Poslední motýl (The Last Butterfly) (1990, premiere 1991), directed by Karel Kachyňa
Karel Kachyňa (1924 – 2004) started film making in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he was one of the "few fellow-travellers" with the "Czech New Wave" who successfully managed to continue his cinematic career even after the fall of communism in 1989, in a totally changed situation. Maybe this was because unlike many of his colleagues, famous directors of the 1960s, he was not banned during the "normalisation" period of the 1970s and 1980s. During the 1970s he made a number of important films, especially for children at the Barrandov Film Studios in Prague (Už zase skáču přes kaluže,[I am Jumping Puddles Again], a film about an invalid boy, based on a novel by the Australian writer Alan Marshall, 1970; or Lásky mezi kapkami deště [Loves amongst drops of rain], which is an evocation of life in the working class Prague quarter of Žižkov in the 1930s.
Kachyňa was one of the first students of newly FAMU, the Prague-based Film Academy, which was founded in Prague after the Second World War. He graduated in 1951. To begin with, he and director Vojtěch Jasný (Všichni dobří rodáci,[All my Good Countrymen],1968) made documentaries at the Czech Army Film Studios. Even though he then went over to feature film making, , the themes of war and army life remained important topics for him for a long time (Král Šumavy [The King of the Šumava Highlands], 1959). Children are often the chief characters of Kachyňa´s films. In the 1960s, Kachyňa became famous for a number of films which unmasked the communist mythology (Ať žije republika, [Long Live the Republic], 1965, Kočár do Vídně [A Coach Bound for Vienna], 1966). The reformist communist writer Jan Procházka was Kachyňa´s close collaborator. Kachyňa and Procházka worked on many film scripts together. They jointly created the sharply anti-totalitarian, kafkaesque psychological tense psychological drama Ucho [The Ear],(1970).
Poslední motýl is a profound horrifying account about a subjective and temporary, but nevertheless glorious victory of the human spirit over oppression. This victory is achieved by means of artistic effort and talent. At least since the times of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, many Central-European works of art have promulgated the belief that art gives people freedom and it makes life easier and more humane.
A famous French mime artist Antoine Moreau attracts the attention of the Gestapo, in the Nazi-occupied Paris, when he mocks the Nazi salute during one of his performances and when the Gestapo finds out that his mistress is a member of the French resistance. The mistress dies, Moreau is arrested and sent to a Jewish ghetto in Central Europe. The Nazis give him a "contract" to stage a performance "for Jewish children" there. Those inhabitants of the ghetto, who take part in rehearsals for the performance, are temporarily saved from being sent to the gas chambers, but it soon becomes evident that the "performance for children" is to be a part of a hypocritical project designed to demonstrate to an International Red Cross delegation visiting the ghetto that the Jews, which are being held there, are actually having a wonderful time.
When the mime artist realises how things really stand in the ghetto, he decides to use a version of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale to communicate to the delegation that behind an attractive screen made of gingerbread children are actually being murdered. The Jewish administration of the ghetto approves the project after some hesitation. The Red Cross delegation does understand the message and wishes to speak to the mime artist after the performance. But Moreau has already left town, say the Nazi officials. And indeed: the whole ensemble, including the French mime artist, who is not a Jew, is immediately sent to the gas chambers. As a gesture of last minute defiance, Moreau performs his famous mime scene parodying the Nazi salute. By doing so, he makes the whole gathering of Jews, waiting to be sent to their deaths, burst out laughing. Humour helps in the most difficult situations because it neutralises fear.
Poslední motýl is 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. Particularly noteworthy are the performances of Tom Courtenay, who plays the mime artist Moreau, and Freddie Jones, the conductor of the orchestra accompanying the performance, and Josef Somr, the first violinist who ends up in a transport even before the performance takes place. Hana Hegerová is especially impressive as a singer in a café in the Jewish ghetto – her art magically bridges the gap between life and death. The mime performances and their sets, both of which were created by Boris Hybner are extraordinarily powerful. The contrast between the outstanding effort of artists, the 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 serious period problems associated with the fall of the communist regime and the change of the mental attitudes of Czech society in 1989–1990.