The Prague Spring as reflected in Czech postcommunist cinema
Jan Čulík, University of Glasgow
It is extremely interesting to analyze how the momentous events of the Prague Spring of 1968 are seen in the contemporary Czech Republic. In this sense, it is useful to examine 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 present Czech society with a fairly consistent system of values. In this brief talk, I will look at two of these feature films dealing with the events of 1968 from the postcommunist perspective. The perception of the Prague Spring is grossly distorted within them. It is perhaps not terribly surprising that the vision of the Prague Spring offered by these two pictures is quite closely related to the image of the Prague Spring that is consistently presented by the Czech right-of -centre daily newspapers.
The current Czech president Václav Klaus (who also happens to be right of centre), is well known for his disdain for 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, indeed, also the view of the predominantly right wing Czech media. In their view, (reformist) communists can never be given benefit of the doubt.
In 2005, analyst Stanislav Holubec, looking back at the 1968 Prague Spring, outlined four current interpretations of the events of that year:
Jan Křeček has analysed 485 articles dealing with the issue of the 1968 Prague Spring which were published between 2000 – 2007 in the leading Czech right-of-centre daily newspapers Mladá fronta Dnes (The Youth Front Today) and Lidové noviny (People´s Newspaper) in 2000 – 2007. He has discovered that in these articles, the two newspapers fully support Holubec´s interpretation number 1. The view that the Prague Spring was an irrelevant “internal struggle of two factions of the same criminal Communist Party” is offered by both newspapers as the dominant “common sense” view; all the other views are marginalised as “ideological” and “eccentric”:
“1968 failed to fill [photographer] Jan Saudek with enthusiasm. He saw that year as a power struggle, organized by one communist party faction against the other. In principle, he says, I cannot trust anyone who has once been a member of the Communist Party. To believe in ‘socialism with a human face’ would have been the same as to put one´s trust in [some form of] ‘benign’ Nazism!”
“Antonín Procházka was not enthusiastic about 1968. He says: ‘It is just the communists playing in their own sandpit.’ And the developments have proved me right.”
Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny do not beat about the bush: The Communists have always been criminals:
“The expression ‘socialism with a human face’ is an empty slogan (...) It is important to watch who is hiding behind these human faces. Surely Hitler also had a human face, as did Joseph Mengele, Mussolini, Stalin and Gottwald. Arafat and Saddam and bin Laden also have human faces because each person does have a face. What matters is what is hiding behind the human faces and especially what we learned was hiding behind these human faces thirty-five years ago.”
“They do not want to admit that they are guilty of [introducing] the most disgusting form of communism, of annihilating the political and social elites and of destroying a functioning private sector. Not to mention the murders of their political opponents. The fact that a handful of these people has realised that the system needs reforming can never fully cancel out their guilt – they destroyed democracy.”
“You see, these people of 1968 are so insolent that they do not realize that they had lived as highly favoured citizens within the communist regime for a part of their lives. Many of them did harm to their neighbours and to all decent people.”
Křeček points out that in Czech newspapers the events and ethos of 1968 are being interpreted in terms of current political processes in the Czech Republic, without regard to the historical context. In the view of Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny, what people did in 1968 was a futile, absurd attempt to square the circle. Dubček´s concept of the “Third Way” is singled out for particular scorn:
“The anniversary of [the Warsaw Pact invasion of] 21 August has again opened the debate about various possible ‘third ways’, i.e. attempts to eat your cake and have it. Attempting to merge what is impossible to merge. Then the result is neither socialism, nor capitalism and it is reminiscent of an attempt to create a symbiosis of water with fire. (…) The Czech communists are still flaunting their own version of the Third Way. These days, they talk about democracy, but if, God forbid, they happened to assume power again, the ‘ rule of the working classes’ and ‘the class struggle’ and all the talk about ‘imperialism’ and ‘ the People´s Militia’ and the other achievements of Marxism-Leninism would quickly be reinstated.”
After dismissing the events of the 1968 Prague Spring and the ethos of the reform era as criminal, or at least irrelevant, Mladá fronta Dnes is of the opinion that the Soviet armies would invade anyway – because this is simply what the Russians are like – they invade:
“The tanks were always ready to invade. When talking about 21th August 1968, people speak of disappointment, of shock. But it was no shock. We must admit that the Soviet tanks have always been ready to invade. “
The whole period of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, from the communist takeover in 1948 until the fall of communism in 1989, was the rule of a criminal regime, in the opinion of Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny. There was non-stop terror: it would be foolish to try to distinguish periods of differing ethos or to dare to imply that there were attempts at liberalization during this forty-year period of “criminality”. The notion that there may have been a period when certain individuals were trying to do away with the excesses of the totalitarian system, is not permissible. There was simply no freedom in communist Czechoslovakia; total freedom was on offer only in the capitalist West. Of course, “half-communists”, like writer Ernest Hemingway, failed to recognise this:
“The American generation which had gathered together around in the drawing room of the self important half-communist Ernest Hemingway, called itself ‘a lost generation’. (...) They cried into their palms and ‘rebelled’ in a country which was free. But the only truly lost generation is the generation which spent the most important years of their lives between 1938 and 1989 in [what are now] postcommunist countries. This generation has never known freedom.“
People in the Czech Republic are now totally uninterested in the Prague Spring:
“The theme of the Prague Spring seems now definitively closed. People remember it less and less. Most Czechs have regarded any form of socialism as deeply suspect for a long time now. They see all attempts to reform socialism as attempts to square the circle. (...) No wonder that according to opinion polls, 43 per cent of young people aged 14 – 18 do not know what the expression ‘August 68’ means and 30 per cent of them don’ t have a clue even if you tell them that this was when the Prague Spring was defeated.“
And, indeed, as I discovered while teaching in the Czech Republic in February – April 2008, 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 today’s 20 – 25 year olds a bunch of senile fuddy duddies. It would appear that coverage in the official media, 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? The misinterpretations seem to be closely connected to the ethos which Czech right of centre papers disseminate about the events of the Prague Spring.
Rebelové is a retro-musical whose primary aim 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 the 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 regularly leaves Týniště 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 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 broadcast) but two of the three boys still successfully manage to jump on to 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 characteristic of the Prague Spring, and, mainly, in 1968, people did not need to use illegal means to get out from under the Iron Curtain: people travelled freely to the West. Moreover, this was a time when people did not flee 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 grotesque 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 for twenty years that the state has not given him a penny for the repairs of his church. Yet his Baroque church has been perfectly restored the way churches have been painstakingly renovated 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 of 1968, which lacked infrastructural backup, furniture and equipment as well as capital.
The authors of Rebelové have not understood that the salient developments took place in politics and the arts in 1968, not in the economy. Under the influence of contemporary neoconservatism, they have been led to believe that liberty equals consumerism. But in 1968, the 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 culminating in the cultural and political developments of the previous few years was a typical feature of the Prague Spring, rather than the setting up of private restaurants. Yet the film ignores this political debate – historically wrong, and typically for the period of normalization as well as for the postcommunist era – the protagonists pursue their narrow, private, personal interests.
In 1968, everyone, even secondary school pupils, 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. They both speak a language peppered with Stalinist ideological clichés. This is also historically inaccurate – journalists in 1968 used normal, natural human language without ideology, and so did politicians.
When Tereza comes upon her 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 serves as remarkable evidence of 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 were making a movie about a totally different country. This would not matter if Rebelové was merely an entertaining, non-political framework for the well-known popular songs. But Renč has been trying to recreate a historically accurate, legitimate, political image of 1968. It is in this sense that the film is a failure. 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 “normalization” 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 leafy suburb of Prague: the family of anticommunist 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 has been made about 1968 without the people of 1968,” as Czech film critic Jaromír Blažejovský says.
Just as Rebelové, Pelíšky is historically inaccurate, having nothing in common with the ethos of the second half of the 1960s. Again, the film really shows lifeduring normalisation, when, as a result of renewed oppression after the invasion, people´s attitudes changed and they began avoiding public life, going into internal emigration and concentrating on their private lives within their “cosy dens” – in their flats and their family environment. Pelíšky highlights this ethos of infantility and the 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 normalization ethos, concentrate on private lives within the family environment and they quite often feature Christmas family celebrations. The Christmas celebrations in the Šebek family extensively document the new childishness of the normalisation era. The men at the Christmas dinner table argue about childish nonsense – for instance, 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 1968 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 noviny did not come out until 1st March 1968. Communist ideological slogans, printed in yellow on a 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 of the 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 private life is a feature of the 1970s and 1980s. In this film, the adults behave like oppressed and helpless individuals of the 1970s and 1980s. They have a choice – they can either helplessly rave in frustration at the communist regime, like the anticommunist Kraus, or they can parrot communist clichés, like the officer Šebek or teacher Mašlaň. But even those communists like Šebek, who support the regime, are unable to share in any of its power. Communists are just as helpless as anticommunists. This is, of course, a typical feature of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and 1980s.
In line with oppression during the normalization period, politics plays a minimal role in Pelíšky. The film mocks pro-regime and anti-regime attitudes in equal measure. Both the anticommunist Kraus and the communist Šebek are shown as abnormal personifications of exaggerated political ideologies. The normalization message is clear: We do not want to get involved in politics. We wish to lead a quiet, secluded, 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 of the 1970s and 1980s, the period of “normalization” 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 reason.
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. The image of the Prague Spring that these films present is closely related to the disdainful attitude of the current Czech right-wing press, which also has its roots in the traumatic experience of the post-1968 invasion “normalization” of the 1970s and 1980s.
 See Jan Čulík, Jací jsme: Česká společnost v hraném filmu devadesátých a nultých let (What we are like: Czech Society in Feature Film of the 1990 and 2000s), Host, Brno, 2007; selected excerpts in English: http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/Slavonic/CzCin.htm
 Stanislav Holubec, "37 let od Pražského jara“ (37 Years since the Prague Spring), http://www.sds.cz/view.php?cisloclanku=2005071503.
 In a paper, delivered at the international conference "Czech Media and Czech Society in the 1960s“, 19th March 2008, The Goethe Institute, Prague.
 In 2007, the average daily printrun of Mladá fronta Dnes was 301 444 copies per day, of Lidové noviny 70 355 copies per day. They are the leading “serious” daily newspapers in the Czech Republic and they are right of centre. Apart from them there is Hospodářské noviny (The Economic Newspaper, right of centre, 59 986 copies per day in 2007), and Právo (The Right, left of centre, 153 944 copies per day in 2007). For all the circulation data, see http://www.abccr.cz/tabgraf96-soucasnost/2007/deniky07.htm.
 Josef Moucha, “Jan Saudek považuje fotografie za poselství” (Jan Saudek regards his photographs as a message), Lidové noviny, 11th May, 2000, p. 32.
 Luděk Navara, “Jak chudý hoch z vesnice na Hrad přišel” (How a poor village boy came to the Castle), Mladá fronta Dnes, 9th September, 2004, p. 6.
 David Jan Novotný, “Hokej s lidskou tváří” (Ice-hockey with a Human Face), Mladá fronta Dnes, 24th April, 2004, p. 6.
 Zdeněk Malý, “Osmašedesátníci spoluvytvářeli totalitu” (The people of 1968 helped to bring about the totalitarian system), Lidové noviny, 2nd September, 2004, p. 14.
 Josef Letošník, “Václav Klaus dobře ví, o čem mluví” (Václav Klaus knows what he is talking about), Mladá fronta dnes, The Hradec Králové region, 12th March, 2005, p. 3.
 Jan Truneček, “Třetí cesta – pokus o kočkopsa” (The Third Way – an attempt at creating a cat in the shape of a dog), Mladá fronta Dnes, 29th August, 2000, p.7.
 Vladimír Bystrov, “Okupace musela přijít” (The Occupation had to Come). Mladá fronta Dnes, 20th August, 2005, p. 8.
 Vladimír Kučera, “Ztracené generace. Před srpnem 1968 i po něm” (Lost Generations. Before August 1968 and After), Mladá fronta Dnes, 21st August, 2002, p. 8.
 “Vzpomínky na Pražské jaro 1968 blednou” (Memories of the 1968 Prague Spring are fading), Lidové noviny, quoting Die Welt, 23rd August, 2000, p. 10.
 Film a doba 4, 2001, p. 180.
 Karel Kosík, “Rozum a svědomí”, Literární listy, vol. 1, no. 1, 1st March, 1968, p. 1 and 3, http://archiv.ucl.cas.cz/index.php?path=LitL/1.1968/1
 Miroslav Jodl, “Svoboda a odpovědnost”, Literární listy, vol. 1, no. 6, 4th April 1968, p. 1 and 13, http://archiv.ucl.cas.cz/index.php?path=LitL/1.1968/6