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.
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.
One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s début film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. Here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might-be flashbacks but also might-be dreams.
Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There are even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.
You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.
Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.
Vera Chytilová died in March and Daisies is probably her most celebrated film; it is brilliant. Two Marias (Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) waltz through the film on an anarchic romp which starts off with them eating apples. The symbolism is obvious, as is the bananas, sausages and hardboiled egg that they snip at with scissors while a would-be lover claims he’s in love (by which he means lust). It’s slightly peculiar to say that the girls (Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave states they are 17) are trampling on bourgeois sensibilities in a so-called communist state, but the privileged middle classes obviously existed there too. In a nightclub, where the clientele are being entertained by the Charlston, the Marias randomly drink others wine and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They allow themselves to be taken to restaurants by older men only to bail out before the men have their ‘wicked way’. They also decimate a banquet, evidently laid out for an audience listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (where the bourgeoisie meet their fate).
The film’s epitaph sums it up: ‘This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is trampled on trifle’. There’s plenty of trifle in the final scene, flying around in true slapstick fashion and the anarchic comedy of Max Sennett is clearly a touchstone for Chytilová as parts of the film are speeded up in the manner that ‘silent movies’ used to be. Czech surrealism, such as Jan Svankmajer (in scenes of pixilation – animation using live actors), is also evident as some of the art movements of the 1960s, such as ‘cut ups’. It’s a terrific brew of full of humour and brio and, most of all, feminism.
The film opens, and ends, with images of bombing. I took them to be a reference to the Vietnam war. The girls’ adventure starts by them deciding that everything’s spoiled in the world. Hence, their assault on bourgeois sensibility is an attack on the way the world was at the time; and it’s still like that. Clearly Chytilová was attacking more than trifles.
I was reminiscing about university with a friend and she remembered that she was part of the ‘300 group’ that aimed to get 300 MPs into Parliament. That was over 30 years ago! This film’s nearly 50 years old and the battles for equality between the sexes still need fighting. Young women could do far worse than learn some attitude from these Marias.
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):