History, Art, Life – Ever Changing

in 15th Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca

by Gyözö Mátyás

Czech comedy is not only alive, but is at its best.

That was my first impression after seing Lost in Munich (Ztraceni v Mnichove) an amusing, entertaining yet multilayered, puzzling and enigmatic film, directed by Petr Zelenka from the Czech Republic. At the 15th Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) the artistic organizers set up an interesting special category, titled Animals, where they showcased films, which one way or another, are related to animals. In Petr Zelenka’s film – though only in a supporting role – we are introduced to a distinguished parrot. It is a really special kind of bird, because she must be about 90 years old since once she was Edouard Daladier, the interwar French prime minister’s favourite pet. Daladier was the French head of state at the time of the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938, as a consequence of which Czechoslovakia lost its independence, its territory was dismembered and Nazi Germany occupied Sudetenland.

Czechs have always considered this event a major betrayal on the part of the Atlantic powers – formally their allies – and as a national tragedy. For Czech people, the Munich Pact is a key historical event, indelible part of their national identity, which has shaped the way they reflect on their historical past, and obviously the way they see themselves in the present.

Therefore, the parrot – as witness of great times – is an extremely special creature. The film opens on the eve of the celebration of the 70th year anniversary of the Munich Agreement, when it becomes known that the French government is sending Daladier’s parrot to the Czech Republic as some kind of a „propitiation gift”. It soon becomes clear, however, that the old bird keeps spouting derogatory words and phrases, targeting the Czechs – obviously remembered from the past – thus adding insult to injury.

Nonetheless, Lost in Munich stops short in coming to terms with these painful historic events that have determined Czech history and people’s national self-esteem. One of the greatest merits of the film is that represents this really complex issue in an ironic way. And it is in Zelenka’s daring artistic approach that we could recognise the influence of the Czech New Wave Masters like Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman, which inform not only his cinematic style but also the narrative and its characters. Zelenka’s film not only draws from this rich tradition of the absurd and the grotesque, but also adds its own perspective to it, and rejuvenates it. Thus Zelenka’s film makes us aware of the ongoing historic discussion about the Munich Agreement, and covertly suggests that there is no such thing as the ultimate historical truth, but only competing historical discourses and theories, some of which happen to influence public opinion more than others. As far as Lost in Munich is concerned, the filmmakers happen to embrace an unorthodox interpretation of the event in question, insisting however that theirs is only one among many of the possible ones. According to this interpretation, Benes, the president of Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich Pact, was actually not a coward and traitor as the official historiography has described him for seventy years, but a great Czech hero who envisaged the forthcoming events and agreed to the Pact in order to save his country.

The filmmakers base their take on Jan Tesar’s book Mnichovský komplex (The Munich Complex, 2000), subtitled Jeho príciny a dusledky (Its causes and consequences). So, on one hand the film offers a new historic approach and, on the other, makes way for the provocative artistic approaches Zelenka flaunts.

The importance of style and form for re-evaluating historical myths become explicitly clear through the film’s radical changes of narrative direction. Once the first, anecdotal part, concludes, the film turns into hilarious, self-reflexive commentary on how the first part should have been shot. The last, third part of the film, after yet another narrative twist, turns into a meta film about the shooting of the film, which is a kind of tribute to Francois Truffault’s La nuit américaine. The scenes at times follow verbatim the French masterpiece, more specifically those related to problems during the shooting, the role of the prop-man, the death of the main actor, etc. Yet, while true to the spirit of Truffault’s original, the Czech film sways its way to totally new directions. For example, Lost in Munich takes to a radical extreme the effect, so typical of the Nouvelle Vague, of actors, stepping in and out of roles and commenting on their characters. Here, the actors not only offer comments on characters and events, but actively influence plot events and thus — the reception of the movie. The film therefore could be defined as a truly postmodern pastiche or intertextual jest. In addition to its film tributes, Lost in Munich keeps adjusting itself to contemporary understanding, thus informing it with a peculiar undertone, suggesting that the film is as strongly influenced by the French cinema as is Czech history by the powerful French politician Daladier.

The basic concept of Lost in Munich follows the same postmodern, ironic and subversive structural pattern, appropriated by the narrative and the plot of, where nothing and nobody is what or who they seem to be – especially the world of media featured – and where virtuality prevails as a sign of our age. Even through it keeps changing genres, styles, perspectives, views, shifts its focus, its angles, and engages in a dangerous adventure of incompleteness, the film ultimately braves all difficulties. And fascinates those, who are willing to do the work and get its the message.

Lost in Munich is a film that tackles a fundamental historic myth, which has basically determined the identity and self-esteem of the nation, but does so in an extremely amusing and thought-provoking way.

… If there ever were offered a course on the subject of how to cure wounded East-European self-esteem from real or perceived historical injustices, Lost in Munich should be one of the most important works assigned.

Edited by Christina Stojanova