CZECH FEATURE FILM SINCE 1989
Czech feature film first came into prominence in the 1960s, during the liberal years prior to the 1968 Prague Spring, when Czech film-makers found themselves in a unique situation: There was practically no longer any political censorship and all the film-making was financed by the state, so film makers had almost absolute artistic freedom and were not subjected to commercial pressures. Most people still remember at least some of the films from this period, for instance Jiří Menzel’s Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains, or Miloš Forman’s Fireman’s Ball.
After the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 and the suppression of the liberal regime of the 1960s, all these film makers were purged and for the subsequent twenty years, the state-owned Czech film industry made either pro-government political propaganda, or escapist, entertainment films or films for children.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Czech film industry was de-nationalised under controversial circumstances. In the first few years after the fall of communism, several film directors tried to make “commercial” films with a broad popular appeal. These films were unanimously condemned by the critics as “crude” and since it turned out that they couldn’t generate profits in the relatively small Czech society (there are 10 million Czechs), this type of film-making more or less died out by the end of the 1990s. More artistically ambitious film projects now receive some state grant aid, at least seed money, which isn’t available to openly commercial ventures.
The older film-makers who had made their name in the 1960s, and were then banned throughout the 1970s and 1980s, never regained prominence in the 1990s and 2000s. First it looked as though Czech film-making was finished, but from the second half of the 1990s, a new generation of thirty-year old directors appeared on the scene.
On the whole, Czech feature film making has experienced a remarkable revival. Some 280 feature films have been made over the past 18 years. Not all of them can be regarded as works of high quality, but probably some 45 films will survive as works of art.
Professor Jan Dvořák of the University of Hradec Králové sees contemporary Czech film makers as manipulative. He argues that while Czech film-makers of the 1960s created honest and profound statements about the human condition, post-communist Czech film making is marred in his view by anxiety to suceed commercially. According to Dvořák, contemporary Czech film makers are not interested in making an honest analysis of the world around them, they construct their films according to what they think will be popuar and commercially successful.
I would contend that the situation is much more complex. There is, indeed, commercial trash, there is middle brow entertainment and there are, also, instances of authentic high film art. However, regardless of its “quality” or the lack of it, all the cinematographic output can be studied in terms of material culture. Contemporary Czech cinema transmits a considerable amount of information about the mythology that it constructs about life in contemporary Czech society. But, as James Monaco says, “historians argue whether films simply reflect the existing national culture, or whether they have created their own fantasies which have been gradually accepted as the real thing”. So, it is difficult to say to what extent this mythology actually reflects the real situation, we can however compare the facts from the film world with the results of some recent sociological studies about life in the Czech Republic. I cannot obviously, in this brief talk, do a detailed analysis of individual films, I’ll provide just an outline of the fairly unified value system that contemporary Czech feature film transmits to society, having compared it with the findings of sociologists.
What is post-communist Czech society like, in the findings of contemporary sociologists, then? The sociologists Petr Matějů and Martin Kreidl argue that by the end of the 1990s, the principles of remuneration in Czech society had still not adjusted to the meritocratic principle, which are characteristic of the open, market-oriented societies. In particular, highly educated professionals, employed by the state sector, continued to receive very low salaries. Although in the first few years after the fall of communism, people experienced a subjective, euphoric feeling of a rise in social status, (and this is reflected in the first, post-communist commercial comedies where the world abounds with opportunity for the suddenly liberated Central European citizen), the real social and economic rise of the typical Czech citizen was slow. The newly founded capitalism in the Czech Republic of the 1990s failed to create a middle class. And indeed, contemporary Czech cinema still sees the Czech society as a plebeian community.
Even though in the 1990s incomes grew faster than inflation, the feeling that people’s pay has remained unfairly low has not gone away. Sociologists agree that Czech society has remained relatively poor, so for instance it is impossible to do research into the attitudes of rich people because there does not exist a sufficiently representative sample of such individuals in Czech society.
Significantly, according to Martin Kreidl, like under communism, most Czechs are still convinced that large personal wealth is the consequence of a badly organised economic system which enables some people unfairly to get rich quick. Most people in the Czech Republic still think that if you are rich, you must be a fraud or a criminal and that success in society is achieved through nepotism. Czech society still believes that whoever is rich, he or she obtained the wealth by underhand means. This is strongly reflected in contemporary Czech cinema. To put it simply, whoever drives a BMW in a Czech film or owns a fancy villa is automatically a criminal.
But while distrusting the rich, the Czechs also distrust the poor. According to Kreidl, Czechs are convinced that if you are poor, it is entirely your own fault. Thus there is little solidarity with the poor in Czech society.
The sociologists draw an image of a hybrid society, full of contradictions, not at peace with itself, a society in which social and economic transformation has not been completed. Czech society is still, according to the sociologists, a collectivist and a closed community, suspicious and defensive towards “otherness” (“we do not trust the rich and we will not help the poor”), still mostly relying on behaviour which had become ingrained during the communist era.
Another sociologist, Martin Potůček, points out that the Czechs are most happy within the private sphere of home, family and neighbourhood. And indeed, is in this private sphere where most contemporary Czech films take place. Czechs are dissatisfied with the state of the economy and the state social welfare policy. Czech cinema also regards the structures of the state as unreliable and unsatisfactory.
The Czech police, which used to be a feared force under Communism, has been emasculated with the collapse of the totalitarian regime and has not regained its authority. The helplessness of the Czech police is accepted as a fact in Czech films and is often satirised.
Czech citizens distrust the churches, the parliament, political institutions. They trust the newspapers and television. Yet television, very much in line with reality, is often depicted in very critical terms,in Czech cinema, as dangerous, unscrupulous and unethical. Unscrupulous reporting can destroy lives.
Only 24 percent of Czechs are of the opinion that you can trust your fellow-citizens. Various types of fradulent behaviour or unscrupulous or unethical behaviour feature in many Czech films.
According to Potůček, the educational level of Czech women and the extent of their integration in the Czech economy is similar to the situation in Scandinavia, but the social and economic position of women in the Czech Republic is much worse. And indeed, the subjugation of women in society and in personal relations is perhaps the most frequent theme of contemporary Czech cinema, even in the films which are openly male chauvinist.
95 per cent of Czechs have completed secondary education; by contrast, only 12 per cent have university education. While Czechs have usually much more detailed encyclopaedic general knowledge than is now customary in most West European countries, according to sociologists, many of them lack the ability to analyse information.
Schools in Czech film are usually depicted as military-like institutions in which hostile and harsh female teachers bully and terrorise the pupils. Teachers are often shown in recent Czech films as grotesque characters.
Czech scientific and scholarly institutions do not currently do much internationally renowned research: this is primarily due to gross government underfunding, say the sociologists. Contrary to this, in the fictional world of Czech cinema, we encounter the myth that the Czechs are highly inventive. They are internationally revered for outstanding technological advancement and stunning inventions: the whole world is apparently beating a path to the door of the Czechs.
The environment, which used to be very heavily polluted under communism, has improved considerably, yet the C02 emissions per capita are amongst the highest in the EU. Only some films for children, which were made shortly after the fall of communism, deal with ecology and they link the motif of a struggle for a healthy environment with the motif of freedom. Otherwise Czech feature film making does not deal with matters of the environment.
Czechs spend about 20 per cent more time at work than their counterparts in the old EU countries, but their productivity is fairly low and due to the inefficiency of public services they spend a lot of time doing housework, say the sociologists. Several films, mostly from the early 1990s, show alienation at work under communism: workplaces are where people intrigue against each other and play power games. Signs of alienation and dissatisfaction of employees at work appear also in some contemporary films.
The Czechs identify themselves more strongly with their local village (42 per cent) than with their country (35 per cent). Indeed, more than thirty contemporary Czech films take place either in the countryside or in a small town or a village. For Czech filmmakers, is the countryside where most Czechs have roots and where they take refuge. The countryside idyll especially during hot summers, is a place of healing for the Czechs. In a recent spate of films for teenagers (since about 2004, Czech filmmakers have discovered a strong teenage market to be exploited) the countryside is also invariably the place where teenage boys lose their virginity.
The small town in the countryside often also highlights the division between “us” and “them” –the small country community is usually hermetically sealed off to outsiders and rejects any notion of “otherness” – a newcomer is invariably destroyed.
Finally, the Czechs are almost totally atheist. In one instance (the historical film Řád, see below) where the (Catholic) Church is depicted, it is seen as a political organisation which is engaged in a power struggle with the secular authorities.
Quite understandably, the first feature films made immediately after the fall of communism attempted to exorcise the anxiety of oppression and the claustrophobia, felt by the film makers and practically everyone who had lived under the totalitarian regime. Paradoxically, these films came into a new situation and people were no longer interested. There was a new regime and optimism for the new democracy, why bother with the ancient regime and its injustices? To this very day, people in the Czech Republic have been quite reluctant to analyse the abuses of the past, probably because many of them had been quite willingly and actively involved in propping up the communist system. Thus, paradoxically, even those films were ignored which quite astutely analysed certain features of the communist system that were to survive and intensify in the new regime. One of the most significant of these films is the long forgotten feature by Antonín Máša Byli jsme to my? Was this really us? (1990) which highlights the absolute alienation of most citizens of the communist regime in the 1980s. The hero of the film is a dissident theatrical director Jonáš who after having been banned from the theatre for many years is now allowed to make a return to Prague’s National Theatre to stage Shakespeare’s Othello. The problem is that the director finds on his return that everyone has become absolutely selfish and corrupt. No one is interested in doing any real work for the sake of artistic achievement: everyone just pursues his or her personal interest. “I do not demand courage from anyone, but even ordinary human decency has disappeared,” sighs the director. The film deals with something that was due to become generally widespread in post-communist Czech society.
Czech post-communist cinematography also examines various traumatic periods from Czech history. Quite remarkable is Řád (The Order, 1994), a feature film debut by young director Petr Hvižď, who died soon after completing this work. Taking place at the end of the 18th century when Bohemia was part of the Austrian Empire, shortly before the arrival of the Era of Enlightenment, the film analyses the helpless position of the individual vis-a-vis absolute power, and the plight of a person who is forced, under totalitarian pressure to do the opposite of what he considers ethical – this is obviously an attempt to exorcise communism. Karel Kachyňa’s impressive international project, The Last Butterfly (1990), with Tom Courtney in the title role, is, in a way, a typical Central European film, in the sense that it expresses the rather optimistic Central European belief, current mostly in the 1960s, that it is possible successfully to fight oppression by means of artistic effort. During the second world war, famous Parisian mime artist Antoine Moreau is forced by the Gestapo to put on a performance for children in a Jewish ghetto for a delegation from the International Red Cross; on arrival in the ghetto, he discovers that both children and adults are being murdered by the Nazis and turns the performance into a passionate accusation of Nazi brutality.
A number of films made shortly after the fall of communism also see children as hope for the future. Children’s openness, inquisitiveness and free thinking was often used as a metaphor of openness and of “the other”. It was contrasted with the cowardice and authoritarian narrow-mindedness of corrupt adults. Grown-ups are cowardly because they had been forced to conform when they lived under the authoritarian communist system, but later films do imply that the position of adults is not really freeer in any way under “democracy” when compared to what it was under communism. There are a number of these films, made in the early 1990s, I just want to mention as pars pro toto Království za kytaru (A Kingdom for a Guitar, made in 1989, released in 1990) where a teenager, supported by his ten-year old sister, works very hard in order to gather together sufficient funds for the purchase of a guitar so that the boy could continue playing in a rock band. Their effort ultimately fails due to the duplicity of the adults. The film highlights the enormous difference between the traumatized and enslaved generation of the parents and the talented and free-thinking teenagers. “Never mind, you will succeed when you find some influential friends,” says the depressed father to his teenage son. “But I do not want influential friends, I want good friends,” the son protests, the depressed father reacts: “Life will teach you…”
A number of artistic experiments have been attempted. The most mature of these are intellectually and visually challenging feature films by the surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer; you may be familiar with his film, Otesánek (Little Otík, 2000) based on a traditional Czech fairy tale, which can be construed as a warning against the tampering with the biological substance of man, such as cloning, and Šílení (The Mad, 2005), which sees the contemporary Czech Republic as a lunatic asylum in which the inmates have taken over and gone berserk, but which at the same time warns that while democracy equals the rule of lunatics, return to totalitarianism would be a worse option.
But the largest number of feature films made deals with post-communist reality in the Czech Republic. The early post-communist commercial comedies, such as Zdeněk Troška’ Slunce, seno, erotika (The Sun, Hay, Sex , 1991) – incidentally, there is no explicit sex in this film; the title is just a lie aiming to lure viewers into the cinema - highlight Czech plebeianism and the new contacts of the Czechs with the outside world. The inhabitants of a South Bohemian village make acquaintance with some Italian farmers who are interested in exploiting the Czechs’ revolutionary new method of rearing cows. Here we have a recurrent theme – this is one of the stunning inventions for which the brilliant Czechs are justifiably famous the world over. The film is highly optimistic and it expresses the belief that in the newly free society, everyone will become rich. There is a moving scene where humble farm workers trying to learn proper upper middle class deportment, take volumes by Karl Marx from the local library, and in order to learn to stand up straight walk about with them on their heads in the cowsheds among heaps of cow dung. The film reinforced the idea that everyone is equal and that everyone will become rich in the new capitalist paradise, but this illusion lasted only two or three years. Before mid-1990s, films were being made whose affluent characters openly despised “the great unwashed”, the ordinary, penniless, lower class Czech.
After the initial bout of optimism, Czech cinema starts bearing witness to various negative features of the new era. Many films began showing that private enterpreneurship equals stealing. Many people interpret the arrival of the new market-oriented freedoms as a chance to rip off their fellow-citizens as much as possible. There is social instability, aggressive behaviour and chaos. Jan Kraus’s Městečko (The Little Town, 2003,) is perhaps one of the most depressing portraits of the post-communist situation. The film compares and contrasts life in a small Czech town under communism, when the town was little more than a feudal fiefdom for a few communist officials, and the depressing present. The little town is as poor as it was before the fall of communism but its inhabitants are aware that the town will never escape deprivation and nothing will ever change.
This is the message of a number of films dealing with contemporary times in the Czech Republic. While under oppression in the past, dissident writers, filmmakers and intellectuals always argued that “A different world is possible”, the filmmakers now have arrived at a horrifying conclusion that “This is it.” No matter how unsatisfactory, this is now reality. There will be nothing more. This is normalcy, this life of distrust, stealing and intrigue. The life we live now will remain like this for ever and nothing will ever change. This is the message communicated strongly by the film by Pavel Göbl and Roman Švejda Ještě žiju s věšákem, plácačkou a čepicí (Rail Yard Blues, 2006) about the banal life of the employees of a railway station in a small town.
It was in 2001 that Bohdan Sláma’s film Divoké včely (Wild Bees) introduced the theme of social deprivation: Divoké včely is a portrait of life in a small, God-forsaken village somewhere in Eastern Moravia whose inhabitants live in destitution . The loudspeaker on the village green which used to blare out communist propaganda now broadcasts an incessant stream of capitalist advertising, which is irrelevant to the locals because they cannot afford anything. “Work, women, this is capitalism, for fuck’s sake,” a local manager exhorts a bunch of women whose task it is to cut undergrowth in a local forest. They drink, they don’t work. Erotic encounters offer young people some temporary respite; but soon everything reverts to what it was before.
Plebeianism is perhaps the second most common motif in contemporary Czech cinema. In Zdeněk Sirový’s film Černí baroni (The Black Barons, 1992), about life in the communist army under Stalinism, plebeianism is a salvation because it breaks down the oppressive Stalinist ideology. The film implies that ideologies come and go, the ordinary Czech Švejk is immortal.
Relations between men and women is the most salient theme of contemporary Czech cinema. It is interesting that all the films dealing with this theme are really statements in defence of women, even though their authors did not probably always intend to do so. The films show that women in the Czech Republic survive in subjugated positions. Men are depicted in a very unflattering light. There is practically no contemporary Czech film depicting depict a male as a hero.
By far the most frequent motif of contemporary Czech cinema is the motif of recalcitrant, antiheroic, impractical, weak yet authoritative men. The ideal man, physically attractive, intelligent, sensitive and able to provide for his family, does not exist in contemporary Czech cinema. I could give you dozens of examples. Let just one suffice: In a highly popular film by Jan Hřebejk Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999), which is ostensibly a retro film about the 1960s, but is, in fact, very strongly influenced by the childlike, decadent ethos of the post-1968 Soviet invasion era, the aging fathers in both the featured families are weak, aggressive, insensitive buffoons who brutally impose their own ideology on those close to them. One of them is an anticommunist, former anti-Nazi resistance fighter, the other is a communist army officer, but their behaviour is very similar. Their wives communicate in desperation in inconspicuous hints with each other, while the men rave on, totally unaware of what is actually going on.
A related motif is that of the man the fantasist. The hero of Tomáš Vorel’s Kamenný most (The Stone Bridge, 1996), is a typical example of this genre; the Czech film theorists have coined the expression of chcípák for such a character – I suppose something like an intellectual vagrant outsider in English. Jaromír Blažejovský writes: “Chcípák knows that capitalism is immoral and parasites rule the world, but he feels that it is he personally who is to be blamed for his disappointment. Escape is the solution: Escape into nature, into Bohemianism, into a lunatic asylum.” The main character in Kamenný most, a thirty-year old man in the middle of a creative crisis, regards it as natural that he has the right to be concerned selfishly only with his own personal and creative problems and to follow a vague, pseudo-mystical goal. This quest is more important to him than cultivating personal relations or fulfilling his family duties. He neglects his wife and young son, turns up at home only occasionally and quite naturally assumes the right to be sexually promiscuous. In Kamenný most, both father and son make this assumption: “I have three lovers. Your mother does not know this,” confides the father to the son. The father is also a fantasist vagrant artist. The family is supported by the hero’s mother who makes and sells kitsch dwarfs at Charles Bridge in Prague. It is women who are practical and who hold families together.
The weak and impractical Czech men are often unnecessarily violent. In Czech films it is quite common than children are subjected to physical punishment by their parents, even for the most trivial misdemeanours. In Snowboarďáci, (Snowboarders, 2004) the father of the family leans across the table during the festive Christmas Eve dinner, perhaps the most sacred event in the Czech family calendar, and slaps the teenage son across the face because the son speculates aloud that he probably again will get only trousers for Christmas. In Švankmajer’s Otesánek (2000), a plebeian and authoritative father hits his thirteen year old daughter at the dinner table every time she makes an intelligent remark. Andrea Sedláčková’s Oběti a vrazi (Victims and Murderers, 2000) is a weird film about a passionate, incestual love affair between a brother and sister. At the very beginning, the father of the family takes off his belt and uses it to beast up everyone, including his wife and two teenage children. His only reason for doing so was that the daughter said at the dinner table that she was surely old enough now to made her own decisions.
Men look for sex, not for a relationship. The more physical sexual encounters with various women the male anti-heroes have , the greater their self-confidence. Women, on the other hand, are primarily interested in forging stable relationships, they reluctantly tolerate men’s incessant desire for sex. “Do you know how many women I have had?”, says Gogo, the main character of Dušan Rapoš’s film Fontána pre Zuzanu 2 (Fountain for Susan 2) says. Zuzana responds: “Ah, but have you ever experienced love?”
It is not quite clear why young, attractive women strike up relationships with unattractive men who are often decades older; many of the men are failures. As long as women are young and have sex appeal, they are the subject of men´s erotic interest. When women reach middle age, men look at them with horror: middle age women are usually depicted as argumentative, authoritarian and aggressive. As one English critic has pointed out, men fear their mothers in middle aged women.
To fill in this outline, I would like to discuss in some detail one of the approximately 300 films, included in my recent film book, in some detail. I have chosen an extremely low brow, popular comedy Kameňák, which has been condemned by most Czech critics as absolute trash. However, the film contains vast amounts of information about the mores of contemporary Czech society.
Kameňák 1-3 (A Really Cruel Joke) (2003, 2004, 2005) is a low-brow, popular comedy. Just as in the classic British popular comedies Carry On, most of the jokes are sex-based. Kameňák presents itself as a “free-thinking”, provocative work, which is supposed to enthuse and to entertain the popular viewer by breaking social taboos. The verbal humour is based on puns which use the principle of ostranenie (peculiarisation) to give words new, unusual meanings and on vulgarity. Most of these puns are untranslatable. The film is vulgar.
If such a film is to work, it must be set within an environment which is completely familiar to the ordinary viewer. Although the film is stylised and exaggerated, a parody and not a portrayal of ordinary life, it must, to be successful, relate to the viewer´s personal experience. Critics usually criticise Kameňák saying that it has a feeble narrative line, they maintain that it is made up of a badly integrated series of jokes, but this criticism isn´t quite fair. The narrative line of Kameňák may be weak, nevertheless, the film presents an integrated image of Czech society, an image with which the ordinary Czech person can fully identify.
Like most contemporary Czech films – Kameňák takes place in a small town. The small town is a completely familiar environment in which the Czech viewer seems to feel comfortable. The director deliberately builds up a cosy atmosphere of the town in the film, where everyone knows everyone else, providing much detailed information about the ethos of the community. Hence films like these are valuable as material for the study of cultural mores.
The family is of primary importance for the Czechs. It is within the family that the Czechs gain all personal experience. This is why the film concentrates on what goes on within the family of the Czech everyman, the main “hero”, Josef Novák, the chief of the local police. (“Novák” is the archetypical name of the “ordinary Czech”).
Novák is married and is the father of two children, the ten-year-old Joey and the twenty-year old Julie. Each episode in the film starts with footage of the morning sex of Josef Novák with his wife – Novák never satisfies her: “You are like a bee – a bee also pricks someone and dies.” The husband and wife openly exchange insults. The characters in the film are inconsistent: If Novák hates his wife, why does he make love to her? There is obviously a considerable amount of cynicism. The director sacrifices the logic of the narrative as well as the motivation of his characters to his verbal and situational gags. Husbands insult their aging wives more than they probably would in reality to make the audiences laugh. Old people are generally the subject of ridicule. Surely they are so ugly, grotesque and infantile.
For Kameňák, there is nothing more funny than insulting aging women. Another remarkable thing is how often vulgar expressions are used in normal conversation between parents and their children.
At breakfast, Mrs. Nováková rushes about, preparing food for all the members of the family, while Mr. Novák, unperturbed, reads the morning newspaper. Typically, the wife takes care of the household and of her husband while at the same time doing a full time professional job. Mr. Novák complains that his wife does not cook him full evening meals. In Kameňák 3, Mr. Novák does not even know where the tea is kept in their kitchen. (After the publication of this analysis in my film book, I had a long debate with one Czech reader, a woman, in fact, told me that I was a feminist because I had noticed such a thing. A “normal” person would not notice it.)
School is a place where children are tormented by teachers – the gifted and inventive Joey brings home only bad marks, although he is obviously bright and intelligent. The teachers are not interested why their pupils have such bad results. Whenever Joey brings a bad mark, his father punishes him by belting him. Joey´s mother also thrashes the boy regularly. Corporal punishment and aggressive behaviour by parents towards their children are normal.
Besides scenes set in the Novák
family, the director draws his picture of a small town using scenes from the
local school, where Novák´s wife is Deputy Head
Teacher, and from the hospital where his daughter is a student nurse. He also
uses scenes from the nearby monastery (which is really a den of criminals).
There are also scenes from the local brothel and the castle, where an aging
Czech émigré has returned with his wife and lives in the guise of an “English
lord”. This is probably supposed to show how in the post-communist era, even
the cosy, familiar Czech small town is becoming truly cosmopolitan.
The monastery is a sham – a local Mafioso pretends to be its Abbess. Disguised as a nun, he hides criminals and deserters from the army and keeps prostitutes in nuns´ habits for Western tourists.
The police are ineffectual. When Novák´s wife is mugged in the local park, the Police Chief acquires her mobile, her gold chain and her purse not because of his excellent detective work, but as a result of strategic thinking by the local boss of the underworld, who cultivates close cooperation with the police – this is a distant inter-textual reference to Havel´s play The Beggars´ Opera.
Czech politicians are corrupt impostors who are interested merely in their personal benefits. On television, a member of Parliament explains that in order to economize, Czech Parliament has now voted never again to run the elections – it is useless, it is too expensive – so the MPs will remain in their positions for life.
It is characteristic that when the police eventually – by coincidence – discover that the local monastery is hiding criminal elements, only unimportant offenders are arrested. The Mafioso entrepreneur who set up the sham monastery, pretending to be its Abbess, now becomes a member of a consortium, made up of local business celebrities of which Chief of Police Novák is also a member. So – even the Chief of Police is free to participate in corrupt business practice with impunity. After all, just as most contemporary Czech films imply, business is always corrupt.
There are no morals – when a brothel is opened in town by the local businessman Kohn, the whole small town establishment participates in its celebratory opening – the Chief of Police, the Head Surgeon from the local hospital, as well as the headmaster of the local school.
In a film which is based on sexual innuendo, the position of women is fairly hard. Older female characters without the sex appeal of young girls are systematically the subject of ridicule. Men are horrified by middle-aged women, they feel terrorized by them. Businessman Kohn´s mother in law is a shocking example of a hostile, aging, argumentative woman, yet, interestingly, in the third instalment of Kameňák, she wins over Kohn, because it turns out than her organizational capabilities are much better than his.
As in most contemporary Czech films, men are feeble: this applies to Kohn as well as to policeman Novák, to the male old-age pensioners in Kameňák as well as to the town´s business consortium. Men of any age live in the world of their own private interests and needs while women run their households. When men are young, they are trying to get sex with as many women as they possibly can, later on, their only interest is football and the pub, or sometimes fishing. They are not interested female psychology and they are incapable of communicating with women. Everything must be on the men´s terms. It is quite normal that women sell their bodies for a dress or for a watch. When Mrs. Novák´s mother dies having been knocked down by a car (as in real life, car accidents are very frequent in the Czech Republic), only Mrs. Novák cries – Grandfather Novák, the husband of the deceased old woman remains unperturbed by her death.
Men of all ages are absolutely obsessed by young girls. The local headmaster violates moral law by having an affair with his deputy – he does not mind that her husband is his personal friend with whom he is on first name terms. When interviewing applicants for the job of a new teacher, the headmaster gives preference to an attractive young lady before a talented male candidate. He tells him openly during the interview that he wants a young woman for the job. Sexual exploitation is emphasized by the fact that the young man is appointed to the new teaching position only after he has disguised himself as a woman and gone again for the interview. Women are under sexual pressure everywhere: in the local hospital, a young, attractive, married doctor, the father of two children, demands sex from any nurse who happens to be on duty. “We will discuss your study results,” says the doctor to Julie Nováková, she responds: “We had sex in connection with that issue last week.” When a girl dreams about finding a “decent, kind, sincere man”, the doctor responds: “you are looking for a cardboard figure from bad literature”. In other words: there are no ideal men. Women, come to terms with what we men are like in real life, you must accept our self-indulgent behaviour – we rule the world.
The film reinforces gender stereotypes. When a teacher prepares her class of ten year olds for the taking of the school photograph, she explains to them that the photograph will be an important souvenir for them in later life. Many years later, they will look at the picture: “This is Charlie – he has become an electronics engineer. And this is Mary – she now has three beautiful children!”
The sequels Kameňák 2 and Kameňák 3 basically adhere to the same value system, introduced in part one of this farce. Mockery, aimed at older people, becomes really grotesque when a miraculous “blue spring”, which strengthens man´s sexual potency, appears in the cottage of eighty-year-old pensioner Kropáčková, who then rapes five local young men, to the horror of the male population of the town.
The third part of Kameňák brings in another theme, topical within the Czech community – the issue of racism and the relationship between “white” Czechs and the Romanies. Romanies are, as is well known, regarded as alien within the close-knit Czech society. Another reminder of how comforting are the cosy Czech “values”, as compared to unpleasant, alien influences, is the complaint of Kohn´s mother-in-law that the Italian chianti which he serves his guests, has a “sour aftertaste”. ¨The subtext of this implied: We have our own, consoling, Czech values, we do not need foreign cultural imports.”
One morning, the Novák family wakes up and the villa next to their house is inhabited by a group of Romanies. What is the worst thing that a Romany can say to you: “Good morning, neighbour,” says Novák with horror. He decides to buy guns for both his wife and his daughter and to send them to a course of self-defence, run by the local police where, however, both Novák´s wife Vilma and his daughter Julie indulge quite regularly in sex with, the young policeman Olda, Novák´s subordinate. (The fact that someone has sex both with a young partner and then – or sometimes simultaneously – with the partner´s parent is quite a frequent theme in recent Czech cinema.) Sexual promiscuity is common in Czech society according to Kameňák – it happens whenever a woman is sexually unsatisfied within her marriage.
Kameňák 3 shows a number of racist stereotypes, related to the Romanies, so much so that is suprising that Romany actors were willing to participate in the project. Two of Novák´s young policemen stop and search two young man leading a bike along a street on which they are transporting a sack of sawdust, since “the Romanies are thieves”. The film confirms this stereotype. The policemen examine the sack of sawdust, without finding anything, but the Romanies have stolen the bike. In another scene, a number of Romanies come to the local post office and the father of the clan receives an “astronomically high” child benefit cheque because he has seventeen children. The Romanies steal car radios: it is supposed to be funny that a newcomer, a Romany from Ostrava, who is unfamiliar with local conditions, attempts to steal a car radio from a Romany car. The narrative in Kameňák 3 concentrates primarily on the profound hatred between the businessman Kohn and his mother-in-law. Like many typical post-communist nouveau-rich, Kohn owns a local football club, the problem is that its players are not very good. (Is this a more general comment that Czechs tend to be amateurs at everything?) Kohn accepts the challenge from his mother-in-law that if she manages to put together a better football team which will beat Kohn´s footballers, Kohn will have act as a slave to his mother-in-law.
A strong sense of self-irony is a part of the Czech national mentality. The conclusion of Kameňák 3 proves this. Kohn´s football team of white young men is totally crushed in a football match where they play against Kohn´s mother-in-law´s football team, made up of young Romanies. The Czechs are defeated in spite of the fact that Kohn uses underhand measures against the Romanies and makes Chief of Police Novák to arrest a couple of them before the match, so only nine of them play against the Czechs.
After the enormous popular success of Kameňák 1 and 2, Kameňák 3 shows a slight tendency to preach to the audiences and to make various political statements. For instance, it criticizes the low quality of contemporary Czech newspapers and their bias in favour of the right wing political establishment: Novák´s wife tells her husband, when he complains about the quality of his newspaper: “You don´t like [president] Klaus, you don’t like the United States, you don’t like naked girls, you don’ t like murders. I just don’ t know why we subscribe to that paper.”
Schadenfraude, malicious pleasure in causing envy in others, is seen by many characters as important motivation. It is summed up even in the final “philosophical” message of the film, presented in a caption: “Being in a good mood may not solve all your problems, but it will make so many people livid to see that you are happy that it is worth while to behave as though you were.”
There are absolutely no illusions about politics and politicians. The director of the local hospital says: “And I preside over this mess. Inevitably, they will make me a government minister.” Just like under communism, parents had to give money to their children to take to school for various communist causes, under capitalism, Chief of Police Novák is to give his son Joey “a hundred crowns for Iraq” to take to school.
Kohn confirms in his conversations with his mother-in-law that the only thing that matters in postcommunist Czech society is the power of money. It is universally, cynically assumed that the only right cause of action, regardless of morals, is to do what leads to success. It is summed up in the local pub by one of the old age pensioners before the football match between the Czech and the Romany team: “Would it not be better to bribe the Romanies? It is more honest and it is after all fashionable these days.”
Which are the best films?
If you see all the 280 Czech films, made since 1989, within a relatively short period, you will find about a dozen film makers and maybe thirty of forty films which in one way or another seem to be a profound, coherent testimony about human existence.
Jan Švankmajer, as his reception abroad has confirmed, is undoubtedly the most original contemporary Czech film maker. Švankmajer has always gone his own way. His previous, partial, surrealist experiments have eventually led to the creation of coherent works of art with a profound philosophical subtext. Lekce Faust (The Faust Lesson, 1994), a parable about human life which warns that Man is fatefully determined by his instincts and by his biological nature, so that he will inevitably succumb to destruction, as a victim of the devil. Otesánek (Little Otík, 2000) is based on a fairy tale byt the 19th century Czech Romanticist Karel Jaromír Erben, warning Man against his instinctive arrogant desire to change the perennial nature of things. In Švankmajer´s latest feature film Šílení (The Mad, 2005) the author´s pessimism reaches its highest point, more than fifteen years since the fall of the totalitarian regime. In Švankmajer´s view, people either behave like egoists or eccentrics, or they use irrational cruelty against their fellow human beings.
Perhaps the second most significant director of the post-communist period in Czechoslovakia is the experienced “father of Czech filmmaking” Karel Kachyňa (1924 – 2004). Kachyňa, the author of more than sixty feature films, made a number of movies since the fall of communism, all of which are works of remarkable quality. Perhaps the strongest of them is Poslední motýl (The Last Butterfly, 1990) a film about a famous French mime artist who ends up in a Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt, during the Nazi occupation, where he and a group of Jewish children, imprisoned in the ghetto, are required to stage a performance for an international Red Cross delegation. He uses the performance to communicate to the international inspectors that Nazis actually murder children. Poslední motýl is a profound, although horrifying film about a subjective and temporary victory of the human spirit over oppression, by means of artistic endeavour and talent. At least since the beginning of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, there has existed an important Central European belief that art can free human beings, it can make life easier and it can humanize people.
Poslední motýl is a homage to art which is capable of functioning as consolation in the most inhuman situations. Art can even become a substitute for life – if we use our imagination and our faculty for daydreaming. The film makes a strong dramatic and emotional impact because of its intelligently written script and because of the outstanding performances by international and Czech actors, especially Tom Courtenay, who plays the mime artist Moreau, Freddie Jones, who is the conductor of the orchestra accompanying the performance, Josef Somr, first violinist who ends up in a transport even before the performance takes place, and especially Hana Hegerová, a singer performing in a café in the Jewish ghetto. The mime performances and their sets, both of which were created by Boris Hybner are extraordinarily powerful. A contrast between the outstanding effort of artists, a homage to the sturdiness of the human spirit, and the hopeless human situation of these artists is the main theme of the film.
"An artist´s imagination is capable of expressing emotional truth in a way which cannot be matched by any historical study. Art does this in a way which goes far beyond the simple statement: ´Children were being murdered´," says David Mills in his review of the film in the Washington Post. By making an international coproduction on a timeless and yet Central European topic, Kachyňa managed remarkably well to avoid any serious period problems associated with the regime change and the transformation of the mental attitudes of Czech society in Czechoslovakia in 1989 -1990.