Director Karel Kachyna (The Ear) gets his metaphors in early in Forbidden Dreams, otherwise known by its more evocative Czech title, Smrt krásných srnců (The Death of Beautiful Deer). Mr Popper (Karel Heřmánek), a Jewish vacuum cleaner salesman who can’t stop hopping into bed with his female customers, is out fishing in the countryside with his two eldest sons. Through his binoculars, he spots a herd of deer and he is struck by their beauty – but also spies danger threatening in the form of a hunting dog bearing down on the innocent creatures.
The dog belongs to their grumpy uncle Karel (Rudolf Hrušínský), who loves getting his teeth into some freshly savaged venison. Mr Popper regards killing a deer as almost as bad as killing a human. Popper has no qualms about catching and eating fish, however, and his passion for carp is intertwined with his fortunes throughout the film.
The setting is pre-war Czechoslovakia, and Mr Popper is introduced as a resourceful chancer with a taste for the good life, although those tastes often run him into trouble. He is skint and the family is in debt to the butcher, grocer and the pub, but Popper thinks the latest Electrolux model he receives from Head Office in Prague will pretty much sell itself.
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Plying his trade in the villages, however, he finds that the locals aren’t too impressed with his new-fangled device. His luck changes when he rescues a drowning man with the help of the cable from one of his vacuum cleaners. The man turns out to be a rich benefactor, who buys a few units out of gratitude and throws a party so Popper can sell some more hoovers to his wealthy friends.
Suddenly flush, Popper starts splashing money around, treating the family and sending his sons for boxing lessons with a former champ. Life is good. Now bursting with confidence, Popper cooks up a variety of lucrative schemes to keep the cash rolling in.
Dark days lay ahead, though, as Czechoslovakia falls to the Nazis. Jewish salesmen aren’t in much demand in the protectorate and Popper suddenly finds himself out of work. He retreats to the countryside to sit out the war and live off his carp pond, but is soon driven to destitution by the new regime and must find ever-more risky ways to provide for his family…
Heřmánek is not exactly a prolific actor, but he is a strong lead as Popper, a loving family man but also a shameless philanderer, who sees the endless supply of lonely housewives as a perk of the job. He is relentlessly upbeat about his ability to find a solution to a problem. His self-confidence eventually contributes to his family’s downfall, as it blinkers him to the threat of the Nazi regime, which everyone sees but him.
Heřmánek is supported by a talented cast. Hrušínský lends the film his usual gravitas in a limited amount of screen time, as a man of few words who helps out his friend the best he can without also putting his head in the noose. Jiří Krampol provides a memorable characterisation as Hejtmánek, Popper’s friend and former boxing champion, as does Lubor Tokoš as Professor Nejezchleb, a reclusive famous painter who the salesman befriends. Less well served by the screenplay is Marta Vančurová as Mrs Popper, who has little to do other than play the dutiful housewife to her errant husband.
Karel Kachyna, a veteran of dozens of films, deploys a lively, constantly roving camera that gives the film a playful tone in the light-hearted first half, getting in and among his actors. This jauntiness matches Popper’s character, but also creates a false sense of security. Once Popper is wearing a yellow star on his jacket and is forced to take mortal risks to put food on the table, that same camerawork locks us into a state of anxious immediacy. The close proximity to Popper and his family cuts off our lateral view and creates a feeling of unseen danger, making for some very suspenseful moments.
Clocking in at just 86 minutes, Forbidden Dreams wastes little time in entertaining its audience in the first half before putting them through the wringer in the second. The deer metaphor that at first seems so on-the-nose is surprisingly forceful in the haunting final moments, its obviousness giving the film a sense of dreadful inevitability as fate closes in.
This review was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.