The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol, Czechoslovakia, 1969)

Everyday horror

The Cremator probably lies on the edges of the Czech New Wave as co-writer and director, Juraj Herz (he co-wrote the film with Ladislav Fuks on whose novel it was based), didn’t attend FAMU (the national film school that nurtured many of the wave’s talent) but entered film through the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) alongside animator Jan Švankmajer. Whilst The Cremator sports the brilliant monochrome cinematography, by Stanislav Milota, associated with the ‘wave’, the style is more arthouse. This is particularly evident in the editing: rapidly cut montage sequences occur throughout including at the start. Here the protagonist and cremator, Kopfrkingl (superbly played as a slimeball by Rudolf Hrusínský), revisits the zoo where he started his relationship with his wife. Extreme close-ups use graphic matches to link humans to the animals; for example, the creases on Kopfrkingl’s forehead are juxtaposed with a snake. Other arthouse tropes, include the woman who wordlessly appears throughout the film; possibly a figment of Kopfrkingl’s imagination.

I can’t think of a film that uses dialogue so insistently that it appears to be a monologue. Kopfrkingl is constantly talking, justifying himself to friends and family as he seeks to expand the business of burning corpses. So although all his speech is diegetic (within the narrative world) it seems as if it is narrative voiceover. The effect is to expressionistically place us within Kopfrkingl’s consciousness and this is not a good place to be.

The film is set during the late ’30s as the Nazis consolidated their power in eastern Europe and Kopfrkingl’s bourgeois businessmen slowly sways toward supporting the fascists. As befits a person whose business is death, he does so with malign vigour. Hence the film slowly metamorphoses into horror.

It is also extremely sexually explicit for its time. The fascists treat themselves to a ‘club’ (brothel) were all the prostitutes are blonde; one is seen with her head bobbing in the lap of a male character. I’m surprised the censors in post-’68 Prague let the film through on this basis alone, ignoring political implications. I suppose the critique of the bourgeoisie as fascists was something to be celebrated and the arthouse aesthetic probably confused the bureaucrats.

There’s a touch of Švankmajer too with waxworks being embodied by humans in a circus sideshow. The uncanniness of this is as creepy as Kopfrkingl’s descent into madness. I saw the film on another excellent Second Run release though the extra of the Quay Brothers explaining their love of the film added little.

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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 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.

A Kind of Loving (UK 1962)

Unkind loving?

In a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist and two films I’ve seen recently seem to confirm this. I wasn’t taken enough by Look Back in Anger (1959) to blog about it but A Kind of Loving is a brilliant film and stands up well 57 years after its release. Its tale of sexual frustration and repressive mores is both of its time and universal (or at least what passes for universal in western culture). Alan Bates’ Vic’s fumbling seduction of newcomer June Ritchie’s Ingrid is a story no doubt enacted many times, even today when the shadow of the 60s’ sexual liberation has at least, for most, meant a ‘shotgun wedding’ is unnecessary.

This passage from Chris Beckett’s recent novel Beneath the World, A Sea is apposite:

‘…there were a million songs to tell you that, a million movies–but she should know by now, without needing duendes to remind her, that those exciting and ridiculously hopeful feelings were basically a trick played by biology, which saw an opportunity for reproduction looming, and duly turned on a tap to flood your bloodstream with a drug not unrelated to heroin to dampen down your critical faculties and accomplish the formation of a couple. As soon as you reached that longed-for peak, the descent began almost at once, not necessarily to some sort of hell, obviously, but back to a place where, as before, you were essentially alone again, except that, if you’d not been careful, you were now shackled to another person–not a ‘soulmate’, and not your missing ‘other half’, but simply another person–whose needs you were now required to take into account every single day unless and until you could summon up the courage and energy to disentangle yourself.’

For Vic the entanglement of marriage includes Thora Hird’s battleaxe mother-in-law and a wife who is compliant to her mother rather than husband. James Bolam is already channeling his ‘likely lad’ of two years hence as Jeff, whose cynicism allows him to characterise women a ‘praying mantises’ who eat their sexual partner; as he says: “And you know what they eat last don’t you?” Of course such misogyny was mainstream at the time even if it has just about been shoved to the margins now (though by no means absent from right wing discourse; a recent headline in The Times stated, ‘Tory leadership contenders show off their wives and policy’). There can be a fine line between a film representing something, in this case misogyny, and condoning it. However, in one scene Vic is standing under the marquee of a cinema showing Victim that suggests the film is on Jeff’s side.

As John Hill noted, in Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, women in the new wave were often associated with the new consumer culture which was represented negatively when compared to ‘authentic’ working class culture. In A Kind of Loving Vic misses his Dad’s brass band concert after he’s cajoled to watch a crass TV game show.

The script, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, is great as is the source novel by Stan Barstow published two years earlier. It is also not entirely on Vic’s side. After he decides to leave Ingrid he seeks validation from both his sister and mum and it’s forthcoming from neither. When the couple have sex Ingrid asks about ‘precautions’ and Vic replies he ‘wasn’t able to’ when we know he bottled buying condoms from a woman pharmacist.

As is often the case with the British New Wave, the location shooting is as crucial as performance and narrative. Denys Coop’s cinematography is superb, evoking the grimness of ‘up north’ and offering some fabulous chiaroscuro shots of back alleys. John Schlesinger directs what was his first feature brilliantly and he went on to make two other new wave classics, Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965). The cast are also exemplary: it’s a British classic.

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.

The Ear (Ucho, Czechoslovakia, 1970) – LIFF9

What price freedom?

Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.

The Ear’s writer, last films as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script). Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered. 

He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.

The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.

The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.

 

A Squandered Sunday (Zabitá nedele, Czechoslovakia, 1969) – LIFF3

Post-’68 ennui

This film took 20 years to be seen because the post-’68 Soviet-backed of Czechslovakia government unsurprisingly didn’t like it. The film was Drahomíra Vihanová’s feature debut and the political fallout meant she only directed two more fiction films and they were after the end of the Cold War; she died two years ago. The film is based on Jiří Křenek’s autobiographical story, about a bored officer who wakes with a hangover regretting he’d spent all his money boozing, who spends the day wallowing in self pity.

Although he doesn’t do anything all day the film is incident packed with banality: swatting flies, killing rats, affectionately chatting to a young girl (a neighbour). Although the film is not expressionist, it is a representation of Arnost’s (Ivan Palúch) mental state which, in the days when going to church was the prime Sunday activity, was unlikely to be full of joie de vivre particularly with a regretted hangover. It’s part of the Time Frame strand of LIFF2018 where the films’ plots cover no more than 24 hours; though A Squandered Sunday chronology is sometimes confusing. The film starts with a memory of his mother’s funeral and a statement – by a girlfriend? – that he is ‘too far way’. This ‘far awayness’, it becomes clear, is ennui, not one precipitated solely by middle age but also by the Soviet invasion of 1968. Flashbacks to military lectures about nuclear annihilation give Arnost’s ennui a political dimension. When he wakes up Arnost puts on his radio and hears of natural disasters in Italy and Morocco. Clearly, it isn’t just his life that is shit.

Vihanová doesn’t present this in a straightforward way; after all everything is filtered through the disturbed consciousness of Arnost. He looks out of his window several times and there’s always a dog digging a hole next to a blind man. Or is it the same moment many times? She also favours Eisensteinean montage of repeating the same event in rapid succession. Confusion is fed by the repeating shot of the young woman we saw at the start who is mirrored by the young pre-pubescent neighbour and the middle-aged barmaid who wants to marry him. Are they the same person or three ages of women or three characters? Answer: probably all three.

This uncertainty, along with the formal devices, situate Squandered Sunday firmly in the Czech ‘new wave’ and, in a scene where Arnost finds himself interrogating two female sunbathers who’d wandered onto military property, it’s as if the protagonists of Daisies have shown up to wreak more havoc. Their sexy irreverence plant Arnost into even more misery. The absurdism of the film is typically Czech, at one point he tries to cut stale bread with a razor, and is perfect for puncturing the self-importance of officialdom. In the UK this was likely to be couched in humour, such as the Carry On series, but in Czechoslovakia it was much more painful as it has an existential edge that although you can laugh you know it won’t cure anything.

There a number of translations of the title. The subtitles at the screening suggested A Wasted Sunday, others include Deadly Sunday and Killing a Sunday. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, it is a classic of the Czech new wave.