Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave

Pearls of the Deep: Alumni Association

In the mid-1960s, there was a brief window during which a remarkable cinema of ideas and visual experimentation flourished in Communist Czechoslovakia. This fecund period lasted approximately five years, from 1963 to 1968, when it was cut short by the invasion of the Soviet Union and its fellow Warsaw Pact members, a response to that year’s Prague Spring, made possible by the democratic reforms taking place under the newly elected first secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek. But the films produced during this stretch were so stylistically inquisitive, so sophisticated in their use of metaphor, and so unlike anything being made anywhere else in the world in tone and content that they grabbed the attention of the international film community. (Even films kept from Czechoslovakian theaters by censors were still routinely shipped to festivals abroad.) Here were deliriously inventive dispatches from a fellowship of artists coming of age at a time when restrictions were gradually loosening in a country that had been under Communist rule since 1948. Though these Czech and Slovak filmmakers would eventually come to be regarded as part of a New Wave, there was no centralized movement. There was, however, an unofficial manifesto in 1966’s Pearls of the Deep, an omnibus film that brought together five of the era’s most important Czech directors: Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, and Evald Schorm.

The concept for Pearls of the Deep was simple: each of the filmmakers attached would pay tribute to the revered Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal by adapting a short story from his recently published collection of the same name. Hrabal had become something of a figurehead for this new era of artistic experimentation. His Pearls of the Deep, with its lightly surrealist but grittily observed tales of contemporary Czechoslovakian life in all its mundane absurdity—tales that were subversive for their focus on individuals rather than the collective—was his first official publication; it had come out, in 1963, after years of being delayed for reasons both practical and political, so its release was seen as a symbolic event, and it was a major success. Chytilová, Jireš, Menzel, Němec, and Schorm, friends and fellow students at FAMU, the national film school in Prague, came together—along with cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera—to translate Hrabal’s stories into this extraordinary omnibus film.

FAMU had been established in 1946, one year after the nationalization of the Czechoslovakian film industry and two years before the Communist takeover. Cinema there and in other Communist countries in Eastern and East-Central Europe was considered a major art form, as well as one that, if controlled, could be used to produce effective propaganda for the state. Czechoslovakian cinema of the 1950s largely adhered to the standards of Soviet socialist realism (among them, that art should be easy to understand and that narratives of struggle and sacrifice should lead to uplifting endings). A FAMU education was remarkably well-rounded, however: not only did the school’s seven departments—screenwriting, direction, photography, documentary, sound and music, production, and theory—allow for a nuanced understanding of the form, but the students were shown films from all over the world (including works, by the likes of Malle, Godard, Antonioni, and Bresson, that local audiences were otherwise barred from seeing). Most importantly, in collaborating on and assessing one another’s work, the students naturally developed a camaraderie and sense of shared purpose, which undoubtedly lent momentum to the work of the graduates who would define the attitudes and techniques of the New Wave.

By the time these filmmakers left FAMU, in the early to mid sixties, the reform movement was already under way in Czechoslovakian politics, challenging President Antonín Novotný’s totalitarian government and seeking, as Dubcek would put it, “socialism with a human face.” However, this did not mean that all barriers had dissolved in the arts and media (many films of the Czech New Wave were banned even before the Soviet invasion of 1968), so artists often turned to metaphor, humor, and radical narrative play to speak out about the dangers and hypocrisies of life under a repressive regime. This is the facet of Hrabal’s writing that clearly appealed to the makers of Pearls of the Deep. As most of them had already proved with their first features, made right out of film school—Chytilová’s Something Different (1963), Jireš’s The Cry (1963), Němec’s Diamonds of the Night (1964), and Schorm’s Everyday Courage (1964)—they were driven to question the status quo through a mix of raw realism and fictional flourish, which found deep affinities in the careful observation and absurdity of Hrabal’s work and its focus on society’s marginalized. Hrabal himself was on board with the project—he even has a cameo in each segment.

That harmony between author and filmmakers paid off. Pearls of the Deep was a turning point for the young New Wave, and all of the film’s directors would immediately go on to make major, internationally recognized works (two others, Ivan Passer and Juraj Herz, the only Slovak filmmaker of the group, were involved in Pearls as well, but their parts, “A Boring Afternoon” and “The Junk Shop,” didn’t make the final cut and were released separately). Of the five, Jiří Menzel was the only one making his directorial debut, and his “Mr. Baltazar’s Death,” made when he was still a student, is the film’s opening segment. Utilizing footage of a real-life motorcycle race as the centerpiece of a loosely drawn narrative about a group of aimless, nostalgia-inclined folks who gather from far and wide to watch it, the film is an amusing and purposely disorienting introduction to the world of Pearls of the Deep. It opens jauntily—there’s a boisterousness to the interactions of the middle-aged husband and wife we follow to the event, and the ignored ramblings of the elderly father of one of them, in tow, are amusing—but is soon overwhelmed by morbidity: the family’s interest in the race is clearly tied to a fascination with accidents, and upon reaching the site, they tally past riders’ falls and injuries, and reminisce with odd detachment about the glorious deaths of motorcyclists. That darkness is mitigated by moments of quirky beauty, like an image of the cyclists descending a hill as gracefully as feathers drifting to the ground, set to a gorgeously lilting score by Jiří Šust. Menzel would make many more Hrabal adaptations, including his next film, Closely Watched Trains (1966), and Skylarks on a String (1969).

The past also haunts the present in the second segment, “The Impostors,” a cutting but surprisingly lighthearted entry from Jan Němec, whose taste for surrealism is more apparent in his features. The story is beyond simple: two old men in a hospital talk about their younger days, boasting of their professional accomplishments, which they seem to recall vividly—one was an acclaimed reporter, the other a celebrated singer. Their importance was great, they assert to each other, and their anecdotes are lengthy. Yet, as a final twist reveals, this is more a study of our need to rewrite our personal histories than it is a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

If the invention of our own pasts can be seen as a form of artistic creation, then “The Impostors” segues nicely into Evald Schorm’s “The House of Joy,” a strange, amusing tale about an outsider artist, played by Václav Žák (the painter who inspired Hrabal’s source story), and two life-and-funeral-insurance salesmen who pay him a call. Schorm’s style here is more adventuresome and colorful than in his features, considered some of the New Wave’s most dramatic and sober entries; his openness to experimentation—Žák’s slow-motion knife dance amid a herd of goats, the startling punctuations of organ music—perfectly matches that of his outlandish main character, who has painted all the interior and exterior walls of his house with elaborate, cartoonish frescoes, and who decorates the side of a highway with smiling, crucified Jesuses painted on sheet metal, which cause traffic pileups. The juxtaposition of the straitlaced insurance men and the guileless eccentric Žák is pure absurdity; this is a culture-clash sketch about the primitive coexisting uncomfortably with the civilized.

Věra Chytilová also cast an artist, Hrabal’s friend the “explosionist” Vladimir Boudnik, in her entry, “The Restaurant the World,” perhaps the most surreal and oblique of the bunch. It’s also the most visually remarkable, opening with a poetic image of a wedding party as seen through a rain-soaked café window and climaxing with the most haunting passage in all of Pearls of the Deep, a bride running in slow motion with a man through a thunder and lightning storm, her gown and veil flowing about her like water. In between, there’s an enigma involving that wedding celebration, the discovery of a woman’s strangled corpse in the back room of the café, and an artist (Boudnik) with an interest in making death masks. There’s no cause-and-effect narrative to speak of in this nightmarish entry (people come and go as if in a dream, their relationships to one another barely sketched), just the sort of associative cutting and spontaneous image-making Chytilová would become known for.

Jaromil Jireš’s “Romance” closes Pearls of the Deep on a delicate note, although it’s also perhaps the most overtly political of the shorts. Jireš turns his lens on a flirtation between a handsome young Czechoslovakian plumber and the beautiful Gypsy teenager who catches his eye at a movie theater. It’s both a realistic character study of two people from divergent worlds and a comment on stereotypes about carefree, wandering Gypsy girls (a poster for Christian-Jaque’s Fanfan la Tulipe, which stars Gina Lollobrigida in just such a role, is prominently displayed). Based on Hrabal’s personal memories of an affair, “Romance” is about difference as much as it is connection, highlighting Czechoslovakia’s deep-rooted social inequalities, and it ends the film on an amusing metaphorical cut that alludes to a potentially unbridgeable divide.

Mysterious yet inviting, alternately impenetrable and folksy, the films of Pearls of the Deep constitute a record of a one-of-a-kind creative flowering that remains among film history’s most remarkable chapters, a standout even amid all the post-Stalin renaissances in East-Central European countries. Like Hrabal, whose artistic cachet would continue to grow—especially when he was forced to circulate his writing underground in the 1970s, after it was banned by the postinvasion government—the filmmakers who brought his work to the screen in Pearls of the Deep were destined for legend status. The films they would produce in the coming years would make iconic use of the unique mix of repression and unbridled experimentation that defined this New Wave. As Jiří Menzel reminisced in a 2004 interview: “On the one side, there was an ideological ease and plenty of topics for films, but on the other side, there wasn’t total freedom, so there was a stimulus for creativity to break the ideological barrier.”

Daisies: Flower Girls

Before taking part in Pearls of the Deep, Věra Chytilová had made her mark with her first feature, Something Different (1963). Its two parallel stories, one shot in a documentary style, the other as a straightforward fiction narrative, look at the very different lives of two women: a world champion gymnast and a housewife. The film clearly announced a rare talent, yet it is Chytilová’s 1966 Daisies, made directly after Pearls of the Deep, that is her most frequently discussed work to this day, a madcap, Dadaist explosion of a movie that represents the Czech New Wave at its most formally radical and kookily captivating.

The unconventional Daisies was the product of an unconventional filmmaker. A former philosophy and architecture student, Chytilová enrolled at FAMU in 1957, the only female in her class. There she discovered a love for improvisation, nonprofessional actors, and cinema verité—anything that rejected the idea of film as an exact science. Daisies incorporates all this and more in a wildly experimental narrative that is considered the movement’s singular feminist statement. Although Chytilová has denied that it was her intention to make a feminist film per se, it’s easy to see why decades of scholarship has made this assertion. The two teenage protagonists, Marie I and Marie II (Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, neither of whom had any acting experience), refuse to play by the rules of the patriarchal culture around them, spending the film’s seventy-odd (very odd) minutes tearing up the world: exploiting weak-willed older men, consuming enormous amounts of food and drink, wreaking inebriated havoc, and finally descending into pure annihilation. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, they gleefully cut up a succession of phallic objects (bananas, sausages, bread rolls) with scissors. Chytilová ensures that something unexpected occurs in virtually every shot and edit, juxtaposing images with dissonant sounds, abruptly changing color filters within scenes, and fragmenting many sequences through unmotivated montage.

On the surface, Daisies’ assemblage of outlandish scenarios enacted by two ferociously antiestablishment figures would seem to mark it as simple anarchic slapstick, like a New Wave Marx Brothers comedy. But Chytilová has called her film “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce.” The Maries are not merely railing against a society that views them as little more than objects (in the opening scene, Marie II calls herself a panna, which translates as both “doll” and “virgin” in Czech, and the girls play with, and at one point remove, their limbs as though they were the plastic appendages of mannequins); they are also existentially angry. Early on, they decide the world is meaningless, “spoiled,” which they use as justification to spoil themselves. By refusing to cultivate a psychological connection between audience and character, and by confounding any sense of narrative momentum, Chytilová and her screenwriting partner Ester Krumbachová create protagonists who seem to have no future or past. Blank slates, they have been interpreted over the years variously as embodiments of healthy rebellion and the banality of evil. Either way, they are good representations of Chytilová’s belief that “people are primitives and aesthetes at the same time.”

Though Daisies remains playful to its climactic orgy (a mega food fight), it is ultimately a dark, subversive work, aggressively critiquing those who might find it offensive before they even have a chance to complain: its closing dedication is to people who “get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce,” over the sounds of firing artillery.

Unsurprisingly, Daisies was banned (partly on the grounds of food wastage)—the case for many of the era’s most daring works. Chytilová made one more movie in the sixties, The Fruit of Paradise, which was briefly released in 1969, before being pulled from theaters. At this time, the post–Prague Spring authorities were already cracking down on films with even a whiff of subversion. Like many of her fellow directors, Chytilová was blacklisted, and she wasn’t allowed to make another movie until 1976’s The Apple Game. Though she is best remembered for the shock of Daisies, Chytilová has had a long career—as a teacher and as a maker of continually challenging films. In the past decade, her most successful films have included a documentary about the life of her late Daisies collaborator Krumbachová, titled Searching for Ester (2005), and a farcical tale of a psychologist’s daily travails, Pleasant Moments (2006).

A Report on the Party and Guests: Too Close for Comfort

The 1967 National Assembly meeting that banned Věra Chytilová’s Daisies also took aim at another film: Jan Němec’s A Report on the Party and Guests. In its official statement, the body declared both films “to have nothing in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism.” Němec was no stranger to controversy; his dogmatic and outspoken refusal to adhere to realist conventions had gotten him in trouble even during his days as a FAMU student, and his first feature, Diamonds of the Night (1964), was attacked by a number of critics for the same offense. The reception of Report, which aggrieved President Antonín Novotný himself, cemented Němec’s reputation as the Czech New Wave filmmaker who posed the greatest danger to the establishment.

This enfant terrible believed that a director must create “a world independent of reality as it appears at the time.” But he used such worlds to express some very harsh truths about the real one, as in Diamonds of the Night, a fragmented tale of two Jewish boys on the run from the Nazis, and his Pearls of the Deep short, with its pair of possibly senile men reinventing their own pasts. Existing completely in the realm of allegory, A Report on the Party and Guests is nevertheless one of the most transparently political of all Czech New Wave films. At once whimsical and frightening, it confronts its audience with unsettling social realities. And though its message—simplified, that people are all too willing to be manipulated and controlled—resonated with viewers everywhere (Vincent Canby called it “pure and universal” in the New York Times), in Czechoslovakia it was downright incendiary.

As the film begins, seven middle-aged chums contentedly picnic in a field surrounded by forest, tipsily making reference to things we aren’t privy to. The dialogue, as fashioned by Němec and Daisies’ Ester Krumbachová, is purposely nonsensical, even as the scene adheres to a basic realism (though it may seem improvised, Němec has insisted that this was his only film to follow the script to the letter). Their idyll is interrupted when, moseying down a forest path, they are surrounded and have their personal space awkwardly invaded by a group of men in suits, who’ve descended from the hills. Soon, the interlopers’ buffoonish, self-appointed leader (composer Jan Klusák) sets up a flimsy desk and begins ordering these “guests,” as they are mysteriously addressed, into arbitrary groupings, giving them vaguely threatening instructions like “Keep a little distance from each other. It’s in your best interests.” Even more disturbing than the irrational behavior of the bullies is the bemused compliance of the picnickers, who make only halfhearted stabs at questioning this new authority. The intimidation and mortification go on unabated until an avuncular man of seeming power and prestige appears and gains the trust of the “guests” by apologizing for their treatment at the hands of Klusák’s grotesque character. He invites them all to his “grand birthday banquet” just over the hill, a gathering marked by an increasingly disturbing false bonhomie. When one of the men (played by director Evald Schorm, typecast, according to Němec, as “the only honest person”) decides to run away, it becomes clear that he will be brought back by force.

Němec once said in an interview, “When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.” This philosophy was clearly not appreciated by the authorities: A Report on the Party and Guests’ powerful critique of totalitarianism was deemed unsuitable for Czechoslovakian audiences (despite Němec’s assertion that the film was a fable rather than a concrete political parable), and it wasn’t shown until 1968, before being banned again once the Prague Spring had been stifled. At that point, it was considered especially dangerous, as government crackdowns made its warnings seem prophetic.

After A Report on the Party and Guests, Němec would make something even more controversial. He was in the process of shooting a documentary on the Prague Spring when the 1968 Soviet invasion occurred; now the images he captured in the streets included tanks rolling through the crowds. Němec smuggled the footage to Austria and edited it into the 1968 short documentary Oratorio for Prague, which was broadcast on television around the world. His actions got him exiled from his home country, and he spent many years abroad, including twelve in the United States. He wasn’t able to make another film in Czechoslovakia until 1990, following the peaceful overthrow of the Communist government known as the Velvet Revolution. Today, though Němec still occasionally makes movies (2009’s The Ferrari Dino Girl dramatizes his filming of the 1968 invasion), he spends most of his time teaching documentary filmmaking at FAMU.

Return of the Prodigal Son: Alone in a Crowd

Though he was very much a member of the community of filmmakers who graduated from FAMU and went on to shake things up during the sixties, Evald Schorm also stood apart from the rest. Like his fellow directors, he was using the medium to get at the absurdity of life in Communist Czechoslovakia, but Schorm was dedicated to a more direct, realistic type of filmmaking than his friends Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec, and Jiří Menzel, who readily turned to whimsy, fantasy, and comedy. Referred to as both the philosopher and the conscience of the New Wave, Schorm, whose relatively sober style has been called documentary-like (his focus at FAMU was nonfiction filmmaking) and received comparisons to that of Antonioni, explored themes of morality and the malaise of the socialist middle class (such income-based social strata did exist in Czechoslovakia), and preferred psychological portraiture.

Such individualist, existential works were anathema to the Communist Party, and Schorm’s first feature following his graduation in 1962, Everyday Courage (1964), about the crumbling life of an overzealously political young factory worker, was blacklisted by President Antonín Novotný. His next feature, after completing his more visually exploratory Pearls of the Deep short, “The House of Joy,” was Return of the Prodigal Son (1967), an exhilarating, angry film about an engineer, Jan (Jan Kacer), trying to find his way back into the world of the living after attempting suicide. Taking place both inside the mental hospital where he’s recuperating and outside in “normal” society, to which he routinely escapes, the film is a devastating articulation of depression brought on by vague, free-floating social anxieties and disappointments. In trying to readjust—to work, to friends, and most importantly to life with his similarly neurotic wife, Jana (Jana Brejchová), and very young daughter—Jan finds that to live happily in this world one has to negotiate daily with one’s morality; late in the film, when he visits his office during an extended leave from the hospital, his boss even lectures him on the importance of compromise.

There’s a humane core to Return of the Prodigal Son that saves it from despair. Rather than making everyone other than Jan a fool, Schorm extends enormous sympathy to a fascinating cast of supporting characters, all of them outcasts in their own way, including Jana, who combats her loneliness in Jan’s absence by taking a lover, Jiří (played by director Jiří Menzel); Olga (Dana Medrická), the sexually frustrated wife of the head doctor, who takes a liking to Jan; and Jan’s hospital roommate, Zdenek (Jiří Kilián), an effeminate ballet dancer with whom Jan feels an artistic and spiritual kinship.

Schorm never compromised his beliefs after the 1968 Soviet invasion; he refused to make films that acceded to the aesthetic and ideological demands of the cultural police who reinstituted the socialist realism of the Stalinist era (one script he rejected, for example, was a simplistic glorification of the life of a Communist activist). Because of this, he was not allowed to work in Czechoslovakian cinema for nearly twenty years, focusing instead on theater. In 1988, he died shortly before the premiere of his comeback film, Killing with Kindness, a story about a mother-daughter relationship that features Return of the Prodigal Son’s Kacer and Brejchová in prominent roles.

Capricious Summer: Sunny Interlude

Jiří Menzel was and remains one of the most internationally prominent of all Czech directors, often named alongside Miloš Forman. This is largely attributable to the breakout success of Closely Watched Trains (1966), his first feature, made after his debut, “Mr. Baltazar’s Death,” the hectic opening segment of Pearls of the Deep. Perhaps due to its accessible mix of violence, sex, and comedy, Closely Watched Trains, a wry fable about an awkward young railway station trainee’s sexual coming-of-age during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, was a major art-house success in the United States and won the 1967 Academy Award for best foreign-language film. The twenty-nine-year-old director became such a name in cinephile circles that his follow-up—Capricious Summer (1968), an equally whimsical film about three randy middle-aged men’s obsession with a beautiful young stranger—was selected to open the 1968 New York Film Festival.

Like “Mr. Baltazar’s Death” and Closely Watched Trains (both based on fiction by Bohumil Hrabal), Capricious Summer was adapted from a literary source, in this case a 1927 novel by Vladislav Vancura, an influential Czech writer who in the twenties had been part of the Marxist avant-garde group Devetsil, which advocated for a political revolution in art; Vancura was executed by the Nazis in 1942 for being part of the Communist resistance. (One of his most famous novels is Marketa Lazarová, which was made into a notable New Wave film by František Vlácil in 1967.) Despite this sober lineage, Capricious Summer is a cheerful film; in Czechoslovakia, it was one of the least controversial and highest-grossing works of the New Wave. As it opens, three friends in their fifties—Antonín (Rudolf Hrušínský), the proprietor of a bathhouse; Roch (František Rehák), a canon; and Major Hugo (Vlastimil Brodský)—are frolicking away the day swimming in a placid pond, smoking cigars, and drinking wine. Representing business, religion, and the military, the men are philosophical sparring partners as much as bosom buddies, engaging in debates about spirituality, commerce, and war. If the film’s casual, sun-dappled charm recalls Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), it’s probably no coincidence: Menzel has called that movie, which he saw at an impressionable age, his “first great film experience.”

A sudden rainstorm rousts the men from their diversions, a harbinger of change presaging the arrival in their village of the acrobat and magician Ernie (played by the amazingly dexterous Menzel himself, who shows off his tightrope-walking and handstanding skills). Ernie piques the erotic interest of Antonín’s wife, Katerina (Míla Myslíková), and the performer’s assistant, Anna (Jana Drchalová), piques that of all three men, who fumblingly attempt to seduce her (Antonín with a foot massage, Roch with poetry, Hugo with food). All these yearnings may as well be mere daydreams, however, as once the summer is over, Ernie and Anna get back in their caravan and leave the frustrated romantics to their own devices again.

The men’s fleeting moments of bliss seem doubly poignant in retrospect, given that Capricious Summer was released during the Prague Spring. After the hopes of democratic reform were dashed by the Soviet invasion, Menzel’s career in Czechoslovakian cinema took a downward turn. His next film, a third Hrabal adaptation, 1969’s Skylarks on a String (which he chose to make instead of accepting an offer from Universal Studios for a two-year stint in Hollywood), was banned, and he found it increasingly hard to get work. In the 1970s, Menzel was able to continue making films in his home country by agreeing to denounce the New Wave in print, claiming that its filmmakers—including himself—had been misguided in their refusal to play by the rules. Menzel to this day defends the choices he made; he said in a 2004 interview, “I have more respect for those who swallowed it and worked than for those who didn’t overcome their pride, didn’t join the Communist Party, and didn’t make the good films they could.” Of all the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave, he remains one of the most visible; he received an Oscar nomination in 1986 for My Sweet Little Village and had an international hit in 2006 with I Served the King of England, yet another Hrabal adaptation.

The Joke: Department of Reeducation

Jaromil Jireš is always included on lists of the most important Czechoslovakian filmmakers, but his cinematic output during the 1960s was severely restricted due to constant struggles with the censors. Nevertheless, he managed to make a deep impression with a pair of features: The Cry (1963), an impressionistic portrait of a young couple, considered, along with Miloš Forman’s Black Peter and Věra Chytilová’s Something Different (both 1964), a foundational title of the New Wave, and The Joke (1969), a controversial, defiantly antiregime film that came at the end of the movement.

Between The Cry and The Joke, Jireš failed to get any of his projects approved for production, with the exception of his Pearls of the Deep contribution, “Romance.” The Joke, a rigorous, searing adaptation of the first novel by the now legendary Czech writer Milan Kundera, would prove to be among the most agitative films of the era. Jireš and Kundera (then a leader in the country’s growing reform movement) had begun developing the script for the film even before the novel was published in 1967, and finally went into production amid the unprecedented freedoms afforded by the Prague Spring of 1968. Unfortunately, the film was completed after the arrival of the Soviets in August of that year and became one of the New Wave’s most renowned casualties: following a very successful run, authorities pulled it from screens, and it wasn’t seen again in theaters for twenty years.

The Joke doesn’t use the kind of experimental, dreamlike imagery that marks The Cry and Jireš’s later coming-of-age horror-fantasy film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). Its complexities are purely of the narrative sort: using a web of flashbacks to the late forties and early to mid fifties, it seeks to uncover the harsh realities of the Stalinist era through one man’s brutal experiences and subsequent pursuit of revenge. The main thread of the tale—a man is expelled from the Communist Party for a misunderstood written remark—was based on an incident from Kundera’s own life; his case involved an intercepted letter agreeing with a friend’s criticism of a Communist official. For The Joke’s protagonist, Ludvik (Josef Somr), it’s a postcard to his girlfriend, Markéta (Jaroslava Obermaierová), on which he has scrawled, “Optimism is the opium of mankind. A ‘healthy spirit’ stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky.”—intended as an amusing response on learning that she is studying the anti-Stalinist’s political philosophies in school. The result is not only excommunication; he is also sentenced to six years of “reeducation,” which consists of time in the army (a special battalion for enemies of the republic), prison, and the mines.

In The Joke’s third act, the barbarity of an authoritarian regime gives way to the cruelty of personal vendetta. It is more than a decade later, and Josef aims to take out his pent-up anger on Pavel (Ludek Munzar), a former friend who served on the committee that sentenced him. His childish and ultimately unsuccessful goal is to destroy Pavel’s relationship with his wife, Helena (Jana Dítetová); only after Ludvik successfully seduces her and she falls desperately in love with him does he discover that she has been estranged from Pavel for years. Ludvik’s desire to scapegoat someone—and the cold and calculating way in which he makes Helena a pawn in his elaborate game—leads to the loss of his own soul.

The Joke has been praised as the definitive take on the Stalinist era in Czechoslovakia; Amos Vogel even called it “possibly the most shattering indictment of totalitarianism to come out of a Communist country.” After its disappearance from theaters, Jireš, wanting to keep working in Czechoslovakia, decided to stop fighting the authorities. In the 1970s, he focused on material that wouldn’t rock the boat, such as a tale of a World War II Czech resistance fighter, And Give My Love to the Swallows (1971). Jireš would continue directing fiction films, as well as television arts documentaries on ballet and opera, throughout the eighties and nineties. He died in 2001 at age sixty-five.

Thanks to Irena Kovarova for her invaluable assistance.

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