Sunday, March 30, 2014

Oratorio for Prague

ORATORIO FOR PRAGUE      B+               
Czechoslovakia  (26 mi)  1968  d:  Jan Nĕmec

Czechoslovakia was a strong democracy in Central Europe before World War II, but it began to experience challenges from both the East and the West in the mid 1930’s.  In late September of 1938, the leadership of Great Britain and France (without the presence of Czechoslovakia) signed the Munich Agreement which conceded Nazi Germany’s partial annexation of Czechoslovakia’s northern and western border regions, known collectively as Sudetenland populated by ethnic Germans living in that area.  The Czech government condemned this German occupation as a betrayal and a pretext to an invasion that followed six months later when Hitler moved into the rest of the Czech nation, an occupation that ended only with Germany’s surrender at the end of the war.  In 1948 Czechoslovakia attempted to join the Marshall Plan, an American sponsored rebuilding of postwar Europe, but this was rejected by a Soviet takeover and the installation of a communist government in Prague, where Czechoslovakia remained under the banner of the Soviet Union for the next twenty years.  In the 1960’s, however, the Czech economy slowed, where cracks were emerging in the application of Soviet communist doctrine, where the government responded with reforms designed to improve the economy.  In May 1966 people in Slovakia raised cries of Soviet exploitation, complaining the government in Prague was imposing its rules on the local Slovak economy, followed by similar complaints from rural Czech farmers who were forced to follow the Party line, where innovations were all but nonexistent.  In June 1967, there was open criticism of Antonin Novotný, the conservative head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, where in January 1968 he was replaced as First Secretary of the Party by Alexander Dubček.  The Dubček government embarked on a program of reform that included amendments to the constitution of Czechoslovakia that would have brought back a degree of political democracy and greater personal freedom, where he wanted the totalitarian aspects of the party to be reduced while retaining the existing framework of a Marxist-Leninist State.  In what became known as the Prague Spring, he also announced freedom of the press and freedom of speech, something unheard of in communist countries, even tolerating political and social organizations not under Communist control, where “Dubček! Svoboda!” became the popular refrain of student demonstrations during this period and newspapers took the opportunity to produce scathing reports about government incompetence and corruption.  Dubček announced that farmers would have the right to form independent cooperatives so that they themselves would direct the work that they did as opposed to orders coming from a centralized authority, and trade unions were given increased rights to bargain for their members.

Soviet leaders, however, were concerned over these recent developments, recalling the 1956 Uprising in Hungary, where leaders in Moscow worried that if Czechoslovakia carried reforms too far, other Soviet satellite states might follow, leading to a widespread rebellion against Moscow’s leadership of the Eastern Bloc.  There was also a danger that the Soviet Republics in the East, such as the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia might make their own demands for more liberal policies.  After much debate, the Communist Party leadership in Moscow decided to intervene to establish a more conservative and pro-Soviet government, where the Prague Spring ended August 20, 1968 with a Soviet military occupation that included 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops armed with machine guns mostly from the Soviet Union, but also limited troops from Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Hungary, along with 2,000 tanks, where they immediately arrested Dubček, sent him to Moscow, and put an end to his reforms.  At least 72 people died in the ensuing protests on the streets, and more injured, while 100,000 people immediately fled Czechoslovakia, growing to seven times that number over the course of the occupation.  The tanks that rolled through the streets of Prague were swift and successful, and reaffirmed to the West that the people of Eastern Europe were oppressed and denied the democracy that existed in Western Europe, though the invasion didn’t provoke any direct intervention from the West.  While the United Nations Security Council repeatedly passed resolutions condemning the attacks, a Soviet Union veto prevented any coordinated action.  There were also long term consequences, as after the invasion the Soviet leadership justified the use of force under the Brezhnev Doctrine, which insured Moscow had the right to intervene in any country where the communist government was threatened, used again as the primary justification for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  This policy also helped generate a Sino-Soviet split, as Beijing feared the Soviet Union would use the doctrine to invade or interfere with Chinese communism.  The United States largely accepted the doctrine as the Soviet Union protecting its own territories rather than expanding Soviet power.  In 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the more liberalized policies of glasnost and perestroika, which recalled Dubček’s original reforms of putting a human face on socialism.  When asked what was the difference between Prague Spring and his own reforms, Gorbachev replied “Nineteen years.”    

The historical backdrop to this film is significant, as the movie almost never happened, and it certainly wasn’t planned.  Instead Nĕmec intended to make an uplifting film about the buoyant mood of the nation under Dubček’s Prague Spring reforms, where students joined in the festivities of hippie flower power, becoming part of the counterculture, anti-war movement singing folk songs in the streets celebrating their newfound freedoms, enjoying the possibilities of a future they never dreamed of, much of which feels reminiscent of Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963), where couples on the street are asked how they feel about their future, providing a firsthand look at people excited to be talking in public about politics, happy they are allowed to make their own decisions, while also capturing the civic pride in historic flag waving street processions, smiling grannies, and dancing in the streets.  Dubček is seen arriving unescorted at the airport without any bodyguards, where Nĕmec’s camera is the only one on the scene greeting him upon his return, allowing a quick impromptu interview where the future looks bright.  Then out of nowhere, the completely unexpected happens, as Soviet tanks are seen driving down the street one morning, where again Nemec’s cameras are the only ones capturing this astounding historical footage of a Soviet-led invasion of Prague in August 1968, an historical event playing out right before his eyes.  The streets are lined with citizens yelling at the Russians to go home, a grandmother faces down a tank with a portrait of her own president, while the camera identifies in a freeze frame the military official who gave the orders to shoot into the crowd, killing several people, their bodies seen pulled into an alleyway, also showing the pavement on the street where blood was first spilled.  This raw footage would be shown by countless international news organizations as it provides the only eyewitness view of what was taking place, contradicting the Russian view that they were “invited” in, eventually seen by more than 600 million Czech citizens when broadcast on television.  Using a news documentary style, the film’s narrator Gene Moskowitz uses a steady tone throughout without rising or falling inflections, where he’s simply providing information in an essay format.  According to Irena Kovářová, an independent film programmer and Czech Film Center representative in North America, “Many were forced out, like Němec, and many left on their own accord, like [Miloš] Foreman.  It was a crucial point in their lives.  And especially for filmmakers, the weakening of the grip meant there was funding for film, and then the invasion happened.  For Czechs and Slovaks especially, the period of the 60’s was a time when people had seen their countries flourish, there were fewer restrictions—especially as far as censorship goes—and people could travel, which was a huge deal.  This was an incredible thing to experience, and then in 1968 everything is turned around.”

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