My curriculum was packed with boring subjects when I was at school. Maths was always a chore, chemistry was just soul-crushing, and history was the biggest snooze. For three years we sat in the same brown dusty classroom full of brown dusty books, listening to the teacher drone on. He was a pale gingery man who resembled the Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and always wore a brown suit that looked like it was tailored from a rest home carpet. We only ever seemed to study World War I and II, without ever finding out any of the larger context surrounding the conflicts.
It was only after I left school and started reading up on things by myself that I came to wonder: how does anyone make a subject like World War II boring? On paper, it’s like the synopsis of the greatest, most exciting war movie ever made. I realized that it wasn’t the subject that was boring, it was the teacher. It’s the way you tell ’em, I suppose.
On paper, 3 Seasons in Hell sounds like pretty suspenseful stuff. Opening in 1947 Czechoslovakia, we follow a young nonconformist poet who falls in with a Bohemian crowd, just as the Communist regime seizes control of the country and starts clamping down on intellectual and subversive activities that don’t suit their agenda. Our arrogant young hero soon finds himself in increasing danger…
Based on the diaries of Czech author Egon Bondy, Krystof Hádek (Dark Blue World) plays the fictional poet Ivan Heinz. Opinionated and pretentious, Ivan thinks he’s got the mysteries of the world cracked at the age of 19 and leaves home to shack up with a bunch of Bohemian intellectual and creative types, including his penniless artist friend Hanus (Tomasz Tyndyk). The first part of the film is the strongest, as we accompany Ivan into this exciting new life of booze, writing, highfalutin conversations, promiscuous women, and endless cigarettes.
Ivan should be an insufferable character to spend time with, but Hádek uses his buoyant energy and choirboy looks to reveal insecurity and naivety behind his character’s outward self-assurance. This is especially apparent when he becomes smitten with Jana (Karolina Gruszka), a rich girl playing poet and slumming it in his world. Ivan might talk a good fight but seems like a lost little boy when confronted with the more debauched and sexually liberated elements of the Bohemian lifestyle.
After his poetry receives a scathing personal review from an esteemed critic, Ivan starts developing his art. However, the machinations of the Communist overlords are bearing down on the country, secret police start following him, and he begins to realize that all his pretensions of non-conformism and provocative talk about Marxism suddenly don’t seem like such a lark with the regime suddenly at his heels.
It is precisely when things start getting serious for Ivan and Jana that 3 Seasons in Hell begins grinding to a halt, which is disastrous for the movie. By the end, the film barely has enough momentum to creep over the finishing line to its denouement.
In short, it’s a fascinating story made boring by its director, Tomás Masín. It looks gorgeous, with all the meticulous cinematography and attention to period detail that we have come to expect from a prestige picture with at least one eye on Awards season. The trouble is, the painstakingly respectable style of the film feels at odds with the sensibilities of the wannabe provocateurs and radicals at its centre, coming across as infuriatingly polite when it should be turning the screws.
It lacks energy and most of the blame must fall to the director. Masín directs every scene in the same way, whether it’s a romantic moment between Ivan and Jana, or Ivan’s risky underground assignment to deliver black market penicillin in Vienna. The latter scene lacks any suspense and Masín singularly fails to use the tools at his disposal to either heighten tension or show the psychological state of Ivan while undertaking such a dangerous job – it comes across as almost comical, as Ivan uses an oversized and very conspicuous funeral wreath as some sort of disguise. By contrast, while we’re on the subject of dodgy penicillin in Vienna, think about how Carol Reed uses expressionistic lighting and crazy dutch angles to externalize the confusion of his protagonist in The Third Man.
Performances are generally solid. Hádek is a committed and watchable lead, but he doesn’t have the range to fully convince as Ivan’s journey becomes more harrowing and perilous. Gruszka is believably mysterious and alluring as the object of his desire, and Tyndyk does some good work in a limited role as Ivan’s tragic friend. Miroslav Krobot pops up in a small but crucial part as a doctor who sticks his neck out to save Ivan from the authorities.
There’s a very good film to be made about this period of Czech history. It’s still early days in my exploration of Czech cinema, so maybe it’s out there already but I’ve yet to encounter it. One thing I can say for certain is that 3 Seasons from Hell isn’t it – despite the dramatic title, it played more like 3 Years in My Boring Old History Teacher’s Classroom.
At the time of writing, 3 Seasons from Hell is showing on Amazon Prime with English subtitles.