There can be no greater picture of contentment than a Czech guy standing with a beer in his hand, meat on the grill, and his feet in the grass on a summer’s day. Czechs rarely need an excuse to evacuate the towns and cities at the weekends and holidays and head out to the forests, lakes and hills, where many still own a vacation cottage. They genuinely seem to draw spiritual energy from contact with their nature, which stands in stark contrast to back home in Britain. For many urban dwelling Brits, a trip to the countryside is something to be dutifully endured rather than enjoyed. This may be the reason that we have folk horror, and the Czechs have gentle folk comedies likeNa samotě u lesa.
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…” – Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man
Troubled times often produce great art. In Seventies America, directors finding freedom after the collapse of the old Hollywood system were able to use the uncertainty and paranoia of the time as muse, producing an incredible sequence of films. These movies captured the sombre tone of the Nixon and late Vietnam era, as well as channelling the psychic fallout from the tumultuous previous decade. They were often cynical, fatalistic, angry, paranoid, usually featuring ambiguous or dislikeable protagonists and open-ended or downbeat conclusions, but they were – and still are – a feast for cinephiles.
“Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts…” – Kellyanne Conway
I don’t wish to link every single movie I review to current events, but I was curious coming into Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil) to see how it would play in our post-truth world. Here is a beloved literary and cinematic character whose tall stories have enchanted people for over two centuries. But let’s face it, he’s a bullshitter, brazenly embellishing tales of his own amazing feats while deriding his rival as a fantasist – would Munchausen seem so charming in a world where Donald Trump constantly does the same thing, albeit with much less elan? Nowadays our social media feeds are bombarded with stories of people who, not liking the facts, make up their own and then vociferously rage at their opponents as liars. Against this backdrop, can we listen to any more bullshit on our free time?
“What do you think of Slunce, Seno, Jahody?” I messaged a Czech friend after my first viewing of the lowbrow villagecore classic.
“Cheap jokes for people who vote Zeman.” Came her rather sniffy reply.
Sign of the times, I guess – I wanted to talk movies and she gets all political on me. Not that her reply was entirely unexpected. The film has a reputation of being loud, crude and stupid – pretty much how young progressive urban Czechs regard those living in rural areas, who tend to be the kind of people who vote for Trump-ish characters like the drunken, bigoted, chain-smoking President Zeman.
Make no mistake, Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely loud, crude and stupid. To give an example of the level of humour, one scene features a senile old lady trying to hide a turd from her overbearing daughter. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. However, the film has a directness that I appreciated, unlike the ponderous pace of so many Czech movies I’ve seen so far. It bounces along nicely with a goofy energy that I found genuinely charming.
Death comes to us all, and when that last moment stretches out to eternity, all men face the same questions. Have I lived my life to the fullest? Have I done the best for my loved ones? Was I man enough when circumstances demanded it? Did I dare disturb the universe? Did I get enough blowjobs?
Andělé všedního dne by Alice Nellis is a crass, tasteless and utterly depressing film. It tries to say things about mortality and kindness, but is literally about a man who thinks his life is shit because he’s never been sucked off before.
Ever reliable Bolek Polívka plays Karel, an ageing driving instructor stuck in a loveless marriage with his neurotic, sour-faced wife Marie (Zuzana Bydžovská). They’ve been married for twenty-seven years, but he’s never experienced the pleasures of oral sex. Karel has the hots for Ester (Klára Melíšková), one of his pupils and a recently widowed doctor. It is the last day of Karel’s life, and four angels arrive on earth to oversee his final few hours.
There are other characters vaguely populating the background, including Václav Neužil as a stalker, whose life will intersect with Karel’s at the most unlikely and inconvenient moment. Andělé všedního dne is a small film overcrowded with lots of thinly written characters, but its main dramatic thrust depends on this – will Karel die with a smile on his face?
Unlike where I come from in England, we tend to get long hot summers here in the Czech Republic. The good weather sets in towards the end of April and usually runs through until late September. It’s my ninth summer here now and each year, sometime around late August, when the nights are drawing in and there’s a breath of autumn on the breeze, I’m always struck by a bittersweet feeling. It’s a sense of longing and loss and melancholy, a sensation that has intensified as the years ticked down towards my 40th birthday. Somewhere inside I sigh and think, “Well, that’s another year over.” Followed by a nasty little whisper at the back of my mind, “How many good summers have you got left?”
That bittersweet feeling is captured so beautifully by Jiří Menzel’s Rozmarné Léto. I first saw it very early after we arrived to live in the Czech Republic, and initially I was quite dismissive of it. I hadn’t adjusted to the rhythm and pace of Czech films and to me it felt like a pilot for a sitcom, mainly because of its surface similarity to the long running British comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine, which followed the shenanigans of three retired blokes in a small town in northern England.
Rozmarné Léto is a perennial favourite in the Czech Republic. It is Menzel’s follow up to his Oscar nominated Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vančura. It’s a gentle yet neatly observed bedroom face about three old friends whose comfortable boredom is disrupted when a travelling acrobat rolls into town, and each one’s trousers are set a-rustling by his beautiful young assistant.
Every now and then two films come out around the same time covering the same topic – Twilight and Let the Right One In; Deep Impact and Armageddon; Hitchcock and The Girl. A few years ago, there was a mesmerising, beautifully erotic examination of a couple involved in a kinky sub-dom relationship. It was called The Duke of Burgundy, and Jamie Dornan wasn’t in it. He was in the other one, Fifty Shades of something.
Then we had two films released within a few months of each other about the valiant Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated Hitler’s third in command, Reinhard Heydrich. First out of the gate was Anthropoid, starring Dornan alongside Cillian Murphy, followed by HHhH, an adaptation of Laurent Binet’s well-received novel. Would Dornan be in the better movie of the two this time round?
I hate to say it without seeing both, but probably not. Any film on this subject is bound to be compared to Binet’s terrific book, which managed the tricky task of making a historic event genuinely suspenseful and exciting. The book had scope, compassion and a lightness of touch, and the chapters covering the assassination and the parachutist’s last stand in a Prague cathedral flew past so quick that I left burn marks on the pages. It’s a fantastic story that deserves a modern re-telling (although maybe not twice in the space of a year), and I dearly hoped that Anthropoid would do justice to the tale.