June 15, 2021

Intercultural insights in post-communist Europe

Countries and regions

Poland, Ukraine and Czechia have essential links among the Slavic nations. "The Pleasure Principle", a series broadcast in 2020 by the Arte channel, proposes a certain cross vision 30 years after the fall of communism.

Intercultural insights in post-communist Europe

Three investigators of different nationalities meet and form ties involving Warsaw, Prague and Odessa. This thriller presents, to quote France Inter, "the radiography of a contemporary Eastern Europe, heir to a past from which it has not yet recovered". The changing face of this other Europe is painted in detail, from the underbelly to the corrupted upper echelons. The investigation becomes a pretext for considering the views (and questions) that these three changing countries ask themselves.

Slavs ... speaking English

First characteristic of the series: the language, or rather the languages, since there are five, all naturally in VO subtitled by Arte. Polish, Czech and Ukrainian of course, but also English, the new lingua franca that definitively replaces Russian ... which still exists in some scenes in Odessa.

Poles, Czechs and Ukrainians are however close as Slavic languages. Like many neighboring countries, Ukrainians and Poles have a painful common history, made of unions (Treaty of Lublin in 1569) but also of tears, making it complicated to use the neighbor's language to communicate and the preference for a third language. At the end of 2019, a debate has also shaken Poland between the expressions "na Ukrainie" and "w Ukrainie". Both expressions mean "in Ukraine", but the first (the most common) refers more to a province (or island) and the second to a country. However, the "na" also indicates familiarity, proximity and not necessarily subordination.

Many Poles could engage in a conversation with a Czech, and Poles do humor with a "Czech accent", like the French do with Belgians. Yet in the series presented by Arte, the inspectors communicate only in English, showing their adherence to the "global community". In the complex relationship between the two languages, the "big" country does not always influence the "small" one. Let us recall, for example, that the official birth of Poland (its baptism in 966) dates from the marriage of Mieszko I to a Bohemian princess ... whose Czech brother became the first "Polish" archbishop (and deeply influenced the whole Polish liturgical language). Or that the first professors of the University of Krakow, the first Polish university (1364), came from Charles IV University in Prague.

What vision of post-communism?

The Arte series presents a Warsaw of skyscrapers1 and corrupt businessmen, ticking all the boxes of a certain Western modernism. The Polish investigation is brilliantly led by the series' heroine, an energetic and talented woman who shakes up the audiovisual production world. In contrast to Warsaw, Prague is presented as a capital of tradition and culture, this time with an aging investigator who turns back the clock on his retirement. The scenes in Prague are steeped in history, while those in Warsaw take place in a metropolis that looks to the 21st century. Odessa remains on the periphery, yet so beautiful, not only with its famous steps or its opera (but the references to "Battleship Potemkin" or "The Man with the Camera" refer to bygone eras), but also in its drifting and neglected seashores. Between futuristic Warsaw and a Prague that is proud of its heritage, Odessa seems lost, aware of what it could offer but haunted by its misery. Corruption is widespread, the population dreams of exile, magnetized by modern Poland (even if the plot begins with the murder of a Polish woman ... in Odessa). The Ukrainian investigator is a young man, dark, brawling and seductive, as desperate as drunk with life.

Music and family breakdowns as cultural convergences

In the labyrinth of the investigation, music plays a special role, bringing cultures together. The main Polish actress is the daughter of a virtuoso, whom she opposes and whom we never see. A guitarist herself, she plays songs in the series that continue in the next scene, in another country. Rejecting her father, she nevertheless listens to his classical interpretations, especially of Czech composers, which her interlocutors in Prague recognize, whatever their sociology (opera-loving investigator, model...). The Ukrainian investigator also plays music, but far from this universe, with scenes where he rages on his drum set.

Another point of convergence: the isolation of the characters, all abandoned, without family nor children, or hardly. As much as the police plot, their emotional misery brings the three investigators together. Everywhere, the generations are in rupture, the children cut off from their parents, the youngest unable to form a couple. We see the aging of the Czech Republic as much as the record demographic declines of Poland or Ukraine, itself penalized by the Czech Republic and Poland, which attract a culturally close Ukrainian workforce. In Ukraine today, one can see billboards urging people to migrate, touting the advantages of working in the Czech Republic.

Despite the religious revival after the fall of communism, religion is the great absentee in the series. Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity is not mentioned any more than Polish or Czech Catholicism. The Czech Republic is very different from Poland in this respect. Poland recognizes itself as the most "religious" and practicing country in Europe, the Czech Republic as the most atheistic country in the world. Religion is never mentioned, despite its contemporary resurgence and its historical role in the constitution of national identities, including the present ones. Let's remember that in front of a Kiev turned towards Rome, it is Ukrainian peasants faithful to Orthodoxy who, becoming Cossacks, organized themselves and by beating Poland will assert their autonomy (by allying themselves to the Russians) and will give birth to a Ukraine... quickly vassalized by Moscow.

Finally, what does this mini-series tell us about the crossed views of these three cultures, torn between the weight of history and a modernism as attractive as it is corrupt? The translation of its Polish title (Zasada przyjemności, or "the pleasure principle") suggests, in a Freudian wink, the impossibility for the protagonists to extricate themselves from the dream or the hallucination. Not only the criminals who give free rein to their impulses, but also the investigators, their cultures and the entire cities as a backdrop.


1The Varso Tower, which will be finished in 2022, is already, with 310 meters, the highest skyscraper in Europe.

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