Knoflíkáři (Buttoners) (1997), directed by Petr Zelenka

This film, which is distantly reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch´s Night on Earth (1991), examines parallels between interconnected events. Knoflíkáři shows that our knowledge of the events and narratives in which we take part is always imperfect and partial. It is not within our power to encompass everything, hence our knowledge of the world always remains incomplete. Zelenka likes ironic mystification which he often presents to the viewer by means of mock documentaries.

Knoflíkáři consists of six, seemingly independent chapters, but we soon realise that they are all closely interlinked by mutually shared motifs as well as by cause and effect. The result of the protagonist´s acting without sufficient knowledge about their situation is the main theme of the film.

In the first episode “Luck from Kokura”, the inhabitants of this Japanese town, according to Zelenka, escape nuclear annihilation in August 1945 because the skies are cloudy, it is raining and the American pilots cannot see where to drop the bomb. Their commanders tell them to change the course and the atomic bomb then destroys Hiroshima. The citizens of Kokura paradoxically escape death just at the moment when one of them, who had been to America, teaches his friends how to swear about the weather, out of frustration that it is always raining. (Allegedly, the Japanese language has no swearwords.) In the second narrative “The Taxi Driver” a young couple hires a taxi because the young man can only make love in a car when it is in motion. The attempt at lovemaking is unsuccessful and the young couple leave. The next customer is a man who is going to 10 Lipanská Street to catch his wife in flagranti. He is relieved to find out that there is an unknown woman in the bed in the flat there. During the return to the city centre in the taxi, the customer is happy that he has a faithful wife, but only the viewer knows that the woman in the bed in the flat was the taxi driver´s wife and that the customer´s wife was attempting sex in this very same the taxi driver´s car with her young lover just a short while ago.

In the next story “Civilised Habits” a fashionable, successful psychiatrist tries to persuade an impractical and weak young man whose wife had left him to get out of his depression by a strict observance of the basic norms of hygiene. Then, on a road at night, the psychiatrist´s car collides with an oncoming vehicle with two young lovers in it. They think that they have just witnessed a suicide by an unemployed man, a character who appears in the penultime episode “Idiots” . He is a “Man who has not Contributed” (i.e. his sperm for a US project of sending the sperm of elite males into space). Frustrated after being criticized by his wife, he lies down on the track before a train is due. He spits at the front of the engine, since, as he says, he is the best spitter in the world.

In the episode, entitled “The Last Decent Generation”, two middle-aged couples meet for an evening meal in a suburban villa. Their children want to marry each other. This narrative is an affectionate expression of respect for human eccentricity: the middle-class father of the young boy has, as a “buttoner”, an unsuppressible urge to snip buttons off upholstered seats using a set of false teeth placed in between his buttocks. The girl´s father loves putting on a model of a Second World War fighter plane and running around in a mock-war landscape where small explosions take place. The two couples become friends, but they do not know that their children, the lovers from the previous episode, are already dead after the car accident when their car collided with the vehicle driven by the psychiatrist.

The last episode “The Ghost of an American Pilot” is, in a slightly forced manner, trying to continue the story from the first narrative of the film – a group of ten year old girls in Prague call up “the ghost of the US pilot” who had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and tell him how much evil he had committed. The pilot then does an interview for Prague´s Radio 1 and asks the public for forgiveness. He says he did not know what he was doing. He is given absolution by telephone by the psychiatrist who had just caused the death of two young people. Knoflíkáři ends with a repeat of the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima: The explosion stresses the main contention of the film that those who dropped the bomb did not know alla the horrifying effects the explosion would have – yet they dropped it. Acting without full knowledge of the circumstances is the main theme of the film, which sees this as typical of the human predicament.

The restlessness in the film seems to reflect the experience of the Czech Republic in the first years after the fall of communism.

The film is full of restlessness. It seems that this reflects the experience of the Czech Republic in the first years since the fall of communism – everything is destabilised and in chaos. Insecurity is widespread. Everything is in motion. Society is fragmented. Everyone is alone. Relationships, based on love and trust, do not exist. The only couple in the film who sincerely love each other, is killed.

Knoflíkáři also touches on the theme of frustration and disintegration of marriage in middle age. One of the husbands (acted by Jiří Kodet) in the episode entitled “The Last Decent Generation” is a caricature of a typical agressive Czech man in late middle age. These men are deaf and blind to what is happening around them. The father of the young girl is playing with planes. He says that “this excites us much more than anything else”. But he speaks only for himself. He does not know what his wife feels and makes fun of her for repeatedly screening a film of her daughter in childhood.

Much of what is going on in the film is unacceptable from a typical middle class ethical point of view (for instance, the attempt at sex in a taxi). In the destabilised Czech environment people are unfaithful to each other, morals do not mean anything, local television stations uncritically rebroadcast absurd American programmes, stupidity from the West is spreading everywhere. Against each piece of information there is a piece of counter information. People are forced to come to terms with this confusion somehow. News comes from ever more and more doubtful sources. People are threatened by unemployment under the new regime.

Middle class professionals as well as working class people are trying to survive in the chaos, but even the middle classes are lacking in self-confidence in the new Czech Republic. The psychiatrist in Knoflíkáři looks like a normal Western psychiatrist, he has an affluent flat which had been obviously designed by an architect, owns paintings by contemporary artists and has a decent car. But his tics, the fact that he constantly combs his hair and uses a mouth spray, betray insecurity: the comb and the spray turn this psychiatrist also into a caricature. If he had been a stronger character, there would have been no car accident and the young lovers would still be alive. The consequences are always the result of many circumstances and if only one of them had been missing, tragedy would have been avoided.

With the exception of the “documentary” footage from Japan from August 1945 and the US TV film about how American scientists have allegedly decided to send sperm from 4 million men into space, the whole of Knoflíkáři takes place at night. What does the dark night sky mean? It contributes to the overall impression that the film is a dream or a nightmare. Metaphorically, this supports the assertion of the film that essential information remains hidden from us. If events take place in darkness, we notice even fewer things than in daylight. Some events would not have fatal consequences had they taken place during daylight. Darkness symbolises our imperfect perception of the world around us.

As Jakub Žytek has pointed out, the omnipresent darkness in this film can be seen as a metaphor of a collective subconsciousness which cannot function without complete information about events and processes. Without access to the necessary information about people´s motivation for their actions and without knowing why particular consequences ensue, we can only be tolerant and forgive.

If we accept this point of view, this gives meaning to the otherwise fairly incongruous scene with the “return” of the US pilot in the second half of the film. The psychiatrist, who has just caused the death of two young people in a car accident and so has recent experience of what it means to be a “killer”, gives him absolution. Naturally, the US pilot does not know what has motivated the psychiatrist to forgive him. The taxi driver who appears in several episodes in this movie, can be seen as a guide around this collective subconsciousness.