The Prague Spring as reflected in Czech postcommunist cinema
< Rebelové (Rebels)
A lecture, given at the Glasgow University 1948 and 1968 conference .
It is extremely interesting to analyze how the momentous events of the Prague Spring of 1968 are seen in contemporary Czech society. In this sense, it is useful to have a look at how the events of 1968 are presented in post-communist Czech cinema. Some three hundred feature films have been made in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. They transmit a fairly consistent value system to Czech society. In this brief talk, I will look at two of these feature films which are dealing with the events of 1968 from the postcommunist perspective.
The pseudo-right wing guru of the post-communist Czech republic, the current president Václav Klaus is well known for his disdain regarding the Prague Spring of 1968. In his view, the events of 1968 were a minor power struggle between two Communist Party factions without wider relevance to society. This is also the view of the predominantly right wing Czech media. And, as I have discovered while teaching in the Czech Republic over the past five weeks, most of today's university students seem unaware and uninterested in the ethos and the events of 1968. Its protagonists, the once famous writers and filmmakers, are to todays 20 – 25 year olds a bunch of senile fuddy daddies who pontificate on TV about contemporary issues without having a clue. Thus the current establishment image of the “heroes” of 1968 actively dissuades young people from studying the ethos and the events of 1968, or literature relating to it.
1968 is the topic of two Czech postcommunist feature films, Rebelové (Rebels, 2001) by Filip Renč, and Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999) by Jan Hřebejk. Both these films are misrepresentations of the events of 1968, but let us concentrate on the nature of this misrepresentation: What does it tell us about contemporary Czech society?
Rebelové is a retro-musical whose primary aim it is to create an entertaining framework for a number of original pop-songs from the second half of the 1960s. Rebelové sets itself up as a film about young people in love. Just before final oral examinations at a secondary school in a small Czech town called Týniště (most contemporary Czech films take place in small towns) three girl students from the school meet three boys. These have just deserted from the army, where they were doing their compulsory national service, and are hoping to escape to the West. A train loaded with timber leaves Týniště regularly for the West and the boys plan to hide in one of its carriages.
Considering that the boys have just deserted from the army and they are trying to defect, they seem to be remarkably laid back. They spend a pleasant afternoon with the girls at a fairground in the small town and then they all organise a party in a derelict farmhouse. Eventually, a local railway guard betrays them to the police (their desertion had been widely reported on television and their mugshots have been broadcast) but two of the three boys still successfully manage to jump on the train and defect. Only one of them, Šimon, who has fallen in love with student Tereza, stays behind with her and is arrested and imprisoned.
But imprisoning soldiers for desertion was far from the most characteristic feature of the Prague Spring, and, mainly, in 1968, people did not need to jump the Iron Curtain illegally: people travelled freely to the West. Moreover, this was a time when people did not escape from Czechoslovakia: they were proud of what was going on in their country. 1968 was a year of pride and hope. It was interesting to get involved.
The film concentrates on young people and their courtship, mostly in a school environment. We also follow the final oral examinations at the local secondary school, with grotesquely looking teachers in charge. (Teachers in contemporary Czech film are almost always grotesque and authoritative.) There is one concession to the ethos of the Prague Spring: The examination questions are both about Lenin and Masaryk.
The local priest, Šimon's relative, complains that the state has not given him a penny for the repairs of his church for twenty years. Yet his Baroque church has been perfectly restored the way churched have been painstakingly done up all over the Czech republic only since the fall of communism.
It is supposed to be a sign of liberalisation that Tereza's father is able to open a private restaurant in the town. This restaurant looks like a typical private business from the postcommunist era; it is quite different from those few hastily opened, amateurish private enterprises in 1968, which lacked infrastructural backup, furniture and equipment as well as capital.
The authors of Rebelové have not understood that salient developments took place in politics and the arts in 1968, not in the economy. Under the influence of contemporary neoconservatism, they think that liberty equals consumerism. But in 1968, people took part in a nationwide debate on the national predicament, on the economy, on communism and on the crimes of Stalinism which had been committed in the 1950s. This debate was widely reflected in the media. Unlike the 1990s in Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring was not marked by a quick growth of the private enterpreneurial sphere.
A passionate nationwide political debate as a culmination of the cultural and political developments of the previous few years was a typical feature of the Prague Spring, not the setting up of private restaurants. Yet the film ignores this political debate – ahistorically, and typically for the period of normalisation as well as for the postcommunist era – the protagonists pursue their narrow, private, personal interests.
In 1968 everyone, even secondary school students, had been dragged into politics. It was impossible to avoid participation. When Šimon says something about “the free world”, another of the deserters tells him to “watch what he is saying”. But in 1968, people were not afraid to speak openly in public.
At one point, a presenter on TV talks to a high military official about soldiers deserting from their national service. The language of both of them is peppered with stalinist ideological clichés. This is also ahistorical – journalists in 1968 used normal, natural human language without ideology, and so did politicians.
When Tereza comes upon his father by the river, fishing, and listening to the Voice of America on his transistor radio, the father is pleased that he had “found a spot where he can listen to the broadcast without it being blocked out by jamming. But the broadcasts of the Voice of America for Czechoslovakia were not jammed in the second half of the 1960s, nor in fact were they jammed in the 1970s and 1980s.
The popular songs of the 1960s, which Rebelové reintroduces to the public, were often remarkable works of art, with genuine poetry for lyrics, carrying profound metaphorical meanings. Czech culture of the 1960s was multilayered. While it was popular and accessible, it also operated on the level of considerable sophistication and originality, dealing with profound, timeless issues. These profound pop songs were an integral part of the nationwide political debate. All this is lost in Rebelové. The songs are replayed in a new, superficial context.
The film is remarkable evidence about the great historical vacuum and misunderstanding of the cultural and political situation in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 1960s. Rebelové is comically inauthentic – as though Renč was making a movie about a totally different country. This would not matter if Rebelové was a mere entertainment, non-political framework for the well-known popular songs.
While Renč is trying to create an image of a historical reality, he has produced an image of the post-1968 invasion era, the so called “normalisation” of the 1970s and 1980s, with occasional elements of today.
Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999) is one of several attempts by director Jan Hřebejk and his scriptwriter Petr Jarchovský to depict various traumatic periods in Czech history. Pelíšky ostensibly deals with the period from winter 1967 until the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968.
Pelíšky zooms in on the life of two families, who live in a villa in a Prague garden quarter: the family of anticommunist and former member of the antifascist resistance Kraus and the family of a communist military officer Šebek, who had been forcibly moved into Kraus's villa. Such “representation” of the Czech nation in 1967-1968 is grossly clichéd. Most people in Czechoslovakia in this period supported democratic socialism – but such individuals do not appear in Pelíšky. Thus “a film about 1968 without the people of 1968 has been made here,” says Czech film critic Jaromír Blažejovský.
Just as Rebelové, Pelíšky is ahistorical, having nothing in common with the ethos of the second half of the 1960s. The film really shows, again, life in the normalisation era, when, as a result only of the renewed, post-invasion oppression, a new mentality originated, people began avoiding the public sphere and went into internal emigration – concentrating on their private lives within their “cosy dens” – in their flats and their family environment. Pelíšky highlights this ethos of infantility and return to the family , which was at the same time, from the early 1970s, connected with the emergence of consumerism.
The privacy of family life is at its most intense during Christmas festivities. Contemporary Czech films still, possibly as a result of the normalisation ethos, concentrate on private lives within the family environment and they quite often feature Christmas family celebrations. The Christmas celebrations in the Šebek family document extensively the new, normalisation infantility. The men at the festive Christmas table argue about childlike nonsense – for instance, they are trying to guess how tall the bear codiac is or they go to the bathroom to compete how long they can hold their breath under water.
Yet the Czechs and Slovaks in the second half of the 1960s behaved much more like mature, politically aware citizens within the open societies in the West. Let us quote a couple of lead headlines on the front page of Literární listy published during the Prague Spring, a newspaper which had a printrun of 300 000 (that would be about 2 million in the British context): “Reason and Conscience”. “Freedom and Reponsibility”. None of the mature, active, political attitudes of the citizens of 1968s are reflected in this film.
There are factual errors. Shortly before Christmas 1967 Eva, the teacher, comes to school with a copy of Literární listy (although she does not at all behave as actively as a reader of that influential cultural political weekly would have done). But the first issue of Literární listy did not come out until 1st March, 1968. Communist ideological slogans, printed in yellow on red background, such as “Build up your country, you will strengthen peace!” were not displayed in public places during the second half of the 1960s, and certainly not in 1968. That is a feature of the 1950s and then again 1970s and 1980s.
The teenage heroes of Pelíšky are not interested in politics even during the most heady days of the Prague Spring – these events are not even recorded. But life in privacy is a feature of the 1970s and 1980s. Exactly like in the 1970s and 1980s, adults in this film behave like oppressed and helpless individuals. They have two choices – they can either, frustrated, helplessly rave at the communist regime, like the anticommunist Kraus, or to parrot communist clichés, such as the officer Šebek or teacher Mašlaň. But even those communist like Šebek, who support the regime , are unable to share in any if its power. Communists are just as helpless as the anticommunists. This is, of course, a typical feature of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and 1980s.
In line with oppression during the normalisation period, politics plays a minimal role in Pelíšky. The film mocks proregime and the anti-regime attitudes in an equal measure. Both the anticommunist Kraus and the communist Šebek are shown as an abnormal impersonations of exaggerated political ideologies. The normalisation message is clear: We do not want to get involved in politics. We wish to lead a quiet, enclosed, family life. What remains if we cannot behave as active citizens? Family customs and the peace of one's home.
Pelíšky is not a film about 1968: it is a film the 1970s and 1980s, the period of “normalisation” which has marked the consciousness of the Czech nation much more deeply than the Prague Spring. It creates the false impression that 1968 was irrelevant and that the Warsaw Pact invasion was somehow arbitrary, it happened as a bolt from the blue, without any reasons.
If we accept post-communist Czech cinema as a vehicle for the expression of contemporary Czech attitudes to the present and the past of their society, it is becomes obvious that the neostalinist period of the 1970s and the 1980s, after the 1968 Soviet invasion, is still a vivid, traumatic experience in the mind of Czech filmmakers. Whenever they try to make a film about history, it is a statement about the traumas of the normalisation of the 1970s and 1980s. The ethos of the Prague Spring is invisible in these films which have been ostensibly made about 1968.
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