The Joke

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.

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