Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 6 
26 May
2003

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CZECH REPUBLIC
Martin Sulik's Klic k urcovani trpasliku aneb posledni cesta Lemuela Gullivera (The Key to Determining Dwarfs, or the Last Voyage of Lemuel Gulliver, 2002)Unclear boundaries
16th Finále Festival of Czech Film

This year's Finále blurred the frontiers between documentary and fiction but also contained a rich array of popular works and more films from the festival's sweep through Czech cinema's "most turbulent decade." Peter Hames reviews the selection.


One of the strengths of the Finále Festival of Czech Film, held each year in the west Bohemian town of Plzeň, has always been its presentation of new Czech cinema alongside older films and retrospective programmes. This year, its survey of the 1960s—"Czech cinema's most turbulent decade"—was devoted to the year 1963, with classics by Vojtěch Jasný (Až přijde kocour / When the Cat Comes aka That Cat aka Cassandra Cat), Ján Kadár (Smrt si říká Engelchen / Death is Called Englechen), Věra Chytilová (O něčem jiném/Something Different), and Karel Kachyňa (Naděje / Hope). There was also a retrospective of the Slovak director, Juraj Jakubisko, who now lives in Prague, under the title of "Jakubisko Through the Eyes of Jakubisko."

This interaction between past and present is a characteristic of one of the Festival's most interesting films, Martin Šulík's Klíč k určování trpaslíků aneb poslední cesta Lemuela Gullivera (The Key to Determining Dwarfs, or the Last Voyage of Lemuel Gulliver, 2002). The film is based on the diaries of the "new wave" writer and director, Pavel Juráček, best known for his medium-length, Kafkaesque Postava k podpírání (Josef Kilián, 1963) and the long banned Případ pro začinajiciho kata (A Case for the New Hangman, 1969), which he adapted from Gulliver's Travels. Juráček, who failed to give even the obligatory nod of acquiescence to the Soviet invasion of 1968, found his career at an end and was to die of cancer in 1989. The film was screened in conjunction with the book launch of Juráček's diaries from the years 1959 to 1974.

The film itself is constructed from diary entries, home movies and archive material combined with a documentary reconstruction in which Juráček's son, Marek, plays the role of his father. The overall effect, which mixes private life, film, and the politics of the pre- and post-invasion periods, is done with extraordinary sensitivity and perception. The result is a strongly atmospheric film that provides a real insight into its time and the social milieu that gave birth to the Czech "New Wave". The use of music by the late Luboš Fišer is strongly evocative, as is the photography of Martin Štrba, here very much attuned to the look and feel of some of the black and white films of the period.

A closed screening of the as yet uncompleted Sentiment, directed by Tomáš Hejtmánek similarly evoked the era in addressing the reminiscences of the director, František Vláčil, who died in 1999. Hejtmánek made a number of taped interviews with Vláčil that he was unable to complete or turn into film. Here they are re-enacted with the help of the actor, Jiří Kodet, who gives something of a virtuoso performance in his speaking of Vláčil's words. The film adopts the unusual strategy of combining this with a revisiting of the locations where Vláčil shot films such as Marketa Lazarová (1966), Údolí včel (Valley of the Bees, 1967), and Adelheid (1969). Filmed in striking black and white by Jaromír Kačer (cinematographer for Cesta pustým lesem / The Way Through the Bleak Woods, 1997), extracts from the soundtracks are sometimes used to play over the images. The images play well against those of the director in his old age—a portrait of isolation, sometimes bitter, and informative about the director's last years rather than his films. It helps if you know the films but, as one foreign observer commented, he now wanted to know them.

Across the border

Juraj Nvota's Krute radosti (Cruel Joys, 2003)Two unusual debuts were the Slovak-Czech and Czech-Slovak productions based on the screenplays of two young Slovak women—Scarlett Čanakyová (Kruté radosti / Cruel Joys, 2003) and Tina Diosi (Nevěrné hry / Faithless Games), the latter, like Sentiment, in its penultimate form. Kruté radosti was the first feature film by the Slovak stage director, Juraj Nvota, best known perhaps for his leading roles in Dušan Hanák's Růžové sny (Rose Tinted Dreams, 1976) and Martin Šulík's Všetko čo mám rád (Everything I Like,1993). An experienced and inventive theatre director, his work with the actors (who here include Ondřej Vetchý and Anna Šišková) often gives rise to some powerful exchanges. Set in a small Slovak town in the early 1930s, it examines the impact of the arrival of the 16-year-old daughter of the local notary. An unusual subject, with strong Chekhovian elements and complex love relationships, the film is particularly good at suggesting the atmosphere of a closed community centring on the Church. The film's slow and languorous mood is admirably evoked through Jan Malíř's lyrical photography, which in itself recalls the mood of Menzel's Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer, 1967) and, more especially, Růžové sny .

Nevěrné hry is the feature debut of Czech animator Michaela Pavlátová and is again set in a Slovak village, this time on the border with Hungary and in the present day. It focuses on a young pianist, Eva (Zuzana Stivínová) who goes to live with her composer husband in provincial Slovakia, leaving behind the friends and status of a professional musician. Its story of the break up in a relationship between likeable people is directed and acted with a good deal of perception of the broader context within which it is situated. The screenplays of Čanakyová and Diosi show a rare maturity for debut works and augur well for future collaborations between the two countries.

Perhaps the most striking Czech film in the feature competition was Ivan Vojnár's Lesní chodci (Forest Walkers, 2003) (see Andrew James Horton's article "The way through the bleak city" in this week's issue of Kinoeye). Its story of two male outsiders, Rufus and "Churchill", who during the communist period become travellers and "forest walkers", is set unfashionably against the landscape of the northern industrial city of Ústi nad Labem. The film examines their relationships with, respectively, an assistant in a pawn shop, and a girl with mental problems, who join them in their wandering. Their children, Little Rufus and Greta, begin to reflect the problems of their parents. A film that becomes more involving as it progresses, its juxtaposed stories, with its poetic quotations and reflections on the nature of Czech identity, and the triumph of the exceptional over the everyday, are perhaps a little too elliptical to take in at a single viewing.

Fact and fiction

The frontiers between feature and documentary are becoming increasingly unclear and this seemed to be reflected at Plzeň also in the selection. Curiously, Klíč k určování trpaslíků, where the main part is acted, featured in the documentary section (where it failed to win a prize). Equally, Karel Vachek's Kdo bude hlídat hlídače? Dalibor aneb klíč k chaloupce strýčka toma (Who Will Guard the Guard? Dalibor or the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, 2002), Jan Gogola's Nonstop (2002), and Martin Mareček's Hry prachu (Dust Games, 2002) were in the feature competition. Since, in their different ways, they could all perhaps be classified as within "the school of Vachek", they might claim that their films were neither one nor the other, but the two films by Jana Ševčíková, Starověrci (Old Believers, 2002) and Svěcení jara (The Rite of Spring, 2002) would certainly be categorised as documentary by most.

Ševčíková's Starověrci, which interviews members of the Russian Orthodox Church whose "old believers" were expelled in the early 18th century and subsequently settled in Romania, is a remarkable work by any standards. Its unique assembly of interviews is complemented by some impressive black and white photography (Kačer again), that gives it a remarkable sense of atmosphere. Together with her earlier Piemule and Jakub, Ševčíková's work constitutes a powerful and unique record of the lives of forgotten communities and deserves to be more widely known.

Vachek's Kdo bude hlídat hlídače? with its polemical subtitle (Dalibor, or the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin), is the fourth part of his monumental Malý kapitalista (The Small Capitalist). The previous titles were: Nový Hyperion aneb Volnost, rovnost, bratrství (The New Hyperion, or Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1992); Co dělat? Cesta z Prahy do Českého Krumlova aneb jak jsem sestavoval novou vládu (What is to be Done? or How I Journeyed from Prague to Česky Krumlov and Founded My Own Government (1996); and Bohemia docta aneb Labyrint sveta a lusthauz srdce (Božská komedie) (Bohemia docta, or the Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart [A Divine Comedy], 2000). His films, with their references to Hölderlin, Chernyshevsky, Comenius, and Smetana immediately set themselves apart from the preoccupations of the market, and their length (Kdo bude hlídat hlídače? lasts over four hours) ensures that they are quite difficult to screen. Like Béla Tarr's seven-hour-plus Sátántangó (1994), the length of Vachek's films makes its own point but, at the same time, the films are inevitably condemned to reach those who accept their terms and play the interactive game they propose.

The film seems simpler than its predecessors, with a firm basis in Pitínský's rehearsals for a performance of Smetana's Dalibor at the National Theatre. The 15th-century story of Dalibor provides the film with a specific "Czech" context, the three "acts" of the film focusing on attitudes to the past, prospects for salvation and the transition to capitalism. Thus we have discussions on how the conductor Václav Talich preserved Smetana and collaborated with the Nazis, the link between the National Theatre and the ideals of Masaryk, film director Jan Němec denouncing the Dalibor legend as "Czech bullshit," Havel and Dubček, the secret police, the anti-charter, disillusionment with the globalised form taken by privatisation, the preservation of power by former Communist apparatchiks, the role of advertising, the persecution of the Roma and many other subjects.

In some ways, it seemed like a summary of Vachek's previous films, and continued to explore the connections between history, philosophy and politics. Yet despite the appearance of pigs in a box at the National Theatre and Vachek himself in uniform, the film seemed to make less surprising connections than the earlier films. In a world of simplified and sanitised debate, Vachek's work is both instructive and infuriating.

If Vachek focuses on discussions with intellectuals, Gogola is more interested in the everyday, setting his discussion of truth and meaning against the background of a motorway service restaurant between Prague and Brno. Here, there are some genuine idiosyncrasies—memories of the Zápotockýs, the building of a Wild West town in Moravia, the inflating of an Esso tiger, a discourse on water resources, and the restaurant owner who prefers clients from the National Theatre. In Dust Games , Mareček turns a similar technique on the rival sides in the demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank meetings in Prague in September 2000.

Diversity, if not success

What else? Well, there was Jan Werich's Fimfárum (2002), a collection of five puppet films based on Werich's stories, with excellent animation from Aurel Klimt and Švankmajer's regular collaborator, Vlasta Pospíšilová. The omnibus format provides an effective marketing ploy but the various stories remain essentially separate if stylistically unified. The puppets are excellent. This is another film that deserves separate consideration and ought to—but probably won't be—widely seen.

Jan Hrebejk's Pupendo (2003)This year's festival was the first to have an international jury and their prize went, perhaps predictably, to Jan Hřebejk's Pupendo, the latest of his collaborations with screenwriter Petr Jarchovský and, like Cosy Dens, inspired by the work of Petr Šabach. Like both Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999) and Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000), it's destined to be a big success in the Czech Republic, it's entertaining, and has some strong performances. Hřebejk has always combined popular success with themes of consequence and here, he feels, he was tackling a period with which he was familiar—the eighties. Bedřich Mára (Boleslav Polívka), an artist unable to practice for political reasons, is tempted into a "pact with the devil." Míla Břečka (Jaroslav Dušek), a headmaster, and his art historian wife, have less difficulty in adjusting to the needs of the regime. Their association has farcical consequences. But the central story of dissident artists and conformists seemed to me to fall into easy stereotypes. The world of unofficial art and practical collaboration was surely more disturbing than this. Klíč k určování trpaslíků is admittedly set in the 1970s, but its real story of a silenced film maker seems to come from a different reality.

The documentary awards went to Helena Třeštiková's Hitler, Stalin a já (Hitler, Stalin and I, 2001) about Heda Margolius, who experienced Auschwitz and whose husband was executed as a result of fifties political trials and to Martin Řezníček's Úžera (Loan Shark, 2002), about the serious problems of exploitation within the Roma community. Other awards went to films previously noted in Kinoeye including a special award of the Kodak Vision prize to Smradi (Brats, 2002) by Zdeněk Tyc, which also won the audience award. Awards presented at the festival included Cinema magazine's best actor award (Ivan Trojan in Brats) and best actress award (Iva Janžurová in Alice Nellis's Výlet / Some Secrets, 2002, which was shown at last year's festival). The Film Clubs award went to Zelenka's Rok ďabla (Year of the Devil, 2002), which was also shown last year.

It was not, I felt, a vintage year, but there are some very real achievements (Šulík, Ševčíková, Klimt and Pospíšilová), some probing reflections on contemporary issues (Vojnár, Vachek), and promising debuts (Nvota, Pavlátová, Hejtmánek)—and every evidence of a cinema that remains alive across the board from the popular to the personal.

Peter Hames

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About the author

Peter HamesPeter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer. He is an honorary research associate at Staffordshire University, programme director of Stoke Film Theatre and programme adviser to the London Film Festival.

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