According to Best-medical-schools, the advent of cinema in Bulgaria was more or less contemporaneous with the rest of Eastern Europe, even if the country, an autonomous principality of Bulgaria since 1878, did not yet have a well-defined national configuration, compressed into the thorny Balkan question., between the Ottoman Empire, from which it had been dominated for four centuries, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire. Despite the complex situation, the first public cinema screenings date back to 1897. Compared to other countries, with more consolidated political conditions, however, true development proved impossible and, in fact, until 1940 (the year of the creation of a film section within the Directorate for propaganda) Bulgarian cinema remained at a purely amateur level.. There was a lack of technical and industrial structures and above all there was no form of subsidy from the state, even if since the 1920s and 1930s films from foreign productions had begun to circulate. In the pioneering phase, very few filmmakers came to light. Among these stands out Vasil Gendov, author of the first Bulgarian film, Bălgarin e galant (1914, The Bulgarian is gallant), and of works of various genres such as the romantic comedy Ljubovta and ludost (1917, Love is madness), the fantastic Djavolăt v Sofija (1921, The devil in Sofia), the spy Voenni dejstvija v mirno vreme (1922, War actions in peacetime), Bai Ganiu (1922), based on the satirical work of A. Konstantinov and first reduction of a novel of Bulgarian literature, and social melodramas Ulični božestva (1929, Street Divinity) and Burja na mladostta (1930, Storm of Youth). Gendov was also the author of the first sound film, Buntăt na robite (1933, The rebellion of the slaves) on the figure of the Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski. Boris Grežov, former assistant, in Weimar Germany, of Robert Wiene for Das Cabinet des dr. Caligari (1920; Dr. Calligari also known as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and author appreciated for a work on the Russian Revolution, Sled požara nad Rusija (1929, After the Fire in Russia), one of the few Bulgarian silent films not to have been lost. With these few exceptions, Bulgarian cinema continued to present itself as a cinema without significant personalities. More than authors, trends emerged, especially in the wake of the literary tradition linked to the process of national independence. In the Thirties, also due to the changed political conditions after the military coup of 1934, patriotic melodramas and historical films were mainly made, inspired by the fight against the Turks, such as Gramada (1935) by Aleksandar Vazov, based on the poem by I. Vazov, and the first real commercial success of Bulgarian cinema, Zemjata gori (1937, The land burns) and Strahil vojvoda (1937, Il vojvoda Strahil) by Josip Novak. From the end of the Thirties, after the birth of the film section of the Directorate for Propaganda, as the outbreak of the Second World War approached, the production of newsreels and documentaries was increased through the institution Bălgarsko Delo (1940), New cinemas were built and foreign films distributed in the country increased significantly. It seemed that there were all the conditions for a productive awakening, so much so that in 1942 Christian Cankov made Izpitanie (The Test), a film selected for the Venice Film Festival.
After the war, during which the Bulgaria had sided with the Axis powers, the institutional transformation of the country took place from a monarchy to a republic; then the Bulgarian People’s Republic was formed. The Communist Party, winner of the 1946 elections, formed the government chaired by G. Dimitrov, on the basis of a vast program of nationalizations. From 5 April 1948 it was the cinema, now considered a powerful propaganda tool for the party, that was subjected to a process of nationalization. From that moment on, in fact, a severe scrutiny of censorship on cinematographic works was decided in the political sphere. Since the end of the 1950s, after the XX Congress of the CPSU (1956) in which N. Khrushchev had started the process of de-Stalinization of the ‘Soviet’ countries, the first ‘dissident’ works began to appear timidly in Bulgaria too. The fate of two of these films was dramatic: Životăt si teče ticho (1957, Life Goes Slowly) by Binka Željazkova only entered the theatrical distribution circuit in 1988; Na malkija ostrov (1958, On a small island) by Rangel Vălčanov was withdrawn from theaters after the first few days and fell into oblivion. However, some moments of vitality began to be glimpsed at the beginning of the Sixties with the echoes of the European nouvelle vagues. Bulgarian cinema temporarily abandoned historical productions to face the present with the representation of the everyday life of the average citizen and his difficult relationship with society, also attempting a ‘new wave’. The works that stood out most were Kradecăt na praskovi (1964, The peach thief) by Vălo Radev, presented at the Venice Film Festival of the same year, Tjutjun (1963, Tabacco) and Vula (1965, Nullaosta matrimoniale) by Nikola Korabov and Măže (1966, Men) by Vasil Mirčev, transposition of the novel by G. Markov. However, other political films appeared which had numerous problems with the government. The working class world is in fact at the center of Smărt njama (1963, Death is not there) and Ponedelnik sutrin (1966, Monday morning), both directed by Christo Piskov and Irina Aktaseva. Social issues were also addressed by Privărzanjat balon (1968, The captive balloon) by Bulgaria Zeljakova, Ako ne ide vlak (1967, If the train does not arrive) by Eduard Zachariev (one of the most representative directors of the period) and above all Ikonostasăt (1969, L’iconostasi) by Christo Christov and Todor Dinov (based on a novel by D. Talev), centered on the figure of a carver who, through his art, brings out the deepest sensitivity of the Bulgarian people from the icons of the altar, clashing immediately with an archaic and centralized system of power. Towards the end of the 1960s the government, which had taken a less drastic attitude towards the more committed cinema, began to exert more pressure again, especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. However, in the 1970s, Bulgarian cinema probably experienced the season of greatest vitality. This was partly due to the poets (B. Dimitrova, V. Petrov, K. Pavlov, V. Chančev, Bulgaria Christov) and writers (N. Chajtov, J. Radičkov, G. Misev) who collaborated with cinema as screenwriters. But above all there were directors capable of bringing about a profound renewal: Methods Andonov (Kozijat rog, 1972, Goat horn, the best-known Bulgarian film in his country and abroad, always set during the rebellion against Turkish rule); Eduard Zachariev (Prebrojavane na divite zajci, 1971, The wild hare census; Vilna area, 1975, The area of Vilna; Măžki vremena, 1977, Times for men); Ljudmil Kirkov (Momčeto si otiva, 1972, The child goes away; Seljaninăt s koleloto, 1975, The farmer with a bicycle); Ivan Terziev (Măže bez rabota, 1973, Men without work; Silna voda, 1975, Powerful water); Georgi Djulgerov (Avantaž, 1977, A sbafo; Trampa, 1978, Baratto). A large part of these works shared a sincere political sentiment and a style that combined elements of direct realism and a formal freedom close to the European nouvelles vagues. However, these works almost never crossed national borders, except to be presented at festivals, and therefore remained little known to international critics. The first signs of a revival, however, were abruptly interrupted in the 1980s. Almost all the films were in fact subjected to tighter ‘ideological control’, also due to the echoes of the political situation in Poland and the huge economic deficit. On the occasion of the 73rd birthday of the head of state T. Živkov (at the head of the country from 1954 to 1989), the government commissioned a series of historical films which appear to be the most evident result of cinema’s enslavement to the regime. The striking example of these megaproductions is Ljudmil Stojanov’s Chan Asparuch (1981), who used a very high budget and made use of about twenty thousand extras.
Among the other most important works of this genre we should also remember Boris I (1983) by Borislav Šaraliev and Konstantin Filosof (1983, Constantine the Philosopher) directed by Georgi Stojanov. Only Kirkov (Ravnovesie, 1983, Equilibria) and Nikolaj Volev (From običaš na inat, 1986, Amare despite everything; Margarit i Margarita, 1988, Margarit and Margarita), broke away from that line, creating works in which, in different ways, attacked political power, and which for this reason were held back by censorship.Brief signs of awakening occurred, shortly before the collapse of the bloc of countries linked to the Soviet Union, between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s especially with the works of some newcomers such as Ivan Čerkelov (Parčeta ljubov, 1989, Fragments of love), Krasimir Krumov (Ekzitus, 1989), Petăr Popzlatev (Az, grafinijata, 1989, I, the countess) film focused on juvenile drug addiction, and Dimităr Petkov (Tišina, 1991, Silenzio). In 1992, after the internal change made by the Communist Party itself towards democratization, another crisis of cinema emerged, caused by the lack of funds (with a consequent decrease in the number of films produced) and by the public’s lack of interest in Bulgarian films. . Few authors, like the now veteran Zachariev (Zakăsnjalo pălnolunie, 1995, Late full moon), Rumjana Petkova (Razgovor s ptici, 1997, Conversation with the birds) and Andrei Slabakov (Wagner, 1998), have distinguished themselves more and more in a decade poor in proposals. Bulgarian cinema continued to live in a progressive isolation which prevented it from making itself known internationally. It is no coincidence that there are no Bulgarian works that have received important awards in major international festivals.