight of the Communist bloc on her shoulders. She is exhausted by East Germany’s restrictions, and her immune system is weak, but with time, patience, and a few infusions from the West, there’s hope for her yet. But “tormented by the history of pain and torture,” she first needs to sweat out the memories, which flitter to the surface in near-indistinguishable, fevered fragments. She asks, “How would we know how extensive our interior world is if there weren’t special keys—high fever for example—to unlock it for us?”

Maslowska uses semi-consciousness in Snow White and Russian Red to elicit a completely different state of affairs. Her narrator, who also spews out an entire novel in an alternating flux of both pointed and nonsensical first-person observations, suffers under a different government and self-
inflicted ailment. Andrzej “Nails” Robakoski is a pussy hound and speed addict whose quests for both are colored by his mistrust of both his hyper-patriotic Polish government and the “Russkies” who threaten it.

Where Wolf’s narrator is flat, elusive, and world-weary, Nails is anything but, taking the reader on a bizarre trip through his hopped-up, paranoid, pop-culture-savvy mind as he tries to shake off a recently ended relationship, a “faultless but tragic love doomed to collapse.”

A precocious, overstimulated punk, Maslowska has become the poster child for her generation of lost, post-Communist Polish youth—who were born too late to have firsthand understanding of the Communist bloc and are now stuck between it and rampant Americanization. Lost generations tend toward drug abuse, but in
Snow White and Russian Red, drugs aren’t an escape from life, they’re an escape to it. Maslow-ska’s prose squeals with directionless drive, whizzing like a drug-induced sensory overload: disjointed, formless, unleashed. Wolf’s hallucinations resuscitate bleak memories; Maslowska’s squeeze the life out of the present. It tires and invigorates.

It also introduces an otherworld of lasting, unusual imagery. Government workers, like the rose-painting gardeners in
Alice in Wonderland, have been ordered to slather the town in thick, flag-inspired red and white bands, house by house, in preparation for No Russkies Day, and to report those who demur. The 70-pound, 15-year-old virgin whom Nails tries to bed vomits fist-sized rocks. Poland’s salvation lies in the export of its hottest commodity, Polish sand.

Snow White and Russian Red scans like Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, an anarchic reaction to a generation of socially enforced post-war patriotism and merriness. But where Kerouac’s lost souls camped and made love in the mountains, these “disco-whores” and “disco-assholes” trek through low-income housing developments, screwing, text-messaging, and looking for speed. The novel’s effect is not unlike that of Larry Clark’s work. You had no idea kids—the characters or Maslowska herself—had seen so much, or were so guileless.

Wolf’s narrator remembers a friend “investigating the ways certain social circumstances fettered genius and what methods genius developed to free itself from those fetters, at least temporarily or partially.” Maslowska seems the newest addition to a legacy of furtively unfettered Eastern European genius. Like Wolf, she’s brave and faithful enough to raise her voice against her troubled homeland in dissent.



On television, gleeful Germans hack apart sections of the Berlin Wall, but alone in her modernist Munich home, novelist Hanna Flanders watches in horror; she grasps a handful of pills and contemplates suicide. So opens Oskar Roehler’s Nowhere to Go (1999), which tracks the mental breakdown of a West German writer whose soul collapses when her utopian konzept of the Marxist state—and the primary market for her leftist fiction—crumbles before her eyes. Roehler portrays Flanders (a fictionalized version of his mother) as a brittle bundle of contradictions: She caustically laments to a young reporter that “consumer society is eating us up,” yet stops by the Christian Dior boutique to purchase a new coat for a soul-searching trip to the East. There, she struggles to explain her sense of loss to the jubilant partyers, most of them drunk on more than just freedom. “German and history,” a schoolteacher-fan slurs to her, explaining his curriculum. “A fateful combination.”

A ruthless work of illuminating melancholia rooted in the legacy of New German Cinema (Flanders could have stepped out of a Fassbinder flick), Nowhere to Go screens in “After the Wall,” a collection of films from the last decade or so that explore the social changes effected by Germany’s reunification. A pair of mainstream comedies prove alienating in their own manner, at least to American moviegoers; while most of the humor disappears in cross-Atlantic transit, they remain at least sociologically interesting. Wolfgang Becker, best known for transforming post-reunification yuks into record-breaking box office with Goodbye, Lenin!, represents with Life Is All You Get, a quirky 1997 romantic comedy set in a still healing Berlin. Detlev Buck’s No More Mr. Nice Guy (1993), a low-rent Dumm und D, follows a pair of dim-witted Westie brothers on their quest through a newly opened East to claim an inheritance. En route, they discover mulleted highwaymen, sleazy rural businessmen, and all manner of outdated tracksuits: It’s like a German analogue of the American white-trash comedy, set to a score of outstandingly hideous synth-rock. ED HALTER