Footnotes: D’Est – Ward No. 6

2 December, 2021

Ever since last year, there has been a buzz surrounding the 30th anniversary of the collapse of Yugoslavia. In Romania, the most remarkable event that marked the occasion was the release of Noam Chomsky’s anthology, Yugoslavia: Peace, War and Dissolution, translated by Gabriel Tudor for Litera Publishing. Another one – Historia magazine dedicated a special number to the topic, which can still be bought (I haven’t got around to reading it, though, so I am prudently recommending it). It’s little, especially for a country who was close to the fiery years of the former federation.

Slowly, I ascertained that it’s high time for me to watch Ward No. 6, Lucian Pintilie’s least-known film, which was shot for the Belgrade Radiotelevision in 1973 [1], shortly after the „Government Inspector scandal”, which followed the banning of Pintilie’s adaptation of Gogol’s eponymous play after only three public presentations at the Bulandra Theater (on the 23rd, 26th and 28th of September 1972). This is the same director that, two years earlier, was facing the authorities’ reticence towards releasing The Reconstruction on the big screens and who now was getting a clear signal – that both of his projects, “fully written and handed over to the authorities, towards their ritualistic approval” 2], that is, a theater show adapted from Chekhov’s The Seagull and a film adaptation of the same Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, got a negative proposal from the party structures. As a result, Pintilie says goodbye to Bulandra and takes up the invitations he has been receiving from outside of the country – one from Paris, the town which would become his home until his return in the early nineties, and another one from Belgrade. The first invitation would end up making history, one that is better known by theater historians. The latter, however, proved to be the spark of a tiny history, a timely and frugal episode that is however no less than fascinating.

Before moving onto other topics, this event is an ideal example to an idea that I have brought up throughout this column, that is, the lack of harmony throughout the Soviet bloc in regards to cinema. Given that in Bucharest, the films of the New Hungarian and Czechoslovak waves were being cut up by censors, films that were rejected in Bucharest ended up being shot in Belgrade. Apparently, journalist Dessa Trevisan, “a profound friend of the Romanians” [3], was the one to pass Pintilie’s script onto the Yugoslavs. Once arrived, he would end up working for three weeks on a film that was “conceived of in poverty, on 16mm”, yet one that was “rapidly inflatable”[4]. By “inflatable”, the authors means transferring it onto a larger, 35mm format; meaning, to aim at a later distribution in Yugoslav cinemas, including the Pula International Film Festival (1978) and later on in Cannes, in the second iteration of the Un Certain Regard sidebar (1979).[5]

That Pintilie opted to adapt Chekhov seems to be a self-sufficient fact, which doesn’t depend on the given Zeitgeist – after all, he was devoted to him in his theater work. The few Romanian reviews of the film – since it only premiered locally in 1995, and only on the Telecinematheque programme – discover a kernel of anti-communism (what else?) in the Ward. Since Checkhov’s short story, written and set in the second half of the 19th century, has quite a generous topic. At its center lies Andrey Efimici Paghin, a provincial doctor in tsarist Russia, one of those individuals that are dedicated to noble causes, but that are unable to impose their will in the face of a perverted system; as such, they take the path of alienation. Behold, the individual facing tsarism, fascism, communism, capitalism – just name it. Of course, the director’s personal biography invites one to consider an anti-communist reading, and that is perfectly justified, but I find that a Chekhov piece adapted in the seventies, or Pintilie adapting something in the seventies, has a lot more to say than that.

In the short, the writer posits the doctor as a timorous and lonely individual, one who is profoundly disappointed in his own compromises. Stoic in his acts and thoughts, bookish through and through, Andrei Efrimici Paghin exonerates his blame for the state of things, rejecting his moral and professional responsibility; out of helplessness, but also out of conviction. He believes in medicine, and is even enthusiastic about it, but he knows that it cannot work in the absence of material means. This is why he fundamentally remains a man of philosophy and religion, disciplines that, in his eyes, science could only replace at a pragmatic level. Spiritually – not in any case; since he considered these two as the sole sources of happiness. All along his work excesses, he finds his job as a doctor to be suspicious, since the very need of people to prolong their lives comes across as questionable. As for life itself, for him, it is nothing but a race, a constant sanitarium, just as ward number six. His thoughts lead him to foreign clinics, where science comes to fruition and neurodivergent people are treated with care. Still, he finds that the nature of things is the same; as long as mental patients are not removed from the confines of the walls that keep them sealed away from others, “there is no difference at all between the very best clinics in Vienna and my hospital”.[6]  His encounter with Ivan Dimitrici, one of the patients admitted in the salon, ends up breaking these convictions. From one discussion to another, his fascination for the young man’s erudition simply grows and grows; he, however, castigates him on every occasion – for his cowardice, his lazy philosophy that feeds upon his privileges, for his lack in reactions, for the nonchalant manner in which he relativizes things on the expense of others, and so on. In short, Dimitrici’s main reproach is that it’s easy to talk about inner warmth when you’re not cold, about the nothingness of things when you have them in your possession, about the permanence of the soul when one isn’t subject to beatings. Especially interesting are the doctor’s realisations about sanitariums and prisons: “… There must be someone who lives in them. If not you, then me, if not me, then somebody else”. In the end, due to his suspicious friendship with the young patient, the doctor ends up locked in the sanitarium himself.

As for Pintilie? He keeps the doctor’s ideas regarding life, the world and science, as especially transmitted through off-screen monologues, while choosing to relieve him of professional faults. And keeps his destiny intact. Thinned in such a manner, the script underlines all the more this idea of an individual that is helplessly serving a banalized evil. As for the times that pass evilness between themselves, the director doesn’t say much, but that certain something is quite clear – at a frozen edge of the world, with proper sets and costumes for the end of the 19th century, one can suddenly hear a helicopter. In a film that is so submissive towards its soundscape, dominated either by classical music, by hidden rhythms or a random water fountain that sometimes catches the doctor’s full attention, Pintilie’s trickery is not inconspicuous, especially since it’s underlined by two splendid shots, one of a patient, and one of a village girl, as they are both looking towards the sky. 

Slobodan Perović plays the medic by using his sad eyes and by grimacing, as all other actors will play roles of significant men; these individuals who will later on lock up the protagonist, provoking his very first (and last) outburst from his form. Those who perform the patients, led by Zoran Radmilović, the face of Ivan Dimitrici, are doing a remarkable balancing act between wild emphasis and the tenderness of self-loss. Pintilie’s wager is the same as Chekhov’s – the civilisation, rationality and intellectual fetishes of the protagonist are now clashing with their very own horrors. 

But, as I said, the context of the seventies makes such a wager all the more interesting. Maybe Ward No. 6 does have a kernel of ideas regarding totalitarianism, but it’s easier to see its ideas regarding medicine. The inevitable Michel Foucault – one could hardly overestimate the popularity of the studies conducted by the French philosopher in the sixties regarding neurodivergence, which Pintilie more or less unwittingly engages here, even by simple nature of conjuncture. And along the dialogue between the Ward and Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), the book in which Foucault shows how, all along the classical age (between the 17th and 18th centuries), mental patients became the new lepers, the ones to be locked up far away from the rest of civilisation, Pintilie’s decision to adapt precisely this Chekhovian short story gains a sort of extravagance. The decrepit number six ward is a remnant of this world in which neurodivergence is not to be treated, but rather, it is to be isolated. What is striking in these Viennese clinics, for example, is that the modern age established the pathologization of mental illness through psychiatry. Andrei Eftimici finds traces of moral bankruptcy in the methods of the modern age – which is still looking forward to locking up its patients -, yet falls prey to the classical ones, which one can notice as being completely the same in terms of aims, only differing when it comes to the means themselves. But these means are not to be discarded; not at all, says the director, magnifying glass in hand. Look closely. If one is to understand the idea that, following the lead of the archives, a history of neurodivergence can only be written from the perspective of doctors, then Pintilie’s adaptation comes across as a discursive curiosity – here is a fiction about a doctor that turns into a patient; is this change only one of social status?

Pintilie, as always, has cinema on his side. Only free individuals and dead ones can benefit from an ample, unshaken, noble travelling shot; behind the keyhole, there is no space but for tight shots and small, hand-held tremors. The understanding of Pintilie’s cinema, which is so often about marginal people, awaits its consummation in the intimacy of his phantomatic, Yugoslavian film about borders. 

[1] The year is somewhat uncertain. Eugenia Vodă mentions the fall of 1992, which is not unlikely, considering post-production. In Bricabrac, Pintilie is ambiguous when it comes to chronologies. It is well known that the ban of the play was rendered official by a press release that was published in Scînteia on the 30th of September 1972. But the actual moment in which the project of Ward No. 6 was truly abandoned by the production house remains incertain. Bricabrac puts forward a fabulous scenario – that less than 24 hours after the refusal in Bucharest, the director was already on the set of the Yugoslav television (p. 40). One page later, the following comes up – “And, still, in the moment that I set foot in Belgrade, Dessa Trevisan (…) encountered me with the following pretext:

– Some people from the Théâtre de la Ville from Paris were looking for you. They want to propose a play to you.

The cynical man in me felt a pang of virility. It had been exactly 48 hours since the premiere of Turandot.”

However, the premiere of Turandot, which was set on the stage at the Théâtre National de Chaillot, took place in 1974. Was he speaking about a return to Belgrade? In any case, I trust that the biography that precedes this memoir had Pintilie’s blessing, so I will go with it – 1973.

[2] Lucian Pintilie, Bricabrac, Bucharest: Humanitas Publishing, 2003, p. 31.

[3] Idem., p. 41

[4] Ibid.

[5] Not in 1977, as the author remembered in Bricabrac (p. 40).

[6] A.P. Cehov, Ward No. 6 and Other Short Stories, Bucharest: Mondoro Publishing, p. 61, translated by Sofia Dobrogeanu-Gherea and Alexei Mateevici. 

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies.


Director/ Screenwriter