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Michael Palin's New Europe

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // March 11, 2008
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted March 17, 2008 | E-mail the Author
A nearly seven-hour travel documentary spanning former Iron Curtain countries from the Baltic to Black Seas, Michael Palin's New Europe (2007) is a generally fascinating and fun program that for most travelers real and armchair will be a journey into virgin territory. This is the former Python's seventh such program in 20 years and he's lost none of his appeal as a genuinely interested and engaged, open-minded everyman. The series itself improves upon earlier shows in some ways, while faltering somewhat in other respects. The DVD presentation is fairly good, and includes an extended interview with Palin plus scads of deleted scenes that almost play like two additional episodes.

No, that's not Gerard Depardieu, but former tennis star Ilie Nastase chatting with Michael Palin for New Europe

Neatly divided into seven episodes spread over three single-sided DVDs, New Europe crams 20 countries onto Palin's itinerary, though it doesn't seem quite as rushed as some of his previous travelogues occasionally did. The running times may have something to do with it; each episode runs about 59 minutes, not the usual 43-46-minute "hour" episodes timed for endless commercial breaks. For some reason the episodes were given new titles for their U.S. airings ("War and Peace" became "Across the Iron Curtain," etc.) and may have been cut in the process, but these are the original uncut British editions.

The first episode visits Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Serbia and Albania. Subsequent shows cover the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the isolated Kaliningrad Oblast region of Russia, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and the former East Germany. Twenty-five years ago, this reviewer could proudly rattle off every country in the world, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the never-ending power shuffling in Africa), Palin's trip covered several countries I heretofore didn't even know existed. Have you ever heard of the breakaway republic (not internationally recognized at present) of Transnistria? No? Well, Palin visits there.

As with earlier Palin shows - Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Hemingway Adventure, Sahara, and Himalaya having preceded this - New Europe mixes scheduled visits with eccentric locals (such as boatman Rambo Amadeus) and local celebrities (tennis giant Ilie Nastase, Solidarity founder and Lech Walesa, and Tat'ana Kucharova - Miss World 2006) with unscheduled encounters with people off the street. The latter tends to be the source of these shows' best moments. It's all well and good to visit a Transylvania castle with a tour guide-actor hamming it up as Dracula, but far more interesting and enlightening are extended scenes with Palin simply sitting around a dining room table (invariably indulging in the local alcoholic specialty, an interesting sidelight) and chatting with ordinary people about their day-to-day lives. (This was the heart of Fat Man on a Bicycle, a series of very, very similar travel documentaries that almost certainly inspired the early Palin shows. I sure wish those would be released to DVD as well.)

These intimate, personal moments are the core of New Europe's strengths, though the show gets a bit lost along the way. After three outstanding episodes, the middle shows are rather sluggish, repetitive, and indulgent, before it improves again for the final episode. Apparently Palin's shows - as usual, made in close collaboration with John-Paul Davidson and Roger Mills - have inspired adventurous travelers to retrace his journeys, some even going so far as to follow his Pole-to-Pole route from the Arctic to Antarctica. New Europe seems to reflect this influence a bit too much; some stops almost play like the Michael Palin equivalent of Fodor's Travel Guide. There are too many visits to pricey spas with shirtless Michael indulging in mud baths, massages, and bloodletting leech treatments. (The latter scene, so removed as it is from what the show is supposed to be about, uncomfortably veers toward Jackass territory.) There's an attempt to explore the comic sensibilities of Eastern Europeans with visits to famous mime and political satire workshops and the like, and Palin is drafted into performing at many of these, but the viewer isn't left with any real understanding of Eastern European humor, and even Palin seems ill at ease trying to adapt to unfamiliar comic surroundings.

What's most interesting is the show's exploration of the centuries-old undercurrent of racial and religious intolerance that continues to fester in the former Yugoslavia region and to some extent throughout Eastern Europe. In the last episode for instance a young woman, a Czech guide, is forthright about her dislike of Germans.

Even more fascinating are the surprising comments made by many of Palin's interview subjects, nearly 20 years after Soviet-styled communist oppression came to an end. There seems to be this great misconception in the west that, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, citizens of these former Iron Curtain countries have been living happily every after, basking in their newfound freedoms. Instead, Palin finds many of these people pining away nostalgically for the good old days of totalitarianism. Sure, freedom of speech was suppressed, they say, but at least we had job security (unemployment is rampant throughout much of Eastern Europe) and could take our families on extended summer holidays.

Conversely, Palin also talks to victims of those bleak Cold War days, and visits several secret police-type museums, as well as the darkest monuments of the Nazi era (including Auschwitz) that preceded it. One extremely effective device I don't recall seeing in previous Palin shows is the use here of archival newsreel and television news footage to underscore the then-and-now aspects of New Europe, to show these new mini-metropolises rising up from Albert Speer-designed Nazi architecture, utilitarian Communist housing, and the varied indulgences of miscellaneous dictators (to say nothing of the Allied fire-bombing decimation of Dresden).

In short, though some vignettes fall flat, usually because they lose sight of what the program should really be about (Do we really need to see Palin learning how to drive a steam locomotive?), others are fascinating and thankfully leisurely presented: visiting Bulgarian Gypsies in segregated public housing, the rock-homes of Goreme, the outrageously ostentatious former Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, and a visit with one of the six Herzegovinian Croats who claims to have persistent visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Medugorje.

Video & Audio

Michael Palin's New Europe is presented in an okay 16:9 enhanced, 1.78:1 transfer. The series was shot on high-def equipment, yet there's something lacking about the image that's hard to pin down. Maybe I'm just getting so used to HD DVD and Blu-ray that my standards are higher on standard DVDs, but at times New Europe seems overly soft and artifacty, as if it were down-converted to PAL and then transferred to an NTSC master. That's probably not the case, but it does seem softer than it need be.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is great, however. I was surprised how well all the ambient noises - trains, planes, automobiles, ferries, etc. - have been captured, and the sprightly score is a real delight, perfectly complementing the show. Optional English subtitles are included. Also noteworthy is the clever title design, which depicts "New Europe" as an enormous jigsaw puzzle with the many pieces falling into place.

Extra Features

Supplements include another long (25 minutes), two-part Michael Palin Interview of only moderate interest, and a ton of Deleted Scenes - about two hours and twenty minutes' worth! - crammed onto Disc Three. Most of it was appropriately cut from the show, but much of it is still pretty interesting.

Parting Thoughts

Despite a few flaws, this is another winner, a wonderful introduction to a part of the world still largely unknown to Western Europeans and Americans, a part of the world at the crossroads of change, new and old countries struggling to find their own place and identity in a New Europe. Highly Recommended.

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.

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Highly Recommended

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