Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 9 
15 Sept
2003

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Karel Kachyna's Kocar do Vidne (Coach to Vienna, 1966) CZECH REPUBLIC
A sixties trilogy
Karel Kachyňa's Ať žije republika! (Long Live the Republic!,1965), Kočár do Vídně (Coach to Vienna,1966), and Noc nevěsty (Night of the Bride,1967)

Kachyňa achieved his best known and most poetic work when working in collaboration with the writer Jan Procházka. Peter Hames charts the fruits of that collaboration in a trio of films from the golden age of Czech film-making.


Both writer Jan Procházka and director Karel Kachyňa came from Moravia, and there seem to be strong autobiographical elements in many of the films they made together in the 1960s. Procházka was from a farming background and spent his early years as an activist in the Communist youth organisation. Antonín Liehm describes how, in the 1950s, he first spoke up at a Writers' Union meeting: "The openness with which he called things by their right names, the candour with which he touched sore spots without a qualm or quiver of fear. How was he able to do it? Because he had the confidence and support of the powerful ones"[1].

In 1960, he published his novel Zelené obzory (Green Horizons), one of the last novels of "socialist construction," in which a young man runs a depressed collective farm and experiences an unsuccessful love life. According to the literary critic, Václav Černý, it was one of the few successful Socialist Realist novels. Then, of course, he became a member of the Party's Central Committee, set about enlightening the establishment and headed one of the Barrandov production groups, where the films for which he was responsible included the most "subversive" of all, Jan Němec's O slavnosti a hostech (The Party and the Guests, 1966). Expelled from the Central Committee in 1967, he played a leading role in the Writers Union in 1968, and became an outspoken supporter of the Prague Spring.

In 1968, he and Václav Černý were accused by the KGB of co-heading an anti-Party group aimed at the destruction of socialism. His name is constantly on the lips of Brezhnev and his associates in the recently published documentation of the events of 1968. [2] He died in 1971.

Kachyňa, whose ambition was to be a photographer, was one of the first graduates of FAMU (the Prague Film School), and began his career with a series of documentaries with his fellow Moravian Vojtěch Jasný between 1950 and 1955. They made their first feature together in 1955, Dnes večer všechno skončí (It Will All Be Over Tonight), but subsequently followed separate paths, although both their careers were marked by a strong visual emphasis.

Kachyňa made four features before beginning his collaboration with Procházka, which started with Pouta (Fetters, 1961) and Trápení (Stress of Youth, 1961) and was to extend through twelve films, with a further two based on his work during the 1990s. Boris Jachnin points out that Kachyňa prefers to work with someone else's script, but frequently changes it completely in order to turn words into images.[3] Procházka provided him with themes of strength and substance and, together with composer Jan Novák, a fellow Moravian and pupil of Bohuslav Martinů, and cinematographers such as Josef Vaniš and Josef Illík, they formed a strong and consistent team.

The importance of Kachyňa's vision becomes apparent when looking at the camerawork on Ať žije republika! (Long Live the Republic!, 1965), by Jaromir Šofr, which is quite unlike his restrained work with, for instance, Jiří Menzel.

In 1968 and 69, many films and projects came to fruition after years of preparation, and many things could be said that could not previously be said. Kachyňa directed and Procházka wrote Směšný pán (Funny Old Man, 1969) and Ucho (The Ear, 1969) in that period, the second of which was not even released for another 20 years. But before that, they had produced a remarkable number of critical films, including Ať žije republia! (Long Live the Republic!,1965), Kočár do Vídně (Coach to Vienna,1966), and Noc nevěsty (Night of the Bride,1967). They treated three approved subjects, the liberation of the republic in 1945, the partisan war against the Germans, and the collectivisation of agriculture–but in a highly unconventional manner.

"Long Live the Republic!", "Long Live the Soviet Union!", and "Long Live Stalin!"

In Ať žije republika!, they made a partly autobiographical work that was supposed to celebrate the liberation from German occupation. But it is a far cry from the ideological simplifications normally associated with the genre. It is presented as the subjective experience of 12-year-old Olda and, as such, the period of the liberation is presented without an interpretative historical framework–the Germans are simply leaving and the Russians are arriving.

It's highly inventive in its use of cinematography and editing, with the present, the past, and dream merging in a feverish and unremitting flow, providing a child's eye view of the world as something that is frequently oppressive and dangerous. Beaten regularly by his father, Olda sees adults primarily as threats. Russians and Germans appear in isolated incidents, with overall developments presented in an oblique and half-understood manner.

There is, of course, the triumphal entry of the Soviet troops at the end. But following the slogans "Long Live the Republic!," "Long Live the Soviet Union!," and "Long Live Stalin!," the villagers stone Cyril, the only man who had befriended Olda, accusing him of being an "informer," and he commits suicide. Olda, in turn, is beaten by other boys. These negative associations with what was normally a subject of eulogy were clearly deliberate and polemical–but they are less explicitly "subversive" than suggestive of the reality of contradiction, that experience and history escape any narrow explanation.

Underneath this reality and its complex superstructure is a discernible set of experiences. Olda's domestic life is repressive, but he roams widely through the countryside, where he not only encounters the aggressive village boys, but also Cyril, who invites him to see puppies. Two Germans steal his horse and cart and he pursues them, encounters Russians, and a German officer in a field, continuing to search for his horse Julina.

While the violence of the war is largely offscreen, that of everyday life is not. Apart from his father's beatings, Olda is also pursued by the village children, tied to a tree and, in the final scene, stoned by them. His dreams of freedom sometimes take conventional forms (being transported into the air by kite or by Julina) and his love of horses, dogs and puppies could feature in many a more commercial movie. But this is counter-balanced by a black side. A horse has to be shot, a dog is buried, a squirrel subjected to a violent pursuit and, in the final shot, Olda shoots a pigeon with his catapult. The film is believable as an authentic portrait of the liberation, and its grim-faced community may be closer to reality than the community of friends we find at the beginning of Jasný's Všichni dobři rodáci (All My Good Countrymen, 1968).

The subjective poetic style of Němec's Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964), is here used in an extended and more "conventional" narrative (ie with an emphasis on completed scenes rather than subliminal images). A good example is the scene in which the Germans steal Olda's horse and cart. He first sees them upside down while standing on his head, and Kachyňa continues with a close-up of a face as Olda is hit. Further scenes in the present are intercut with positive memories. He pursues the cart through the woods and manages to dislodge a wheel.

When Olda is caught by the Germans, there are close-ups of an eye, a forehead, a mouth, a raised hand, a jabbing knife, and a fist. Knocked unconscious, he recovers as his dog licks his face in a sideways shot. He continues the pursuit but loses them. Inter-cut with this are scenes of his father bringing home the horse, his father laughing, his mother riding it and pulling down her dress, his mother sewing in the open air, and nursing him when ill.

Non-propagandist approach to war

Karel Kachyna's Kocar do Vidne (Coach to Vienna, 1966)Kočár do Vídně is a film of classical dimensions. The heroine (Iva Janžurová) has resolved to kill Germans in retaliation for the murder of her husband. She is commandeered to drive two Germans, one seriously wounded, towards safety. In the process, she takes them through endless pine forests, which serve both as a labyrinth and a means of insulation from the world outside. Eventually, her relationship with Hans (Jaromír Hanzlík), the young Austrian who only wants to be friends, turns to one of human understanding.

At the end of the film, she repeats the Lord's Prayer that had accompanied her original vow of vengeance and approaches the sleeping Hans with an axe. When he wakes up and backs away in fear, she simply beats him up with her bare hands. They sleep together in the cart, clinging to each other in a shared sense of loneliness and suffering. It is there that they are found by the partisans. Hans is made to strut behind the cart with a rope around his neck, in an imitation goose step and is eventually shot. The woman is raped in the back of the cart. When Hans is finally shot, one of the partisans says, "No point in letting him suffer. After all, we aren't Nazis, are we?"

A simple humanist theme and a non-propagandist approach to war, Kočár do Vídně is filmed with a spare and progressive construction. The atmospheric tracking movements of the camera through woods combined with Jan Novák's impressive organ score (played by Milan Šlechta), together create a strong background mood. In the early part of the journey, Kachyňa focuses on the significant objects that give Hans his power and position–the compass, the pistol, and the bayonet. The woman methodically disposes of them as she plots her revenge. The first part of the film concludes when the wounded soldier regains consciousness and the developing sympathy between the woman and Hans is forestalled. She is forced to strip, but Hans allows her to escape. She then pursues the cart in an intense and blind pursuit, but the ice-cool reserve of the film's first part is replaced by frenzied action. The sense that the film will end in tragedy is present throughout in the woman's severe dress, the organ accompaniment, and an almost tangible sense of suffocation. The importance of individual objects in the film's progression has already been mentioned. They acquire an almost poetic importance through their rhythmic and selective appearances. The white manes and tails of the horses – even the reins leading from the cart to the horses become part of an important visual interplay.

Vision of future paradise

The poetic and the magical are even dominant in Noc nevěsty, which nominally examines the virtually compulsory collectivisation of agriculture in the 1950s. The opening sequences emphasise the problems of collectivisation. The process has already begun. Picin, the local Communist activist, addresses the crowd and–inter-cut with his speech–there is the vision of a perfect harvest, of figures skipping through wheatfields, and of garlanded animals. An inventory of their livestock is being taken but no words come from Picin's speaking mouth. The vision of a future paradise is restricted to the images.

A conflict is established between Picin and Šabatka, who asks the predictable question: "We've given our belongings to the collective. What will it offer us?" We learn that one of the landowners, Konvalinka, has committed suicide and killed all his cows. His daughter (Jana Brejchová), who had left him as a young girl in order to become a nun, returns as his suicide is discovered. From the beginning, there is a strong sense of "us" (the farmers) and "them" (the communists).

The daughter's return suggests an extraordinary inbuilt sense of religion among the people of the community. Bells ring out, and the women go to greet her, kissing her hands in reverence. She becomes the focal point of village gossip, sacks of grain are delivered to her door and she strikes up an unusual alliance with the local simpleton, Ambrož. Her main objective is to organise a midnight mass at the village church, but her plans are opposed by both Picin and the village priest. However, their efforts are feeble compared with the powerful swell of emotion that develops. On the night of the mass, she dresses in pure white, and the whispering of voices behind locked doors is magnified before women go out to decorate her sleigh with religious ornaments and pictures.

The conflict between Picin and Šabatka turns to violence. Although it is Šabatka and his group who plan to kill Picin, who they regard as "being at one with the Kremlin," it is Picin who kills Šabatka. Picin is shown as a mean and vindictive man, but these traits are also shown to be rooted in the way he lives, and his previous life experience, when his wife had been a servant of Konvalinka.

Nonetheless, the central religious theme makes an incongruous match with the theme of collectivisation. If the local women venerate Konvalinka's daughter as a virtual reincarnation of the virgin, there are strong sexual elements in her portrayal. She wears black underwear, and Ambrož spies on her, experiencing enjoyment at the caning he receives in punishment. His sufferings are explicitly linked to religion and sex and the image of Christ.

Based on Prochazka's novel Svatá noc (Holy Night), the film is much more dependent on dialogue than the previous two films. But the predominantly snow-covered settings and the bleak winter light create a strong charge. Close-ups are used more sparingly but there are evocative images of the nun as an almost abstract figure and some striking use of depth of field. The film seems simply to be observing its characters, their class positions, their belief systems (religious and political), their conformities and differences, as part of a historical reality in which no individual can claim to possess the "truth". The fact that the film is simultaneously critical of and sympathetic to such a range of attitudes suggests Socialist Realism (the official notion of a progressive and optimistic art) as synonymous with falsification.

The three films seem to provide facets of a single reality, the story of occupation, liberation and collectivisation as experienced in the countryside. The rural communities portrayed in Ať žije republika! and Noc nevěsty show a clear identity, the theme of the cart captured by Germans in Ať žije republika! forms the basis of Kočár do Vídně , and the poetic images of horses in movement permeate all three.

The films bluntly confront official mythologies and it is difficult to see why their critical nature was not more recognised both internally and internationally. One reason undoubtedly lay in the fact that Procházka was a member of the Central Committee and was therefore suspect in the eyes of audiences–the art produced was almost by definition "official" and its criticisms officially sanctioned. In his interview with Liehm, Kachyňa noted how, after making Kočár do Vídně, President Novotný declared it to be nonsense and other political leaders wanted to change the ending. Then they went to a meeting with film critics, who took quite the opposite view. They wanted it condemned because it was officially sanctioned.[4]

In fact, Novotný defended Ať žije republika! for reasons unknown, criticised Kočár do Vídně, and launched "a violent attack" on Noc nevěsty "simply because we had gone beyond the limits of his understanding."[5] Novotný appeared to like Procházka precisely because he was critical but, as Kachyňa points out, the impression that Novotný was "better than the rest" was an illusion–"...it was simply impossible to establish any real kind of contact with the man, no matter what the topic was." His support for Ať žije republika! was "...just a matter of mood, tactics, and finally despotism."[6]

As someone who came from farming stock and who had been involved both politically and practically with many of the realities portrayed in the films, Procházka seems to have reflected the contradictions of a lived experience. Perhaps this also helps to explain the acceptance of both him and his work, when the criticisms of others would have been directly suppressed. His outspoken support for the reform programme was made apparent at the Writers Congress in 1967 when he argued that the struggle for free expression would continue "...because the writer will not subordinate himself to doctrines and dogmas."[7]

If it is the "autobiographical" feel of these films, the contradictions and cruelties of rural life, that give them their sense of authenticity, it is Kachyňa's direction and sense of visual poetry that carries them to their audience. Kachyňa once said that he always wanted to be a photographer and that it was photography that provided him with his "poetics." Sometimes, one feels that photographic effect can become an end in itself, a fondness, as Jan Žalman once put it, "for literary ornament and pseudo-poetic idiom".[8] But when the script is strong enough, this is rarely evident. Kočár do Vídně and Kráva (The Cow, 1993), filmed 22 years after Procházka's death, both exhibit a great deal of control and restraint and Ať žije republika! and Noc nevěsty match their visions to content.

Oddly, enough Kachyňa's work seems to have become more restrained as the years have passed, and the virtuoso camera effects and cutting of the 1960s have disappeared, perhaps in the face of more orthodox scripts. His better films from the period of Normalisation–Lásky mezi kapkami deště (Love Between the Raindrops, 1979), Smrt krásných srnců (The Death of the Beautiful Deer, 1986)–never approached the same level of his sixties work (including, of course, Naděje [Hope, 1963], Směšný pán, and Ucho, which are also remarkable films).

Peter Hames

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Also of interest
About the author

Peter HamesPeter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer. He is an honorary research associate at Staffordshire University, programme director of Stoke Film Theatre and programme adviser to the London Film Festival.

Footnotes

1. Antonín J. Liehm, Closely Watched Films: The Czechoslovak Experience (New York, International Arts and Sciences Press): 140.return to text

2. Jaromír Navrátil (ed), The Prague Spring 1968 (Budapest, Central European University Press, 1998): 96.return to text

3. Boris Jachnin, "Karel Kachyňa: Four Decades of a Great Czech Director," Kinema, Fall 1995. .return to text

4. Karel Kachyňa, interviewed by Antonín J. Liehm, Closely Watched Films: 145-146.return to text

5. Kachyňa: 145.return to text

6. Ibid.return to text

7. Galia Golan, The Czechoslovak Reform Movement: Communism in Crisis 1962-68 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971): 243. .return to text

8. Jan Zalman, Films and Filmmakers in Czechoslovakia (Prague, Orbis, 1968): 25.return to text

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