A good film, but it replays the same old themes

O rodičích a dětech (Of parents and children, director Vladimír Michálek, 2008)

A Czech version of this article is HERE

Vladimír Michálek´s latest feature film seems to be an interesting contribution to the debate about the relationship between men and women in Czech society. The relationship between “impossible” men and the “normal” women who are trying to come to terms with the men´s selfishness and impracticability is a topic which contemporary Czech cinema seems to be mulling over again and again. 

O rodičích a dětech is a film version of a literary text by the contemporary Czech writer Emil Hakl (pen name for Jan Beneš). Hakl is one of the few Czech fiction writers of the present day who has been able to produce a relatively original and authentic account of contemporary Czech society. (Unfortunately, his latest novel Let čarodějnice, The Flight of a Witch, 2008, is a disappointing rehash of Hakl´s previous themes). Here is a  profile of Emil Hakl and his work, written in 2006. The following is a quote from this profile:

O rodičích a dětech (Of parents and their children, 2002) is a short novel in fourteen chapters in which Jan Beneš is again making an attempt to understand his identity and his roots, now within the traumatising Central-European historical context. He is doing so, by talking to his father. The work is motivated  by the author´s fear of aging and  his awareness of passing time. ("I got a real fright when I saw how much greyer he [Father] had become over the past few weeks.", p. 8)

At one point, the work links the experiences of three generations. Hakl´s hero talks about recently meeting his illegitimate, twenty-year-old son for the first time. The hero feels that he does not understand anything about either himself or the world around him, and so he uses "one of the last remaining opportunities" to talk to his father in order to gain at least some knowledge. A forty-two year old son looks back at all those years that have passed so quickly. He shares his experiences with his seventy-one year old father. He takes him on a pub crawl through his favourite parts of Prague. The streets in Prague and the pubs there really exist.  The two men move about in the suburbs, where the posh diplomatic quarter gives way to the post-industrial landscape near the river Vltava. Hakl´s hero is torn between wishing to relate to his father and being embarrassed by his insensitively loud pronouncements, and by his quoting Shakespeare in public.

In a distant echo of Robert Bly´s book Iron John, O rodičích a dětech is a work about men, and about the „male values“, about the „meeting of the souls“ of two male characters, about typical male characteristics and male anxieties. Much is, again, said about women and about male-female relationships.

Hakl poses the question what it means to have a relationship with one´s father. Who is this old, foolish man with so many memories, this man, who is obsessed with sex, which is now inaccessible to him, the man who is clinging to life at all cost? This old man is more important than any other because for the son, he is a repository of all available knowledge about his own  roots. The hero hopes that through the father, at least  a little bit about his own personal identity can  be revealed.

The personal merges with the political. Hakl´s personal experiences replay the cataclysmic twentieth-century history of Central Europe. Hakl´s grandfather left Czechoslovakia for Croatia in the 1920s, in search for work. The family lived there until shortly before the communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948, when they moved back to their native country. Hakl´s fiction again concentrates on intensive, bizarre, extraordinary anecdotes. Cruelty often occurs in the father´s account of life in Yugoslavia, especially during the Second World War. Several of his stories testify how personal friendships can by destroyed by the ruthlessness of ideology. Both father and son are horrified by the casual cruelty of some of the other Slavonic nations, the Yugoslavs and the Russians. In comparison, the Czechs are again seen as cowardly, plebeian, antiheroic and devious. Hakl´s hero wouldn´t live anywhere else but in Prague:

„Here life goes on as though it was a comedy from the 1930s by the director Frič or some movingly stupid Italian porn film. It is like the assassination [of the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia] Heydrich, as perfomed by children in a puppet show. I like the dimensions of theatre, the constricted space. I like   a prisoner being socially so close to a government minister. All those stories about  people going for a beer with the president of the country and playing cards with him.“ (p. 98)

Hakl´s hero remembers the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he witnessed as a small boy. He was standing by the roadside with his grandfather, who threatened the Russian tanks and theatrically, threw a stone at one them. The small boy was impressed by the technology and was waving to the Russian soldiers: „Although I was only ten, I knew very well how everyone was double dealing, how they were making sure that they would be acceptable to both sides, how they talked about socialism with a human face and yet were absolutely afraid, our family too, mother and Pepa handed out some leaflets but were very careful that their neighbours knew nothing of this. It made me sick.“ (p.103-104)

More than any other of Hakl´s work, O rodičích a dětech is reminiscent of the work of Bohumil Hrabal and Jaroslav Hašek. This is because the author uses the vehicle of pub talk as a major instrument for the construction of his narrative. Pub talk is a frequently used literary vehicle within the tradition of modern Czech literature and both Hašek and Hrabal are the most important representatives of this type of writing. Hašek´s Švejk uses verbal games to free himself from hostile reality and to create an alternative, zany, virtual world in which he feels at home. There are echoes of this approach in Hakl´s work.

Naturally, there are many more Central European historical reminiscences in the novel than in the film. The film has dropped most of the father´s stories about his life in Yugoslavia between the wars.

When I was preparing Emil Hakl´s literary profile a few years back, Hakl told me that Vladimír Michálek was preparing to make a film of his novel O rodičích a dětech. I was intrigued to see how this could be done because the novel consists of nothing more than a conversation between father and son,  in the style of Bohumil Hrabal. O rodičích a dětech is thus a verbal, not a visual novel. “People talking” has been an extremely important, democratic and humanist theme in Czech literature since the 19th century. People talk and thus they bear witness to the fact that they exist. They are a manifestation of natural reality, in spite of the attempts of oppressive ideologies to enslave them.

Just like the novel, Michálek´s film is also primarily verbal. In spite of that, it works. It seems subtle and profound. The 75-year old Father (Josef Somr) talks to his 45-year old Son (David Novotný). They walk around the Prague borough of Bubeneč, go through the park of Stromovka (Hakl´s prose is often closely linked to real places). The men reminisce and re-assess their father-son relationship.

Male solidarity, a salient topic in the literary text, is much weaker in the film. More than the literary text, the film attempts primarily to capture complicated family relationships, looking at them through the generations. The Son has a great need to be in the company of his Father. The Son´s desire, manifested in the novel, to learn something from his Father about his family, about history and about the world in which he lives, before the Father dies, seems to have more or less disappeared. Unlike in the novel, the film highlights the need of the two men to be together because they feel close to each other.

The Son admits to the Father that it was only last year that he had learnt he has a 25-year old son. This young man (Luboš Kostelný) plays an important role in the film. In the literary text, there is only a brief mention of him. It is a great achievement of the film that both the Son and the Grandfather are physically incredibly alike.

The men of all the three generations are imperfect. They behave like selfish children. It is noteworthy that their impracticability and lack of empathy for women is much stronger in the film than in the literary text.

Why is it then that when a narrative is transferred on to the screen it must submit to the somewhat stereotypical principle of contemporary Czech cinema which seems to argue over and over again that Czech men are self-obsessed weaklings, unable to maintain a long-term relationship?

The Son has a young, beautiful and intelligent girlfriend at home. He neglects her. Evidently, women are not equal partners to men. The Son doesn´t talk to his girlfriend. He is never with her. During the course of the film, the girlfriend falls in love with the Grandson. The girl is fascinated   that Robert resembles her partner so much. She finds the Grandson attractive – not only because he is a younger edition of her partner – but primarily, because he is paying attention to her. Women need their partners to be interested in them, to protect them, to talk to them and to share their life.

But the film warns: none of the men in this film, none of the representatives of the three generations is capable of this. All of them are deficient in some way. Not even the Father was capable of sustaining a long-term relationship, even though perhaps (in his male interpretation) it wasn´t exactly his fault that his wife had left him. Back in the Stalinist 1950s, the wife apparently felt there was no future in a liaison with someone from the former upper middle classes. Instead, she married a communist military officer. To this very day, the Father is frustrated by the fact that he has been unable to maintain a proper long-term relationship. The Son is well known for his sexual promiscuity, a sign of immaturity. He regards women as physical trophies, not as equal partners. In an echo of Robert Bly, the only serious relationships he has are those that he maintains with men – with his father and with his son. Not with his girlfriend.

The young Robert falls seriously in love with his father´s girlfriend. But it is obvious that even he  is self-obsessed and impractical. Even Robert will be unable to take care of his partner. He cannot provide for her. At the age of 25, he survives on pocket money from his mother. When his father lends him 300 000 Czech crowns to buy a flat, Robert uses this money on an impulse to buy a motorbike.

Interestingly, O rodičích a dětech here replays one other stereotype, which occurs relatively frequently in contemporary Czech feature film (I have recorded about half a dozen instances). It is the motif of an erotic relationship which a boy or a girl maintains with a middle-aged partner and then, subsequently, or simultaneously, also with their son or daughter.

In spite of the fact that the literary inspiration for the film is primarily verbal, Vladimír Michálek has managed to make a film that works. This is primarily thanks to the professional performances by both Josef Somr and David Novotný. It also helps that Michálek knows how to work with the retrospective episodes, which intelligently complement the dialogue of the Father and the Son. The camera also plays an important role. There are highly stylised and visually very well constructed scenes. The strong visual aspect of the film guarantees that O rodičích a dětech is more than just a series of talking heads.

It is obvious that Emil Hakl´s literary work was strongly influenced by the writing style of Bohumil Hrabal. But Hakl´s motifs and images are even stranger than Hrabal´s, whose prose has by now lost much of its original provocativeness. Hakl´s texts are much more brutal than Hrabal´s and Michálek´s film conveys this by sensitive hints. Anything can happen in Hakl´s world. Strange, mystical, shocking events occur when we expect them least. People live in a destabilised, unclear, aggressive and unpredictable world – that is the message of Hakl´s fiction.

It is perhaps a little bit strange that the filmmakers have felt the need to complement Hakl´s overriding literary message with yet another reiteration of the statement that “Czech men are impossible”.