Horem pádem (Helter Skelter (2004), directed by Jan Hřebejk

A typical Hřebejk film, Horem pádem deals with various deep Czech traumas, viewed from the point of view of the Czech postcommunist present. Since the films Musíme si pomáhat (Divided we Fall, 2000) and Pupendo (2003) Hřebejk, has been trying to construct a complex story, full of paradoxes, which would be more than the sum of its parts. In Horem pádem, this effort has been more successful than in Pupendo. The structure of Horem pádem is more mature, although it is less integrated than the structure of Musíme si pomáhat.

Racism, as it exists in various forms in contemporary Czech society, is the principal theme of Horem pádem. It feels as though Hřebejk has deliberately included an “educational” tendency, so typical for many American films, in his movie, so that it would become more acceptable for the US market. However, Horem pádem is not a work of propaganda, it has a more general, more complex and more sophisticated meaning.

Hřebejk tends to idealise the West. In Horem pádem, using Australia as an example, he compares what he sees as a free, mature Western society with the “traumatised, defensive, post-communist” Czech Republic, where people struggle with prejudice and lawlessness. Hřebejk preaches to his fellow citizens: The Czechs suffer from a stereotyped vision of the world. They are unable to perceive reality, which is complex, so, in trying to understand the world and overcome their fears, they resort to various simplified clichés. The Czechs accept some aspects of reality while strongly rejecting others. Horem pádem warns – like Milan Kundera – that reality cannot be perceived by means of stereotypes. What has happened in this film almost always turns out to be much more complex than it seemed at first sight.

Adultery and its destructive consequences for the marriage, a childness woman´s desire for a child, shamelessly insolent criminality, variations to the generally widespread, infantile, selfish, primitive cruelty, which is, coincidentally, described just as eloquently in Czech writer Emil Hakl´s recent work (O létajících objektech [On flying objects], Prague, Argo, 2004), the emigration of the Czechs under communism, the “broadening” of the local horizons (“I no longer each pork, cabbage and dumplings”), immigration issues, helplessness of the Czech police, the snobbery of the middle classes – all these are the motifs from which Hřebejk constructs his narrative.

Just as Morávek´s Nuda v Brně (Bored in Brno, 2003), Horem pádem is also made up of a tissue of interconnected themes, motifs and narratives, which at the beginning look quite different from what they eventually turn out to be. Hřebejk tells his fellow citizens: get rid of your black-and-white vision, get rid of your prejudices and be open. You will feel much better. The contrast between what Hřebejk sees as a narrow-minded, forced, defensive Czech mentality and the allegedly relaxed attitude of the family of Martin, the Czech who has ended up in Australia, could not be clearer.

Three different narratives are intertwined in the film:

  1. The story of small-time Czech crooks who support themselves by stealing people´s purses and mobile phones, but by smuggling Asian immigrants into the Czech Republic. During one of these smuggling trips, an Asian baby is left behind by mistake in the smugglers´ van. The smugglers have a problem what to do with the baby. (The opening scene of the film, which takes place at a Czech-Slovak border crossing, is almost identical to the opening scene in David Ondříček´s film Jedna ruka netleská [One hand can´t clap], 2003.)
  2. The story of František, the “nice skinhead”, an aging football fan (Jiří Macháček), who has a criminal record for making a disturbance at football matches. František has been “seduced” to rowdy behavior by the “colonel”, the hard-line racist leader of their gang (Jaroslav Dušek). Perhaps the most remarkable scene of this story is the episode in which the “colonel” discovers that František has a non-white child at home. His wife Miluška, who cannot have children, has bought the baby from the immigrant smugglers. They have told her that the parents of the baby are dead. In despair, Miluška had been trying to steal babies from prams in the streets. (This motif may be Hřebejk´s reference to Švankmajer´s Otesánek [Little Otík], 2000).

The “colonel” expels František from the gang. He symbolically erases his telephone number from his mobile (this really means something in the Czech Republic, where the mobile phones have become the most widely used means of communication). While standing over a globe next to the cot with the baby, the “colonel” gives a defensive, emotional speech about how coloured people are procreating throughout the world and how he would like to preserve the “small green square” of the Czech Republic for his own culture and for his white descendants. What is interesting about this hard-core racist outburst is that it is possible to feel a certain amount of empathy with some of the “colonel´s” arguments. In the UK, too, there are (many) people who are disturbed by the fact that the traditional characteristics of the country are changing, losing its British character and the country is becoming multicultural. If nothing else, this is surely an interesting topic for debate: People from other countries should have the right to live wherever they are free from political and economic pressure, but do the original inhabitants of countries have the right to try to retain their original culture? And what about the small communities which speak unique, local languages? Must they, under pressure of globalisation, fully give up their language and their local culture?

  1. First and foremost, though, the film focuses on the story and the relationships within the family of the aging university professor Otakar (Jan Tříska). Otto collapses during a lecture, it is discovered that he has a brain tumour and he must go for an operation. As a result of this news, the extended family meets. Some of its members have not seen one another for twenty years, some have never met. It is up to the viewer to judge to what extent the convoluted history of this family is believable.

Many years ago, Otto left his wife Věra (Emília Vášáryová) and he lives with a much younger woman Hana, who used to be his son Martin´s girlfriend. In the 1980s, Martin (Petr Forman) left Czechoslovakia illegally for Australia. Hana was to follow him there; unlike him, she could speak English. But she did not leave Prague and struck up a relationship with Martin´s father. Otto and Hana now have an eighteen-year old daughter Lenka. (The motif of a sexual liaison with a son/daughter and then, subsequently – or even simultaneously – with their parent, occurs in several Czech films made since 1989).

Otto´s illness persuades the alienated Martin to travel from Australia to Prague for a family reunion. Věra, Hana, Otto, Martin and Lenka take part. Until Martin´s arrival in Prague Lenka does not know anything about the complicated relations within her family.

The family reunion is not particularly pleasant, especially since Věra finds out that the original family villa, confiscated by the communist regime, was returned to Otto after 1989 and Otto now lives in luxury with Hana while Věra survives in a cramped flat in a working class district among noisy and antisocial gypsies. Paradoxically, Hana works for a human rights organisation (which is affectionately parodied in the movie). Hana is a snob and she is scandalised by Věra´s “racism” as well as by her “working-class” habit of drinking beer (“maybe some is left here after the workmen”). But, again, there is a grain of truth in Věra´s “racism” – as the only non-Romany woman in a gypsy tenement at working-class Žižkov she really cannot sleep because of the noise and she really is afraid of going out. Reality is not as simple as that.

But Hřebejk goes on to reveal Hana´s anti-racist attitudes and her charitable work for refugees to be a superficial pose. Lenka, Hana and Martin stop for a coffee at a fast food restaurant. Two pickpockets sit down behind them, this is the area where they ply their trade. An employee of the restaurant warns the customers against the pickpockets – and Martin suddenly thinks that they have stolen his wallet. He raises the alarm while Hana, until then a great protector of non-whites, is seized by a racist fit. She starts accusing a person who has nothing to do with the incident of having participated in the robbery – only because he doesn´t have a white skin. This is an eloquent example of inventing collective guilt on the basis of external racial characteristics. And Martin´s wallet has not been stolen, it had just disappeared at the bottom of his bag and fell out, as it later turns out.

Racism is seen as a real problem among the Czechs. Martin does not tell his relatives very much about his life in Australia. The Prague people would not understand it. Martin does say to his father that he has a teenage son in Australia. His Prague parents are proud to hear this.

At the end of the film we see the relaxed Martin reunited with his Australian family. “I am glad to be back,” says Martin with relief and hugs his wife. She is – black. Martin´s son, the descendant of an important Prague university professor (exactly in the sense in which the “colonel” fears this) is also black. Martin has brought him a tee-shirt with the name of the footballer Nedvěd and the boy proudly wears it. Martin tells his wife that his former girlfriend Hana has born a daughter to his father in Prague. “Listen, you have an aunt in the Czech Republic,” says the black woman to her son in a relaxed way. In Hřebejk´s film, the Australians do not have problems with racism and with their national identity. In comparison with the Czech Republic, Australia is – at least according to Hřebejk – a free, open society without problems and its citizens do not need to be afraid that their culture might be destroyed by people with a different colour of skin – their culture has already become multinational.

Hřebejk also comments critically on various other aspects of life in the Czech Republic. As we have said before, like in many other post-communist Czech films, the Czech police are absolutely ineffectual. Hřebejk comments on this with irony. Pickpockets try to steal your mobile phone. You catch them in the act, arrest them and drag them to the police station. But the criminals will not be punished because a nearly-new mobile telephone is worth less than 120 pounds and if you steal something which is worth less than this amount, the robbery does not constitute a criminal offence, it is only a minor misdemeanor. The police are helpless vis-a-vis the arrogant criminals.

Some critics have remarked that Horem pádem is “verbose”. This is not an unjustified comment, at least as far as the first half of the film is concerned. Almost all the important information for the viewer comes through the dialogue rather than the action. This for instance happens in the scene where František tells his wife Miluška how stupid it was of him to behave in such a way that he had ended up in prison. Surely Miluška must know all this – but the film makers have not discovered a more effective way than letting František tell her the whole story again, this time for the benefit of the viewer. The family reunion in Otto´s villa comes over as stiff and unnatural. Was this intended or the result of incompetent directing? The dialogue overall is not terribly convincing. Occasionally, the film gives the impression that it was the intention of the director to solve all the problems of the world by theatrical conversation.