Monday, March 31, 2014


Toyen (b. Marie Čermínová), France, 1950’s, by André Breton

TOYEN           B               
Czechoslovakia  France  (63 mi)  2005  d:  Jan Němec

At no time does the film evoke an impression of connection; the image continually disintegrates, its shapes merge and spill over, and its transparent composition assumes a ghostly quality.  Even Toyen herself…only flickers across the screen, eclipsed by what look like half tangible, half abstract qualities.                           
—Zdena Škapová, Professor, FAMU Prague Film School

This film is an abstract recreation of the life of Czech artist Toyen, born Marie Čermínová in Prague (1902-1980), rejecting her given name in favor of a single word where gender remains ambiguous.  At 17 she attended UMPRŮM (the School of Decorative Arts) in Prague, becoming a painter and printmaker.  Shortly afterwards she met and collaborated with fellow painter and illustrator Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942), and from 1922 they worked together for the rest of their lives, joining Devětsil in 1923, a young, avant-garde artists’ association where they exhibited their works with the group.  Perhaps it was not by accident that Prague is halfway between Moscow and Paris, as both cities influenced the budding art world of Prague in the 1920’s, dominated on the one hand by Russian poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and avant-garde Polish painter Kasimir Malevich, who studied at the Moscow School of Painting, and on the other, French poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the founding fathers of surrealism.  Toyen and Štyrský came into contact with André Breton and surrealism during their stay in Paris from 1925 – 1929, where Toyen’s first exhibition was introduced, and together they developed a style of painting known as Artificialism, a bridge between abstract art and reality, creating a lyrical abstract style intended to capture fleeting moments of memory, dream, and sensation, which was partly directed against surrealism.  It was not until they returned to Prague in 1929 that both artists began an intense exploration of dream, erotic, and the world of the subconscious, becoming co-founders of the Prague Surrealist group in 1934, becoming the group’s principal visual artists, working in oil painting, drawing, collage, graphic design, and even theater décor.  Forced underground during the Nazi annexation and occupation of 1938-39, as Surrealism was another of the “Degenerate” art movements banned by the Nazi’s, they were joined by Czech poet Jindrich Heisler (1914-1953) who went into hiding after refusing to register as a non-Aryan Jew, so Toyen hid him from the Gestapo in her apartment during World War II (Štyrský died in 1942) as the group continued to work in Prague during the war, fleeing before the Communist takeover in 1947 for Paris, where they became associated with the Breton group.

The film’s narrative commentary is partly made up of words or poems by Toyen (Zuzana Stivínová) and Heisler (Jan Budař), occasionally those of Štyrský (Tobias Jirous), while the director offers informational detail.  Since there is little written in English on Toyen, almost all of it published in the Czech Republic, most would be familiar with her work only through collections of surrealist artists.  Toyen, however, is a major surrealist painter who regarded painting as a natural need free of any ambition.  She never conformed to the demands of galleries and art critics, where exhibiting paintings was an opportunity to express camaraderie with fellow Surrealist poets, who often wrote poems for her.  Nĕmec uses a quotation from Toyen, Splinters of Dreams, as a guiding visual aesthetic, showing close ups of her paintings, emphasizing various textures, before moving to museum pieces, including a close shot of her painting The Myth of Light (Le mythe de la lumière, 1946, Toyen - adagio).  Heisler can be seen sitting for the painting, where Toyen interestingly only depicts him as an intruding shadow.  She explains that she painted it because Heisler loved light, forced to live in confined claustrophobic conditions of semi-darkness during the war, but it’s also a prominent theme throughout her work.  He seems to delight in placing columns of watch springs up his nose, creating a bizarre mask-like effect, while also sleeping in the bathtub, claiming it absorbs the outside vibrations, or Toyen tries wearing various hats, where they film one another like the playful objects of home movies, but we also see the streets of wartime Prague outside in a collage of cobblestone streets, dark and narrow stairways with peeling plaster on the walls, closed window shutters, and a variety of urban textures.  Toyen can be seen visiting the grave of the real Toyen in Paris, creating a certain distance and detachment from reality, but equal weight is given to showing their work, where among the most powerful images is a slow selection of her paintings, one after the other, which has a transfixing effect on the audience. 

No previous study of Toyen or Czech surrealists has been done in this manner, where Nĕmec creates the portrait of an artist through an abstractly structured film that is true to the subject’s own surrealist style, becoming a dreamlike, impressionistic montage of her work, set mostly in the most difficult period of her life.  Nĕmec resorts to newsreel coverage of the Nazi occupation, which includes the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich by Czech paratroopers trained in England who blocked the passage of his car and shot him.  Intelligence falsely linked the assassins to the village of Lidice, which was razed to the ground in revenge, with all men and boys over the age of 16 murdered, while the women and children perished in concentration camps.  The effect of this incident haunted Toyen, who began drawing black and white images of war, skeletons of strange creatures lost in a devastating landscape, or the faces of the young girls lost from Lidice, commenting “I saw the child in my subconscious.”  Equally horrific was the Soviet liberation and subsequent postwar occupation of Czechoslovakia, including a Soviet scripted trial by the prosecutor and a false confession by Toyen’s surrealist friend, Záviš Kalandra, which was broadcast on the radio, supervised by Soviet advisers, eventually executing Kalandra and Milada Horáková, who was part of the Czech underground resistance movement, along with a handful of other innocent victims as anti-Soviet traitors in the Stalinist show trials of the 50’s.  Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, the prosecutor in the Horáková trial, was sentenced to six years in prison 58 years after her crime in 2008 at the age of 87.  Flashes of the painting The Myth of Light is cut into the newsreel footage of the trial, where Nĕmec works by association, allowing reality to be emotionally charged by the imposition of the imagination, often superimposing various images, creating artistic impressions that evoke the spirit of the surrealistic avant-garde movement.  The most powerful images are reserved at the end for Toyen’s own works, shown to the sound of a lone bell ringing with the wind rustling in the background, where the spirit of the artist is equated with a remarkable stream of pure light that shines through the enveloping dark period of history.

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.”

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Martyrs of Love (Mucedníci lásky)

MARTYRS OF LOVE (Mucedníci lásky)        B+                  
Czechoslovakia  (71 mi)  1967  d:  Jan Němec

This is the third and final collaboration with Němec and cowriter Ester Krumbachová, who along with Němec was one of the instrumental figures of the Czech New Wave, both known for their distinct aesthetic sensibilities, which includes odes to Silent film comedy, Luis Buñuel surrealism, earlier European avant-garde of the 20’s and 30’s, especially Czechoslovak Poetism (a movement that died out with Fascism and Stalinism), basically redefining the boundaries between illusion and reality, or life and art.  Krumbachová was married to the director for a brief period of time and cowrote three of his films, including this one, but her influence was even more widespread, as she also worked as an art director making costumes and production designs.  She was a multicultural European with Jewish Hungarian roots, where her well rounded aesthetic had a large impact on New Wave films, studying at the Academy of Applied Arts and entering the Barrandov Studios in the early 1960’s to establish herself as a notable costume designer, but ended up working with Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Otakar Vávra, Karel Kachyňa, and Vojtěch Jasný, among others.  MARTYRS OF LOVE is an example of uncontrolled desires, composed of three unrelated but comically interwoven stories of lovesick protagonists reflecting very different ideas about unattainable love, featuring awkward, melancholy souls, where songs often stand in for dialogue, given a modernist twist when each of the lead characters remains silent.  Due to its whimsical, lighthearted style and its prominent use of wall-to-wall music, including Eva Olmerová, considered one of the best Czech jazz singers ever, the film is more along the lines of musical theater of the 30’s inspired by visions of the Czech Surrealist group and the streets of Prague themselves.  Photographed by Miroslav Ondříček, Miloš Forman’s regular cameraman, it’s interesting that the Paris Surrealist group’s favorite Czech New Wave film was Věra Chytilová's highly experimental DAISIES (1966), while the Prague group, by contrast, preferred the documentary-style approach of Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer, while also extending their praise to the somewhat less realistic films of Jan Němec, but only insofar as their dreamlike sense of a raw reality.    

While the film intentionally focuses upon the perils of love through the misadventures of three naively dreamy and inexperienced young romantics, they couldn’t be more opposite than the realist ideal of communist working class heroes.  Post-war, the Czech Surrealists saw communist reality as inherently absurd, where they felt the need to satirize contemporary reality, developing a feeling for contemporary forms of aggressive humor.  It should not be forgotten that Prague’s native son is Franz Kafka, where themes of alienation and persecution are present throughout his works, where Czech author Milan Kundera, who wrote the 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, suggests Kafka’s surrealist humor may have been an inversion of Dostoyevsky who presented characters who were punished for a crime, while Kafka’s modernist characters are punished for crimes they haven’t committed.  This may truly reflect the Eastern Bloc mentality.  Opening with “Temptations of a White Collar Worker,” featuring a timid young desk clerk (Petr Kopriva) who fends off the boredom and repetitious monotony of work by visiting night clubs in search of pleasure, but he’s too shy to approach anyone, finding himself in the middle of a 1920’s Jazz age vaudeville review, also featuring music from Marta Kubišová, one of the most popular Czech singers of the 60’s, who was married to Nĕmec for a brief period until he was exiled to the United States.  In this opening segment only three lines are spoken, but it’s notable for the sheer absurdity of the images associated with the music, reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang’s THE HOLE (1998) which achieves a similar effect.  Prominently featured is the sexual use of a bowler hat, used playfully in a bedroom sequence, shown to even greater effect by actress Lena Olin in Philip Kaufman’s film THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988), where Nĕmec served as an advisor on the film, also allowing original footage of the Soviet invasion from ORATORIO FOR PRAGUE (1968) to be integrated into the film.  This section is perhaps most notable for its use of non-stop jazz music, culminating with the scat singing of Olmerová, where jazz was effectively banned by the communists in 1948, though musicians continued to play it throughout the 50’s and 60’s, where jazz became strongly associated with revolt in postwar Czechoslovakia.  Look for brief cameos from Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, who reprise their roles from DAISIES, and British director Lindsay Anderson makes a small appearance as well.  

Music also sets the tone for the second section, “Anastasia’s Reveries,” featuring the delightful sensuality of Hana Kuberová, whose rhapsodic daydreams comprise the material for this segment, seen initially lost in thought on a train, where she imagines herself to be little more than a chamber maid, seen dutifully cleaning up in the beginning, as this is a dress up occasion for a classy high society wedding.  Holding a tray of drinks that nobody chooses, she finally drinks them herself and fantasizes falling in love with a rich noble, who turns out to be the wedding singer (popular Czech singer Karel Gott), whose singing stirs her passionate interest, eventually turning her attention to another man (composer Jan Klusák), a military officer seen arriving in a horse-drawn carriage with two nuns.  While he instructs her to get dressed up for their lavish outdoor wedding, one recalls a similar scene with Catherine Deneuve in a surrealist fantasy outdoors in the country estate of a duke in Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR (1967).  But here she runs away, where we see her back on the train where she hears the strumming of a guitar singer, following the sound to a gypsy singer (Vladimir Preclik), eventually teasing him by slowly removing various articles of clothing, drawing him to her.  The final section cleverly features offscreen music in “The Adventures of Rudolph, the Orphan,” where we see our hero (Josef Koníček, a ballet dancer in real life) drunkenly stumble down the street when he hears the virtuoso sound of a violin, with rhythmic clapping, where he peers over a gate to see where it’s coming from, climbing over to get a better view, where he’s immediately recognized as Jakob, apparently one of their best friends, as they immediately invite him into their garden party, ply him with drinks, having him join in a conga line, treating him like he’s the life of the party.  The chaotic mayhem seems entirely improvised, especially a rhythmic car sequence on the running boards of a series of cars, creating an original percussive musical sound that reminds one of the bizarre and wildly uninhibited humor of Ernie Kovacs.  The afternoon is one drunken reverie, as his shabby clothes are quickly pulled off for more elegant attire, where he’s literally redressed as an aristocrat, where one of the alluring women has her eye on him, instructing him to return for her later that evening.  But when he does, he can’t find the opening that led him over the gate, instead feeling lost and perplexed, where the entire film feels like a dreamlike journey down the rabbit hole.  And while the slapstick comedic bits in the finale are often uneven, the surrealistic flourish suggests a missing dimension in our own drab lives, recalling the imaginative experimentation of Jacques Rivette’s euphoric fantasy world in Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) (1974).

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. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci)

DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (Démanty noci)           A                           
Czechoslovakia  (64 mi) 1964  d:  Jan Nĕmec

This is what appeals to me most in films—the possibility of discovering the secrets of man’s subconscious and dreams.  But a pure film should be interpretable in itself; it should have its own aesthetics and poetry. 
—Jan Nĕmec

Echoing a theme introduced by his student short, A Loaf of Bread (Sousto) (1960), Nĕmec adapts a novel by Jewish Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig, Tma nemá/Darkness Casts No Shadow, where as a boy in 1945 Lustig had survived three years in Nazi concentration camps, eventually escaping from a train transporting prisoners to the Dachau concentration camp when the engine was destroyed by an American fighter plane.  Shot over a five-week period on a very low budget, the film is a harrowing journey of two Jewish boys escaping from a Nazi death train transporting them from one concentration camp to another, largely a wordless account of their flight through the woods, intercut with subliminal thoughts and fantasies.  Shots of streets and textures form a major part of its affect, though from the outset the viewer realizes the story is told as a brilliantly stylized, expressionist nightmare filled with stream-of-conscious imagery of personal memories that accompany their journey.  No doubt influenced by Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), especially the feeling that these kids could be shot and executed at any minute, Nĕmec however offers his own individual style, including some staggeringly powerful hand-held camerawork from Jaroslav Kučera (where the camera is actually operated by Miroslav Ondříček, later Miloš Forman’s favorite cinematographer) that follows these boys as they escape into the forest, as the close-up intimacy emphasizes the overwhelming physicality of the situation, where our closeness to them is often unbearable, becoming so powerful it turns the wide open spaces into a claustrophobic air of doom surrounding their every move, where the offscreen use of sound, firing shots and yelling shouts to halt, adds to a pervasive sense of menace and peril looming off in the distance.  As the weary boys travel through the forest, there is little to no dialogue, adding an uncompromising aspect to their experience, where the film is stripped down to its bare essentials, likely veering from any literary text.  Even as they remain hidden and safely out of sight, the real mixes with the imaginary, as their minds conjure up ominous images of trees falling down on top of them, adding a sense of delirium to their experience. 

As time passes, we begin to realize the significance of something that happened early on while still on the train, a scene of emaciated prisoners huddled against the wall of a cattle car as one of the kids exchanges a pair of shoes for a piece of bread, but those shoes are too small, creating lingering foot problems, as the longer they travel, the harder it is for him to walk.  As they are constantly on the move, their perpetual walking evolves into drudgery, where they are challenged by a disintegrating mental state and a pervasive sense of dread, as the line between fantasy and reality soon blurs, where the cinematography adds a slightly overexposed texture.  One of the starkest images are the large, pronounced letters KL (Konzentration Lager, the German word for concentration camp) written across the backs of their coats, which are quickly shed during their escape, but there are haunting flashback sequences of these kids wearing those same marked coats as they travel through pedestrian traffic in a city, where they almost appear as phantoms or ghosts as they hop on street cars, or imagine what might happen when seeing a girl, giving the film a surreal effect, especially when these initially inexplicable images appear as brief flashes intercut with longer sequences where they are exhausted with fatigue and hunger, also crippled by the ill-fitting shoes.  While dialogue is heavily present in Lustig’s novel, with the boys sharing memories and stories with each other along the way, Němec’s boys are almost always silent, where it’s nearly fifteen minutes into the film before a word is spoken.  In this way, the film becomes uniquely subjective and deeply personal, a near documentary journey where the camera involves the viewer as eye-witnesses, where because of the ambiguity of the unexplained flashbacks, each viewer may experience it differently.  To the film’s credit, this adds to the potency of the experience, where it is most powerful expressing a fractured, stream-of-conscious state of mind, less so when it resorts to the conventional narrative formalities of an ending.  

While the film is visually starkly realist, depicting a very specific time period, it also shows a highly experimental style, where the subject becomes memory and relationship with the past and present, where the ambiguity of the editing leaves time sequences altered, shown out of time, including offscreen sound, which becomes a trigger for our memories.  While almost entirely a movie about boys on the run pursuing an ever elusive freedom, they become associated with hunted prey.  There is a brief scene at a farmhouse where one of them begs for bread and milk, but the fractured memory association leaves open multiple possibilities of what might have happened, confusing as much as clarifying, including the idea that they may have been betrayed and turned in to the authorities.  There’s a gun sequence that recalls Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939), showing similar shots of rifle fire pointed into the air, but also an extended fox hunt, where here the boys become synonymous with human prey as they are chased through the forest by a kind of volunteer local militia comprised of senile old men carrying rifles.  The irony of escaping from the Gestapo only to be hunted down by a squad of toothless and feeble old men is not lost on the viewer, turning their capture into a disturbing display of beer hall gluttony, laughing, joking, and even dancing among themselves, where they have a celebratory feast in front of their starving captives, an image that would be sadistically recreated in Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985).  These jovial authority figures are the face of authority imposing their views at the long end of a rifle, where what they finally do in the end is bleakly poetic, showing multiple variations on a similar theme, with the haunting presence of death lingering throughout.  It’s hard to shake some of the effects of the film, the surreal Buñuel touches, the marked coats running through the city, the interior psychological explosion in the scene at the farmhouse, where the interplay of sound and image leaves a lasting effect deep in the subconscious of the viewer.  This extraordinary debut is an example of the complexity of cinema, as while the story itself is relatively simple, the intensity of the experience is anything but, made infinitely more tragic by the flashback editing scheme, recalling moments, both real and imagined, that add a clarifying depth of emotion that elevates the material and remains an aesthetic and technical milestone in the exploration of human experience under extreme conditions, becoming uniquely the vision of the director.      

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.