Friday, March 28, 2014

A Report On the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech)



















A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND THE GUESTS (O slavnosti a hostech)  A-         
Czechoslovakia  (71 mi)  1966  d:  Jan Nĕmec

The mid-60’s was a turning point for films, both in the East and the West, as the cultural dynamic shifted from the old world to the new, as pro-military films were replaced by anti-war films, films about the bliss of the common man were replaced by films about existential desolation, and films about the grandeur of political systems were replaced by films about political nightmares.  In the West, the origin of this shift may have had its roots in the era of McCarthyism during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the late 40’s and early 50’s that exploited a fear of communism, when a government witch hunt attempted to rid the motion picture culture of communists, leftists, trade union members, and even believers in civil rights, labeling them subversives and anti-American, where the idea of freedom was not something the government could narrowly define and subsequently impose upon its citizens.  In the East, it may be Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat zhuravli) (1957), a film made after Stalin's death, creating a political thaw and causing a worldwide sensation, winning the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or in 1958, reawakening the West to Soviet Cinema for the first time since Eisenstein's IVAN THE TERRIBLE (1944) in the 40's.  Freedom and happiness were not grand ideas that respective governments could sell through speeches, propaganda, nationalistic fervor, or other social platforms that had little application to reality.  This idea would not fully kick in until the mid-60’s when films would flip the enthusiasm upside down, where films of this period were quick to point out government hypocrisies, exposing the efforts to hide political oppression behind a veil of big ideas, like nationwide happiness, equality, and freedom.  Examples of critical films questioning these values from Eastern Bloc nations would include Dušan Makavejev’s Man Is Not a Bird (1965), an absurdist glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain, where the lowly individual is dwarfed by the indestructible power of the State, considered the “cornerstone of Eastern European cinema,” Vera Chytilová’s DAISIES (1966), an anarchical satire about two delightfully precocious young girls who refuse to play by the rules, a madcap and aggressive feminist farce, arguably the most radical film of the decade, or Andrei Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV (1966), a haunting and supremely beautiful but crushing and demoralizing epic where the devastating effects of war prevent an artist from being able to create art.  One would have to add Jan Nĕmec’s A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND GUESTS (1966) to the list, described by film historian Peter Hames as “The most controversial film ever produced by the Czech New Wave,” an absurdist satire on power relations and the imperative to be “happy” under totalitarianism.    

With the exception of Dušan Makavejev (it would take him two more films), all of these films were banned by their respective communist governments, where each was considered a threat to the imposed totalitarian systems.  A common element with these films is a prevailing sense of melancholy or disillusionment, where they all show a profound understanding of governmental failure, the corruption and hypocrisy in promises made and not kept, and the resultant moral void left behind.  Many of these filmmakers were products of the Cold War, having grown up as the beneficiaries of the postwar policies of indoctrination and propaganda that led them to believe in a utopian optimism about their way of life and the supremacy of their respective political systems, whether it’s the promise of the American Dream or the idealized New Soviet Man.  Movies helped shape these perceptions of moral patriotism, having played such an active role in selling the cultural images to the public, but realizations shattered those illusions, exacerbated by anxiety that results from the conflicting Cold War themes of freedom and fear, the ultimate paradox, where we’re supposedly free, but we’re so afraid of dangerous forces that may take that liberty away that we protect ourselves with laws that add even stricter limitations to that freedom, all in the name of the public good.  In every instance, citizens are trapped under the influence of higher powers, and their freedoms restricted.  It is within this backdrop that Nĕmec’s film is conceived, slated to open at Cannes in 1968 (the festival was cancelled due to student demonstrations) along with two other Czech films, Miloš Forman’s THE FIREMAN’S BALL (1967) and Jiří Menzel’s CAPRICIOUS SUMMER (1968), which never happened before in a small country that only produced about 20 films a year, suddenly becoming part of the international stage.  That has completely disappeared, by the way, with no Czech films in competition at Cannes, Berlin, or Venice since 1990.  Czech President Antonín Novotný was particularly incensed by Jan Němec’s film, which was banned for two years, released during the brief Prague Spring of 1968, then banned again, becoming one of four films to be “banned forever” by the government, the other three being Forman’s THE FIREMAN’S BALL (1967), Vojtěch Jasný’s ALL MY GOOD COUNTRYMEN (1969), and Evald Schorm’s THE END OF A PRIEST (1969). 

Following the critical acclaim of Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) (1964), Němec’s name was quite marketable at the time, having won awards at international festivals and achieved foreign sales, so he was viewed favorably by the government.  That was short lived, as this is a blistering Kafkaesque fable, a savagely dark satire on free will, and one of Němec’s most politically charged films, written in collaboration with his wife Ester Krumbachová’s screenplay that intentionally mimics Ionescu’s Eastern European theater of the absurd, an onslaught of words that repeat in circular patterns, resembling a staged, outdoor theater piece.  The film opens, innocently enough, in the bliss of a sunny afternoon picnic in the countryside where a group of bourgeois lovers and friends share home made cake, drink wine, and joke with one another, while the women bathe in a nearby river, apparently changing into more formal evening attire, becoming a picture post card image of an idyllic social occasion.  They are interrupted by another larger group, featuring grim looking but politely smiling men, several wearing dark glasses, who invite them to come with them.  However they are insulted and intimidated, even a bit manhandled, as their appearance has sinister implications, where the use of flowery and overly polite language covers up the fact that what at first seems voluntary becomes more of a forced escort into an open field where a desk suddenly appears.  Behind the desk sits Rudolph (Jan Klusák), who sadistically continues to play mind games with the group, forcing them to obey his commands, to stand within arbitrary lines he draws on the ground, supposedly imprisoned while he holds them under interrogation, like a police questioning, detained for some unknown offense, like Kafka’s anonymous Joseph K in The Trial.  When one man (Karel Mareš) resists, claiming he’s had enough and simply walks away, Rudolph sends in the thugs to grab him, knock him to the ground and rough him up, all actions that resemble the overly apologetic, excessively polite home invaders in white gloves from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), whose disturbing violent actions grow hideously merciless.  This possibility is avoided however when the gracious host (Ivan Vyskočil) of the larger party arrives, who is all apologies for the rude behavior of his adopted son Rudolph, and cordially invites them to a celebratory banquet alongside a tranquil lake.    

The ever charming Vyskočil in his white suit dominates the second half, as he is the de facto leader of the group, the man in charge, who (without taking any responsibility) charmingly eases the fears of all involved (though they are made to feel guilty), with several admitting afterwards to having felt threatened and of having suspicions, as the rudeness was inexplicable and uncalled for, but they are suddenly, in turn, ingratiating themselves to their new host, a consummate politician who smooths things over and takes control of the situation by admitting to nothing, “So will someone tell me what happened or not?  A brother shouldn’t turn against his brother.  And a guest shouldn’t turn against a guest.”  The elegant banquet itself couldn’t be more elaborate, where servants bring lighted candelabras to every table, where after a “minor” disturbance, everything is back in good order.  That is, until some plump woman realizes she’s sitting in the wrong seat, which sets off a chain reaction of everyone getting up and moving to a different seat in an absurd display of accommodation, where they show the appearance of concern without really bothering themselves, where they pretend to go along, as that pretty much reflects what they do.  In this manner, Němec documents the self-deception and rationalization that lead to passivity and unquestioned conformity.  The host, of course, requires complete obedience and quickly loses his patience with this unnecessary disruption to a party he’s taken such great care to organize.  He grows furious, however, when one of the women announces that her husband has actually “left” the party, that he wasn’t that interested in being there anyway, but the host views this as an act of bold defiance, setting off a series of instructions where a heavily armed party of men decide they will go after him, led by a scent-sniffing hound that will lead the way, where this search party literally disappears into the trees to the sounds of dogs barking.  There is little doubt they will hunt the man down.  Němec has a sharp ear for the kind of psychological manipulation practiced by Soviet regimes in his day, including the appeal to widely prevailing customs, peer pressure, and formal politeness to keep subjects in line, where the supreme leader is seen as a kind and benevolent dictator expressing the widely proclaimed fiction that life under the state is a party and we all ought to be its grateful guests.  Though veiled as an allegory, apparently a reference to the nonsensical authority of the party was too close to the Communist Party, as the film describes the authoritarian mentality that occurs under fascism, communism, or “democratic” lynch mobs (see The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943).  When President Novotný saw the film, he apparently “climbed the walls” according to Nĕmec, and demanded the arrest of the director.  Aside from Vyskočil, who is a theater director, the non-professional cast is chosen primarily from the Prague intelligentsia, including Jiří Němec, a psychologist and translator, while his wife Dana Nĕmcová is a psychologist, Karel Mareš and Jan Klusák are composers, Evald Schorm (the man who left the party) is a film director, Miloň Novotný is a photographer, and Josef Škvorecký along with his wife Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká are both novelists, a cast Nĕmec describes as a photo album of the counter revolution, where only playwright and eventual first president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel is missing. 

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