Category: East European Cinema

The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze Czechoslovakia, 1965)

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Ida Kaminska and Jozef Kroner excel in their roles

With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happenedThe Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.

Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.

Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.

The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.

The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in LoveClosely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won –and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scène, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.

Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.

Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázracnica, Czechoslovakia 1967)

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Sinister fascists?

Štefan Uher’s Slovak film, that was banned post-’68, is an example of nadrealizam; a neologism conjured to avoid association with surrealism, which the right associated with Jewish culture (Sigmund Freud). Slovakia had sided with Hitler during the war. As such it can be expected to be a difficult film to follow as its dream-like narrative isn’t meant to be logical. However, it becomes clear that the artists’ infatuation with the ‘virgin’, Anabella (Jolanta Umecka), is an amour fou as they project their desires onto her. Anabella flits from one man to another vaguely amused by their attentions. Umecka made her debut in Knife in the Water and this was her last film, five years later. On the Second Run DVD there is a ‘finding Anabella’ extra: a short publicity film showing Uher’s quest for an actor to play the role. There are also excellent interviews with Slovak scholars about the film.

The film is set during the war, at the start there is an air raid where people take shelter in what is ostensibly Bratislava’s railway station but it was actually filmed in the amazing Brno conference hall, which has an extraordinary vaulted ceiling. As is common in eastern European ‘new wave’ films, the black and white cinematography, by Stanislav Szomolányi, is exceptional. As far as I can tell this is the only film by Uher available on DVD (in the UK at least) which is unfortunate as Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave (IB Tauris), rates The Sun in the Net (Slnko v sieti, 1962) and The Organ (Organ, 1965) more highly.

I’m sure I missed a number of references in the film; in the picture above do the threatening men represent fascists? Artists who attempt to break conventions are always seen as fair game by reactionaries as they offer new ways of seeing rather than the old. The artists, mostly visual but including a poet, are mostly portrayed as pathetic in their infatuation or is that the way I’m reading the film? I presume the ‘virgin’ is a reference to Catholicism but religion seemed to be absent from the film.

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Nadrealizam

The surrealism is superbly presented: a character’s hand suddenly turns into an eagle’s talons; another jumps through a mirror and so on. I’d love to see more nadrealizam.

Sunset (Napszállta, Hungary-France 2018)

Juli Jakab as Írisz Leiter, bravely taking on Budapest

Sunset won the Critics’ Prize at Venice in 2018. László Nemes, the writer-director, won both the Cannes Grand Prix and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his previous film Son of Saul (2015). (He has two co-writers on Sunset.) However, the two films have been received differently by some reviewers and some audiences. I haven’t seen Son of Saul but I know it offers a narrative about the experience of a Jewish-Hungarian man in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I suspect that whereas most audiences would at least recognise that story, the world of Sunset must be unknown to many modern audiences. I doubt many mainstream audiences in the UK or US would be able to tell you much about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1913. The elderly couple sat next to us in the cinema, were, I think Hungarian and they would know, but not perhaps one of the reviewers in Britain’s leading film journal Sight and Sound who is completely dismissive of the film. But the culture of pre-1914 Central Europe is very difficult to grasp and Nemes refuses to use  conventional approaches to presenting it. This Milan Kundera quote from 1984 is used in the introduction to one book on Central European Cinema:

Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary . . . (quoted in The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed) 2004)

For those of us in the UK and North America, the history and culture of the former ‘Holy Roman Empire’ seems so alien because we haven’t experienced such a shifting sense of identity within territories that experienced occupations and changing borders over decades and over centuries. In 1913 when Sunset is set, the three connected kingdoms/territories of Austria, Hungary and Croatia-Bosnia, the remnants of the former empire after 1867, still constituted a powerful economic and military force and a highly-developed and sophisticated culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, but its citizens did not share an identity, a language or a religious identity. This multinational, multi-ethnic conglomeration would be torn apart after 1918 and the repercussions of the ‘end of empire’ are still being felt in the ‘New Europe’ of today. The original Hungarian title of the film is translated by Google as ‘eventide’ which seems more poetic and perhaps hints at foreboding. The film narrative offers a metaphor for the collapse of empire. This is hinted at in the opening titles but not made explicit. In the Press Pack, Nemes reveals the influence of F. W. Murnau:

This film is my personal testimony to the love of cinema, almost a century after the hopefulness of Sunrise by Murnau – a movie to which we pay homage. I hope that Sunset carries in itself something of the interrogations embodied by Murnau’s film.

What plot there is in Sunset focuses on a woman in her twenties who turns up at the most fashionable milliner’s emporium in Budapest (extravagant hats for women are the ultimate status symbol in the society). She is quickly revealed to be Írisz Leiter, the daughter of the founders of the Leiter brand who set up the shop. We learn that the parents died and that the infant Írisz was sent to Trieste where she eventually became an apprentice milliner. Now she is back, to the consternation of the current owner of the business Oszkár Brill. What does she want? What should he do with her? In the next few days the Leiter brand is celebrating 30 years in business with parties and dancing and visits by royalty and local aristocracy. Brill attempts to send her back to Trieste but Írisz is stubborn and will not be deflected from her mysterious purpose, especially when she discovers that she has a brother who is notorious and lives outside ‘society’ in Budapest. The more Írisz is refused answers or told to keep out of something the more she ploughs on. Is she some kind of angel figure? Or is she a ‘monstrous’ woman – the original meaning of monster being derived from ‘warning’. This extraordinary character, at once beautiful and resolute but also confused, requires a strong performance and Juli Jakab certainly provides it. Her ‘journey’ through the world of Budapest is presented by Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély in long, carefully choreographed tracking shots with the camera often focused on the back of Írisz’s neck and with the city environment blurring through pulled focus (the lack of focus increases towards the narrative climax). This technique, which I understand worked well in Son of Saul, seems to have irritated quite a few commentators this time round.

Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) tries hard to return Írisz to Trieste – but then bows to the inevitable

Budapest is a bustling city and the aesthetic choices that Nemes makes help to give a us a sense of the contradictions. Vlad Ivanov gives an impressive performance as Brill and in one sense he seems to represent a multi-lingual élite who are in confident control of the city. But the empire is vulnerable, it may have modern technologies, arts and music but it also has ‘darkness’ and various dissident groups of socialists, anarchists and nationalists. The blurred backgrounds and different voices and sounds emphasise how disturbing it must be for Írisz. The empire has religious differences, persecuted minorities and traditional ideas. There are hints about the development of psycho-analysis. Írisz steps down from an electric tram but it looks like Nemes was unable to represent the Budapest underground railway, the second oldest in the world after London, opened in 1896.

Irisz steps down into the darkness at the end of the tramline and into a disturbing Budapest ‘underworld’

Another criticism of the film is that it is too long at 142 minutes. I found it a riveting watch and it didn’t seem a minute too long, though because of the unusual approach to narrative, I sometimes did wonder whether a resolution would be signalled and when finally it came I was relieved to find it that it made sense and confirmed what I though the film had been ‘about’. That doesn’t mean that I understood everything. Far from it, but at least I felt I had a purchase on it, however tenuous. Reading the detailed director’s statement in the Press Pack has been very helpful. I should re-watch Murnau’s Sunrise and think about the other films that popped into my head during the screening. The film’s aesthetics require more study too. My viewing companion pointed out the fantastic sound design which I’d noticed but not thought about as there was so much going on with the camerawork, set design (physical sets built in Budapest), music and performances. We watched the film in one of HOME Manchester’s smaller auditoria (but with a big screen and excellent sound) and you should seek out the biggest cinema screen you can find. This won’t be easy in the UK since this is a Curzon release and it looks like it isn’t playing at Picturehouse venues which sometimes have larger screens because of the dispute over closing distribution ‘windows’. This does mean it is also available on Curzon’s VOD service, but you’ll need a quality home cinema system to do it justice. The film did tour various independent venues in May with both 35mm screenings and a Q&A with the director. It is showing at The Hyde Park in Leeds today and again on July 14. It is also showing at the Showroom in Sheffield and still on at HOME. Don’t miss it. The trailer doesn’t give away spoilers but it shows some of the sumptuous camerawork.

The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech Czechoslovakia, 1966)

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Na zdraví

The western translation of O slavnosti a hostech, (also known as A Report on the Party and Guests) made Jan Němec’s film’s allegorical intention obvious; Němec co-wrote the story with Ester Krumbachová who wrote the screenplay. It’s likely that the satire of the film would have been obvious to the censors of the time anyway even if the original title is better translated as Of Celebration and Guests(according to Michael Brooke’s excellent notes in the Second Run DVD). The film was ‘banned forever’ in 1973 and not seen in Czechoslovakia until 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

The seven characters we meet having a picnic find themselves dragooned into joining a wedding party (although it was possible they were meant to be guests anyway otherwise why would the women change into smart dress?) after being interrogated by a bullying, and slightly unhinged, character with accompanying ‘heavies’.

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Unhinged heavy

The picnickers respond differently to the bullying ranging from resistance (he gets beaten up – see above) to appeasement; the woman tend to respond passively. They seem to be saved when the host insists they join the party but the banquet in the forest is an obvious manifestation of a world out of joint. Whilst Němec was no doubt satirising ‘communist’ Czechoslovakia, the dinner party is strikingly bourgeois with its fancy trimmings and Luis Buñuel’s influence is apparent. Buñuel saved his bile for capitalist bourgeoisie: Němec is likely to have been familiar with The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, France, 1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (Le fantôme de la liberté, France 1974), all featuring dinner parties, came later. Western critics usually viewed Cold War art as being critical of the ‘communist’ system (often accurately) but ignored the potential for critique of the west. There’s no doubt to me that Němec and Krumbachová were having a pop at the bourgeoisie in general. Krumbachová also co-wrote the brilliant Daisies and was a costume designer on the Němec directed Diamonds of the Night.

The comedy is based both on the surreal absurdity of the situation and bourgeois manners that seek to accommodate rather than challenge repressive forces. The latter is obvious in the UK at the moment in the BBC’s coverage of the resurgent right as it insists on giving a platform to deranged scumbags like Carl Benjamin and Stephan Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) in the belief that this is a public service; in reality platforming fascists isn’t funny.

The Party and the Guests is funny, it shows Němec’s brilliance and retrospectively we can mourn his inability to make the films he wanted after being ‘disgraced’ by this wonderful example of the Czech New Wave.