Dir.: Zoltan Fabri (1917-1994); Cast: Zoltan Latinovits, Imre Sinkovits, Marta Fonay, Vera Venczel; Hungary 1969, 95 min.
Zoltan Fabri’s amusing dramatic farce serves as a well-veiled metaphor for Stalinism. Adapting from Istvan Orkeny’s novel ‘Totek’, the Hungarian director was first and foremost a humanist whose films successfully smuggled their subversive subtexts through the censors as here in this lively social satire that couldn’t really offend anyone.
It all takes place during 1942 in a village in Northern Hungary where the peaceful existence of the Toth family comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of their son’s regimental superior, on sick leave. Father Lajos (Sinkovits) the naive head of the fire brigade, his plump wife Mariska (Fonay) and their doting daughter Agika (Venczel) find themselves lodging and entertaining the paranoid war-weary Major Ornagy (Latinovits), catering to his every whim in a bid to promote their son’s army career.
The major really is in a state: the slightest noise makes him jump as he imagines enemy soldiers at every corner and mistakes nighttime shadows for trenches, desperate to avoid them. In an effort to exert control over the locals he puts in place a laborious new system the villages must adhere to involving a series of boxes. Agika develops a crush as chaos reigns and the mentally impaired village postman Gyuri mislays the family’s post, including a letter of vital importance leading to the film’s dramatic finale.
The Toth Family has aged well: its Brechtian narrative serves the farcical content well – the family forced into a futile labour of love while the major is blissfully unaware of the havoc his demanding behaviour is causing. The output of useless boxes is the only direct connection to every-day live under Stalinism, where production of everything but consumer goods was the mantra of the system.
DoP Györgi Illes painterly images and saturated prime colours give the film a traditional, almost fairytale feel. Fabri’s classical approach helped him package his messages discretely – never attracting the same negative attention from the authorities as Miklòs Janscò with his eye-catching modernist style. But the death of Communism also marked the end of Fabri’s output. His final feature Housewarming was made in 1983. AS
Dir.: Robert Sedlacek; Cast: Victor Zavadi, Denisa Baresova, Zuzana Bydzovska, Kristina Kanatova; Czech Republic 2018, 124 min.
Robert Sedlacek (Rule of Lies) transforms Eva Kanturkova’s concise script into a complex psychological study of the Czech hero and political activist Jan Palach who killed himself in January 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of his country in August of the previous year. Palach’s death was a particularly horrific one but director and writer steer away from hagiography, sensationalism or dry political drama to tell the human story exploring the complex personality and motives of the 20-year old student of history and philosophy.
1968 saw students all over the world on the barricades: in Paris, Berlin, Berkeley and Mexico City, where hundreds were shot just before the start of the Olympic Games. In Prague, students were the backbone of the resistance movement against the Soviet tanks, which rolled into Prague ending the Prague Spring of Prime Minister Dubcek, and dragging the country back into soulless, authoritarian Stalinism. The Prague students shared with their counterparts abroad, a love of spontaneous action and a lack of long-term strategy. They also fatally underestimated the powers they opposed. But theirs was not only an uprising against the state, but also against the values of their parent generation. In the case of Jan Palach, the target was his mother Libuse (Bydzovska), who lived in the small town of Vsetaty. She was hardly a staunch supporter of the communist regime, but having seen her husband, an entrepreneur, being punished by the authorities, she towed the line in order to make her son’s life easier. Since Jan’s father was classified as a bourgeois, only his mother’s ‘class-conscious’ behaviour made it possible for him to study at the Charles University of Prague. Whilst Jan was extremely obedient for his age – when he visited with his girl friend Helenka (Baresova), he slept in a separate bed, before Helenka asked him to join her – but deep down he blamed Libuse for her appeasement of the regime; and even the early death of his father, who lost his business and his drive. This did not prevent him from downing a puppy born to his beloved childhood dog Lassie. They could only find homes for the rest of the litter, so he obeyed his mother’s orders.
Palach, like many of his believers, was more interested in the concept of equality than in a personal relationship with others. Whilst he supported a Russian comrade in a ‘Youth Camp’ in Kazakhstan, who rebelled against the sub-standard food, he felt much safer in groups, uncomfortable with one-to-one relationships. When he went to France to work for a few weeks picking grapes, he cut himself off from his co-workers. Jan always kept a slight distance from Helenka, who suffered from polio; he was more her helper than her lover. And when tempted, he fell easily for the advances of her attractive room mate Eva (Kanatova). Palach neither drunk nor smoked, his attitude was always to adopt the passive-aggressiveness of a martyr. Sedlacek plays this out in a scene where Palach has just been beaten up severely by a security officer in civilian clothes, and is examined by a medical student: Jan seems to revel in his injuries. In his farewell letter he suggests that there are many like him, willing to die by self-immolation, a boast which is untrue. It is much more reasonable to assume that Palach was inspired by Thich Quang Due, the first Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon, and the Polish activist Ryszard Siwiee, who did the same as a protest against the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1968. Jan Palach left behind his mother, girl-friends and his studies. He also left a stain on his relatives, friends and fellow students: they felt guilty for not having prevented his suicide, but decided to “wait” for a change, something Jan was not able to countenance. Finally, every suicide is half a murder – in this case a very violent one: proof of the enormous latent anger the young man was concealing behind his unexceptional facade. He was not only the victim of an authoritarian regime, but also of his own, unsolved contradictions. We feel his humanity poignantly, but never is this over-stated in Sedlacek’s treatment.
Victor Zavadi is convincing in the title role, and so is Bydzovska as his mother Libuse. They are likeable characters and decent people. Baresova’s Helenka is very much aware that Jan’s feels pity for her, rather than love or even lust. DoP Jan Suster evokes a bland but classically-styled Prague, the university halls seem uninhabited by the ghost from the past. Vsetaty looks like a bucolic pre-war village, the food supply behind the overriding concern of the day. Overall, this traditionally-styled feature has very much the feel of a Chekhov drama: an intransigent hero, full of great words, but finding no real human contact, until there is only one way out. AS
SCREENED AT THE CZECH EMBASSY | LONDON W11 | January 17th 2019.
Dir.: Milos Forman; Cast: Hana Brejchova, Vladimir Pucholt, Vladimir Mensik, Milada Jezkova, Josef Sebanek; Czechoslovakia 1965, 90 min.
Loves of a Blonde, the second feature film by director/co-writer Milos Forman, who died this April age 86, is a bleak comedy about sex – but mostly about the absence of it. But couched in this seemingly innocuous little gem is a subtle and subversive critique of Stalinism that kept Eastern Europe under the cosh – politically and socially – during the grim 1960s, before the Prague Spring – for a while – put an end to it all.
In a small Czechoslovakian town, dominated by a shoe factory, the Forman attempts to inject a little fun by inviting some soldiers to a ball, dominated by women who outnumbered the male of the sex by a staggering 16:1 ratio. But instead of hunky young men, pot-bellied reservists came to town, and gave those women no satisfaction at all. But there is one exception in the shape of Andula (Brejchova), who falls for Milda (Pucholt) the band’s pianist of the band, who comes from Prague. During their ‘accidental’ encounter Milda almost injures himself, trying to shut the blind and after the tender one-night stand, the musician goes back to Prague, and back to his parents. But that’s not the end of it, when Andula turns up with her suitcase to py him a visit, the whole debacle turns into the most hilarious ménage-à-trois in film history.
Almost three generations of viewers have been cheered as well as moved by this amusing tale which bears all the attributes of modern storytelling – a plot without classical dramatisation, an open ending, and straightforward characterisation. Even very early on in his career, Miloš Forman had already proved he was capable of creating an impression of sheer authenticity.
Visually Blonde is un-remarkable, shot in creamy, grainless, black and white by DoP Miroslav Ondricek who accentuates the shadows and the claustrophobic interiors of this rather touching scenario, where the working class are seen as an amorphous mass, struggling to gain individuality in a system where instead of collective joy, grey misery dominates but with a solidarity that is strangely comforting despite its hopelessness. Forman would repeat his melancholy chronicle of stunning mediocrity in his next feature The Fireman’s Ball. AS
LOVES OF A BLOND | KVIFF OPENING FILM IN TRIBUTE TO MILOS FORMAN | 29 JUNE 2018 | FIREWORK DISPLAY