In the Shadow of Czech Cinema: Dispatches from the "Czech that Film" Festival
By Jonathan Cushing
Films are not histories and filmmakers are not historians. National histories condition film, but they are ultimately extrinsic to it. In ironic contrast to Ondřiček’s downplaying of history, an ad prefaced each feature, trafficking in the specifically Czech nature of the series. Staropramen beer—the series bankroller—abruptly segues from gratuitous usage of CGI’d castles and knights to footage of young, modern partiers as an attempt at somehow rousing one’s nostalgia for medieval Prague. Staropramen’s marketing prologue elicited chuckles from the audience, as it capitalized on the films’ common national context. It also indirectly drove home, in humorous fashion, Ondřiček’s point that regardless of the work’s provenance and the weight we might lend historical events, it is the films themselves that do indeed demand close attention. This is particularly important when the films in the series demonstrate little about current Czech cinema in general except that it is aesthetically stunning and that it sees revenge as a dish best served unceremoniously, cold, and preferably with some sort of household weapon.
On a Thursday night, Czech That Film opened in Portland with the 2013 Czech entry for Best Foreign Language film—Ondřiček’s In the Shadow (Ve Stínu, 2012)—to a nearly full house in the basement of the Portland Art Museum. It stars a Czech version of Billy Bob Thornton (Ivan Trojan) as a sort of leaner, less seductive Humphrey Bogart character, in the role of Hakl, a Prague detective. In the Shadow is ostensibly a period historical drama about the Show Trials in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, but its historical baggage is toted largely by the workhorse of classic, hardboiled noir.
Ivan Trojan in In the Shadow.“Historical baggage is toted largely by the workhorse of classic noir.”
With this pairing of form and content, Ondřiček has cleverly found a middle passage between the historical drama and the drama tout court of his film. It is bookended with notes about the Show Trials and upheavals in communist monetary policy, but these specifics are largely forgotten through the unwavering purposefulness of Hakl’s gaze. If art, in Adornian fashion, gives shape to what is suppressed by ideology, then In the Shadow is an efficient, strongly formalist portrait of one man’s intrepid shadow-box against a nebulous, double-speaking political mechanism.
In the Shadow’s indebtedness to film noir would be its most obvious aspect, if not for the sleekness of its production. The film’s only flaw is its flawlessness, its devotion to Hollywood conventions of editing, genre, lighting and score, to the point of being scrubbed clean of stylistic distinction. It exemplifies an international—as opposed to a distinctively “Czech”—aesthetic of historical dramas in its scrupulous attention to continuity editing, costumes, and soundtrack. Anyone with nostalgia for the activism or surrealism of the Czechoslovak New Wave will have entered the theater with the wrong idea. For American viewers, In the Shadow provides a moving tutorial on a relatively obscure period of European history, but its by now rote framework perhaps tells us more about how we tell these stories than about the stories themselves. At least in terms of film, just as important as what specifically happened in the past is how events are received, structured, and analyzed in the present. In the Shadow’s layering of established genres provides gratification on the levels of narrative logic, historical consciousness, and affective investment, all according to the specific expectations and needs of a modern, cosmopolitan film audience.
he globalization of the industry has continued to influence how stories are told in Czech film, just as the French New Wave, Hollywood, and the pan-European avant-garde influenced it in the twentieth century. Along with this stylistic development, there has been a thaw in the presentation of content. Whereas films from the communist era were scrutinized by censors, even during periods of relative freedom—as was the case with Miloš Forman’s landmark Czechoslovak New Wave film, The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967), before it was “banned forever” following the Soviet invasion of 1968—modern Czech films are produced free of ideological persecution. As a result, we see explicit depictions of political violence, rather than encrypted critiques made necessary by the threat of that very same violence during a period when its representation was prohibited.
Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, “banned forever” following the Soviet invasion of 1968.
In the Shadow does not ask to be read for its insight into past political movements so much as it shows us the fait accompli of communist-era oppression. It is not hard to tell the good guys from the bad once Hakl’s exposure of government corruption puts him and his family in danger, although other characters in the film—such as the former S.S. officer, played by Sebastian Koch, who ends up assisting Hakl—are less morally unambiguous. This politically and ethically clear-cut framing is a relatively new experience in Czech film. To watch an old movie like the The Firemen’s Ball, the anarchic frolics of the two women in Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966), or an early Švankmajer animation is at some level to mimic the reading habits of the censors themselves, in the way they paranoiacally looked to tease out traitorous allegories. Compared to the representation of events then, now history just is. The hermeneutics of political films these days are largely foreclosed. As much as it is to be lamented that the films of the 1960s were symptomatic of restrained speech, the openness of the symbols and plots of pre-1989 works made them infinitely stimulating.
So it is ironic that Czech film today should feel more scripted than the great films that were made under conditions that demanded the adherence to a very clear ideological protocol. In return, we see in the films from the Czech That Film series refinements of familiar genres and a brand of subtlety very different from the humorous subterfuge of yesteryear.
The most visually striking contribution to the series—and perhaps the most touted—is Tomáš Luňák’s Alois Nebel (2011), a rotoscoped live-action feature based on a series of comics by Jaroslav Rudiš. It vaguely conjures a loose collection of animated films from recent memory featuring personal stories told under the duress of social upheaval (e.g. Persepolis , Waltz with Bashir ), and similarly cloaks political realism in a garb of dream-like visuals. Alois Nebel takes place during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and recounts the revenge plot of a mute prodigal son robbed of his father in a skirmish during the deportations of German nationals from Czechoslovakia in 1945. A purely celluloid version of the black-and-white film would perhaps have captured more effectively the beauty of the Jeseníky Mountains, but the animation makes the film’s forays into surrealism more plausible. When the bathroom in which the rail-station manager Nebel is crouching turns first into a dreamscape populated by a ghost from his past and then the rapidly receding interior of a rail-car, the effect is seamlessly dazzling. The rotoscoping authorizes these moves away from realism, but it also self-references its own debt to realist cinema and its departure from its conventions. In one scene, from a perspective with especial spatial depth, the animation retains the live-action shift of focus from the foreground to a character in the background of a rail-station interior.
In Tomáš Luňák’s Alois Nebel, a son plots revenge for his father’s 1945 death.
Nebel is a film about trauma. The return of the avenging mute corresponds with the mental breakdown of the protagonist as he flashes back to his childhood memories of World War II, and the station itself, where the film primarily takes place, is haunted by the specter of fascism. Many of the scenes dealing with the kernels of current trauma are told through hallucination or dream imagery. And as the precocious Freud novice is eager to volunteer, trauma has its root in the German word for “dream.” The medium of animation itself thematizes trauma by showing the viewer that memories are made more than they are given, even if the forces that created the traces of these memories are irretrievable. For the new generation of Czech directors, the effects of Word War II, Communism, and even the Velvet Revolution are everywhere, but the causes are nowhere. Especially when it comes to scenes of violence and death, the line between dream and reality—live-action and illustration—is at once thick and blurred. They must be dreamt in order to be fully experienced or remembered.
t would seem to follow, then, that a film with a contemporary setting would convey a heightened immediacy, an urgency that period dramas like In the Shadow and Alois Nebel lack. On the contrary, stoicism must be in the water, because all of the films are equally fictional, equally distanced through their formal, aesthetic, or dramatic properties. There is little of the simulated, aestheticized authenticity of Danny Boyle or the rawness of documentary-style feature films. The final film of the series, Gypsy (Cigán, 2011)—which in Portland shared a double revenge-plot billing with Alois Nebel—provides a basis to compare a treatment of contemporary Slovakia with the backward glance of the historical dramas.
Like many of the films in the series, Gypsy is classical in form, with a Hamlet-derived plot, traditional editing techniques, and—what must be somewhat of a joke about the Shakespearean influence—a soundtrack heavy on baroque harpsichord. Gypsy gives us the series’ strongest protagonist in Adam, an adolescent Roma boy who is faced with the dilemma of obeying his Claudius-like uncle or killing him at the behest of his phantom father. As the drama unfolds, we are given topical windows into Roma-white relations through scenes involving police brutality, racist medical professionals, and paternalistic young documentarians. The film includes squirm-inducing scenes, such as the forced stripping and humiliation of Adam and his brother in a police interrogation room. But its core takes place in the dilapidated Roma camp where the characters grapple with downright Biblical, deceptively basic moral quandaries—is it right to kill, to steal? Like Hamlet, there is an atmosphere of antic humor that is by turns hilarious and tragically absurdist. Like Hamlet, it dramatizes the value of one person’s principled action in a callous world. Directly after the death of Adam’s father has finally been avenged, an ostrich defuses the scene’s gravity by obliviously marching across the frame, like a stupid and accidentally majestic Fortinbras.
In Gypsy, a Roma boy is faced with the dilemma of obeying his Claudius-like uncle or killing him.
Of course, revenge is a pervasive theme, especially in cinema, to the point where a double-billing of revenge films may be as unremarkable as say, two movies with love plots. But it is not just that these movies end with revenge, it is the way it is done, and to whom. Both of the killers killed are father-murderers, and both are taken down face-to-face with old school weapons (an axe and a rusty knife). There is nothing triumphant or even purgative about these acts of violence, even when it is done without looking away. We live in an era hooked on orgiastic revenge films, which seem set on avenging history itself. Whereas it seems clear that recent Hollywood-style examples of this sub-genre should not be taken too seriously (i.e. Tarantino), there is little room for facetiousness in Nebel and Gypsy. The latter demonstrate a calm, disillusioned kind of retribution that seems fully cognizant of its own insufficiency.
Revenge in either case cannot balance the scales because what is avenged is not only a death, but a loss of narrative control. The mute in Alois Nebel and Adam in Gypsy attempt to reclaim a cause that was never theirs to begin with, to take the reins of a story that has always been, and will always be, at least partially beyond their power. Revenge in these films demands the level of analysis of a paranoid communist censor, insofar as it demands to be read. In the Shadow even is in some respects a revenge film, with its bittersweet hoodwinking of the apparatchiks. The audience accordingly has a suspicion that what it is seeing is not simply payback, that these films allegorize their own orientations toward history. Narratives are literally butchered in these films, as opposed to surgically reconstructed. Because the endings of the films are violent and because the films are aware of their own failure to heal historical wounds, the audience is witness to a process of history-telling, not closure. They may not be able to avenge history, but the films themselves can begin to narrate the past according to present genres and present needs. If this is true, then the recounting of the histories covered in the Czech That Film series has only just begun.
Jonathan Cushing is a writer and educator living in Portland, Oregon.