A coppersmith in Bosnia practices an ancient art, but now uses bombshell casings to make elaborate works that pay tribute to the victims of war in the former Yugoslavia. A newspaper article from 1897 in Trieste describes the antics of Herman Zeitung, who travelled as a stowaway in a box and performed at a local cafe. Students at an oil technicians school in Ukraine sing a Soviet-era ballad that expresses the pride of the oil industry, once known as “Galician Hell”, a robber baron’s paradise of big money and cheap labor.
NEW WORLD is colorful and poignant, looking past the grand narratives of history into ordinary lives – forest workers in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, Gypsy musicians in Hungary, a rabbi in the last surviving Jewish synagogue of Stanislav, Galicia (now Ivano Frankivsk, Ukraine), an opera singer in Sarajevo, who returns from exile to a city where Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats, and Serb Orthodox all work together just like before the war in the Balkans. The former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was actually called The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Hungarian Crown, a convoluted name that better describes its immense and diverse character of overlapping cultures, languages, and histories.
Filmmaker Paul Rosdy spent several years researching and making NEW WORLD. Fascinated by 100-year-old newspaper articles and travel guides that were written for a new era of railroads and sightseeing, he set out to rediscover a region that was shattered just as it entered the modern age. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy crumbled with World War I. Poverty, political calamity, and the rise of Fascism followed. The unfathomable destruction of World War II cleared the way for the spread of Soviet communism, which swept over much of the region.
But the film doesn’t focus on big historical events. It is concerned with common people, ordinary places, and small incidents in the cracks of history. The official program of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Bosnia & Hercegovina in 1914 sets the tone. It was this fated journey that culminated in his assassination in Sarajevo, which is said to have incited World War I. Yet the film never mentions this cataclysmic event, instead it shows us only the place itself, across streets and bridges, past churches, mosques, the railroad station, and the electric plant. The unremarkable simplicity of the place is revealed in the shadow of its tumultuous history, one that extends to the recent war that left Mostar devastated.
In NEW WORLD it is history’s big events that lay in the shadows of commonplace life, daily work, people getting by, and the simple pleasures of eating and singing. The film is full of singing and music as part of daily life. It opens with the muezzin of a mosque in Mostar, singing the call to prayer. The film continues with a journey by train with Romanian forest workers who sing about lost love as they head to work along snowy ravines. The workers sing again as they sit around the dinner table in a cabin deep in the woods without electricity. And as the train returns from the forest, a tightly crammed brass band plays another mournful tune. Down the Dalmatian Coast to Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, members of the 1200-year-old Marine of the Bay, the world’s oldest club, sing, play music, and dance the Kolo through the streets of this ancient port city that celebrates the sea. From opera to folk songs, the people in NEW WORLD live with music.
In the Ukraine, in Czernowitz, once the most eastern provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Johann Schlamp reminisces as he sings a popular song by Joseph Schmidt, a local singer who became world famous in the 1930s. “When you’re young, the world is yours”, he croons. In Hungary, a gypsy band plays in the hot sun as the bandleader, Mihály Samu, describes how he and his family survived deportation in World War II and the hard times afterwards.
NEW WORLD travels between countries, across cities, and through time. In a newspaper article from 1910, a writer tries to prophesize what Vienna will be like in the year 2000 based on the unusual will of a countess who has left part of her fortune to the paupers of the future. The article wonders if Vienna will become a utopia as foreseen by the turn-of-century writer, Edward Bellamy. “But will there really be any poor people, in the epoch that Bellamy imagined?” the article asks. “Here and now, in 1910, the question is difficult to answer; nonetheless we are curious to know how this story will end, and we shall not fail to inquire in the year 2000.” NEW WORLD shows us that people still struggle, wars still happen, time passes, and yet the world remains familiar.
Aljona Kozubovskaja, a bus driver in Czernowitz, now Ukraine, describes her life as a series of ups and downs, partly personal, partly historical. Her family problems overlap with the economic struggles of a country trying to recuperate after the fall of communism. “Before, so to say, people had money, but the shops were empty”, she says. “And today? It seems to be the other way around. There are plenty of goods in the shops, the shelves are sagging with products, but people don‘t have money.” Alyona drives her bus, comes home, feeds the children, and life goes on.