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Vol 3, No 4
29 January 2001
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Vladimir Michalek's Andel Exit (Angel Exit, 2000)
Flying high, falling fast
Hard Stuff
Vladmír Michálek's
Anděl Exit

James Horton

Ever since its beginnings, cinema has been linked to literature. But, despite the long-standing influence of the latter on the former, the problems of adapting a written work for the screen are many, and no other style of film-making has been more full of potential pitfalls. And the more intensely literary the book, the harder it often is to translate into moving pictures.

Vladmír Michálek, therefore, must be a brave man to attempt to put on celluloid Jáchym Topol's 1995 novel of drug- and alcohol-addled love and betrayal, Anděl (literally "Angel," but in this case a reference to a Prague Metro stop), which for the film version becomes Anděl Exit (2000). Topol's first novel Sestra (City Sister Silver), published last year in English translation in the United States (the British publication occurs later this year), has already attracted comparisons with Finnegan's Wake from American reviewers for its encapsulation of street life, with the roughness of language as it is really spoken in a highly literary prose form. Clearly, if there is a difficult contemporary Czech novelist who stands out as being equally difficult to adapt for the screen, Topol is the one.

Fortuitous collaboration

Fortunately, Michálek is not only experienced at the task of converting paper works to moving images, having shot Franz Kafka's novel Amerika as his first film (in 1994), but he is also good drinking buddies with Topol himself and the poet and novelist collaborated with Michálek on the screenplay. In fact, this is the pair's second collaboration: the first being Michálek's "The Cards Are Dealt" episode in the five-part Praha Očima... (Prague Stories, 1999).

Vladimir Michalek's Andel Exit (Angel Exit, 2000)
Visual flare
But, perhaps more importantly, Michálek has also called on the talents of Slovak cinematographer Martin Štrba. Štrba's amazing achievement is to turn Topol's prose into a hallucinogenic stream of visual images, with a colour scheme that alternates between the cold blue greys of the Prague 5 district to intense warm reds and neon blues. Štrba shot the film on digital video and the resulting hand-held shakiness and the rapid editing add to the intensity of the experience. Anděl Exit is, therefore, an attempt to film not just the plot of the original novel but also its substance.

High as kites

The substance of Anděl Exit is very much one of a bad trip. Mikeš, a hip drifter, is set to kick his drug addiction once and for all. His
Vladimir Michalek's Andel Exit (Angel Exit, 2000)
Mikeš goes through hell on earth
developing love for his new next-door neighbour, Jana, seems the perfect source of balance to stabilise his life. But an unwelcome visit changes all that: wideboy Lukáš and tartish Kája talk Mikeš into having one last trip, during which he grows closer to Kája, to the point that he flys out to South Africa with her and soon is manufacturing designer drugs.

The relationship between Kája and Mikeš becomes ever more strained, culminating in a viscious argument which ends in knives being drawn and considerable bloodshed. In the aftermath of the argument, Mikeš finds he has accidentally made a drug which gives the ultimate high. The stuff is so powerful that it attracts an impossibly large order from the local mafia. Mikeš cannot replicate the serendipitous discovery and flees, first with Kája and then abandoning her to return to Prague 5 and Jana.

Despite the fact that Jana, who is pregnant, seems prepared to forgive his folly, his troubles are far from over. Jana is rushed to hospital when her pregnancy undergoes complications, Lukáš threatens to kill the baby if Mikeš doesn't go back into drug production and Kája catches up with him, desperately trying to recover the hit she once had.

Vladimir Michalek's Andel Exit (Angel Exit, 2000)
Riding off into the subway
Ultimately, in the internal battle in Mikeš's mind between the two women in his life, neither prevails. Kája, who has worked out that the mystery ingredient to Mikeš's potent drug is a mixture of their blood, dies while getting the high she fought so hard for, and Jana walks out on him. Mikeš, though, rescues a mute nine-year-old girl (Naďa, the daughter of his landlord) from death at the hands of deranged cultists, and the film ends with them vanishing into the Anděl Metro system. If the anděl in the title refers to a literal angel, it is Naďa, and the use of a young "angel" as the sole symbol of purity continues on from Sestra, in which Topol used the term "sister" to represent his only hope in beauty.

A cold view

Topol has no desire to romanticise Prague, something which, historically, Czech film has been very keen to do. Previous Czech films which have shown the country's capital in its true colours have either met with a wave of negative reaction from audiences (for example, Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora, 1997, which exposed Prague's sickenly active child prostitution scene), been ignored (Ivo Trajkov's truly innovative Minulost / The Past, 1998) or diluted the impact of gritty realism by wrapping it up in "crazy situations" (David Ondříček's Samotáři / Loners, 2000). The Czech film magazine Kinofil, for example, approvingly noting that Topol had removed most of the original book's screwball craziness for the screenplay, intoned that Czech audiences are fed up to the teeth with such whacky comic capers. Topol's reappraisal of Prague is, therefore, timely.

The film, though, is no mere representation of a city as an architectural ensemble. Topol's script is a sardonic analysis of the urban experience and
Vladimir Michalek's Andel Exit (Angel Exit, 2000)
A diet of drugs and "poisoned blood"
the whole cultural (or rather a-cultural) experience of post-Communist Prague. As such, the film works best on the microscopic level (indeed, its plot is rather infantile and totally unbelievable), picking up the minutiae of modern life and capturing the ills of a generation on screen. As such, Anděl Exit is analoguous to the Russian film Moskva (Moscow, 2000), an evocation of another capital city which is also based on a script by a literary enfant terrible (Vladimir Sorokin). Moskva, too, has a plot which is almost superfluous and is backed by strong visual stylisation.

If Anděl Exit has one weakness, though, it is that the microscopic level of
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the film, on which it tries so hard to succeed, is let down by the acting: musician Jan Čechtický carries the urban cool necessary to pull off the part of Mikeš—and perhaps bring street cred to the film—but his acting is remarkably lacklustre; Zuzana Stivínová, as Jana, is uninspired but carries out the role adequately; and Klára Issová, as Kája, is so embarrassingly bad in the final sequences of the film that Kinofil suggested that the whole film should have been reshot with another actor in the part. Only veteran actor Pavel Landovský puts in a sufficiently meaty performance to match the gravity of the film.

Breaking ground

This all makes Anděl Exit something of a mixed bag—disappointing on some levels and absolutely exhilarating on others. But the disappointments
Vladimir Michalek's Andel Exit (Angel Exit, 2000)
The harsh neon glare of the city
can't take away from Anděl Exit its significance to the Czech cinema scene. It is a sincere and ambitious attempt at breaking new ground and an almost wholly successful go at unflinchingly depicting the stark reality of the post-1989 years in a national film culture that is highly suspicious of innovation and hard-hitting depictions of reality—and it has been acclaimed as such. Furthermore, being shot on digital video, it proves that you don't need big bucks to make a film with a grand vision (ironically, the most expensive part of making the film was transferring the digital version onto 35mm film).

Whether Anděl Exit will make its mark on the international scene is another matter. Lacking in any form of optimism and deliberately demanding in its presentation, Anděl Exit is not easy watching, and it is hard to appreciate its genuine merits without understanding the context it has come from. At its core, though, the urban experience is a global one and being parochial is the last thing this film could be accused of.

Either way, it will be interesting to watch how Czech cinema responds to the gauntlet Michálek and Topol have thrown down.

Andrew James Horton, 29 January 2001

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Moving on:


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Polish Parties

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East German Privatisation

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Europe's Back Door

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Jáchym Topol

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Andrew James Horton
Anděl Exit Reviewed

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I Can't Stop

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Suggested works by Topol

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Hungarian Oil Scandal

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After the Rain

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UK: Charmingly Controversial


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