Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Loaf of Bread (Sousto)


A LOAF OF BREAD (Sousto)         B-    
Czechoslovakia  (11 mi)  1960  d:  Jan Nĕmec

Němec was an amateur jazz musician who played piano and clarinet who contemplated music studies, but after a consulation with his father, an amateur photographer who was a career engineer, he decided upon a career as a filmmaker that began in the late 1950’s when he attended FAMU (Prague's Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts), the most prestigious institution for film training in Czechoslovakia, studying under Czech director Václav Krška.  Czechoslovakian cinema of the 1950’s largely adhered to the standards of Soviet socialist realism, where at the time following World War II, Czechoslovakia was under communist rule as an extension of the Soviet Union, where film was a nationalized industry, allowing access to studios and state funding, but artistic expression was also subject to censorship and a government review board.  However, due to powerful people within the Czechosolavak film industry, specifically writer and producer Jan Procházka, along with a collection of fellow artists like Miloš Forman, Vĕra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, Jaromil Jireš, Ján Kadár, and others, who developed a camaraderie and a shared sense of purpose, they became the dissenters of their time, who helped develop a creative surge of films in the 60’s that became known as the Czech New Wave, where their objective was, according to David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (1996), “to make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.”  The movement was characterized by long, unscripted dialogue, dark and absurd humor, and the casting of non-professional actors, touching upon themes of alienation, distrust, misguided youth, political cynicism, or surreal themes that often included literary adaptations from Czech literature.  With plans to put a human face on socialism, the election of reformist Alexander Dubček as the head of the Czech Communist Party in January 1968 lead to a relaxation of censorship along with a brief period of freedom of speech and the press, culminating in a movement known as the Prague Spring, a period of liberalization that was short-lived, ultimately crushed by an August 1968 Soviet military occupation that included 750,000 troops and 2,000 tanks that immediately replaced Dubček and put an end to his reforms, forcing several artists, Miloš Forman and Jan Němec among them, to flee the country. 

Many films of the Czech New Wave were banned even before the Soviet invasion of 1968, so artists often turned to metaphor, bleak humor, and radical narratives to alert the audience to the dangers and hypocrisies of life under a repressive regime.  A FAMU education was remarkably well-rounded, allowing screenings of international films local audiences were barred from seeing, from directors like Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, and Michelangelo Antonioni, where Němec was influenced mostly by French director Robert Bresson, but also Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini, known for treating cinema like a special artistic medium, helping him discover something along the lines of “pure film.”  His Czech filmography includes three shorts, three features, and one segment of a compilation work, where all three features were co-scripted by his wife at the time, Ester Krumbachová.  A LOAF OF BREAD (1960) was a short graduation film, an adaptation of Arnošt Lustig’s story about his experiences during the Holocaust, while his first feature, Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) (1964), adapts similar themes in a novel by the same author.  Set in a grim, realist style, it resembles a piece of war footage, where a Nazi death train filled with prisoners has come to a temporary stop, apparently due to a switch delay, with prisoners lying about guarded by the Nazi SS.  The film focuses on three prisoners who plot to steal a loaf of bread from a nearby train, given a suspenseful treatment considering lives could instantly be lost.  While there’s no other story development, it does paint a bleak picture of mortality, asking how much a human life is worth?  The film won an award at a student film festival in Amsterdam and a main award at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.  Thematically, all of Nĕmec's films deal with obstacles to human freedom and the ways in which men and women cope with these limitations.  The first feature to reach international acclaim was his second, A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) (1966), a surreal political fable that drew the ire of President Antonín Novotný, preventing its release within Czechoslovakia.  Developing a reputation as the enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave, Němec claimed that he always shot his films in a rush in the event the authorities would arrive to shut them down.  After completing Martyrs of Love (Mucedníci lásky) that same year in 1966, Nemec was blacklisted by Barrandov Studios for political reasons, labeled an anti-communist subversive, and was unable to work in Czechoslovakia, eventually immigrating to the West, where he was unable to reestablish a film career, which resumed only after the Velvet Revolution  and the fall of communism in 1989 when he returned to filmmaking in his native country.

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