This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.
The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.
I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.
Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.
The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.
This is one of the best films I’ve seen to present the real dangers inherent in nationalism and its inevitable decline into fascism between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. What is so remarkable about it is the humanist approach which is careful not to create monsters but instead to offer glimpses of the decent people who find themselves doing unspeakable things. I think that there are a couple of irredeemable characters and possibly one who is true to her beliefs throughout, but most are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just ‘ordinary folk’ whose behaviour becomes unacceptable in the extraordinary times. Director Bohdan Sláma told us in the Q&A that the script by Ivan Arsenyev drew on historical events but that the villagers were developed as fictional characters.
The narrative takes place in a village in the south of Bohemia, i.e the Western part of the state of Czechoslovakia, close to the Austrian border. When the new Republic was founded after the First World War and the break-up of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia found itself newly independent but with a significant German-speaking minority of over 20% of the total population. These were referred to as Sudeten Germans (named after local mountain ranges) and they were a majority in the new borderlands of the republic around the the Western, North-Western and South-Western parts of the country. Prior to 1918 these communities would have been in Germany or Austria. By the late 1930s and with the loud clamour of Nazi re-armament in Germany, the ‘Sudetenland’ began to make claims for the territories to be returned to Germany-Austria, especially after the Nazis forced the Anschluss on Austria. In the fictional village, the inhabitants voted to become German. Life became difficult for those maintaining their Czech identity and got worse when Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Adults in the village could now remember living in Austria, then Czechoslovakia and now Nazi Germany.
The main period of the war is only a relatively short section of the narrative, principally focusing on the fate of the Jewish family and whatever resistance was possible for the Czechs. More time is spent on the aftermath of the war in 1945 and then on into the early 1950s when further movements of people were still taking place. The film begins and ends with Marie (Magdaléna Borová). As the narrative begins her baby is being christened. She is from a Czech family but has married a German. The whole village celebrates but only a few months later her husband declares himself ‘German’ and though Marie protests, she is classified as German as well. In 1945 she is expelled from the village and forced to live for a time in the woods outside the town as Austria won’t accept her. Then she is taken back by the village but humiliated because of her German connections. She will be moved again and she embodies the struggle to remain true to yourself while those around you are less scrupulous. You feel she will survive and that she represents the strengths of Central European peoples who have had to suffer so many changes of borders and rulers.
The film features an ensemble narrative, brilliantly choreographed in black and white ‘Scope by the director and cinematographer Divis Marek. Many shots are composed in depth during community gatherings. There are also several music performances and overall there is a real sense of a village culture with separate narrative strands for a large number of characters. The focus on events after 1945 is interesting but very painful to watch as the script cleverly demonstrates how a former principled resistance fighter is forced to act as part of the ‘restoring order’ directive and then later investigated for not following proper procedures. Alongside this we see a number of events that demonstrate the savage ironies of occupation, collaboration and ‘national renewal’. There is no moral superiority in the film as far as I could see.
I was a little surprised at the relatively low profile of the Czech Communist party and the absence of Russians after 1945 but this is possibly simply a result of my own ignorance of events in Czechoslovakia from 1945 onwards. The scope of Shadow Country as a narrative with a wealth of characters across a period of some 15 or more years suggests parallels with Edgar Reitz’s long TV serial Heimat in 1984. When Shadow Country ended I felt like I wanted to watch the next episode to find out what happened to the surviving villagers from the late 1930s during the 1950s and beyond. At the same time, I also felt that the film I’d just seen was a real warning for audiences in Western Europe and North America about how fascism can destroy lives and communities. Those seem like major achievements for the makers of Shadow Country and I hope that the film gets seen widely.
LFF came up trumps with this comedy roadtrip. I enjoyed the film very much and was dismayed that the morning showing was not well attended. When Olmo Omerzu introduced his film I thought that this tall, gangling young man looked vaguely familiar and by the end of the film I had realised that I’d seen him receive praise at the Bradford International Film Festival for his first feature A Night Too Young (2012). It’s great to see a young filmmaker growing in confidence on this his third feature. Just as in A Night Too Young, the new film takes two younger teenagers as its entertaining central characters. In the earlier film the boys were 12 but here they are a couple of years older – but still not old enough to be driving across the Czech Republic. In the Q&A that followed Olmo told us that the script had been written by a teacher and that it had won a prize in a radio drama competition but that the ‘bad language’ content had made it impossible to broadcast. Omerzu took a long time to find two young non-actors and they strove to learn the script. The result is an absolute joy.
The film opens with what I thought at first was a hunter dressed in a fancy dress costume as an enormous flightless bird. But then I realised it was an overweight boy rather alarmingly carrying what seemed to be an assault rifle. But any fear was soon undercut by his struggles to clamber over some large pipes leading into a lake, not helped by the hood of his costume falling over his eyes. This is Heduš and soon we also meet Mára who has hot-wired a car and reluctantly accepts Heduš (who he knows) as a travelling companion. Soon, however, Mára appears to have been arrested and the car impounded. Olmo Ormetzu is telling the story in non-linear fashion and we return to the road trip via the interrogation of Mára by a female police officer. But the key to the narrative is that we very gradually begin to doubt the story that Mára is telling. Is it all a fantasy with a simple explanation or did it really happen precisely as he recounts it?
This is a road trip and the boys meet various characters and have various adventures. These are not ‘bad lads’. Mára is very bright and cocky, Heduš is naïve and still child-like – his rifle is a toy, but proves useful on a couple of occasions – but he is also quite resourceful. It isn’t difficult to root for them. The two police officers are rounded characters too, the male one being more aggressive but the female one more cunning. We are on the boys’ side. As the title suggests, it is winter and not the best time to be ‘on the run’. The winter landscapes are presented in drab colours and in compositions for the CinemaScope frame by Lukás Milota who has shot all three of Omerzu’s films. Music is important in road movies and there is an interesting mix here. I should have asked the director about the soft reggae track. The film is well-edited to strengthen the narrative drive incorporating a non-linear structure. The dialogue is beautifully written and the performances by the boys are exceptional. The ‘bad language’ mainly arises from two young teenagers with vivid imaginations confronted at one point with a young woman in her early twenties thumbing a ride. But enough of that, there are plenty of adventures and something magical about Mára’s stories of his grandfather who taught him everything he knows (including how to revive houseflies!).
I hope some enterprising sales agent manages to sell the film for distribution in the UK. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Winter Flies. I won’t be so slow to recognise Olmo Omerzu next time and I look forward to the possibility of seeing his next film. Here’s the international trailer:
One of the six entries in the European Features competition at BIFF, A Night Too Young is certainly distinctive but it will face problems because of its short length and possibly its subject matter. 65 minutes used to be the generally accepted point at which a film became a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘short’ – at least in France. At that length it presents a commercial distributor and exhibitor with the task of building a programme around it. In a festival like this it can be boosted with a longer ‘short’ alongside (as it was here).
The subject matter brings together adult partygoers and two 12 year-old boys. The boys are on the cusp of puberty as their discussion of sex in the opening scenes reveals. It’s the afternoon of December 31st in a small Czech town and they are playing on their sleds in the snow when they meet two men and a young woman. She asks the boys to buy some vodka for her from the store and to bring it to her apartment. They innocently do so and find themselves in a party situation with booze and dope and some serious tension in the air.
The director Olmo Omerzu is a Slovenian who has recently graduated from FAMU, the film school in Prague. It’s unusual that a graduation film gets to this length and even more that it gets into a big festival like Berlin and that’s down to some extra funding. Omerzu says that his influences include the Czech New Wave and that he cast the two boys partly because of the way that they seemed at times to resemble the two older men. The boy who plays Baluška (Vojtěch Machuta) has the most extraordinary face, sometimes impassive but at other times seemingly that of a much older man. The script is quite sparse in terms of dialogue and the whole narrative has the feel of a Pinter play. Our attention is drawn to the boys and we wonder what they are making of the events surrounding them. Omerzu has a background in “drawing comics for a Slovenian magazine” and there is something fantastical about how he visualises the mundane setting as the night draws in. New Year’s Eve is when we might expect a stranger knocking at the door and being invited in to join the party. It isn’t always clear what is actually happening and what is being imagined – and who by. The narrative isn’t quite linear – though I have difficulty remembering what happened and in what order.
I think I drew two main conclusions from watching A Night Too Young. First, this is what the industry often terms a ‘calling card’. In its present form it is unlikely to escape the festival circuit, but its strange attractions are likely to help Olmo Omerzu get funding for his next projects and I think we will see more of him in the future. (In another interview he suggests that this film has achieved distribution in Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic). Secondly, I was reminded of what a rich film culture there is in Central Europe and how we don’t see enough of it in the UK.
What better way to escape the madness of consumer Christmas than watching a Jan Svankmajer film? This is the potential treat for lucky filmgoers in a handful of UK cities over the next few weeks. See this distributor website for a list of cinemas showing the film. I’m usually a fan of Verve Pictures but they don’t seem to have done a great deal to promote their acquisition, despite Svankmajer’s status amongst fans of animation and surrealism.
First shown at Venice in 2010, this is only the second feature-length film from the director since Little Otik in 2000. I can’t claim extensive knowledge of his work but I’ve seen some of his earlier short films and Sílení from 2005 (a live action horror/melodrama drawing on both Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade) and therefore I had some idea of what to expect. The film begins with a prologue delivered to camera by the director himself in which he explains that his team were going to make a ‘real film’ but they had such a small budget that they decided to use only a studio set and photographic cut-outs of the actors which could then be animated. This is quite a witty opening but I was baffled as to why Svankmajer’s presentation was overlayed by an actor reading out an English translation (with the Czech original mixed down but still audible). I hate this practice and fortunately the film itself was subtitled.
The film overall is a mix of live action and stop-frame cut-out animation. The central character is Evzen, a middle-aged man, married for 25 years but without children and working in a boring office job. Evzen dreams – but not enough. He wants to have more dreams and to understand them. Inevitably he is sent to a psychoanalyst who attempts to explore his unconscious. These are some of the funniest scenes in the film with framed photographic portraits of Freud and Jung looking down from the psycho-analyst’s walls an reacting to what is happening. I won’t spoil the narrative by outlining what is in the dreams but if you know any Freudian or Jungian theories about dreams you’ll probably guess the kinds of characters, symbols and stories that emerge.
The pleasures of the film for fans are likely to be in the exploration of the technique and the use of colour in particular (lots of vivid reds). It isn’t such a startling form of animation as that in the earlier stop motion shorts, though there are glimpses of the earlier style, especially in the eating scenes and the glee with which squidgy watermelons explode etc. For British fans there will be reminders of similar techniques used (by Terry Gilliam) in sketches in Monty Python and, more disturbingly, The Goodies (disturbing for the more cerebral perhaps because The Goodies was supposed to be ‘light entertainment’). This familiarity with the technique perhaps made the film less frightening and terrifying for me (compared to the earlier films). I’m happy to sit back and enjoy this kind of surrealism as comedy (Svankmayer calls it a ‘psycho-analytic comedy’) but I like to try to find some form of satitirical edge in the film. My knowledge of Czech culture is limited but this film fitted in with what I know – it felt ‘East European’ whatever that might mean. As well as the obvious discourse about sexuality and alienation for the middle-aged trapped in boring lives there are nostalgic references to food and music as well as metaphors about consumerism and the dangers of capitalist monetary policies – so something we can all relate to!
My Christmas message is to suggest that you choose Svankmayer over David Fincher or Tom Cruise. It’ll be more fun and better for you. Here’s the Czech trailer (no English subs but the techniques speak for themselves):