Kouř (Smoke 1990, premiere 1991), directed by Tomáš Vorel


If we look now at the documentary TV footage from the days of the democratic revolution in Czechoslovakia in November 1989,   it is remarkable how shabby and impoverished people look from today´s point of view. Tomáš Vorel represents this pitiful state in Kouř, his musical fantasy with elements of Havel. Fantasy is typical of Vorel’s works and Kouř makes considerable use of artistic stylization, not only visually but also verbally. The film contains musical extemporizations with songs where the texts are plays on words to be chanted rather than sung.


It is a bit like Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985), a dystopian version of a totalitarian system in a unspecified country in the near future, reminiscent of bureaucratized Britain with elements of the wartime protectorate (although Gilliam´s film was not known in Czechoslovakia when Kouř was made). In Kouř people live and work in the industrial dereliction of ramshackle buildings giving off many harmful emissions.


Every morning anonymous workers get off a dirty, ageing bus and enter the gloomy industrial area surrounded by all kinds of pipes. A column of soldiers marches through the scruffy group of workers moving aimlessly about. In this ugly, smoke-ridden place there are only a few plain, neglected shops or snack bars and of course a fourth rate pub. As in our mythical idea of Russia, Béda, one of the poor workers in the industrial plant, keeps saying, “Let’s go and get drunk!” Béda represents decadence which was beginning to appear amongst young people in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, due to their  frustration. Everyone smokes all the time.


Astutely combining elements of absurdity, the film provides a dreadful caricature of the last years of communism as it was breaking up. The connection between this film and the absurdity of life under communism is twofold. On the one hand, this highly stylized testimony becomes grotesque, remote from reality, on the other hand, by exaggeration the film caricatures a whole raft of features of Czechoslovakia during normalization and rightly shows how near communist reality was to appalling absurdity – in which it is particularly realistic. Even the highly stylized musical and dance sequences of musical comedy, stressing ugliness and ineptness, border on the absurd – the dancers and actors not infrequently look like puppets. (The visual style of the film is the work of the well-known artist Jiří David.) It is as if the film-makers revelled in the awfulness of life under communism and at the same time were horrified by it – but they wanted to enjoy to the full this testimony to the reality of that time of oppression.


The industrial firm in which the film Kouř is set, is a typical socialist institution where basically no work is done, the workers are either celebrating something, getting drunk, or at least drinking coffee. In the film nothing at all really gets done, for every initiative is suspect. On his first day at work engineer Čáp (Jan Slovák) asks, “Am I supposed to be doing something?” The answer is, “Go with the flow.”


Culture is represented by the conceited, homosexual disc jockey Arnoštek – so culture is now sterile and venal like everything else. In this sense, this film is extremely realistic, because the Czechoslovak post-invasion, “normalisation” society did have this kind of tame, consumerist culture. The film also shows the kind of relationship men have with the opposite sex in this closed society. (I had a girlfriend, but she wanted to be equal, the bitch,” says Béda.) Looking superior, men address women as “doll” or “babe”.

The film has traces of Havel in that the bosses encourage work and initiative but they are  obviously not serious about this reforming talk or rather in any uncertain situation they support  both sides: fearing for their position they are  willing to ruin anyone who produces a sensible, intelligent idea. (See Havel´s play Asanace[Redevelopment, see HERE.) Karel Šmíd (Jaroslav Dušek), a clerk, dogmatic and callous, is the main schemer in the power struggle. As the custom was under communism, the word was supposed to have the power to overcome reality. “We are shut off from the world about us, the air is unbreathable, but we have good political training classes”. Those in power are on the alert in case someone has anything on them, they are insecure because they know that their power is illegitimate. Šmíd is intent on finding out if the new engineer Miroslav Čáp, who has just joined the firm, really has a relative at the “centre of things” and is therefore protected and dangerous, or if he just happens to have the same name.


The main - highly metaophorical – theme of the film is the need for improving the ecology of the industrial environment in which the leading characters have to live and work. Glosner, one of the leading workers in the firm, gives Čáp the job of preparing a scheme for the regeneration of the region. Čáp however soon learns from design engineer Liduška that a similar analysis was already made years ago for the firm by engineer Křížek who had been destroyed by Šmíd because of it. (Šmíd admits with unruffled calm,”I am a bastard.”) Křížek was imprisoned, taken back “as a favour” and since then has been working in the boiler room. It is a synecdoche for the thousands of intellectuals disposed of this way by normalization after the reforms of the sixties. Thus, like Havel’s plays, Kouř attacks hypocrisy – the management knows that a good plan for regeneration exists, however it has long been rejected and shredded. (See the song, “So the boss knows/ The boss’s boss knows/ Does the boss of the boss’s boss know? Yes he does.”) Everyone was forced to condemn Křížek´s reform project; those who refused to do so were ruthlessly sacked. So, in fact, all the employees of the industrial firm are corrupt – they have all been implicated in Křížek´s downfall. They know his project was good and they are demoralised.


Nevertheless – times have changed somewhat and the management of the firm supports preparations for implementing the new ecological plan, even though not necessarily with greast enthusiasm. In the film is a metaphor of the real situation in Czechoslovakia at the end of the 1980s, in the times of Gorbachev´s perestroika, the impulse from the outside for liberalising reforms is missing. Hence the film lacks motivation in some respects. It does not answer the question why the reformist effort should be successful now since in the past it has always failed.


In reality, the problem was that Czechoslovak liberalising reforms were always suppressed from the Moscow centre. Liberalisation could never take place in Czechoslovakia unless the totalitarian regime collapsed in Moscow. Communism came to an end in Czechoslovakia in November 1989 due to external factors – Moscow had decided that it would give its colonies in Central Europe freedom.


There is a hint in Kouř that foreign power is present – the chief executive of the industrial concern (the metaphor for Czechoslovakia) is a bloated Russian, who can hardly speak Czech. But the fact that external pressure ceased, and so the revolution could finally be successful, isn´t really deal with in the film, except perhaps in the fact that the Russian “big boss” dies towards the end of the film.


 In comparison with Havel’s plays, in Kouř the contradiction between the announcement of the liberal initiatives and the hypocrisy of the bosses is less pronounced. The film is about the struggle to support “new” ideas and stopping them being suppressed. The workers make their moves according to what is momentarily possible. We are now however in a situation where an empire is breaking up. The general manager, a bloated, wheezing old man, uttering platitudes in a Russian accent, dies. His death symbolizes the easing of the pressure from the centre of empire. At a key meeting after his death, Šmíd, the arch schemer, takes over and before anyone can say anything, he condemns the Čáp/Křížek project as subversive and intimidates all present so that they automatically adopt his motion. Only times have changed. The “Russian” manager is dead. Čáp attacks Šmíd physically, the workers revolt, they stand up, they chant ,”It IS worth while!" and become reformers. The power balance has shifted – all the corrupt individuals who have so far supported the establishment, join in with the recolution. So the film finishes with a happy ending (even though Čáp is arrested for the attack on Šmíd), with a democratic revolution (everyone applauds the authors of the reforming project). With some irony, the film suggests, quite realistically, that when a revolution wins, the rulers against whom the revolution was staged join the revolutionaries in the end. Kouř in its artistically stylized and exaggerated form, authentically records the basics of life in a totalitarian communist society.