Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999

Jan Sverak's Kolja
Kolja: Seeing no evil
K I N O E Y E:
Making History
Comforting visions of the past in
Czech Oscar-winners

Andrew J Horton

Everyone loves a good fairy-tale, and nobody less so than the members of the Academy Awards jury, which for years has been turning down films which are hard-hitting, incisive or bleak, in favour of some light bit of jolly fluff for all the family. However, this love of the gaily innocuous extends far beyond the confines of the Academy. The Czechs, for example, are keen proponents of the light comedy, and the fairy-tale proper (pohadka) is an accepted and thriving genre in Czech film-making (four were shown at this year's Karlovy Vary Film Festival).

Perhaps, considering this common interest, it is not surprising that Czechs have done quite well out of the Oscars. As Czechoslovakia the country won the award for Best Foreign-Language Film twice: once for Jan Kadar and Elmer Klos's Obchod na korze (Shop on the High Street, 1965) and once for Jiri Menzel's Ostre sledovane vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966). Since the division of the country into its component republics, the Czechs have won with Jan Sverak's Kolja (Kolya, 1996). Although none of the actual pohadky have gained Academy fame, or even a nomination, the Czech films which have been nominated have had some remarkable similarities to the genre.

Interestingly, all three films are in some ways historical dramas. Obchod na korze and Ostre sledovane vlaky are set in the Second World War and document resistance to Nazis or Nazification;Kolja is set against the backdrop of Communism and, in the end, its fall. Since these films have all won Oscars, should we conclude that they are all light and unchallenging fluff? Or to rephrase the question: do they distort history and make cosier realities out of it, in the process - and as a by-product - appealing to the deeply conservative tendencies of the Academy?

Of the three, Kolja presents by far the rosiest impression. It is more immediately comic than the others and in a way which is less black and more camp. Its warmth is extended by its sentimental theme, a wide-eyed five-year-old boy in the title role (although in dramatic terms, he actually contributes surprisingly little) and picture-postcard shots of Prague's finest buildings bathed in a glorious light.

The central character's prediciment is as overly romanticised as the cinematography. Frantisek lives at the top of a medieval tower in the centre of Prague with a stunning view of the castle, a far cry from the Communist panelaky (blocks of flats) which are the more standard form of accommodation for Czechs. Although Frantisek is the object of the idiotic brutality of the regime, the film softens the effects of this on him. Fear isn't fear, but a mock fear, full of its superficial features but having none of its true consequences. The highest representation of this occurs when Frantisek is summoned by the secret police in one of the campiest scenes of the entire film. Unable to find a babysitter for the young Kolja, Frantisek takes him to the interrogation, an improbable enough plot device as it is. The interrogator is a comic figure who is barely competent, and the presence of Kolja manages to throw the interrogation into a pantomime of confusion. Reality for those summoned before the secret police, needless to say, was rather different.

Kolja is not the only Czech film which has reviewed the years of Communism with surprising affection and warmth. Sverak received an Oscar nomination for his earlier film Obecna skola (Elementary School, 1991) which painted a nostalgic and sentimental picture of what in reality was the most brutal phase of Communism, the early 1950s. And perhaps Kolja's whole philosophy is summed up by the title of another film on the Communist era - Petr Nikolaev's 1997 film Bajecna leta pod psa (a tricky phrase to translate, but perhaps best rendered in English as "Those Wonderful Years that Sucked").

These romantic views of the Communist years serve several functions. They can be considered an ironic reflection of the pains of transition - that such a traumatic time can be looked at in such a glossy and stylised way. In this respect, Sverak is creating a mythical golden era which never was, a time when life was simple and had almost a pantomime quality to it. This is undoubtedly true to some extent. The Czech Republic is now far from stable in economic terms; unemployment (an unheard of phenomenon in Communist times) is growing rapidly and corruption is still rife in public life. In this context, it is understandable that Czechs might wonder whether they really have gained anything from 1989. However, it is interesting that rather than create a film which dissects the problems of transition, Sverak chose to paint a rose-tinted vision of the past.

Kolja (and other films of its ilk) also serves to ease Czech consciences about the Communist period. By portraying it as an inconvenient but harmless episode in the country's history, the film aims to please those who would rather forget. The Czechs would rather not, on the whole, look too deeply into the issues around who is morally to blame for the human rights abuses of the Communist years, in case the answer is one they don't like. Collaboration comes in scales and degrees, and whilst the Czechs are happy to tar those who collaborated to the fullest, the idea that the dividing line between those who co-operated and those who didn't is a blurred one is something which Czechs would prefer not to probe too deeply.

Sverak even glorifies Frantisek's passivity in his reaction to Communism. His acts of resistance amount to refusing to put up red flags in his window and other meaningless gestures in the face of authority, carried out just so he can say to himself he has resisted and is not one of the collaborators. But, he never does anything which actually challenges the regime.

Passivity is also an issue in Jiri Menzel's Ostre sledovane vlaky. This time, it is not glorified, but it is completely ignored. Again, the purpose here is to mythologise the past and create a way of looking at it which diffuses responsibility and reduces awkward self-analysis. In some ways, Ostre sledovane vlaky is a more realistic film than Kolja. It relies on black humour rather than camp, and its efforts to recreate a sense of brooding menace appropriate to the period in which it is set - the Second World War - are far more convincing.

However, there is no less a distortion of historical realities in the film's plot. The film aims to recreate the war as a period when the Czechs were oppressed by the Nazis, and, filled with contempt for the occupiers, organised an active and effective resistance movement. The accuracy of this view is currently hard to gauge. Communist-era textbooks, films and novels perpetuate the idea of the Czechs as born anti-fascists, in an attempt to legitimise the dubious claim to power that the Party held.

Another view is encapsulated in the cruel joke:

Q: What is the difference between the Czech resistance and the film of the Czech resistance?
A: The film lasted half an hour longer.

Certainly, there is little indication that there was an active and effective resistance movement in the Czech Republic during the German occupation. What operations were carried out by the Czech resistance - the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 and the Prague Uprising of May 1945 (as the American army stood poised in Plzen) - were failures. The repercussions outweighed any inconvenience the actions caused the Germans, and they did not provide the desired effects (for instance, the Uprising failed to precipitate an early march on Prague on the part of the Americans).

Historians may find that the weakness of the resistance extends even further. No major study of the Czech collaboration with the Nazis has been conducted since 1989, when previously unavailable papers were made available. However, the track record of Germany itself is not a good omen. Germans have long been keen to create sharp divisions in culpability over wartime atrocities, maintaining that the SS were responsible for the crimes against humanity, whilst ordinary people and even the Wehrmacht were ignorant of these barbarities. Recent historical re-evaluation indicates the truth is very different, and studies such as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners have shown that the clockwork of Nazism only ticked as smoothly as it did because of active collaboration on the part of the vast majority of the population, which was, as the title of Goldhagen's work suggests, happy to collude in the regime's dirty work.

It is too early to say to what extent the Czech's resisted or collaborated and we may not know the full story until the wartime generation has become extinct and the issue has become less contentious. However, the evidence from Germany and the surpisingly low numbers of German troops and functionaries stationed in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia indicate that there are a good few skeletons in the closet waiting to be discovered. It is certainly true that Ostre sledovane vlaky presents a view which makes division of culpability startlingly easy - one which must have been satisfying to those whose position in the war was murky but not in the league of full-time collaboration.

Although the fight against totalitarianism in the form of fascism was frequently used as a metaphor for the fight against totalitarianism in the form of Communism, Ostre sledovane vlaky largely plays along with the Party. Indeed, the film leans very heavily on two classic Communist ideas: the previously discussed mythologising of the Czech anti-fascist past and the idea that personal agendas must be subordinate to the wider concerns of the nation (that is, the State). True, Menzel uses the words of the fascists to mock Stalinism, and the ending laughs in the face of authority. But these are short asides rather than a concerted undermining of Communist principles. Whilst these might be mild affronts to the regime, there is nothing which could possibly offend the soothing version of Czech history that the Party had written for the era.

The first of these three Oscar-winners, Obchod na korze, is also set in the Nazi era, but this time in Slovakia, whose wartime experiences were very different. Slovakia was an "independent" state during the war, but was constrained by the knowledge that veering too far from the line dictated by Hitler would result in an all-out invasion (something which in fact eventually happened).

Of the three films, Obchod na korze is the darkest and the most complicated. It has many comic moments rather than being an all-out comedy. Although the interactions between the senile and deaf Jewess Mrs Lautmanova and the hapless Tono Brtko are camp in the extreme, there is always an underlying blackness, culminating in the film's protagonist, Tono, hanging himself. The film is also the one with the most unsettling view of history.

Like Ostre sledovane vlaky, Obchod na korze has as its central character someone who is against fascism. On a very shallow level, the film can be read as a portrayal of the how the true Slovak character is intrinsically in opposition to fascism. Culpability is, apparently, easily divided, with clear "goodies" and clear "baddies." As such, the film panders to the standard Communist line, to Slovak squeamishness about the country's fascist past and to Hollywood-style moral simplicity.

However, Obchod na korze reads far more convincingly as an allegory and spends less time propping up Communist tenets than does Ostre sledovane vlaky. Tono ultimately hangs himself, because he does not know if he is one of the good Slovaks who hide Jewish children or a morally repugnant Slovak on the level of those who lead Jews off to the death camps. In this respect, it is the only film of the three which rejects a black and white view of collaboration.

There is a catch, though. The film may indeed present an uncompromising view of history, but its claim to be a Czech film is hotly contested. The principal director and co-screenplay-writer, Jan Kadar, was a Jew born in Budapest. Furthermore, the film's themes are Slovak on a superficial level but on a deeper level reveal a suspicion of geographical and ethnic boundaries, preferring instead to see Central Europe as a giant melting pot of different identities (see the author's article "Slovako-Czech Shop on the High Street"). This is not, on the whole, the point of view of Czechs, who prefer to see their national identity in strong ethnic terms.

The very fact that some Czechs see Obchod na korze as being in any meaningful way a Czech film is, if anything, a further indication of the nation's love of creating fairy-tales. On this basis, as long as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sticks to its current preferences, the Czechs should have a good few Oscars coming to them in the future.

Andrew J Horton, 4 October 1999

Available on Video

The following films are all available with English subtitles. Note that these versions are suitable for use in the US and Canada only.


Elementary School

Closely Observed Trains

Shop on the Main Street




The Uses of History

Reckoning and Reconciliation

Making History
in Czech Film

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