Kráva comes close to the poetry of Kachyňa's 1960s films but lacks the inventive use of image, editing and narrative structure. Andrew James Horton argues that this is a deliberate strategy to underline the film's folk philosophy.[*]
The repressive period of Normalisation, which followed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, ended in 1989 with the demise of Communism itself. It was a time of mixed feelings, as on the one hand directors had new freedoms in what they could express and on the other new, different political, economic, social and cultural circumstances to comment on and, perhaps trickier, to operate in.
Not only were there new freedoms in what could be said but also in who could say it. Directors saw their careers revitalized as they returned to political satire after years of making harmless comedies (Jiří Menzel), arrived back in their homeland after years of exile (Vojtěch Jasný and Jan Němec), made their first feature in over 25 years (Drahomira Vilanová) or even completed films that had been started decades earlier (Juraj Jakubisko and Hynek Bočan). If early hopes were that the old masters (female and male) of Czech cinema would flower once again and produce a new wave of creative work, they were largely dashed. Although there were cinematic revelations in terms of films whose release had been delayed since the troubled late 1960s (such as Menzel's Skřivánci na niti / Larks on a String, made in 1969 and winner of the Golden Bear at the 1990 Berlinale and Karel Kachyňa's Ucho / The Ear, filmed in 1969 and released in 1990), the experienced hands of the 1960s New Wave largely failed to live up to the expectations of the new era, although some films are more worth of attention than others.
However, of all these failures and partial-successes, perhaps the best film in the 1990s from a 1960s New Wave director is Karel Kachyňa's Kráva (The Cow), originally filmed for Czech Television in 1993 and then later given a cinematic release in 1996. The film is a welcome upward blip in Kachyňa's filmography, and although it cannot realistically said to match his work of three decades previously, it does come remarkably close.
The hardships of life
Although less than impressed by his mother's whoring, Adam (Radek Holub) is so devoted to her that he sells their cow to buy morphine to numb the pain of her dying days. Having sold his livelihood, Adam now has to struggle to earn his living. He takes a job at a quarry, but has designs to return to the simple life of honest work on the land.
Each evening, as he returns to his hilltop house, he lugs up soil and rocks to terrace off the steep hillside into farmable land. His efforts win him the admiration of Rósa (Alena Mihulová), an attractive young girl, not adverse to using her body to help her get along in life. At first, Adam rejects her, still shaken by the loose ways of his mother, but Rósa perseveres, and they fall in love.
Both of them now work at the quarry and haul soil and rocks back up the hill. Although their love is idyllic, their lives are not. As their fortunes wax and wane, they are repeatedly forced through a cycle of saving up to buy a cow and then having to sell it to avert another catastrophe.
Despite seemingly gaining nothing from this way of life, Adam continues to act it out, hauling his stones up like some sort of Sisyphus of the Bohemian forest. All the while, he hardly seems to react to his fate, expressing his despair only once, in a drunken rage. Although we only see a short section of his life, the film's final words assure us that he will live out this meaningless cycle of back-breaking hardship for the rest of his days.
Kachyňa's success in Kráva is perhaps due to the fact that he is working with themes that are so close to his heart and are ones that he has explored endlessly throughout his oeuvre. First of all, this film allowed him to return to working with material by the writer Jan Procházka, with whom Kachyňa had collaborated on most of his 1960s films. (Normalisation had made Procházka, who died in 1971, a bête noire).
In addition, the rural setting mirrors his own agricultural background in Moravia and the very isolation of the action is a firm continuation of Kachyňa's interest in outsiders coming into conflict with the mainstream of society (here represented by financial circumstances). From Kachyňa's perennial interest in children, growing-up and young love, the latter two elements are immediately evident. However, the theme of childhood is also implicitly present in Adam's relationship with his mother and more explicitly in flashback sequences. Even the name Adam, with all its connotations of the first man and the expulsion from paradise, is one that the director has chosen before with the same symbolic intentions in mind.
As is usual for the director, the outside, adult world is a cruel and even a meaningless one. But the optimism in the film comes from a sense that comfort can be found in the world, as bleak and unforgiving as it may be, a message that could also be read in films such as Naděje (Hope, 1963) and Sestříčky (Nurses, 1983)—even in Ucho, moments of unprecedented levels of intimacy and unity of purpose emerge between the quarrelling couple as they face the full terror of Stalinism.
In Kráva, this stoic-optimistic message is given credence by being presented as a piece of folk wisdom, and here the rural setting and narrative echoing of older forms of story-telling, such as fairy-tales, ballads, parables and myths, all work effectively to present this message in a believable form and put a positive edge to it. Could the moral of this tale have been presented as effectively in an urban setting embedded in a story told in a contemporary way? Even had Kachyňa wanted to make films in this style, the answer is probably no.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that another of the most poetic Czech films of the 1990s, Ivan Vojnár's Cesta pustým lesem (The Way Through the Bleak Woods, 1997) has many things in common with Kráva: they are both set in isolated forest regions; they both portray provincial poverty; they are both punctuated by contemplative shots of mist hanging over conifers in lush valleys and, more significantly, they are both dedicated to portraying the unrelenting struggle of life. Where they differ is in their film language.
Kachyňa seems to be trying to conjure up a pre-modern simplicity that is more fundamental than either the avant-garde cutting techniques the director used in the 1960s to create fluid, elliptical narratives or, at the other end of the scale, the rigid linearity of Hollywood story-telling. Vojnár, on the other hand, uses a narrative structure which is more modernist in its poetism, with its stylised recreation of the visual qualities of old black-and-white photographs.
Kachyňa's relatively straightforward use of colour (through photography by Petr Hojda) is noticeable in contrast to that of Cesta pustým lesem, and against Kachyňa's own 1960s films the photography may seem to be something of a retreat—even clichéd in places. But viewed in its own right, Kráva shows evidence of a desire to create a more naturalistic visual scheme to match the folk philosophy of the film.
It's hard to speculate why Kachyňa succeeded with this film when so many of his contemporaries failed to deliver. Perhaps, it is just that he managed to hit on a potent mixture of exploring themes he knew well and taking them into new ground. Perhaps, it was some stronger feeling aroused within him, as after making the film he married lead actress Alena Mihulová.
Andrew James Horton
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Images courtesy of CinemArt