"Something Like Happiness": Happiness, Czech Style By Bodo Schönfelder

in 10th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Bodo Schönfelder

Something like Happiness (Stistí) by Bohdan Sláma, a Czech/German co-production, embodies the virtues and the positive tradition of Czechoslovak and Czech filmmaking. It was clearly the most rounded production in this year’s competition at Cottbus, dedicated to productions from Eastern Europe countries. It displayed no signs of new aesthetic developments, but followed the path of the traditional central European craft of film making, with remarkable skill. The camerawork deserves a special mention. A very often moving camera, many shots taken with a handheld camera, produces images, which in their clarity gives people and objects a material quality.

The story of the film centers around two families in an industrial suburb of Prague, dominated by a nuclear plant and showing signs of decay. A factory of the former communist society and the consequences of investments by new entrepreneurs. The parents of the families are stuck in memories and fears of the old society; the next generation is looking for a suitable way of life without knowing where they should aim. The living conditions are insecure. Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmová) and her family are the best-off. They can afford a decent standard of living. At Christmas the father can be presented with one of the new digicams, with which he bores everybody. But still he drinks too much beer and is obviously nostalgic for the social warmth of former times. The mother holds the family together with a pragmatic sense of reality, not without feelings of social responsibility. At the same time she strongly urges her daughter to follow her boyfriend to the USA, where she thinks there is hope of a well-to-do future.

In the same multi-storey building, which can be found all over the world, lives her friend from early childhood Tonik (Pavel Liska) and his parents, who seek the cozy existence of a closed small family unit, only achieved by shutting off disturbances from outside. Tonik is drawn to his aunt, who tries to restore the house of her father and with whom he tries to build a life of a small farm and a small repair shop of old cars. More the type of the best friend, he is unsuccessful in love with Monika. Also in the building lives Dasha (Anna Geislerová), a single mother with her two very young boys, who is addicted to alcohol and drugs. She combines a messy flat with unstable relations with men and strong aggressiveness to her friends.

When Dasha falls into a deep crisis, Monika and Tonik take the children and construct a surrogate family, seemingly very happy, but only temporary. The end is always looming. On the peak of happiness, where all the families gather to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys, Dasha returns from hospital, claiming her sons. The hoped for paradise falls apart. Monika leaves for America, the aunt dies, advising her nephew to sell the house to an investor. When Monika returns, obviously disillusioned about the prospects of the New World, Tonik has disappeared. Looking out of the window of the train, in which Monika returns to her parents, she sees signs of life going on. And there is a feeling of a strong hope that she and Tonik will meet again.

The strength of the film lies in its strong relation to the Czech tradition of depicting the destinies of ‘small people’ in a tragic comical way, which can be found in films since the late twenties and which found an extreme expression during the Communist era, in which the family was either an escapist island of happiness or the uttermost place of destruction by the regime. In contrast to many films from the former Communist countries, the film avoids facile accusations of the old times or a denunciation of modern times, but reflects the complexity of aspects of life. The drunkenness of Monika’s father is a well understood escape from the grayness of the daily life in this suburb. But one can’t overlook the burden it is on his family. The hard pragmatism of his wife is unpleasant but necessary. And Monika herself can’t decide between economic pragmatic egoism and her feelings of social responsibility and solidarity, which are not grounded in a strong personality. Rightly Dasha accuses her of being afraid to build her own family. Seeing the dead ends in the surroundings, one can sympathize with Dasha’s negation of the present, even if it destroys her. Tonik’s dreams lack the fantastic poetry of a strong imagination. They seem weak. There is comedy in the film, but it is very subdued.

The film has an effective use of architectural metaphors. Be it the multi-storey building, in which the living spaces are arranged in the vertical, more a separation than a living together, and where the elevator seems to be the best place for social exchanges; be it the old house, which makes us feel it is the most lively and warm place, but which only a nostalgic view can see it as fit for the present conditions (old cars have no social value). The excellent cast holds the film together. They are great as individuals and as an ensemble. Stars like Anna Geislerová or Pavel Liska don’t draw attention to their virtuosity, but are part of the joint effort. That the director of the film, Bohdan Slamá, adopted the two boys who came from an orphanage fits into the optimistic note the film radiates in spite of all the sad events.