Kachyňa's work in the 1980s is sometimes seen as compromised compared to the bold stance his work in the 60s took. Markéta Dvořáčková looks at one of his "typicals" and shows in what ways it conformed to the era it was made in but also how it continued the director's lifelong themes.
Karel Kachyňa is doubtless one of the most important Czech directors. His extensive work contains films regarded as some of the classics of Czech cinema. However, from a different point of view, even his lesser-known films are worth paying attention to. This applies even to an openly propagandistic work such as Král Šumavy (King of the Bohemian Forest, 1959) and, leaving aside high-minded notions of art house cinema, it is engaging to have a look at his "typicals." One such film is Sestřičky (Nurses, 1983), adapted from Adolf Branald's novel Vizita (Ward Round), with Kachyňa working on the screenplay alongside Vladimír Bor.
Czech audiences haven't forgotten this bitter comedy and, quite surprisingly, the film seems to be enjoying great popularity, as shown by its repetitive "recycling" on Czech TV, strong video sales and a healthy audience evaluation on the internet. So, let us look at Sestřičky as an example of the kind of vulgar comedy that the director hasn't hesitated in using to exploit popular taste.
The film was made in 1983, but its plot takes place in the early 1950s, during the period of the village collectivization, which, as the film shows, was not always accepted voluntarily. It is a story of a girl called Marie (Alena Mihulová), who is finishing secondary medical school. Her schoolmates laugh at her because she is the last virgin in the school, and when she tries to rectify this situation with one of the patients, they are caught. As a punishment, she has to accept a job in a small village somewhere near the border and "in the middle of nowhere," where no one else wants to go.
She has to work with an ageing colleague called Babi (which means "Granny," played by Jiřina Jirásková) whose life has been a history of hardship, and she acts accordingly. Thrown into this isolated life and unable to cope with all the characters that were formed by the harsh conditions of the region, her first response is to give in. However, Marie later comes to realize that this may actually be her place and that she wants to help other people, as people here need help more than anywhere else. She decides to marry Peter, even though she is aware that he is only the best of a very poor selection. In fact, this simple-minded young man who works with horses is the patient who "helped" her into this exile. And so the circle of destiny closes.
Sex with the scent of stables
A characteristic features of Karel Kachyňa's films are ornament (often used for its own sake) and bawdy humour. A scene inserted in the main titles of Sestřičky is good illustration: in the form of a repeating loop, a hospital cleaning lady is seen bending over a bucket, unaware that a man is secretly approaching her from behind to slap her big bottom. Such crudeness is readily apparent in Sestřičky, perhaps because film focuses on female characters and this presents numerous opportunities for bawdy clichés about a woman's sexual wants and desires. What in other films appeared fragmentary becomes, due to the earthy environment of stables, chillingly transparent: woman, like a cow, is here to bear children. Childbirth is important to get, to use Babi's wording, the "land tilled."
Kachyňa also gives explicit hints that the animal-like instinctive nature of humans are embraces everybody regardless gender. A driver of an ambulance car, Arnošt, becomes a cuckold, while lusty Krákora's thick penis is exuberantly called a boar. Kachyňa's films very often won the attention of socialist-era audiences thanks to open sexual scenes. In Sestřičky, they have a peculiarly agricultural character (for example, a sexual act keenly commented on by the other characters takes place in a cart), perhaps as a result of his previous concentration on village or even co-operative themes.
Kachyňa does not use sex for its own sake or something to make the plot more attractive. Sex and the relation of the main characters to it is the only thing that characterizes them. Virginity is the crucial point for the two women. Babi can now no longer escape it, and thus helping others is her way of fulfillment. On the other hand, Marie "gives it away" to her intended as a present that is preceded by a striptease to raise her merits. While doing so, she describes her imaginary lovers, only later to deny it with her immaculate body, to their mutual delight.
In Kachyňa's realm, man symbolically introduces woman to the world. It is characterized in a scene in which Marie after losing her virginity runs to Babi and eagerly asks "Am I different?" to which the latter sadly answers, "You are a woman now." The exaggerated portrait of characters defined by their relation to sex is not gratifying even to all male figures: the ambulance driver, Arnošt, who at the beginning seems to be the best match for Marie, turns out to be completely useless. As a result of his mental deficiency, he "fails to be a man."
Sestřičky has frequently been shown in the Czech Republic, and it has not been received as being openly politically committed. It belongs to the wide spectrum of films in which the audience is used to the ideological background and has learnt to ignore it in their selective reading. When taking a close look, however, the weight of Sestřičky's political baggage may be surprising.
Apart from Kachyňa's most significant film decade—the so-called "black series" of the 1960s, which was strongly influenced by co-operation with Jan Procházka—the director tends towards lyrical films exploring the topics of childhood and adolescence. Sestřičky could be placed in this category, as the main heroine is a young girl who in the course of the film grows up.
Yet contrary to Kachyňa's other films dealing with traumas of youth, this is a rather down-to-earth variation. In Sestřičky, the emotionality of the main heroine that is seen in other films is substituted by pragmatic circumstance. As we follow a story of this girl whose experience of entering the adulthood in the period of the early socialistic countryside is of resignation and reconciliation to the situation, we should not forget that it was made in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s, a period with its own need for pragmatic resignation in the face of a political environment that often made personal life rigid and eroded individual choice.
Marie's maturation is reflected in her striving to be useful to her environment, trying to improve life on the immediate level around her rather than chasing wider notions about how the world at large should or should not be. On the personal level, she comes to understand that marrying a man means that she is more or less marrying a dumbhead, and that she will appreciate it if men stop chasing her into the hayloft in the hope they'll get into her knickers. Any dreams that she may have had of a better man—or indeed better behaviour from men in general—are ultimately put aside as being impractical. As such, the film urges viewers to accept the limited circumstances they live in and not strive for too much. Whilst in other circumstances this moral may have been a simple piece of folk wisdom, in the context of post-1968 Czechoslovakia, the softly pro-regime political dimension to the film's message is hard to ignore.
Babi, whose character is as important as Marie's, becomes a peculiar comrade—a saint who due to her irretrievable personal life sacrifices herself to the welfare of others (it is an old rule: a good woman always suffers). There is significance in the fact that she calls all the future mothers by their surname and uses the grammatically impersonal plural form of "you" when doing so as if she was speaking on the behalf of the state and the free health service. Such a degrading practice only highlights the idea of health being state owned.
The character of Babi represents a strong ideological element; her main motivation is to prevent mothers from abandoning children who are so vital to the growth of society. Kulak mothers as well as co-operative workers smelling of manure are shown as irresponsible women whose motherly instincts are enfeebled, they are trying to avoid medical care during the pregnancy or neglect their children. Thus, Babi has no other way than to push them into their maternity. This rather far-fetched concept brings Sestřičky closer to the works of the time, which were—contrary to Kachyňa's anti-regime Ucho (The Ear, 1970)—regarded as openly Communist propaganda.
For this reason, Kachyňa is a director who is sometimes accepted only with reservations. But it should be stressed that in the 1980s many fine Czechoslovak directors made films that seem compromised relative to the staunch posture of their earlier work—or could not even work at all—and Sestřičky is definitely not one of the worst films of this period, either aesthetically or politically.
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