Conspirators of Pleasure

Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) is the first of Jan Svankmajer’s films to use live actors almost exclusively; there are only a few brief animated sequences. But as Svankmajer himself says in an interview, “I work with actors exactly as I work with inanimate objects… I use the camera to photograph them as inanimate objects.” Svankmajer’s actors, like his marionettes and his stop-motion animations, occupy a strange half-world in between life and death, vitality and impassivity, subjectivity and objectness. The characters in Conspirators of Pleasure all inhabit the realm of what Mario Perniola calls “the sex appeal of the inorganic.”

Conspirators of Pleasure doesn’t have much of a plot; rather, it documents the independent, yet intersecting, itineraries of six obsessed characters and what traditional psychology or psychoanalysis could only call their “perversions.” It is not for nothing that, in the final credits, Svankmajer acknowledges the inspiration of Sacher-Masoch, the Marquis de Sade, Sigmund Freud, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst, and Bohuslav Brouk (the latter was a Czech psychoanalyst with strong surrealist ties, about whom I know nothing — there’s an account of his life and work here, but I cannot read it, as I do not know Czech). Actually, one might well add Krafft-Ebbing to this list, as Svankmajer is much more concerned with symptomatology (the cataloguing and documenting of the minutiae of “perversion”) than with diagnosis (tracking the roots, and interpreting the meanings, of “perversion” as Freud does).

In any case, the film’s six protagonists are the following. A man makes an enormous papier-mache chicken’s head, and wings derived from five broken umbrellas sewn together, wearing them in order to perform a ritual in which he abuses and eventually destroys a life-sized mannequin representing his (female) next-door neighbor. The neighbor similarly performs a ritual in which she burns religious candles at a sort of altar, while she dresses in dominatrix gear, and whips and eventally destroys a mannequin representing the man next door. The postwoman who delivers their mail chews up bread and spits it out again to make a multitude of doughballs, which she stuffs in great numbers into her nostrils and ears, cutting off her senses and giving her a sort of meditative bliss. Then she delivers the doughballs to a woman newscaster, who uses them to feed some carp; these fish are kept in a pan of water at her feet, and trained to nibble her toes, which brings her to convulsive orgasm. The shopowner, from whom the first man buys the porno magazines that he uses for his papier-mache constructions, is himself obsessed with the newscaster; he constructs a complicated machine that strokes and caresses him while he watches (and videotapes) the newscaster on an enormous screen. The newscaster’s husband, meanwhile, constructs a variety of masochistic masturbation devices from fur from women’s coats, condoms, rolling pins, nails, and other such fetish objects. He turns out to be a cop, who, at the end of the film, is investigating the deaths of the two neighbors, whose mutual rituals of destruction against one another seem to have passed over from fantasy into actuality.

Conspirators of Pleasure

As this brief summary indicates, there are all sorts of links between the films’ six “conspirators.” But these links are all fortuitous ones. The two neighbors, united in mutual hatred, do not speak; neither do the cop husband and newscaster wife, whom at one point we see lying in bed together, not touching, until he gets up and goes to his workshop to tinker with his devices. Indeed, the absence of communication is emphasized by the fact that there is no dialogue whatsoever in the entire film. (There are lots of — often exaggeraded — ambient sound effects, and classical-music themes for each of the six main characters). Instead, we get — at most — knowing glances between them. The magazine vendor winks at the chicken-man, until the latter gets embarrassed and pays for his magazines, rushing out of the store without waiting to get his change. The newscaster wife weeps as she glances through the blinds at her cop husband’s workshop. The chicken man and the postwoman exchange looks as they accidentally bump into one another in the street.

Against these half-acknowledged looks, there are the furtive glances with which the conspirators check everything out around them, to make sure that nobody sees them indulging in their secret pleasures. For though these six characters are connected in various ways, to the extent that it seems that each of their perversions depends upon one of the others, or on other people more generally, nonetheless they are each alone. Their pleasures are all solitary and masturbatory. Even the newscaster, whose orgasm is (it seems — but this may only be a seeming) broadcast live on television for all the world to see, iis careful to hide her feet and the basin in which the carp are biting them. Each character, you might say, is like a Leibnizian monad, completely self-enclosed, without windows or doors, yet nevertheless in hidden, implicit communication with the entire universe. Svankmajer proposes a strange new sort of social bond, one that is irreducible either to Communist solidarity and communitarianism, or to capitalist atomism. There is no common interest, no togetherness; but also no competition of rationally calculating, autonomous individuals in the marketplace, and no Hobbesian war of all against all. Everything is irreducibly particular; but all these particularities are incomplete and uncontained, not to mention too compulsive and too partial to be recuperated as attributes of a “self.” We are faced, instead, with something like Agamben’s coming community, or Jean-Luc Nancy’s inoperative community, or Maurice Blanchot’s unavowable community — or better, to the common source of all these three, Georges Bataille’s “community of those who have no community.” The social bond is oblique and forever incomplete; it is embodied, not but public rituals and shows of empathy or solidarity, but precisely by the odd conjunction of private rituals, selfish passions, compulsions that can never be confessed, and that are characterized by shame and embarrassment as much as by orgasmic release.

Conspirators of Pleasure

Svankmajer’s formal strategy itself expresses these concerns. In one sense, the film is a deeply affective one: there are lots of close-ups, emphasizing the conspirators’ emotions. which range from furtive uneasiness to orgasmic release. But — contrary to the usual implications of cinematic syntax — these close-ups never lead to any sort of identification with the characters. This is partly because these characters’ practices are too singular, too compulsive, too intricately weird, in short too distant from common experience (or at least from any experiences that we are accustomed to avow in public, and see depicted on our screens) to allow for the usual sort of identification. It is also because, despite these close-ups, the characters do not really share their experiences with the camera — much of the time, they are masked as they perform their private rituals, or else they literally hide in the closet — diegetically away from any potentially prying eyes, and extra-diegetically away from the prying eye of the camera — at crucial moments in their process of self-gratification. And then, in addition, because Svankmajer tends so much to fragment space, and bodies, with closeups of hands and eyes and so on, as well as physical objects, that even these close-ups of emotional expressions in the face read more like exploded fragments than like points of concentration. This is one way in which Svankmajer indeed treats his actors in the same way as he does inanimate objects.

Throughout the film, there is an extreme emphasis upon construction and process: Svankmajer doesn’t just show us how his conspirators’ rituals of pleasure work, he also shows us — very materialistically — how the physical objects that enable these rituals are put together We really get to know the papier-mache chicken mask, the masochistic pleasure/pain brushes and rollers, circuit between bodily stimulator and video screen, and so on, because the film shows us in such careful detail how the materials for these instruments are obtained, broken down, repurposed, and put together in new combinations thanks to meticulous and lengthy handiwork (or, in the case of the postal worker, mouthwork). Finally, Conspirators of Pleasure is largely about machines: by which I mean, not industrial machines, but the conspirators’ ramshackle constructions. These are literally machines, but in the sense of the surrealist constructions of the first third of the twentieth century, or in the sense of Rube Goldberg machines, or in the sense defined by Deleuze and Guattari, for whom a machine is a concatenation of heterogeneous elements that interact precisely by virtue of their diversity, disconnectedness, and dysfunctionality. And the conspirators themselves are also parts or components of these machines that they have constructed, rather than fully active subjects who simply use the machines instrumentally. Their orgasms are functions of the machine, parts of its functioning, rather than autonomous ends for which the machines would be simple means. This is why they are Perniola’s “things that feel” rather than Kantian/existentialist moral subjects. Orgasms are not outpourings of the erotic body/soul, but convulsions inherent to the depths of inorganic matter.

In Svankmajer’s vision, the human cannot be separated from the machine, and inner desires cannot be separated from their physical instantiations. There is no “human spirit,” but only an intensive, affective materiality. And there are no wholes or unities, but only parts: units or components that are incomplete in themselves, always requiring conjunctions and collisions and ruptures with other parts, so that the combination of these parts is itself always incomplete, always an ongoing process without conclusion. Nothing is self-contained, “no man is an island”; yet there is also no communion, no higher community, no totality. Rather than pathologize the “perversions” that his camera so coolly tracks and records, Svankmajer suggests that there is no “normality,” no desire, no conjunction of bodies –whether organic or inorganic — that is not singular, contingent, fleeting, and disruptive: in a word, “perverse.”

The Witness

Peter Bacso’s The Witness is a comedy about Stalinism, oxymoronic as such a description might sound. The film was made in 1969, but immediately banned by the Communist government of Hungary, and only released in 1981. The film is apparently famous and widely popular in Hungary, but it is not very well known elsewhere. The American DVD is marred by missing subtitles in a few scenes, though for the most part my class and I were able to keep track of what was going on.

In terms of form, The Witness is a thoroughly mainstream film, skillfully directed, but in no respect avant-garde or experimental. This, in fact, is part of the film’s interest. For one thing, it is what allowed The Witness to gain its massive popularity at home. For another, usually in the US (and, I imagine, more generally in “the West”) we generally only get to see art films from Communist Eastern Europe. As far as I know, there was a massive popular film industry in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary; but almost none of these films are available subtitled in English, and on VHS or DVD. (All I know about Communist popular cinema comes from the wonderful 1997 documentary East Side Story).

So an additional benefit of seeing The Witness is that it gives us a sense of the stylistics of Communist Eastern European popular film: and in fact, this stylistics seems very close to its Hollywood counterpart. The Witness is in color and wide screen. Its production values are a bit more modest than those of standard Hollywood films of the same period. But its invisible editing style is entirely familiar (Bacso favors broad shots, and expression through mise en scene more than through montage — but not any more so than was typically the case in Hollywood from the 1950s until the innovations of the “New Hollywood”). And Bacso works his sight gags pretty much the same way as Hollywood studio comedy of the time did. (Though, alas, there is nothing as visually outlandish as some of the things we get in Frank Tashlin’s or Jerry Lewis’ comedies).

Anyway, what distinguishes The Witness is of course its political content, of a sort that one simply doesn’t find in American comedy (nor, I would imagine in the great mass of popular films produced in Eastern Europe prior to 1989). The film is set in the Rakosi era (Rakosi was the dictator of Hungary from 1948 to 1956; his regime was known as the most hard-line Stalinist and repressive of any in Eastern Europe). The comic protagonist, Jozsef Pelikan, is a hapless fool, a bit along the lines of the protagonist of Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck. Pelikan is a naive, earnest, and loyal Communist, basically honest, and just wanting to do what is asked of him. Of course, his enthusiasm and “overidentification” get him in trouble time and time again. He starts out as a dike keeper on the Danube, striving to stop the river from overflowing, and also to keep his dog from pissing on the flower bed where the flowers are arranged to spell out a message of dedication to the Leader. But he keeps on getting promoted to higher positions, with greater responsibilities. Each time, he messes up in some way, and is sent to jail. But he is always released and given a yet better job. It turns out that he is being groomed to testify in a show trial against a friend of his, a former government minister, who has been purged from the Party and accused of being a spy in the pay of the fascists and imperialists.

The Witness

The rhetoric of the Communist regime is one of the main targets of Bacso’s satire. The film features such incidents as the successful growing of the “Hungarian orange” (though one of Pelikan’s children eats it, and it has to be replaced with a lemon) which will make the imperialists quake in their boots; and the socialist amusement park, where the haunted house terrifies visitors with its vision of the Communist specter that is haunting Europe. Or again, firemen arrive hours too late to put out a fire — the house has already completely burned down — and explain that they couldn’t have arrived any earlier, because they were conducting an investigation to make sure that the report of the fire was real, and not an imperialist provocation.

When Pelikan is rehearsing the testimony he is supposed to give against his old friend, he meets (among other “helpers”) a speech therapist who uses what are basically Method Acting techniques to try to get him to take on the role of an honest, indignant worker, and a hard-drinking scriptwriter who never wants to repeat himself, and is very proud of producing confessions and testimony that are free of cliche (because they are filled with accusations so absurd that nobody has ever thought of them before).

The whole movie is filled with a twisted logic worthy of Lewis Carroll (“verdict first, trial afterwards”) and Groucho Marx (“who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”), but which sounds familiar even to me as classic Stalinist bureaucratese, and must have been totally recognizable to the original Hungarian audience. Pelikan provides the perfect foil, as he patiently tries to understand, for instance, just how it could have been that, when he thought he saw his friend the ex-Minister fishing on the river bank, the ex-Minister was really sending secret, treasonous messages to fascist frogmen.

The most interesting character in the film, aside from Pelikan himself, is his Party contact, the creepy Comrade Virag (Lajos Oze). Virag is a bit like a vampire, effete and neurasthenic, and continually manipulating Pelikan through an amazing (and no doubt carefully calculated) combination of seeming self-pity, an excessive assumption of intimacy and familiarity, continual pleading and wheedling, and subtle threats. It’s Virag who plies Pelikan with delicious morsels only available to the Party elite, Virag who bombards Pelikan with the Groucho-esque argument that he should believe the Party in preference to his own memories, and Virag who puts on an act of suicidal despondency over the fact that Pelikan has let him down (by not wanting to testify).

The testimony, when Pelikan finally gets to it, is of course another disaster. Despite his loyalty and eagerness to please, Pelikan simply cannot believe the contorted tale that he is supposed to be telling. He really loses it when he meets, in the courtroom, a former secret policeman under the wartime fascist regime, who had tortured him back then, but who is now being rehabilitated for the service of testifying that the Communist ex-Minister on trial was indeed a fascist collaborator.

From there we get a telescoped conclusion — Pelikan is on death row, but he learns he is pardoned just as his execution is about to take place. The film then jumps via a brief montage sequence from 1951 to the present (1969, when the film was made), a time of greater prosperity and less paranoia. This being a comedy, it turns out that nobody was actually executed — which means that the film ends up pulling its punches a bit, I suppose. But the main point, about Stalinism’s surreal and paranoid logic remains intact. (Apparently Bacso made a sequel in 1994, satirizing the capitalist logic that by that time had entirely replaced the former Communist one in Hungary. But this, like so many other Eastern European films, is unavailable in the US).

The rhetoric of Stalinism, and more generally of “actually existing socialism” before 1989, is quite different from the rhetoric of fascism, or for that matter from the hypocritical and falsifying rhetoric that is deployed for various nefarious purposes (cf. Bush and company) in our capitalist-liberal-democratic societies. Though I’ve cited Lewis Carroll and Groucho Marx in comparison — and I could have cited Kafka as well, of course, who is so over-cited in situations like this that to do so verges on cliche — what The Witness really captures is the specificity of socialist/bureaucratic discourse, the ways that it is tied in both to surveillance (there are several scenes where the secret police come to Pelikan’s house to investigate rumors — which are in fact true — that he has illicitly slaughtered a pig) and spectacle (the show trial, the celebration of the “Hungarian orange”) of a particular sort — one that is quite different from the “war on terror”, the “society of the spectacle”, and the reign of the commodity as we experience them today in America (and at this point, I imagine, in Hungary as well). The Witness is brilliant in the way it communicates this specificity and (for us) unfamiliarity through a form that in itself is entirely familiar and accessible.

The Red and the White

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

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

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.


Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) manages to be both visceral and abstract, playful and savage, intellectual and infantile, all at once. Watching it last night, I was literally trembling with joy and exhilaration. I felt the same way when I first saw the film, nearly thirty years ago. in graduate school.

Daisies is a film of the Czech New Wave, but it doesn’t have much in common — aside from the rejection of traditional narrative, and of the aesthetics of “socialist realism” — with the other works of the movement. Chytilova, you might say, plays Godard to Jiri Menzel‘s Truffaut. (Chytilova and Menzel went to FAMU, the famed Czech film school together, become close friends, and occasionally worked together — see the biography of Chytilova here). Daisies is a riot of color, jump cuts and shock cuts and deliberate mismatches, garish pictorial inserts, incongruous nondiegetic music and sounds, and anti-naturalistic special effects. Sometimes the screen is in color, sometimes in black and white, sometimes tinted with monochromat filters, and sometimes awash in crazed pixelation (? — or whatever the pre-digital equivalent of this might be) effects. The film as a whole is a relentless assault — against film conventions and forms and indeed cinema itself, against social norms and rules and indeed society itself, and finally against the spectator. This assault is violently nihilistic, but it is also utterly joyous and gleeful: an explosion of affect, in which I share as I watch.

Daisies delights as well as shocks — probably, at this point, delights more than it shocks, if I can judge from the responses of my students viewing it last night. And yet, despite a certain degree of cult devotion, it hasn’t ever been given its rightful due in histories of film, or even in histories of experimental, radical, and avant-garde film. Owen Hatherley writes brilliantly about it (and I am deeply indebted to his analysis of the film); but his is the only discussion I have been able to find that is in any way adequate to the film’s astonishing force and radicality. Even those of us who love Daisies have trouble finding the proper terms to account for it.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the wake of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), there was a lot of debate on the subject of what it might mean to break away from conventional cinematic pleasures. Such pleasures, as Mulvey compellingly demonstrated, are embedded in structures of heterosexual male domination and female subordination. Mulvey herself calls (somewhat ambiguously) for an effort “to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment.” But the main thrust of her essay was upon the “destruction of pleasure.” Mulvey called for a practice (both of criticism and of alternative filmmaking) that “destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege” of conventional film viewing.

Much of the debate, after Mulvey, was over the question of whether feminist filmmaking would therefore have to be didactic, “alienating,” and intellectualizing; or whether other regimes of pleasure and affect, besides the patriarchal one, were attainable (or even conceivable). Did anyone notice that, a decade before Mulvey, Chytilova had already answered this question, in the affirmative? For the sheer joy of Daisies owes nothing to the mechanisms of identification and objectification, sadism and paranoia, that Mulvey dissects in her article. Daisies works, it works very powerfully indeed; but we don’t have a good language to describe how and why it works, and that is a large part of the reason it has been relegated to the margins of film history.


So, we have two girls — or young women, if you prefer; the actresses (Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova) are probably in their early twenties. (The IMDB doesn’t list their dates of birth, and says that neither of them ever acted in films again, aside from a couple of minor roles just after Daisies, in 1966 and 1967). We don’t even know these characters’ names — indeed, they are both called by a number of different names over the course of the film — though most discussions, and the credits list on IMDB, call them “Marie I” and “Marie II.”

After the opening credits — which are printed against a montage combining, on the one hand, shots of something that looks like a 1920s Constructivist or Dadaist machine-sculpture, and on the other hand, grainy video footage of wartime bombings and destruction — we see the two Maries seated, side by side and facing the camera, in some sort of open box or proscenium stage. Their bodies are stiff, their movements are awkward, as if they were puppets. Every time either of them moves a limb, we hear a loud creaking on the soundtrack, suggesting a kind of clumsy mechanical animation. They are bored. They tell each other that, because the world is “bad,” their only alternative is to be “bad” too. (Another translation has “spoiled” instead of “bad”).

The two Maries go on to indulge themselves in various sorts of antisocial behavior. They continually complain to one another, and squabble. But they don’t seem to have any stake in these arguments, and it’s impossible to make any consistent distinction between their points of view. (One is blonde and one brunette, and that’s as far as their differences go). They go out on dates to fancy restaurants with evidently well-to-do older men (what does this mean in the Communist context? We know that socialist society wasn’t as classless and egalitarian, nor as gender-equal, as it was supposed to be). The men buy them expensive drinks and food, hoping (presumably) to seduce them, but instead finding themselves having to cope with the girls’ raucous behavior. Marie and Marie wear short dresses; one of them wears her hair is in ponytails; both of them put on lots of eyeshadow. They seem less like vamps than like little girls playing dress-up, or (more disagreeably) like objects of pederastic fantasy (do I have the right word here? what is the heterosexual equivalent of “pederastic”?). The men never get the sex they were hoping for; instead they are hustled off to catch a train, and abandoned. The girls just laugh giddily, and go off to make more trouble.

The two Maries gleefully trash their own apartment, as well as all the public spaces they wander through; they are constantly on the move, from the latrine of some lavish restaurant, to the banks of the river, to the train station, and finally through the corridors and up the floors (riding in a dumbwaiter) of an imposing official building, where they find food and silverware lavishly and meticulously laid out for (we presume) some sort of State banquet. In the climactic sequence of the film, they proceed to trash the banquet room, stuffing themselves with giant portions of meat and poultry, devouring cake and booze, smashing plates and glasses, having tumultuous food fights, and finally swinging from the ceiling chandelier. Meantime, the soundtrack music is either portentous or martial, taken from Wagner’s Ring among other sources. Surely this is the greatest “food” sequence in the history of film.


A word of distinction is in order. The two Maries’ bad behavior isn’t anything like the girls-can-act-like-raunchy-frat-boys-too stuff we’ve seen so much of in recent years, whether in TV shows like Sex and the City, or in fashionable public behavior like that analyzed in Ariel Levy’s recent book Female Chauvinist Pigs. These are situations in which women displace men in order to take over the dominating phallic role for themselves — and end up, therefore, behaving just as stupidly and oppressively as men do.

But the two Maries’ behavior works in an entirely different register. It is completely infantile. They seem uninterested in sexuality per se: they only dress up in swinging-sixties-“sexy” garb the better to confound and humiliate older men (something they are interested in) and to create general confusion and disorder. Instead of sex, they are interested in food. They lose no opportunity to gorge themselves. And they take a child’s pleasure in breaking stuff, shredding stuff, and burning stuff. In particular, they are continually cutting things up with scissors. This latter action resonates with “cutting” in the cinematic sense; their aggression is matched by Chytilova’s anti-continuity editing, which often cuts correctly on action or on an object, only in order to place everything abruptly into a totally different setting. In one sequence, the Maries cut up parts of their own bodies on screen — one’s arm suddenly disappears, followed by the other’s head; finally the screen image itself gets cut, breaking up into small squares squirming all over the frame.

In Freudian terms, one might say that sexuality has been repressed in favor of a regression to oral — narcissistic, incorporating, and aggressive — drives and pleasures. But I think the Maries’ behavior is better seen affirmatively, as a positive construction, rather than as a reaction or regression. The movement from sexuality to food is, precisely, a detournement in the Situationist sense, rather than a “failure of development.” It is also a Rimbaudian “systematic derangement of the senses,” and a Nietzschean movement, a striving “to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming — that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction.” Though certainly Nietzsche never imagined this happening in so delightfully “girlie” a manner as it does here.


The two Maries’ delight in gorging themselves on food and drink is intimately connected with their delight in cutting. Their play with scissors evidently implies castration. Besides newspapers, bedspreads, and their own and others’ clothing, they are also continually snipping up phallic objects like sausages and pickles — as well as presumptively feminine ones like apples. (Castration, figurative or literal, seems to be a recurring theme in Chytilova’s work. One of her far more recent films, Traps (1998), which unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to see, aroused much controversy for its story of a woman who castrates the two men who raped her).

Destroying the phallus doesn’t just mean undermining male power, but undermining the power of the whole “Symbolic Order.” Among othet things, it means destroying the opposition — or undermining the gap — between things and words, or more broadly between things and their representations (whether these be verbal or visual). At one point, one of the Maries cuts out a picture of food from a magazine, then stuffs it into her mouth and chews it up with the same avidity she shows for actual food. This is in the course of a scene where the two Maries roast sausages by setting fires and burning down parts of their apartment. Then they spear and cut the wieners with an enormous cook’s fork, and an equally enormous pair of scissors. All the while they laugh at the complaints of a jilted lover, whose pathetic pleadings are heard over the phone. During the entire scene, some sort of sacramental choral music plays, nondiegetically, in the background.

Everything the two Maries do is destructive. They revel in sheer waste, in “unemployed negativity,” in “expenditure without return.” Above all, Daisies expresses utter scorn for any sort of productivity, whether economic, social, or semiotic This, of course, is a major reason why the film was denounced by Party authorities for wasting the resources of the State, and insulting “the working people in factories, in fields, and on construction sites.” As production was the highest value in all the socialist states, the general derision which Daisies pours on the very concept is actually more disturbing to official ideology than a more explicit, specific, and immediate criticism of the social system would have been.

There is one sequence in Daisies in which the two Maries watch a farmer watering his crops. He doesn’t notice them, despite their outlandish attire. They then stand in a square they are passed by a squad of bicyclists, probably workers going off to their work in a factory. Once again, nobody notices them. They start to wonder whether they even exist: obviously, there is no place for them in the world of “actually existing socialism.”

(It’s dubious whether they could exist in “actually existing capitalism” either. Their orgies of expenditure might be seen as a sort of consumerist excess, except that they never pay for anything. They steal money, but they never spend it. They have no regard for, and no sense of, property; no sense of material goods as a source of power or prestige. Their infantilism, unlike that of the capitalist consumer, unegotistical. They have no interest in possession and accumulation).

After the Maries destroy the State banquet, the film ends with their display of remorse, and punishment for their bad behavior. This formulaic recantation is done so sarcastically that it only further accentuates the film’s overall childish glee in pure waste and destruction. (Is it worth noting that, after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Chytilova and other Czech New Wave directors were similarly forced to make critiques and recantations of their work?) The Maries mumble their sorrow, and say that now they are happy to be socially useful, as they ostensibly put everything back in order: this involves putting the shards of broken plates back next to each other, and throwing handfuls of crumbs back together on large platters. Finally they lie down on the top of the banquet table, wearing body suits made of newspaper and papier mache, murmuring that they are finally at peace… until the room’s enormous chandelier falls from the ceiling and crushes them in a final swoosh of multicolored pixelation. Though Chytilova claimed, under political duress, that this was a moral punishment for the girls’ transgressions, it seems rather to extend their reign of destruction, consuming not only the two of them, but the film itself.

What’s great about Daisies is that, even as it revels in negativity and destruction, and even as its protagonists are motivated (to the extent that such language can be used in a film like this at all) by a kind of malaise, there is no sense of lack or incompletion here, no alienated subjectivity, no Lacanian not-all, no Mulveyesque dialectics and detachment, and even no Adornoesque revelation of the work’s own insufficiency — but only a joyous plenitude, an overabundance that is both affective and material, embodied in the sheer exuberance and formal inventiveness of the film itself.

The early modernist endeavor to align radical aesthetics with radical politics came to grief over the horrors of Stalinism, not to mention the ultra-conservative aesthetics of “socialist realism” that Stalin imposed. In post-War, post-Stalin, Communist Eastern Europe, Dusan Makavejev is nearly alone in endeavoring to renew the link between radical aesthetics and radical politics. Chytilova’s late modernist radical aesthetics doesn’t share any such project. It is explicitly, not just apolitical, but virulently antipolitical. Rather than simply affirming the rights of the individual against the collective — a move which would still be “political” in the conventional sense — Daisies obliterates both individual and collective in its fervidly antisocial jouissance. (The two Maries cannot exist without one another; their duality is as irreducible to any sort of heroic or existential solitude and individuality, as it is to any sort of social bond or collectivity). And this antipolitical virulence is precisely the film’s (crucial) political import: one that perhaps we need today, in our “connected” world of inescapable networks and ubiquitous commodification, as much as it was needed 40-odd years ago in the world of “actually existing socialism.”

What would a history of film, or of modernism, or of the avant-garde, or an account of strategies of resistance and evasion and refusal, that took proper and full account of Daisies look like?

Loves of a Blonde

Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) uses many of the same comic strategies that he subsequently employed in The Fireman’s Ball, though the two films differ greatly in terms of the subject matter to which the comic touch is applied. As I wrote of The Fireman’s Ball, so here “throughout the film, pointless arguments go on at almost excruciating length, without ever reaching a moment of open conflict, let alone resolution.”

Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) uses many of the same comic strategies that he subsequently employed in The Fireman’s Ball, though the two films differ greatly in terms of the subject matter to which the comic touch is applied. As I wrote of The Fireman’s Ball, so here “throughout the film, pointless arguments go on at almost excruciating length, without ever reaching a moment of open conflict, let alone resolution.”

In both films, comedy arises mostly from delays, misapprehensions, failures of communication, and a general sense of awkwardness and self-consciousness. In Loves of a Blonde, this is exacerbated by an awareness of, and the unsuccessful attempt to emulate, fashions from the West. Loves of a Blonde dates from the period of Beatlemania and swinging London; the people in the film are evidently at least somewhat aware of the consumerist styles associated with these developments, however much such styles were disparaged and repressed by the Czech regime at the time. Over the opening credits, for instance, we see and hear a young woman, with an acoustic guitar, singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad which is notable by its contrast to the older-fashioned dance music heard elsewhere in the film. (One of Forman’s earliest films, which I’ve never seen, was a documentary that juxtaposed the rehearsals of a Czech rock band with those of a traditional brass band).

But in Loves of a Blonde the subject is sex and gender and romantic illusions and fantasy and familial relationships – rather than the pompousness of an overbearing bureaucracy that is the main theme of The Fireman’s Ball. So the effect is far less satirical and abrasive than will be the case in the later film. Instead, Loves of a Blonde works in a more intimate and affective register — though its results are largely disillusioning.

The protagonist, Andula (Hanu Brejchova) is a young woman who works in a shoe factory out in the provinces, and lives and sleeps in a barracks or dormitory with lots of other young women workers. There’s almost nothing to do in this town, and the gender ratio of women to men is something like 20:1. (Apparently, according to Dina Iordoanova’s invaluable book Cinema of the Other Europe, this situation was quite common in Czechoslovakia at the time: pp 130-131). The factory work is presented as boring, repetitious, unfulfilling, and alienating, if not as horrific as (more or less accurate) cinematic portrayals of capitalist sweatshops tend to be. The evident failure of “actually existing socialism” to meet its promises is doubled by an equally evident, and all too traditional, gender hierarchy: the only men we see in the factory (or even in the town) are far older than the women, and have managerial positions.

Loves of a Blonde

To rectify the boredom and gender imbalance, the factory authorities convince the army to bring in a bunch of troops to have a party at the local pub — basically it is one big mixer — with the girls. The trouble is, the soliders turn out to be, not young draftees, but reservists: i.e. middle aged men who have been called up for a brief tour of duty, and who have wives and children waiting for them back home. Much comedy ensues as these men try to hide their wedding rings, and figure out what lines to use to pick up the girls who evidently don’t find them the least bit appealing. There’s a great sequence where Forman cuts repeatedly back and forth between a table at which three sad-sack reservists sit, trying to work up their nerve; and the table where Andula and two of her girlfriends sit, commenting snarkily but also nervously about the grossness of these men who are all too evidently staring at them.

The comedy here is largely behavioral. It arises out of the awkward feelings of the characters, together with the tension coming from the obvious mismatch between them. Everything is uneventful and anticlimactic. It’s like a joke whose nervous humor comes precisely from the fact that there is no punchline, no release from the vague uneasiness of the situation. (Surely early Forman is one of the inspirations for Jim Jarmusch, whose existential comedy has often been described as “Eastern European” in feel. But Forman shows none of the hipster smugness which sometimes vitiates the work of the otherwise brilliant Jarmusch).

Loves of a Blonde actually does have a three-act structure, despite Forman’s de-emphasizing of plot and deliberate causalness of presentation As is characteristic of the New Wave (either French or Czech) there’s a kind of simultaneous naturalism and formalism. Naturalism, because the tight narrative motivation of traditional film is deliberately rejected. Scenes and incidents are dwelt on for their own sake, even when they have no significance for the larger story. This is in order to let us perceive in greater, more intimate detail the minute-to-minute feelings and experiences of the characters, and the nature of the milieu in which they live. Formalism, because at the same time we are made more aware of the camera and the editor than would be the case in traditional narrative film. The formal nature of the film is pointed up by the deliberate arbitrariness of editing, the frequent elisions when we move from one scene to another, the often deliberately posed and composed nature of many of the shots, which give the impression of being stills (and sometimes even are).

Loves of a Blonde nevertheless, as I said, maintains a three-act structure. The first act is the party I have already described. The second consists in the depiction of a one-night stand. Andula flees the reservists, but she is picked up and seduced by a man her own age — Milda (Vladimir Pucholt), a pianist from Prague, who has come down to the provinces as part of the band providing dance music for the mixer. Gradually, he coaxes her up to his room, out of her clothes, and into his bed. It’s kind of a game: the moves on both sides, his insistence, her reluctance, her ultimate acquiescence, are all familiar in gender-stereotypical ways. As if to emphasize this, the editing here is especially elliptical, the two-shots of Andula and Milda especially picturesque and composed. The beauty-in-fragmentation of this section of the film reminded me a bit of the parallel scenes — reduced almost to a sort of Cubist abstraction — in which the protagonist of Godard’s A Married Woman has sex, first with her husband, then with her lover. Forman’s staging is a bit less alienating than Godard’s — he wants to make us feel Andula’s romantic illusions even as he exposes them as self-deceptions, whereas Godard is after a harsher critique of the zombification and alienation to which consumer society reduces women. Forman’s scene is also funny in ways that Godard’s could not be — there’s a whole bit with a windowshade that keeps on rolling back up when Milda pulls it down, and eventually falls out of the windowframe entirely. This bit of slapstick is, however, framed and edited in the same coolly abstract manner as the rest of the sequence.

In the third act, Andula — either unaware, or unwilling to accept, that Milda’s fling with her was just a passing whim and nothing more — shows up at Milda’s apartment in the big city. Only Milda isn’t there — he’s out performing, and chasing other women — and, it turns out, he lives with his parents anyway. Andula’s presence sets off an interminable round of bickering — first between his mother and father, and then involving Milda himself as well, when he finally does get home. Everyone’s stuck in their roles in the eternal familial triangle: we get a whole panoply of generational conflict, gender conflict, conflict of tradition vs. modernity, etc etc. The somewhat bitter humor of the situation — this is something that clearly can, and does, go on forever, as the parents and adult child are united in dysfunction, bound together by their squabbles as much as by anything — is the sort of thing that is often said to be quintessentially Czech; though I recognized it as something quite closely akin to (Ashkenazi) Jewish humor. I suppose it’s our common East European heritage.

The final sequence of the film returns us to the beginning — at both the start and the end of the film, we see Andula in bed, in the barracks, with another girl, telling her tales of romantic desire and success. She says, in this last sequence, that the visit to the pianist was wonderful, that it all went well, and that she will be going back to see him every weekend. It doesn’t seem that she is lying, so much as that she semi-believes her fabrications herself. The more tenuous and insubstantial the event, the more fleeting the memory, and thereby the more it is available to be woven into romantic fantasy. Forman doesn’t condemn the fantasy; rather, he suggests, given the grimness of her actual life, this sort of illusion is the only thing that Andula has. We in the audience are disabused of whatever romantic illusions we may have; but at the same time we are gently, insidiously seduced into accepting them — for Andula, at least, of whom it’s impossible not to feel somewhat fond — as a comfort and a compensation.

I tend, in general, to have an almost visceral dislike of the idea that art, or romance, ought to comfort us with lies, and shield us from the harshness of the real: in this way art and romance render themselves complicit with the injustices and oppressions of the dominant social order. The delight we receive from fictions ought to impel and incite us to demand something better, rather than reconciling us to what is. Today, under the reign of the neoliberal world market, it is almost an Kantian moral duty for us to continue to hope, and to resist our leaders’ assurances that there is simply No Alternative. — I think, however, that what Forman does in Loves of a Blonde is precisely to demonstrate how, under the demoralizing effects of “actually existing socialism,” the pallid comfort of self-deception through romantic illusion really was the best that one could hope for.


Andrzej Munk’s Eroica (1958) was made just before Bad Luck (which I discussed in a previous post). It’s less ambitious than that later film, but displays a similar anti-heroic and myth-deflating sensibility, as it reflects on the calamities of Poland’s 20th-century history.

Eroica is composed of two separate episodes (each about 40 minutes long) set near the end of World War II. In the first episode, “Scherzo alla Polacca,” a small-time opportunist, who dislikes the thought of doing arduous work or taking risks, nonetheless finds himself having to cross the German/Polish frontlines several times, in order to deliver messages vital to the Resistance. In the second, “Ostinato Lugubre,” a bunch of captured Polish officers fail to escape from a German POW camp, in which most of them have been interned for the entire duration of the War.

In “Scherzo alla Polacca,” the protagonist Dzidzius (Edward Dziewonski) is farcically anti-heroic. He drifts into Resistance work almost by accident; he finds his wife cavorting with a handsome Hungarian officer, and wants to get out of town. He learns from the officer that the Hungarian military unit occupying the town would like to change sides, abandoning the Nazis (who are clearly losing the war by this point) and giving their weapons to the Resistance, in return for favorable treatment from the Soviet Army whenever it arrives. Dzidzius has to deliver messages back and forth across the frontlines in order to help negotiate the terms of this exchange. He makes his way, confronted both by Nazis who find him suspicious, or Resistance people who worry he is a spy, first through bribery — until he runs out of money — and then by grovelling and play-acting. Since he’s easily distracted from his mission — getting drunk on vintage wine he loots from a half-destroyed house, and getting it on with a woman he knows in the Resistance — he really only completes his task by accident. But it turns out at the end that the entire exercise was useless: the Resistance and the Hungarians cannot come to an agreement.

The most famous shot in the movie (sorry I am not including it here, but I returned the DVD before I got a chance to scan it) shows Dzidzius sitting on a riverbank, getting drunk, and not even seeing a German tank that approaches him from behind. When he finally notices the tank, he convinces the Germans not to kill him by rolling around on the ground, making a big spectacle of his drunkenness, and wailing, in broken German, about his aged and infirm mother (this latter part seems to be pure fabrication). We hear laughter from inside the tank, which then turns and rolls away, instead of shooting Dzidzius.

“Ostinato Lububre” takes place entirely within the perimeter of a POW camp, near the end of the war (probably in late 1944). Two new officers, just captured and interned, meet their bunkmates who, it turns out, have all been there ever since surrendering right at the start of the War, in September 1939. Their life as prisoners — governed scrupulously by the Geneva Convention — is relatively sheltered, peaceful, and comfortable, compared to the lot of anybody who is actually out there back in Poland, suffering under the Nazi occupation. Since they have almost nothing to do, they spend their time in petty squabbles and stupid games. They endlessly bemoan the impossibility of escaping — but it is clear that they don’t really want to. The one exception is Lieutenant Zak (Jozef Kostecki), who hates them all and wishes only to be placed in solitary confinement so he can be free of them; Zak, as a sort of demonstration, easily slips through the camp’s barbed wire and out to “freedom,” only to let himself be recaptured, a minute later, by two peasant women out for a stroll. Even this stunt fails to get him placed in solitary — he is just returned to the same barracks as the others.

The prisoners comfort and coddle themselves in their inactivity by frequently recalling the almost mythical exploit of the only one of their number who escaped, Lieutenant Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki). But it turns out that Zawistowski never actually did get out — he is simply hiding in a crawl space in the barracks, fed by the few fellow prisoners who are in on the secret. Not only does the myth of heroisim serve as an alibi for stupidity and inaction; it isn’t even based on anything true in the first place.

Both episodes work to deflate and demystify national myths, of heroism and patriotism and resistance. Munk excels at a kind of comical emptying-out: not only of the false ideals he seeks to satirize, but of the very notion of a cinema of action. His farcical incidents all occur in a void: they are what happens, you might say, when nothing is happening, when there are no real Events. I’m reminded a bit of Howard Hawk’s semi-absurdist John Wayne/Dean Martin Western, Rio Bravo, made around the same time (1959). In Rio Bravo , too, nothing happens for most of the movie: the protagonists just sit around having aimless conversations while they wait for an event that takes its good time, before arriving. But of course, Hawks’ film does culminate in a real Event — the final gunfight — and thereby it does affirm, if not the full myth of Heroism, then at least its Hawksian mutation into a seasoned, committed professionalism, which emerges as a source of both pride and redemption. In contrast, Munk offers the viewer no such outlet, no such conclusion. We are left stranded, instead, with the sense that you can never be on the right side of History, but only make more or less cowardly, more or less stupid, more or less dishonorable, accomodations to its unavoidable weight.

Closely Watched Trains

Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966) is probably the best-known film (though probably not the best) from the Czech New Wave of the early 1960s. (It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968). It is the first of five Czech New Wave films (actually, four Czech and one Slovak) that I am showing in my Eastern European Film class this semester.

Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966) is probably the best-known film (though probably not the best) from the Czech New Wave of the early 1960s. (It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968). It is the first of five Czech New Wave films (actually, four Czech and one Slovak) that I am showing in my Eastern European Film class this semester.

Closely Watched Trains is a film of many little virtues. With an emphasis on the “little,” as this is a film which eschews larger ambitions, much as its young protagonist, Milos (Vaclav Neckar) does — he tells us that he is glad to work as a train dispatcher at the local station, because he is basically lazy, and this job is one that doesn’t demand too much of him. The film is set during World War II — a politically safe subject to choose in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia. But it is much more a coming-of-age film than a war-and-heroism one, even though this latter is what it becomes at the end. Aside from doing as little work as possible, Milos is most concerned with losing his virginity — or overcoming the condition of “premature ejaculation” that has thus far prevented him from losing it. In his despair over this, he even tries to commit suicide at one point, though the film doesn’t take this happening very seriously.

So, we have a film with quirky, singular characters, each of whom has his (generally it’s a he) own little obsessions; with finely observed details, organized around the slow and sleepy pace of provincial life; with an abundant, but wry and very dry, humor; with an empathetic but somewhat distanced point of view; and with a bittersweet tone. My description comes very close to being a cliche: both of a certain type of unambitious but much-beloved art film, and of an alleged Czech sensibility. What then, distinguishes Closely Watched Trains in particular? (aside from the fact that it more or less set the pattern for what I am calling a cliche).

Closely Watched Trains has antecedents, of course, both in Czech literature — Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk, as well as the novel by Bohumil Hrabal on which the film is based — and in cinema — I sense the presence here of Francois Truffaut’s early work. But it feels fresh nonetheless. The question is why. I notice that both Richard Schickel’s notes for the Criterion Collection’s DVD of the film, and Tom Keogh’s notes on the film at Amazon both approach the film by way of expressing a certain degree of (rhetorical) surprise at how well it holds up after all these years (and all the imitations).

I think the power of the film has a lot to do with its cinematography, and its pacing — both of which are far less laid-back and casual than they might at first appear to be. (Of course, the appearance of casualness actually requires quite a lot of difficult planning and work on the part of the filmmaker). As was the tendency for the Czech New Wave (as for the French New Wave a few years earlier), Menzel does not interested in elaborately setting up the film’s plot events and situations: he just plunks us into the middle of them. Also, he makes us infer motivation and mood from behavior, and from visual and sonic set-ups, rather than bringing us more directly into the minds of the characters. Once past the opening titles, the film begins with Milos’ first-person voiceover narration — but this is quickly dropped, and does not reappear later in the film. There are almost no close-ups, and no elaborate speeches or other indications of the characters’ motivations for doing what they do. Camera angles are continually varying, which has the effect of suggesting variation and change even when not much is happening, and which generally works against sort of deep identification with the characters (not that ti is “alienating,” but just that it denies us the sense of repetition which is necessary in order for identifications to form). Non-diegetic music is used sparingly, and then mostly just for ironic contrast (like the somewhat comic martial music that comes up whenever the local Nazi boss makes a visit).

All of this makes for a film that is more concerned with sensation and observation than with affect. And thus for a film that privileges wry humor and sympathetic distance, rather than the far more frequent cinematic mechanism of hysterical overidentification (I am using this latter phrase in a purely descriptive, rather than pejorative, sense). I am tempted to say that Closely Watched Trains is something like an inverted Rube Goldberg machine. That is to say, in this film the chains of causal relations are as oblique and surprising as they are in Rube Goldberg machines — it is always a question of external relations. But whereas Rube Goldberg machines rely on an absurdly hyperbolic and methodical, even paranoid, overorganization, Menzel’s film makes its (equally contingent and absurd) associative links through subjective states of drift and inattention. The film’s humor comes from its incongruities, but the narrative moves forward through incongruities as well. There is a series of connections, but these connections unfold at seeming random, sort of like a Rube Goldberg machine in slow motion.

Closely Watched Trains

Let me give an example, even at risk of both giving away the plot, and of making that plot sound convoluted and “difficult,” when in fact it is quite slack and laid-back, and altogether clear and easy to follow. Milos, after being rescued from his suicide attempt, goes around asking everyone, without any sense of propriety or embarrassment, for help and advice with his ejaculation problem. (This utter lack of shame or self-consciousness is part of what makes Milos, and the film in general, so charming and endearing). One of the people he asks is the stationmaster’s wife — as he approaches her, she is sitting calmly, and preparing a goose for the cookpot by smoothing or shaving (I wasn’t quite sure) force-feeding a duck, making the food go down by stroking its long neck — in what, in this context, cannot help but appear as a phallic gesture. The promise of this gesture is taken up a few scenes later, when one of Milos’ superiors, the womanizer Hubicka (Josef Somr) sets him up with an “experienced” slightly older woman, who does initiate him into sexuality with an attention to his needs such as that which the scene with the goose sort of implied. But this woman is a resistance fighter, delivering to Hubicka the bomb to blow up a German train; and it’s because Hubicka is made the subject of a (more ridiculous than scary) inquest by the Nazis on account of his womanizing activities (he is accused of offending the dignity of the State by stamping the official bureaucratic ink stamps of the train office on a young lady’s posterior) that Milos becomes the one who actually has to throw the bomb onto the train — which is what leads, at the end of the film, to his almost accidental death (he is shot by a Nazi soldier who acts more on principle — kill any of the locals who might be seen as stepping out of line — than by any awareness of the bomb — which the soldier has not seen, and which does successfully destroy the train a few seconds later).

In this way, Milos’ death at the end of Closely Watched Trains — and his thereby becoming, quite unintentionally, a hero of the Resistance — unfolds with exactly the same logic, and the same sort of weightlessness, as all of the comic incidents throughout the film. And this is Menzel’s way of describing the odd, and thoroughly contingent, ways that individual lives get inscribed into History. Throughout the film, the Nazi occupation is described as a burden, but nothing more — the employees at the train station have to pay obeisance, and pay attention, when the local Nazi little tyrant comes around, but as soon as he leaves, they go back to acting as they always did, ignoring whatever orders and exhortations they have received. Milos’ death reminds us that such a lackadaisical attitude does not provide any sort of exemption from the horrors of war and tyranny; but it does suggest (once again) that these relations are, in principle, external ones rather than innerly determining ones — however mortal they may turn out to be in practice. And that is how Menzel clears away a sort of free space, even amidst the horrors and traumas of 20th century history. Closely Watched Trains does skirt close to the edge of a certain cliche. as I suggested earlier (and to a postmodern taste, “charm” is far more troubling than any sort of sleaziness or exploitation or even frank stupidity could be), but it manages to remain deftly on its razor’s edge through its gaps and silences, its comic digressions, and its oblique meditation on history and contingency.

Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water (1962) was Roman Polanski’s first feature film, and the only one he made in Poland (and in Polish) before leaving for the West and English-language cinema. It is evidently of a piece with Polanski’s subsequent work, in terms of its nihilism, its chill and creepiness, its generally smothering affect.

Knife in the Water (1962) was Roman Polanski’s first feature film, and the only one he made in Poland (and in Polish) before leaving for the West and English-language cinema. It is evidently of a piece with Polanski’s subsequent work, in terms of its nihilism, its chill and creepiness, its generally smothering affect.

Knife in the Water is quite strikingly different from the films made by the Polish directors of the previous generation (or half-generation, given that these directors were only a decade or so older than Polanski) like Wajda and Munk.. In Polanski’s fillm, there is no reference to World War II, or to Poland’s other historical traumas; and no sign of the Italian neorealist influence that was evident in Wajda and Munk.

Polanski seems to evacuate history and society quite deliberately, as his film has only three characters (no other human beings are seen, not even as extras), and unfolds first in a car driving through uninhabited forest, and then largely on a yacht, sailing through a series of lakes that mostly seem devoid of human habitation. We see, at best, the debris, byproducts, or tools of human labor: construction vehicles standing idle, because it is Sunday; logs floating in a lake, near the shore, waiting to be sent downstream. The car seen at the beginning of the film is left parked overnight; when the owners return to it the next morning, at the end of the movie, the windshield wipers have been stolen. But we do not see the vandals, or get any hint of who they were.

In the context of “actually existing socialism,” it’s hard to read this as anything but a violent, willful negation of historical consciousness, of socialist (or any other sort of) humanism, of social realism, and of political and social “responsibility.” Polanski’s attitude is brattishly asocial or anti-social, even though, at the same time, the film suggests that there is no escaping society. For we need other people to exploit, or to demonstrate our superiority over.

All this is expressed as much in the style of the film as in its script and story. There are lots of claustrophobic closeups, but rarely of just one character: usually two, or even all three, of the actors are squeezed into a single shot. Often one character is quite close to the camera, but the other two are also present, slightly further back. Thus we get the in-your-face, affect-heavy effect of close-ups, but — how do I put this? — without the kind of overflowing intensity that one gets from, say, the close-ups of Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc (or for that matter, the close-ups in many of Samuel Fuller’s films). Instead, there’s a tension: the affect not of any of the characters, but between them, the affect of the void. In the background, and in the rare longer shots, there is always the wilderness, which never looks inviting, but either blank or ominous. There’s no identification with these characters, then, despite how we are almost thrust in their faces. The film is suffused with the affects of coldness and cruelty.

(I should also mention the soundtrack, as well as the images. The score, by Polanski’s frequent collaborator (until his untimely death in 1969) Krzysztof Komeda, has a tense, 50s-jazz sort of vibe. But this score doesn’t suffuse the film, it only punctuates it at certain moments — or rather, I should say the reverse: the score is itself frequently punctuated by silence, long stretches when all we hear is ambient noise. This punctuation, or scansion, makes for a lot of the tension in the movie).

The three characters are a 40-something married couple, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), and a younger (20ish?) student or drifter, who remains unnamed (Zygmunt Malanowicz). [Digressive Note: I see from IMDB that Leon Niemczyk just died this past November, and that shortly before his death he appeared in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which is probably the one new film that I am most itching to see]. Andrzej and Krystyna are driving through the woods, when they encounter the young man hitchhiking; they give him a ride, and then invite him aboard their yacht.

The social world is present in the film precisely, but only, through what we learn of these peoples’ backgrounds. Andrzej is apparently a sportswriter, and he and Krystyna evidently belong to the Party elite (what in the Soviet Union was called the nomenklatura), as is evidenced by the very fact that they own a car and a yacht (as well as, Krystyna says at one point, a 4-room apartment). They also exude a sort of smugness, deriving from a reflexive sense of privilege, which they completely take for granted.

The younger man says very little about his background, and what he does say is unreliable. He describes himself variously as a drifter, a hiker, and a student; he seems, like most of the population in this alleged “workers’ state”, to have few or no possessions. Aside, that is, from the large, mean-looking switchblade knife he is prone to display at every opportunity.

Knife in the Water

Given the deliberate decontextualization of all these differences, and the limitaitons in what we know about the characters’ pasts, the “class struggle” — as well as the generational struggle between the two men — gets played out in a Hobbesian or Darwinian register, rather than in a Marxist (or Freudian) one.

All the exchanges between the three characters are driven by buried suggestions of aggression and violence. Andrzej’s and Krystyna’s relationship is evidently several degrees below dead. Andrzej insults and patronizes the hitchhiker, then invites him aboard through a sort of vicious condescension. The young man accepts the invitation through a kind of swagger — he seems anxious to take on a dare. (We first encounter him when he stops Andrzej’s and Krystyna’s car by standing in the middle of the road as it approaches — giving them the sole alternatives of stopping for him, or running him over).

The outing quickly turns into a macho duel (a pissing contest?) between the two men, with the woman serving as spectator and judge of the contest, as well as being its stake. Andrzej asserts the authority of his age, of his social position, of his superior knowledge as a seaman and a social insider, and of his authority as the “skipper” of the ship. The young man responds with arrogant cockiness, physical daring (he shimmies up the mast at one point, and — on a dare — holds a pot of boiling water in his bare hands at another), and displays of his superior virility (on account of his youth, and also through overt phallic displays — there’s no ambiguity as to the connotations of the knife). (It’s worth noting in this respect, and apropos of the title of the film, that Andrzej is unable to appropriate the knife — he can only deprive the younger man of it by throwing it overboard).

In this contest, the younger man gets the better of Andrzej — at least in the sense that he gets to bed the woman, and then walks away scot-free. But summarizing the plot of the film in this way is misleading. For one thing, the real “winner” (to the extent there is one) is Krystyna. She manages both to put the younger man in his place, and to get the sexual gratification from him that her husband fails to provide. And she manages thereby also to humiliate and subjugate Andrzej, taking his pretensions down a few notches, and altering the balance of power between them in her favor. At the end of the film, Andrzej is (metaphorically) paralyzed or castrated, stopping the car at a (both literal and metaphorical) crossroads, and not sure which way to go.

Krystyna’s “victory” also marks a defeat for the younger man. His virility has been reduced to a merely instrumental status. For all his confident and contempt-filled self-assurance, he turns out to have been nothing but a go-between, or a tool, in the power struggle between the couple. (We realize that Andrzej and Krystyna are the people who really hate one another, although this is not expressed openly at any point in the film. The young man does get to walk away at the end of the film: he’s not trapped in the situation the way the two of them are. But the young man also hasn’t gained anything from the contest, besides (we presume) a fleeting instant of pleasure; and he has amply paid for this with the loss of his knife.

I still haven’t managed to explain what is the most powerful thing about Knife in the Water, which is its obliqueness. Nothing of the contest (or three-way war) that I have been describing is quite there on the surface. I don’t mean that it’s hidden, exactly: the three characters are all fully aware of what’s going on, and so is the audience. But in this strange battle, no blows are ever thrown directly. Rather, the fighting is all done in the form of insinuations and implications. The young man doesn’t actually threaten the older couple with his knife, for instance. He doesn’t have to; the mere presence of the knife is enough. Throughout the film, even the most casual statements and gestures are fraught with heavy, and usually ugly, meanings. But for this very reason, nearly all the film’s statement and gestures are (merely?) casual and impromptu. One of the many things the film withholds from us is the hysterical sense of rising to a climax of craziness or viciousness.

By the end of the film, we are forced to realize that what we have witnessed is nothing more than a series of futile stupidities. And this, I think, is the deepest sense in which the film is nihilistic and anti-humanist. Polanski offers us no redemption; even more, he condemns our very desire for redemption (or for narrative resolution) by so deliberately frustrating it. This is profoundly subversive and unsettling, both to the “socialst” state in which the film was originally made, and in the hypercapitalistic state of things within which we experience the film today. Macho contests are a staple of Hollywood cinema, after all, and they generally end by promising some sort of redemption through violence. (Think of nearly anything from Straw Dogs to Reservoir Dogs, or from Charles Bronson to Sylvester Stallone to Mel Gibson). Even Clint Eastwood, who uses his iconic status as a hero of masculine violence in order to demystify and deconstruct such violence from within, never made anything nearly as disillusioning as this. In Knife in the Water, even the emblematic gesture with which the masculine hero tosses away his badge, or his gun, after having inflicted and survived all the violence — even this gesture is reduced to triviality and stupidity. Polanski leaves us with no alibis.