Archive for February, 2007

The Red and the White

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Miklos Jancso’s The Red and the White (Hungary, 1968) is a film so distanced, so formally structured, and so dehumanized, that the effect of watching it is positively hypnotic, or oneiric. I won’t say hallucinatory: this is not a film of hallucinations, but one where, to the contrary, you’re always expecting hallucinations to blossom forth, only they never do. Everything is contained, without release; and that is a large part of what gives the film its power and tension.

The Red and the White is set in 1919, in Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War. It’s the Reds — the Soviets, the Bolsheviks — against the Whites (the reactionaries, the Czarist revanchists). Besides the Russians, there are Hungarians fighting on the Red side; and the movie switches back and forth (as far as I can tell) between the Russian and Hungarian languages. (1919 seems to be an important year for Jancso, as Andrew James Horton points out; it was the year of Bela Kun’s Soviet Republic of Hungary).

Jancso’s historical re-creation seems scrupulously naturalistic, when it comes to things like costumes and uniforms, weapons, etc. And the film could be called “epic” in scope, with its long-shot visions of large numbers of troops sweeping across vast landscapes. Nonetheless, The Red and the White is not a film that gives us a broad view of History. Nor is it (like so much other Eastern European cinema) a film about individual lives swept up by historical forces that they have no power either to influence or to evade. Both the collective/historical level, and the individual/existential level, are strangely evacuated of their significance

On the level of the collective or the historical, Jancso gives us no context, no explanation, for the battles he makes us witness. There is nothing within the film that tells us who the Reds and the Whites are, and what they are fighting about, or for. And the knowledge we bring to the film from the outside — knowledge about 1919, and about the Russian Revolution and the history of Communism — really doesn’t explain or illuminate anything within the film, and doesn’t make anything more comprehensible than it would be to someone watching the film without any knowledge of this history. We might as well be watching scenes from a war on Mars. (There is, however, one exception to this general rejection of historical significance, which I will get to later).

The irrelevance of history and ideology is related to the absence — and the implied irrelevance — of any synoptic overview of the events of the film. We have no idea where the battle lines are drawn, what larger strategic elements are involved, or even which side is winning and which side losing (if this is meaningful at all). We get, instead, a large (compared to the scale of the individual) but rather restricted (compared to the scale of the battlefield as a whole) stretch of territory, over which detachments of troops seem to roam almost at random. There is no overall sense of advance and retreat, and no suggestion of an organized chain of command on either side; rather, groups of soldiers simply appear — often from off-frame with no prior warning — and then disappear (leave the frame) again.

Now, there’s a whole tradition of war (or rather, anti-war) literature and film which treats combat from the point of view of the individual soldier, and shows, not only the grotesquerie and horror of death in war, but also shows that soldier’s utter confusion and alienation, as he is entirely cut off from any knowledge of the larger strategic contours of the battle (let alone the war as a whole). This tradition goes back at least as far as Stendhal’s account of the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). In film, the earliest example I can think of offhand is Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel); there have been many since.

What’s distinctive about The Red and the White, however, is that it doesn’t fit into this tradition, any more than it does into the tradition of glorious war epics. For the individual perspective is pretty much elided in The Red and the White. Though there are a few particular characters who show up again and again throughout the film, Jancso never shoots from any such character’s point of view. He doesn’t follow the story of any one protagonist. And he doesn’t give us the names, the backgrounds, the motivations, or the psychology of any characters within the film. Dialogue is sparse, and mostly functional — there are orders and commands and interrogations, but never any sort of personal expression. There would seem to be no time or place for this, amidst the continual hustle and bustle, and tension, of the war. Also, there are very few close-ups; the film is mostly long shots and very long takes, with the camera never getting close to the action, but making subtle movements of adjustment to keep things within the frame. The traditional cinematic empathy between audience and protagonist is never established; indeed, Jancso does everything in his power to prevent such empathy from arising. Instead, we get a strong sense of formal patterning, of the arrangement of human figures like chess or checkers pieces spread over space.

One might say (using Deleuze’s vocabulary) that The Red and the White is an entirely nomadic film; no territorialization ever takes place. The whole film seems like an exercise in landscape; human beings travel across the landscape (or above it: in one scene, the Red troops are attacked from above by one of those old World War I biplanes; this is the sole scene in which, as Krzysztof Rucinski notes, Jancso employs cross-cutting and jump cuts) but never get rooted within it, are never connected to the land. Occasionally, we meet peasant farmers; and there are abandoned buildings which have been requisitioned for military use. But for the most part, the landscape seems uninhabited. There are vast panoramas of grasslands with rivers running through them; occasionally, scenes take place in a forest. The landscape is almost entirely horizontal. Sometimes, there are long, gentle slopes heading down towards the river bed; but we never see any mountains, for instance (though the Urals are sometimes referred to verbally). Nature is present in the film as a vast plane, or surface, stretching horizontally in all directions, indefinitely, without limit. This Nature is utterly, placidly indifferent to the human carnage taking place upon it.

What’s more all the characters in the film seem to share this indifference. Everyon appears entirely Stoic and resigned. There is no hint of anguish before the threat and imminence of death (or, in the case of the few female characters, anguish before the threat and imminence of rape). Prisoners may try to escape if they see an opportunity; but once they are recaptured, or when they are lined up before a wall and faced with a firing squad, they show no reaction whatsoever. In one sequence, a group of White soldiers come upon a peasant family. They ask questions of the peasants, but nobody responds. The leader orders a young woman to disrobe; she does so, without enthusiasm, but also without resistance and without comment. Everything happens slowly; the ensign who orders the woman to strip, and who evidently will be the first to rape her, remains as stolid as his victim does, has her turn about and looks at her from various angles, shows no sign of enthusiasm or desire, and is evidently going to take his time. Then a higher White officer shows up, declares that local populations are not to be abused, tells the woman that she may get dressed again, and has the ensign shot. All this happens as calmly and affectlessly, on all sides, as the preparations for the rape did. The ensign utters not a word in complaint or self-justification. There’s no sign of humanitarian motivation on the part of the superior officer, no sign even that his command reflects a consistent policy. Rather, death and abuse seem entirely random and unmotivated, in this scene as throughout the film. Reversals of fortune, and changes of position from jailer to prisoner, or vice versa, happen without explanation, and without any signs of surprise or joy or relief or anguish on the part of the characters.

Often, death comes unexpectedly, from outside the frame, without any advance warning being given either to the audience or to the characters. There’s a striking sequence, early in the film, where a Red officer enters and explores an apparently empty building, on high alert, rifle at the ready. We see him search, go up the stairs,. search again. All at once, facing towards the camera, in utter silence (there is no nondiegetic music in the film) he raises his hand in surrender, and throws away his rifle. He’s been captured by White troops, who unbeknownst to him were already inside the building. But we don’t see the captors, because they are standing where the camera is, or behind it. And the camera cannot be said to give us the White soldiers’ POV: first, because we never get a reverse shot in which we would see them looking; second, because the camera has had, throughout the sequence, an impersonal, objective POV, and it’s only by chance, as it were, that, in the course of a long and elaborate tracking shot, the camera comes momentarily to occupy a spot from which these (presumed) soldiers are actually looking.

So Death usually comes from outside the frame. This means, in a certain sense, that it is always contingent and arbitrary; for it does not follow from any sort of narrative logic, nor even from any discernible chain of cause and effect. At the same time, though, this also means that Death is a fatality, an absolute Event that can only be affirmed, because it offers us no lines of defense, and no possibility of appeal. There is no freedom, and no transcendence, because there is nothing beyond the frame: nothing beyond the interminable landscape. The world is all that is the case. The destructive forces that enter the frame cannot be stopped, or prevented from entering, precisely because they can only be said to ‘exist’ insofar as they manifest themselves within the frame — and by then it is too late.

The Red and the White is therefore largely a work of formal patterns. One might even say that Jancso, or the film itself, were obsessed with formal patterns — except that this is doubtless too psycholgistic or intentionalistic a manner of speaking (even if one is referring to the director; all the more so if one is referring to the film ‘itself’). One must say even more, however: these patterns are not only the form of the film — constituting the icy beauty of Jancso’s arrangements of bodies before the camera, and long-distance framing — but also make up much of its content. Soldiers and prisoners are continually being given orders: we see them marching in formation, turning right and left, stepping forward and back, standing at attention or moving from side to side as they are divided into groups. In one oddly haunting scene, a group of nurses are taken by White officers into the forest, where they are ordered to dance, to the accompaniment of a military band. The women take each other as partners, and waltz amidst the trees, as the officers watch. The scene has no point, no meaning beyond itself: it just is, an evolution of formal patterns as arbitrary as random slaughter, or as military movement in strict formation.

Everything that happens in The Red and the White is sort of like a game: in the sense that, one definition of games (or of certain types of games) is a system of actions played in accordance with strict rules which have no meaning or use outside of the game situation itself. Such is indeed the case with the waltz scene that I have just described, as well as with most of the military activities (marching, standing at attention, etc.) that recur throughout the film. In addition, there are a number of scenes where White soldiers tell their captives (often after stripping them of some of their clothes) to run away, and then take turns shooting them as they try to escape. (In one case, the Whites give the prisoners 15 minutes to get away, and then come after them and pick them off one by one). It all seems very much like a “shooter” video game (even though such games had not yet been invented when Jancso made the film). The rules are as strictly enforced as they are arbitrary and meaningless; and human lives are the inconsequential stake.

The Red and the White, with its formal patterns spread out in long shots and in 2.35:1 widescreen, is an extraordinarily beautiful film: as beautiful as it is chilling. And the abyssal, inhuman arbitrariness, perfection, and “disinterestedness” of this beauty is very much the film’s point. Jancso takes the drive toward abstraction and formalization that is characteristic of most forms of 20th-century modernism, and pushes this drive to a nearly absurd extreme. Think of the exterminationist logic at work in Marinetti’s notorious praise of war as an aesthetic spectacle; or think of the overwhelming, brutal effect of a certain sort of modernist architecture. Of course it is unfair to reduce the complexity and multiplicity of modernist art and culture to these particularly horrible instances; but Jancso is very much pointing to this, I think, as the inescapable dead end of the fundamental modernist project. He pushes the modernist quest to the point where it implodes into a cold emptiness. And he refuses us any redemptionist escape from what he presents as modernism’s ultimate nihilism.

When humanist intimacy has become impossible, we are left with nothing but spectacle. And The Red and the White is a powerfully elaborated, but also unusually purified, sort of spectacle. It is spectacle raised to such an extreme degree as utterly to preclude any sort of affective involvement. As such, it becomes a counter-spectacle, criticizing, averting, and undermining the basis of spectacle in modern life: both the capitalist, Western (but now global) “society of the spectacle” (whose theory Guy Debord was working out at much the same time as Jancso was making this film), and what now appears as only a minor variant of it, the revolutionary or socialist spectacle that we see, for instance, in Eisenstein’s films of the Twenties. Even as Jancso utterly eschews Eisensteinian montage, so he demystifies and deconstructs the myth of the Masses that is central to Eisenstein’s theory and practice. It is important, I think, that we find in Jancso a socialist filmmaker who remains equally distant from Eisenstein and from “socialist realism.”

This is all summed up, I think, in another remarkable scene, nearly at the end of the film. The Red troops discover, or realize, that they are outnumbered and have nowhere to run. They are on the top of a hill or incline, at the bottom of which — near the river bed — White troops are gathered. (As I have already mentioned, this is one of the rare moments in the film when the landscape is not entirely flat). The Red troops take off their dark jackets, exposing their white shirts (which, I suppose, makes them better targets). They march down the hill, towards where the enemy troops are waiting to slaughter them, singing the Internationale (the Marxist anthem). The camera remains behind and above them, at a great distance. They shoot as they go, but only hit a few of the waiting White troops. Eventually, when they get close enough to the Whites, the latter start shooting, and the Reds all fall.

This is the one exception that I mentioned earlier to the generally decontextualized, non-ideological view of the war in the film. Can it be read (as one might expect of a Hungarian/Soviet coproduction, made at the height of the Cold War) as a heroic and tragic affirmation of the Red Army? Perhaps; it is likely part of the reason (together with Jancso’s art-house prestige in the West at the time) why the Hungarian regime allowed the film to be released (though apparently it was banned in the USSR). But at the same time, it is evidently nothing more than a futile gesture: distant from us, and swallowed into the immense indifference, of the landscape and of the “game” of war, that is the film’s major point of demonstration. The Internationale is a striking presence in the film, especially given the absence of any other markers. But it is also swallowed up by the void, without an echo. Jancso cannot affirm hope, without also affirming futility. The soldiers do not represent, or become, the Masses or the People. Instead, they are swallowed whole by the grim, contingent, and inhuman forces of what it would be too teleological, too order-imposing, to call History.

Jancso is an isolated figure in the history of cinema. He seems to have no followers, no history. His filmography is immense, and spans five decades; today, in his eighties, he is still actively directing films. But aside from The Red and the White, and a few other films from the late Sixties and early Seventies, none of his work is known, or available on video, outside of Hungary. (A rare collection of English-language discussions of his more recent work can be found here). Nonetheless, I find similarities between the Jancso of The Red and the White and two other directors working, in different countries, at nearly the same time. The slowness and distance of Jancso’s moving camera reminds me a bit of Antonioni, who similarly empties out modernist strategies in order to express a similarly poetic vision of anomie and alienation; although Antonioni’s characters are from the upper bourgeoisie, and they don’t dissolve in a multitude of actors, nor do they have even the negative relation to history that Jancso’s characters do. And then, perhaps more relevantly, there is Kubrick, whose cold formalism bears many similarities to Jancso. In a film like 2001, Kubrick (as Carl Freedman argues) empties out the genre of science fiction by means of a sort of “metageneric” reflection, which formalizes the genre and thereby reduces it to a self-confirming banality and emptiness (Freedman also mentions Barry Lyndon and The Shining as examples of how Kubrick does this with other genres). I think this process is quite similar to the one I am describing here in the case of Jancso. Both Jancso and Kubrick, working respectively from the socialist tradition in modernism and the capitalist one, deploy a sort of hyperformalism, which is at once the ne plus ultra and the reductio ad absurdum of modernist aesthetics, and perhaps of modernity altogether, as a social dynamic.

The Shop on Main Street

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

The Shop on Main Street (1965), directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos (but the film seems to be basically the work of Kadar) is often listed among the films of the Czech New Wave. But this is a bit misleading, and not just because the film is Slovak rather than Czech. Kadar and Klos were nearly a generation older than the New Wave directors, and had been making films all through the 1950s. (I haven’t seen any of this earlier work; none of it seems to be available in the US. Although online accounts credit at least one of their Fifties films as being mildly dissident, they would have had to conform to the censorship pressures then in place). Kadar and Klos undoubtedly benefited from the cultural liberalization of the early 1960s; but their filmmaking style remains more traditional, or classical, than that of the New Wave directors. Also, The Shop on Main Street deals with fascist Slovakia during World War II. (Rather than being directly occupied by the Nazis, Slovakia was placed under the homegrown Fascist regime of Jozef Tiso). Because it is thus set in the pre-Communist era, the film doesn’t challenge the Party line, or the official view of history, in any way (as far as I can tell); it was spared the political difficulties faced by many of the New Wave films. (It also won the US Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1965, as the more innovative Closely Watched Trains did two years later. For Hollywood, as much as for the Communist governments of Eastern Europe before 1989, the War and the Holocaust are ‘safer’ subjects than any more recent historical or political engagement).

I don’t mean for these comments to have a snarky tone; I am just trying to place the film. The Shop on Main Street is a powerful and affecting movie, and one that compares favorably with certain more recent cinematic treatments, from East or West, of World War II and the Holocaust. The film is set in 1942, in a small town in rural Slovakia, during the time of the deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. (According to Wikipedia, Jews were deported from Slovakia from March 1942 until October 1942, at which time the Slovaks rejected German pressure to deport anyone more. Some more Jews were deported two years later, after Nazi troops occupied Slovakia in 1944. See the article here and the discussion here).

The protagonist Tono (Jozef Kroner) is an amiable and good-hearted everyman figure. He’s a carpenter. His closest emotional tie seems to be to his dog. He is continually being browbeaten and nagged at by his wife; he is also bullied by the wife’s sister’s husband, who is the local Fascist leader. Liike most of the other townspeople we meet in the course of the film, he doesn’t much like the Fascists, but also, prudently, doesn’t do anything overtly to oppose them. The film entirely downplays the issue of any sort of collaboration by the general Slovak population with the local Fascists and with the Nazis; though it also downplays any sort of active resistance or partisan activity, such as led to the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. Instead, Tono is a man in the middle, with decent impulses but no real understanding of politics beyond the sphere of his own personal life.

The Fascist brother-in-law appoints Tono as the “Aryan overseer” — i.e. the new owner, enabled to take over — of a “Jewish business,” a notions shop (selling buttons and such). Tono and his wife imagine that this will make them rich. But it turns out that the shop is owned by a senile old Jewish lady, Mrs. Lautmann (Ida Kaminska), who is poor, cannot make a living from her business, and subsists on charity from the Jewish community. She cannot understand that Tono has been appointed to take over her shop, and thinks instead that he has come to be a shop assistant, and help her. But Tono doesn’t really understand the way things are much better: he has no sense of what is really entailed by his new position, and no overall grasp of the monstrousness of what is going on all around him.

The Shop on Main Street

In the course of things, Tono becomes quite fond of Mrs. Lautmann. He finds himself in a strange double role: simultaneously working for the Fascists in their effort to de-Judaize the town, and for the Jewish community, which pays him to take care of Mrs. Lautmann. There are lots of semi-comic scenes — some brilliantly played, and some a bit corny — illustrating the foibies of the townspeople, and the growth of the relationship betwen Tono and Mrs. Lautmann.

Eventually, things come to a head, as the Fascists order the deportation of all the town’s Jews (to Auschwitz, we presume, though the Jews themselves are just told that they will be put to work). Tono, once again, doesn’t really understand what this means. He is torn between at leat three contradictory impulses: 1)a desire to save Mrs. Lautmann, perhaps by hiding her, 2)a fatalistic feeling that it doesn’t really matter, that there is nothing one can do anyway, and that the deportation won’t be all that bad, and 3)a fear that if he helps Mrs. Lautmann, or even just fails to turn her over to the authorities, he will be beaten, tortured, and imprisoned as a “Jew-lover,” as has already happened to another Christian character earlier in the film.

The most brilliant thing in the film is a long sequence near the end, where Tono seems to hold all these three positions nearly simultaneously. He’s in the shop, looking out at the central square where the Jews (all of them in the town, except for Mrs. Lautmann) are being assembled and taken away. As Tono, in his confusion and despair, gets drunker and drunker, he wildly fluctuates from one attitude to the next, at one moment trying to push the bewildered Mrs. Lautmann out into the square, at the next, locking her into a closet so she will not be found. It’s essentially just Jozef Kroner as Tono and the camera; and Tono gives an astonishing bravura performance, a display of hysteria that works powerfully not in spite of, but precisely because of, the fact that we are aware throughout of the actor behind the character, of the way in which this extended outburst is being performed or enacted.

The Shop on Main Street

The only other film performance to which I can compare Kroner’s tour de force is James Stewart’s filibuster in the US Senate at the end of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Both of these performances are brilliant displays of actorly hysteria; both display a bodily intelligence on the part of the actor which exceeds the capacities of the character, but thereby manifests the personal and social) forces that inhabit that character. The difference, of course, is that, in Capra’s film, Stewart’s character’s basic goodness shines through, and good triumphs over evil; while in Kadar’s film, Kroner’s character is ultimately impotent. For all of Kroner’s performative range, and rage, Tono can do nothing against the horrors of history, which he is never able to grasp or comprehend. The film ends with his suicide, after Mrs. Lautmann’s death. The final scene, though, is a nostalgic fantasy: we see Tono and Mrs. Lautmann, dressed in the finery of an earlier (pre-War and pre-Fascist) age, stroll peacefully together through the streets, the hazy, blurry lighting indicating clearly that such an ending is entirely wishful and counterfactual.

Cinematic depictions of the Holocaust are problematic, for two logically opposed, yet both entirely cogent, reasons. On the one hand, the horror of the event is banalized by any effort to represent it, which means to make it commensurate with other events. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is the only film I know of that properly directs our attention to the unrepresentability of the Holocaust as its subject matter. On the other hand, and at the same time, the Holocaust gets bandied about, precisely in its excess and incommensurability, as a token of high seriousness and good faith, and as a weapon to silence other concerns and other discourses. Holocaust films win Oscars, precisely because the subject matter itself is used to deflect any questions about aesthetic value and artistic integrity. Think Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, or even The Pianist. In fact, it strikes me that Spielberg exhibits both of these tendencies simultaneously; at the same time that Schindler’s List relentlessly and aggressively banalized the Holocaust — is there any more egregious scene in all of Hollywood filmmaking than the one where the Jews, having been shipped to Auschwitz, are sent into an ominous-looking building to take showers, only for us (the viewers) to discover that these are not gas chambers… but actual showers? — the film also claims a moral authority from its subject matter, that preempts all criticism in advance. The result is that Schindler’s List turns the Holocaust into a redemptive fable. To my mind, this is beyond all bounds of basic human decency. I don’t find it indecent or offensive or even shocking when Mel Brooks turns Nazism into a subject for crass comedy; I am not offended by the Nazi s&m chic of films like Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter; but Spielberg’s turning the Holocaust into an allegory of redemption is perhaps the one thing that I do find utterly offensive without appeal (sort of what the Christians call the one unpardonable sin, the “sin against the Holy Spirit”).

In this respect, I think that Jan Kadar comes across, some 28 years before Schindler’s List, as the anti-Spielberg. Tono is arguably as decent a figure as Schindler, but without the latter’s superhuman powers. His good heart and good intentions are simply not enough, when arrayed against the monstrous forces of Fascism and Nazism. (The same could apply to Stalinism, or Maoism, or American slavery, or the many other horrors of the last several hundred years). The Shop on Main Street reminds us — and this is a reminder that Americans seem to need, more than Europeans — that a good conscience, and a basic human decency, are not enough to save us. Human beings indeed “make their own history, but –” as Marx goes on to say, “they do not make it just as they please.”

The Joke

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Jaromil Jires’ The Joke (1968) was released in the heady days of the Prague Spring, and immediately banned after the Soviet invasion of August 1968. The film is based upon a novel of the same title by Milan Kundera, and Kundera collaborated with Jires on the screenplay. Unfortunately I have not read the novel, but the film is consistent in theme, incident, and tone with other works by Kundera.

The Joke is set in the mid-1960s, with flashbacks to the early days of Communist rule, in the Stalinist early 1950s. The protagonist and narrator, Ludvik (Josef Somr), is an embittered and cynical man. In the past presented to us in flashbacks, he gets expelled from college and the Party, in 1951 or so, as the result of a (somewhat nasty) postcard he sends his girlfriend as a joke. He is frustrated by the way she puts her duty to the Party ahead of his desire to sleep with her. She is presented, in Ludvik’s recollections, as pretty, and also as quite naive, in her (Party-mandated) cheerfulness and enthusiasm and historical optimism. All this is what Ludvik ridicules in his joke-postcard. But she turns over the postcard to the authorities, who deeme it politically incorrect. Ludvik’s life is derailed by the incident. He loses a decade of his life to the army, to jail, and to work in the mines. It appears that finally he has been rehabilitated; this process is not narrated in the film, but in the film’s present he is some sort of researcher. (The film makes no comment about those who, despite the supposed classlessness of Communist society, never got the opportunity to go to college in the first place, and thus spent their entire lives in the mines or factories).

Now, in the present time of the film, Ludvik seeks revenge upon Pavel (Ludek Munzar), the former friend who led the tribunal that expelled him. Having met Pavel’s wife Helena (Jana Ditetova), Ludvik determines to seduce her, as a way of getting back at Pavel. He tells us, in his voiceover narration, that he has hated Helena from the moment he meets her, because she is Pavel’s wife; but that this hatred leads to an obsession that is not very different from love. Ludvik’s scheme succeeds, but it doesn’t have the consequences he had hoped for. After Helena sleeps with Ludvik, she reveals to him that Pavel won’t care, because they have been separated for a number of years. Therefore, she says, she is free to get involved with Ludvik. We see (though Helena doesn’t) the look of revulsion on Ludvik’s face when she tells him this. The fallout from the incident is ugly for both Ludvik and Helena.

Even though the film’s criticism of the Party is confined to the Stalinist past (the period before Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of the crimes and excesses of Stalin), it’s not surprising that the authorities after 1968 not only banned the film, but literally it excised from Jires’ filmography. For the film endorses Ludvik’s bitterness and negativity at least to the point that it throws into suspicion any suspension of selfhood in the interests of a higher cause, any devotion to higher duties and responsibilities, as well as any sort of (historical or personal) “optimism” of the sort that the Party (or the State) clearly demanded of its members (or its citizens).

Nonetheless, the film’s politics is not straightforwardly “liberal” and individualist by any means. It is rather almost a critique of the liberal conscience, a display of its impotence when faced not just by the horrors of history, but but also by the very passage of time. Ludvik is not a heroic individualist, standing up to the totalitarian pressures of conformity. Rather, he is himself an exacerbated symptom of just that totalitarianism; his struggles against it only perpetuate it in inverted form. Indeed, presenting Ludvik as an anti-socialist hero would itself have meant basically perpetuating the aesthetics of socialist realism, with its portrayals of heroic workers, peasants, and resistance fighters. (This is what, for instance — to take an easy target — Ayn Rand does in her anti-collectivist fiction). Jires and Kundera, however, are much closer to the self-lacerating sensibility of Central- or Eastern-European writers like Kafka and Gombrowicz. They deconstruct the very notion of heroism. Ludvik’s corrosive cynicism cannot avoid redounding back upon himself as well.

Even if this sardonic sensibility can be attributed to Kundera, it is expressed in cinematic form, through the ways that Jires structures the film. The flashbacks to the early 1950s are presented in a remarkable manner — something that I cannot recall having ever seen in any other film. It’s not surprising in itself that we should get an alternation between shots of Ludvik in the present, remembering, and shots of the past that he remembers. But these alternations are presented through the continuity convention of shot and reverse shot, which has a rather disconcerting effect. We don’t see Ludvik himself in the flashback shots; rather, we only see the other people in the scene (his girlfriend, his accusers). The camera is positioned where he stands, and shows us the events entirely from his subjective point of view. Even when he speaks, for instance when he tries to answer the sarcastic accusations of Pavel and the other judges, we only hear a voice off, as he remains entirely off-camera. But it is precisely at the moments when we would expect a cut to a reverse shot of Ludvik in the past, that we get a shot of him in the present moment instead. Sometimes the soundtrack from the flashback even continues over these present-moment “reverse shots.” The backgrounds of the shot and reverse shot obviously do not match, as they are not in the same location, either spatially or temporally. Nonetheless the grammar of continuity editing forces us to feel as if the shots belonged together in the same time and space. The result is a kind of contortion or compression, as if Ludvik were still trapped in his own past, as if time has somehow failed to progress for him, as if the gap separating memory from present-time experience has entirely, and stiflingly, collapsed.

(I can only think of a few other films that make analogously disruptive uses of film temporality, or of the conventions of continuity editing. In Cronenberg’s Spider, the adult protagonist actually appears on screen, as an observer — visible to us but not to the other characters — within the past scenes of his childhood that he is remembering, and in which he also appears as a child. In his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, Bunuel scrupulously conforms to continuity-editing conventions, and yet subverts them at the same time, by having two actresses alternate in the role of a single character).

The implosion of temporality that I am describing is of course in the first instance psychological. It expresses how Ludvik is trapped in the past. He literally cannot progress. He has been traumatized, and forever marked, by the way that “historical necessity” (as the Party might pompously describe it) has impinged upon, and swallowed up, his private life. But this implosion also has an ontological dimension. Deleuze writes, in his Cinema volumes, about the ways that films is able to present other temporalities than that of the present. In general, the cinematic image overwhelms us with its presence and presentness (especially when the film is shown, as it traditionally has been, on a big screen — things may be different today, as we become more accustomed to small-screen video watching). Nonetheless, Deleuze says, there are certain films that manage to immerse us in the past (or the future?) rather than the present. Deleuze cites the films of Orson Welles and Alain Resnais as examples. (Chris Marker should also be mentioned in this regard). I think that Jires accomplishes something similar, inventing a new and different sort of non-present temporality, in the way that he edits The Joke.

The Joke: Ludvik

There are far fewer flashbacks in the second half of the film, dealing with the seduction and its consequences. However, what we get here instead is a kind of collapse of narrative. There are lots of shots and scenes involving public celebrations: in counterpoint to the mass political rallies and marches we see in the sequences from the 1950s, here in the present time of the film the people in the small town where most of the action takes place have folklore festivals, dressing in traditional peasant costumes, drinking and dancing and so on. Ludvik feels no connection to all this, but it becomes the inescapable background to his story. The film spreads out in all directions, and ends abruptly, refusing us any sort of emotional resolution or catharsis.

Pavel actually shows up, and greets Ludvik as if there were no bad blood between them. And Ludvik goes along with this charade; he lacks the courage, as well perhaps as the means, to attack Pavel directly. Fifteen years later, Pavel has clearly profited from his loyalty to the Party — or, otherwise expressed, his craven, self-righteous betrayal of Ludvik. He’s had a successful and prosperous university career, goes around the country winning adulation for his lectures, owns and drives a car (still a relative rarity, or privilege of the nomenklatura, in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia), and parades about with a chic, much younger (20-something) girlfriend in tow, who massages his ego as well as servicing his desires. The closest he comes to acknowledging his injustice towards Ludvik (one cannot call it an apology) is when he offhandedly remarks upon how bad things were back then, everyone suffered, terrible things were done, etc.; and how, in contrast, the younger generation is refreshingly free of such attitudes — which is why, he says, he likes younger women so much. All this is delivered in the accents of someone who takes his own privilege so much for granted, that he utterly fails to question it (or even to contextualize it in any way).

The Joke: Ludvik and Helena

Pavel has brought his young girlfriend along, among other reasons, in order to humiliate Helena. He succeeds in this — even as Ludvik has utterly failed to humiliate him. In despair, Helena throws herself upon Ludvik, but he humiliates her as well, scornfully rejecting her, telling her that the earlier sex between them counted for nothing. Helena tries to committ suicide; but the pills she swallows turn out to be a laxative, so she ends up just seated miserably on the toilet, her grand gesture ruined. A young man who is in love with Helena (but whose puppy love she does not take seriously) attacks Ludvik in revenge; Ludvik fights back savagely, wins the fight, and mutters over the prostrate young man “you weren’t the one I wanted to beat up” — and that’s it, the film is over.

My students were most interested in the generational aspect of the film — the difference between the Ludvik, Pavel, and Helena, who are 40-ish and were young in the Stalinist early 1950s, and the young people in the film’s present moment, for whom all that political stuff is merely a fairy tale — they seem to be more materialistically concerned with their own pleasures, and evidently find Ludvik’s bitterness as incomprehensible as they do the loyalty and dedication to the cause that was requisite back then.

On the other hand, my students didn’t seem that interested in the gender aspects of the film. They noted that, if Pavel has a younger woman, Helena also has (at least potentially) a younger man who admires her. But it seems to me that the film is far more asymmetrical than that would imply. Both Pavel and Ludvik are evidently womanizers of the traditional sort (Ludvik, in fact, gives his promiscuous habits as the reason why he never got married). But Helena doesn’t seem to have the same sort of latitude in terms of the behavior available to her, which is why she ends up playing the role of the humiliated victim.

In any case, women in this film are only go-betweens for the rivalries between men. This is something that the film doesn’t quite critique in (what we would call today) a feminist way; but at least it does call our attention to it, quite overtly and insistently. Throughout the film, action is only played out through substitution (as Ludvik’s remark at the very end clearly indicates). Ludvik’s bitterness and cynical rage are not appeased; he can only lash out at a substitute for the real object of his anger. In this way he gets a sort of comeuppance, although of course he is not humiliated quite in the way that Helena is. She is abused and abandoned by both men; Ludvik is really only destroyed by himself; while Pavel gets away entirely scot-free. In this way the crimes and oppressions of the past are perpetuated in the present, despite that present’s indifference to and ignorance of the past. The only character not indifferent to the past is Ludvik himself, who is oppressively enslaved to it. But the other characters, however oblivious, cannot escape the consequences of the past either. If Ludvik’s postcard was a joke that went astray, and had all sorts of unintended consequences, then all of history is such a cruel joke, and we are all the butts of it, even unknowingly.