Film Festivals as Cultural Proxy of Cold War Ideology

Since their inception, film festivals have been a vehicle for nations to display both filmmaking merit as well as political ideologies. The post war film festival boom in Europe initiated a festival culture that praised nationalism and acted as an “Olympics of Films” for countries to gather and celebrate their national cinemas. [1] These newly founded festivals served as perfect stomping grounds for Cold War powerhouses to flaunt their cultural and political prowess and acted as small scale, cultural proxy wars during the height of the Cold War in Europe. This paper will examine the role that film festivals played in Cold War conflicts by examining the festivals that occurred in Cannes, Karlovy Vary, and Berlin. These three festivals act as a cross section of Cold War era festival culture in terms of the geopolitical forces at play in their cities; Cannes being solidly rooted in the West, Karlovy Vary being the major film festival of the Eastern Bloc countries, and Berlin smack in the middle of heated Cold War conflict. Studying film festivals as political extensions of national powers is important in analyzing the conflicting role of cinema as either independently constructed art or politically motivated propaganda.

In understanding the geopolitics of film festivals in the Cold War era, it is important to begin with the politics of their birth. De Valck’s Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia will act as a guide to this discussion of the early history of film festival politics. In what de Valck refers to as the era of the “Olympics of Film,” the early film festival acted as a platform to boast nationalist cinemas in Europe. It is important to note that the festivals were programmed by committees within individual countries that sent their best films to compete in festivals much in the same way a country sends its most talented athletes to the Olympics. To explain this early phenomenon of organizing festivals in a nationalist-centric manner, de Valck notes how the era of the nation-state set the tone for cultural modernity in Europe into the 20th century.[2] Film was a perfect outlet for the nationalist agendas that aimed to emphasize the sovereignty of individual nations. This ideology can clearly be seen in the “Olympics of Film” method of programming and organizing a film festival, and as a way of boosting the esteem and national identities of nations ravaged by WWII. This festival model flows very naturally into festivals being used to promote Cold War ideology. Film festivals became opportunities for the West to flaunt luxury in the face of the Soviet Union by presenting films that were pro-capitalism and pro-consumerism. Meanwhile, Soviet backed films push the essentialness of communism in all of its glory. In his article Border Exchanges: The Role of the European Film Festival, Evans emphasizes the importance of avoiding lumping all European festivals into a single category as their histories and cultures vary drastically from one another.[3] To explore this further, we will look at the individual festivals to see how the programming and overall festival culture reflected that of its presiding world power.

With its reputation as “kingmaker of the festival circuit,” Cannes is a fitting location to begin this discussion. [4] Cannes is seen as the trailblazer of the major festivals in Europe. Although it was not the earliest established festival—that title belongs to Venice—it ushered in a standard for European festivals to strive for. Evans draws a connection between the festival’s introduction of the now prestigious Palme d’Or and “the onset of an overtly competitive, and arguably more commercial, dimension.”[5] According to de Valck, the inception of Cannes came as a sort of treaty between allied nations in response to the “display of prejudice towards Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy” at the Venice film festival which  “pushed the dissatisfaction of other participating countries to a climax and led the French, British, and Americans to join forces and found a counter-festival in Cannes.[6]” The birth of Cannes was to provide an alternative to the political landscape that did not favor the Western allied nations, highlighting the politically charged role of film festivals from their inception. Although the festival did not get off the ground until after WWII, the strong relationship between Cannes and American cinema prevailed as de Valck points out in stating, “American productions from the six previous years – prevented from gaining a European release because of the war – were triumphantly shown” at the inaugural event.[7]

In discussing film festivals’ ability to act as a ground for diplomatic disputes, de Valck cites several instances in which participating countries boycotted films that did not align with their world-view. De Valck writes, “For the festival in Cannes, the USSR tried to boycott Die Vier Im Jeep/ Four in a Jeep (CH: Leopold Lindtberg and Elizabeth Montagu).”[8] This demonstrates the film festival as an active site for political discourse and an ideal vehicle for displaying cultural and political tendencies. Later, Cannes also shifted the norm of programming away from national committees that embodied the “olympics of film” mentality towards independently programmed festivals.[9] This was innovative to the festival model and helped establish Cannes as the major trendsetter of the festival world. In terms of Cold War politics, Cannes was very much rooted in Western culture. Evans notes its close connection with Hollywood, granting it the nickname “Hollywood on the Riviera” that skewed Cannes towards a culture rooted in commercialism.[10] Cannes’s close ties to American cinema and the commercialism associated with Hollywood demonstrates its roots in western culture during the Cold War and how it can be seen as the quintessential western film festival.

Karlovy Vary, on the other hand, was deeply rooted on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. De Valck discusses the birth of the festival as a result of the nationalization of the Czechoslovakian film industry in 1946.[11] The early years of the festival saw entries from both the nationalized cinema as well as countries that were known as major film producing nations— i.e., many of the developed western allied nations. However, with the soviets taking control of the nation in 1948, the festival underwent a major makeover to promote the ideals of their new occupiers. De Valck notes, “the conferral of awards was a very efficient mechanism in the confirmation of the communist world hierarchy.”[12] The film festival acted as a vehicle for soviets to flex their cultural muscles and to demonstrate that their film industry and culture held up to that of the west. Moreover, it is very telling how the structure shifted once the Soviet Union exerted their control over the festival. The communist ideals of equality permeated the structure of the festival in Karlovy Vary. De Valck explains that the presence of a Grand Prix award “did not correspond with the communist doctrine of equality, [and so] there was an abundance of other special awards at Karlovy Vary, which ensured that no movie from a communist or developing country would go home empty-handed.”[13] These peripheral awards exude the soviet sentiment for socialist ideals with titles such as “the peace and work award” and “the award for the struggle for freedom or social progress.”[14] The festival acted as soviet outreach to nations that they wished to force their sphere of influence upon. Again, viewing the festival as a vehicle for soviet ideals is reinforced as the festival shifted its structure in 1994 after the fall of the USSR. Evans notes that the rebranding was an attempt to “remove the stigma of its ideologically infected past,”[15] especially if they wanted to be taken seriously in the landscape of the contemporary festivals. Thus, as the ideology of those in power shifts, the structure and programming of the festival follows suit.

The shifting of power in Karlovy Vary and its rebranding during the 1990’s is explored more in depth in Iordanova’s article Showdown of the Festivals: Clashing Entrepreneurships and Post-Communist Management of Culture. In this article, Iordanova explains the identity crisis the festival in Karlovy Vary underwent with the decentralization of the cultural management iconic of the Soviet Union as it shifted to a more laissez faire attitude as seen in the festivals of western nations.[16] Most notable was the shifting views on the necessity for the festival to turn a profit. During the era of soviet control of the festival, emphasis was not placed on the profitability of the festival. Iordanova notes that as early as 1978 there was talk of relocating the festival to Prague in order to take advantage of the larger audiences it would draw. However, “as profitability was not the key concern of the state socialist management of culture” the festival stayed in Karlovy Vary. [17] After the fall of the Soviet Union, attitudes shifted and the festival was forced to turn a profit in order for it to survive. This necessity for profit was heightened with the birth of a rival festival in Prague that stole Karlovy Vary’s FIAPF designated A status in 1995—illustrating how the predominant economic and political forces of the time, in this instance capitalism’s dominance in a post-communist society, is echoed through the film festival landscape.[18] Arguments have been made suggesting that stripping Karlovy Vary’s “A” status and giving it to a fresh festival in Prague was in response to Karlovy Vary’s extensive communist heritage.[19] With its back against the wall, Karlovy Vary was forced to adapt to the new geopolitical climate and compete against the newly formed festival in Prague instead of having its status continually affirmed by soviet leaders with the interest of cultivating a festival for promoting communist ideals.

Lastly, in considering the conflict between east and west in context of film festivals during the cold war era, the Berlinale cannot be excluded from the discussion. Again, de Valck considers the beginnings of the festival in terms of geopolitics and notes, “It can be seen, on the one hand, as a reaction to the crisis in the German film industry, and, on the other, as a result of the strategic American involvement in Germany’s cultural affairs after WWII.”[20] After the end of the Third Reich, the German film industry came to a halt and was overseen by the U.S. In their examination of the industry, officials “treated the rebuilding of cinema as a project of political re-education” for the German industry in response to the propaganda films that reigned supreme throughout Hitler’s regime.[21] De Valck notes that as the German nation split under opposing ownership at the birth of the cold war, so did the German film industry. De Valck writes, “While the Soviets transformed the Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) in East Germany to a state-owned company, the Ufa Liquidation Committee dismantled the hierarchically organized production facilities, distribution companies, and cinemas in the West,” showing both sides’ interest in molding the film industry of Berlin and Germany to fit their model and serve their needs. [22] From this, the Berlinale was established in West Berlin as a western festival set up by Americans and would theoretically act as proof of western economic superiority and dominance. Upon its inaugural festival in 1951, films from communist nations were excluded from being screened. The proximity to East Berlin was, undoubtedly, a tactical move foreseen by the western organizers of the festival. The festival utilized border theaters and advertised screenings in border areas that allowed for easterners to view the event, again flaunting the cultural superiority of western ideals. The border screenings ended with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, demonstrating the heightened tension the festival caused at the intersection of the two major superpowers of the Cold War.[23] With the fall of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the wall, the Berlinale relocated to what was once a no man’s land between East and West Berlin, highlighting that once the overarching tension between ideologies of the Cold War had faded, the festival was able to shift its culture to include cultures from both sides of the war.

In examining the festival politics of three major European festivals during the height of the Cold War, it is clear that the festivals are very much a product of their geopolitical environments. Cannes from its early beginnings as a western alternative to the politics of Venice exemplifies western ideals of the Cold War era with its close relationship to Hollywood and American consumerism and the capitalist culture of competition. Karlovy Vary acts as a counter to Cannes as it was positioned as the major soviet festival in the east, providing a stage for the soviets to praise their films and reward their communist allies with pro-socialist themed awards. The American-backed Berlinale demonstrates the use of festivals as smaller cultural proxy wars aimed at promoting the predominant ideals of the controlling superpower. The role of film festivals as smaller cultural proxy wars during the Cold War is further validated in how the festivals shifted and changed after the fall of the Soviet Union. For Karlovy Vary, that shift involved distancing itself from its communist heritage as well as restructuring the festival to operate in a capitalist, laissez faire climate and become profitable enough to sustain its existence. Lastly, the post-soviet era Berlinale illustrates the shift from Cold War tensions to a culture of inclusiveness as the festival relocated to a middle ground between East and West Berlin.

In all three cases, the festivals reflected the outer tensions of the political environments that they were respectively situated within. The festivals acted as cultural extensions of the geopolitical climate of the Cold War highlighting a murky intersection of politics and art. Because the film festivals were born into a politicized world and were directly influenced by the host nations, the ideals of those nations permeate not only the programming and selection of films shown at the festivals, but also the very structure of festivals themselves. As followers of festivals and viewers of film, it is important to keep these overtly politicized histories in mind even today as it is clear that film festivals as institution are not exempt from the geopolitics of the world they exist within.


[1] Valck, De Marijke. “Film Festivals : From European Geopolitics To Global Cinephilia,” 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Evans, Owen. “Border Exchanges: The Role Of the European Film Festival.” Journal Of Contemporary European Studies 15, no. 1 (2007): 23–33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Valk, “Film Festivals…”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Evans, “Border Exchanges…”

[11] Valck, “Film Festivals…”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Evans, “Border Exchanges…”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Iordanova, Dina. “Showdown of the festivals: clashing entrepreneurships and post-communist management of culture.”Film International (16516826) 4, no. 5 (September 2006): 25-37.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Valck, “Film Festivals…”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.