Freedom of expression

Pub date April 1, 2014
SectionFilm Review

FILM The 1960s were a liberating period for movies almost everywhere, not least behind the Iron Curtain and particularly in Czechoslovakia, a country created (from the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in the wake of world war and dissolved (into two nations) by the official end of the Cold War. The “Czechoslovak New Wave” was a moment of considerable international interest at the time — notably winning Best Foreign Language Film Oscars for 1965’s The Shop on Main Street and Closely Watched Trains two years later, along with umpteen festival awards — that attained immediate poignancy by being so short-lived. When Soviet tanks rolled in to aggressively squelch the liberal reforms of “Prague Spring” in August 1968, the reassertion of censorious state control put a chokehold on filmmakers as much as any other “subversive” group.

Some talent fled to the West, achieving variable success, most notably future double Oscar winner Milos Forman (1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1984’s Amadeus), and Ivan Passer of cult faves Cutter’s Way (1981) and Creator (1985). Some, unwilling or unable to get out, were prevented from working again in the government-controlled film industry for so long that by the time such blacklists no longer existed, they’d lost interest or died. Others, like the recently deceased Vera Chytilová (1966’s Daisies), Jirí Menzel (the aforementioned Trains), Jaromil Jires (1970’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), and animator Jan Svankmajer (1988’s Alice), stayed and managed to build substantial bodies of work despite occasionally finding themselves on the wrong end of the political stick.

What virtually all these directors have in common is that some of their films were banned, whether before or after the Soviet invasion: Jires and Menzel had exceptional features (respectively 1969’s The Joke and 1990’s Larks on a String) no one saw until decades later. Chytilová had to direct commercials under her husband’s name before falling back into official favor, while in 1972 Svankmajer was barred from working at all for several years. What would they and myriad lesser-known artists have created if Prague Spring had never ended?

That question looms particularly large over the career of Jan Nemec, alleged enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave. He’s nearing 80 now, and still active — back in the Czech Republic, which he returned to some years ago after a couple fugitive decades abroad — yet his original output from 1964 to 1968 still overshadows the sporadic projects he’s been allowed to realize since. That period’s burst of youthful energy and inspiration remains somewhat dazzling, all the more so because in many ways we never got to see his talent fully mature. The traveling retrospective stopping at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive over the next two weeks offers a necessarily spotty portrait of an artist whose expressions have been more than usually subject to cruel fate.

His 1960 graduation short A Loaf of Bread — a terse miniature in which starving concentration camp prisoners toward the end of World War II try to steal sustenance from Nazi guards — could serve as a prelude to his first feature four years later. Diamonds of the Night (1964) begins with frantic handheld camera as two young men stagger uphill from gunfire into the countryside, having fled a prison train probably headed to the camps. The woods are a strange and forbidding landscape, its danger heightened by these city boys’ extreme hunger and exhaustion. Occasionally flashing back to their lives before capture, the film’s woozy disorientation prevents our being sure if the pursued, panicky protagonists are witnessing grotesque sights and committing violence, or simply hallucinating it all.

Barely over an hour, this black-and-white jolt of mixed realism and surrealism (drawn, like Bread, from a story by Czech camp survivor Arnost Lustig) announced a major new talent. While its historical indictment of a persecuting foreign power kept it safe from official criticism, the 28-year-old Nemec wasted little time before pushing the envelope much further. A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) is an absurdist allegory with unmistakable political overtones. Its protagonists are a group of drunken bourgeoisie picnickers who fall in with other, larger, vaguely sinister parties in the woods, culminating in a vast al fresco banquet in which a good time is had by all — so long as they adhere to the increasingly arbitrary rules of conformity. If not, the fade out suggests, they will be — like Diamonds’ Jewish lads — hunted down with rifles and dogs, like game.

This blunt provocation did not go unnoticed by the right wrongdoing people: It was immediately “banned forever” by the Czech government. Fortunately, Nemec had already begun his next film. Martyrs of Love (1967) is a three-part homage to silent comedy in which there’s almost no dialogue, plenty of slapstick, and a brief cameo by Daisies‘ anarchic female duo. Also tipping hat to Jacques Tati, it was a delight whose elements of social satire could offend no one. Yet it did very little to balm the rancor that Party stirred. After his short documentary about the Soviet occupation, 1968’s Oratorio for Prague was banned — yet footage from it used by news services around the world — he was persona non grata at home, eventually given the choice of exile or prison.

His work over the next couple decades is scant and elusive; it’s represented at the PFA only by a 1975 German TV adaptation of Metamorphosis by Nemec’s hero, Kafka. When he resurfaced with a couple post-perestroika features (notably 1990’s In the Light of Love, from Czech literary avant-gardist Ladislav Klima’s absurdist 1928 novel), they were poorly received and remain hard to find. More recently he’s turned toward collage-style video essays like 2001’s autobiographical Late Night Talks with Mother and 2005’s Toyen (about the Czech surrealist painter). They’re complex intellectual and aesthetic explorations — but they still leave you wondering about the filmmaker he might have become if 1968 hadn’t come in like a lamb and gone out like a sacrificial one. *


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