Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 1 
7 Jan
2002

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Juraj HerzSTRACH: CZECH HORROR
Drowning the bad times
Juraj Herz interviewed

Herz resists the notion that his work fundamentally belongs to the horror genre, but he explains to Ivana Košuličová that his two blackly comic films about the Holocaust are "real horror."


The Slovak-born director Juraj Herz has a career in film and television that spans more than 35 years, working mainly in Prague but also in Slovakia, Germany and France. Although he first came to prominence in the 1960s, his work stands apart from that of other Czech and Slovak New Wave directors, and Herz has been far more willing to work in—or, perhaps, it is better to say around—set genres.

Despite the stylistic range of films he has worked on, horror motifs and use of the grotesque have been a recurrent feature of his work, and particularly in his most widely known films: Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968), a black comedy about the Final Solution; Morgiana (1971), which blends art noveau and the Gothic; and Pasáž (Passage, 1996), a Kafkaesque film that has invited favourable comparisons with Otto e mezzo (Fellini's 8 1/2, 1963).

Herz's eccentric vision is now attracting increasing critical attention, and several small retrospectives of his work have have been held. Most recently, the director was the special focus of a season of Czech horror films organised by the London Czech Centre.[1]

Kinoeye met Herz in Prague last December to discuss his work. Elegant and charming—and with a persona that is quite different to that which you'd expect from a director of such morbid films—Herz revealed his tale of the ups and downs of his career.


Your first film Sběrné surovosti (1965)[2] was originally created as a part of the Perličky na dně (Pearls of the Deep, 1965), the so-called "manifesto of the Czech New Wave." It's your only adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's prose, yet in his texts there are the kind of grotesque stylizations, bizarre motifs and ambiguous scenes that seem to be close to your conception of film. Did you have any plans to make another Hrabal adaptation?

I have to admit that one year before I started work on Perličky na dně I got a [Hrabal] script from Václav Nývlt. At that time, I had just finished working as an assistant director on Ján Kadár's film Obchod na korze [The Shop on the Main Street, 1965], and I could start looking for a script for my own film because Kadár supported my idea to work independently. Václav Nývlt, who actually discovered Bohumil Hrabal for the film world, gave me the script of Bambini di Praga [Children of Prague, a 1947 novella by Hrabal]. I didn't know Hrabal then, because his books had not been published yet. When I'd finished reading the script, I thought that Nývlt was teasing me. I didn't understand it at all, so I couldn't film it, and I refused the project. But I think that they wouldn't have let me make this film at that time anyway.

Jaromil Jireš came to me later and handed me Perličky na dně [Hrabal's collection of short stories published in 1963], which I liked a lot. Hrabal also gave me a novel to read that he was just getting ready to publish, called Ostře sledované vlaky [Closely Watched trains, 1965]. I wanted to film it, but Evald Schorm, a founder of our generation who commanded great respect from all of us, told me that he would like to do it. So, I left it to Evald. I didn't hear about the project for about a month, and then suddenly I found out that Jirka Menzel was working on it, which was a little upsetting.[3]

About that time Hrabal told me—maybe he said it to everybody—that my film story for Perličky na dně was the best, and he gave me another novel to read called Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále [I Served the King of England, first published in samizdat in 1974]. I liked it very much and I told Nývlt, who was a dramaturge, that I would like to film it. But at that time, the project wasn't endorsed by the communist censors. Later on, Jirka Menzel started to work on this project and then Karel Kachyňa.[4]

In addition, I was an actor, and I went to the film medium with a goal to create something like a [Jacques] Tati character (to create a Chaplin-like character would have been too high a goal). Hrabal was great for the beginning, but I knew that I wanted to find my own character. Acting was always important to me, directing was just a way to play in films.

Your first feature film Znamení raka (The Sign of Cancer, 1967) is a psychological detective drama. Within the context of the period and the Czech New Wave, it is quite an unusual genre. Why did you decide on a detective story as your first film?

It was very easy. I made four films as an assistant director. The first two I made with Zbyněk Brynych and the next two with Ján Kadár. Brynych brought to my attention a book by Hanka Bělohradská called Poslední večeře [The Last Supper, 1966], which I quickly filmed and named it Znamení raka. Hanka Bělohradská was a nurse. Her book was interesting, not because of the environment of the hospital, but because of the mutual relationships there. It tells about the relationships between communists who were installed in their high positions, doctors who become alcoholics and also senile professors who led the clinic. The murder that happens in the hospital is only a catalyst that unmasks the mutual relationships between the doctors and patients, patients and doctors. I was interested in these relationships more than the murderer.

The film almost finished in catastrophe, because the doctors who were irritated by the film character of an unqualified doctor-communist (played by Ilja Prachař) were against the film, and they almost got it banned. If it hadn't been for [the intervention of] Professor Charvát, a friend of Zdeněk Štěpánek [the lead actor in the film] and also the chief of the clinic where we filmed, the film wouldn't have made it to cinemas. After a discussion with the doctors, Professor Charvát said that he was not happy that the film was made, and he was not happy that the film shows things that—in his opinion—the patients shouldn't know, but he also said that the film was a piece of art, a true piece of art.

So, he was against any kind of intervention. But even this didn't help because there were lots of erotic scenes in the film that were also forbidden at the time. There was a doctor masturbating and a rape, and they cut all this out. In 1968, I was able to film these scenes again in Italy for an Italian producer, but I didn't have the opportunity to do the editing. I have never seen the final version, but I guess that it was done in a very commercial way.

In an interview with Josef Škvorecký, you separated yourself from the New Wave as a movement, but said you incline to certain individuals, such as Jaromil Jireš or Evald Schorm. Can you explain why?

It was because of personal reasons. I wasn't in the group of "New Wave" directors simply because they didn't accept me among them. I was in the same year as Jaromil Jireš, Jirka Menzel, Evald Schorm and Věra Chytilová, but not at FAMU but in the puppetry department [of the theatre faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU)].[5]

First, I studied at art school in Bratislava, and then, because I didn't pass the tests in acting (the commission told me that there wouldn't be any role for me because of my appearance), I went on to study puppetry. I had already some experience of them from art school. At the puppetry department, I co-operated with Honza Švankmajer who was my schoolmate.[6] We already knew each other from the army where we did some theatrical works for the Semafor theatre group. After the army, I started to work at Semafor, where I directed my first play. But I was still fascinated by film. I got a role as an actor in Zbyněk Brynych's film Každá koruna dobrá [Every Penny Counts, 1961] and Brynych gave me the position of assistant director afterwards. It was my training. Two years with Brynych, two with Kadár.

When Jaromil Jireš came with Perličky na dně and he introduced the project to his peers [at FAMU], he also told them that he knew me, and he thought that I should film one of the stories. All of them, except Evald Schorm, and of course Jaromil Jireš himself, were against it. I was inferior to them. I was a puppet artist, not a film director. Fortunately, there was Ján Kadár, who went to the [Academy's] administration and told them that he would take responsibility for me.

But I got a punch in the stomach anyway. In those days, the best cameraman, Jaroslav Kučera, was filming all the stories. My story was always passed by. But when the shooting was finally due to start, of course, I went to Jaroslav Kučera, but he refused to co-operate with me. So I was the only one [of the directors who contributed to Perličky] who made the film with a different cameraman, Rudolf Milič, who was the cameraman in Ján Kadár's film Obžalovaný [The Accused, 1964]. Jaroslav Kučera later did the camerawork in my film Morgiana [1971].

Were these relationships also the reason why your film, and Ivan Passer's, were taken out of the final version of Perličky and projected separately or was it really because of the amount of material?

No, Perličky really was too long. We got together and Ivan Passer, also a friend of mine, was the first one to say that he would take out his story. Consequently, because my film was the only one that was more then 30 minutes long and had a more complicated story with lots of characters, it was clear that it had to be my film that would be taken from the project. Looking back, I have to say it was fortunate because Perličky didn't have a large audience. Only selected cinemas projected it for a special audience. My film Sběrné surovosti was projected before a conventional commercial German detective story in the cinema, so many more people had a chance to see it.

At the end of the sixties you made your famous films Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968), Petrolejové lampy (The Oil Lamps, 1970) and Morgiana.

After the film Znamení raka , I made one more film called Kulhavý ďábel [The Limping Devil, 1969]. I thought that the time had come when I'd finally learned film-making and I wanted to create "my character". Although this limpiing devil wasn't "my character," it was still a character of a devil, which I knew would suit me. So we were working on the screenplay, but the administration said that even though it's about a filthy devil everything filthy has to be cut out. Of course, there were supposed to be lots of erotic scenes.

After that I just didn't want to make the film anymore. But I was an employee of the film studio Barrandov and they told me that everything is set for the shooting and they needed somebody to make the film. So I made the film with an aversion because the film was cut, deplumed from the very beginning. The only person who liked this film most from all of the films I made was my father. But I don't like the film. I know what is supposed to be there, and it just didn't work out.

I made Petrolejové lampy [Oil Lamps] in 1970 when Normalization was starting.[7] We avoided the recent period by using a story from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The administration didn't look on it very favourably. But they still let me make my next film Morgiana [1971]. Morgiana was supposed to be a completely different film than the one you know. It was based on a story by Aleksandr Grin, a [Russian] writer who died of hunger. He became an outcast, and lived in a park where he shot crows with a home-made bow to get something to eat.

The film is about two sisters, one good and one bad, played by one actress, Iva Janžurová. Why's that? Because where the film ends should have been just half-way through. In the middle of the original story, the good sister wakes up and she asks for her sister. But they tell her that she doesn't have one. It should be a schizophrenic story about a person who has a good and also a bad side. The administration couldn't accept that and they got rid of the whole second part of the story, and in addition I had to follow the first part through according to Grin.

I didn't like the film, and the shooting was very arduous too. I took it as an exercise, like when a pianist does his finger excercises. I also had the possibility to try different film tricks, like when actress Iva Janžurová plays opposite herself. So it was really more an excercise for myself than that I would expect it would develop into something interesting. So, after all was said and done, I received the Gold Hugo in Chicago for the film, which was very surprising. The communists told me about this award seven years later, and something was written in a newspaper about it. Within a couple of weeks, somebody had broken into my studio and stolen the Gold Hugo because they thought it was made from real gold.

The schizophrenic, self-contradictory personalities that you present in Morgiana or Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968) are also typical for German expressionism or for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Did you consciously follow these styles or artists?

When I studied at the puppetry department, the film students had projections of various films as a part of their studies at FAMU. Of course, I was very interested in seeing the films, but I wasn't allowed to go there because I studied at the puppetry department. I always went into the room when it was already dark so I could not be seen. But it was tricky because sometimes they switched on the lights when the film was already running and they kicked out people who shouldn't be there. But I managed to see quite a lot of films.

Then, when I became a director, there were projections for directors, set designers, and cameramen where I saw some films from the West. And when they didn't have or they didn't want to show any western film they projected some archive film. So I had seen some of the Hitchcock films, and also some expressionist films in which I was interested. I could also see there some Swedish films, the films of Victor Sjöström or Ingmar Bergman and also Buñuel's films, which were attractive to me. But I didn't try to copy or follow these artists I was just very enthusiastic about them.

Was the international success of the film Spalovač mrtvol, a help for your next work or was it a deadweight in communist Czechoslovakia?

I heard about a book with an interesting title, Spalovač mrtvol, written by Ladislav Fuks. So I read it and I was actually disappointed. But I arranged a meeting with Fuks anyway, and we worked on the script for about two years. During shooting, it became clear that this was a unique chance which wouldn't come again. It was in 1968, and I had absolute liberty in my work. I could film whatever I wanted to. In Spalovač mrtvol, I was fascinated by the humor. I went to various projections of the film in many different countries, from the Netherlands to Naples, and I was keen to see how the reactions of the audience were completely different in every country. In Prague, people were depressed; in Slovakia, they laughed; in the Netherlands, it was a comedy from the beginning to the end; in Italy, the spectators went from the cinema right to the bar because cremation is just impossible, awful and unacceptable in their country.

When I was working on Spalovač I knew that it was the right way, it is my feel for humor, my feel for something that could be called a horror humor, even if I don't take Spalovač as a pure horror film: I think it is more a psychological thriller or psychological horror. So I had two other scripts ready with Fuks. The first was "Příběh policejního rady" [The Story of a Police Councillor], for which I wanted to cast Rudolf Hrušínský [who played the lead role in Spalovač mrtvol] and his son Jan, because there are characters of a father and a son.

The other script based on a Fuks novel was "Myši Natalie Mooshalrové" [The Mice of Natalie Mooshabr, the novel was first published in 1969]. I knew that I would be his director and these were the films I wanted to make. But of course, Spalovač was banned after a couple of weeks or months, and I knew that this wasn't going to work. Later on I read in the newspaper that Spalovač mrtvol was nominated for an Oscar, but it was more deadweight than help. After Spalovač, I was in a bad situation, and I needed to get out of Prague. I got an offer to go to Slovakia to make the television film Sladké hry minulého léta [The Sweet Games of Last Summer, 1969] there.

Compared to Spalovač mrtvol, which was an expressionistic film, this was a poetic impressionistic film and I was very happy to change style, because I didn't want to stick to one genre. Again, I had big problems with the film. I had a lawsuit with Slovak television for two years. But, I received the Grand Prix at Monte Carlo, and also the cameraman [Dodo Šimončič] got the main award for the cinematography. As a prize, I received CHF 10,000 [USD 6000 at today's conversion rates] which was an incredibly large amount of money for me at that time. But I lost it; Slovak television won the case, so it was a very depressing time for me.

After that I filmed Petrolejové lampy and Morgiana. With Morgiana there was another problem because the head dramaturg Ludvík Toman said that it was a sadomasochist film and it had to be banned. Then he also told me that he thought I would make a romantic film, so I tried to explain to him that it is romantic, but he couldn't understand that because he thought that I made it too scary. He couldn't catch that in romanticism the writers also used lots of scary, eerie moments. I was forbidden to make films for the next two years. In the end, the Russians saved me, which was kind of ironic. They saw Morgiana and they were excited that it was based on the novel of a Russian author. So, after two years I could film again. During the two years I could still work for television, but even there I had some problems and I couldn't work there for the next fourteen years.

Did you contemplate about going to the exile after the Russian occupation in August 1968?

It wasn't possible for me to leave that time because I was just finishing the shooting of Spalovač mrtvol. I had to wait for Hrušínský who was hiding somewhere in a factory, and he came back sometime after two months and then we had to shoot the interiors. It was a very euphoric time when I was shooting Spalovač. I had the feeling that the whole Czech nation braved against the Russians. One day it was said that the names of the streets would be changed so the Russians would get confused and the next morning there were no signs on the streets at all. I never thought that this nation could be broken. I also got the offer to go to film Sladké hry minulého léta in Slovakia, so all the events that happened during the next year in 1969, the beginning of Normalization, just passed by me with no real impact.

It was a very difficult filming because there were some production problems and almost all the actors were alcoholics, so I had to be really concentrated to finish the work. The politics was going around me, and when I came back after all the lawsuits with Slovak television it was already too late to leave.

Your films like Kulhavý ďábel or Holky z porcelánu (Porcelain Girls, 1974) are made in the genre of the musical comedy. Do you like this genre?

I have to say that I don't go to musicals. I hate them and what I have seen I can't stand. I don't like this boom in musicals that has happened in the Czech Republic in recent years. I like only four musicals on the stage: Cats, My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Hello, Dolly. Everything else I saw deeply depressed me. One of the biggest disappointments that happened here in the Czech Republic was the theatre version of Starci na chmelu [Elders Go Hop-picking]. I don't like the film either [directed by Ladislav Rychman in 1964]. I took offence to a film in which people call each other comrades, and where a large goulash is served to them.

But I couldn't make films after Morgiana and they told me I could work if I make a film from a working-class environment. I tried to partially satisfy them in the film Holky z porecelánu. It was based on the story Inventura u Světlušek [Inventory at Světlusky] written by Jaromíra Kolárová, who was a sure-footed communist. But she was the kind of communist who experienced the hardest of times: she lost her leg, her brother died of tuberculosis and she came from the lowest and poorest class.

I liked this woman, but when I finished Holky z porcelánu they told me that I presented the workers as whores and they forbid me to co-operate with the writer again. But I found and brought to Prague the young actress Dáša Veškrnová.[8] I liked her a lot and I took a project on account of her called Holka na zabití [A Girl for Killing, 1975], in which she played the main role. Also, it was a time that nothing else could be filmed but comedies; this was a crime comedy. I also had a project called "Automatická holka" ready for her, but after Holka na zabití they forbid me to film it.

Why weren't you allowed to film it?

It was partly still because of Holky z porcelánu, which they didn't like. It was similar to Holka na zabití. The administration was just irrational. They were approving films without the presence of the director. I was in the hall waiting for the sentence. Nobody in there knew anything about films, and they were just waiting for the reaction of somebody important to so they could follow suit. The final verdict for the film came from somebody who coughed and the others just copied him and said if the film was bad or good, socialist or not. A few years later, they let the directors come to these approval projections, and it was woeful. There was an absolute silence during the projection, and when the film ended everybody was waiting for the first reaction of some bigwig, like the coughing or something like that. That was what a film depended on.

In those years mostly political films were made, and I didn't see any solution other than to make fairytales. They offered me Panna a netvor [Beauty and the Beast, 1978], which I wanted to do because I knew I could use horror scenes there. But, also because the film was expensive, they made me to work on two films at the same time, so I was shooting one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The second one, Deváté srdce [The Ninth Heart, 1978], wasn't a film for children because of some horrific scenes, which the administration didn't like.

It was a hard time. I had to support my family, my wife and son. I got some regular salary even when I wasn't filming, but it was very low. So I had to make a film every year to be taken back into a "second group of directors," the "first group" was only communists. In the worst times, I was asked by the former minister of the interior to make the film Buldoci a třešně (Bulldogs and Cherries, 1981). I cast all the comedians I knew. And this former minister made it possible for us to go filming to the Netherlands, Vienna and Rome. Of course it wasn't easy because there was only about five of us and we didn't have any permission to shoot in these countries, but it was amazing anyway because we saw the Western world and we were filming there. The film turned out the way it did because the script was disastrous, but I couldn't make anything else at that time anyway.

After that Dr [Josef] Nesvadba offered me his novel on which I based my film Upír z Feratu (The Vampire of Ferat, 1981). I again renamed the novel because I wanted to comeback to the classic Nosferatu by creating a car company Ferat in the story. Of course, the script was immediately cut, but it wasn't enough for them, and after the film was finished they also cut out the most drastic scenes. So once again the film that you can see isn't the one I wanted to make. Again it was a disaster with the film. Every film I made had two scripts. One that was confirmed but wasn't shot, and second that was shot but in the second part of filmming the film had to be confirmed again so there were lots of scenes cut out. Even the film Petrolejové lampy isn't the way it should have been because they took out lots of drastic scenes.

The only film that's the way I wanted it is Spalovač mrtvol, except one scene. If you remember, the film ends in the vision of the main character where he becomes a cremator for the Party. (I never mentioned it as the Nazi Party, it was always just "the Party.") Then the occupation came, and we made another ending: Two employees of the crematorium are sitting in a coffee shop in Reprezentační dům, and the Russian occupation tanks are passing behind the windows. The employees are talking about Mr Kopfrkingl, he was such a nice man, what happened to him? The next shot shows the Museum in ruins. A long window reflects sad people's faces right after the blowing up of the Museum and among them Kopfrkingl is back again smiling. We filmed this, and we showed it to the studio director in 1969. But he was against it and took it out. I have no idea where the sequence went; maybe he burned it because he was too scared of the possible consequences.

You are often considered as a horror director. How do you see the horror genre within Czech cinematography?

For me the typical horror film is a chainsaw massacre. And, of course this wasn't possible to do during the socialist era. Here we used another Czech attribute švejkování.[9] I tried to derogate the scenes and use humour, because it largely counter-balances the horror. Humour was also a way to smuggle the film into approbation and projection. So it was very deliberate to combine horror with humour. I think that you can see this best in Spalovač mrtvol. And I also think that horror by itself cannot exist. People need to take a breath during the projection and when there is no humour in the film they find it anyway and they laugh at scenes that the director didn't create as funny.

Your film Straka v hrsti (A Magpie in the Hand, 1983) was put in a "safe" for thirteen years. How did it influence your career?

Straka v hrsti was based on a script written by a forbidden author of those times, Antonín Přidal. We wrote it the way that the whole administration of Barrandov thought that it was supposed to be—a medieval fairytale. The studio director wanted to give me 20 thousand million crowns because he thought that when it is medieval it has to be expensive, because of all the decoration and costumes, but I asked him only for four million to create it my way. So they let me do whatever I wanted, they didn't control me, and all of us knew that it would be an enormous disappointment when they saw it.

Because we were worried about them cutting out shots, we figured out a system of using long shots. But we didn't foresee one thing: they wouldn't just be able to cut scenes or shots out, but they could ban the whole film. I had never seen such a horror in the eyes of the administration when they saw the projection of the unedited film, because they had been expecting a fairytale. Instead of a fairytale they saw a stylized, unintelligible film with naked women and with the music of a hated rock group, Pražský výběr. The film was banned.

Fortunately, I convinced the studio director that the film should at least complete post-production. But, we had only a weekend to do it, and it wasn't done the right way and unfortunately it stayed like that. Because the film was "in a safe" for the next 13 years, it got really old. In the second half of the eighties, it was a very ferocious film. From all my films, time hurt this film the most. The film was the last straw for me, and I decided to leave the country. After the film Straka v hrsti it was immediately forbidden to me to make any other films. But at least I got an offer to make a film in Slovakia, it was just a stupid comedy called Sladké starosti [Sweet Cares, 1984] that surprisingly became one of the most famous Slovak comedies.

Even though you say you had been forbidden to film, you made another film called Zastihla mě noc [Night Caught up with Me, 1986], set in a concentration camp.

Yes, I was browsing in Film a doba [a leading Czech film journal] and there was a story by Jaromíra Kolárová, the same lady who wrote Holky z porcelánu and with whom I was forbidden to work. And I saw one word, Ravensbrück. So I read the story. Ravensbrück was a concentration camp where I was put when I was ten. So I went to the director of Barrandov and I told him I want to film this story. He thought I was crazy because I was forbidden to film. Then he said that this story had already been planned to be filmed with a large budget and also that the directors are already chosen. They offered it to [Jaroslav] Balík and Jaromil Jireš.

I went to see Jaromil and I told him that I had to make this film. I was in Ravensbrück, and I wanted to make a film about it. It wasn't important to me that the main character was a real deputy, a communist—Jožka Jabůrková. I wanted to make a film the way I experienced the atmosphere in the concentration camp. I had been trying to make a film about a concentration camp as black humour for 20 years and everybody was horrified of mixing the suffering and terror of the Holocaust with humor. I tried it with Italian and American producers, but it was never approved. Later, Roberto Benigni in his film La vita è bella [Life is Beautiful, 1997] came up with a completely different humor than I wanted for my film, but it was still a film from a concentration camp with humor.

Jaromil Jireš immediately gave it up for me. Then I went to see Balík but he wanted to read the script first, but fortunately he didn't like it, so I could make this film. I completely rewrote it and filmed it the way I saw the camp. I decided to do it about Kafka's girlfriend, Milena Jesenská. I came to know from the prisoners from the concentration camp that what was attributed as happening to Jabůrková in fact happened to Jesenská, who was against communism (in the beginning she was a communist but then she visited the Soviet Union and she found out that it was a load of humbug).

So I made the film about Jesenská, and not Jabůrková, which the administration didn't know. The film was surprisingly well-received by the audience even in the West, because the intellectual West was leftist. Even the studio director clapped me on my back and told me: "So finally you turned out well, and now you can do big films. Your next film will be 'Charles the Fourth.'" And I thought he could go to hell, because I had everything ready to leave for Germany. I'd met Terezka, my second wife, and I'd told her I wanted to leave. I had to finish a co-production film Galoše šťastia [The Magic Galoshes, 1986], in which Terezka played one of the main roles. I also filmed a TV serial Gagman [1987] because I needed money. I didn't know how it would be in Germany, but fortunately right on the second day after my moving there I started to work on a film. It was the end of an epoch in Czechoslovakia. I was in Germany for twelve years and then I came back to the Czech Republic.

You mentioned that some scenes that you shot in the film Zastihla mě noc (1986) appeared in Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List (1993).

When I was in the concentration camp I experienced one scene. The first day I came into the concentration camp they undressed us and sent us into the showers. There were only a few children and the rest were men who started a terrible panic. At that time, it was already known what the showers meant. I was there looking at the panic-stricken adults and I knew there was no gas in the tubes because there were glass windows in the room. It would be easy to break them and let the gas out. So I knew it couldn't be a gas chamber. After a while, water started to come out from the tubes, and all the men were screaming that it is just water and not gas.

This scene you know from [Steven] Spielberg. But ten years before him, I shot this scene with women in the film Zastihla mě noc. Spielberg copied the scene shot by shot from me. Also, the scene in Spielberg's film doesn't make any sense. I had two main characters in the showers, but in Schindler's List [1993] this is just an unrelated episode. I read the novel Schindler's List, and there is no such a scene. I asked for the script and there is also no scene like that there. I met an American lawyer and I sent him my scene and Spielberg's scene on videotape. He responded to me with a question: Why did I send him one scene from Schindler's List twice? When I explained to him the situation he told me that I will win the lawsuit for sure, but I would have to put into it a hundred or two hundred dollars. I would get the money back, but I would have to have it in the beginning. So I had to leave it. Spielberg is well-known for this kind of stealing. He had lawsuits with almost every film, and I just didn't know about it.

I think that the film Zastihla mě noc is my greatest horror. It is a real horror. There is no blood, but it is unwatchable for people with weak nerves. It is the atmosphere I experienced. There are two directors who experienced and filmed Auschwitz. One is Wanda Jakubowska and the other one is me.[10] I wanted to make a black comedy from the concentration camp from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, but nobody wanted to produce it. The only country who wanted to do this project, but didn't have the money, was Israel. We went to Israel to meet the "boys" I was with in Ravensbrück. Terezka was completely horrified because we were telling stories from the concentration camp from morning till evening, and we laughed all the time. One of the worst times of my life was twenty-two months in the [Czechoslovak] army. It was horrible. It was in the fifties, and it was really awful, but when I talk about it the listeners will laugh.

All of the comic, absurd stories drown the bad times. For example, I was in a kind of subsidiary concentration camp with 5000 men and about 80 children. Right beside us was a large concentration camp for 80,000 women. In our camp there were about 20 Catholic priests as well. And the stupid Pope sent out communion wine for all the priests on Sunday. The Pope had no idea what was going on there. So I watched 20 famished priests on the appellplatz, each of them receiving two litres of wine, and they had to drink it on command. In a couple minutes there were 20 completely drunk Catholic priests on the appellplatz , which was for us children really great fun. So there were these absurd stories that I will not film any more.

Your latest television film Experiment is a part of the horror series Černí andělé (The Black Angels, 2001). It seems to be more than a horror parody of this genre.

The serial Černí andělé includes different films made in different genres by various Czech directors. And when you say that it is more of a parody of the horror genre, I can see what you're getting at, because here [in the Czech Republic] the horror tradition is lost, a tradition that never really existed here in its pure form. But the reason that I wanted to do this film was to test my daughter. She played in six films I made in Germany, and she was very good, so I wanted to give her a hard task to do.

During the time I have been here in the Czech Republic, I've directed five plays. Lately, I prefer the comedy genre because I want to amuse people. I don't feel like doing dramas right now. Maybe if I find a good horror script, a real horror, then I would like to make it. But all of Europe lacks scriptwriters. I think that the only country that has lots of good scripts to choose from is America, even though they probably don't choose the best ones there. There are possibly good scriptwriters in England, too.

But what is a real horror and what is not is so vague in these times that I don't feel I could talk about it.

Your most recent feature film Pasáž (Passage, 1996)[11] is based on the same concept as Jan Švankmajer's film Lekce Faust (Faust, 1994). The main character finds a mysterious building, he walks through its strange labyrinth and he ends up being hit by a car when he tries to escape. Is it an accidental similarity or is it a willful reference?

Jan Švankmajer is my old friend and schoolmate. We studied together, we were in the army together, and we also worked in Semafor after the army. We are born on the same day, month and year. All his films I saw, in two of them I played, but I never saw Lekce Faust. We have similar thinking we did some plays together. I helped him in his first films; he helped me with my films. He did the set design for Deváté srdce, and his wife did the subtitles. We are connected in some way. So it was just an accidental similarity.

But Pasáž was a real disappointment. No other film was such a failure for me. It began when a Czech producer called Karel Dirka gave me this novel [written by Karel Pecka and first published in 1976] in Germany. I liked it, even though it was political, which the film isn't. But, there was a problem with the script. The producer wanted somebody who lived in Western Europe with a different point of view. So a German scriptwriter wrote it, and it was bad. I told the producer that it had to be somebody who lives in Western Europe, but who is also Czech because it is a Czech theme. So Lubor Dohnal worked on it for about a year. But, he didn't do it well either. So we'd already lost already a year and a half, and then we took it to a Czech author and it still wasn't right. The producer lost two years and he gave it up.

After that, I met a French producer for whom I made two films about [police inspector] Maigret.[12] And the producer said that there is a great novel that I should read, Pasáž. I said no thanks, I vomited already, but finally he made me work on it, and we tried a French scriptwriter. We worked on it for another year, but it made no sense. I took it as a typical Kafka story, that is deeply connected to Czech culture. So I brought the French scriptwriter to Prague, and I showed him the arcades, but it still didn't work. After three years spent on looking for the right scriptwriter, I told the producer that I would try it myself. I had never written anything by myself before. I had always co-operated with authors. But I rewrote the French base.

Pasáž was the second most important film to me after Spalovač mrtvol. In the Czech Republic, the reviews were very bad. The film was in cinemas only about a week because we had a bad distributor. But, I was at eleven film festivals (the film was at many more, but I was at eleven) from Palm Springs to Toronto, and it had great reviews where they said that "Bergman and Fellini shake hands," or that "it is the best Kafka-style film in the history of cinematography." Thanks to this film I had lots of offers to make films in the West. In France, it was a great success; only here was it a catastrophe. The casting was also difficult, because I wanted to do it with Czech actors, but I couldn't find the right ones, and then I decided on Polish actors, which I was criticised for. The film was successful outside the Czech Republic. In Paris and Lithuania, they held retrospectives of my films because of Pasáž. I don't know, maybe it came at the wrong time, but since then I have not filmed.

Do you have a new project?

I work for theatre, I made the television film Experiment and now I am going to work on seven parts of the television serial Černí baroni (The Black Barons).[13] It has already been made as a film,[14] but these stories don't have anything in common with it. In addition, there will be great casting. All the stars will appear in this project. When I read the book again, I realized that the time came again when is necessary to show the fifties and the communist stupidity that dominated those times.

Ivana Košuličová

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About the author

Ivana Košuličová is a postgraduate student of film studies at Masaryk University in Brno and writes regularly for Kinoeye on Czech film.

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Footnotes

1. Down to the Cellar: Horror and fantasy in the Czech Cinema, held at the Riverside Studios, 23-25 November 2001. Herz, as the "most notable exponent" of Czech horror, was due to introduce his films and appear at a public discussion. Due to concerns about flying in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 in the US, he cancelled the trip.return to text

2. The punning title is untranslatable. The common phrase "sběrné suroviny" translates as "scrap materials," presumably alluding to Hrabal's use of overheard fragments of conversation. "Sběrné surovosti" itself literally translates as "scrap brutalities."return to text

3. Jirka Menzel: Herz is referring to Jiří Menzel, Jirka being a diminutive form of the director's first name.return to text

4. After years of wrangling, lawsuits and scandal (Jiří Menzel famously beat his producer with a stick in public when he was denied the opportunity to make the film), Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále is now being made by director Jan Hřebejk, working with script-writer Petr Jarchovský.return to text

5. FAMU (Filmová a televizní fakulta, Akademie múzických umění v Praze): The film faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (AMU), where almost all Czech and Slovak film directors from the 1950s onwards studied.return to text

6. Honza Švankmajer: Honza is the diminutive of the name Jan in Czech.return to text

7. Normalisation: The harsh period of repression following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.return to text

8. Dáša (or Dagmar, in its non-diminutive form) Veškrnová is now better know as Dagmar Havlová, the wife of the Czech president, Václav Havel. Their marriage, on 4 January 1997, caused great shock in the Czech Republic, coming so soon after the death of Havel's first wife. As a result, Veškrnová is not widely liked in her home country, and the scandal has overshadowed a long acting career, including a number of films made with Herz. Indeed, the grotesque nature of some of the Herz films she has appeared in—particularly Upír z Feratu (The Vampire of Ferat, 1981), a film about a vampire car that sucks blood from its victims through the accelerator pedal—has been used to mock her alleged lack of suitability as the spouse of the Czech Republic's foremost moral figure and head of state.return to text

9. Švejkování : subversion by being overly compliant, named after the titular hero of Jaroslav Hašek's classic Czech novel Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka (The Good Soldier Svejk).return to text

10. Wanda Jakubowska: The Polish director whose semi-documentary Ostatni etap (The Last Stage, 1948) was set in Auschwitz.return to text

11. Pasáž is officially translated as Passage. However, a more accurate translation would be "arcade."return to text

12. Maigret: The fictional police inspector created by French author George Simenon and whose tales are recounted in some 75 novels. Numerous film and television adaptations have been made from the stories. Herz's were Maigret et la tete d'un homme (1994) and Maigret tend un piege (1995)return to text

13. Černí baroni (The Black Barons) is a famous novel written by Miroslav Švandrlík. Set in the 1950s, it recounts the adventures of a conscripted soldier, Kefalín, and his other friends from the army. Written as a comedy, the book contains lots of absurd situations that show the stupidity of the military officers and, therefore, also the absurdity of the whole socialist system.return to text

14. The film was made in 1992 by the director Zdeněk Sirový.return to text

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