Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 9 
15 Sept
2003

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Karel Kachyna's Lasky mezi kapkami deste</I> (<I>Love Between Rain Drops</I>, 1979) CZECH REPUBLIC
After the black wave
Poetry and tragedy in the post-1960s films of Karel Kachyňa

After the dramatically tense "Black Series" he made in the 1960s, Kachyňa turned to melodrama and nostalgia. Ivana Košuličová traces the directors development of his favourite themes in this contrasting style.


Karel Kachyňa belongs to the generation of film-makers whom Peter Hames calls the "First Wave" and which in Czech film history has become known as "Generation 57," from the fact that most of them made their feature debuts in the second half of the 1950s. This group includes directors such as Vojtěch Jasný, Ján Kadár, František Vláčil, Ladislav Helge, Zbyněk Brynych and Štefan Uher, whose films broke the previously prevailing trend of Socialist Realism; they brought poetic images (Jasný, Vláčil) or, on the other hand, satire (Kadár) back to Czech cinematography. In doing so, they paved the way for emerging young directors who later became known as the Czech New Wave.

In the second half of the 1960s, the work of the older First Wave generation the work of New Wave directors (Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Jan Němec, Jiří Menzel, Antonín Máša, Pavel Juráček and others) created the Czechoslovak Cinematic Miracle, the golden epoch of Czech film that was never overcome and which still stays on as a reference point to which work of many new directors (such as Saša Gedeon and Bohdan Sláma) has been compared.

The golden epoch of Czech film in the 1960s was also the most creative period in Karel Kachyňa's work, which was, at that time, closely connected with the writer Jan Procházka. Films that arose out of their co-operation—such as Vysoká zeď (High Wall, 1964), Ať žije republika! (Long Live the Republic!,1965), Kočár do Vídnĕ (Coach to Vienna,1966), Noc nevĕsty (Night of the Bride,1967) and Ucho (The Ear, 1970)—are generally perceived as the best in Kachyňa's career. But with the following era of Normalization, the team broke up and Procházka, who came to be considered as an "enemy of socialism," was constantly under pressure and soon died.

Kachyňa by himself never reached the level of his 1960s work and it could be said he never even got close to it for next 20 years. It wasn't until the beginning of the 1990s when Kachyňa made films that finally seemed continue his work from the 1960s, and once again these were films he created from stories by Jan Procházka, Městem chodí Mikuláš (St. Nicholas in Town, 1992) and Kráva (The Cow, 1993).

Empty lyricism between rain drops

In Kachyňa's work during the 1970s and the 80s—as in his films from the beginning of the 60s, Trápení (Suffering, 1962), Závrať (Vertigo, 1963) and Vysoká zeď (The High Wall, 1964)—he concentrated mostly on young heroes going through adolescence. The characters usually experience emotional changes and they are frequently confronted with the mostly darkened outside world of adults. While this is still true of the post-1960s films, sentimental and melodramatic elements increasingly come to the surface.

One example of this is the film Lásky mezi kapkami deště (Love Between Rain Drops, 1979). The film is a mosaic of stories connected to the main hero, a boy Kajda (Lukáš Vaculík). Through Kajda's eyes, we see the world of adults: his sister Věra (Zlata Adamovská), who has moved away from the family and lives with rich, married men as their lover; the father (Vladimír Menšík), a shoemaker, who due to the loss of his wife and a failing business goes almost mad and starts to spend more and more time drinking; and his brother Pepan (Jan Hrušínský), the opposite of the romantic and sensitive Kajda.

Kajda as the main character is also the narrator through whose eyes we see the outside world. The whole story happens against the backdrop of the build up to the Second World War. But there isn't any conflict, any exciting tension between an innocent boy and the historical time he has to live in like it as in the film Ať žije republika!. The director concentrates more on the love story between Kajda and a young girl Pája (Tereza Pokorná). This tendency to emphasis personal relationships over historical background can also be seen also in other Kachyňa's films, such are Oznamuje se láskám vašim (It's Being Announced to Your Loved Ones, 1988) or Hanele (1999).

The director paraphrases the relationship of Kajda and Pája as the story of Adam and Eve. The couple finds a secret garden that's separated from the outside world and seems like a paradise compared to Žižkov, the industrial part of Prague where they both live. The garden is an island where they can hide from the world and forget for a moment their everyday reality (in Pája's case, her drunken father and many smaller siblings to take care of). In addition to the Biblical nature of the couple, Kachyňa also puts in the game a God-like figure: an old pharmacist who owns the garden, which he surveys from his high terrace with a pair of binoculars, and who benevolently lets the couple meet and play there. He also lets them eat everything from the garden—except grapes, consumption of which will lead to their expulsion, never to come back again.

The old owner of the garden (who is played by Rudolf Hrušínský) trusts their love and bets on them against a friend named Devil (Miroslav Macháček), who comes to see the loving couple. But later on Pája takes Pepan to the garden, and he makes her to pick up a grape for him, which has terrible consequences: they have to leave the garden, Pája gets pregnant with Pepan and thus loses Kajda, and finally war breaks out.

In this film, Kachyňa uses poetic images to recreate the atmosphere of Žižkov in the middle of the 20th century. The director works with coloring certain sequences in a particular tone. While the whole film is shot in color, the scenes presenting memories of Kajda's very early childhood are tinted yellow. This is a very common technique in Kachyňa's work, also visible in films such as Láska or Kráva.

But within the story of Lásky mezi kapkami deště and many other films Kachyňa made after 1970 the poetic images don't have the same emotional impact because they are not put in contrast with a tragedy. The characters have less dramatic tension both between themselves and in relation to their historical context. The story, therefore, comes over as rather shallow, with the metaphor of Adam and Eve seeming rather kitschy in relation to grand historical tragedy of the Second World War that the film points towards. Melodrama, sentiment and nostalgia win out over the "tragic poetry" that was significant for Kachyňa's earlier work such are Kočár do Vídně and Ať žije republika.

A lost paradise of teenage heroes

Kachyňa's always likes to experiment with film image, camera lenses and most of all with colors that can give the scene a nostalgic atmosphere of a lost paradise.

In Láska (Love, 1973) the director starts filming in black and white, but then he inserts images in color, just to emphasize certain items within the picture, and then comes back to black and white again. The colorful poetic sequences illustrate the emotional world of the characters, their memories, dreams or visions and often stay in a deep contrast to the real life of the characters.

Similarly Kachyňa works in Robinsonka (1974) where the real life troubles of the young heroin Blaženka (Miroslava Šafránková) merges with poetic and adventurous world she created in her dreams. Like the literary character Robinson Crusoe from the book written by Daniel Defoe, Blaženka likes to imagine she is on a desolate island and has to find a way how to survive. After the death of her mother she stays together with her baby brother and has to take care of the family. In this difficult situation, she plays this role-game that helps her to deal with the sudden loss of her mother. Kachyňa again uses poetic images with symbols to present the inner world of the teenage girl (such as scene when he shows the girl lying in the bed with the horizon of an open see to signify not only her loneliness and desolation, but also the presence of death or more exactly the world of dead symbolized by the sea).

In the 1970s and 80s, Kachyňa often concentrated on the problems of young heroes and used the poetic images to show their emotions and feelings as in Láska or Robinsonka.

And as we could see from these two films, he always portrays young people coming from a difficult family situation. Kachyňa's children are never happy. Many times the main character loses one of his (her) parents in childhood and has to face up to it. They are children who grew up too soon, who became adults before it was necessary. For the contrast between the inner world of the children and the outside world, Kachyňa inserts in the films sequences picturing their past, memories or dreams connected to the lost never-never land. But it's not "only" the loss of one parent (by death or divorce) that seriously influences the young hero but also the recent situation he (she) lives in: usually problems with the other parent and experience of first love.

Andrea (Jaroslava Schallerová) the main heroine of Láska lives only with her divorced mother and comes through emotional crises when the mother falls in love and brings in the house her lover's son. Blaženka from the film Robinsonka stays alone with her father after her mother dies while giving birth. Kajda, the hero of Lásky mezi kapkami deště looses his mother and has to live with his heartsick father. Ruda (Radoslav Budáč), the main character of the nineties film Městem chodí Mikuláš is left by his mother and has to stay in a hospital because he has nowhere to comeback. We can only guess the difficult life he had to live before we meet him that made him rebel against all authorities. Adam (Radek Holub) from Kráva is already an adult but also looses both of his parents; he never knew his father and his mother is dying right in the beginning of the film.

This way Kachyňa portrays not only the young heroes but also the world of adults that enclose them. In the adult characters he shows emotional and life disillusion. They are often unhappy personalities with feeling of emptiness and life betrayal. It is this adult world, world of sadness and disappointment that the young heroes are often confronted with. The world of adults is often dark, filthy, without honesty.

This conflict between children and the world of adults we could also find in Kachyňa's more recent films from the beginning of the 90s Městem chodí Mikuláš and partly also in Kráva. Both of the films are based on stories written by Jan Procházka.

The return to tragedy

Městem chodí Mikuláš, is a film based on Procházka's short story "Lže a krade" (He Lies and steals). The story takes place mostly in a hospital at children's department. The chosen background gives the director the possibility here again to contrasts the world of children and the adults. There are three generations meeting in this hospital. The older one is represented by doctor Koníček (Josef Abrhám) called by nurses as Kůň (Horse), and a charge nurse (Eliška Balzerová) named as Koza (Goat). They are middle age people embodying life disappointment and disillusion. Besides them there is a younger generation of nurses who are already adults but haven't been 'touched' by the life betrayal yet. And then there are the children from a very early age till almost the teenage. Their leader is Ruda (Radoslav Budáč), the oldest boy in the room and also the trouble-maker. These three worlds interestingly interact during one night when St. Nicholas goes through the town and gives presents to children who behaved well.

In contrast to Kachyňa's previous films from 1970s, as discussed above, this film connects the lyric images and the tragic line of the story well. After the 1960s Kachyňa didn't seem to balance lyricism with tragedy in the way he used to. Even when his characters always went through certain kind of life suffering the lyricism and sentiment always seemed to prevail over the tragedy. In Městem chodí Mikuláš and later in an even more concentrated form in Kráva the director creates emotionally strong scenes by contrasting poetic images or moments and tragic situations coming from well done psychological portraits of the characters.

The first scene of Městem chodí Mikuláš shows three children in the costumes of St Nicholas, an angel and the devil in slow motion. It's a special magic night when we meet all the characters and their life stories. A young nurse Alenka (Alena Mihulová) tries to hide her feelings for doctor Koníček from other nurses, she desperately wants to give him her love, help him, save him from the bad life he is leading. When she has a chance she kisses him and wants to leave with him and start a new life. The doctor she fell in love with though is an alcoholic who steals money, cigarettes and coffee from the nurses. He is a big talker who always puts himself in the position of the betrayed one and doesn't admit culpability in the predicaments he finds himself in.

Charge nurse Koza is the most hateful person in the hospital, she secretly comes in the building over the fence and she puts on shoes just before she enters the door and suddenly checks the nurses and doctor in the room. Especially in the case of the charge nurse, the director step by step tells more about the character, about her life story that explains her current behaviour. Experiences from the past are always very significant for Kachyňa's characters, and the director always tells us piece by piece the crucial moments that finally construct the whole character in front of our eyes and makes us understand their previous behaving. And it is in this way that Kachyňa also portrays Adam, the main character of Kráva.

In Městem chodí Mikuláš the tragic moments of the character's lives stay in deep contrast to the poetic images of the mysterious night. In the merger of tragic and poetic moments I see continuity with the director's previous films from the 60s which is even more evident in Kachyňa's next film Kráva.

The story of Kráva takes place somewhere in remote land in no specific time and tells about the struggle of living an ordinary life far from civilization. Adam's life is devoted to a little field he creates up on a steep hill beside his cottage. Every day he brings soil from the lowlands so he could grow some plants. Kachyňa again inserts sequences of Adam's childhood that explain his behaving in recent time, such as his hate when woman uses red lipstick which evokes him memories of his mother's sexual adventures. These sequences serve as a window into the hero's inner world, into his most repressed memories. Again Kachyňa manages to connect the psychological portrait of the main character with poetic images and tragic events.

After the death of his mother Adam meets a girl Rosa (Alena Mihulová) who seems to be the same nature as his mother. She wants to stay with him in the house but he rejects her until he rapes her and then lets her stay. During the time they fall in love but at the point when they reach certain happiness disaster comes. As it is obvious from the content the film has traditional narrative structure as most of Kachyňa's other films. He generally experiments more with film image than with narration. But Kráva with the tragic narrative structure combined with poetic elements meant director's come back to the poetic of his films from sixties.

Unfortunately, it also is his last film about which this can be said. In the second half of the 1990s, Kachyňa made two more feature films Fany (Fanny, 1995) and Hanele (Hanele, 1999). Neither of them reached the level of just mentioned films, although the commercial success of Fany was impressive especially because of the popularity and acting abilities of Jiřina Bohdalová in the title role. But in this film Kachyňa is too direct, there is nothing to read between the lines: everything the director wants to tell the spectator he does directly though the dialogues of the characters.

Kachyňa's latest feature film Hanele was criticized for asserting the love story between the girl Hanele and two men: her friend from childhood Šlojme Kac and her "adult" love, a businessman Ivo Karadžič to the prejudice of repression of the historical context.[1] This is nothing new in Kachyňa's work, and, as mentioned before, the same tendency can also be seen in films Lásky mezi kapkami deště or Oznamuje se láskám vašim (1988). Marie Mravcová also points out that "the film story misses tragic dimension" [2] which is the common problem of most of Kachyňa's work after Ucho (The Ear, 1970).

The strongest films Kachyňa made during his long film career always combined a tragic narrative structure and poetic elements. Often during the last 30 years, the director in his work has headed towards nostalgia and sentiment more than towards tragedy. But because of this, the return towards this conception in the 1990s was that much more impressive. We can only hope his future projects will keep heading in this direction.

Ivana Košuličová

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Also of interest
About the author

Ivana Košuličová is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film and Audio-Visual Culture at the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University in Brno. She also writes reviews for the Czech film journals Film a doba and Cinepur.


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Footnotes

1. Švankmajer, Jan: Transmutace smyslů. Středoevropská galerie a nakladatelství (Praha: 1994).return to text

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