An English-speaking Švejk on the Big Screen Underwhelms Despite Best Endeavours
7. 11. 2018 / Andrej Rogačevskij
In early November 2018, at the Sands Films Cinema Club in south east London, several pre-release screenings of the new film version of Hašek‘s Švejk took place, to mark the 100th anniversary of WWI’s Armistice. The film has been written and directed by Christine Edzard, a co-founder of the Sands Films studio and production company. Edzard has a track record of making film adaptations of the immortal classics, such as H C Andersen and Shakespeare, and is probably best known for her 1987 screen version of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit.
Hašek‘s book has apparently been chosen because it is an antiwar satire of continuous relevance. It has been updated many times before (most notably with Švejk as a WWII soldier) – in many languages, English and Russian among them. In Edzard’s rendering, Švejk pronounces indictment not only to XX-century wars, but also to XXI-century ones (such as those in Iraq and Syria), doing so thanks to the additional material from the likes of Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Alastair Campbell, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld – and the international arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, who gets an impressive part of his own (played with gusto by Aaron Neil).
The production is reminiscent of Joe Wright’s 2012 film Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoi’s novel is transposed (but not always confined) to a theatre. Alas, what works well for Wright, does not always work for Edzard, perhaps because of a smaller budget: whatever is shown in her Good Soldier Schwejk (sic!) is literally limited to a theatrical space, backstage and auditorium included. Talk dominates over action in Edzard’s script and the viewer has only very few options in search of variety.
The same actors, at times versatile beyond recognition, play different parts (e.g. Joe Armstrong in the roles of the army chaplain Otto Katz, Lieutenant Lukáš and Watch Sergeant Flanderka, not to mention a couple of others). Švejk’s progress from recruitment to the war front is resourcefully interspersed with sequences of stage hands moving sets; glimpses of a feisty four-piece band performing live at the show; and sights of the audience’s involved reaction to what is happening in the playhouse.
Alas, charismatic and charming as he is, Alfie Stewart in the role of Švejk simply cannot carry the film that lasts for nearly two hours, because Hašek‘s humour in it, perhaps a victim to translation issues, appears to be somewhat diluted in the pacifist message. No matter how decent one’s intentions and efforts are, a comedy that does not entertain well enough is unlikely to spread any message very far.
At the end of the film, Švejk (who dies in an explosion) is resurrected by the Angel (also played by Joe Armstrong) to be sent from Heaven back to Earth to keep up the good work as someone who makes officeholders and warmongers look utterly foolish. There have been many reincarnations of this character on stage and screen already, and there will undoubtedly be even more. As for Edzard’s take on Švejk, unfortunately, it is hard to shake off the feeling that his potential has not been fully tapped.