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Vol 3, No 17
14 May 2001
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Jan Nemec's Jmeno kodu Rubin (Code Name Ruby, 1997) The Life of a Film that Can't be Seen
The ideas behind Jméno kódu Rubín
Jan Němec, with Miloš Fryš


When Jan Němec, ever the advocate of "pure film," came to making his 1996 picture Jméno kódu Rubín (Code Name Ruby) he chose to put down his thoughts and feelings about the picture in written form, with the help of Miloš Fryš. The result was a series of three articles that appeared in Czech in the Prague-based journal Film a doba under the title Život filmu, který není vidět. The first two parts were written in March and June 1995 respectively when the film was still in preparation, and the last part was published in 1997, when the film had been completed.

Here they appear for the first time in translation, and, although they principally talk about just one feature that Němec has made, they are a remarkable record of the working philosophy and energy that his driven him throughout his film-making career.

Jméno kódu Rubín itself is film that reinvents history and transforms it into a new reality. Historical events, notably the Second World War, are given a mystical new meaning by placing archive footage of them in the context of a new story: an alchemistic search for the philosopher's stone.

Pitted against the Nazi's quest for absolute power, are Michal and Rubín (Ruby), who also seek the philosopher's stone, although for far less malevolent purposes. It is Rubín who manages to find the ancient secret, and as a result is crowned queen.

Part One


Jméno kódu Rubín has nothing in common with realism; it is a thing of fantasy; spiritual, artificially created reality. All my life I have felt that film is much closer to music than to anything else. It means that I work with fantasy, imagination, tones, rhythm, harmony and feelings. Film influences the non-rational spheres of human life.

My story is actually a fairy-tale. However, today "fairy-tale" is an overused word, and many have been made into films. The classic writers of fairy-tales, such as the Grimm Brothers, Andersen or Božena Němcová would turn in their graves, because their magic and mystery has gone. My film is a fairy tale because it could never happen, has never happened and will never happen.

It could happen only in the imagination, in the unreal world. The theme of the film is alchemy. It is heat, so thus fire which destroys, but also creates. It can be a heat of the mind, a philosophical heat, a spiritual heat. The change of a state by the power of something foreign and mysterious, which gives life to something else.

My story actually shows how, under many circumstances and ingredients, something new comes to life, something that has not existed before. Alchemy is actually a mystery and taciturnity, so I only slightly open the doors to that mystery. This is why the film is called Jméno kódu Rubín, it is the same if the whole of the Congress Library, the largest library in the world, were concerned with alchemy and I pull out one tiny tome and leaf through it. The tomes have a number, their own code. And so the story of the girl from Prague, Rubín, is only a tiny fraction of what could happen in the field of alchemy.


The film structure is multi-layered. The basic story is simple, banal even. Boy meets girl, they get to know each other, form a relationship and on the basis of this relationship miracles occur, divine and cosmic powers are unleashed. Through love, magic is created; through love, magic is destroyed. It is a question of whether the magic and the relationship will sparkle so that the phantasm and unreality occur again.

The film can also be characterised as 82 minutes of wooing, which is about everything they can possibly experience, how they get to paradise together. That is the readable, understandable level and into this simple situation, which everyone has experienced, all the others levels enter. The readable line of the story, in terms of the programme, stands against the exclusivity of the form. Compare: Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Immortality). If we narrated the stories of Milan Kundera's novels, we would find them quite simple. What is fascinating about these books is what develops around the story: historical connections, politics.

There is a basic theme in my film, the mystery of alchemy, enriched and filled with parallel levels. These connections are nowadays political, but their levels are mystifying and this new reality will be put forward as truth (documentaries and stylised documentaries).

We can see this multi-layeredness in my attitude to the protagonists of the three parts of the GEN series [Gallery of the Elite of the Nation, a TV series in which directors picked somebody famous and made a documentary about them], which I directed—Ester Krumbachová, Arnošt Lustig and Jan Hammer Jr. Each part was filmed in a different way and focused on different things. The multi-layeredness would be more obvious if we joined all three GEN programmes together.

I have some reservations with Robert Zemeckis's film Forrest Gump (1994), but I like the element of mystification; the idea that its hero took part in all the events of modern American history. Woody Allen has done it before in the film Zelig (1983), however it was not as bombastic and patriotic.


I have just finished with several days of shooting the original exhibits from the "Alchemy in the Czech Republic" exhibition and the originals from the exhibition of Josef Váchal, "The Great Alchemist." Alchemy is a fragile topic, moreover everybody views it differently, everybody mixes the mix differently, because—I stress—it is a mystery only until someone actually expresses himself, then the mystery is lost.

I jokingly say that I imagine this film as invisible. Only the person who is in tune with it will be able to see and hear it. Its sound will be the ultrasound, it will not be audible, it will take place in darkness, but the darkness will either be blue, green, brown or gloomy, the film will be shot in shades of silence. I have read that on CDs and new technologies, which totally recreate the original sound, you can recognise the sound engineers according to the quality and level of the silence. It is also how the conductor holds the tension and pauses before the next instrument plays.

The quality and level of the silence is part of the recording and the interpretation of the music, it grabs our attention while listening it. You can buy 22 recordings of the same Beethoven symphony and each of them is different. The wind and brass sections, the violins each have a different power, different rhythm, different accent, some are more dramatic or more lyrical. Suddenly you find moments of silence, although you cannot hear it, it still influences you.

So the ideal film would be without any co-workers, without me, if these influences and spiritual powers could convey themselves onto the sound and picture and from there onto the audience. The unclean, the real, which enters the film is bad for the work.

I have had this abstract debate with the cameraman Jaromír Šofr, who made O slavnosti a hostech (The Party and the Guests, 1966) with me and who is now is the main teacher of photography at FAMU [Prague's film school]. He said if a silent film without sound existed, why couldn't a film without pictures exist.

This is obviously a practical absurdity, but now we have the 100th anniversary of film and film, pure film, doesn't really exist, most films can be told by other mediums, its specificity has disappeared. That is why silent alchemy can revitalise film and is also one of the reasons why I am shooting this film. It is not an experiment; it will have a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end. I have been aware of, thought out and modified the story for a number of years and the grant I received from the State Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinematography has given me absolute creative freedom but not freedom to be irresponsible in production.

It means that I have to make something that is communicable, but still original. Again we are offered the possibility to open the mysterious gate of film like a certain mystery.

Jean Renoir has conceived the best definition of film. He said that film is like ceramics. You have an image, you have a form, you have clay, hands, a mood, you mix it and everything is ready. What is going on inside the oven, inside the heat, inside the fire? Only there something arises—and you can never influence it. In the end, a piece of work arises which is completely new, different from what you have prepared. It means that unknown forces are working here, the element of mystery.

In this project, with the theme of alchemy, the man is contradicting himself, but even such counterpoints belong here, even the discords are energies which are cast together and are part of the final shape. Robert Bresson made a film that has been completely forgotten today but which I supported—absolutely.

When I was in the United States, I found out that 99.9 per cent of local filmmakers had never heard of the Robert Bresson. His Un condamné ŕ mort s'est échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956) is a documentary about how to escape from prison by revealing the plot in the title of the film.

For a person raised on American films, the film is quite unacceptable. But it is a film about the spiritual power of a man who could be executed at any moment and who has the strength to escape this. It is a very spiritual, pure film. Several bars from Mozart's music can be heard throughout, which feels like a quotation from a different sphere. The film ends with the man disappearing into the darkness...


For the first time I am shooting a full-length film. I am producing it myself, but this is a necessary condition for a person to be forced to unity and responsibility. The director should have at his disposition the best symphony and to be a conductor means to chose the best players, to have the best score and then to conduct with the best results.

Unlike a live concert, it is not possible to shoot a feature film live. These are all the motives and signs for the journey to the unknown. I set out on this journey not through experimentation, but with rules or with a score which has already been prepared and handed out. I think that my score is of top quality, I know I will be the conductor and I will assign the individual players to different sections—brass, strings, drums, soloists.

In the meantime, in musical parlance, I am filming the individual sections of the orchestra. To describe the film in more detail makes no sense now. We do not reveal our secrets in advance. If we are holding trumps in our hand, we keep them to the last moment. We don't play the ace of trumps first, we hold on to it until the final hand.

Part Two


The film Jméno kódu Rubín has radically changed with the entrance of the cameraman F A Brabec. We asked him to cooperate after he won a Český lev (Czech Lion) in 1994 for photography. I managed to convince him to do the film before he devoted himself to his own project (his directorial debut Král Ubu / King Ubu, 1966). He committed himself to this project, which is a bit different from what he has worked on previously and he began working with a generation of filmmakers with whom he has never worked with before.

He told me, "What you have in mind must be seen in the film, it must be recordable." Suddenly I was forced to abandon my philosophical and aesthetic dreams and come back down to the field of film reality. I still hold to what I spoke about previously, darkness and silence, but it will be only in short moments.

Before the arrival of František Brabec, I worked on the project for too long on my own, without a partner I respected. Since his arrival, I have been forced to transfer my energies on to what actually occurs in the film. František is a very particular man; he does not film shadow or fog, but what is actually happening, faces and what hides behind them.

In any case, it is not an unplanned expression, and that is why I think that I have found a completely ideal co-worker. Things happen the way they are supposed to and the dream level has obtained a visible form. It is such a special stage, when I try to convey abstract thoughts and feelings in a visual way.

It resembles the developing process for a photograph. From this point of view I consider František's contribution as quite remarkable. Although we see what is occurring in the film, the hidden places still remain. From what has been shot so far, it would be quite a pleasant, understandable film of about an hour... And of course I am looking forward to making the film less visible and filling in the other narrative levels after finishing shooting on the last day of June. This means that I will include documents, silent parts, sounds, I will suppress the realistic dialog and add the music.

I will now return to Renoir's comparison of film as ceramics, which I talked about last time: an elegant jug leaves the oven, I take a hammer, I smash the jug and keep all the shards. Then I stick them back together in a slightly different form, I use a piece of wire, which changes the shape of the jug, and maybe I add something else, affix another shard.

I have an explanation or excuse for such activity. It is the statement made by William Faulkner right after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. In answer to the question, if it still makes any sense after such an award to continue writing, he said, "Each of my completed works is only a monument to my absolute failure."


Jan Nemec's Jmeno kodu Rubin (Code Name Ruby, 1997)
Lucie Rejchrtová in the lead role
The casting of the main parts is contradictory. Jan Potměšil is a supreme and professional actor: his partner a 17-year-old student from a teacher's school, Lucie Rejchrtová, who has had no experience with acting. They are two people with very different backgrounds. However thanks to the unique atmosphere created by František during shooting (the actors feel that his camera is a sympathetic friend), sparks fly between the professional and amateur actor and actress. In any case, the pair will look unconventional whatever they do, as not as is usually done in Czech films.

We picked as our main location, Kuks, the dark residence of the late Count Špork, though I am not sure if he is favouring us well. That is to say, Rubín, the main character of the film, will find the elixir of life in a coffin where his mummy lies. So when I spoke about the actors, I forgot to mention that Count Špork also has a role in the film. I think we are the first and I hope the last who cast him to play in a film played by living actors.

We are using extremely long or wide lenses and not the traditional, television or digital, as František says, "recording methods." These are, according to him, cold and too well-arranged. I never go to look into the camera during shooting, because I know it is enough just to speak with one another. I look forward to our daily work and the fact that we will create something completely new again.


Musically I wanted to get away from The Liturgical Symphony by Arthur Honegger. I considered Stivín's Hudba alchymica, from the late Middle Ages with new voices and rhythm, as one of the possibilities. I am weighing up now, if I should use modern music or Bach, or our Czech Bach—Jan Dismas Zelenka. I myself am curious as to what I will plump for in the end and what kind of music will be playing behind the pictures of FAB [Brabec].

The advantage of films like Pulp Fiction (1994) or Forrest Gump is that they take the hits from the 1950s to the 1990s and cut them together skilfully. It is the de facto method conceived by Honza [the diminutive form for the name Jan] Hammer while making Miami Vice.

I believe it would be ideal if I could find a composer in Prague, who would bring as much creativity to the film as FA Brabec does. I do not want to make another Czech copy of the music that accompanies David Lynch's films. My musical consultant is Libor Pešek, who helps me pick the recordings of classical music.

That is another variant: to choose classical music only and to use an original recording for the film, which would not sound too academic. I will subject the film to a test by music. I am not looking for a dramatic accompaniment but a spiritual counterpoint.

Part Three

My film is a hoax because such is life. When someone is born he first learns how to suckle from his mother's breast, in this way he takes in sugar, then he moves on to lollipops and much later perhaps alcohol, which is again an expression of his liking for sugar.

The second thing that a child has is fairy-tales, hoaxes and lies. The child learns that he is the kind king, the proud princess, the witch and that everything will turn out fine. He learns the basic schemes that do not exist in life. The child becomes accustomed to lies, dished up in the shape of fairy-tales. So the hoax is not a fairy-tale but an anti-fairy-tale.

I present lies and I consciously—but I believe quite understandably—treat
video cover for the US release of Jan Nemec's Jmeno kodu Rubin (Code Name Ruby, 1997)
The video cover for the US release
them ironically. It is my dose of that lie, that fairy-tale. It is all only a game with people and a manipulation. I fear that few people recognise this after the first viewing. It is like the entire music of the 20th century. If someone wants to listen to Schönberg, he must listen to him twice, three times. The music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich is actually today's "folk music." I am not speaking about dodecaphony, twelve-tone music. But, to see a film more than once is not usual in this country.

Returning to the invisible film. Film is a sham, because nothing in it is alive, people do not live there. There are 24-25 pictures a second, which gives the illusion of movement. Thus, photography is folded into movement. A film is 80 minutes, around 117,000 frames; I released the shutter that many times. This is the result but it was actually four times, five times as many.

If this film has any worth then it is these 117,000 shutter releases which alone can be reproduced and broadcast, but, with the medium called film I will not get far, because to make someone to see a film three times is not within my powers. Under each of these 117,000 frames I myself can sign that the film makes sense. 80 minutes presents three years of my life. This is an uneven proportion.

I am re-evaluating the whole film-making process, which is, as [film director] František Vláčil says, like artillery fire in the countryside. I think that here is some kind of disproportion. Well, if we are making an American film in the Czech Republic, Kolja (Kolya, 1996), so of course these x thousand frames are alright, because the Czech nation will weep because they have found out that the Russians are good and kind. But to make such an alchemystic hoax, anti-fairy-tale—to quote [a Czech critic] "like when the dog and the cat baked a cake and added a dead mouse and it was not edible..." [a reference to a Czech fairy tale]—I ask myself if the efforts and energy of the many people who made this film, make any sense and if this film will be of interest to anyone. As if they were pictures in the sand and then someone comes and rubs them out with his shoe. Or the time on a sundial when the sun sets and nothing can be seen. Who is to blame that time has disappeared...?

The one-sidedness of this view showed itself during the first working projection in what was said about Honza Potměšil. On the one hand the question arose: how is it that he walks in the film, is this from archive material? On the other hand I was sharply attacked that because he is in a wheelchair, he should also be in a wheelchair in the film. To be black or white, red or green, the moment you step out, you get slapped in the face.

To incorporate a mode of certain abstraction, complication or complexity into the shape called film seems today to be a way into the unknown. Those who do it are pioneers who might be given a rope and an axe in order to climb up and hang himself and cut his fingers off at the same time.

As an amateur musician, I jammed with Rudl Dašek, Honza Hammer Snr, Honza Konopášek and American vinyl 78 records were the crown jewels. I bent my favourite record The Lumberjacks Ball with Woody Herman on the clarinet—I played the clarinet—over my knee, wondering how much pressure it could stand, and of course, it snapped and my greatest treasure was gone.

I have also tried such bending, to see what the film medium can stand, perhaps after being melted in fire. When the film is finally put together, so I think that people play it safe so that the film is commercial, conventional and uses clichés. It should be more storylike, less understandable it should look more into the mind and brain tissue? And not to look at the audience with whatever is available.

The film Jméno kódu Rubín spans history from Heydrich [Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia during WWII] , through Patton [the American general famous for liberating the Czech town of Plzeň], Kennedy, Eisenhower, Albright [then US Secretary of State, who has Jewish Czech origins] and our current president [Havel].

I deliberately did not include 1968, the Soviets and Communists because it is all still fresh and painful. That is why I used the year 1945 and the liberation of Prague by the Americans. In 1995, at the National Theatre, 50,000 people meet, wave to the false American veterans, they believe in the anniversary of their liberation and the monster Čestmír Řanda Jnr hands round chewing-gum. No-one would ever say that it was not like this.

The Czech nation is unbelievably open to take in any lie, which is given to it in a popular form; this means something like the folk song Škoda lásky. That is also why I think that no-one will want this film because it is presented in the form of a poisonous sweet.

Of course, no-one can ever create a philosopher's stone, it is nonsense, but it is one of those fairy-tales and legends which doggedly will not go away. I tried to communicate that we all are ingredients, which someone is mixing together and thus make us do something which will give us no pleasure, because in the end what arises imprisons us.

Part of me said the film should be enjoyable, happy, calm, positive. It actually is nothing of the kind. In the closing scene Lucie is playing a game in a bombed out monastery, which is still in ruins today, in Emauzy, and Honza is playing with a flower. We can end up this way, I think. Not as Czechs but as humans.

As a boy I survived this air-raid, we lived in Vinohrady, and we watched as the bombs fell. The siren only sounded when the houses were on fire and falling. I was there immediately to have a look and saw the scene of destruction which, compared to what was happening in the war, was almost nothing. However, for the boy from Vinohrady, from the Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren, who was saved from the Nazis and from the Americans, it was an experience.

When we were there in this church, I thought about how I would end the film, what is the end. But there is no end. It is a game of dice, a chess game, open and started. Of course, the philosopher's stone is nonsense and no-one will ever find it, but if those who are looking for it are decent and respectful, they deserve attention and recognition, which is the case with Rubín and Michal. It is a thought or message, which I do not know if anyone understands. Even now I am not totally sure.

I always go against time and fashion. It is not deliberate, but it happens to me always. I film exactly the opposite of what people want to see. We live in a haze that we are the centre of the world, that everyone loves us. This is completely untrue. We are experimental rabbits, litmus paper. This self-satisfaction is total nonsense, because again someone comes to look for say the philosopher's stone and everything blows up, he makes a concentration camp from it, completely without reason he destroys and bombs it out. Emauzy is for me such a symbol. The Americans then killed probably 400 people; the air-raid had no strategic significance. They lost all the military documents; they got confused and thought that they were above Dresden. It was a completely clear day and Dresden had already been destroyed.

I did not think up the film hoax myself. It was conceived together with Václav Havel in 1968 when we were writing the screenplay and preparing the film Heartbeat about trading in hearts, based on a paradox. I have a sick heart—really, I need a healthy heart—really, there are far more people with sick hearts than people with healthy hearts and worn-out brains—really. In order for a celebrity to have a healthy heart it is necessary to cull the world of people with healthy hearts and sacrifice their brains—really. This was the principle.

Deliberate confusion as a part of today's civilised culture and its value. Jméno kódu Rubín is about an application of this method. I deliberately advance fiction, or lies as objective truth. But what is objective
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truth? What are documentaries? What the television or film cameraman saw, what went through the laboratory and that someone censured. If actual cinéma verité were to exist, I would have to have a camera at every hole and pore of the body and soul, but it would still not be the truth because: who will put it together, who will edit it and what will come out of it? The possibilities are infinite and that is why I think that Jméno kódu Rubín on the scale of using this method is for me too commercial and plays it safe.

The past and memory always follow me. But here no-one has it. As if no-one has ever been born and nothing has ever happened to anyone. No-one has any memories and all have been purged. Everyone moves according to Forward left!, now its Forward right! As if we have traded the hammer and sickle for a star-spangled banner—and we are just as laughable. This is why I remember the bizarre memory, the trashy form. A bit like Padre Katz [a character from the novel The Good Soldier Švejk], vainly looking for a reformed sinner.

Jméno kódu Rubín is persiflage and basically a conceptual film which I think Czech film does not have. Look how I have put together such material and completed this circle. I have tried for a slightly different view which the early stories of Lustig had, which Kundera and Faulkner have. To take Czech film to a new spatial dimension.

I do not have only the trumpets and drums, everything can be orchestrated together. It is a film about a future, a cosmic way, which leads somewhere, where things will be put into context, into another arrangement, it is a migration to the future and basically a memory of the future. A vision looking for a memory. Thus Jméno kódu Rubín. One record, which someone will perhaps pull out, or maybe not. Because, in this universe, one day we will tell ourselves, "Where is that memory? How did it actually occur?"

Jan Němec, with Miloš Fryš, 14 May 2001
Translated by Mark Preskett

Part One originally appeared in Film a doba, No 1, 1995, Part Two appeared in No 3, 1995 and Part Three appeared in No 1-2, 1997. Pictures provided by Facets Multimedia, who produce the US video version of Jméno kódu Rubín.

Pure Film:
The art of Jan Němec

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about My Heart...
Jan Němec interviewed

Enfant Terrible of
the Czech New Wave

by Peter Hames

The Free Expression of Spirit
by Ivana Košuličová

The Life of a Film that Can't be Seen
by Jan Němec

Can we Live with the Truth?
by Daniel Bird

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Tension in Macedonia

Beth Kampschror
Riots in Sarajevo

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Němec Interviewed

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Enfant Terrible

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Free Expression

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Jméno kódu Rubín

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Working with Krumbachová

Michael J Kopanic Jr
Tales from Slavic Myths Reviewed

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Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

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