Category Archives: Czech

Protektor (2009)

Protektor, a 2009 film from Czech director Marek Najbrt examines the corrupting effect of the Nazi occupation through the relationship of a radio broadcaster, Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) and his Jewish actress wife, Hana (Jana Plodková). When the film begins, it’s 1938, pre-Nazi occupation, and a few scenes establish the core relationship between Emil, a minor radio functionary and his glamorous actress wife. Pencil thin, and wearing a platinum blonde wig (think Jean Harlow), Hana stars and sings in Czech cinema as the leading romantic lady. Emil, in contrast, is a bit of a plodder who can’t help but feel jealous and threatened by his wife’s on-screen dalliances with the suave leading man, Fantl (Jirí Ornest). Perhaps Emil’s feelings of inadequacy are justified as Fantl, predicting the Nazi’s punishing presence, urges Hana to accept a fake Swiss passport and get out while she still can.

Fast forward to the Nazi occupation, and suddenly films which feature Jews cannot be screened, so this leaves Hana instantly unemployed. In a reversal of fortune, Emil’s star rises at the radio station when announcer Franta (Martin Mysicka) refuses to “cooperate” with their new Nazi bosses. The Nazis understood the importance of controlling the media, and so all radio announcements are first sent to Czech censors, and their versions are then sent to Nazi censors. During a radio station meeting, Franta wryly notes that the ‘censors are censoring the censors,’ and privately he tells Emil that “cooperation leads to collaboration.” Franta goes along with the programme for a while, but a “provocation” live on-air, leads to arrest and prison, and Emil rises in Franta’s stead becoming the “Voice of Prague.”

At first Emil’s reasoning, which after all may be genuine or a good excuse, is that his cooperation provides political security for his wife, but as time passes he becomes deeper and deeper involved in Nazi propaganda and is morally corrupted by the privileged partying crowd at the radio station. Meanwhile at home, Hana, depressed and driven crazy by her home imprisonment, sneaks out and establishes a strange relationship with a man, Petr (Thomás Mechácek) who works at the morgue and who runs ‘private screenings’ of Hana’s films at the local cinema. Petr has his own axe to grind against the Nazis as he was in his last year of medical school when it was closed down by the Nazi occupiers.

While Emil broadcasts propaganda by day and parties by night, Hana establishes a secret life with Petr as they create photographic acts of defiance against the Nazis. This strange activity essentially inserts Hana into a life from which she is forbidden. Ultimately both Emil and Hana’s activities are evidence of their parallel lives of self-destruction and denial of reality. While Hana’s self-destructive streak is literal and apparent early in the film, Emil’s self-destruction is not literal but moral in tone. Emil wants to cooperate with the Nazis in the spirit of ‘greater good’ and supposedly to protect his wife, and meanwhile Hana’s acts are both risky and frivolously sad. The film also cleverly parallels Emil’s role and abuse of his role as Hana’s ‘protecter’ with Reinhard Heydrich’s (the Butcher of Prague) role as the so-called Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Morovia.

The recurring motif of bicycling occurs throughout the film–a rather appropriate one given the significance of the bicycle and the assassination of Heydrich–an event which brought down massive civilian reprisals and removed any remaining veil of self-delusion of the Nazi master plan.  One of Hana’s scenes shows her riding a stationary bicycle in the studio while she’s pursued by her screen lover, Fantl. The implicit idea is riding and exerting all of one’s energy and getting nowhere while  the secondary idea of this recurring motif is that one cannot escape one’s fate. Hana and Emil’s increasingly tortured relationship is in the foreground, but in the background, we see quicksilver glimpses of torture, Aryan thugs and massive round-ups. Protektor effectively manages to blend an uneasy mix of dark fatalism with a sense of escalating madness, avoidance and self-delusion which ends in a stunning, unforgettable sequence.

This Czech film is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema series

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Divided We Fall (2000)

Divided We Fall (Musime si Pomahat) is the third film I’ve recently watched from director Jan Hrebejk, so I suppose you could say that I’ve been on a Czech film bender. After watching and throughly enjoying Beauty in Trouble and  Up and Down also from Hrebejk, I came across Divided We Fall. This director has a sizeable number of films to his credit, but sadly (and predictably) not many are available with English subtitles.  Divided We Fall begins in Czechoslovakia just before the war, and with just a few scenes the film establishes how life quickly shifts over the course of a few years in this small village.

The story focuses on childless married couple Josef (Bolek Polivka) and his delicate-looking wife Maria (Anna Siskova), and when the wealthiest family in the area, the Jewish Wieners are ‘relocated’ from their villa, they stay, temporarily with Josef and Marie in their tiny apartment. But this state of affairs isn’t for long, soon the Weiners are shipped out–supposedly to join other ‘relocated’ relatives in labour camps. The Weiners’ son, David (Csongor Kassai)mentions in parting that a postcard from a previously deported relative states that the labour camps are decent places that  have their own schools. David is puzzled by the postcard, however, since it referenced Uncle Otto–a man who’s been dead for years.

The viewer, of course, knows exactly what these ‘labour camps’ really are, and while Josef and Maria blithely wave off their houseguests, we know this is the last glimpse of the Wiener family. But life continues in the village.  More Jews are shipped out, and their possessions are confiscated–sometimes to mysteriously reappear in others’ homes.

With the shift of wealth and power in the village, some people prosper. Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) for example, even sports a Hitler-like moustache, and he manages to look and act like the perfect little fascist. Horst is a former workmate of Josef, and both men were at one time employed by the Wieners. Horst seems more than comfortable with the deportation of the Jews, and as a collaborator, he works for the Nazis and helps organise the deportations.

One night, an extremely emaciated and terrified David Wiener (Csongor Kassai) shows up in the village and seeks temporary shelter from Josef and Maria. Circumstances intervene, and it becomes too dangerous for David to leave, and so he remains locked inside a tiny room. It’s a nerve-wracking situation; there’s no one they can trust for help, and as the war continues, a sense of paranoia reigns in the town. As Horst points out, everyone is under suspicion and in one hilarious scene, he even gives Josef lessons in how to look like the perfect little fascist bureaucrat.

But, and this is where Divide We Fall is at its strongest, director Hrebejk in conjunction with screenwriter Jarchovsky (the same team created the wonderful films Beauty in Trouble and Up and Down) shows the complexities of human relationships in this character-driven drama. Even though the film is set in the direst of times, the story transcends the brutality of the Nazis and instead chooses to focus on the idea that human beings are also capable of decent behaviour. At the same time, the film doesn’t paint all of its characters in black and white. One neighbour for example, tuts in disgust over Horst’s collaboration with the Nazis, and yet this same neighbour is the first to sound the alarm at the appearance of a Jew. German-born Horst is initially shown extremely unsympathetically, but as the story continues his human side is revealed through his various interactions with others. Rather interestingly, even though Horst’s wife remains invisible, she represents a large, daunting force in Horst’s life. The Nazis remain in the background, for the most part, so instead we see the Czechs coping, surviving, collaborating and sometimes ratting on each other, and these scenes bring up the issues of judging others’ behaviour rather than examining our own.

The film includes a couple of jarring scenes, and the presentation isn’t always successful when gentle humour amplifies into comedy. But these minimal faults aside, this is yet another delightful film from Hrebejk, and the film’s final scene is perfect.

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Up and Down (2004)

“A person takes risks like this to visit Thailand and eat deep fried bat.”

After recently watching and really enjoying Beauty in Trouble a Czech film from director Jan Hrebejk, I decided to track down more films from this director. This led me to Up and Down (Horem Padem), a wonderful film that explores modern Czech life through a handful of diverse characters.

The film begins with a truck full of illegal aliens being taken across the Czech border by a couple of moronic traffickers. Obviously bored to tears with what appears to be a fairly regular back-and-forth trip, the traffickers amuse themselves by discussing foods from various countries. After a close call at a border crossing, the truck passes into Czechoslovakia where the aliens are unceremoniously dumped in a forest. In their haste to dump the aliens, however, the traffickers leave a baby in the back of the truck, and discover their tiny contraband miles later. While one man wants to abandon the baby in the snow, the other one, cradles the baby to his torso. But lest we think this means the man has a shred of humanity, he doesn’t. He takes the baby to a pawn shop and there the owners conceive of selling the baby on the black market.

Enter childless couple Miluska (Natasa Burger) and her burly, ex-con, security guard husband, Frantisek Fikes (Jiri Machacek). Miluska (Mila)  tries stealing a baby but that doesn’t work, and so she buys one instead. It seems like a reasonable solution to her.

The theft of the baby is tentatively connected to another Czech family–although the connection isn’t apparent at first. Martin (Petr Forman) who now lives in Australia, returns to Czechoslovakia after decades of absence when he gets the news that his estranged father, professor Oto Horecky (Jan Trsika) has a brain tumor. This brings Martin’s hostile, alcoholic mother Vera (Emilia Vasaryova) into direct communication and conflict with her husband. He now lives with a much younger woman, immigrant advocate Hana (Ingrid Timkova)  and they have a teenage daughter, Lenka (Kristyna Bokova) together. This union is particularly bitter to Vera (“an old Russian translator with a substantial Czech beer habit“) as she lives in a tiny cramped apartment in an impoverished area while her estranged husband managed to reacquire the gracious home they once owned together.

As these characters move Up and Down within Czech society, the  film follows their lives with tale with irony and biting wit. There’s professor Oto who teaches about the Czech diaspora, and he is directly responsible for the breakup and emigration of his son to Australia. To Vera, her husband Oto is a like a phoenix “always rising from the scorched earth around him with fluffy new feathers.” And the fluffy new feathers in this case is a direct insult to Oto’s younger, attractive common-law wife.  This is just one of the places that the idea of Up and Down comes in. Vera’s fortunes have plummeted while Oto has done well; his family has borne the consequences of his actions while he’s emerged unscathed.

Martin, who’s been away from his family and Czechoslovakia for a long, long time arrives only to rush slap bang into racism, crime and the suffocation of a family in which the parents still squabble and demand he takes sides. The scenes in Australia present such a contrast–the New World vs the Old. Open spaces and mixed society vs. cramped flats and racism. No wonder it’s taken Martin such a long time to come back for a visit.

But by far the best sections of this lively film contain soccer fan Frantisek. he suffers from a cleft palate, is none too bright, and he’s led into trouble by the violent, racist “Colonel” (Jaroslav Dusek)–another soccer fanatic who demands loyalty, obedience, and the proper homage and obsequiousness to soccer and its rituals. Soccer is the single most important thing in Frantisek’s life until the baby arrives, and then he’s prepared to buck the Colonel, cast soccer aside and keep his new ‘son’. How these characters connect as they move up, down and around through Czech society is the substance of this gently humourous film, yet poignant film. As I watched the film’s final scenes, I decided I’d really watched something quite extraordinary, and for that reason, I’m adding Up and Down to my film collection.

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Beauty in Trouble (2006)

“Comrade teacher, how many kids did you brainwash with your communist crap before allowing those salvation charlatans to throughly soak you?”

Sometimes I come across a film that is a complete surprise, and the 2006 Czech film, Beauty in Trouble (Kraska v Nesnazich) falls into that category. When the film arrived from Netflix, I couldn’t recall exactly why I’d added it to my queue. Anyway, with a rating of three stars, I didn’t expect much, so I was really surprised to find myself enjoying this story of two dysfunctional families and the intervention of a wealthy good Samaritan who has more on his mind than just being charitable.

The story is set mainly in Prague after the devastating 2002 flood, but there  are also a few contrasting scenes in sunny Tuscany. The film’s ‘beauty’ is Marcela (Anna Geislererova)–a woman somewhere in her thirties who dresses like a 13-year-old about to go to the disco for the first time. Marcela is married to Jarda (Roman Luknar), and they have two children–a girl on the brink of adolescence and a young boy who suffers from asthma. Since the family didn’t have flood insurance, they are struggling to make ends meet while still living in a house damaged by the flood. Jarda has taken to a life of crime, and he and his mates have established an ad-hoc chop shop in the garage. Stolen cars arrive, then Jarda creatively re-arranges them, and the family live on the proceedings. Meanwhile Jarda locks up his religious nutcase mother Libuse (Emilia Vasaryova) as he works so that he doesn’t have to listen to her sermons. Marcela isn’t thrilled about Jarda’s life of crime either, and she’s sure that he’ll eventually be caught, but Marcela’s complaints are silenced by noisy sex–the one thing that Marcela and Jarda seem to have going for their relationship.

One day, Marcela packs up the children and moves in with her mother Zdena (Jana Brejchova) and her mother’s peculiar boyfriend, the cadaverous ‘Uncle’ Richard (Jiri Schmitzer), so soon there are five people squashed in a flat meant for two. A sense of the absurd descends on the film at this point–there’s Marcela holed up with her children while her mother-in-law sleeps in the car outside, doggedly determined to persuade Marcela to return home. But the flat is hardly a refuge, and Richard vacillates between pointedly groping Zdena in front of everyone and lording it over the visitors when Zdena is absent.

But Marcela’s problems snowball when Jarda’s life of crime comes crashing to a halt after he’s caught for the theft of an expensive car. The stolen, computerized Volvo belongs to Evzen (Josef Abrham), a wealthy middle-aged man who lives in Italy but is in Prague to sell a house he’s just inherited. As fate would have it, Evzen is waiting at the police station when Marcela arrives. In this clever scene, both Evzen and Marcela seem to be invisible to each other for just a few moments, and then Marcela begins some rather obvious stretching exercises, shoving up her boobs even further out of her push up bra, and bending over to reveal one of her sexy tattoos. These simple actions grab Evzen’s attention (as they were intended to), and before long, he’s wining and dining Marcela, offering her money and allowing her to live in the house he’s just inherited.

Evzen seems to be a very nice man. He’s kind and generous, and that generosity extends to Marcela and her children. Evzen is everything that Jarda isn’t–he’s refined, gentlemanly and more importantly, he’s loaded. It looks as though Marcela may have hit the big time, and while Marcela’s slightly deranged mother isn’t thrilled by the relationship, her mother’s boyfriend, can’t believe Marcela’s luck. In one great scene, Evzen takes Marcela and her family to a posh restaurant, and the meeting throws the characters and their main concerns into the spotlight. While Evzen’s age appalls Marcela’s mother, Richard is practically rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of cashing in on Marcela’s good fortune, and he chalks up the disparity in Marcela and Evzen’s age to something he’s read about:  ‘they call it fuck buddies.’

Beauty in Trouble is a character-driven drama, and so most of the film’s strength comes from the collision of these strongly-drawn, disparate characters, their contrasted values, and their poisonous relationships. In spite of his urbanity, Evzen, at first, seems a little naive, insulated by his wealth and privilege from the desperate lives that the Marcela and her family lead. He’s lived in Italy since 1967 and even carts around a copy of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being which he is reading in Italian. Not only does this subtle prop indicate Evzen’s divorcement from Czech society, but there’s also a hint that he’s reading the book to ‘bone up’ on Czech culture for his trip.

Richard is around the same age as Evzen, but they are complete, and startling opposites. Whereas Evzen generously basks in the safety and glow of impeccable grooming, wealth, and good food, Richard ‘s unattractive bitterness seems to coalesce around hanging on to the very little he has–hence one of the bitterest scenes occurs over a package of diabetic biscuits, and the message is that these precious biscuits cannot be easily replaced when they are gobbled down by Marcela’s children. When Richard first appears, he  makes a few remarks that are more than a little inappropriate to Marcela’s daughter, but at this point it’s not certain if he’s just eccentric. As the story plays out, however, Richard’s behaviour is a major impetus for Marcela’s life and the choices she makes. He dominates the screen, and in one great scene after another, he spews forth bitter diatribes. Lording it over everyone who makes the mistake of visiting his tiny apartment, those caught in his crosshairs get his lectures and his views on life whether they want to listen or not.  To Richard, Czechoslovakia is over–ruined by communism and now the new belief system–religion, and anyone with any brains will get out while they can.

But apart from the tale of Marcela’s choices (which are influenced by her bitter circumstances), the plot also carries a sly undercurrent–a morality tale if you will concerning the nature of charity. Evzen’s motives towards Marcela are never ‘pure’, but the money he passes to her boomerangs back via Libuse and her corrupt, manipulative preacher. Makes me think of the Marquis de Sade’s maxim: No good deed goes unpunished.

From director Jan Hrebejk.

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Autumn Spring (2001)

“Old men should be rich and respected.”

Autumn Spring is a marvelous Czech film that explores the relationship of Fanda and Emilie–an elderly Czech couple. Fanda and Emilie are opposites in many ways. Fanda is happy-go-lucky and open to all sorts of new experiences ( he’s learning French, for example). His wife, Emilie, on the other hand is obsessed with planning their funerals, and she even rather morbidly suggests that they clean and maintain their future burial spot. Fanda and Emilie don’t have much money, and they live in a cramped flat. Their selfish son, Jara, can’t wait to get his hands on the flat by moving his parents into a old-people’s home.

Fanda–a former actor hangs around with his old friend, Eda, and the two get into all sorts of trouble together. They concoct schemes that involve deception of others. The schemes can be fairly harmless–for example, at one point Eda and Fanda pose as ticket inspectors. But sometimes the schemes are far more complicated and potentially damaging, and one of these schemes leads Fanda to ‘borrow’ money from his wife’s funeral savings.

I was extremely impressed by this film. On the surface, the film deals with the husband and wife’s squabbles about money, and the husband’s refusal to face his death. Fanda’s personality is refreshing and charming, and yet at the same time, some of the games he plays are rather anti-social. Fanda capitalizes on his age to further his schemes, but he also risks being labeled incompetent and perhaps being deprived of his small freedoms. The film also examines the institution of marriage, and it does an excellent job of portraying the balance of power within the relationship. These two elderly people are still hashing out fundamental issues of control–Fanda’s smoking for example, and it’s clear that Fanda’s antics are his attempt to maintain a little independence while wiggling from his wife’s control. Unfortunately when Fanda’s schemes go out-of-control, Emilie is swift to wield her winning hand, punish, and exact control.

Another thing that impressed me so much about the film were the characters of Fanda and Eda. When confronted with reality (the truth), they never lost a beat, were never flummoxed and simply expanded their schemes. I found this quite fascinating.

I almost didn’t rent this film. I read the cover several times while trying to decide if Autumn Spring was going to be an awful sort of sentimental film–it certainly looked as though the story could be a tearjerker. But the film was much better (and darker) than that. This was not a syrupy sweet “Hallmark” film about how two old people face their deaths. The script was clever, the characters fascinating, and the acting quite superb. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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King of Thieves (2004)

 “Barbu–King of the Circus!”

The marvelously entertaining Czech film, King of Thieves begins in a small remote Ukrainian village as two village children–Mimma (Julia Khanverdieva) and Barbu (Iakov Kultiasov) entertain the locals with an amateur acrobatic show. But then in the distance, the villagers spot a white Jaguar which they recognize as belonging to the larger than life–Caruso (Lazar Ristovski). Caruso, apparently, periodically appears in the village to recruit children for his European circus, and this is how it works: Caruso spies a likely child, pays the acquiescent parents X number of rubles. He promises fame and fortune, and the child leaves never to return.

kingBarbu’s dream comes true when Caruso selects him, and he confidently talks Caruso into taking his adopted sister too. There’s a horrible sense that something is terribly wrong with this arrangement, but no questions are asked and a tearful Mimma and a triumphant Barbu leave with Caruso.

While it’s fairly obvious that Caruso is up to no good, ten-year-old Barbu is too young to read the signals. Even when he’s separated from Mimma, taken to a dilapidated Big Tent in a walled compound in Germany, and thrown inside a tatty trailer, Barbu still believes that he’ll be “the King of the Circus.” Caruso feeds this idea by sustaining Barbu’s faith with his gregarious demeanor and doing the odd magic trick. He’s teamed up with a tough Albanian boy named Marcel (Oktay Ozdemir) who teaches him the ropes, and soon Barbu is trained to steal from incautious shoppers and tourists. Barbu delights Caruso, and while Caruso’s vicious underlings spot the fact that Barbu is potentially trouble, Caruso has a weakness for the boy. Meanwhile Caruso loses Mimma in a card game to a revolting pimp.

King of Thieves works incredibly well–partially because the audience sniffs that Caruso is an utter rotter from the start, so we follow Barbu’s fate with baited breath, and a sense that we cannot abandon this delightful, bright, and persistent little boy. Also Caruso’s false world of the circus creates a layer of the phantasmagorical that is underscored by the scenes of Caruso’s past as a trapeze artist with his now crippled partner Julie (Katharina Thalbach). Julie–who looks as though she just stepped from Weimar’s Berlin–is also attracted to Barbu’s spirit. And in many ways to the twisted couple (Julie and Caruso), Barbu represents their lost idealism.

The film includes some painful scenes of abuse of the children enslaved by Caruso’s net, but this is a riveting tale, and it deserves a much wider audience. It’s the sort of foreign film that people who don’t like foreign film would find themselves enjoying. The DVD extras include an interview with director Ivan Fila in which he explains the difficulties he had completing the film–as well as the real life incidents behind the story. In German with English subtitles.

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