Images of destruction, especially in opposition to creativity or a utopia, are a perennial theme for Chytilová. Andrew James Horton looks at a film in which this reaches an apogee.
Věra Chytilová's career spans three periods of modern Czech history: the liberal atmosphere in the 1960s, culminating in "socialism with a human face"; Normalisation, the period of repression that followed the Soviet-led invasion; and no less turbulent post-Communist era. In view of the differing political and social circumstances under which she operated, Chytilová has retained a remarkable unity of subject matter and interest in experimental style over the four decades she has made film.
Prime among her themes are gender roles, which has led to her work being labelled as "feminist." While it is certainly true that Chytilová's work bears interesting fruit when subjected to a feminist reading, it would be wrong to confine her ideas merely to this outlook. Her work often takes specific issues in society—perhaps, ones associated with gender roles—and uses them as a metaphor for the wider state of humanity.
This approach can readily be seen in her film Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979), a work with a definite feminist message on one level but also a film with far more universal themes. In particular, it is the most obvious example of Chytilová's career-long interest in the theme of destruction nullifying either an act of creation or a state of paradise.
The action exclusively unfolds in a high-rise housing estate which is both inhabited and also still in the process of construction. As with other Chytilová films (for example, her 1966 film Sedmikrásky / Daisies) the narrative is fragmented in there is little in the way of conventional plot. In addition, there is no single character that can be considered as the central one (a less common Chytilová device, but also employed, for example, in Vyhnání z ráje / Expulsion from Paradise, 2001). Amongst the menagerie of protagonists are: a toothless, partially-sighted old man who is intrigued by an old lady who sits motionless by her window; a famous but self-obsessed actor, who can't get his car to start; a pregnant teenager, who is unsure how to handle her predicament; a clutch of unenthusiastic builders; and a young child, who has run away and takes delight in destroying things.
The estates of prefabricated high-rises (paneláky) are a depressing feature of Prague's suburbs, and a sight that will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time in central or eastern Europe. However, the flats themselves were conceived of as bright, modern and ready to be equipped with all the latest domestic appliances—central heating was standard and washing machines were a social aspiration for many (which is depicted in the film). Moreover, the estates were great social levellers, bringing all manner of people into the same district (illustrated in Panelstory by the presence of the well-known actor living amongst working class people). In short, the estates were planned as utopias of social equality and material comfort which would live up to Communism's aim to improve people's material circumstances. Not to mention the fact that they would help alleviate an urgent housing crisis that afflicted all Communist countries at a comparatively low cost.
The reality, of course, was rather different. And if the estates look ugly now, it is clear from Panelstory that in their semi-constructed state they were far worse: in the film, construction debris is everywhere, there are no paths and rain has made the ground impossibly muddy, ladders are needed to navigate missing parts of stairs, design faults are evident everywhere, the water is turned off at inconvenient times and the thudding hum of drills is a permanent audio backdrop. Chytilová shows all this with a documentarist's eye, while artfully framed shots of prefab panels being swung into place with a crane regularly punctuate the film.
Czech moral concern
The Prague estate she shows is not just physically dysfunctional. Chytilová also highlights the corruption, laziness and sexual immorality of the builders working on the paneláky. (In its depiction of corruption, the film shows close parallels with the contemporaneous kino moralnego niepokoju [cinema of moral concern] tendency in Poland.)
Yet despite all this criticism of the estates themselves and the people who have built them, Chytilová really directs her vitriol at the people who live in the paneláky. None of her characters are without a failing of some kind. Amongst these are hyperbolic caricatures of immorality, but the director is at her most skilful when she stimulates in viewers simultaneous sympathy and disgust towards the all too human characters (as, for example, with the pregnant teenager and the rampaging runaway boy).
The shortcomings of the estate and its residents are perfectly blended, with each one augmenting the other, to create a symbolic moral space—an area distinct of its geographic reality that acts as a signifier for both social decay and a series of individual personal crises of morality. This gives the film a universality that elevates it beyond the level of an essay on the social implications of town-planning failure. Such use of location as both specific and symbolic is common in Chytilová's work, but in Panelstory this reaches an extreme: in no other work is the location so precisely defined and yet so archetypal.
Chytilová's space is highly compressed, and the atmosphere is one of claustophobia, achieved through a rapidly shifting narrative structure with strands constantly overlapping, montage, sound design, mise-en-scène and tight image composition. This is despite periodic use of panoramic views from atop the rising paneláky to emphasise the extent of the sprawling estate. The compression even brings the whole of Africa into a living room for the old women who sits at the window, sparked off by an unexpected black intruder with good intentions, a tape recorded message from her son and a map of the continent.
A short film about destruction
The power in Panelstory comes not in the presentation of a static space that is already in a state of physical and moral ruination as, say, in the films of Béla Tarr. Rather, there is a contrast, albeit mainly implicit, between the degradation of the conditions with the purity of their conception. Images of destruction abound.
After a recent screening of Panelstory in London, Chytilová was present for a Q&A session. When a member of the audience asked if she sought in her film to blame the regime that fostered these architectural monstrosities or the people who lived in them, Chytilová replied:
What I wanted to say was that man creates something with one breath and with the second breath destroys it. I wanted the audience to be aware of how the behaviour of man is contradictory. It's not a critical reaction to the regime; it's more actually a view of human moral behaviour. I think every form of behaviour has a moral aspect to it.
That this interest in destructive behaviour in relation to morality is not specific to Panelstory emerged when, in an earlier part of the discussion, she described the formal film language of Sedmikrásky (which she denied was avant-garde) in these terms:
Not just in the dramaturgical sense but in the philosophical and existential sense, we wanted to have real characters, real people, acting like puppets. We wanted the viewer to really grasp the meaning of the film. And that meaning was a protest against destruction. The destruction, in any sense of the term, in our lives. Destruction is going on in our lives and especially in our relationships. So, we wanted to use film language to show this.
Considering the estate (in its planning stage) as a socialist paradise, the film can be seen to link in with other Chytilová films that allude to the Garden of Eden: Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969), Hra o jablko (The Apple Game, 1976) and Vyhnání z ráje (Expulsion from Paradise, 2001). The latter is particularly close in spirit to Panelstory, depicting an act of misguided creation (shooting a film) that leads to a moral abomination.
In the years of Normalisation, film-makers with an independent mind and a critical outlook found it difficult—if not totally impossible—to make films. (For this reason, Peter Hames considers Panelstory to be one of the most critical Czech films of the Normalisation era.) Getting an independently minded film actually released was even harder. Panelstory was banned shortly after its release and by the end of the 1980s the film had not been screened publicly in Prague. The film was not promoted internationally and it was only able to win the gold medal at the 1980 San Remo film festival in Italy due to Chytilová transporting the film there, without official sanction, in the boot of her car.
Nevertheless, we should be wary of reading the reception of Panelstory within the Cold War framework of evaluating a film's merits on how much it riled the Communist authorities: A good many second-rate films were censored in Communist countries, while some first-class ones received official approval, and the director's comments make it clear that the film was not conceived as being anti-regime. Most of all, Chytilová's unwavering moral stance and penetrating analysis of creation and destruction, as evident in Panelstory, would undoubtedly stand out in the film production of any country, whatever form of government it had.
Andrew James Horton
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