‘Velvet Retro’: historian Veronika Pehe on Czech pop culture, (anti)heroes, collective memory and post-communist nostalgia – for resistance

Veronika Pehe, photo: Radko Kubičko, Czech Radio

Popular films, TV series and novels can profoundly shape a nation’s collective memory and cement the evolving historical master narrative. In her new book, ‘Velvet Retro: Postsocialist Nostalgia and the Politics of Heroism in Czech Popular Culture’, historian Veronika Pehe examines the evolving ways the era has been portrayed since 1989 – from early comedies to tragic narratives that cast the past as trauma.

Veronika Pehe,  photo: Radko Kubičko,  Czech Radio

Scholars of state socialism have frequently invoked ‘post-communist nostalgia’ to identify an uncritical longing for the utopian ambitions and lived experience of the former Eastern Bloc. Pehe offers an alternative take on the phenomenon, instead presenting ‘retro’ as a dominant mode of remembering that combines an aesthetic fascination with the past with political condemnation of the state socialist era.

In ‘Velvet Retro’, she argues that the term nostalgia fails to describe memory cultures in the Czech Republic, identifying a distinctively retro aesthetic in film, TV, literature and other cultural forms. There’s a lot to unpack – I began by asking the historian Veronika Pehe to explain her concept of ‘retro’.

“Nostalgia is a longing for the past or an aspect of the past. I think it is quite inaccurate to think of nostalgia as wanting a kind of wholesale return to a past period, even though obviously there are types like that. [Russian academic] Svetlana Boym, who wrote a very influential book on the topic, distinguishes between ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia.

“Restorative would be more of this idea of wanting to recreate a lost past that is somehow superior to the present period we’re experiencing and wanting to reclaim that while ‘reflective’ nostalgia is much more slippery, ironic and playful. It’s more about picking aspects of the past that whoever is performing this nostalgia might have some emotional attachment to. So, these are two strands of nostalgia that much has been written about, not just in relation to the former Eastern bloc but also in Western cultures.

Illustrative photo: Czech television
“And then there’s ‘retro’ – I distinguish between ‘nostalgia’ and ‘retro’, which in the book, I say is much less about that kind of sentimental attachment to the past. It’s much more distant, and more about using aspects of the past for some kind of aesthetic pleasure – for example, in various fashions worn today, but not necessarily engaging emotionally or sentimentally with that past, and perhaps not even condoning that past in anyway way, and perhaps even criticising it. So, there are definitely aspects of ‘retro’ that can be quite ambiguous in this sense.”

Czech retro, Ostalgie and Yugo-nostalgia

Early on in ‘Velvet Retro’, Veronika Pehe contrasts the forms of nostalgia expressed through the cultural canons of the Czech Republic especially with that of Germany, where postsocialist ‘Ostalgie’ is characterised in part by the longing for promise of a more human and just society (searching for redeeming features of life in the former GDR), and that of Yugoslavia, where a ‘restorative nostalgia’ is also quite pervasive.

Pelíšky  (Cosy Dens,  1999),  photo: Space Films
“I think the main difference between the Czech case and German and also Yugoslav cases is that the latter two do turn to this kind of utopian impulse behind the socialist project; so, this idea that state socialism was meant to build a better, more just society. And the object of nostalgia, this kind of longing, does turn to this idea in some way – even though it’s been, perhaps, problematized or shown as unachievable.

“Now, in the Czech case, this is really missing. I think it’s very interesting that even though there is this whole canon of films and TV series which on a first viewing would seem to invoke nostalgia or a kind of sentiment for the past, and certainly they offer a kind of benign, lenient view of state socialism – I’m talking about films like Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999) by Jan Hřebejk, or Rebelové (Rebels, 2001) by Filip Renč, and so on.

“In fact, when you start to analyse the political meanings conveyed in these films, they are actually quite anti-communist, in the sense that they might indulge a fascination with the material culture of the past – the fashion, the hairstyles – all of that is there for the viewers’ enjoyment, but at the same time it’s clear that the audience is not meant to sympathise with the political system that produced those aesthetic objects.

“So, there’s this kind of tension between on the one hand the political condemnation of the previous regime, which is present in all of these representations, and at the same time the enjoyment of the form of that period. And I think that is different to the German or Yugoslav context; that there isn’t much of this sentiment relating to the idea of building a better society.”

In the Czech Republic, popular films produced in the first 15 years or so after the communist regime, Pehe says, were dominated by comedies that were “quite benign” in their depiction of the previous regime. They also tended to focus on ordinary people and their “minor acts of resistance”, often were told through the perspective of an adult taking an ironic look at their youth, and revelled in the retro aesthetics of the period – music, hairstyles and so on.

Pupendo,  photo: Czech television
“Later on, something starts to change. Suddenly, more dramatic movies are being produced that portray life under communism as trauma. They try to paint large narratives of heroic resistance, which is something that really wasn’t present in these comedies before.”

“The comedies that were produced in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium focused largely on stories of ‘ordinary’ people, who perform minor acts of resistance. So, going back to what we were speaking about previously, all of these films have this inscribed anti-communist attitude in them.

“Even though the viewers are invited to appreciate all these objects and styles from the past, in fact they are asked to sympathize with characters who quite clearly define themselves as in opposition to the regime. So, the protagonists will engage in actions that in some way demonstrate their resistance to communist rule, but quite often that’s also a source of humour – that’s what makes them comedies.

“Pelíšky is probably one of the best-known films of this genre. One of the characters is very staunchly anti-communist, World War II resistance veteran walks onto his balcony and shouts obscenities – that all the ‘proletarians of the world’ should go and… Well, I won’t say exactly what he says!

“But that’s an example of this minor action where somebody is publicly voicing their opposition to the regime but also knows it’s quite safe to do, that it won’t have any repercussions – it’s more a performance of moral exculpation. And this happens in these movies all the time.

“So, my argument in the book is that these films offer this picture of collectively living through an authoritarian regime in a dignified way. They try to suggest that ordinary people perform these acts of minor resistance on a daily basis and didn’t agree with the regime.

“This a flattering picture of the collective memory of the past that’s being produced in this cultural production because it doesn’t really deal with issues of collaboration or perhaps simply also acquiescence with the regime, or outright support.

“Characters who support the regime or are portrayed as members of the Communist Party are always negative. So, it’s a very binary way of portraying the past because the positive characters are always the ones who oppose the regime and the negative ones are the communists.

“So, this is the kind of nostalgia for resistance that’s present in a lot of these films and TV series, where It’s precisely the fact that there was such a regime against which characters defined themselves that provided this sense of excitement of always doing something that’s not quite allowed, and that motivates the actions of a lot of characters.

Občanský průkaz  (The Identity Card,  2010),  photo: 2media.cz
“I think a great example of this is Občanský průkaz (The Identity Card, 2010) by Ondřej Trojan, based on a novel by Petr Šabach, who wrote a lot of these nostalgic stories about his childhood and adolescence in state socialism. It tells the story of a group of teenagers who are constantly getting in trouble with the police, and they really enjoy that sense of rebellion that expressing their opposition to communist authority grants them.

“So, what I looked at in the book is how nostalgia actually doesn’t have to be a desire to recover the communist past, for its return – not at all; in fact, nostalgia expressed in many Czech cultural artefacts is exactly the opposite: it’s a nostalgia for the overthrow of communism. It’s a kind of anti-communist nostalgia, so to say.”

A ‘dramatic turn’ from comedy to trauma

By asking what constituted acts of heroism under dictatorship, who should be celebrated and who condemned, cultural producers helped shape the collective memory but also revealed shared assumptions about the values associated with the present political order.

Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech radio
Pehe says a “dramatic turn” away from comedies came in 2005 or so, along with a shift in public discourse, and at the institutional level. A tangible result, for instance, was the establishment of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR), which seeks to produce a kind of official memory politics, and whose mission is to celebrate anti-communist resistance.

“And because the setting-up of the Institute produced a really heated public debate, representations, cultural production, also starts to change with this memory landscape. And we see that a lot of writers and filmmakers are shifting away from these small stories of ordinary people who perform these gestures of petty heroism and instead are starting to focus on characters who try to commit acts of genuine heroism.”

Hořící keř  (Burning Bush,  2013),  photo: HBO
“So, often these films or stories will be based on true stories. I think a great example of this is Hořící keř (Burning Bush, 2013), the HBO miniseries directed by Agnieszka Holland, which deals with the self-immolation of Jan Palach and then the ensuing courtroom drama it captures. The main protagonist is lawyer Dagmar Burešová, who is of course a real-life character, and she’s portrayed as a hero, as someone who was incredibly courageous and stood up the authorities at the time.

“So, a lot of this production later on really is searching for heroes, as I call it, searching for role models, trying to break away from this idea that everybody resisted in some small way – no, they didn’t, these new films and books are saying. A lot of people were cowardly, but then others were exceptionally courageous, and they are the heroes.”

“Obviously, what this kind of model does is that it paints a picture of the past that is incredibly black and white, leaving very little space for all that comes between. It doesn’t leave a lot of scope to explore those spaces.”

Hořící keř  (Burning Bush,  2013),  photo: HBO

Nostalgia for a mythical golden age First Republic

Q: You note in Velvet Retro that if there is a nostalgia among Czechs – a ‘restorative’ nostalgia, a longing for the past – then it would be for the First Republic, which in the collective memory is posited as the true site of democratic values, and that Communist rule was seen as an aberration – a Soviet import. Is there an example of a TV series or film that illustrates that? I know there was one called simply První republika (The First Republic, 2014), which was quite popular.

Vyprávěj,  photo: Czech television
“Yes, that’s right. In fact, I think this would also answer your earlier question as to how Czech nostalgia differs from the German case and others. If we understand nostalgia as returning to something that has been lost, then the lost object in the Czech case isn’t really the period of state socialism, it’s the First Republic, which in the Czech mythology is understood as the origin of democracy. This is very much a kind of myth that is implicit in many of these representations that I discuss.

“I think the best example is probably Vyprávěj, which is a TV series set from the 1960s onward produced by the same team that later did První republika. They seem to have a fascination with this particular period. Vyprávěj really illustrates this point very clearly, in the sense that there’s the character of the grandmother, the kind of matriarch of the family that the series follows, who has a statue of [Tomáš Garrigue] Masaryk in her apartment as is constantly evoking the values of the interwar First Republic.

“This is something hidden between the lines of a lot of these representations of socialism; that in fact there’s this narrative of progress, this idea that all the characters are performing these acts of resistance to eventually overthrow the regime and reinstate the true Czech democracy, so to say. That’s the kind of central myth that’s being portrayed.

První republika  (The First Republic,  2014),  photo: Czech television
“I think that’s what also allows us to place many of these representations within the framework of ‘retro’ rather than ‘nostalgia’ because what I argue is that retro has a different temporal dynamic.

“Nostalgia is all about a return to the past, but retro in fact has this idea of a linear sense of progress inscribed into it, this idea that the present, where we find ourselves, is in fact superior to the past we’re returning to [in these cultural productions].

“So, this is where these acts of resistance are eventually taking us, to the present. And, of course, it’s in a way a rather simple vision of history that many of them offer in commercial cinema or works of popular literature.”

Q: Lastly, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like an international audience, in particular, to understand about your book?

“Well, I think the book offers a whole history of post-socialism in the Czech Republic through the prism of popular culture and how the past has been remembered. I think this is something that has perhaps be done to a certain extent, but this book is the first to gather it all in one place, to look at the first 25 years after 1989 and how the cultural memory of life under state socialism developed.

“It definitely shows some of the specificities of the Czech case, and the Czech memory of state socialism, which is this aspect of nostalgia for resistance, in particular, and petty heroism, and this idea that heroism is taken on by ordinary characters who are show to oppose the regime. And in that sense, it offers a kind of flattering memory of the past.

“But it’s not just a book that comments on the Czech situation per se. And I think something that we perhaps didn’t mention is that retro, as I define it, is also present in a lot of Western cultures and is not something dependent on the post-socialist context. So, I talk about ‘Velvet retro’ as something specific to the Czech Republic but that definitely has wider applications across popular culture.”

Veronika Pehe is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences. ‘Velvet Retro: Postsocialist Nostalgia and the Politics of Heroism in Czech Popular Culture’ was published by Berghahn Books, a peer-reviewed publisher of scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences. www.berghahnbooks.com/title/PeheVelvet