Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 19
1 February 1999

K I N O E Y E:
Prison Sweet Prison
Helena Trestikova's Sladke stoleti

Andrew J Horton

In a recent Jiri Menzel film, one of the characters asks a friend what life was like for him in the Gulag. The friend jokingly responds that it was wonderful, due to the variety of interesting people from intellectual and artistic backgrounds one can mix with when imprisoned. If we are to believe Helena Trestikova's documentary Sladke stoleti (Sweet Century, 1997), there is perhaps more truth to Menzel's outrageous gag than perhaps he intended.

The "sweet century" of the title refers, of course, to the twentieth century. The phrase is introduced at the beginning of the film on a piece of black and white film shot in during the heady first days of the First Czechoslovak Republic. A pretty young girl gaily sings about all the joys this sweet century will bring. Anyone knowing that this film documents the lives of seven Czech women who were political prisoners during the harsh Stalinist regimes of Gottwald and Novotny cannot help but come to the conclusion that the title is ironic.

The story of these women is assembled through a series of interviews, illustrated by archive film footage and photos. To highlight the changes which Czechoslovakia underwent, the first part of the film documents the youth and optimism of the inter-war years. Bright and dynamic, the women of Trestikova's film carved out colourful lives for themselves, they danced to the latest songs, they wore only the most fashionable clothes, they chased career and they astounded their parents.

Bleaker times

First the war and then Communism changed all that. As intellectuals who refused to toe the Communist line, they were imprisoned under barbaric conditions, which often included beatings, torture and rape. In a touchingly comic scene the women are shown around a modern Czech jail and they marvel of the comparative luxury of its roomy cells, with their wash basins and toilets.

In spite of the inhumanity directed towards them the women all retained their optimism. The harsh conditions created a solidarity between them of a kind which could never exist in the outside world. They rallied round each other, keeping each other's spirits high. Although they were all intellectuals, they all came from different disciplines. The mix of ideas and views proved to be a potent one and informal lectures were held, the women enriching their experience being bars by exchanging their specialist knowledge.

The intensity of the experience was so great that it was some ways difficult to live so full a life out of these conditions. The women all lament the closeness which they have lost in their lives and the real caring which existed between people and which has now long since vanished. Indeed they are somewhat scornful in their assessment of post-1989 life, which they feel is characterised by coldness and distance between people. In a curious way, the Stalinist era was the highpoint of their lives and in this respect the title of the film is surprisingly unironic for them.

Both documentaries reviewed here [see below for details of the second] concern women and how they coped with Communism. One reason for the interest in this perspective might be that the suffering and defiance of the supposedly frail and helpless seems all the more noble and heroic than that of those whom we traditionally cast in the role of fighters and defenders. At the same time, of course, by repressing such "weak" people, Communism seems all the more cowardly and repugnant, giving additional power to any production that dwells on this subject.

Caged lions

However, Sladke stoleti contains another theory for the prevalence of women in the depiction of the resistance to Communism. One of the women posits the idea that women are, in fact, more suited to it. Within them they hold the ability to withstand humiliation and can maintain their self-esteem. Men, on the other hand, crumble when they are deprived of their status as head of the family and in prison can only rot "like a caged lion."

The number of survivors of what Trestikova calls the "struggle for a better future" is gradually diminishing, and Trestikova acknowledges that the need to record the testimonies of these survivors is a matter of some urgency. What is a shame, though, is that the vast potential of this project is unrealised because of the restrictions of urgency.

Trestikova has previously worked on a far larger scale: Manzelske etudy (Studies of Marriage, 1987), for instance, followed seven couples over a period of six years. Unfortunately, she has, presumably for practical reasons, chosen a more modest scale for her work.

The Czech Republic has in this way been denied an opportunity to have its own visual analogue of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's three-volume literary investigation into the atrocities of Stalinism in Russia, Arkhipelag Gulag (The Gulag Archipelago, 1972-74). We will have to wait and see whether another Czech documentarist will take up the challenge before it is too late.

Andrew J Horton, 1 February 1999

This article originally appeared alongside a review of Petr Vaclav's documentary Pani Le Murie. Click here to read it.



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