Larks on a String (Skrivánci na niti,, 1969, Czechslovakia)

King of all he surveys

Although I’ve dated the film 1969, it wasn’t shown complete until the Berlin Film Festival of 1990, where it won the Golden Bear. The film fell foul of the Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in May 1968 and Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’ was taken over by totalitarian rule. It’s not surprising that bureaucrats disliked director Jirí Menzel’s satire on Czechoslovakian society. Menzel adapted the film from Bohumil Hrabal short stories; the writer had also provided the material for the director’s debut, the celebrated Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1966). I think Larks on a String is better than that Oscar winner.

Mostly set in a junk yard, a metaphor for Czech society, male bourgeois ‘exiles’ and women prisoner’s, overseen by a guard (above), sort through the rubbish. L.K. Weston summarises the bourgeois:

‘Thrown together by circumstance in the name of re-education, the group includes a philosophy professor and former librarian (a wonderful Vlastimil Brodský, who also starred in Closely Observed Trains), who refuses to burn books; a prosecution lawyer (Leos Sucharípa) who believes in everyone’s right to a defence; a saxophonist (Eugen Jegorov) whose only crime was possession of an instrument deemed too bourgeois, and a young cook Pavel (Václav Neckár another Trains cast member) who is a Seventh-day Adventist and refuses to work on a Saturday. The only willing volunteer in the group is dairyman (Vladimír Ptácek), who closed his premises and came to ‘work for Socialism.”

The women have been imprisoned for attempting to leave the country. Although the film is clearly allegorical, there’s no heavy-handedness to the satire. Most of the characters are primarily interested in members of the opposite sex, which requires circumventing the guard to even say ‘hello’. The guard has his own problems, we see him marrying a gypsy girl but is clueless about how to get her into bed to consummate their union. It’s light comedy, but also heartwarming to see characters carrying on in adverse circumstances.

Jaromír Ŝotr’s cinematography is beautiful: I can best describe it as having a polaroid quality (the instant photography of the early 1970s) giving the film a retro look. Menzel’s direction is impressively fluid as the location cannot have been easy to shoot on.

Despite its humour, the film’s devastating ending makes clear that regardless of the amount of human spirit people have to deal with their lot, the oppressors are self-serving scumbags who need consigning to history. In the UK at the moment, we are suffering from our own self-serving scumbags as Johnson’s regime prorogues Parliament to push its, and its right-wing backers’, agenda. Time to get on the streets.

The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, Czechoslovakia, 1965)

Two buffoons

With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happenedThe Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.

Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.

Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.

The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.

The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in LoveClosely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won – and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scene, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.

Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.

If… (UK, 1968)

Relevance returning

I first saw If…, rather bizarrely, at school as part of an English lesson. Presumably the whole year (4, I think – 10 in ‘new money’) was seeing it as there was a buzz about the ‘sex’ scene. Unfortunately our teacher stopped it at the point Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonen wrestle naked, explaining to us that we wouldn’t understand the symbolism. It was an all boys class and we weren’t interested in the symbolism. I’m not sure why they showed us the film and don’t remember any follow-up lessons; maybe these Comprehensive teachers (though we were a Secondary Modern year having failed our 11+s) were being subversive. This would have been 1976-7 so nearly ten years after the film was released; I guess it had recently been shown on TV and recorded to videotape. My only other memory was puzzlement about the ending, but then I did live a life ‘sheltered’ from any sense of the Swinging Sixties and Punk which was getting going at the time.

40+ years on If… has lost none of its power; if anything, its relevance has returned given the extreme public school bozos currently in office in the UK. In recent years a few victims of the ‘public school’ system, such as George Monbiot, have gone public about the trauma they suffered whilst being educated. Certainly the beating McDowell’s rebel Mick takes is grotesque, but it is the mental cruelty the system imposes that has a greater impact. I remember when we went to Secondary School the rumours were we would have a head put down a toilet; in If… it happens.

The self-perpetuating oligarchy, seen in the ‘old boys’ network’ and employment practices of many influential institutions (such as the Press), that is so damaging to the life chances of those outside the ‘gilded circle’ and the country as a whole. The Othering of anyone not like themselves allows the ruling classes to create such obscenities as the Universal Credit in the belief it is the right thing to do.

Lindsay Anderson is an interesting director who made few feature films; I notice he directed some of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60). His filmic roots were in Free Cinema, where the representation of working class life was less patronising than mainstream productions of the time. This fed into the ‘gritty realism’ of the British New Wave, though my memory of This Sporting Life (1963), Anderson’s first feature, is that it has expressionist elements as well. By the time of If…, his second feature after the short The White Bus (1967), surrealism had become integral to the narrative; it’s present in the short too.

Anderson had taken This Sporting Life to the Karlovy Vary film festival, in Czechoslovakia, where he met director Miloš Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček who were shooting A Blonde in Love. Anderson invited Ondříček, who with Forman fell foul of the censors after The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967), to shoot in the UK. Ondříček told Anderson he couldn’t guarantee the colour consistency in the chapel scenes of If… so they were shot in black and white. Ondříček also shot The White Bus which also mixes film stock.

Capriciously Anderson decided to shoot other scenes in monochrome too and this adds to the decidedly Eastern European new wave look of the film; something that also is accentuated by the surreal moments. The first of which is the aforementioned ‘sex’ scene where the characters are suddenly naked and roaring like tigers; apparently McDowell suggested to Anderson they do the wrestling naked and Anderson said ‘Okay in Noonan agreed.’ Of course McDowell put the suggestion to Noonan as Anderson’s idea… Some commentators seem to think the sex scene is ‘real’: Mick’s mate, Wallace, places a saucer on the coffee to keep it warm while it’s happening. However, I think that act is motivated by Mick putting Missa Luba (played by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin in an arrangement by Father Guido Haazen) which he seems obsessed by. Wallace knows that Mick’s going to be absorbed in the music for its duration; the naked wrestling is the fantasy he has while listening.

Whether the wrestling happens or not is immaterial, but ‘the Girl’, as she is known in the dismissive ‘sixties’ way, is clearly a fantasy figure. Her second appearance is through a telescope leaning out of her window which cannot possibly be in Mick’s view. She turns up at the conflagration at the end too. In this film calling her ‘the girl’ works because she is a figment of imagination.

The marginalisation of women in the film is understandable given its milieux. Mary McLeod plays the apparently buttoned-up wife of housemaster (Arthur Lowe at his lugubrious best portraying ineptitude) is seen wandering around the boys’ quarters naked whilst they are all watching a rugby match. It is a brilliant scene emphasising the repression of women, both sexually and as individuals, in the school..

The surrealism highlights the ludicrousness of the public school rituals of fags and ceremonial beatings. These probably appear more ridiculous now than they would have at the time (you could get caned at the school I attended) but Anderson clearly has nothing but contempt for the ‘system’. It certainly chimed with the zeitgeist as it was a box office success, coming out in the year of youthful rebellions across the world as the forces of reaction met an end game. Unfortunately the right has been in the ascendent since the ’70s and are having to be fought again.

McDowell’s Mick reappeared in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).