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.

Advertisements

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, Poland, 1975)

Capitalists on the make

I saw the 140 minute release of The Promised Land, it was originally three hours but Polish TV broadcast an eight-part version in one hour episodes; a bit like the reworking of the first two Godfather films I imagine. It is certainly a film of epic scope, based on a classic Polish novel by Władysław Stanisław Reymont, detailing the febrile atmosphere in Łódź in the latter years of the 19th century. Karol, Moryc and Maks are, respectively, Polish, Jewish and German friends who are determined to build a cotton factory. Given a number of mills are being burned down for insurance purposes at the time, this is a dicey undertaking.

I must admit to struggling to follow the narrative in some parts. It covers a number of years, but it wasn’t clear how many, and eschews straightforward characterisation; I’m not sure if Moryc was at some points conspiring against his friends and Karol’s infatuation with a married woman is not entirely convincing. However, this is an Andrzej Wadja film and the direction is often stupendous as is the art direction by Andrzej Halinsk; the use of colour is often stunning. As is the setting; Łódź, Wadja discovered when making the film despite having been a student in the city, retained many of its old factories and the scenes in the mill, with the looms, have a documentary quality (see below). Tonally, though, the film is varied and melodrama crops up throughout, particularly toward the end. I’ve nothing against melodrama, but the mix with the sometimes elliptic narrative, and realism of the factory scenes, is somewhat uneasy. Very uneasy is the characterisation of the Jewish money lenders. Apparently the film was accused of anti-semitism in America when it was nominated for an Oscar though the accusation was articulated, at a press conference, by someone who hadn’t seen the film. I doubt Wadja was anti-semitic as the money-grubbing isn’t limited to Jews in the film; indeed it is Karol, a son of a Polish aristocrat, who is seen as the most corrupt in the devastating ending of the film.

Looming disaster

The comparison to The Godfather is also relevant given the three are characterised as gangsters on some occasions. The scene where Moryc faces down the money lender emphasises this as we watch him prepare for the meeting by choosing carefully his clothes; particularly his hat. At the end of the scene he winks at the camera.

A lot is packed into the film, maybe the three hour version would make the narrative clearer, and it would no doubt reward a second viewing.

The Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázracnica, Czechoslovakia, 1967)

Sinister fascists?

Štefan Uher’s Slovak film, that was banned post-’68, is an example of nadrealizam; a neologism conjured to avoid association with surrealism, which the right associated with Jewish culture (Sigmund Freud). Slovakia had sided with Hitler during the war. As such it can be expected to be a difficult film to follow as its dream-like narrative isn’t meant to be logical. However, it becomes clear that the artists’ infatuation with the ‘virgin’, Anabella (Jolanta Umecka), is an amour fou as they project their desires onto her. Anabella flits from one man to another vaguely amused by their attentions. Umecka made her debut in Knife in the Water and this was her last film, five years later. On the Second Run DVD there is a ‘finding Anabella’ extra: a short publicity film showing Uher’s quest for an actor to play the role. There are also excellent interviews with Slovak scholars about the film.

The film is set during the war, at the start there is an air raid where people take shelter in what is ostensibly Bratislava’s railway station but it was actually filmed in the amazing Brno conference hall, which has an extraordinary vaulted ceiling. As is common in eastern European ‘new wave’ films, the black and white cinematography, by Stanislav Szomolányi, is exceptional. As far as I can tell this is the only film by Uher available on DVD (in the UK at least) which is unfortunate as Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave (IB Tauris), rates The Sun in the Net (Slnko v sieti, 1962) and The Organ (Organ, 1965) more highly.

I’m sure I missed a number of references in the film; in the picture above do the threatening men represent fascists? Artists who attempt to break conventions are always seen as fair game by reactionaries as they offer new ways of seeing rather than the old. The artists, mostly visual but including a poet, are mostly portrayed as pathetic in their infatuation or is that the way I’m reading the film? I presume the ‘virgin’ is a reference to Catholicism but religion seemed to be absent from the film.

Nadrealizam

The surrealism is superbly presented: a character’s hand suddenly turns into an eagle’s talons; another jumps through a mirror and so on. I’d love to see more nadrealizam.

Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary, 1984)

Growing up politically

I’ve recently subscribed to the postal DVD rental service Cinema Paradiso as it houses many eastern European films that I haven’t seen. It’s always to good to put films to a name you’ve read in histories and this is the first Mészáros Márta (like the Japanese, Hungarians privilege their surname) movie I’ve seen. The date on the discs cover stated 1972 but the look of the film, for me, was 1960s so I assumed it was a late ‘entry’ into the ‘new wave’ of the region. However, I was surprised to discover it was completed in 1982 and took two years to be released due to censorship issues. As Mészáros says, in the interview accompanying the film on the Second Run DVD, she was encouraged to make the film quickly as authorities were not likely to approve the script. It became the first of her semi-autobiographical trilogy ‘diary’ films and is a striking representation of the time, 1947-53, and place, privileged party members in Budapest.

One of the things that attracts me to ’60s new wave eastern European cinema is the cinematography; that’s not to say it’s uniform. Diary was shot by Jancsó Nyika, son of Mészáros and Jancsó Miklós one of the great Hungarian directors (see The Red and the White). Some of the ‘old fashioned’ look of the film possibly derives from the use of documentary footage from the time the film is set. Mészáros started as a documentarist (though the footage isn’t hers; she was born in 1931 and still alive) and was educated as a filmmaker in the Soviet Union. Being a woman was clearly not an insurmountable barrier and Diary has a feminist sensibility  portraying Juli’s (Czinkóczi Zsuzsa) rebellion against her adoptive mother, a Party apparatchik. Czinkóczi was only 15 when the film was made so I was glad the scene where she admires her (semi-naked) breasts was directed by a woman; only a sexist man would dare shoot such a moment of appreciation as Juli understands she is growing up. Generically it’s closer to the ‘teen pic’ than any other genre.

My ignorance of the realpolitik of the time was only a mild obstacle in appreciating the film as it is more about the personal than the political; though the two can never be entirely separated. The flashback memories of Juli’s parents, about whom she is searching for knowledge (Mészáros’ father was a victim of a purge), are startlingly done: the vast quarry where he searches for stone (he is a sculptor) and her mother’s long walk to seek aid when in labour.

There doesn’t seem to be any more of Mészáros’ films available which is an indictment of the finances of film distribution. As she says in the interview, the financial censorship of the post-Cold War is as bad as the Party’s restrictions. In fact, arguably it’s even worse as many great films, that were not commercial, were made in eastern Europe during the post-war period.

Graduation (Bacalaureat , Romania-France-Belgium, 2016)

The sins of the fathers

I really enjoyed Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and his later film as a director, Graduation, is also excellent. Both deal with post-Ceausescu Romania but its theme of corruption is obviously not unique to that country. Adrian Titieni plays Romeo (no ‘lover boy’ associations intended I think) whose daughter is about to sit exams that may seal her place at a UK university. As most parents do, he’s strained every sinew to do ‘best’ by his child but a sexual assault, just before the first exam, on Eliza (Maria Dragus) puts his dream at risk. As he attempts to get justice for his daughter, both in capturing the assailant and getting her ‘consideration’ in the exams, he finds himself drawn into a web of ‘favours’ that, the film suggests, dog Romania in its post-‘communist’ present.

Romeo is clearly a decent man but finds himself morally compromised and Mungiu (and Titieni) brilliantly portray the ‘easy’ slide into corruption. As in 4 Months, the camera often sits as an observer, watching the dialogue in long takes but Mungiu overlays this ‘simplicity’ with ‘arthouse’ symbolism. The first shot of the film, a drab estate where the successful doctor (who has a reputation for honesty) lives, shows a hole being dug; on one level it is obvious symbolism but actually works as an incidental detail. Similarly, the dialogue sometimes contains symbolism such as when he talks about the view, to his childhood friend (a police inspector), from a ski-lift : Romeo states he preferred the view from the other direction but you can’t see it now because of the trees. It’s a wonderful statement that reflects the disillusionment of adulthood.

There’s a touch of Michael Haneke in the random and unexplained attacks on Romeo’s house and car (fortunately worn a lot lighter than in the portentous Austrian director’s films) and the narrative has a Kafkaesque quality as the attempts to help his daughter suck him into more ever so slightly absurd situations (such as refusing cake at the wife of his daughter’s school’s headmaster’s party). The absurdity, however, isn’t institutional but inter-personal though the state is present in the public prosecutors’ investigators who are an equal mix of friend and intimidators.

Although it is about Romania, there’s a ‘universality’ about Romeo’s dilemmas; in the UK the ‘old boy’ network is similarly riven with favouritism. Although I’ve focused on the protagonist, women are also important: his estranged wife and lover, not to mention his daughter. Romeo is a complex character for whom first impressions are often altered as we learn more about him. A superb film.

The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Communist-bourgeoisie at play

The western translation of O slavnosti a hostech, (also known as A Report on the Party and Guests) made Jan Němec’s film’s allegorical intention obvious; Němec co-wrote the story with Ester Krumbachová who wrote the screenplay. It’s likely that the satire of the film would have been obvious to the censors of the time anyway even if the original title is better translated as Of Celebration and Guests (according to Michael Brooke’s excellent notes in the Second Run DVD). The film was ‘banned forever’ in 1973 and not seen in Czechoslovakia until 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

The seven characters we meet having a picnic find themselves dragooned into joining a wedding party (although it was possible they were meant to be guests anyway otherwise why would the women change into smart dress?) after being interrogated by a bullying, and slightly unhinged, character with accompanying ‘heavies’.

Creepily slightly unhinged

The picnickers respond differently to the bullying ranging from resistance (he gets beaten up – see above) to appeasement; the woman tend to respond passively. They seem to be saved when the host insists they join the party but the banquet in the forest is an obvious manifestation of a world out of joint. Whilst Němec was no doubt satirising ‘communist’ Czechoslovakia, the dinner party is strikingly bourgeois with its fancy trimmings and Luis Buñuel’s influence is apparent. Buñuel saved his bile for capitalist bourgeoisie: Němec is likely to have been familiar with The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, France, 1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (Le fantôme de la liberté, France 1974), all featuring dinner parties, came later. Western critics usually viewed Cold War art as being critical of the ‘communist’ system (often accurately) but ignored the potential for critique of the west. There’s no doubt to me that Němec and Krumbachová were having a pop at the bourgeoisie in general. Krumbachová also co-wrote the brilliant Daisies and was a costume designer on the Němec directed Diamonds of the Night.

The comedy is based both on the surreal absurdity of the situation and bourgeois manners that seek to accommodate rather than challenge repressive forces. The latter is obvious in the UK at the moment in the BBC’s coverage of the resurgent right as it insists on giving a platform to deranged scumbags like Carl Benjamin and Stephan Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) in the belief that this is a public service; in reality platforming fascists isn’t funny.

The Party and the Guests is funny, it shows Němec’s brilliance and retrospectively we can mourn his inability to make the films he wanted after being ‘disgraced’ by this wonderful example of the Czech New Wave.

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, Czechoslovakia, 1964)

On the run

One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s debut film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might be flashbacks but also might be dreams.

Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There’s even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.

You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.

Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.