Chronicle of a Rift Reread: The Discourse of Nostalgia in Kujtim Çashku and Piro Milkani’s Face to Face

By Bruce Williams

The title of this essay’s not-so-subtle reference to a 1981 short novel by Gabriel García Márquez reflects a number of similarities between Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada) and Face to Face (Ballë për ballë, 1979), a production by Albania’s Kinostudio, directed by Kujtim Çashku and Piro Milkani. While the narrator of Márquez’s novel seeks to uncover the truths behind a murder that had occurred some twenty years earlier, Face to Face looks back, from the vantage point of some eighteen years and from both political and human perspectives, on another murder of sorts—the destruction of Soviet/Albanian ties by the extreme actions of Enver Hoxha. A work of magical realism, Chronicle of a Death Foretold explores the rituals germane to daily life in a small Colombian town. In a like manner, the Albanian film, by implication, nostalgically addresses the rituals of another quotidian space, that of the port city of Vlora prior to 1961, when Albanians and Russians danced and drank together in a spirit of conviviality. Márquez’s novel, moreover, has been deemed more of a work of journalism than of fiction, given the factual events on which the story line is based. In the case of Face to Face, a major protagonist is a journalist examining both the remote past and historical processes of the present. But these are just superficial similarities. More importantly, both works play with time, as the title of García Márquez’s novel and this essay imply. Chronicle of a Death Foretold deploys an investigation into the past to uncover a dynamic interplay between past, present, and future, and the distinctions among these are frequently blurred. In a not-so-unlike manner, the broader phenomenon of Face to Face—its narrative space of 1969, its production 18 years later, and its re-reading today reveal a similar interplay among time zones. Although not embedded into the narrative per se, the unearthing of a historical moment and its social climate by Çashku and Milkani clearly renders the not-too-distant past a relevant context for examination. The film is a highly dynamic work in that, it at once documents events leading to the withdrawal of Soviet troops and civilians from Albania, and it exposes the pervasive nostalgia felt by those who had lived through days of friendship and cooperation between the two nations. What is perhaps of greatest importance is that, now some thirty-five years following its release, the film can be read against the grain of the zeitgeist of Albania’s isolationism and viewed as a reassessment of an historical moment.  From this perspective, Face to Face offers an ongoing re-chronicling of the Albanian-Soviet schism.

Milkani, Çashku and Kadare
Piro Milkani is indeed a veteran of Kinostudio from its relatively early phases. Some ten years following the initial training of future Kinostudio artists in Moscow, he studied cinematography at FAMU in Prague.[1] During the early to mid-sixties, Milkani worked at Kinostudio as a cameraman. In 1969, he co-directed with Gëzim Erebara his first feature film, Victory over Death (Ngadhnjim mbi vdekjen), a film that was awarded the prize of the republic.[2] Together with his well-celebrated career as a director, Milkani has taught post-graduate courses at the Institute of the Arts in Tirana, and has served as director of Kinostudio and later as director of Albafilm Distribution. In 1999, he was appointed the Ambassador of Albania to the Czech Republic, a post he held until 2002. Milkani, like Çashku, belongs to the most international of Albanian film professionals; he is fluent in Czech, Russian, French, and Italian.

Kujtim Çashku was a young rebel with long hair and a guitar in hand, emulating the Beatles. Having graduated from high school, he was obliged to do a one-year apprenticeship before continuing on to university.[3] His father, an ardent communist concerned about his son’s decadent tendencies, decided that it was due time the young man learnt discipline, and arranged through the intermediary of official channels for young Çashku to work at the Vau i Dejes hydroelectric plant, also known as the Mao Tse-Tung plant.[4] The monotony of the job notwithstanding, it was there that the future director’s life was transformed. One day in 1969, Piro Milkani appeared with cameras, lights, and crew to film a sequence from The Wedding (Përse bie kjo daulle). Çashku was enthralled by the magic of the experience. It was as if he were watching the dynamics of a Hollywood set (Çashku, personal contact, 8 January 2015). At this point, the future co-directors did not meet. Determined to have a life in film, Çashku entered later the same year the Faculty of Dramatic Arts of the Institute of Art in Tirana. He would study there from 1969–1972. From 1972 to 1975, he studied at the Ion Luca Caragiale Institute of Theatre and Cinema in Bucharest.[5] Upon his return to Albania, he worked from 1975 to 1977 as an assistant director at Kinostudio. During this period, Çashku met Milkani and recounted to him the story of watching the latter’s crew at Vau i Deje. A friendship developed, and in 1979, Milkani invited the young man to co-direct Face to Face.The close cooperation and friendship remains until the present day, with Milkani teaching the history of world cinema at the Marubi Academy of Film and Multimedia of which Çashku is the founder and provost.

Both directors returned to the theme of nostalgia for international personal friendships during the Hoxha regime. In 1998, Çashku’s Kolonel Bunker told the story of the descent into madness of a military officer charged with Hoxha’s “bunkerization” campaign, which began in earnest in 1974. As I have stressed in my analysis of the film (Williams 2014), all the while dealing with the horrors of the paranoid regime, the Kolonel Bunker nostalgically looks at the years prior to 1961 when Albania enjoyed friendly relations with the Warsaw Pact. The film’s female protagonist, Ana, played by Polish actress Anna Nehrebecka, is the colonel’s wife, a Polish woman he had met while stationed in Poland. Ana is a pianist, and Chopin is the primary composer she interprets. The couple fondly recall their days together in Poland—their wedding in Warsaw, visits to the Ostrokski Palace, and walks along Nowí Świat. The prototype for Ana’s character was actually Maria Rafael, a Hungarian pianist married to an Albanian. Rafael was barred from the Tirana stage and sent to the southern city of Fier to work as a piano teacher (Williams 2014: 266).[6] In my analysis, I stressed that in Kolonel Bunker, one finds a depiction of the “sharp disconnect between a love for the foreign, in this case, Polish, on a personal level and a need to heighten isolationism on the national” (Williams 2014: 272). Reflecting the production of the film itself, Albania’s first international coproduction in the post-communist period, the nostalgia for friendship with its communist neighbors is akin to the newly-forged relationship between Albanian cinema and “those ‘other’ cinemas of the postcommunist world” (Williams 2014: 272).

The decade following the release of Çashku’s Kolonel Bunker, Piro Mikani, together with his son Eno Milkani, made The Sadness of Mrs Schneider (Tristhimi i zonjës Schnajder 2008). This international coproduction with the Czech Republic was actually autobiographical in nature. It explores a love affair between an Albanian film student at FAMU in Prague (modeled on Milkani himself) and an unhappily-married woman in a small Czechoslovak town. A group of students, including the Albanian, have traveled to Prague to make a documentary on a motorcycle factory, and their efforts teeter between artistic freedom and the official propaganda necessary to promote the factory’s work. Set in 1961, the film reveals how the burgeoning love affair is doomed when the Albanian government orders all students to leave Czechoslovakia due to the rift with the Soviet Union and the Balkan nation’s retreat from the Warsaw pact. In a manner similar to Face to Face and Kolonel Bunker,  The Sadness of Mrs Schneider is replete with nostalgia for the earlier years of friendship and cooperation among the countries of the Soviet bloc.[7] Such a period of openness would not return until the fall of communism.

Face to Face is based on Ismail Kadare’s novel The Great Winter (Dimri i madh, 1977), a work that has appeared in both French and German translation.[8] Although not one of Kadare’s works to reach an English-speaking audience, it bears some noteworthy similarities to the author’s own life. Granted, Kadare lacked the military background of the film’s protagonists. Nonetheless, his education was informed by the warm climate between Albania and the Soviet Union during the early years of communism.  Following the 1956 receipt of his teaching degree from the University of Tirana, Kadare studied at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. In this respect, his educational background was not unlike that of the first generation of Kinostudio professionals who were trained at numerous sites within the Warsaw Pact. Of particular consequence, especially in what concerns one of the protagonists of Face to Face, Kadare worked as a journalist during his early career, prior to becoming editor-in-chief of the journal Les Lettres Albanaises.[9] Neither Milkani nor Çashku were strangers to Kadare’s work. In 1969, Milkani directed The Wedding, based on Kadare’s 1968 Dasma (The Wedding). In turn, Çashku adapted in 1978 Kadare’s Broken April (Prilli i thyer) under the title The Uninvited (Të paftuarit). Kadare, moreover, cooperated with the two directors as the scriptwriter of Face to Face.

face to faceFace to Face—A seminal work of Albanian cinema
A 2004 filmography compiled by the Albanian State Film Archives classifies Albanian films from 1957 through 2003 under a number of categories (folk stories, social issues, World War II, men working, children’s films, etc.). In this filmography, Face to Face is dually classified under “historical themes” and “thrillers.” The filmography provides only cursory information on each film-date, directorial credits, bibliography, and a brief summary. In the case of Face to Face, the 72-word summary mentions the work’s literary source, and historical context, and alludes to one of the primary characters, a journalist who had served as an interpreter in the 1961 Communist Party conference in Moscow. It foregrounds the “official” dénouement of the film—that the Soviets fail to steal the submarines located on the naval base in Vlora (Arkivi Qendror Shtetëror i Filmit 2004: 158). A slightly-longer discussion of the film is to be found in Abaz Hoxha’s 1987 filmography, Filmi artistic shqiptar. Hoxha provides extensive production and cast credits, and notes that the film received first prize in the Fourth Festival of Albanian Film. Unlike the Archives’ summary, the discussion here does not mention the journalist’s experiences in Moscow. Rather, it focuses on broader historical moments as depicted in the film. It concludes with mention of the Soviet Union’s betrayal of communism and the departure “in shame” of the staff of the Soviet Embassy (Hoxha 1978: 179).

Despite the importance and originality of Face to Face, the film has received surprisingly-little scholarly consideration. Included in Natasha Lako’s Film Energy (Energjia filmike, 2004) is an overview of the various editions of the Festival of Albanian Film from 1976 through 2000. As is the case with the above-mentioned filmographies, the intent of her study is not to provide a lengthy analysis of any particular film. Her work, nonetheless, includes a brief mention of Face to Face in the context of the Fourth Festival. Lako foregrounds the presence of elements of traditional resistance in the film as well as its theme of political and moral confrontation (2004: 122).

To date, the most extensive academic analysis of Face to Face has appeared in Abdurrahim Myftiu’s Time of Film I (Koha e filmit I, 2003),  a study of Albanian cinema primarily during the communist period. The film is discussed in a section of the titled “From the Early Times to the New,” which also includes Çashku’s The Uninvited (Të paftuarit,1978).Myftiu’s analysis underscores the dynamics of the “near” and “far,” the political and the personal in the film. It cites a number of “pairings” present in the narrative—the Albanian and Soviet base commanders, an Albanian and a Soviet soldier, an Albanian and a Soviet journalist. For Myftiu, the structure of Face to Face is poetic, and a great deal of his discussion focuses on the film’s artistic merits (Myftiu 2003: 232-245). Given that Myftiu’s analysis is the only academic piece to devote extended attention to Face to Face, it is the one that most decisively looks beyond the film’s original propagandistic intent. (Obviously, inasmuch as Myftiu’s study was published in 2003, there was far greater academic freedom than was permitted in the case of Hoxha’s 1987 filmography).

face to faceFace to Face, moreover, is one of five films scheduled for restoration by the Albanian Cinema Project, an international initiative championed by Regina Longo. To date, the Project has restored Viktor Gjika’s The Second of November, (Nëntori i dyte 1982) and Xhanfise Keko’s Tomka and His Friends (Tomka dhe shokët e tij,1977). The former restoration was released in 2012 to commemorate the centenary of Albanian independence, and the latter reached audiences in several countries in 2014. The restoration of Face to Face is especially urgent given that the negative is currently deteriorating at a rapid rate. The eventual re-release of Çashku and Milkani’s film will allow wider audiences to re-read the work in a new historical moment. Elements that were not overtly discussed at the time of the film’s original release can now be examined more freely. There is no doubt that one aspect of Face to Face that will be brought to the forefront is the work’s subtle exploration of nostalgia for the years in which communist Albania enjoyed warmer relations with the Eastern Bloc.

Traumatic memory, nostalgia, and film
In an extensive study of the recoupment of historical memory in post-war West German film, Anton Kaes has explored “the return of the repressed,” the re-assessment of Germany’s Nazi past in works by Syberberg, Fassbinder, Kluge, and other directors of the New German Cinema (1989: 25). Kaes’ discussions, in a number of ways, constitute a process not unlike the way in which a contemporary reading of Face to Face uncovers a historical time that has been suppressed by the prevailing discourse on the horrors of the Hoxha regime. For Kaes, a defining moment for memories of the Third Reich was fall, 1977, which has been called the “German Autumn.” Relating the phenomenon of the Baader-Meinhof Group to earlier senseless acts perpetrated by the Nazi regime, Kaes asserts:

[The Group’s violent acts] ultimately stem from the collective trauma of learning the truth about the horrifying German past, usually not from one’s parents but from books or in school…The memory of the Nazi reign of terror had been excluded from public discussion during the entire reconstruction phase of German postwar history; Germans had thus been denied the chance to work through the past and come to terms with it (1989: 25).

Kaes stresses that the events of 1977 forged a linkage in the minds of older Germans among terrorism, restricted freedom of expression, and the Hitler regime (1989: 25). Such a context led to the production of an omnibus film, Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), made by nine directors of the New German Cinema, which was intended to document the immediate reaction to the acts of the Baader-Meinhof Group and to explore the anxieties of the time. Kaes cites Alexander Kluge’s assessment of the phenomenon:

The fatal catastrophe succeeded in cutting through the amnesia of many. The events did not have much to do with war directly, but “1945” and “war” were associated with them. It is no coincidence that we have an emotional movement that is posing questions about Germany and about the history that takes the form it has. The repressed shock breaks out in terrorism, a point that is actually not suited to genuinely coming to terms with the previously repressed material; it may even produce new distortions (Kluge 1979: 28).

Face to Face, like Germany in Autumn, explores a discrete historical moment. Although its deconstruction of the propagandistic underpinnings of the film is much more covert—as would be necessary given the prevailing official censorship of 1979—, its subtle reliance on memory and nostalgia open doors to parallel readings.

face to faceConcerning memory and the Eastern Bloc, a 2013 edited collection by Marta Rabikowska,  looks at the practices, subjectivities, and identities “that have been influenced by communism and are connected to social and historical spaces and times from ‘before’ and ‘after’ the fall of the Iron Curtain” (Rabikowska 2013: 1). Rather than viewing post-communism in terms of “the ending of a previous system and transition towards the future,” Rabikowska stresses that the purpose of the book is to “situate the memory of the past in the time and space between communism and post-communism, where ‘before’ and ‘after’ simultaneously merge and collide” (2013: 1). Granted, the historical moment to which Face to Face is pegged does not imply the complete fall of a system. Nonetheless, a process similar to that identified by Rabikowska is at play. Although the complete breach between Tirana and Moscow happened gradually over a period of years, the intensity of the events of 1961 were such that all notion of before and after was muddled. Past and future collided, as textualized by the existential angst of the film’s protagonists. This is especially evident in the trauma suffered by an Albanian journalist who had been present “when the world shattered” in Moscow and in the fears of a Soviet engineer stationed in Vlora, who is convinced that, in the wake of this pivotal moment, the world has lost all meaning and that he will be sent to Magadan.

Transiting from “memory” to its related term “nostalgia,” one notes that academic discourse on the latter bears upon personal and psychological contexts, as well as upon historical and political ones. A good deal of scholarship has been devoted to the notion of nostalgia, and how it is manifested in the context of key historical moments. The Palgrave Dictionary of Political Thought has defined “nostalgia” as:

Originally a yearning for home, but now used to mean any longing for an absent (and by implication past) state of affairs, accompanied by an idealization of that state, involving intemperate attention to its supposed virtues, together with a merely schematic representation of its faults.

Authored in 1969, Fredric Jameson’s study on Walter Benjamin has become a pivotal work in the discourse of nostalgia. Jameson articulates:

Benjamin’s work seems to me to be marked by a painful straining towards a wholeness or unity of experience which the historical situation threatens to shatter at every turn. A vision of a world of ruins and fragments, an ancient chaos of whatever nature on the point of overwhelming consciousness—these are some of the images that seem to recur either in Benjamin himself or in your own mind as you read him (1969: 53).

Although Jameson’s discussion bears on general existential issues, the longing for a unity of experience juxtaposed with cataclysmic historical processes that he evokes is indeed a defining characteristic of Face to Face.

face to faceConcerning post-communist nostalgia, a recent edited volume by Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille blends historical, anthropological, sociological, and literary discourses explores how post-communist nostalgia plays out in the private realm, and brings to bear as much on the present as on the past (Todorova and Gille 2010). A chapter in this collection authored by Daphne Berdahl examines Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 Good Bye, Lenin arguing that the phenomenon of Ostalgie “did not reflect a longing to return to the GDR, but a sense of the lost possibilities and critiques of the present” (2010: 182). Along similar lines, Dominik Bartmanski has explored Ostalgie in the streetscapes of Berlin and Warsaw. He examines a number of theoretical frameworks through which this phenomenon might be read, and discusses approaches based on social deficiency, failed utopia, cultural industry, and strain.  Arguing for an iconological approach to Ostalgie, Bartmanski asserts that “Looking at seemingly mundane, visual expression of post-communist nostalgia as iconic totems rather than fetishistic commodities or instruments of defense enables us to see this deep dynamic more closely” (2011: 220). Among the components of an iconological approach to nostalgia identified by Bartmanski are a selective affirmation of the past, a performative quoting of the past, and the poetics of memory (2011: 221). Bartmanski argues that iconic symbols of post-communist nostalgia “[fulfill] the role of mnemonic bridges rather than tokens of longing for the failed communist past, they are the regular symbolizations of continuity in the irregular times of transformation…They are ‘cultural links’ between the localized histories and the universalizing meanings” (2011: 226-227).
At the time of its production, Face to Face served to kindle the memory of a bygone era. There was no failed past for which one could long, yet absent was a sense of continuity with the pre-breach days. Moreover, the existential questions posed by its protagonists transcend the historical moment and suggest something inherently universal in a discrete moment in history. Such universality is suggested by the similar sensitivities of Soviet and Albanian characters.

From a cinematic perspective, Catherine Portuges’ study of the films of Hungarian director Márta Mészáros foregrounds the space of memory in the director’s films, at the same time uncovering a noteworthy element of nostalgia for the “bad old times.” Portuges discusses Mészáros’ film Utinapló (Travel Diary, 1989), in which the director conducts interviews in Leningrad, Moscow, and Frunze in search of her traumatic past. As Portuges articulates, “[Mészrós] acknowledges the difficulty of verbalizing the horrors of the early 1950s—the death of her parents in the Soviet Union, the atmosphere of terror and silence that reigned over her youth—yet as an adult she recognizes that those years were responsible for the difficulties of the present” (1993: 3).Nonetheless, all is not one-sided in the director’s memories. Mészáros, like numerous Albanian directors of the first generation of Kinostudio, was trained in Moscow, “where, despite the extreme privations of the early 1950s, an element of creativity and intense productivity prevailed” (Portuges 1993: 3). Recalling the atmosphere at the Moscow Film Institute VGIK, Mészáros recalls “the internationalism, the constant exaltation, and the sense of mutual responsibility that compensated for the material poverty…trying to find the secret of what happened at that time” (Portuges 1993: 3).  Thus, even within the context of harrowing past experience can be found certainly positive elements that, in their own small way, defined the historical moment. The nostalgiafor such elements, when combined with traumatic memory, renders the past considerably more multidimensional and forges a link to the present. Such positive elements recall the friendships and conviviality among Albanians and Russians living in Vlora destroyed by Hoxha’s paranoid actions, which a contemporary reading of the film can more clearly bring to the forefront.

face to faceFace to Face: Ancient past, modern turmoil
Face to Face opens with what initially appears to be a framing device, yet which is never returned to in the narrative. We first see a ruin on the Adriatic coast, which we will later learn to be the grave of a Turkish commander of what is now the port of Vlora. Although we do not hear the shutter of a camera, the waves freeze as if having been captured in a photograph. As the opening titles are presented, the seagulls and waves stop periodically, and the motif of photography continues. The choice of sounds juxtaposed to these visual dynamics refutes a facile interpretation and invites the viewer to meditate on the nature of art and reality. Contrary to what one might expect, when the waves are in motion, we hear stirring and dissonant symphonic music composed by Feim Ibrahimi.  When all motion is arrested, we are exposed, instead, to the natural sound of the waves. This play with reality and artifice underscores an important theme, not textualized as much in the film as in its actual production and reception over the years. We are led to question just where reality lies, in the historical moment as lived or as recorded, as re-conceived. Following the opening credits, we are introduced to Besnik Struga (Mevlan Shanaj), a young journalist, who is photographing an archaeological expedition at the port. The chief archeologist on the site explains to him that Vlora is the oldest military base in the world that is still functional. He stresses that there are inscriptions in Norman and Turkish, and that a nearby mountain pass is called “Caesar’s Pass,” because it is believed that Julius Caesar himself passed through it. We view inscriptions in Greek and Turkish (the latter in the Arabic script) and see artifacts from an ancient theatre that had been built for the entertainment of the Roman garrison. The archeologist explains that the base has been active for 2,400 years.  For the Turks, it constituted a springboard for attacking Europe.

The visit is interrupted. A messenger arrives with an official communiqué from the base commander that the archeological team is to leave immediately; the base is closed. The archeologist hitches a ride with the messenger to headquarters, while Besnik is left to read headlines from Zeri i Popullit foregrounding the rift between Albania and the Soviet Union, and ordering a firm “no” to Soviet blackmail. At the base headquarters, the archeologist learns from Albanian Commander Mujo Bermema (Bujar Lako) of the gravity of the situation. Although both Russians and Albanians are stationed in Vlora, Albanian considers itself to be the sole administrator of the base.  Given that a number of the submarines in use are Soviet, the Russians consider the site to be jointly administrated. Albania has recently refused entry to Vlora to a group of Russian seismologists whom the Hoxha regime believes to be spies, and in turn, the Soviets are demanding removal of the archeologists. Infuriated, the chief archeologist chides a group of Soviet military officers, emphasizing the noble mission of the excavation of the ancient theatre, where it is possible that Aeschylus’ Prometheus was performed. The narrative thread of the archeological expedition is dropped at this point. Albeit not developed any further, the two approaches to the study of the “ground” of Vlora reveal the agenda of each of the two nations. While the Albanians desire to celebrate the treasures to be found on their turf, thereby comparing Albania to the greatness of Rome and the Ottoman Empire, the Soviets are more interested in assessing the seismic vulnerability of the regime, which for their own military interests, is highly strategic. The decision to open Face to Face on the theme of archeology is not an arbitrary one.

face to faceLike Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the film itself constitutes an excavation of sorts. It uncovers the political and personal dynamics of a decisive moment in time, which was defined by numerous ambiguities. Given the rift with Belgrade, Moscow deemed Vlora its doorway to the West as it had been for the Turks so many centuries before. For the Albanians, the base has represented a long-standing bastion of national defense. From the film’s opening sequences, it is clear that Moscow and Tirana are at odds, but we have yet to discover the nuances of Albanian/Soviet friendship that are at stake. The dynamics of the rift are fleshed out in a sequence in which Besnik relates to Zana, his sweetheart, the details of his recent trip to Moscow in which he served as an interpreter during an explosive meeting at the Kremlin between Hoxha and Khrushchev. Noting that he seemed different when he returned, Zana aska what has happened.  He explains that in Moscow, the world that they had known had been shattered. Besnik’s memories are embodied by archival footage of Enver Hoxha at the Kremlin and of the bellicose nature of the meeting between the two leaders. The use of archival footage at this juncture, moreover, underscores the film’s similarity to Chronicle of a Death Foretold inasmuch as the images of Khrushchev and Hoxha in the Kremlin render indisputable the factual context in which the film is grounded.

The rift between the two powers is further textualized by slogans posted in Tirana demanding “No to Soviet Blackmail.” As a group of Albanians gaze at one such poster, we hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica). The music continues as the camera enters the Struga apartment and we see the family listening to a televised symphonic concert as they eat dinner and discuss the recent political events. Again, the choice of the Eroica Symphony is most intentional. Not only do its powerful and tense rhythms set a bellicose tone, but moreover, it is replete with historical references to another rift, this time between an artist and his idol. We must recall that when Beethoven composed the symphony, he dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte in light of the then French Consul’s numerous reforms. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, the composer was so angered at such a betrayal that he crossed out the dedication that he had written on the score. Although at the time Face to Face was released, the reference to the symphony was most likely intended to serve as a metaphor for Khrushchev’s betrayal of the Stalinist policies that the Hoxha regime emulated, a reading of the film some thirty-five years later suggests that the deployment of the symphony reflects instead an outcry against the brutality of the Hoxha regime. From a contemporary standpoint, the two readings coexist. We at once deconstruct the aggressive underpinnings of the Albanian state and discover the iconography that circulated in the public space at the time of the schism.

face to facePairings, similarities, and friendships
Despite the strongly anti-Soviet stance that one would expect from the political context in which the film was made, Face to Face is structured upon a discourse of similarity between the two opposing forces. As mentioned by Myftiu, one notices a device of “pairing” between the Albanians and Russians. Commander Bermama has as his counterpart the Soviet commander, with whom he has developed a long-term friendship. Besnik Struga is paired with a Soviet journalist who has come to Vlora to cover the events in the same way the Albanian had been present at the pivotal events in Moscow. Besnik’s brother, a young soldier stationed at the base, is paired with a Soviet soldier, with whom he shares a fraught conversation on romance and betrayal.
The similarity between the two garrisons is underscored, in a similar fashion, by the numerous parallels made between the troops. Both march in a similar manner. Meetings between commanders and troops are virtually identical, with the exception of the presence of Albanian or Russian language slogans, and the obligatory images of Khrushchev or Hoxha. The blurring of differences is so intense that, noting the impending confrontation, Sergei Ivanovich (Timo Flloko), a Soviet engineer, remarks that the two forces will soon be devouring each other like octopi, an obvious articulation of the belief that they are of the same species.

In a sequence that longingly recalls earlier friendships, the Soviet commander retrieves a jack of spades from a playing deck and goes to visit Commander Bermama. Showing his former friend the card, he bemoans that they are now like the jack, with heads in opposite directions. Ripping the card in half, and aligning the heads of the jack in the same direction, he asserts that this is the way the two commanders’ relationship should remain. As tensions mount in subsequent sequences, we realize that the sentiment felt by the Soviet commander stems from a past that cannot be recovered; a return to the earlier days of friendship is now impossible. Upon leaving the Albanian headquarters, the Soviet throws the pieces of the card down, and we see the two heads in opposite directions, but at a skewed angle. The same image will appear near the end of the film when the torn card is shown amongst the rubbish left behind by the departing Soviets.  The oblique angle of the heads suggests the ambiguity present in the lives of soldiers and civilians due to the rift. A subtle reference, moreover, to Russian culture is present. The card is a jack of spades, not clubs, swords, or hearts. (Swords would have been a natural choice given the military nature of the film). A jack is immediately below a queen in the hierarchy of a deck of cards. Hence, we are not too far removed from Pushkin or Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, and such a metaphor provides a highbrow counterpoint to the popular Russian music played at a bar frequented by both Russians and Albanians. We must recall the veneration that many educated Albanians felt for the Russian language and its culture, a point underscored by the fact that the rift with the Soviet Union did not put an end to the study of Russian in Albanian schools.

So much of the process of similarity involves language, from the very nature of Albanian and its lexicon to overt language choices made in the film. Firstly, one must note the similarity between the Albanian words for “friend” (mik) and “enemy” (armik), a phenomenon pointed out by Sergey Ivanovich. (Here it is suggested that many of the Albanians and Russians knew something of each other’s language.) With regards to written language, the uniforms sported by the two troops are virtually identical. We must rely on the inscriptions on the soldiers’ hats, which read “naval garrison” in the respective languages to distinguish just who is who. Yet the blending of the two forces is even more thoroughly articulated through the memos authored by the Soviets to report incidences of provocation made by Albanian soldiers. Whether intended to be transmitted to Moscow or delivered to the Albanian command post, they are authored exclusively in Albanian.  Similarity is also encoded through spoken language.  Obviously, given Albania’s isolation in 1979, it was impossible for any Soviet characters to be played by real Russians; all actors were Albanian. Moreover, no attempt was made to distinguish the two garrisons linguistically. For the purposes of the film, both speak to their friends and foes almost exclusively in Albanian.  There are two exceptions. A Soviet journalist arriving at the base is greeted with a firm zdravstvuite. The same character later makes a short utterance in Russian to his Albanian counterpart, Besnik. In both cases, the Russian is heavily accented.

face to faceDespite human similarities, the pairing of characters is sometimes threatening in nature. During a joint maneuver during which a Russian attempts to hijack a submarine and take it to the open sea, Besnik views the war games together with his Soviet counterpart. The Soviet journalist stresses that the communist world needs clear hierarchy; some must fly while others remain earthbound. Although the symbol of Albania is the eagle, the small country must not try to fly.  An anecdote from his days in the Soviet air force serves as an allegory for this stance. As an air force commander, the Soviet had known an airplane engineer who longed to fly. One day, the man took control of a plane on which he was working, and lifted it into the air. Unfortunately, he did not know how to land it. The commander was forced to shoot him down to prevent a greater tragedy. And such is the warning to Albania.

A sense of nostalgia for lost comradery is most clearly felt in a sequence set on a Saturday evening in a tavern jointly frequented by Russians and Albanians. Inside the tavern, one senses a combination of carefree denial and heated tension. It is implied that the clientele has historically been a combination of Russians and Albanians, although the only music we hear is Russian. The tension between the two groups is revealed most closely by a conversation at the bar between Besnik’s younger brother and a more experienced member of the Russian garrison, in which the latter tells of his fears that his great love in the Soviet Union has cheated on him. Noting the language dynamics of the conversation (which are presented to the viewer exclusively in Albanian), Sergei Ivanovich interrupts the interlocutors and states that when one man speaks Albanian and another Russian, it is a true Tower of Babel. Such a remark suggests the chaos that the impending rift implies. This comment seems somewhat out of place given that Albanian serves as a proxy for Russian throughout the film. The strains of “Katyushka” intensify, and the patrons of the bar drink and dance to abandonment. It is this very sequence in which the sense of nostalgia, or better, a pre-nostalgia for something that is about to be lost, is most clearly felt. The days in which Albanians and Russians will party the night away together are rapidly coming to an end.

Extra-diegetic interventions, Albanian and Russian
The cataclysmic nature of the Soviet-Albanian rift is textualized by what I will term extra-diegetic interventions on the part of two characters, one Albanian, and one Soviet. I term these sequences “extra-diegetic” inasmuch as they appear to be addressed more to the spectator than to any diegetic character. Myftiu has noted that Besnik’s poetic description of the events in Moscow transcend the narrative, although they are couched as a dialogue with Zana. Besnik describes the events as if they had constituted an earthquake, during which he had been the epicenter. He speaks of chasms, holes, abysses, sulfuric acid, and a stifling atmosphere. “The earth would crumble where you would not expect.” These utterances seal together the realms of the political and personal. Although they suggest the destruction of a utopian world, one must approach this reading with caution; Bekim, most likely due to the demands of censorship, will later prove to be a true patriot. One notes to this effect his defiant responses to the Soviet journalist’s warnings to Albania.

The Soviet engineer Sergei Ivanovich, whose presence on the base is never totally explained, functions as a Greek chorus, and offers similar verbal commentaries on what he deems to be the catastrophic events at hand. Sergei is frequently seen together with Elena Mihaelova, the wife of a Soviet soldier, whose stylized poses and rare utterances suggest the relative unimportance of her as a character. Walking with Elena among the ancient ruins, Sergei asks her why she doesn’t leave. “What are you doing here?  No one understands you in this god-forsaken place. We will be buried in this place and no one will know what happened.” In a conversation prior to the sequence in the bar, Sergei notes that it is Saturday, and that any Saturday might be the last Saturday of your life. The engineer plays with a toy skeleton that appears to reference “The Day of the Dead” sequence of Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México!. Despondent, he conveys to Elena his fears that he has fallen out of favor, and that he will soon be sent to Magadan. Later that evening, an intoxicated Sergei lies on the grave of the Turkish commander with a bottle of vodka and inquiries of the dead leader. “How long have you been here?” He muses that the Soviet commander wants to be just like the Turk. Indeed, the Soviets had hoped that Albania would be their gateway to Western Europe.

Such mediations function as devices that halt the narrative to allow us to meditate on the human toll of the breach.  In these interventions, the nostalgic discourse of Face to Face allows us to sense the intense anguish felt by the characters. Given the overarching censorship that defined the production context, the intense emotions expressed by Besnik and Sergei regarding the breach are most surprising. Çashku has spoken of the nostalgia felt by members of the production team for the days of Soviet-Albanian friendship (Kujtim Çashku, personal contact, 8 January 2015.) Rereading Face to Face today, we are free to explore the subtle subtexts that circulate with the film’s overt message.

With what are we Face to Face?
Face to Face concludes as the vessel conveying Soviet soldiers and civilians away from Vlora departs. Superimposed is an image of a single seagull—Chekhov’s maybe?—, which mirrors the birds present in the opening shot.  While the image may propagandistically suggest a return to peace in the wake of the enemy’s retreat, we are left with the profound sense of shattered friendships and severed human ties, and once again, we are struck by the ambiguity of the rift. After all, the solitary seagull implies the loss of a double; the film’s pairings have come to a halt. Some thirty-five years after the film’s premiere, we contemplate the complexity of this ambiguity.

We can now return to the motif of time as suggested by García Márquez’s novel. The title of this essay implies an interplay between the notions of re-reading and foretelling. When viewed through the lens of nostalgia, Face to Face speaks to three periods: 1) the historical events of the rift; 2) the production of the film at the apex of Albania’s isolation, and 3) the context through which we read it today. Fortunately, a good number of players in the production are still alive and have a wealth of information to share about the making of the film and its initial reception. The anguish of the diegetic characters is mirrored to a large extent by the nostalgia Kujtim Çashku sensed during the production of the film for the days when the eagle and the big bear were actually close friends. Yet in 1979, it was difficult to articulate such nostalgia publicly, and hence numerous nods had to be made to Albania’s fierce anti-Soviet stance. The nostalgia Çashku and others sensed went against the grain of what dared be pronounced, and, in essence, foretold the freedom through which we can read the film today. Granted, the phenomenon of Ostalgie is less pronounced in Albania than in other countries of Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, when we approach Face to Face against the grain of official propaganda, maybe some of the bad old days were considerably less bad. We can view the film as a testimony to the years of friendship and community, which are now only remembered by older Albanians.  Through it, we come Face to Face with the human side of historical processes that constructed communist Albania and which still inform it today.


1] For a biographical sketch of Piro Milkani, see Hoxha 2002: 264-266.

2] The importance of Victory over Death is well recognized. Like Face to Face, it is one of the first five films scheduled for restoration by the Albanian Cinema Project.    

3] For a biographical sketch of Kujtim Çashku, see Hoxha 2002: 70-72.

4] The Mao Tse Tung plant at Vau i Dejes was a special symbol of Communist Albania, so much so, that when Bekim Fehmiu, the noted ethnic Albanian Yugoslav actor visited Albania, his visit to the plant was documented in the newsreel, Bekim Fehmiu në Shqipëri (Williams 2007).

5] It is especially significant that Çashku had the opportunity to study in Romania during a period of heightened isolation in Albania. The heyday of Albanian directors studying in Eastern Bloc countries was long over.

6] The plight of women from such countries as the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia who were persecuted by the Hoxha regime is poignantly explored in a 2007 Bulgarian documentary by Adela Peeva, Divorce Albanian Style (Razvod po albanski).

7] Following the return of the Albanian students from Prague, the Hoxha regime’s isolationism slowly increased. The Sadness of Mrs Schneider textualizes the human toll of the early phases of this process.

8] An early version of Dimri i madh titled Dimri I vetmisë sè madhe (The Winter of Great Solitude) was intended for publication in 1973. Given an unfavorable review by official censors, its publication was blocked.  Kadare was able to publish the work under the slightly, but significantly, different title some five years later.

9] A biographical sketch of sketch of Ismael Kadare, with particular attention devoted to his importance for Albanian cinema, can be found in Hoxha 2002: 174-175.

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Williams, B. (2014). “The Distant among Us: Kolonel Bunker (1998) in a Postcolonial Context,” in E. Mazierska, L. Kristensen and E. Näripea, (eds), Postcolonial Approaches to Eastern European Cinema: Portraying Neighbours On-Screen.  London: I. B. Tauris, pp. 253-276.

Bruce Williams © 2016

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Updated: 18 Mar 16