Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Independent of Reality: The Films of Jan Němec

Recently Facets Multimedia here in Chicago hosted the retrospective Independent of Reality: The Films of Jan Němec currently touring North America.  Note that both Miloš Štehlík owner of  Facets Multimedia and I are of Czech descent.  I have fond memories of Facets Multimedia because my dad would drag our family there several times a year to see, one or another, often Czech but otherwise generally foreign film when I was young ;-). 
Jan Němec [IMDb] [CSFD]* was a key (then) young director in the "Czechoslovak New Wave" of the 1960s.  The movement, which grew out of the same creative foment that eventually produced the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968, gained international acclaim.  Over four straight years two Czechoslovak films won Best Foreign Language Picture awards at the Oscars -- Jan Kádár [IMDb] [CSFD]* and Elmar Klos' [IMDb] [CSFD]The Shop on Main Street (orig. Obchod na Korse) [1964] [IMDb] [CSFD]* and Jiří Menzel's [IMDb] [CSFD]* Closely Watched Trains (orig. Ostře Sledovaný Vlaky) [1966] [IMDb] [CSFD]*-- and two others were among the five nominated  for the award -- Miloš Forman's [IMDb] [CSFD]* Loves of a Blonde (orig. Lásky Jedné Plavovlásky) [1965] [IMDb] [CSFD]* and Fireman's Ball (orig. Hoří Má Panenko) [1967] [IMDb] [CSFD]*.   The movement was largely shattered with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.  The unabashedly brooding artistic (surrealistic in style) Jan Němec [IMDb] [CSFD]* and the still biting but more accessible (and subsequently commercially successful) Miloš Forman [IMDb] [CSFD]* ended up leaving the country while the others who remained faced renewed, often heavy handed censorship until the fall of the Communist regime in 1989.

So this then was a retrospective of Jan Němec's [IMDb] [CSFD]* work and if one likes art especially surrealistic art than this would be for you.  Indeed, I found that it took watching several of his films to "get into the groove" but once there ...

Of the films of shown in the retrospective, I saw the following:

          Pearls of the Deep (orig. Perličky na dně) [1966] [IMDb] [CSFD]* the title of which probably would be better translated as "Pearls from the Bottom" or "Pearls from the Muck."  The film is actually a composite of five vignettes, each directed by a different (then) young Czech director of the time.  Jan Němec [IMDb] [CSFD]* directed the second vignette entitled "Cheaters" or "BS-ers" (Podvodníci) about two elderly men in a nursing home trying to impress each other about how important they used to be.  The other vignettes are similar: about a motocross race that ends in a crash, about an insurance salesman trying to sell insurance to a simple villager who really doesn't care, about a somewhat sly young Gypsy woman trying to take advantage of a rather simple Czech young lad ... (yes, the last one is rather racist).  Uniting all the vignettes was their more or less obvious ugliness.  The film seemed to be both a response to both unabashedly sentimental films of similar structure like the lovely Italian film The Gold of Naples (orig. L'Oro di Napoli) [1954] and a challenge to the Communist regime which on one hand espoused a cinematic ideology of "socialist realism" and on the other hand insisted on portraying life in "liberated" Communist lands as being idyllic.  Hence "Pearls from the Muck" ...

          Oratorio for Prague [1968] where Jan Němec [IMDb] [CSFD]* already surrealistic in artistic direction finds himself LIVING HIS ART.  He started this DOCUMENTARY PROJECT documenting the PALPABLE JOY of his people FINALLY FEELING MORE-OR-LESS FREE (after DECADES of oppression) in the weeks BEFORE THE SOVIET INVASION OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA.  Then waking-up on August 21, 1968 to SOVIET TANKS IN THE STREETS, he ended up DOCUMENTING THE CRUSHING OF THOSE HOPES AND DREAMS.  The English voice-over (his?) in the documentary is PRICELESS because it is SO, SO SAD: "Look how happy these people were ... They had NO IDEA AT ALL that ALL OF THIS was going to DIE in a few weeks time ..."

          Martyrs of Love (orig. Mučedníci Lásky) [1967] [IMDb] [CSFD]* - If the ideology of "Socialist Realism" was about showing strong "empowered" young working class types "building things" and "achieving stuff," this film in three vignettes was about soft introspective artistic types dressed in anachronistic period garb too shy/awkward to "achieve" much of anything.  While baroque/surrealist in style, by the time one gets into the second vignette -- about "The Wall Flower" (Nástěnka) -- one should begin to "understand."

          A Report on the Party and the Guests (orig. O slavnosti a hostech) [1966] [IMDb] [CSFD]* - Probably Jan Němec's [IMDb] [CSFD]* most famous film as it had stunningly amusing distinction that it was BANNED THREE TIMES in COMMUNIST CZECHOSLOVAKIA -- the first time in 1966 when it was made, the second time soon after the Soviet Invasion in 1968 (after a brief period earlier in the year when it was allowed to be shown).  The LAST TIME was just piling on.  Apparently in 1973 it was one of only four films that a Czechoslovak Communist commission empaneled for this task "BANNED FOREVER."  :-)

What the heck was the movie about that it drove the Communists so crazy?  Well it was surrealist story (again that term ...) about a group of eight picnickers who were having a nice quiet picnic in the countryside when they spotted a Wedding Procession.  What was it doing there?  Who knows... Anyway, they get up, change clothes, and decide to go to the Wedding Banquet.

Well, when they were still a long way off, they're in effect detained by the Son of the Banquet-holder and in various ways mistreated by him.  This mistreatment goes on for so long, that they begin to wonder if they'll ever make it to the Banquet.   At some point the Father comes up from the Banquet to see what's detaining his Son and sees that he's mistreating these Guests.  The Father apologizes to the Guests, Reprimands the Son and the proceeds to lead the Guests down to the Banquet.

'Cept that the Banquet is still actually quite far away and the Path is not exactly easy. Indeed it seems ridiculously far way, down a steep slope and just doesn't seem worth the trouble.  Still, being polite, the small group now dressed in Wedding Garb (women in heals ...) decide to descend to this Feast anyway.

They arrive.  It is Nice.  'Cept one of these eight guests, with apparently a "depressive personality," can't seem to get over the previous abuse that he had received at the hands of the Son above.  So tells his wife: "I want to go home."  His wife responds: "Don't be silly, we're finally here."  "But I really want to go home."  "Please don't embarrass me in front of my friends and all these other guests."  Still the socially awkward husband, still nursing that grudge against the Son, decides to leave.

For a while, all goes well, until either the Father or the Son discover that the ONE GUEST is missing (!)  And the Party comes to a halt.  "After ALL THAT WE'VE DONE FOR YOU, THIS IS WHAT WE GET?"  (Done what? Did we ask for "all this"? Etc)  So things get frozen for a while.  The guests try to convince the Father that the rest of them ARE GRATEFUL, and it kinda works for a while.

 Eventually, however, the Father just can't get past the reality that ONE of his guests CHOSE TO LEAVE  and this begins to bother the other guests as well.  EVENTUALLY they set out to FIND THE GUEST WHO HAD THE AUDACITY TO LEAVE and EVENTUALLY they decide to utilize the services of a BIG GERMAN SHEPHERD to try to "sniff him out."

Now WHY would THIS PARABLE (which actually is MORE OF A CHALLENGE TO TRADITIONAL CHRISTIANITY THAN COMMUNISM) drive the Communists so crazy?  Well, the actor playing "The Father" looked a lot like Lenin ;-).

But the PARABLE is actually a fascinating one, and I honestly found the movie on and bought it subsequently.

I find the film fascinating because IN ITS SURREALISTIC WAY it expresses well the argument that Carl Jung made decades before regarding the Christian Trinity (!)  In a celebrated article on A Psychological Approach to the Christian Trinity, Carl Jung argued that the Trinity is not complete.  In his article, Jung proposed two figures that would complete it: (1) Mary (a woman, human, material as opposed to the Trinity which has been traditionally understood as being Male, necessarily Divine and Spiritual) and (2) the Devil (the one who _chooses_ not to "belong").

Until I saw this film, I never really understood Jung's argument about "incorporating the Devil into the Trinity." ;-)  I THINK I DO NOW: Christianity (and really all ideologies) WILL NOT BE AT PEACE until they MAKE PEACE with those who (for whatever reason ... in the film it was simply a question of _temperament_) "don't want to belong."  If Christianity (or again ANY IDEOLOGY -- Communism, Islam, etc) would be able to make Peace with those who "just want to be left alone," then it (they) would finally have the ability to be at Peace with pretty much EVERYTHING (All That Is).

Putting it in Christian terms (and yes, this _hurts_ to some extent) -- The "Prodigal Son" will no longer have to "come home."  The Father could still love him (and PROBABLY DID, SINCE HE IS GOD) EVEN WHEN THE PRODIGAL SON IS "AWAY."

Fascinating that a "brooding Czech surrealist" could make such a sublime argument, but then Salvador Dalí's works were often clearly religious [1] [2] [3] ;-)

          Toyen [2005] [IMDb] [CSFD]* - a beautiful film made again in a surrealist style about Czech surrealist painter Marie Čermínová (a.k.a. Toyen) who sheltered her friend and fellow artist Jindřich Heisler, Jewish, IN HER FLAT in the (bohemian) Žižkov section of Prague DURING THE WHOLE OF THE NAZI OCCUPATION (an Anne Frank-like story THAT ACTUALLY TURNED OUT "SORT OF WELL") and then FLED WITH HIM TO PARIS when they had the "good luck" to sense that "the Curtain" was about to come down again.  Truth be told, Surrealism becomes a remarkably GOOD WAY to understand the Nazi Occupation / Communist Eras.  As Toyen apparently wrote in her journal, both were _shattering_ experiences... 

          Late Night Talks With Mother (orig. Noční Hovory s Matkou) [2001] [IMDb] [CSFD]* - Jan Němec's [IMDb] [CSFD] homage to fellow Praguer (if of a slightly earlier era) Franz Kafka as he wrote a work entitled "Letter to My Father."

All in all, I was honestly surprised at the depth of this "brooding surrealist's" work and I am grateful to the curators of this Retrospective for putting it together as well as to Miloš Štehlík's Facets Multimedia which continues to offer truly stunning cinematic programs to this fair city and to the world.

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  1. Excellent review. I wish more people, philosophers would read it

  2. Woa, you actually watched Toyen. What luck! Was it even translated?

    1. Yes, like the other films shown in the series, it was subtitled in English. But I couldn't see the film listed anywhere for purchase on DVD or BluRay. Perhaps after this retrospective it will become available.