Review of “Michael Palin’s New Europe”

Note: This review is based on the first episode of the TV series, entitled “War and Peace”.

Michael Palin may be best known for his involvement in Monty Python, but he also directed a number of documentary TV series. His New Europe is a more recent addition, produced in 2007 for the BBC.

The director-narrator as an explorer

What distinguishes Michael Palin’s New Europe from his other documentary work, however, is the use of the possessive form in the title. This suggests that the considerations and accounts shown are tightly linked to Michael Palin’s personal views and experiences. The director is put at the center, like Michael Moore did it in his famous documentary Roger & Me (1989).

Indeed, Palin invites the viewer to accompany him on his travel through the ex-Yugoslavian countries and Albania. Hence, it is not surprising that the opening of his narration begins with a very personal consideration:

Throughout most of my lifetime, an iron curtain has divided Eastern Europe from the West, preventing me from really getting to know it.

Not only would the older generation agree with Palin (creating an empathic bond between director and viewers), but Palin, who clearly speaks as a Western European, now takes the opportunity to close this gap of knowledge, by exploring “the other half” of ‘his’ continent. During this introduction, the director presents himself as a wanderer with all the elements that are linked to this trope: a vast landscape, mountains, Palin’s walking stick (later on, we’ll see him holding a map, riding a bike, traveling by train, etc.). With these first images of the first episode, the stage is set for what will come next.

As in most (TV) documentaries (except the Reality History format1), the viewer takes a passive stance. What is shown and said is not part of the viewer’s decision. It is the director who chooses. Yet, contrary to the classic historical documentaries, the narrator is known – Michael Palin – and does not hide his subjective point of view. This is a whole different approach than that of other documentaries using the voice of God (which is still a dominating feature of documentaries)2. Palin, as director-narrator, decides where to travel: a map superimposed on the Slovenian landscape shows us the itinerary of the filmmaker. It is also him who chooses his dialogue partners. He acts in place of the (Western European) viewer and constantly uses the first person, giving the documentary a form of diary, in this case a travel diary. New Europe could be considered what documentary theorist Bill Nichols formulates as “I speak about them to you”.3

The aspect of travel, and even exploration – as Eastern Europe is an unknown territory to Palin and Albania described as a “mysterious land” – may remind of the themes of the early years of documentary cinema, which the film historian Erik Barnouw put under the term “Explorer”, including movies like Nanook of the North (1922) by Robert Flaherty.4

A jigsaw puzzle of the new Europe

A closer look at the opening credits gives another interesting insight on the approach of the TV-series. The spectator sees a number of puzzle pieces crossing the screen, slowly filling the gaps on a map and finally giving an entire vision of Eastern Europe. This might suggest that the different experiences of Michael Palin, and the various encounters with witnesses and inhabitants, should give – in the end – a complete picture of Eastern Europe. It is up to the spectator to put the different pieces together into a coherent and complete vision of this part of Europe. New Europe therefore gives, through the experiences of Palin, a fragmented account, bound together by Palin himself, his itinerary and the theme of the episode. If the history is not chronologically presented, the story – i.e. Palin’s travel – is.

Another question arises: what makes Eastern Europe ‘new’, as suggested in the title? It is undeniably true that after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the European map has been reshaped. In the opening scenes, Palin announces an

exploration of the people, the places, the mood and the spirit that is transforming old lands into a new Europe.

A definition of this “new” is nonetheless missing and the use of it implicitly refers to the existence of an ‘old’ Europe. Considering Palin’s Western view, the ‘old’ Europe would be the West, which took part in the European construction process much longer than ex-Yugoslavian countries. At the same time, the expression alludes to the rapid changes of the East, and the break with its past with the creation of new societies (shaped after Western models).

A historical documentary?

As I explained above, Palin’s view is purely subjective and there is no chronological narration of historical events. Nevertheless, it is not a coincidence that the director begins his travel in Croatia. Split is presented as the place where

the idea of East and West Europe began […]. It was Diocletian who took the momentous decision to divide the Roman Empire in two.

By saying this, Palin creates a historical continuity: Europe has been divided since Antiquity. This division was part of the continent’s history, maybe even of its destiny.

This comment brings us to another important question: how much history can be found in New Europe? The past is retold through the lens of the present: Palin does barely use any archival sources from the past. As a director, he knows how to engage with people: during discussions, he eats and drinks with his interview partners. They tell him mostly about their own experiences of the communist regime and the Balkan wars. This is Palin’s way of doing oral history. However, it is not his only approach, as he creates a link to the past via the architecture (Roman vestiges in Split), monuments or landscapes still bearing scars of past wars (landmines in the countryside of Sarajevo). Archival footage is only used at two occasions, contrary to classic historical documentaries that constantly rely on it. The importance of landscapes in New Europe is visually emphasized by the different puzzle pieces in the opening credits, whose surfaces are shaped like the landscapes of the respective regions.

Palin uses sources of the present to tell about the past. New Europe is not a pure historical documentary, however. It is also an account of traditions and gastronomy, of savoir-vivre and social events. Those elements are typical for an ethnographical approach. Fieldwork is an important aspect of ethnography,5 and that corresponds exactly to what Palin is doing. He either confides himself to the role of a passive observer, for instance when he listens to the street musician in Dubrovnik, or becomes a participant observer, e.g. at a party in Albania after the sacrifice of a sheep.

For Palin, the countries he travels through are thoroughly different. At the end of his stay in Albania, the director states:

I have to remind myself that not only am I still in Europe, but have a lot further east to go yet.

This implies that Palin will travel through countries that are even more distinctive. An ethnographer couldn’t be any more satisfied by this prospect.

References

1 DE GROOT Jerome: Consuming History. Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London/New York: Routledge 2009, p. 165.

2 NICHOLS Bill: Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2010, p. 60.

3 ibid., p. 59.

4 BARNOUW Eric: Documentary, A History of the non-fiction film. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993.

5 SANJEK Roger: Ethnography; in: BARNARD Alan/SPENCER Nathan (Ed.): The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London/New York: Routledge 2010, p. 243.

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