Introducing a group of friends and their various nicknames puts the bonds of community and family at the heart of Vojtěch Jasný’s 1968 film All My Good Countrymen from the start. A voiceover describes their role and status in the village; Jořka Pyřk (Vladimír Menšík) known as Lithpy due to his lisp, Franta the tailor (Václav Babka), Bertin the postman (Pavel Pavlovský) and František the farmer (Radoslav Brzobohatý) will all become significant in the events that change their community over the film’s twenty year timeline. They’re portrayed with lightness and affection within a pastoral idyll that will come to have control and governance imposed upon it. All My Good Countrymen was Jasný’s nineteenth film, and followed on the success of When the Cat Comes (1963) in continuing the director’s international acclaim. It was however later banned due to its portrayal of the Communist system and Jasný was for a period forced into exile. The film was a long-gestating and highly personal project based on memories the director’s mother shared about village life, and there’s an impressionist tendency to the way the people and landscape are shown, connecting characters and places but remaining ever so slightly removed from the subject. Jasný covers the period from 1945 to 1958 in chapters that follow the seasons, with an epilogue set in 1968 during the Prague Spring, and it’s the treatment of time that’s one of the film’s most beautiful elements. Characters come and go, the local council persists in attempting to recruit František to join ‘the Cooperative’ but the land still needs plowed and festive celebrations continue according to the season. The elderly of the village appear set apart from events, commenting upon their younger counterparts with the wisdom of experience. For someone unfamiliar with Jasný, but an appreciator of the Czech output of this period from directors such as Jan Nemec and Štefan Uher, the short film Bohemian Rhapsody (1969) included with Second Run’s DVD release, is a delight. Set in the same village as All My Good Countrymen, the landscape is again a central focus here, opening with a sequence of wide shots of the roads and paths that cut across the villages surrounding fields. A brass-dominant score shifts from a serious to a tone of jollity, as crowds both celebratory and funereal gather in the countryside. In fact the duration of the film’s fifteen minutes is almost exclusively focused on crowds, beginning with those of a closely knitted community and later contrasting with the crowded industrial city. It’s a succinct and beautifully realised statement about progress and human relationships.
Fayolo (Marián Bielik) is, much like other examples of the cinematic photographer (Blow Up’s David Hemmings springs to mind) introduced as being somewhat distanced from the world around him. Seen in the company of the beautiful Bela (Jana Beláková) he admonishes her, as though her expression of personality runs contrary to the image of her he has created. Like all sensible fifteen year olds who have bigger problems than self-absorbed boys, Bela quickly splits from Fayolo, leaving him to dabble in both physical labour and the arms of the welcoming Jana (Ol’ga Ŝalagová). Thus is a simple, teen-movie interpretation of The Sun in a Net’s (1962) plot – one omitting to mention the naturalistic portrayal of rural and urban life, family melodrama and expressionistic use of sound and music. Director Štefan Uher was a graduate of the Prague Film School (FAMU) in the mid 1950’s, and his subsequent work is considered key within the Czechoslovak New Wave, primarily The Sun in a Net – his second feature. Here Uher combines a formal vigour and innovative use of sound that is truly remarkable, with the question of what is seen and unseen of vital importance. Not only does the film present a central character who mediates the world through the lens of a camera, but the opening scenes use the drama of an eclipse to frame the initial characterisation – with characters seen using blacked-out glass through which to view the event – whilst Bela’s mother (Stana) – played with sensitivity by Eliška Nosálová – is also blind, relying on a descriptive interpretation of her surroundings, provided by her son and daughter. As the film makes clear, Bela’s mother is rendered doubly blind – both due to her impaired vision, and the modified versions of her environment that her children provide. Mirrors are also key, with both Stana and Bela framed within their reflections, suggesting the distorted image to be more primary than their actual selves. Alongside this, the rhythmic, almost a-tonal music by Ilja Zeljenka punctuates Uher’s compositions, and a rock and pop soundtrack has a presence in scenes largely via radio transmissions, yet another instance of the medium being just as – (if not more) powerful as that which is heard. This focus on what are essentially forms of communication, gives depth and poignancy to a simple tale of teen passions, a tragic marriage and the concerns of the social and working lives of the Slovak people. By giving such prominence to media – the television aerials, the radio, even (to an extent) the narrative of working life Fayolo provides in written form to Bela – Uher presents a distinctly post-modern vision of Slovak life, and one which was clearly too provocative for the authorities at the time, who judged it unsuitable.
Once again Second Run DVD have brought another previously unreleased, yet vital cinematic work to our attention – and might I suggest that it be viewed as a double bill with Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, made two years earlier in Poland, with no less an infectious and charismatic portrayal of youth, jazz and sex.
Second Run DVD’s latest release, The Czechoslovak New Wave: A Collection is a perfect introduction to this period of creative brilliance, including as it does, three excellent and diverse works. Diamonds of the Night (1964) by Jan Nemec was adapted from Arnost Lustig’s novella, Darkness Casts No Shadow, and strips out dialogue and contextual information to a bare minimum so that the film’s simple plot becomes an absorbing and horrific survival tale. Following the struggle to remain both alive and free by two young men; who have escaped a German train bound for a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, Diamonds of the Night opens in the thick of a chase, as the escapees flee armed men, by scrambling and pushing onward through the vegetation of the forest floor. The camera follows them in wide shot and gradually zooms closer as they trip and stumble on uneven terrain. It’s a truly remarkable opening, establishing quickly that the film’s formal aesthetic will be as economical as its protagonist’s basic endeavour – to survive.
There’s also a surrealist aspect to the editing – clearly influenced by the likes of Luis Buñuel – that shows ants crawling over hands and editing that cuts between the boys current struggle and what is presumably their remembered past – the initial flee and life before capture. A great deal of this is silent, or at least uncluttered by the presence of a musical score, giving the sound of frightened breathing, or a clocks chimes, or footsteps, a rhythm of its own. The horror of the situation is enhanced by the fact that these young men’s pursuers are elderly men – all crumpled faces and hunched backs. This didn’t go unnoticed by Michael Brooke, whose essay about the film accompanies the DVD release and notes the incongruity of the old having better survival chances than the young.
In contrast, this three-film collection includes the delight that is Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting, (1965)the story of two musician friends, Bambas (Karel Blazek) and Petr (Zdenek Bezusek) who took different career paths, and spend the weekend at the formers’ country home. Petr brings along his girlfriend Stepa (Vera Kresadlova), who delights in Bambas’ children and takes advice on slimming from his mother.
The action in the film is actually less action – in the dramatic sense – than the naturalism of an idle weekend’s encounters and moments. Bambas, who plays at the local music school, and Petr, who tours with an orchestra, share stories and get to know the similarities and differences in how their lives are playing out.
How they are playing out is complemented – as would be expected – by music, which represents shifts in mood throughout the film; the solemnity of a funeral chorus, the combined melancholia and forced jollity of the wake, a comedic quartet rehearsal stinted by elderly hands. There’s a wonderful sense of wit that comes from the film’s rhythm and absurdity – an awkward eggnog toast that becomes funnier the longer the shot is held; a late night, drunken escapade accompanied by another Strauss waltz.
All this makes for a fresh and thoughtful film that combines the character’s pathos with daily joy to result in a truly enjoyable and poignant must-see.
The third film in this excellent box set is the unnerving and occasionally terrifying The Cremator (1968)by Juraj Herz, a film that – like Intimate Lighting uses music brilliantly to convey the films tone, and as with Diamonds of the Night utilises a surrealist montage of images. Unlike that earlier film however, Herz takes the surrealism further – the opening credits alone use animation techniques familiar from the work of Jan Svankmayer – whom Herz studied puppetry alongside.
The Cremator concerns a man of the titular profession; Karel Kopfrikingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) living in Prague during the Nazi occupation, with his ‘perfect’ family in his well furnished home. Karel is inspired by the political climate of the time to improve and refine his life, which leads to the most terrible inevitability. The hypnotic, heavenly chorus, appearing throughout the score, gives the impression that – beyond his professional activity – Karel aspires toward his world as a kind of faultless afterlife. He’s a precise, fiercely vigilant man; one who, it turns out is susceptible to the ideals of others, even if their actions are more extreme than his own.
Special features accompanying the film include an introduction by the Brothers Quay, who enthuse eloquently about the unique vision of Herz, providing an appreciated cultural and historical context for such astonishing filmmaking.
If like me, you desire to know more about the Czech New Wave – this is another illuminating and welcome collection from Second Run DVD, who prove their impeccable taste time and again.
You can read a review of another great box set here