The Visitors

The Visitors (TV series, 1983, Czechoslovakia/FRG/Switzerland/France): Utopia, Common Sense and Hegemonic Masculinity

The Visitors (Návštěvníci, TV series, 1983, Czechoslovakia/FRG/Switzerland/France): Utopia, Common Sense and Hegemonic Masculinity

By: Darina Martykánová (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)

Paper presented at the International Conference Imaginarios utópicos: pasado, presente y futuro, in Madrid, 30th september – 2nd october 2015. Link: https://imagest.hypotheses.org/debates/imaginarios-utopicos-pasado-presente-y-futuro

The TV series The Visitors begins in a utopian future, namely the year 2484, in which equalitarian, multiracial human society lives governed – voluntarily, we suppose – by a council of scientists, guided by a supercomputer known as Central Brain of the Humankind (communicating in male voice). Suddenly, the Brain starts to produce warnings, predicting that an unknown object from space is heading towards the Earth. A team of four people is sent to the past to contact Adam Bernau. He was a famous scientist born in the 1970s who discovered a principle enabling the transportation of continents that could avert the imminent danger. In order to succeed in this mission without altering the past, the team members are supposed to pass as topographers.

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Picture 1: Central Brain of the Humankind

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Picture 2: The Visitors: the team from the future.

MAKING ENTERTAINMENT ACROSS THE IRON CURTAIN:

The series is a cultural product far from atypical for the decades of the 1970s-1980s. It is a co-production between West Germany and a communist country of Central Europe, in this case Czechoslovakia, with participation of investors from two other capitalist countries. This kind of collaboration had a long tradition. In the 1950s and 1960s, the left-wing intelligentsia held an important position within the film industry and public televisions of the democratic Western Europe and actively sought for attractive programmes from the Eastern bloc that could be ideologically “challenging”, but still palatable for local public in the West. Besides high-culture art products such as films by famous directors (Czechoslovak New Wave etc.), these were mainly films and cartoons for children and young people. Countries of the Eastern bloc imported Western films and other cultural products in even larger numbers, particularly those coming from countries with a strong left-wing intelligentsia, such as France and Italy, but also US American movies that were considered socially critical or showing the dark sides of the American system. In the later decades of communism, however, full-blown co-productions in which ideological reasons had less weight that the desire to make money, became more and more common. The communist countries wanted and needed foreign currency, particularly West German Marks, and West German film studios wanted to profit from cheap labour of highly qualified artists and technicians from the Eastern Bloc.

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Pictures 3 and 4:Czechoslovak Film Industry

One of the most successful products from the 1960s were several films about the Indians and the Wild West, based on popular novels by German writer Karl May and shot in Yugoslavia, with Yugoslav actors playing the Indians. Played by French actor, Winnetou, the chief of the Apaches, became children’s hero in both Germanies, France, Switzerland and Central-Eastern Europe. It is remarkable that right-wing autocratic regimes of South Europe such as Greece, Spain and Turkey were dominated by US American production where the Indians were the bad guys, while the democracies of Western Europe, besides watching Hollywood-made Westerns, produced and shared the vision of good Indians versus predatory Whites with the people behind the so-called Iron Curtain.

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Pictures 5 and 6:Karl May’s Winnetou (1963)

In many ways, some of these movies and series are an eloquent testimony to the porosity of the so-called Iron Curtain. There were even cases when the creators were able to sell the audience the same narrative and same settings as “our country”, both in the communist Czechoslovakia, and in the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany. This is the case of Lucy: The Street Menace, a children’s film made in 1983 about a girl and a pair of magical squids. The spectators in Czechoslovakia commented on the fact that the supermarkets were too full of colourful goods and the plumbers arrived too soon after a domestic accident took place for the film to be a realistic depiction of Czechoslovakia in the 1980, but in general, the cognitive dissonance on either side was not too big.

Obviously, the contents were negotiated to eliminate elements problematic for either partner. Nonetheless, these products invite us to reconsider the catastrophist and alienating narratives about the “bipolar world of the Cold War”. There is no denying of the dictatorial and oppressive nature of the communist regimes of Central Europe. But it may not be credible to present everyday life in communist Europe as if it were North Korea, or worse, a concentration camp – such vision was uncommon in democratic western Europe, but was widespread in the USA and is repeated today by tourist guides around Central Europe.

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Pictures 7 and 8:Lucy: The Street Menace (1983) 

The Visitors, written by the Czech author Ota Hofman, outlines a remote utopian future that cannot  be interpreted as a triumph of either communism or capitalism (opting for one or another would be an obstacle for a wide diffusion of the series in the investor countries). When this utopian society is threatened, the trip to the mid-1980 is headed to the Czechoslovakia of these days, clearly identifiable by the banknotes, newspapers, cars’ license plates or the policemen’s uniforms. But what the team of scientists from the future learns during their stay in the past, besides getting to know the young genius Adam Bernau, are simple human values as love, friendship and most importantly, common sense. The spirit of the times is embodied in Granpa Krchlík, an informal master of the young Adam (in the future, this man, who is no relative of Adam, will be known as the “Great Teacher”). This unpretentious man of the people is, against all rules of time-travel, saved from accidental death by the scientists returning to the future. Once there, he soon realizes that something is wrong with the Central Brain of the Humankind.

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Pictures 9 and 10: The Visitors: (1983)

VIDEO: Návštěvníci, Návrat do budoucnosti (Return to the Future),

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op8Tz_YnVD0

A small adjustment by Granpa Krchlík – and the brain announces that it has actually been emitting false data because of a banal mechanical defect. There is no threat to the Earth and everybody can relax and enjoy life again.

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Pictures 11 and 12: The Visitors: (1983)

Here I would like to argue that the authors were able to present a coherent narrative that would be attractive both in West Germany and in Czechoslovakia. In my opinion, its efficiency is due to the fact that the narrative is built on the pillars of an idealized hegemonic masculinity that had transnational dimensions that resonated at a Central European (or Mitteleuropäische) level. These were 1) unpretentious intelligence, 2) technical and manual ability and 3) cooperation across the classes. Both in the capitalist welfare state of the FRG and in the communist Czechoslovakia of the 1980s, this interclass cooperation was being represented more and more as a respectful dialogue between university graduate white collar professionals, on the one hand, and manual workers, on the other.

If we accept this interpretation, it seems strikingly logical that the utopian future in this Czechoslovak-West German coproduction series is not democratic. Rather, it is a technocracy par excellence, the Humankind being governed by a council of scientists guided by the Central Brain of the Humankind. What is more, the corrective for the acknowledged vices and weaknesses of this future society is a populist, rather than democratic one: what is needed are common men with common sense, a practical reason to correct and humanize the high-flying reasoning of the scientists. However, politics is nowhere to be found. The technical nature of the government is not questioned at all.

Darina Martykánová

Darina Martykánová is historian, dealing mainly with Spain and the Ottoman Empire. She works at the Departament of Modern History of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Her research focuses on the history of professions and on transnational circulation of knowledge. Her second line of research concerns the redefinition of masculinites in interaction with the discourse of "progress of civilisation".

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