Look Back on Anger

in 47th Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Lesley Chow

In its project to restore censored works of the Czech New Wave, KVIFF screened two films banned for 20 years: Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967) and Jaromil Jireš’ The Joke (Zert, 1969). Neither film is the modernist classic one might have been expecting; both come across as limited and tame compared with stylistically groundbreaking Czech films of the period, such as Pavel Jurácek’s Case for a Rookie Hangman (1969) or the wildly experimental features of Vera Chytilová (the subject of a KVIFF tribute in 2000). The Joke and The Firemen’s Ball are adroit social comedies with a veneer of quaintness; bureaucracy and pomposity are lightly mocked. But in contrast to the work of Chytilová, these films are tidy and orderly; they do not promote adventure or chaos on the level of structure.

The Firemen’s Ball shows a bunch of old men fussing over procedure: characters who are easy to laugh at, although the humor is likely to seem fey to contemporary viewers. The one curious element of the film is its depiction of women, especially the pretty, willing girls who pop up in almost every Czech satire of this period. Girls are not only choice bits of eye candy but signifiers of relief in a society where money and food are scarce. Blondes have a talismanic aura: the craving for them goes beyond sex, since men seem to view them as lucky charms or even as a form of currency. (Ugly girls, conversely, are a shorthand for the kind of shabby life a poor man might be resigned to.) Even though the film looks tired and drab, the camera perks up at the sight of a new face.

A similar exhaustion pervades The Joke, although here again, there is a fixation on blondes as the bright spots in a dreary world — a slim girl in a chic little dress is the one element of style allowed in a totalitarian regime. Films by Jireš, Forman, and Jirí Menzel cling to this character as a kind of fetish: a provincial but acceptable little prize who bounces between the male figures.

Based on a Milan Kundera novel, The Joke starts off promisingly: the opening has a spare, stunning whiteness which induces a sense of faintness and disbelief. The film moves between paper illustrations and outdoor shots, shifting without a break between documentary, news footage and fanciful inserts. In a manner familiar from Czech photography and graphic design, we encounter a surrealism of strangely sized and positioned objects. People’s bodies look large, arid and shapeless. Action sequences are intercut with oddly knowing facial expressions, resulting in a feeling of eeriness (a device later seen in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, 1980). The early scenes display a rigor not found in the rest of the film; once we move on to the mechanics of plot, this stylistic strictness vanishes.

Like The Firemen’s Ball, The Joke focuses on a society obsessed with regulations and processes. The dullness is made absurdist by the perspective of a vengeful observer, Ludvik (Josef Somr). After daring to question the state’s official line on optimism, he is sentenced to military prison. On his release, he plots revenge against the man and the system which betrayed him. In a world of wilful blindness, his is the only seeing eye: he alone looks cool and sly while other people turn into mouthpieces and chant patriotic songs. From this elegant perspective, Ludvik inserts himself into historical events and rouses characters from his past to face him.

However, after experimenting with stasis, the director seems unable to make time flow again. The film becomes stagnant, uncertain about where to move. One of the problems is that Ludvik’s “shocking” plan will surprise no-one; the drawn-out revenge is a foregone conclusion, so the film’s lethargy comes across as a failure of dramatization rather than a statement about inertia.

Even Ludvik’s initial comment, that optimism is an opiate for the masses, is a worn-out phrase: a sign of boredom rather than anarchy. Yet it is enough to see him sentenced to years of hard labor. Perhaps Ludvik’s lack of originality is part of the film’s joke. Given that the soundtrack is filled with fanfare and nationalist cries, even a throwaway sardonic remark can pierce the air. In a world of meek believers, maybe a conventional cynic is radical, after all.