How do you even start with a personage the size of Jára Cimrman? I feel like I’m describing Leonardo da Vinci using nothing but Morse code printed on popsicle sticks. I’d love to just talk about the film, Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping but without context, it would make no sense to you. So I’ll try to give you a sliver of a fragment of an introduction to the best playwright, philosopher, skier, and teacher – Jára Cimrman.
Jára Cimrman: Cultural Icon
This man is the closest thing to a national treasure the Czechs have, and he is still very much alive in the cultural space: his more than 15 plays are still running, he has a museum in Prague’s watchtower, Petřín, and he even has an asteroid named after him (7796 Járacimrman). His biggest peak was probably the 2005 Greatest Czech competition (which happened in reaction to the 100 Greatest Britons show in the UK and across Europe). But Cimrman didn’t make it in the end. He was unrightfully disqualified for being fictional…
Jára Cimrman: Cultural Fiction
Created in 1966 by Ladislav Smoljak, Jiří Šebánek and Zdeněk Svěrák for a little-known radio show “U Pavouka” Cimrman was conceived as a Leonardo da Vinci-type lost to history. And when the same people put together a theatre group, they claimed that all the plays they performed were actually penned by this lost master from the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Why this deception, you ask? It may have had something to do with the oppressive Communist regime and its infamous censorship. This way the “Cimrmanologists” (as the group came to call itself) managed to fool the censors by pretending that they had unearthed a great Czech genius. And since Jára Cimrman was set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many people, the censors included, didn’t put two and two together and realise that these plays were actually an indirect satire of the communist regime. At least at the start.
Ok, that was then, but why is he still so popular now? After all, so many artists and cultural artefacts didn’t survive the regime change and have since fallen into deep obscurity, but not Cimrman. The reason for that is, well … complicated.
Jára Cimrman: The German Czech
If Cimrman served as a clever ruse to fool censors and nothing else, he would probably be all but forgotten today. But Smoljak and Svěrák wrote a much more complex character. One that, I’d argue, captures a certain historical feeling of the Czech nation as a whole.
Similar to Švejk (a puzzlingly more recognized figure outside of the Czech Republic) Cimrman is a hero of ambivalence. He is an inventor and a writer but he’s never recognized. He is an ardent nationalist but he’s half Austrian and grew up in France. And character-wise, he always fails, always sinks a bit lower and always finds a new humiliation in the world, but he never gives up. In a way he is the ultimate Czech, constantly failing but trudging on regardless.
The heroes we celebrate often mirror a certain image we have of ourselves. Americans have superheroes, Brits have dry-witted if socially awkward lords, but Czechs? We have a forgotten gem. A genuine renaissance man who just happened to slip through the cracks of history. For a small nation like ours that has suffered through subordination by an Empire, by Nazis, and by Communism, it’s not hard to see how we came to think of ourselves as an ambitious, plucky nation doomed to forever fail. And it’s also not hard to see how that becomes funny to us after a while.
Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping
Right, so now we can talk about the film. The director, Ladislav Smoljak, managed to film a parody of communism in 1983. Censors must’ve been getting sloppy. And even though they meddled with the film a little bit, it still managed to capture everything I talked about so far and more.
The film is a biopic about an academic (Josef Abrhám) who, trying to unearth the forgotten genius of Jára Cimrman (Zdeněk Svěrák) comes to Liptákov, a small village where Cimrman was last seen. From this framing device the film jumps from one short episode of Cimrman’s rise and fall to the next which makes it feel more like a sketch comedy at times. But the framing device provides a much-needed closure and a final stroke of absurdity to top the film off (Searching for Sugar Man style). At the same time, this film gives you good idea of the humour and Cirmman’s story, even if you’re new to this cultural phenomenon.
But I’d argue there’s a bit more to the film than that. Cimrman does not get a happy ending (or it’s at least arguable) and the film instead ends on a note of palpable melancholy. There is something tragi-comedic about it, and it’s precisely this that makes him a national treasure, in my eyes. The light humour and absurd situations both mask and reveal a tragic persona whose constant failings and tragedies mirror those of a nation. In the end, you might find yourself feeling like they forgot to film the punchline. And in a way, I think we’re all still waiting for one.
Jára Cimrman: Up and About
If you’re interested, the film (as well as the plays) are more than worth the watch. There is absurdist comedy, mock academic lectures, and subversive anti-communist messaging abound. But Cimrman the character has long since spilt outside the silver screen and into the real world.
If you go on ČSFD (Czech IMDb), and see the comments under Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping, or you visit his Wikipedia page and read through some his supposed achievements, you’ll realise that what survives of Cimrman is the humour itself. And in a way, it is the humour that carries Cimrman and Czechs through hard or difficult times (looking at you, Corona).
To conclude, there’s a small street far from the centre of Brno which was named after Jára Cimrman. It’s picturesque, calm, and through either the sheer force of luck or the clever design of an unnamed hero, the street is a dead end.