How to resist death

Babí léto (Indian summer) (2001), directed by Vladimír Michálek

This film is a tour de force of three distinguished Czech actors of the older generation, Vlastimil Brodský, Stella Zázvorková and Stanislav Zindulka. First of all, though, it is a magnificent performance by Vlastimil Brodský. The belief that space for the realisation of individual human aspirations is restricted by unchangeable facts seems typically Czech. The Czech awareness that opportunity for human initiative is always limited, is probably much closer to the understanding of the human predicament than the (typically American) belief that radical action and the use of force may bring satisfaction and happiness.

In Babí léto, there are two main obstacles for the protagonists to grapple with: old age and regime change. The main characters are more than seventy years old. They have to deal with the imminence of death. They have spent their lives living under a totalitarian system. The arrival of the controversial, postcommunist, fraudulent democracy has caught up with them at the very end of their lives. This era isn´t theirs. They suddenly find themselves in an alien country. (No one wants to lend money to the two “adolescent” pensioners. “I have rung round all my friends. No will lend us anything. It wasn´t like this before,” complains Mr. Hána. “Times have changed. It is only us who have remained the same,” replies Mr. Mára.)

The film reflects the particular experience of countries with frequent regime changes such as Czechoslovakia, where people who are often only a little younger or older have completely different experiences, attitudes and values. This is, however, a general phenomenon: Each society develops and with advancing age, many older people start feeling like outcasts in their own societies, as the behaviour of their younger fellow citizens becomes incomprehensible to them.

Babí léto is the story of the friendship of two old men, František Hána (Vlastimil Brodský) and Eduard Mára (Stanislav Zindulka), who are fighting old age and alienation in the new post communist society. They do this in a distinctive, deliberately subversive and ironic way. They make fun of the new serious capitalistic society with its ideals of “enterpreneurship” and its individualism, by organising and carrying out complicated practical jokes. By making fun of the postcommunist reality amidst which they had now, unwittingly, found themselves, they indicate that the new society is not worthy of being taken seriously. (Milan Kundera highlights the same attitude in his Směšné lásky [Laughable Loves] and the story “Eduard a Bůh [Eduard and God]”.) But their life under the previous, communist, regime was not much more real. They were both a part of an operetta ensemble. Thus, communism was an “operetta” for them – the two men lived in a world divorced from reality. After their rude awakening into the ruthless, fraudulent, pseudo-capitalist society of today, there is only one type of defence available. This type of defence is typical for human beings in serious trouble. When there is nothing else to be done, the only way out is to make fun of your situation. That is what the Jews did en route to the gas chambers. They mocked themselves. By making fun of yourself in an extremely difficult situation you alleviate your fear. In this respect, the film is both frivolous and profoundly serious.

Babí léto opens with a scene in which the two old men are “house-hunting” – they are being shown round a luxury country mansion as its possible buyers. Hána pretends that he is an emeritus member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Later on, he pays dearly for this ironic practical joke – the false house hunting visit to the country mansion is unmasked and the estate agent who had organised it for Hána and Mára fines Hána heavily. The two old age pensioners live in a society where there is no empathy or good will. The society is ruled by selfish vindictiveness. The estate agent could have appreciated Hána´s joke and could have dismissed the whole matter without taking his revenge on the pensioners.

(Jára hears that his father has died of a heart attack in Mára´s flat and orders a coffin. The undertakers bring it to the flat only to discover that this is yet another practical joke and that Hána is alive. When Jára tells them to take the coffin away, they say vindictively, “This´ll cost you.”)

Hána and Mára´s practical jokes usually fail, in spite of the characters´ magnanimous geniality. Also, both men also are extremely profligate with money. This is another important sign. The older you are, the freer you are. Punishment is always associated with the threat of death. But at an advanced age we count on the fact that death might come at any moment – we will not by frightened by a punishment involving death any more. Indeed, what sense would there be in trying to save money when you are almost 80 years old?

Almost everyone in this film who is “young” (i.e, younger than the pensionable age) behaves fraudulently, selfishly or jealously. (Mára´s niece, an owner of a flower shop, will not lend Hána and Mára any money because according to another of Hána´s inventions, the loan would make it possible for Mára to earn a large amount of money by playing a part in an international film.)

The younger people in the film are not only selfish, but also self-indulgent. (Hána´s son Jára has been divorced, he lives with two of his wives and their children in the same flat and is trying to move out his parents from their flat and send them into an old people´s home, so that he could give the flat to one of his former wives.) Younger people, represented by the estate agent who fines Hána for wasting his time, and the casino owners who throw Hána and Mára out, are “tough” capitalist entrepreneurs, or else, represented by the footballer husband of Hána´s neighbour, they are aggressive hysterical lunatics repeatedly succumbing to fits of pathological jealousy.

The film examines human relations when there are only limited opportunities for people to develop their talents. Younger people fail because they lack empathy and nobility of spirit.

It is worth while studying the relationship of František Hána and his wife Emily. Their marriage provides a useful material for the study of both male and female stereotypes in Central European society.

Women in Central Europe are not particularly liberated. Their social role in many contemporary works of film and literature tends to be simplified. Men, on the other hand, are usually depicted as weaklings who compensate for their pettiness and helplessness by being aggressive towards the people around them. But not even the idiosyncratic František Hána, who has retained his inquisitiveness, originality, humanity and sense of humour, can possibly be regarded as a desirable male character. He is too old. This is seen when he meets and protects his neighbour before the fits of her jealous footballer husband. Even Hána is therefore one of a long line of “unusable”, impossible Czech men.

His wife Emily is first presented as a fairly stereotyped caricature of a typical Czech grandmother who just mostly takes care of household chores and maintains all the necessary social and family rituals. As ever in contemporary Czech cinema, the long suffering women try, above all, to preserve relationships and to act as bonding agents in families. Emily´s exaggerated obsession with cemeteries, funerals and her constant preparations for death are obviously designed to serve as a counterbalance to Hána´s expansive activities and his anarchism. Then, however, there comes a change.

In the course of the film, Hána attempts to conform to his wife´s stereotyped existence. He gives up his “irresponsible” way of life after admitting he had gone too far in pretending he had died of a heart attack. This particular practical joke was intended as a punishment for Emily who had temporarily succumbed to the insistence of her son Jára to let him have the Hánas´ flat. Emily becomes so angry that after forty-four years of marriage, she files for divorce. However, she still loves František and so she eventually stops the divorce proceedings. In repentance, František tries to become “obedient”.

Fortunately, Emily misses her husband´s cheerful disregard for the law and liveliness. So she repudiates Jára with his aspirations to take over their flat, and, at the end of the film, along with her husband, she organises yet another “house hunting” visit to a luxury castle in the Ostrava region, pretending that she and her husband are affluent buyers from abroad. Thus Emily accepts Hána´s value system. The wife, who has so far been depicted as a stereotyped Czech woman who cooks and cleans, has found new deep resources within herself and ceases behaving in a stereotyped manner.

But, of course, two different interpretations are possible – either this is the rebellion of a full-blooded woman against the usual stereotyping of her gender, or the woman has actually conformed to a male perception of the world. At the end of the film, it is the youthfully anarchic, provocative attitude of František Hána which is victorious. Although there is progress – when František  takes Emily to view yet another mansion, near Ostrava, he realises that she will not be able to go through with the performance of the fraudulent viewing, and cancels the visit. Consideration from both partners and their affection to each other prevails.

The film comes full circle. It seems to be putting across the message that our only defence against the limitations of our existence is to stop taking them seriously. It is of course obvious that even humour will not help us – the world continues being imperfect and death will inevitably come in the end. A warning of this is to be found in the fate of Hána´s friend Eda Mára. He has a stroke and ends up paralysed in hospital. In spite of the fact that his place as Hána´s co-prankster is taken over by Hána´s wife, the victory of the husband and wife can always only be temporary.

Or does their defiant human rebellion survive as a cultural gesture? If this is so, in this sense, the film would be returning to the value system of the 1960s in Central Europe, when a creative artistic act was regarded as an instrument of liberation and humanisation of the imperfect human existence, which is always threatened by oppression and death. After all, Vlastimil Brodský and Stella Zázvorková, two of the three outstanding actors featuring in this film, are dead. What is left after them in this world is their magnificent film work over many decades, which of course includes Babí léto.