What I’ve been watching: Eastern European Class Struggle Edition

A few months ago I watched a Croatian limited series called Uspjeh (Success). It was pretty good and then I found it had stuck in my mind in a lot of ways and I only figured out why a few days ago.

In short, it’s one of the few things I’ve seen that uses class as a storytelling device without being patronizingly didactic. I’d even missed that aspect of it until I thought about it structurally and then it fell into place.

The setting is Zagreb, but the picturesque historical center is avoided and almost the entire story takes place in the outskirts of communist era housing estates (their own thing – there’s no real equivalent in western europe or elsewhere) and offices and the occasional modernist skyscraper (which look as out of place as any brutalist monstrosity). It could probably be reworked slightly for any (non-Soviet) Eastern European capital.

In short. The four main characters represent four classes currently found in post-communist Eastern Europe. In order:

Haris, Vinka, Kiki and Blanka becoming new besties…..

Blanka: Is from the underclass. In Poland this might be referred as ‘margines’ (the margins) or ‘patologia’ (pathology). A high school student, her mother is dead and she lives in a communist era high rise with her father whose main pasttimes are getting blackouit drunk and beating her up. She’s taken up with a would be gangster boyfriend who seems to be grooming her (probably wanting to turn her into a prostitute). She gets in a fight with him when she catches him with another girl and the story is set in motion.

Kiki: Is precarious working class. He can’t hold down any job very long due to a sick son and is about to lose his apartment. He’s hoping a crucial meeting with a bank officer at the last minute can stave off disaster but the official isn’t in that day and no one else in the bank wants anything to do with him beyond kicking his scrubby ass out of the building.

Vinka: Upper middle class (semi-professional). She has a stable management position and seems…. oblivious. This is very true in the region. In modern Eastern Europe this class develops a kind of… tunnel vision tuning somethings out while obsessing about others. Driving her daughter to school she gets stuck in a traffic jam when a car bumps hers from behind. She gets out to investigate and a thug starts punching her (and the few who try to come to her aid).

Haris: Wealthy professional. A well-known architect he’s become rich by designing buildings for corrupt officials which end up standing empty. Now that he’s gotten wealthy through a banal kind of corruption he’s having a spiritual crisis and wants to go straight and ends up having a breakdown just before he’s due to present his design for yet another doomed to be empty building, this one on wetlands that are supposed to be protected.

That evening, the four stories come together in a fit of violence which ends in a death and now the four are bound together and have to protect each other from ending up in jail.

Overall the portrayal of class is very accurate in that the characters’ behavior always makes sense in terms of class. From Blanka’s reflexive hostility to Kiki’s cynicism, Vinka’s disconnect from reality to Haris’s thinking he can finally afford to do the right thing all their actions (however mystifying on the surface) maker perfect sense in terms of their life stories up until that point. It’s also accurate that the first three characters live in buildings next to each other (that kind of economic integration is an Eastern European thing which has only started to break down in the last few years). There are also glimpses of other classes, from a local mafia boss to a corrupt builder and the civil service (represented as a mix of malovence, apathy, incompetence and misplaced idealism).

I don’t want to oversell it, it’s not perfect (or even great, it’s well above average and that’s it) but it’s the only thing I’ve seen in forever that utilizes class in a realistic way. And that’s enough.

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