The Two Poles of the Central European Hyperbole

in 39th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Jan Foll

Legendary Czech films of the sixties – especially those by Forman and Passer – excelled in authentic detailed description and a balance between caricature and sympathy. “Champions”, the feature film debut by Marek Najbrt, successfully follows this tradition. We might even say that it contains both poles of the Central European hyperbole. It can be perceived both as a Hasek-like satire and a Kafkaesque absurd drama.

It seems that nothing much happens in this mosaic taking place in a God-forsaken village near the Czech-German border. A handful of guys meet in the local desolate pub. The bunch is composed of a wheelchair-bound man with a difficult teenage son, a man who feels inferior because everybody thinks he is a Romany, a guy from the city who has a country house in the village and is involved in a petty feud with its former German owner. The pub owner is in debt and may lose the premises. His seamstress wife wishes to escape the desperate situation. She is in love with the bus driver who constantly takes showers and dreams of long-distance trips to the sea. A long-haired weirdo wanders among them, and drinks a solvent that produces strange visions…

This bizarre panoptical crowd is framed by live broadcasts from the ice hockey championship – the Czech team wins the decisive match and becomes world champions. The film ironically plays with the contrast between the TV-watching outsiders and the hockey icons. It is a satire on so-called national pride, often limited merely to loud celebrations of sporting successes. By demonstrating seemingly ridiculous conflicts, it discloses monstrous aspects of the Czech mentality, including racism and xenophobia.

Hidden scheming is found mainly in the character of the city man – an extraordinary performance by Jirí Ornest. He seems harmless but occasionally exhibits symptoms of Fascist-like violence and sexual blackmail. Zdena, the wife, in the subtly accurate interpretation by Klára Melísková, is the catalyst of the love factor. Jan Budar from “Boredom in Brno” plays the asocial drug addict, sinking into obscure hallucinations which endow the story with an allegorical touch of magic realism. The plot revolves around a miraculous gift, taking the story to the level of a bitter-sweet fairy tale about punished greed.

Najbrt’s first film may be a little undisciplined and haphazard, but I appreciate the original content and treatment. The casting is convincing, there is richness in the characters, and an inventive employment of sets and props – for example an ordinary bus, ice-hockey kit, or various weapons. The record of several monotonous days reveals a diagnosis of various personal failures and post-communist traumas. Champions is a grotesque story with a surrealist touch about a group of losers, a collapsed pub and a devastated church. But it is also a story about lost faith, complex emotions, treacherous fetishes and roots of violence.