SilverDocs 2009: Cooking History

Slovak director Peter Kerekes‘ film Cooking History starts out small, with a field kitchen starting a journey to…somewhere, by helicopter.

Then we meet our first group of soldiers, Russians who are learning how to cook in the field. If you are at all squeamish about where your food comes from, cover your eyes; these boys have to learn how to deal with what they find – from the field to the table.  And that’s the first clue that we’re in for a clever, unique, and darkly humorous ride.

Field Kitchen

Field Kitchen

The film presents groups of combatants from European wars from WWII to the Balkans, each telling a story from its own point of view. Our culinary veterans include German bakers and cooks, a Jewish provocateur, Russian soldiers and civilians, a Croatian military cook and Serbian civilians, Hungarian military cooks, Marshal Tito’s personal chef, and 2 Frenchmen: one a paratrooper and the other a conscientious objector. Each storyteller gives his or her unique perspective on the experience of war: sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes angry. Is war inevitable? They don’t know about that, but they do know that an army marches on its stomach!

The German baker sings an old Wehrmacht song, but then he smiles and tells Kerekes that “the heart of an old baker sings with joy when he can lay his loaves in the oven.” The French objector prepares coq au vin while the his paratrooper countryman walks around a grocery store finding items reminiscent of his ration packs. (Do French MREs contain baguettes? Rôti? Mmm…but I digress.) He talks about the terrible things the FLN rebels had done while acknowledging that the French soldiers were no saints either (but that’s another blog post) – and as he speaks, such acts are systematically enacted upon the chicken. Just when we are comfortable watching some friendly old folks tell their stories, here’s a closeup of a sausage grinder, or here’s the slaughter of an animal, ruthlessly reminding the audience that these friendly old folks are, after all, talking about war.

Throughout the film, each cook’s story is punctuated with a check on the field kitchen’s progress, and a recipe which corresponds to the story at hand: “Kommisbrot for 11 million German soldiers,” “Paprikash for 74,000 Serbian soldiers,” “Arsenic bread for 300 SS men,” or “Pork Cutlets for 19 drowned friends.”  In the end, the field kitchen goes nowhere and everywhere.

Cooking History is a unique and touching work, and if you get the chance, definitely worth watching.    It’s been making the rounds of festivals this season and I would be glad to see it in more general release soon.

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