Initially noted for its brave political stance, Ucho is now just as remarkable for its pared-down asthetics and unsparing view of a personal relationship in an Orwellian state. Steven Jay Schneider revisits the film.
Shot under the watchful eyes of the Soviet occupying forces as the post-1968 Warsaw Pact invasion period known as Normalization began its repressive stranglehold on Czech film production, Karel Kachyňa's daring political noir-drama Ucho (The Ear, 1970) was withheld from circulation immediately upon completion. Nothing short of the Velvet Revolution and a subsequent return to democratic principles in 1989 was necessary to get the two-decade ban removed and the picture screened to art-house audiences and occasionally on Czech television.
Highly regarded for his lyrical psychological dramas which explore the maturation process of children and young women, Kachyňa—along with his frequent collaborator, scenarist Jan Prochazka—became notorious in the early 1960s for making films that "strained the boundaries of government-imposed strictures and subtly criticized the Communist Party." Despite the troubles they had securing financing and exhibition, the twelve films the pair made together "were strikingly better than those Prochazka made with other directors." With Ucho, the second-to-last film they would team up on (Prochazka died in 1971), Kachyňa distinguished himself from other former New Wave directors in Czechoslovakia by presenting a directly political film which was critical of the rule of right-wing Party leader Gustav Husák. However, it is Ucho's stripped-down look and hard-won insights into the not-so-private life of a passionate yet embittered married couple that is largely responsible for the film's enduring interest.
The personal and the political
Ludvík (Radoslav Brzobohatý) is a senior ministry official in the bureaucracy of Prague's ruling Communist Party. Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová) is his alcoholic wife, daughter of a small-town pub-owner. The couple have a young son, and live in a comfortable if not extravagant home on a quiet street in a nice neighborhood. At first, the cruel insults, nasty looks and open hostility they direct towards one another strikes the viewer as little more than character development, at most a developing sub-plot. Ludvík and Anna come across as the characteristically depoliticized citizens of a society "in which directives were obeyed... [and] in which the only political expression allowed reflected that of the Party itself. Alongside this, people were encouraged to concern themselves with material benefits, private life and cottages in the country." It is only later that we realize their complex and multifaceted marital relationship is at the very center of Ucho's concerns, at once allegorizing, commenting on, and distinguishing itself from the likewise complex relationship between a ruthless, oppressive political regime and its justifiably paranoid populace.
The events in Ucho take place over the course of one very long evening, which extends into the following morning. Returning home from a seemingly casual Party function, Ludvík and Anna find their front gate open and the spare set of house keys missing from their usual spot. Initially dismissed by the couple as of no consequence, other strange findings—including a power outage and dead phone lines—make them wonder whether they aren't being surveilled by the suspicious and unethical Communist authorities.
In his mind's eye, Ludvík beings replaying scenes from the social function earlier that night. The viewer sees these as jarring intercut flashbacks, mostly from Ludvík's point of view. What must have seemed innocuous when first experienced now takes on the surreal quality of a dream, or rather a nightmare, as every sentence spoken to Ludvík–"Sorry, the comrades are listening"; "All that counts is whether they accept socialist goals"; "Didn't they speak to you?"; "They're all trained spies"—becomes pregnant with meaning and signifies great personal danger in retrospect. Connecting the dots and focusing on the fact that his immediate superior (also a close friend) was recently taken away on trumped up charges of anti-Communist activities, Ludvík comes to believe that he is the current target of Party suspicion and that his own arrest is imminent.
Anguished by the thought that his comfortable if joyless home life may be over, desperate to get rid of any materials that could be cited as evidence of his untrustworthiness, Ludvík starts burning his papers and correspondence, flushing the ashes down the toilet. Anna, loose-lipped from heavy drinking and convinced that her husband is being paranoid, needles him incessantly about the deteriorating state of their relationship and his utter lack of interest in her both sexually and emotionally. With Ludvík matching her barb for barb, the heat rises until Anna spitefully admits to having initiated a steamy affair during one of his frequent absences. Ludvík takes this revelation calmly, but later slaps her and forces her head under cold water in a rough attempt at sobering her up. It doesn't work, or if it does, Anna's anger and frustration is certainly not tempered as a result.
Temporarily putting a halt to the couple's ongoing row is an apparently spontaneous late-night visit from a number of Ludvík's Party comrades. Fearful as to their underlying motives for showing up unannounced, Ludvík plays the role of good host, and the already enebriated gang of bureaucrats proceed to get stupefyingly drunk. When they finally leave, Anna and Ludvík start bickering again, only to discover proof positive that their house is bugged—that the "Ear" has been listening to their private conversations and intimate confessions, many of which could be construed as rebellious or at least not in complete accord with strict communist principles.
It is at this point, late in the film, when the precarious reality of their situation becomes manifest, that a previously submerged (though always present) dynamic in Ludvík and Anna's relationship rises to the surface. Expressing great tenderness, protectiveness and depth of feeling towards one another, the couple discuss how to proceed once the authorities come to take Ludvík away. Anna cries hysterically, Ludvík tries to comfort her, and the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style psychological warfare comes to an end as Big Brother closes in. The analogies established earlier between marriage (the personal/private relations between individuals) and citizenship (the political/public relations between a country's government and its residents)—both of which frequently involve suspicion, hypocrisy, resentments, tarnished ideals, secrets and lies—now diminish in import. Instead we become sensitive to the disanalogies: the limitless capacity of those in power to plot, to conspire, to utilize advanced technology or the threat thereof in order to terrorize, manipulate and control.
Ucho ends on an ironic and chilling note. The power in the house suddenly returns, and Ludvík receives a phone call telling him that he has in fact received a promotion. Instead of evincing joy at the "good" news, the couple sits quietly in the living room, more mystified than ever by the Party's curious methods and motivations. Anna's final words ring in our ears as the closing credits run: "I'm scared." As well she should be.
Steven Jay Schneider
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