Everything You Always Wanted to Know about My Heart...
An interview with film director Jan Němec
No survey of Czech film from the 1960s is complete without mention of the extraordinary features made by Jan Němec. Using a concept of "pure film," Němec sought to make pictures that captured emotional and mental states in a way that strived to be intrinsically filmic rather than just theater on film.
His uncompromising style of filmmaking soon lead him into trouble with the authorities and, unable to work in the industry, he left his homeland. His years abroad were largely unfruitful, but following his return to the Czech Republic in 1989 he has made features which continue to show his exploration of the medium of film and its possibilities. Although now in his sixties, Němec is still very much of the cutting edge of filmmaking; his latest feature was shot on digital video and was premiered on the Internet.
CER met Němec earlier this month to discuss the wild extrmes of success and disappointment he has experienced in his career and what has driven his unswerving vision of pure film.
CER: What was your notion of film directing when you came to FAMU [Prague's film school]?
Jan Němec: Of course, I had no experience in film. I was 18, had just graduated, and it was 1954. At that time it wasn't possible to get film experience, there was no video, as now. I was an amateur jazz musician, I played the piano and clarinet, and I was thinking about music studies. But at the last minute—after consulting with my father—an engineer, manager, a practical man who hinted that as far as making a living goes it's better to be a filmmaker than a jazz musician—I decided to be a film director.
If rock-and-roll had existed at the time, I probably would have decided to do that, because it was fun, a free-for-all, no responsibility or career, just glory and money. Actually, my latest film, Nočni hovory s matkou (Late Night Talks with Mother, 2000), is a rocker's confession.
The other thing that explains why I chose filmmaking was that I was temporarily suspended from school because of my bad behavior. It meant that the school didn't give me a recommendation for studies at university. There was only one exception to this requirement: the artistic universities, where only an audition was required. So I decided on filmmaking.
CER: Was there any concrete, intensive film experience that made you interested in filmmaking?
JN: No film had influenced me, because there were no foreign films playing at that time. But there is one influence that affects me to this day. My father was a devoted amateur photographer. He had more than a thousand pictures, so I had some vague experience of photography. Photography follows me up to this day. If I can, I put it in my films.
CER: What sparked your conception of "pure film"?
JN: When I went to FAMU, I really applied myself. I didn't go to the pub with friends. I really got hooked on film. And when I made my first two school films, Sousto (A Loaf of Bread, 1960) and then the feature film Démanty noci (The Diamonds of the Night, 1964), based on the short stories of Arnošt Lustig, I realized that film was an exceptional medium. It was about finding a pure film language.
There were only a few filmmakers who treated film like a special medium of storytelling. I was influenced mostly by the French director Robert Bresson, whom I revere greatly, as well as by Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Their films could be told as stories, but the cardinal experience is from the film itself.
Film is in decay these days. Everybody makes films that could be a serial, novel, picture documentary, radio play or romance novel. Hollywood leads this trend of entertainment. The film profession is in deep decline, not only in our country [Czech Republic], but everywhere in the world.
CER: Démanty noci was your first feature-length film and a great success at international film festivals. Altogether, it is a film that manifests your conception of "pure film." How important was it for you to know that your vision of film was generally accepted in the world?
JN: Démanty noci was based on a story written by Arnošt Lustig. He wrote it from his own experience escaping from the Transport [to a concentration camp]. But my film is more abstract, more general. The time is not concrete, it is not realism, and the actors don't look like Jewish youths.
It is elevated to a different level. There are almost no dialogues. There is mostly silence and sounds. My latest film, Noční hovory s matkou, has a similar conception. This kind of film is not "understandable"; it's hardly a commercial success because it doesn't speak well to larger audiences.
There will be a renaissance, because people will become tired of watching the same television shows. They will want something else, something that is close to this conception. Just think about music. There were great turning points in music. In the 20th century there were Arthur Honegger, Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg and Arnold Schönberg, who took romantic music in a different direction. And again, the renaissance of Bach and the fugue, something that is really musical, not just background music. So it is with Hollywood films. Spielberg is something between Dvořák and Liszt, a lot of orchestral romantic music, because that is understandable.
The awards were not important for my own satisfaction, but they made me continue with filmmaking. Démanty noci was different from contemporary Czech film production. In 1962, when Démanty noci was presented, Czech cinematography was full of Communist propaganda. That's why people in Western countries looked at it as an apparition when film like that came from this part of the world. They grasped the attempt at "pure film" and that's why they supported this movement.
There is one interesting thing about it. Only a few people in our country saw Démanty noci, and Filmexport sold it to lots of countries, not for money but in exchange for entertainment films. So for my film Démanty noci together with Juráček's Postava k podpírání (Kilian, 1963), Filmexport received three parts of the Western Winnetou (1963-65), which made about a hundred million crowns here.
Thanks to the awards, I was able to make two more films in Czechoslovakia, O slavnosti a hostech (The Party and the Guests, 1966) and Mučedníci lásky (Martyrs of Love, 1966). After that, I was forbidden to work.
CER: When, exactly, did they forbid you to work? Was it in the beginning of the 1970s, just before you left the country?
JN: No, it happened already in 1966. But I could still work in television, and I made musical films. I was actually one of the first who started the video-clip culture. In Czechoslovakia, we were among first in the world to do this. The definitive ban came after the Russian invasion in 1969.
CER: Did you have any offers from foreign producers or television stations before you had to leave the country?
JN: Yes, there was that possibility. Before the Russian invasion, anybody who wanted to work outside the country could, like Roman Polanski in Poland. But I did not try to do so immediately; I was preparing an "open door" to go out. So if the invasion hadn't occurred, I would probably have been living abroad.
The first offers came from German television. But no Czechs actually used this possibility. Polanski perhaps knew that he would prefer to live outside of Poland. But after the invasion in 1968, it was about something else. Lots of people wanted to leave. But I didn't want to leave at that time.
CER: Did they let you go to Germany legally because of a contract with German television?
JN: This story could be a novel. In 1969, I was forbidden to do anything. Everybody lost their passports and the possibility to leave. It was a complicated time. They allowed me to travel out of the country first in 1974, and that was a bad time because the "boom" of Czechs had come a long time before. People from foreign countries hated Czechs because it was obvious that they were collaborationists and greasy "Normalizationists," so the world did not cheer us anymore.
And those who were already abroad already had positions. I actually left Czechoslovakia at the worst time [in 1974]. First to Germany, then to Paris for a short time and after that to Holland and Sweden. Finally I worked in California, but not as a director of feature films, but of documentaries and videos.
When I came to Germany in 1974, people said that a Czech film director had no chance in the world, that Czechs knew how to make films only at home. And it was also said that the only exception to this was Miloš Forman. Neither Vojtěch Jasný nor Ján Kadár achieved a career equal to their career at home, where they had attracted the world's interest. None of them got to the first league of European or world directors after that.
CER: Ester Krumbachová had a large impact on films of the Czech New Wave. How did cooperation with her change your perspective on film?
JN: Ester Krumbachová was a muse, a shadowy eminence of films from the 1960s. She worked as designer on the film Démanty noci, she wrote a short story and together we wrote the screenplay for O slavnosti a hostech. We also made the film Mučednici lásky. When I was in Amsterdam, we figured out the 10-minute film Mutter und Sohn (Mother and Son, 1967) over the phone. This film received an important award in Oberhausen.
She was multi-talented: she wrote, made costumes and designs, and she influenced not only me but also Věra Chytilová. In addition, Otakar Vávra and Karel Kachyňa made their best films in co-operation with her. She was a person who very much influenced Czech film in a positive way.
She was a multicultural European. Her roots were in Hungary, there was a large portion of Jewish blood in her and she had German predecessors, so she was an experienced European. She also taught film how to utilize the impact of different arts. She drew perfectly, she wrote and also made miniatures, costume jewelry and statuettes. Her best work, though, was in film.
CER: The story of the film O slavnosti a hostech is built on absurd drama. As in Démanty noci, you portray a humiliated, chased man, which is one of the main motifs in the works of Kafka, Beckett, Pinter and also Havel. Did these writers influence you when you wrote the screenplay for O slavnosti a hostech?
JN: Havel had nothing to do with it. His first play was called Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party, 1963), but it is utter coincidence. My film and his play originated at about the same time. Havel is my distant cousin. Our parents were born around the same time, and Havel and I were of the same generation of people who got together in cafés and wine bars, and went to parties. But in those times we did not talk about work, neither plays nor films.
CER: And was there any influence of Beckett or Pinter? Did you read their plays? Were they published in Czechoslovakia during that time?
JN: Yes. They were known. Usually, they were published in the magazine Světová literatura, where Josef Škvorecký was editor-in-chief. I read all of Kafka's work and I wanted to film his story "Metamorphosis." But I couldn't do it here [Czechoslovakia], so I finally made it in Germany. But I don't feel literally influenced by any of these writers. Pinter and Beckett were "theater" for me.
Perhaps Kafka was closest to me, due to his poetic character. But I think that whoever lives in Prague and walks through the old narrow cobblestone streets has to feel Kafka's influence. So the influence is not directly from the literary work, but from the spiritual feeling. These are very mysterious things.
Just a short time ago I saw Renoir's film La règle du jeu(The Rules of the Game, 1939) and I realized that lots of scenes are similar to my film O slavnosti a hostech. It really looks like I copied it from him. La ègle du jeu was made in 1939 and my film is from 1966, but I hadn't seen it.
The same thing happened with Buñuel and his film El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962). There certainly is another similarity, and people say I copied it from him, but I saw Buñuel's film about 5 years after the completion of O slavnosti a hostech.
I do not believe in direct influence, that someone reads a book that tells him how to make a film. But I think there are indirect influences that affect you even when you're not aware of it. The mysterious and abstract characters of the film O slavnosti a hostech arose because of our fight against censorship. We would have had no chance of making the film if it had been more concrete. We used "over-stylization" to confuse the Communist censors so they would not immediately realize that it was aimed against them.
But they found something I did not think of. In the film there is the character of the host, played by our good friend Ivan Vyskočil. He was not a film actor. He had his own performances in a theater with his own texts, so it was hard to make him read the text from the script. And one of the censors said that he looked like Lenin and that we were making fun of Lenin and Leninist principles. After that, I realized that there really is a likeness between them. The censors took used this idea as a pretext against the film. I was very surprised at the time.
CER: You wrote a screenplay with Václav Havel for an unproduced film called "Heartbeat" in 1969. How was your co-operation? Was it the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 that stopped this project?
JN: This should be my next film. I've applied for a grant to make it. All of my latest films are partially financed by grants. The project is called "Krajina srdce" (The Land of the Heart). It grew out of my personal experience.
A year ago I had a heart operation, in which I almost died. The screenplay I wrote with Havel in 1969 is another part of this film. "Heartbeat" was a "black slapstick" about heart transplants and about the black market for organs. It is a vision of totalitarianism. We were inspired by the story of the first doctor who transplanted a heart, Christian Barnard, in Cape Town in 1967.
The film "Krajina srdce" will be about everything that "met" my heart, in a medical, emotional or existential way, including the knowledge that the heart is the mythical organ where love and spirit reside. That is why I called it "Krajina srdce" or "everything you always wanted to know about my heart but were afraid to ask," to paraphrase Woody Allen. It is my complex experience in which the screenplay "Heartbeat" is only one of the inspirations.
This film will be a partial remake of a film that was never made, because the screenplay "Heartbeat" was never filmed. If we had made the film then, it would have been a kind of a "tough film," something between À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
The story was about a Czech doctor, intended to be played by Pavel Landovský, who becomes a world-famous surgeon. He joins a group of gangsters, he helps them and then they kill him. The world elite would be involved in it, which is ironic because Havel is now a part of them. The rich and famous people arrange the murders. They take the heart from the victim and use it to extend their life. This should have been a big French-American co-production, but after the invasion the possibility of travel abroad disappeared. And when I arrived in America in 1977, a similar film had already been made.
CER: How much money do you need to make a film?
JN: I am able to make a film for a hundred Czech crowns [USD 3].
CER: It sounds unbelievable...
JN: Of course I can. It would only be little black window with no sound. Everything would be just a fantasia of the viewer. "Pure film" means that people have to imagine the film in their mind. It forces the viewer to concentrate, as in Buddhism. I can actually imagine that people will buy a ticket and sit in the silence and darkness for and hour, and then they will go outside the cinema, and they will think about how great an experience it was.
CER: In 1967, during the opening of the festival Cinestud in Amsterdam, you noted that a time had come when film will either find its own expression or die as art. How do you see this problem now?
JN: The article expresses my opinion today. Nothing has changed since then. Only Jean-Luc Godard strives to make "pure films" now. But I think his films are more literally aesthetical essays rather than films. I can imagine his work as a very interesting book. Even though he was one of the greatest innovators in new film, perhaps he consciously resigned himself to the narrative and visual aspect of film.
CER: What impact did emigration from Czechoslovakia have on you personally and professionally?
JN: I have never emigrated. I was an exile. There is a very big difference. An emigrant is somebody who decides to leave the country, while an exile is chased away, like J A Komenský. In 1974, they wanted to put me in prison, but they gave me a choice, as with Milan Kundera. We were told that the criminal prosecution would be canceled if we applied for a legal departure motivated not by political protest but by a working contract.
I took this offer and left the country legally, so I had a Czech passport for another two years. But it was not like traveling. I couldn't come back. If I had, they would have seized my passport and began the criminal prosecution all over again, and I would be in prison. After two years they stripped me of my citizenship. So I have never emigrated and I have never applied for political asylum. I was "stateless," with no citizenship or no legal papers.
In 1989, I knew that things in Czechoslovakia were going to change and I wanted to go there. At that time I was working in Chicago, but there was no way for me to go. No airline would sell me an airplane ticket, because they knew I had no papers. It was a very complicated time. I had to get a document from the American government to leave the country and I also had to apply for a visa to get into Czechoslovakia, because the regime was still in place. This meant I would have to wait another three months. But I knew at this time that there either more Russian tanks would arrive in Czechoslovakia or there would be democracy.
So I went to the head of the Immigration Service of the Justice Department to explain my situation, and he told me that it was not in his power to give me any document because it was against American law. He said there was only one exception, which was in the case of a funeral of your parents, wife or children. But I had neither wife nor children and my parents were already dead. So I told him, "I am going for a funeral." He asked me, "Whose funeral?" and I replied, "Not whose, but what's. I'm going for the funeral of Communism." And the man jumped up, whooped and called his secretary to tell her to give me the necessary documents. He really gave me a document that said that I was going for the funeral of Communism.
Based on this American document I also received a Czechoslovak visa, because the regime had already collapsed. So I came back to Czechoslovakia on 26 December 1989. Even though I have never applied for any citizenship, I was told in April 1990 that I had been granted American citizenship, but I just yawned at this information and let them know that when my distant cousin is the president of Czechoslovakia and I can make films here, what would I do in America as an American citizen?
CER: How did you continue your professional film career in Western Europe and then America?
JN: In Germany, I made a film from my screenplay from the 1960s. It was an adaptation of Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and I also made about three other films. There was no problem with the work. I just do not fit in in Germany, even though my surname is Němec [which means German in Czech]. Their sense of order, discipline and the need to organize did not suit me. When I filmed the Kafka story, which was made as a slapstick, a German critic wrote that it was incomprehensible how a Czechoslovak film director could make fun of classics from German literature.
I don't know why Prague's Jewish author writing in his own German, and not in the spoken German language, should be their classic. But I was not successful. It was said that this is not the way to adapt Kafka. So I received some "black marks." I had the possibility of good work and a good existence there. They also told me to apply for political asylum, but I did not want to, and especially not in Germany. So I left for America where I had no friends, no contract, no money, nothing and nobody to care for me, and they just let me stay there. I fell for California by the ocean, and I spent there years there walking and thinking.
My films were relatively successful in America, but in New York, not in Los Angeles. There was nobody who had ever heard of me. I wrote lots of screenplays and themes, but without influential friends, I didn't have a chance.
CER: But you made some documentaries in America and in Europe…
JN: Yes. The last one I made was for an independent television channel in San Francisco. It was a portrait of Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel Prize laureate in 1980. In England, I made with Peace in Our Time?, a documentary about Munich events, with Otta Olejar. I held lectures at Berkley and Yale and also made videos of weddings for about two years, and if I had kept it up, I could have been quite rich.
The first wedding I did was for 50 dollars and the last one was for 2000 dollars. I was successful also because I was the only filmmaker who made a documentary on the wedding of the Swedish king in 1976. Nobody else received permission to film this event at that time. I was the only one for whom the Swedish royal family made an exception, thanks to my film Démanty noci.
The film was totally uninteresting because the wedding was totally uninteresting. It was expected that there would be an uprising and an assassination attempt on the king, and I thought that I would have it all on film. But the event changed into a warm-hearted national pilgrimage, into Swedish folklore, so it was absolutely boring. But this film helped me, because as the only one, I could say that the ordinary people from California would get "royal treatment." This really helped my marketing.
CER: Was it common in America to make wedding videos at the time or were you the pioneer in this field?
JN: I was the first one who had this idea. People did not know how to operate a camera and no professional company had started filming weddings yet. It was based on the principle that it looked like film. The people actually felt like film characters. It's a pity that I did not make any copies of the videos. I didn't think the Communist regime would fall. So that is why I did not archive the videos.
I made about 50 of them, so it could have been quite an interesting serial about how people amuse themselves, how they intermarry. Unfortunately, the tapes are beyond rescue. This video could have guaranteed me a good living but I knew I didn't want to keep doing it. It was the same with my teaching career. I could have stayed there full-time, but once I knew that it would provide me a good existence I left and found something else.
CER: Did you not want to make feature films, or was it because you had no possibility to do it?
JN: Half and half. I just saw the meetings you have to go through when you want to make a feature film. You have about twenty meetings a day and you have to listen to all the stupid things that they tell you and you have to know everything about the producer or agent. You have to know all the names of his children, his aunts and his dogs.
One big producer talked about his dog that had just gone deaf. The producer was sitting at the pool, he drank champagne and he popped the cork just by the ear of the dog. Of course, that's when the dog went deaf. And at the meeting he was considering the problem of what to do with the dog, whether or not he needed an operation and so on. At the next meeting, I had to ask him how the dog feels... I am not this kind of person.
Kenneth Tynan, scriptwriter, dramaturgist and co-founder of Britain's National Theatre together with Laurence Olivier, was a great friend of Czech film and wrote beautiful articles about the Czech films from the 1960s. Kenneth and his wife moved to Hollywood and arranged a party for me a couple of times to introduce me to some people they knew. One of these parties turned into a catastrophe.
They invited Shirley MacLaine, who was quite open toward working with someone from outside the Hollywood machinery. But at that time she had just came back from Cuba where she was a guest of Fidel Castro. She illegally brought some cigars back and she was with President Carter in White House. The party at Tynan's was prepared as a chance for me to impress her so she would agree to act in my film and I would get some money to make a film.
But she was talking about how Castro is a great man, how the country is fabulous, how amazing the democracy that they have there is, but I told her that what she said was just propagandistic double talk. I told her to go live there to see the prisons, to watch the people who are drowned in the sea while trying to escape from there. She could tell this rubbish to President Carter, but not to me, who had lived through Communism. She took great offence at this.
After that, I was told that I shouldn't have said that, and that I should have said that Castro was great. So this didn't work. And this was just the beginning. You have to pretend you are a different person and I just couldn't do it. I thought that keeping my own integrity and freedom is better than to have money and to serve somebody as a buffoon.
Now I am happy that technology has come far enough that I can do everything by myself. I created Nočni hovory s matkou almost all by myself. I wrote the screenplay, I act in it, I am also the cameraman and I composed and played the music. I just narrowed the team of people whom I would have to work with.
Filmmaking became the same as composing music, writing poetry, painting or taking pictures. It is a kind of a chamber music and not a symphonic orchestra. It is a pity that digital technology was not developed earlier when I was in America. You cannot copy and use VHS format in commerce. If there had been digital technology at that time I could have filmed three weddings and used the money to buy a tape and make a film.
CER: Do you think that digital technology, which replaces traditional celluloid film, loses the possibility to catch the "underlying influences," the "energy"? Was the decision to make the digital video led by cost or aesthetic concerns?
JN: My newest film is also presented in cinemas thanks to video-projectors, and the reaction of the audience in the cinema is completely different from the response of the people who saw it on the Internet. The reactions from the Internet were more "private," some of them admiring, some rude, while some people just wanted to join the game. But when I presented it at Febiofest in Prague or at the festival in Plzeň it was a collective experience in the cinema, just like when you watch a 35mm film, with reactions like laughter, applause, screams.
CER: How does it differ technically?
JN: A digital video camera is small and easily portable compared to big cameras, tripods and a large staff. When we were filming Jméno kódu Rubín (Code Name Ruby, 1996) in Washington DC we spent hours there and we had to have export permission and insurance. But when you take a digital video camera nobody cares about it and you can film. It is much easier.
Also, with a digital video camera you can combine optics. I think I know all the digital cameras and video cameras and I know the companies that produce them. I can combine different brands and create special visual effects. If I wanted to do the same with celluloid film I would need millions.
I like this because everybody can buy a digital video camera and can make a feature film just as he could buy a pen and write a novel and win the Nobel Prize, or buy paper and crayons and draw like Renoir or da Vinci. It is democratically accessible.
I want to make a digital video with actors that acted in my latest film Noční hovory s matkou, Karel Roden and Zuzana Stivínová. These top-class professional actors acted there for free and they really helped the film. They will do it for free again and maybe Czech television will buy it afterwards.
I have an unrealized project, which is a short story by Dostoyevsky Notes from the Underground, so this might be the starting point of the whole project. But it would only partly be Dostoyevsky. Russia will be replaced by Prague and the whole film could be a dream. I also want to make it a gangster film, something like Ascenseur
pour l'échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, 1957) or À bout de souffle . We can make the entire film with four people altogether including the editor Iva Ruszeláková.
CER: After your return to the Czech Republic, your feature-length films from the 1990s aroused little interest from the audience and the critics. What was the cause of it in your opinion? Is the interest of critics and audience important for your work?
JN: In the 1990s I made three feature films, V žáru královské lásky (In the Flames of Royal Love, 1990), Jméno kódu Rubín
(Code Name Ruby
, 1996) and Noční hovory s matkou
, which will be copied on 35mm film and shown in cinemas by the end of the year. The film V žáru královské lásky
was very successful with the audience. 50,000 people saw the film in two weeks. It was number in attendance. But the film received crushing reviews.
In the 1960s it used to be opposite. Then, the first box office success slowly died down, because nobody cared about its advertising. Jméno kódu Rubín did not have a positive fate. Most of the reviews were overwhelming again.
There was a big problem with its distribution because a private distribution company that was supposed to advertise the film did nothing for it, so the film was hardly shown in cinemas and there was no advertising campaign. people could see the short version of Noční hovory s matkou on the Internet. Soon I am going to present it on DVD and after that it will probably be shown in cinemas.
CER: Which medium suits you the best?
JN: I liked the way my last film was presented on the Internet, and right after that or even during the presentation we had "questions and answers." It was fascinating, because it was absolutely spontaneous. Not like press presentations, or premieres and parties. People reacted impulsively, some in a positive way, some very negatively, but always directly.
I hope I have the chance to make a film that will provide me enough money to live on so that I can make another film that people all over the world could see and tell me what they think about it. I presented the short version of my film on the Internet and then revised the film according to some of the opinions and reactions. I take it as a constructive dialogue with people. I think that modern communication will make people more interested in what they want to see. Not just applaud.
Communication is going to change. Everything will be transferred by electronic signals, over satellites that will be in accessible all over the world. Technically, everything is solved. I hope to live a couple more years, so that I can be a part of it.
Ivana Košuličová, 14 May 2001