Cinema of the Czech Republic

Podzemlje (1995) (Underground)
Emir Kusturica


UndergroundEmir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) has been torn apart in certain sections as pro-Milosevic propaganda that brushes aside Serbia’s atrocities in the Balkan Wars. I think that’s not only being too harsh on a relatively benign satire but also that it ascribes way too much intention and focus to a film that’s riddled with ideological inconsistencies, like most films. True that it presents Yugoslavia under Tito as a Platonic cave whose residents mistake the shadows on the wall – sometimes literally, as when the inmates of an underground cell watch faked footage from WW2, which they think is still on – for truth and who are kept united under a phantom enemy while being blind to internal fault lines. But construing Kusturica’s generally sentimental lament about the breakup of a nation as brothers start killing brothers and friends turn on each other as a case for Serbia comes across as a pre-determined approach to the film which writes down the answers before the questions. What’s most inviting about Underground is how it keeps poking at the nexus between politics and cinema. Marko (Miki Manojlović), whose rise to power mirrors Tito’s, appears to us like a filmmaker figure, directing his historical actors in an underground set illuminated by high-key lighting and marked by a bizarre communal mise en scène. (And what of Tito himself, who could be the seen as the helmer of a chaotic crew made to act out a Communist metanarrative?) The deep hierarchy of performances that pervades the film aptly throws light on the loss of “reality” and the alienation from history that seems to have characterized Yugoslavia’s tumultuous half-century since the end of the Second World War.

Horí, Má Panenko (1967) (aka The Firemen’s Ball)
Milos Forman

“Never! In this situation, never. Remember that. The good name of the fire brigade means more to me than any honesty”

The Firemen's BallCinema has evolved from being a medium of documentation and story-telling and to a medium of providing social, political and spiritual commentary of the era involved. But all such movies are not accepted with open arms. Tastes differ and so do ideologies. Films that have been against the political and religious ideologies of key organizations and powerful people have been shunned and their makers condemned. This was especially true of the films that were made in communist countries such as USSR and East-Germany. One such gem that came from the Czech Republic is Milos Forman’s Horí, Má Panenko (1967).

Running just over 70 minutes, the film follows a group of old firemen trying to organize a ball to honour their 86-year old chairman. In the party, they try to organize a beauty pageant by gathering the most beautiful females in the ball and asking the winner to present the “Golden Axe” to their chairman. Needless to say, it flops. None of the candidates have the guts to show up on stage and they go hide in the restrooms. Meanwhile, a lottery is also being organized whose prizes are being stolen by the people in the ball!. Worse, there is a big fire accident near the hall and everybody runs to go see it. The old owner of the burnt house is offered the proceedings from the lottery which eventually is scrapped due to all the prizes getting pinched. They finally try to get the criminals, in vain. As a final attempt they also try to honour the chairman themselves who has been a victim throughout the chaos.

The movie may appear amusing for its subtle humour throughout. But it gives a whack on the head when you consider it as a satire on the then ruling Czech government. A government ruled by a bunch of bumbling old men devising their own inconsequential plans, constant embezzlement of funds, the public who is left with nothing but promises – the film portrays all these using comedy as the medium. The film wouldn’t have seen the light of the day if it was not for François Truffaut who bought out the film’s rights before it was banned outright by the Russian during their invasion of the Czech Republic. The film was nominated for the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1969.