Recently, I’ve been reviewing films that dealt with more social and political issues, but this time around, I’m kind of glad to be reviewing a film that focuses on a much more easy-going subject: adolescence. Black Peter — the first feature-length film directed by one of the most celebrated filmmakers of Czech Cinema, Miloš Forman (Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball) — focuses on the life of a young man named Petr (Ladislav Jakim) and his journey through adolescence.
The film begins with Petr on his first day working at a supermarket. He is tasked to keep an eye on the customers and to make sure that they aren’t stealing any of the merchandise, but he is so oblivious to the concept of subtlety that he easily exposes himself. He then proceeds to follow a man he believes may have stolen some merchandise by walking right behind him. Unfortunately, he never really confronts him. This is an interesting way to convey just how young and inexperienced Petr is and how much he has yet to learn…
Andula (Hana Brejchová) works in a shoe factory in a small town where, thanks to inept state planning, women outnumber men by 16 to 1. She shares a dorm in a dreary hostel with several other women of her age, and despite the odds has a good-looking boyfriend called Tonda. He’s bought her a ring and told her the stone in it is a diamond. She wants to believe it.
Loves of a Blonde was Miloš Forman’s sophomore effort after Black Peter (Černý Petr) and is a key film of the Czech New Wave. The title may well be ironic. While Andula certainly seems to have no trouble attracting the attention of the opposite sex, the men in her life don’t seem even remotely capable of giving her the relationship she needs. She is quite worldly compared to some of her friends, but still dreams of love and romance – we can tell that from the opening scene, where she is cuddled up in bed with one of her friends cooing over the ring.
Tonda, despite his respectable portrait pic, turns out to be an aggressive, possessive moron and the other guys in the movie aren’t much better. At a village dance, Andula and two friends are approached by three sleazy middle-aged soldiers who are stationed nearby. Their idea of wooing the girls is to get them drunk and take them for a quick knee-trembler in the woods nearby…
Miloš Forman’s last Czech film, The Firemen’s Ball, starts off as a lighthearted farce. By the time the film reaches its masterful third act, it has become a tragicomedy of tremendous allegorical power.
It can be seen in numerous ways. A literal reading got Forman in hot water with real fire crews up and down the land, who saw it as an attack on their honour and integrity, resulting in Forman touring the country to make amends. You could interpret it as an indictment of human foibles and corruptibility; a satire on corporate groupthink; or a stealth condemnation of the Communist system. The Czechoslovakian Communist party certainly saw it as the latter, resulting in the film being “banned forever”.
The story is slight but builds irrevocably towards its conclusion, where details that seem innocuous in the set up suddenly take on massive significance. The committee of a small-town fire department is arranging a ball. The entry is 8kc and attractions include a band, a tombola and a beauty pageant. The guest of honour is the firemen’s retired president, and the plan is to get the winner of the beauty contest to present him with a ceremonial axe for his 86th birthday.
Things quickly go south. One of the firemen, Josef (Josef Kolb), is in charge of the tombola and is panicked when the prizes start going missing before the doors even open. The committee hasn’t selected their contestants for the pageant yet, and hurriedly spend the early part of the ball trying to recruit prospects from the attendees. The selection process also seems to have an ulterior motive, as the largely middle-aged committee see it as an excuse to ogle young women…
“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.