I was anticipating this week's screenings at Melbourne Cinémathèque, the first week in the season of Czech New Wave cinema titled East of Eden: The Imaginary in Czech Cinema 1964 – 1983. The first week's screenings were top class selections, both from excellent prints, specially imported for the season with the assistance of the Embassy of the Czech Republic. Karel Pazourek, the Czech ambassador personally flew in from Canberra to introduce the season, and his love of cinema was evident. He spoke passionately about Czech cinema for over ten minutes, giving some historical, political and other context, and it was very inspiring.
Another Melbourne Cinémathèque committee member and I spoke with him after the screenings, and his knowledge of world cinema (including Australian cinema) was also evident. He even invited us to go somewhere for a drink, but we both had to decline with work the next day.
Ucho (The Ear, Karel Kachyňa, 1970)
With its overt Orwellian political themes, this film reminded me of both Krzysztof Kieslowki's Przypadek (Blind Chance, 1981) and Orson Welles' Le procès (The Trial, 1961). With the noose of Soviet censorship tightening around the time of the film's completion, it never saw the light of day for twenty years, and debuted at Cannes in 1990.
Taking place over one night, it depicts a government minister and his wife, Ludvík and Anna (played by Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová), as they stumble home in the dark from an official function. Things are not quite right - keys are missing, doors unlocked, things have been moved. The house is the only one in the street without electricity and the phone is also disconnected. Maybe the state is listening, hence the title.
We see various flashbacks to the function as Ludvík recalls conversations he had that make him suspect that arrest by the state may be imminent. A slowly growing and claustrophobic sense of paranoia builds up to a crescendo, climaxing to an ending I found both effective and unexpected.
The film had elements of drama, melodrama, film noir and political thriller, all effectively interwoven to provide a compelling and suspenseful story which draws to a powerful and unexpected climax. The story unfolds using the device of the bickering couple. He - level headed but impatient, her - alcoholic and demanding. The film is basically a two-hander, and could work well as a stage play. It was interesting to see how the volatility of the couple's relationship developed as the sense of menace gradually increased.
Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, Juraj Herz, 1968)
This highly satirical comedy is slightly reminiscent of Luis García Berlanga's El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963), with its humour, preoccupation with death and political undertones. The subtle political critique in The Cremator seems to be directed at Nazism, so I was surprised to learn that the film was also banned by the Soviets. I learnt afterwards from the Czech ambassador that this was not because of the film's content, but because the director had been black-listed. Ah, Big Brother and censorship, where would we be without them?
The film's mood is set with the bizarre opening credits, a little in the style of Monty Python. Cross-cutting is used to show parallels between the animal kingdom and humans. The title character, Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), is a repugnant man who presents himself as a cultured and respectable member of society but whose manipulative manner is evident as he leads people around like animals (prey).
The film is set in the 1930's as Hitler's power spreads to Czechoslovakia. Always an opportunist, Kopfrkingl sees new possibilities with the demand for cremation (an indirect reference to the horrors of the Holocaust). The film becomes a horror narrative of sorts as Kopfrkingl's behaviour gradually descends into acts of psychopathic violence against those around him. The film seems to be making the point that totalitarianism is obnoxious and collaborators are, despite appearances, uncultured and no better than animals.
As pointed out by the Czech ambassador, these Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings comprise the first season of Czech films to be screened in Australia in over thirty years. This is a rare opportunity to see some of the finest of European cinema of the period, and all films in the season are Australian premieres. I highly recommend the remaining two weeks of the season (Wednesday evenings, 7pm at ACMI).