Cooking History

Playful docu inventively uses the field kitchen as a prism through which to view 20th-century European history.

'Cooking History'

Proving the maxim “An army marches on its belly,” playful docu “Cooking History” inventively uses the field kitchen as a prism through which to view 20th-century European history. Slovak multihyphenate Peter Kerekes (“66 Seasons”) provides fascinating sociological insights via powerfully staged interviews with a baker’s dozen of military cooks, plus Marshal Tito’s personal taster. Already released in Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic and winner of the international feature prize at Hot Docs, this tasty morsel (including 10 recipes) should be gobbled up by niche arthouse distribs and broadcasters around the world.

Structured as separate episodes that consider conflicts such as WWII; the Russian invasions of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Chechnya; the Franco-Algerian war; and the Balkan bloodbaths, Kerekes lets his articulate (and mostly aged) subjects hold forth in monologues, prompted every now and then by his off-camera questions. Through their subjective recollections, food preparation becomes a metaphor for battle strategy.

Engrossing as the cooks’ personal histories are, the extraordinary nature of the docu lies in the theatrical way in which the monologues are staged. Never mere talking-head shots, they take place against clever and elaborate backgrounds; in some instances, the subjects play to the artifice of the helmer’s setup, deliciously adding to the stories they tell.

For instance, Peter Silbernagel, the only crew member to survive the sinking of the submarine Hai in 1963, talks about his experience while preparing schnitzel on a sandy beach in Sylt, Germany, as the tide slowly rolls in and floats his table away.

Meanwhile, Liepke Distel’s story unfolds in a visual manner befitting his undercover activities. A concentration camp survivor, Distel became a member of the Jewish resistance movement that poisoned the bread of Gestapo and SS men held in an American prison camp.

While many will delight in the pic’s sly humor, vegetarians and animal-rights activists may find it tough sledding during a depiction of Russian soldiers shooting a cow while practicing meal preparation in combat conditions. Likewise, Bekes Mihaly, a cook during Hungary’s 1956 anti-communist uprising, recounts his memories while overseeing a bloody outdoor party of sausage makers in Cegled, while gourmet chef Jacques Besson, at ease in his backyard in Lyon, captures a crowing rooster to prepare a very fresh coq au vin.

Kerekes also makes the point that spitefulness between nations is reflected in the disparagement of others’ national cuisines. This observation is epitomized by the testimony of Branko Trbovich, Tito’s personal taster, whose discussion of the differences between the preferred diets of Serbians, Croatians and Bosnians encapsulates the rising nationalism in former Yugoslavia.

Among the stellar craft credits, Marek Piacek’s versatile score and Daniel Nemec’s sound design are particularly notable.

Cooking History

Austria-Slovakia-Czech Republic

  • Production: An SPI Intl. (in Slovakia)/Aerofilms (in Czech Republic) release of a Mischief Films (Austria)/Peter Kerekes (Slovakia)/Negativ (Czech Republic) production in cooperation with ORF Film/Fernsehabkommen, Czech TV, YLE, RAI Sat, Slovak TV with the support of Filmfonds Wien, Oesterreichisches Filminstitut, Slovak Ministry of Culture, Czech Film Fund, Media Plus. (International sales: Taskovski Films, London/Prague.) Produced by Ralph Wieser, Georg Misch, Peter Kerekes, Pavel Strnad. Directed, written by Peter Kerekes.
  • Crew: Camera (color, Super 16-to-35mm), Martin Kollar; editor, Marek Sulik; music, Marek Piacek; production designer, Ralph Wieser; sound (Dolby SR), Stepan Mamula, Daniel Nemec. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (noncompeting), July 9, 2009. (Also in Hot Docs, SilverDocs film festivals.) Running time: 88 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Klavdia Matveevna Lobanova, Franz Weinhart, Heinz Rudiger, Liepke Distel, Bekes Mihaly, Jacques Besson, Rene Bianchi, Ljudmila Vladimirovna Korneva, Branko Trbovich, Mladen Vlahinja, Branka Mudrinic, Ankica Pavkovic, Peter Silbernagel. (Russian, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, French, Czech, Serbian, Croatian dialogue)