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By Marilyn Ferdinand
From March 7 through April 3, the Gene Siskel Film Center holds what is arguably Chicago’s best festival of new cinema gathered from the countries of the European Union. Such films as Alois Nebel (2011), Tell No One (2006), Time to Die (2007), and The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) are just some of the extraordinary films that had their Midwest or North American premiere at the festival.
This year, I’ve been granted the privilege of previewing the films as a member of the press. In deference to the awesome Lori Hile, who helped arrange my credentials, the format of my reviews will be abbreviated to conform with the Film Center’s requirements. I may return with full reviews after the festival.
So in fits and spurts, as I finish screeners or attend screenings, here is my coverage of some of the films on offer at this 2014 edition of the greatest show on State Street.
Tricked (2012, The Netherlands)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven hasn’t released a film in six years, so when I saw that Tricked was on the EU festival schedule, I was very excited to see the latest from this genre-bending, original director. Sadly, I almost missed the film, such as it is, because Verhoeven decided to preface it with a 45-minute documentary about the making of Tricked; I thought I had misread the program and considered walking out on this pedantic vanity exercise. The 74-year-old director must feel creatively blocked, because he decided to crowdsource the script, one scene at a time. The lengthy and cumbersome process did not bear the kind of fruit he wanted, and he ended up cowriting much of the film with Robert Alberdingk Thijm. The result is a very funny 50-minute sitcom/soap opera about a philandering husband whose affairs put him in hot water with his floundering construction company and his family. While not classic Verhoeven, Tricked still shows his flair for genre work and reflects his roots in television and early handheld camera work.
The Excursionist (2013, Lithuania)
Director: Audrius Juzėnas
The national cinema of Lithuania is in rather sad shape, so the entry of an ambitious film like The Excursionist is certainly cause for celebration. The film purports to tell the true story of a Lithuanian girl who escaped the Soviet-ordered deportation (“excursion”) to the detention camps of the Gulag and traveled back to Vilnius over the course of more than two years. This type of story is more familiar to audiences in a Nazi-Jew format, and seeing stories of the hardships suffered by Soviet bloc countries on screen, as with the excellent Czech film Alois Nebel shown at the EU festival last year, is a welcome historical expansion. The film itself is hampered by its sense of its own importance and a cloying score that underlines in red the terrible hardships suffered by the protagonist. The film feels long, but it held my attention primarily due to the remarkable debut performance of Anastasija Marcenkaitė in the demanding title role. In the end, director Juzėnas transforms this personal story into an allegory for all conquered peoples who resist their oppressors.
Cycling with Molière (Alceste à bicyclette, 2013, France)
Director/Screenwriter: Philippe Le Guay
For my money, the best bet of the festival is Cycling with Molière. This superbly acidic comedy affords its two superb leads, Lambert Wilson and Fabrice Luchini, every opportunity to use all the actorly tools at their disposal to enact a cinematic version of Molière’s The Misanthrope for a modern audience. Wilson plays a commercially successful actor on a hit TV show who wants to stretch himself by producing Molière’s famous play and playing Alceste, the title character. He goes to the Île de Ré, a fashionable vacation spot on the west coast of France, to try to convince a reclusive actor who lives there to play Philinte, Alceste’s pragmatic foil. Like Alceste, the actor has turned his back on his profession and everyone he knows after a serious betrayal. He refuses to commit himself until the two of them have rehearsed the play, switching roles each day to see who is the better Alceste. The film is full of uproarious physical comedy, and Wilson and Luchini find the peculiarities and narcissism that humans in the arts and in hiding are heir to. Even better is the chance to hear the poetry of Molière’s play in French, not something American audiences can experience every day. This is a wonderful film. DO NOT MISS IT!
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Germany)
Director: Ramon Zürcher
It is best to approach this apparent slice of life as an experimental film to avoid frustration. The plot, such as it is, involves the interactions and reminiscences of a family gathering at a large Berlin apartment for dinner, perhaps a reunion. What Zürcher appears to be interested in is the magic of everyday life, as he trains his camera on the extraordinarily choreographed movements of the family members as they work across one another to pull dishes out of cabinets and weave in and out of each other’s paths. The fantastic enters the scene, such as when a bottle spins in a pot of hot water and a hacky sack flies through the open window from far down below on the street, an impossible kick for the small boy playing with it. Flashbacks occur when various family members tell stories; these stories, which could be spooky but end up not amounting to much, add a certain amount of suspense, another device Zürcher examines in his formalist approach to filmmaking. The wild cards in the deck are a dog and a cat whose behavior we never really see but who the characters assure us are crazy in what sounds like ad libbed dialog. Zürcher trains his camera on two children, particularly a boy, who observe everyone, clearly stand-ins for the director. What they—and he—think of the scene is largely inscrutable, and so may it be for the audience.
Clownwise (2013, Czech Republic)
Director: Viktor Taus
Think a more fraught and loosely structured The Sunshine Boys meets The Best Years of Our Lives and you’ve about got the gist of this drama about three aged members of a legendary comedy troupe who are headed for one last show. The film is poignant about the passing of time, with members of the troupe and their families facing cancer, Alzheimer’s, estrangement from loved ones, and bitter memories. If the film had worked a little harder on delineating and integrating the stories in a tighter structure, it would have been more compelling to watch. The script has some good moments, and it’s always a pleasure to see Kati Outinen in a film, but there was neither enough clowning nor wisdom for my tastes.
Another One Opens (2013, Austria)
Directors: Jim Libby and Nicolas Neuhold
Vienna’s improv theatre company English Lovers is responsible for this English-language dramedy that claims to be 100 percent improvised. Of course, improvisation with a well-established company isn’t really off the cuff, as the company members are very familiar with working scripts out together. Thus, Another One Opens is coherent, well paced, and quite intriguing, as a magic inn gives five troubled people who were friends in college a chance to repair their lives. The relationships didn’t feel as fleshed as I would have liked, but I was a sucker for the Enchanted April premise and healing passing down through generations of women. Recommended.
The Human Scale (2012, Denmark)
Director: Andreas M. Dalsgaard
This documentary poses some incredibly interesting notions about the history of urban planning and the opportunities that exist to rethink cities both old and new. A cadre of architects from the firm of Danish architect Jan Gehl travel the globe to urbanizing China, crowded Dhaka in Bangladesh, New York City, and Copenhagen, revealing that urban landscapes have been designed to facilitate the movement of automobiles, not the needs of human beings. In a forward-thinking approach to rebuilding Christchurch, New Zealand, after earthquakes devastated its city center, a bottom-up approach to what the people wanted yielded a low-rise landscape with plenty of spaces for people to congregate. As our population explodes and our fossil fuels dwindle, human convenience and human-powered conveyances may be our most sustainable future. Highly recommended.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jirí Menzel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the things I love most about much of Czech cinema is its joyously subversive attitude toward life. When my Czech dentist told me that when efforts to remove a Soviet tank from a square in Prague were going nowhere—the Czechs took it down, the Soviets put it back, and so forth—some Czechs finally laid the matter to rest by painting it pink, too big an embarrassment to the Soviets to let stand. How very Czech! Thus, when I heard a grand master of the Czech New Wave, Jirí Menzel, would have a film at this year’s CIFF, I couldn’t wait to see it.
The last time Menzel showed at the CIFF, it was with his film I Served the King of England (2006), a surprisingly buoyant sex farce set before, during, and a bit after the rise of Nazism in Europe. It was apparent then that Menzel has a prodigious appreciation of the female of the species, his love and joy of women apparent even in the darker sequences portraying the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. In I Served, the main protagonist is a small, horny man, almost a pet to the prostitutes he beds and whose naked bodies he decorates with flowers. In The Don Juans, Menzel lightly tarnishes the innocence of sex he previously celebrated. His central character and occasional first-person narrator, Vítec (Jan Hartl), is a small-town opera director who claims (falsely) to hate opera and who beds as many sopranos as he can get his hands on.
His company is filled with regional singers of varying levels of skill, most of whom have businesses or jobs on the side. For his production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he brings in Jakub (Martin Huba), an aged lyric bass of some renown, to play Don Pedro, the man who condemns Don Giovanni to burn in hell. Jakub was also a Don Juan in his day, and his return to the Czech Republic after a successful career in the United States brings him face to face with a former lover from some 40 years in the past, the eccentric Markétka (Libuse Safránková), whom he impregnated and abandoned. Through Markétka and an ego-deflating soprano (Marie Málková) who tells him that his good luck with women is directly related to what he can do for their careers, Vítec becomes a wiser, if not entirely repentant man.
The Don Juans is a broad comedy with a wealth of sight gags. For example, as Vítec tells us about his lust for sopranos, we get a series of quick-cut images of women’s faces as they hit a high note while laying on his bed, the affirmation of his sexual prowess, at least in his mind. Markétka finds herself in police custody twice, first following a swat team raid on a 250-year-old opera house where she has trespassed with a group of children to stage a children’s opera, and second, after she has driven off with a car being used in a robbery to prevent the theft and crashed it into a butcher shop. Both scenes are played for antic humor, as the heavily armed police watch a long stream of children pour out of the theatre door, and as the hapless woman who doesn’t know how to drive barrels through the streets, all four doors wide open and slamming into objects along the way. Markétka is a delightful character whose reminiscences of Jakub, her greatest love, are dewy and bright, but who is rueful about how such Don Juans leave a trail of tearful women in their wake.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Vítec has inspired such heartbreak in his women. They all pass through his bed and into his shower, where he presents them with a basketful of unopened toothbrushes, unabashed about how many one-night stands he has. None of them seem jealous, confirming that he is a means to an end and nothing more. Vítec’s character takes on the lightest of shades when he comes into Markétka’s orbit; it was his car that was stolen to use in the robbery, and he comes to the police station to meet the woman who wrecked it and sort out the property damages. He learns her story, meets the 40-year-old daughter, 20-year-old granddaughter, and 6-year-old great-granddaughter who emanated from her affair with Jakub, and works to bring them together, a brief encounter that will end for the sick, feeble Jakub as it did for Don Giovanni, in death.
I found the performers enchanting right down to their toes. Safránková plays her part with a combination of ditzy abandon and calculation. Her reverence for the old opera house, learning to work its ancient scenery-changer and introducing Vítec to the glory of the past, seems fitting for a film about an anachronistic art form that in the newly capitalist Czech Republic will be defunded to pursue more lucrative enterprises, like a casino or hockey rink. Yet, the opera company members are moving into the future in much the same way as the rest of the country. Málková is a hard-looking punk rocker, but with her glorious voice, she bumps the less-gifted Alenka (Anna Klamo) from the part as Donna Anna, even though Alenka slept with Vítec to get her diminutive husband (Jiří Hájek) the starring role. Another singer runs a travel agency, taking calls on her cellphone during rehearsals and performances. Still another sleeps her way to wealth, providing the wedding in the final scene that Vítec says is essential to a successful story.
The Don Juans is a lovely film to look at and a generally joyful romp overflowing with gags. Its examination of the cruelty of womanizers is light as air, but still makes its point to some degree. The film is a bit disjointed, favoring comedy over coherence, particularly in delineating the separate stories of Vítec and Markétka until they merge. As Don Giovanni is my favorite Mozart opera, I reveled in the music that liberally scores the film, but the obvious dubbing was a bit distracting. Nonetheless, I found myself grinning through much of the picture, levitating on the luscious images, generally spot-on humor, and always engaging Czech sensibility. This is a fluffy effort, to be sure, but one that is a pleasure from start to finish.
The Don Juans screens Saturday, October 19, 1:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)
Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)
H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)
Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)
Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)
The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)
A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)
Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
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Director: Tomás Lunák
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Railway tracks can take you places: to Lisbon or to Auschwitz, to your own past or even to your doubts, the traces of what your parents, friends, and enemies have left behind.”
The psychic landscape of individual and collective memory infuses writer Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrator Jaromír 99’s graphic novel trilogy Alois Nebel (Bílý Potok [White Brook] 2003), Hlavní Nádraží [Central Station] 2004) and Zlaté Hory [Golden Hills] 2004). Each book is named for a Czech railway station and based on stories about Rudiš’s grandfather Alois, who was a railway worker. The popularity of the trilogy was a surprise to its creators. Even more surprising was the proposal to turn it into a film and its eventual choice as the Czech Republic’s official entry for Best Foreign-Language Film in the 84th Academy Awards race. Leave it to the Czechs to recognize the worth of a rotoscope-animated film that leaves most of the Oscar contenders and winners in the dust.
Armed with little more than a teaser description, a single image from the film, and an enthusiastic love for Czech cinema, I paid my money and opened myself up to an enveloping experience of peculiarly quiet intensity. Alois Nebel is, appropriately, image-driven, with little dialogue and a subtly communicated plot. Its central character, Alois Nebel, works at the Bílý Potok train station in the Jeseníky mountains of what was once the German Sudetenland, and it is his memories from 1945, when Germans were expelled from the region, that provide the key to the drama underlying the film’s events.
The film begins in 1989, before the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and Czechoslovakia. A voiceover repeats names of train stations and arrival times repeatedly. A man on the run, carrying an ax crosses the guarded border and darts into the trees. As the pursuit of the man ends with him killing a dog sent to track him down, a more down-to-earth scene follows at the Bílý Potok train station. Alois (Miroslav Krobot) emerges from the station house and pours some milk into a bowl for his cat. “Where were you last night?” he asks, as the cat laps at the milk. His coworker Wachek (Leos Noha) is a crude loudmouth who keeps an eye on Alois, lest he interfere with the black market transactions he and his father (Alois Svehlík) use to keep the old man’s trailer park business afloat. The uncommunicative Alois pays little mind to Wachek, however. He goes about his business, having dinner and a beer at the local pub, and reading the timetables to relax a troubled mind that sometimes drifts into a frightening fog.
One evening, Alois’ vision of the deportation of a German woman (Tereza Vorísková) who used to care for him after his mother died emerges from a fog. The disturbing vision turns into a fuller memory of her rough treatment during the deportation, one that sends Alois over the edge. Wachek finds him sitting in the john, refusing to emerge, and Alois is taken to a mental hospital for a time. There he meets the man on the run, the mute (Karel Roden) Alois calls him, who was picked up outside the Bílý Potok train station in front of Alois. When Alois is released, he finds his old job and living quarters have been given to someone else, and goes to Prague to get his job situation sorted out. He sleeps in the train depot with other unemployed railway workers until the bathroom attendant, Kveta (Marie Ludvíková), takes a shine to him and sees to his needs. The end of the Soviet bloc proves the end of Kveta and Alois’ courtship as well. When next we catch up with Alois, he has grown a beard and is posted to a remote station deep in the mountains. He reencounters the mute, and pieces of his past fall into place as the mute finally speaks and declares his intentions.
The choice to use rotoscope animation was a compromise between the wishes of the graphic-novel creators to maintain the look and feel of the books and director Lunák’s cinematic approach. Not a fan of the rotoscoping of Ralph Bakshi, I was prepared to feel underwhelmed by its use in Alois Nebel. The film would have worked as a traditional feature film, with the performances underlying the illustrations still boldly in evidence. Yet, the black-and-white animation emphasizes the grave, colorless world Alois inhabits, the joylessness of everything from liberation from the Soviets to an abortive love affair. Alois’ offering of carnations to Kveta could have popped with some color, but the answer to her question, “How did you know I like carnations?” is a truthful “I didn’t,” thus bleaching the moment of some of its romantic potential.
A horror-movie atmosphere pervades the mental hospital sequence, with prolonged and graphic depictions of electroshock therapy the equal of any dripping nightmare from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010). Indeed, there are many elements of this film that are reminiscent of that horror movie, from recovered memories to crazed vengeance and ever-present water. The use of trains approaching us head-on from out of the screen is a familiar, even clichéd image, but one that is turned on its head as having nothing to do with Jewish deportation, but rather, German expulsion.
All of the actors are riveting, no matter how small their roles. Svehlík is a bilious old Nazi sympathizer who constantly fiddles with his old service revolver and keeps his greasy son on a short leash. I took note of the only time in the film when the younger Wachek smiled—a toothy grin for a larcenous Soviet official who was clearing out of the country. Roden’s periodic appearances in the film are perfectly timed to forward the central plot with the patience his character had to endure to realize his goal.
Yet, it is with a slow rhythm and the enigmatic magnetism of Alois that Krobot ensnares us. In an age when audiences, particularly American audiences, are drown with too-revealing dialogue, even fed entire plots in movie trailers, Krobot’s reticence and and Lunák’s very sparing use of flashback maintain a mystery that is intriguing to follow. Krobot fends off the cinematic voyeur, reacting more than revealing, accepting without being submissive, creating an indelible character who has witnessed much and learned to channel his distress with the routine of his timetables. How one gets so much from a monochrome line drawing of the man speaks to the skill of the actor, director, and animator.
Bílý Potok is the wettest place in the Czech Republic, and the film makes great use of a torrential rainstorm to bring its story to a dark and inevitable climax. Rushing water cascading through the mountainous terrain seems as ready to sweep away Alois’ future as it does his past. When the film draws to a close, people are where they should be, with the trains back on schedule and the past finally put to rest.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jaromil Jirês
By Roderick Heath
Czech director Jaromil Jirês’ intoxicating 1970 masterpiece Valerie and Her Week of Wonders manages to be many almost-contradictory things at once: highly surreal and yet oddly logical, wistfully brooding and yet often pungently humorous, unsettling and yet deeply gentle, intricately perverse and beatifically innocent, richly sentimental and darkly knowing. Indeed, a major undercurrent of the film is an exploration of the unity of opposites: Valerie herself (Jaroslava Schallerová) is catalyst, as object of desire, babe in the woods, dreamer, suppliant, anarchist, victim, conqueror, and saviour. Her odyssey slips the boundaries of the rational world and melts all given codes and figures into a mysterious confection. There’s a variety of coherent narrative here, but one that follows the associative twists of a dream state, and Jirês purposefully harks back to the great folk-myth tradition from which the fairy story and horror tale both sprang and parted company when broken up into modern genres.
Jirês’ film, based on Vítezslav Nezval’s novel, fuses ecstatic fantasia and gothic fugue into a singular vision that interrogates the symbolic underpinnings of so much imagery common to folk-myth. It’s also a lethally funny satire, on repression, anxiety, family roles, and sexual awakening, as well as a celebration of the fecundity of humanity—especially its feminine variety—and the imagination for moulding the world. The initially bewildering run of visions that sets Valerie in motion reveals the heroine at the cusp of womanhood, in images of sentimentalised ripeness similar in effect and intent to Picnic at Hanging Rock’s reclining, meditating maidens. For example, Valerie delighting in a pair of earrings that she cups with delight (at one point she holds them to her chest, and they do seem to symbolise her filling adolescent breasts), and the recurring image of the girl swimming in the lily-clogged water of the fountain at the centre of the main square of her town. That fountain is the very heart of the film’s geography and of the action, and Valerie’s swim evokes the purest image of a water-nymph ready to snatch herself another Hylas.
And yet Valerie is already in danger when she becomes the prize at stake for a mysterious vampiric monster (Jirí Prýmek) who employs his handsome young thrall Orlík (Petr Kopriva) to steal her earrings while she sleeps in a greenhouse. But Orlík gives them back to her, defying his mysterious master by being entranced by Valerie himself.
Valerie lives in a staid, sizable bourgeois house with her stern, frigid-looking grandmother Elsa (Helena Anýzová), who tells her to put aside the earrings, which belonged to her disgraced, exiled mother. Elsa instead recommends she attend the service being given by a troupe of missionaries, priests, and nuns who are filing into town at the same time Valerie’s slightly older friend Hedvika (Alena Stojáková) is being wedded to a “stingy farmer,” an event that also draws actors and circus folk. Valerie, however, is intrigued by the naturally overflowing sexuality expressed by the young peasant women of the town who kiss each other and flirt with the strong young men who hang about them, waiting to copulate with glee in the woods at the edge of town. Grandmother herself has a few dark secrets tucked away, and when Valerie, watching the crowd in the square, spies the grotesque vampire himself, Elsa seems to recognise him as someone troublingly familiar.
The vampire’s insidious infestation of Valerie’s life begins to manifest as he fills every patriarchal position in the narrative. He’s the elder priest who gives the congregated village females a blessing. He’s the also the local constable by whom Orlík is ensnared. He’s the long-ago lover of Elsa, and claims also to be father to both Valerie and Orlík. “I have never loved another man since you seduced and abandoned me,” Elsa moans to the vampire. “Sorry about that,” he replies. The vampire announces his new reign by setting fire to the waters of the fountain: he is the yin to Valerie’s yang and the kindler of black passions. Elsa is smitten with one of the missionaries, Gracian (Jan Klusák), who’s just returned from Africa; the vampire leads Valerie into a hidden chamber and forces her to watch through a peephole as Elsa flagellates herself before Gracian. In order to regain her youth and beauty, Elsa is willing to sign over her house to the vampire, whom she calls Richard. He infects her, and after being restored to rapacious youth and imprisoning Valerie, she poses as Valerie’s cousin and seduces and drinks the blood of anyone she can. Orlík keeps rescuing Valerie from her predicaments and vice versa; even if they are brother and sister, they seem fated to be together.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders could be the most delicate and evocative work of the ‘60s and ‘70s renaissance of fantastic cinema in Europe, working with material certainly familiar to some more definable generic directors I’ve celebrated lately—Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco, Dario Argento, Terence Fisher—and yet freed from the cruder necessities of the commercial cinema they served. The cinema to which Valerie belongs is imbued instead with a folk-myth atmosphere essayed in terms more closely related to Sergei Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova. Indeed, some tableaux vivant shots, like the vampire standing upon a ledge against a church wall with arms spread or Hedvika arrayed in her bridal gown, or visual conjuring like the vampire hailing the birds escaping their coops in the dusklight, echo Paradjanov’s style keenly. It is, when you think about it, a rare event for a filmmaker to truly utilise the capacity of cinema to work magic, especially these days, when magic is usually the product of remarkably nonmagical CGI.
Judging by the style of clothes and settings, the film takes place in the late 19th century, but it is replete with hazy elements that suggest both a far more distant past of premodern spirituality and folk-culture, and more contemporaneous touches. Jires contrasts Elsa’s Victorian hairdo with the younger girls’ pure ’60s cuts, reflecting the generation-gap alarm at its heart, as well in the conflict of the ripe rustic images and the grinding wheels of nascent industry.
The structure is studded with paranoid surrogate figures and the intricate interplay of social and familial roles, with every characterisation threatening to blend into another, suggesting layers to identity. The merely relative nature of identity, when it comes to enacting such roles, is constantly restated: only Valerie remains firmly integral at the core, and here the anxiety is about which character seems to represent her future and desires. A constant motif of Valerie’s odyssey involves acts of spying: the vampire’s first direct act is to show her the hidden rooms, clogged with spider’s webs and dust-crusted books, and then force her to watch Elsa groveling and beating herself before Gracian’s amused gaze. Later, in another deserted part of the house, mysterious machinery cranks and whirs as Valerie spies on Elsa ensnaring a young man, and then trying to also seduce Orlík.
Such moments are perfect metaphors are Valerie’s forceful introduction to the hidden intricacies of the adult world lurking behind the settled forms and genteel pretences of Elsa’s upbringing. Incestuous lust is a constant motif, as it was in so much classical European mythology—seen in Valerie and Orlík’s sibling attraction, in the vampirised Elsa reborn as the imperiously sexy faux-cousin trying to drink Valerie’s blood, and finally in a striking consummation between Valerie and her vampire father. To save him from starvation, Valerie smears chicken’s blood upon her mouth in a telling approximation of lipstick and kisses him to reawaken his thirst, briefly restoring him to the young, beautiful hunter he once was before he reverts to the ravenous monster. When Valerie’s mother (Anýzová again) turns up, daughter, mother, and grandmother all kiss each other with strangely knowing intimacy. Valerie’s sexual innocence is constantly placed at stake, with the constant threat that she will be involved in something transgressive either according to her own drives or by violation according to someone else’s.
These perverse elements, however, finally feel less literal than acknowledgement again of the interchangeable, successive nature of adult roles—from daughter to mother, from lover to parent—and the finite way sexuality defines all such roles. But the whole landscape is rife with sensual possibility, signaled by the peasant lasses who greet all physical contact with unsullied enthusiasm. Hedvika, in marrying her aging, portly farmer, is anxious about her commitment, and yet she pledges to “grow older” for him, for he’s as nervous as she is; when they unite, Elsa takes the chance to bite Hedvika, presenting the delirious, crucial image of sexual health being sucked out of the girl from both sides in a mad ménage à trois. Later, Valerie, fount of all health, restores Hedvika by sleeping with her in moment of desexualised lesbian love redolent of natural fulsomeness and healing potential.
It’s hard to describe Valerie’s deeper, darker levels without stinting on its effervescent humour and sprightly vitality, much of which stems from a constant Buñuel-esque anti-clerical satire. For the film constantly resorts to images of the ancient wooden shrines around the village, describing such motifs as Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary, with whom Valerie is associated, which are the home to hives of bees, ripest symbol of natural bounty, and thus uniting natural and spiritual fulsomeness. But Gracian, as representative of the church, is a hypocrite who hustles his train of nuns hurriedly past a peasant couple gleefully rutting in the woods, but lets Elsa debase herself before him with an indulgent smile and tries to seduce Valerie in her bedroom, where, in the film’s most cripplingly hilarious moment, he opens his cassock to reveal an African tooth-bedecked necklace with the pride of a swinger’s gold peace-symbol chain, whilst leering like a randy bear. The totemistic power of her earrings and a pearl Orlík gives her deflects him with an astounded, and troubled exclamation of “What have you done?” Later, he accuses her of being a witch, and has her burnt at the stake, to which Valerie’s fearless reaction is to poke her tongue out at him before using her totems to vanish from within the flames.
The theme of Death and the Maiden, with roots in the Germanic folkloric scheme, is of course a vital one in the European artistic tradition, with its dialogue of effusive youth and beauty set against entropy and inevitability, translated into an innately sexual metaphor of femininity and masculinity, locked in a process of conquest and surrender. Valerie’s travails with the monster/father/lover figure certainly employs this motif, but Jirês invests it here with that specifically playful, pastoral quality that is familiarly Czech and distinct from more lugubrious German cinematic takes on the idea which Jirês references, like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), whose Max Schreck style of vampire Richard resembles. The vampire and Elsa each enact a twisted fantasy of retaining youth by becoming monsters, but also embody Valerie’s anxieties as the blooming of her womanhood also means getting older, and facing the inevitable withering of that bloom. She constantly crosses paths with a small girl who gives away flowers around the village, bestowing her gifts on everyone, the arch-innocent whom Valerie is ceasing to be.
Valerie’s fleeing Gracian’s repressed, hypocrisy-dominated overworld sees her venture instead into a labyrinthine under the town now dominated by the vampire and Elsa, with the peasant men and women in their thrall, as if suggesting the way expressions of natural sexuality was forced underground by pharisaic religion and subjected then to perverted transformations. Ironically here, when the vampire drinks a potion into which Valerie throws her pearl, he himself is toppled and reduced to a slinking ferret—Orlík has constantly called him a polecat—and scuttles away as the thralls try to stamp on him. Later, Orlík shoots the polecat and displays his fur.
Thanks to Valerie’s prayers, the week of wonder seems to come to end, or more accurately, reboots, with the household’s rhythms restored to the same normalcy as at the beginning, and Elsa returned to her grandmotherly age, to expire in shame as she explains an omen to Valerie that entails the return of her mother. Her mother, when she comes, is in the company of Valerie’s father, who is the young hunter the vampire had appeared to be. Elsa, resurrected, comes out to meet her daughter and husband, and the suddenly reunited family proceeds into the woods, where, rather than finding a newly clarified form, everyone encounters their many alter egos. All the characters frolic in a riverside glade where the peasant girls infest the branches of a tree as if in a pagan rite and eagerly embrace the vampire on a boat, whilst Gracian is confined to a birdcage. The nuns and maidens lounge in ease together, and the whole cast gather around the bed where Valerie lies down to sleep, or, more likely, awaken at last. At the cusp of the waking world, all opposites and figurations join, and the flower girl refuses to give a bloom to Valerie here—she has ceased to be a child.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is composed with such ripe artistic and technical skill it’s hard to believe it didn’t simply spring out of someone’s head, and yet, of course, it’s the result of hard work. Special kudos are owed to cinematographer Jan Curík, with his sharp, yet muted colours, and Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák for their inventive, atmospheric score. The cast, who were almost all post-dubbed by other actors, are nonetheless splendidly suited, especially the weirdly wonderful Anýzová (usually a costume designer for movies), called upon to play the many notes of the adult female, swinging from glowering, pale-haired domestic despotism to saucy, fishnet-stockinged femme fatale, giddily lapping the blood off a man’s neck or locked in a woozy waltz with her undead lover.
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Director/Screenwriter: Maria Procházková
2009 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Six-year-old Terezka (Dorata Dedková) is obsessed with the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, or so her mother (Jitka Cvancarová) says. She makes her mother read it to her night after night. Terezka has bad dreams about the wolf. Blink your eyes very quickly, says her mother, and your fear will vanish. It works! But what will take care of the wolf that is entering Terezka’s home—Patrik (Martin Hofman), her natural father come back to win her mother away from her dad (Pavel Reznicek)?
Who’s Afraid of the Wolf, a great film from the Czech Republic, sets out to tell an all-too-common story for adults and children these days using that magic device of childhood—the fairytale. Markers of Red Riding Hood are all over this film, from the insinuation of Patrik into Terezka’s world, to a trip to grandmother’s (Jana Krausová) with a basket of goodies, to a wolflike German Shepherd sent to find Terezka when she runs away. But this film, largely told through the imaginative eyes of Terezka, remains realistic, exploring the threat of divorce and the tension between work and home faced by most modern families in the developed world as a child might experience them.
Terezka’s cartoon punctuation on the people around her—a crown for Gábinka (Marie Boková), a disliked classmate who acts like a princess, green alien arms drawn over her mother’s arms (drawn and animated by the director, an award-winning animator)—allow us to see through her eyes. When she talks with her best friend Simon (Matous Kratina) during nap time, she listens to his sage advice as any of us would a trusted friend.
Simon puts the problems in Terezka’s home down to her mother being an alien, voicing a common concern of all children that they might be adopted. Terezka takes this advice on its face and plans to test her mother. If she doesn’t bleed, says Simon, she’s an alien. It’s horrifying to see Terezka put a fork under her pillow and then lay calmly listening to her mother read Red Riding Hood to her, waiting for the right moment to stab her. Seen another way, Terezka’s fork test is doubtless an expression of her anger with her mother for entertaining the advances of her former lover, a self-centered cellist who left her before he knew she was pregnant and only now wishes to have an instant family.
Dedková is an energetic, intelligent child who makes us believe in Terezka and her view of life—we deeply care what happens to her. Her mother’s husband, beautifully played by Reznicek, loves her completely and is a wonderful father. The big tension he contributes to his family is that he’s always working at his job as head of airport security, using the excuse of increased security concerns to avoid facing people like his mother-in-law, who disapproves of her daughter giving up her singing career for family life and partly blames him. For her part, Terezka’s mother has denied her own stifled creativity and ambition. Old clippings announcing her retirement fascinate Terezka and haunt her mother. Patrik’s return has forced this couple to confront their problems.
I was captivated by the interplay of fantasy and reality in this film. Procházková confidently intercuts between Terezka’s fantasies of being Little Red Riding Hood and her real-life activities. Terezka’s clever escape from the airport to avoid leaving with Patrik and her mother for Japan is a small masterpiece of choreography and alternating realities.
Terezka’s mother, disenchanted with Patrik because of his shallow indifference to Terezka’s disappearance, tears the earrings he gave her out of her ears. When Terezka is found and sees the blood drying on her mother’s ear, she—and we—know that maybe everything will be all right after all. It’s a wonderful feeling indeed. l
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Director: Oldrich Lipský
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If I made films, I’d want to make ones just like Lemonade Joe. I’d want to see “Réalisé par Ferdy”—and isn’t it better to realize something than to direct it, as though you freed your film into the world the same way Michelangelo freed his sculptures from a hunk of marble instead of arranging it like a collage from scraps of old magazines—and then watch a screen filled with comic actors of the first order doing stock Western characters in styles ranging from slapstick silents and singing cowboys to Billy Wilder and Krazy Kat, with a dash of John Ford to keep things respectable.
Like any self-respecting European in the 1960s, Oldrich Lipský was keenly interested in all things American, particularly the American West. For Lipský, however, Westerns were fodder for humor and parody. Lemonade Joe, a short-story character that appeared in Czech magazine in the 1940s, surely must have made an impression on the adolescent Lipský. He worked with the author of those short stories, Jiří Brdečka, on the screenplay for the film. In true-blue American tradition, they start this film with a dedication:
“This film is dedicated to the rough diamond heroes of the Wild West who avenged wrongs and defended the Law.”
That dedication will be the last time the film plays this Western straight.
Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl), owner of the Trigger-Whisky Saloon, runs the town Stetson City, Arizona, the setting for our story. We open on a highly spirited barroom fight moving to the incessant honky-tonk piano in the background. As bottles are broken over heads and tables thrown through windows, the bartenders nonchalantly wash their glasses and duck as though they know where the next swing is coming from. Doug sits with equal nonchalance at a table, watching his mad dog lackey Old Pistol (Josef Hlinomaz) take apart several cowpokes, drink some Trigger Whisky, and chew and swallow a good chunk of the rocks glass. The fighting goes into a lower gear when showgirl/call girl Tornado Lou (Kveta Fialová) comes out to sing “When the Smoke Thickens in the Bar,” one of the many songs in this horse opera that take their inspiration from a variety of sources, including Weimar cabaret.
Into this den of iniquity come Mr. Goodman (Bohus Záhorský ) and his virginal, blonde-haired daughter Winnifred (Olga Schoberová) bringing their message of temperance to the drunken masses. They get nowhere; in fact, Old Pistol eats Mr. Goodman’s violin. Just then, a wiry, blond-haired figure dressed in white, with a six-shooter strapped to each leg, walks through the door. He bellies up to the bar, where Winnifred and her father are standing uncomfortably surrounded by crazy varmints and orders lemonade. “We don’t stock lemonade,” says the bartender. “That’s all right. I always “carry my own supply.” He pulls out a bottle of Kolaloka lemonade and downs a long draft. “You’re Lemonade Joe,” someone shouts. In case there is any doubt, Joe demonstrates his skills by shooting Old Pistol’s belt loose. The vicious consumer of objects runs upstairs at double-speed with a tablecloth covering his drawers. Naturally, both Winnifred and Tornado Lou fall in love with Joe on the spot.
Just at that moment, the bank is being robbed. A gunfight in the streets ensues as the law-abiding citizens of Stetson City try to stop the bandits. Joe protects Winnifred behind a water tank; his horse, which has ducked for cover with them, gets a gentle stroke on the cheek as it lays its head in Joe’s lap. Suddenly, Joe goes into action, appearing in stop-action shots on rooftops, in doorways, on the street, confusing the robbers and allowing him to pick them off one by one without even aiming. When Joe proclaims that his surefire aim is a result of swearing off spirits for Kolaloka, the townspeople abandon the Trigger-Whisky Saloon in favor of the white-as-snow Kolaloka Saloon that opens in quick order. Doug Badman sits atop his piano in his now cobweb-covered saloon. He tells Old Pistol, “Business is bad, but I’m still stinking rich.”
Soon, another player comes to town, a slimy thief, murderer, and debaucher named Hogo Fogo (Milos Kopecký), who we’ve learned earlier is Doug Badman’s brother Horace because they each have a round birthmark on their left forearm. A master of disguise, Hogo Fogo tricks Joe into drinking spirits, which makes our hero collapse in a catatonic trance. He reestablishes the primacy of Trigger Whisky, as a fickle public return to Doug Badman’s saloon. Hogo Fogo goes after the winsome Winnifred, chasing her around the tombstone of her dead mother:
Hogo Fogo: Of course you’ll be mine. Here, on holy soil, my dove.
Winnifred: You spider!
Hogo Fogo: My little fawn!
Winnifred: You reptile!
Hogo Fogo: Enough zoology!
Further perils, shootouts, disguises, and general silliness ensue to a final, climactic confrontation between Hogo Fogo and Lemonade Joe in which Joe is pumped full of lead. Of course, the end of Joe is never the end of a legend—thanks to Kolaloka lemonade and very fortuitous family ties.
This film is Blazing Saddles, only way better. This movie trades in every corny joke around—for example, Stetson City’s sheriff handcuffs Hogo Fogo, only to find a false hand hanging from one of the cuffs and the villian’s real hand emerge with pistol blazing. The opening bar fight looks like a loving ripoff of a Keystone Kops routine—indeed, Czech film specialist Peter Hames believes this film owes something to a 1911 film called Arizona Bill. The film also uses full-screen tints, which were popular in silent films for signaling night, day, and ambient lighting. The violence is very cartoonish—Lipský was an in-demand writer and director of animated films—and indeed, the film contains small moments of animation mixed with live action. For example, when Hogo Fogo is trying to cheat a gambler at poker, his brother blows smoke rings that spell out what the patsy has in his hand. Even the famous cartoon company, Acme Tool, can be found in Stetson City.
Two moments are especially ingenious and, I think, unique in film. The first is an extreme close-up of the interior of a mouth showing a vibrating uvula as a musical note is struck. The camera slowly pulls back so that we can see it is Lemonade Joe bursting into song as he rides the range. The other is a ground-level shot showing Joe prepare for a gun duel, his boot-shod feet resounding against the dusty street. The camera shakes with every step. Another shot that seems prescient has Joe looking into the sky, seeing what looks like Tower Bridge superimposed on the sky (the original London Bridge moved to Arizona in 1971) and then Winnifred in need of rescue.
Lemonade Joe may be different from those films of the Czech New Wave directors who were working at the same time, but it shares with them an anarchic sensibility even as it spins the American West into the East of Europe. A great send-up of American capitalism that not-so-subtly skewers that great ambassador from the West, Coca-Cola, a Western family more fractious and loyal than the Ewings, and a script to die for make Lemonade Joe a naturally sweet delight.
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Director: Věra Chytilová
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I’ve read numerous summaries of Daisies, a seminal film of the Czech New Wave, as well as a few analyses, and I must say that I feel rather dissatisfied with all of them. Among the many labels attached to this film is that it is feminist. I’ve mulled this experimental piece of pop art quite a bit, and darn if I can find anything particularly feminist about it. I guess that’s just a boilerplate assumption about movies directed by women. Certainly, if I had to characterize the approach Chytilová takes with this film, it would be feminine, not feminist. She’s a delightful, spirited girl who likes nothing better than to misbehave. She scribbles all over her coloring book, imaginatively making things the wrong color, and moves her “dolls” through various pretend-to-be-adult games, like going on a date with father, having grown-up drinks in a nightclub, and being a beautiful woman with whom all men fall in love.
The film opens with an aerial view of bombed-out buildings, then moves in on a machine grinding through its gears. Two sisters, Jezinka (Ivana Karbanová) and Jarmila (Jitka Cerhová), sitting in bikinis against a wall, move mechanically with machinelike sounds emanating from each bending joint and wonder what to do. They get up and walk through a very green thicket to a large tree hung with brightly colored fruit. Each pulls a piece of fruit off the tree and chows down. The girls then head into the world for a series of madcap adventures.
Jezinka is at a restaurant with an elegant older man, when Jarmila comes in and makes herself at home. She orders with abandon and eats like a horse. The old gentleman is taken aback by Jezinka’s sister, but tries to be polite. Jezinka worries about her train. The trio race to the train station and play a game of Chinese fire drill. The train carries the man off without Jezinka. The sisters are gleeful at pulling this trick off, but Jezinka worries that Jarmila will tell that she goes around with old men. The pair pulls this stunt several times in scenes Mack Sennett would have been proud to include in his Keystone Kops comedies.
The girls go to a nightclub, entering through a backstage door and disrupting the tango dancers on stage. They take a booth, start drinking, and begin jumping up and down in their box (surely a trampoline is hidden below), while the dancers glare at them and soldier on to the end of their act. The drunken sisters are escorted out and go home.
“It’s so nice to be home,” they say, using one of several cliched lines that pop up throughout the film. Their home looks like a little girls’ room, with pictures pasted on the walls. Paper streamers and apples are strewn about. They paint their eyes with long slashes of a paint brush, the kind of improvised make-up kit girls would use to be like Mommy.
Jarmila goes out on a date. She enters her date’s room, which is covered wall to wall with butterfly specimens. Jarmila removes her clothes and holds two cases, one with two butterflies and the other with one, over her breasts and genital area. She moves coyly across the room when the man plucks the lower butterfly out of its frame. He whispers words of love as he does so. Jarmila runs back home with the words echoing around her as she sits with Jezinka on their bed. We can imagine the echo comes from all of the “butterflies” in the man’s collection, and Jarmila is completely unmoved by them in her remembrance. Nonetheless, she takes a pair of scissors and cuts Jezinka’s dress to pieces, saying, “You don’t mind, do you?” This line is repeated several times until they light the contents of their home on fire in an aggressive scene of destruction.
The climax of the film is the food orgy. The sisters smuggle themselves up a dumbwaiter into a banquet hall resplendent with elegant and exotic dishes and proceed to eat, throw food at each other, and smash dishes with abandon. After this epic food fight, they end up swinging on the crystal chandelier hanging above the table. They suddenly must repair everything they have broken, placing pieces of dishes together like a mosaic and piling cakes back into something like the shape they started in. The busy-bee buzzing of the voices of the girls working at this pathetic repair are frantic, mechanical, with the film speeded up. When they finish their task, they lay down in the center of the banquet table. The chandelier comes crashing down on them, and we switch to another aerial view of carpet bombing.
Daisies is the kind of film that just sweeps one along in its antic merriment. The eye-popping cinematography and editing of Jaroslav Kucera and Miroslav Hájek, respectively, are a dazzling array of color, super-quick cutting, and strong close-ups that envelop the viewer in the detail of the moment. One scene, in which the sisters cut each other with scissors, is a riot of floating heads, limbs, and torsos. Karbanová, as the dark-haired sister, seems slightly more demure than Cerhová, her daisy-crowned sister, who subtly acts as the leader of the pair. Her playful sexual awakening seems to unleash a certain aggression, escalating to the banquet scene–a painful act of destruction that is, nonetheless, a lot of fun to watch. I felt very happy to spend time with these girls.
The Czech government was not at all amused, however, wondering how public funds could be thrown away on “trash” that made no sense. They also didn’t like the display of wasted food. Chytilová was unable to make films for years until she wrote an impassioned and lengthy letter vowing her dedication to socialist principles and explaining that the film was meant to show how small acts of destruction can build up and create an atmsophere in which greater destruction can take place. Well, this is one way to look at it, and since she’s the director, I guess she ought to know. What I tend to think is that she let the genie out of the bottle, bringing vibrance and life to what had become a drab existence under Communism. Her playfulness, sexual freedom, and flower power attitude are very much in keeping with the Czech films I’ve seen (especially I Served the King of England by Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel) and still have their allure today. l
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Director: Jirí Menzel
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I guess I should be ashamed of never having heard of Bohumil Hrabal, the novelist who wrote I Served the King of England (1971), considered by many to be one of the greatest works of Czech literature. Having never heard of Hrabal, it follows that I never read the book either. It seems that those who have were disappointed with this adaptation by Jirí Menzel, a film interpreter of five other works by Hrabal, including Closely Watched Trains, which won the Best Foreign-Language Picture Oscar in 1966. According to Kate Connelly, a film critic for the UK’s Guardian Unlimited, “The film has been attracting large audiences across the Czech Republic, but even there critics have admitted to its long-winded and sugary nature.”
I think I know what those flocks of audience members know—this film is a visual and emotional pleasure of the first order. If it does not live up to the lofty ambitions of the culture mavens who report on it or capture something edgier in the book (which I suspect it doesn’t), it certainly does create a sensuous, sumptuous world all its own. And after all, how often have all of us heard, “It’s not as good as the book.” Putting it in its true context—film—it is as good as the best films I’ve seen at this year’s festival, and that’s saying a lot.
I Served the King of England traverses the fascinating and full life of Jan Dítě (Oldřich Kaiser). The tale begins at the gate of a prison where a voiceover by Dítě tells that this is the day of his release. He was sentenced to 15 years, but due to a general amnesty, only served 14 years and 9 months. We watch as Dítě walks through the prison gate. The gate slams shut behind him, catching the strap of Dítě’s bag. We leave this scene with Dítě banging on the metal door to open up again. The smile this scene put on my face never left until the more serious parts of the film kicked in at about the halfway mark.
Dítě has been given the keys to a property near the border between Czechoslovakia and East Germany. When he arrives, an abandoned, ramshackle pub stands before him. The door is broken. Dítě holds up the keys and tosses them away. He steadily cleans the place up and makes it habitable, intending eventually to reopen it as a pub and guesthouse. He crushes rocks himself to build a road. While he is wheeling the rocks, he encounters Marcela (Zuzana Fialová), a young woman who has accompanied a small group to the woods surrounding the pub to look for music in trees, that is, timber to build musical instruments. Marcela is attractive and flirtatious, and Dítě is pleased that she has managed to arouse passion in him after all those years in confinement. He returns to memories of his youth and his one desire in life—to become a millionaire.
Most of the film from this point on is told in flashback with Ivan Barnev playing the young Dítě. He’s a very short, very blonde, odd-looking fellow who begins to build his fortune in the 1920s by failing to make change for a hundred for a train passenger who buys a hot dog from his makeshift stand. The train pulls away while Dítě pursues the passenger with the bills in his outstretched hand. He also inadvertently drops some coins on the ground. Several people scramble to pick them up. Fascinated by the willingness of perfectly respectable people to get down on their hands and knees for the sake of a few coins, Dítě starts tossing handfuls of them around town just to see the reaction.
He eventually lands a job in a guesthouse where he serves businessmen who have the money he covets. One day, a beautiful woman seeks shelter from the rain in his pub. Her name is Jaruska (Petra Hrebícková), a hooker at Paradise, the local brothel. All eyes are on her wet and shapely form. After giving the men an eyeful, she skips back out. Dítě determines to make her his. A virgin, Dítě says after his first time that “it’s nothing like doing it myself.” He visits her as frequently as possible, delighting her one day by covering her body artfully with flowers from a nearby vase. This type of decoration will become his playful art of love with all of the women he beds.
One day, a familiar face confronts Dítě from one of the booths in the pub. It is the man whose change he didn’t make, a certain Mr. Walden (Marián Labuda) who will turn out to be his benefactor throughout his career. Walden orders everything on the menu except the lungs and tells Dítě to bring four bottles of mineral water and a pound of salami up to his room later. Dítě thinks he’s off the hook about the change he failed to make, but Walden has not forgotten the incident. He tells Dítě that he’s seen him throwing coins. “You have to learn where to throw them so they’ll come back to you in bills.” When Dítě goes to his room to deliver the water and salami, he (and we) are greeted by a magical sight—Walden placing paper money in long rows to cover his entire floor. In a scene of comic grace, Walden, having run out of one stack of bills, stretches out and log rolls to a suitcase, where he removes another stack and rolls back to resume his pastime. Dítě, enchanted, decides to take up the pastime of laying his bills on the floor and leaves the guesthouse to make his fortune.
He lands a job at the Hotel Tichota on Walden’s recommendation and serves the needs of the very rich and hedonistic, all under the watchful eye of Tichota (Rudolf Hrusínský), a small and pleasant fellow who wheels gracefully through the hotel in a motorized wheelchair. Tichota makes available a bevy of gorgeous prostitutes who pair off with the moguls, dancing, playing, teasing, and making love with them with delightful abandon. The General (Pavel Nový) brings his girl up to his room, sees another coming down the hall, turns her around to examine front and back, and pushes her into his room as well. In the morning, thoroughly “satisfied,” he pays for about 4,000 crowns worth of damage and, when left with a large stack of unspent bills, hands them to Dítě. “I knew it would be time to go,” Dítě observes ruefully.
He lands an even better job in the Hotel Pariz in Prague and meets the man who will be his great inspiration, Skrivánek (Martin Huba), the maitre d’. The man can predict what every patron will order and can apparently speak every language known to man. Dítě wonders how he became such a Hercules of the hospitality industry. “I served the King of England.”
Sadly, hard times are soon to come. When the first Nazis show up in the dining room of the Hotel Pariz, Skrivánek refuses to serve them. Germans in the street are hassled, their uniform knee-high white stockings torn from their legs. Dítě goes to the aid of a young German woman whose stockings are in jeopardy, Líza (Julia Jentsch). They start a romance, with Líza trying to instruct poor Dítě on racial purity and Hitler’s master plan. Once Czechoslovakia capitulates to Hitler, property confiscations and deportations begin to occur. Dítě searches for evidence that he might have German blood so that he can marry Líza. Although tormented by the fate of his countrymen, he wants Líza, who’s the only woman short enough that he can look her in the eye.
The film grows more grim as Dítě sees old friends deported, the hotel Tichota confiscated and turned into a breeding laboratory for the Master Race, and Líza taking all the fun out of sex with her determination to provide a perfect Aryan to Herr Hitler. A scene where she and Dítě try to conceive is hilarious, as Líza moves Dítě’s head out of the way so that she can gaze on a heroic portrait of Hitler hanging on the wall. Dítě’s fortunes rise and fall during and after the war, but Communism puts him right back to square one.
This film is literally a visual feast. If you go to see it hungry, you’ll be chewing your arm witnessing all the lavish meals served at all the fine establishments where Dítě works. There are some transcendent moments of visual trickery, such as when Dítě the elder empties a box of stamps and they float lifelike on the breeze. The Czechs do sexual playfulness extremely well, and each act of physical love is a rather complete and innocent delight, even between Dítě and Líza.
Physical comedy abounds, such as when the Ethiopian ambassador, shorter even than Dítě, tries to place medals around Skrivánek’s neck in thanks for an exotic and sumptuous banquet and ends up awarding them to Dítě, who slowly bends his knees to clue Skrivánek to move to meet the ambassador’s eye level. Dítě and Head Waiter Karel (Jaromír Dulava) dip, spin, and weave in quick motion with their trays full of food as they serve their patrons in the Hotel Pariz. When Dítě trips Karel, and Karel loses one plate from his tray, he proceeds to smash plates and upend tables on his way to the exit. He grabs a small bud vase, ready to smash it, then looks tenderly at it, replaces it on the table, and leaves. “He had no choice,” says Dítě in voiceover, “it was a matter of honor.”
Líza’s character was, for me, the most horrifying in the film. Her reflexive racism, her rabid devotion to German purity, and her utter callousness in robbing from “deported” Jews all made me cringe every time she opened her mouth. Dítě is ambitious, but he is also playful and clearly revolted by the Nazis and their occupation of his country. Why he jumped through so many hoops for his Nazi lover, why he wanted to marry her in the first place, remain complete mysteries to me. The critics who called this film “sugary” may have been referring to this inconsistency. The rich men who made women their playthings and indulged their every whim also were more lovable than decadent. As seen through narrator Dítě’s eyes, however, these men were his heroes and role models, so this characterization is not inconsistent.
This densely packed film moves with the grace, speed, and charm of Dítě twirling his tray of delectables. I highly recommend I Served the King of England.