Sunday, November 25, 2018

Ester Krumbachova: Three films of the Czech New Wave

Ester Krumbachová was a Czechoslovakian designer and screenwriter. In the 1960s she was one of a group of creative filmmakers that became known as the Czech New Wave. Of course, the cultural ferment of the time was not only artistic but political. After the 1968 Soviet invasion crushed the Prague Spring, permissible expression was ever more tightly restricted; by the early 1970s Krumbachová had been blacklisted and was unable to find work making films.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů, 1970; screenplay by Jaromil Jireš and Ester Krumbachová, production design by Krumbachová, directed by Jireš)

Based on a surrealist novel by Vítězslav Nezval published in 1945, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders portrays a teenaged girl's first fearful intimations of sexuality. In a series of nightmarish tableaux the 13-year-old Valerie (played by 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová), dressed in diaphanous virginal white, encounters lustful monks, a cruel constable, an ambiguous young thief, magic pearls, and aged vampires who must suck the blood of the young in order to regain youth.

Jireš' camera lingers on Valerie's thinly-clothed body throughout the film, and there are a few (brief) scenes that feature her partial nudity. Perhaps these scenes seemed liberating in 1970, but to this viewer in the present day they seemed exploitative. And there's another, more disturbing sequence in which Valerie is condemned to be burned at the stake. The flames are uncomfortably fierce and uncomfortably close to Schallerová; you can see her hair frizzing and her face turning red in the extreme heat. According to an interview with Schallerová included in the DVD extras her mother was on set, but you have to wonder why she didn't intervene when her daughter was so clearly endangered. (In the interview Schallerová reports being burned by flying pieces of flaming debris during the filming of this scene.)

Valerie, with its circular structure, recurring characters, loosely connected dreamlike scenes, and gothic and supernatural elements, seems like a near cousin to The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both British writer Angela Carter and Irish filmmaker and writer Neil Jordan were fans, and Valerie influenced their own excellent collaboration, The Company of Wolves (1985). For me, Valerie's imagery, striking as it is, ultimately felt dated; you may feel differently.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders has been issued on a Criterion Collection DVD along with three earlier short films by Jaromil Jireš.

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966; story by Věra Chytilová and Pavel Juráček, screenplay by Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová, costume design by Krumbachová, with artistic collaboration from Krumbachová and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, directed by Chytilová)

Of the three Czech New Wave films written or co-written by Ester Krumbachová discussed in this post, Daisies (1966) is by far the most well-known. This international succès de scandale was directed by Věra Chytilová, another creative woman in the Czech New Wave whose career was ended after the Soviet invasion.

Daisies opens with images of war and industrial machinery. We then see two young women (Jitka Cerhová as Marie I and Ivana Karbanová as Marie II), who declare that "When everything's getting spoiled, we'll be spoiled too!"

Violating decorum is an particularly strong cultural taboo for women. And so when Maries I & II gleefully gorge themselves at fancy restaurants and drunkenly disrupt an upscale nightclub, their "unladylike" behavior is intended to be especially shocking.

Performance artist Karen Finley would later also exploit for effect our internalized strictures on women's behavior, particularly in relation to food, but Chytilová and Krumbachová anticipated her by more than a decade. 

Another area where women's behavior is policed, of course, is sex. We see the Maries on a series of dates with older men from whom they cadge meals and then bid mocking farewells. Later Marie II disrobes in the apartment of a man who clearly considers himself to be an aesthete: he plays the piano, drinks cognac and collects butterflies. He utters a series of romantic clichés: "Now I know what love means. . .I wish this moment would last forever. . .Life without you is miserable. . .I may have fallen in love with you." Marie's response: "Isn't there some food around here?"

As we follow the two women as they check off a long list of "perversions"—masquerading under different identities and exaggerated makeup, lying, stealing, playing with fire, symbolic castration of sausages and pickles, flirting with self-harm—we come to recognize (along with the characters) that many of their actions are simply heightened versions of accepted behavior. When Marie II confesses to lying, Marie I tells her, "That's nothing. Everybody's doing it. Nobody ever notices." Lines like this may have been one of the reasons Daisies was banned shortly after its completion by the Czechoslovakian government.

Another reason for government disapproval was that the film showed the women wasting food—still far from an abundant resource in Czechoslovakia when we travelled there in 1990. In the final scenes the two Maries stumble across a vast formal dinner set out for guests who have not yet arrived, and they proceed to demolish whatever they can't devour.

After a dunking—a ritual sentence applied in the Middle Ages to curb transgressive women—the two Maries return to the banquet room to clean up. They spout lines that could be taken from the government-sanctioned newspapers that they are now wrapped in: "If we're good and hardworking we shall be happy and everything will be wonderful." They try to reassemble the shattered place settings and restore the mashed delicacies. But their parodic assumption of the "good women" roles they have rejected throughout the film (Marie I asks Marie II, "Are we pretending?") won't end well. For women, Chytilová and Krumbachová suggest, conformity is deadly.

That such a pioneering experimental and feminist film was made by Chytilová, Krumbachová and their colleagues under circumstances of political oppression is a testament to their courage and creativity. And that the male privilege and constricting gender roles that were satirized in Daisies are still with us a half-century later means that their achievement remains all too relevant.

A Report on the Party and Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966; story and costume design by Ester Krumbachová, screenplay by Krumbachová and Jan Němec, directed by Němec)

Jan Němec is probably most famous for Oratorio for Prague, the footage he shot in August 1968 of Soviet tanks in Wenceslaus Square. But two years before the invasion he directed this adaptation of a bitterly funny story by his then-wife Ester Krumbachová.

Some friends go for a picnic in the countryside. Their idyll is rudely interrupted by a gang of men, led by the smirking Rudolf (Jan Klusák), who corral them and won't let them leave. Attitudes among the friends vary: Karel (Karel Mareš) is defiant, Manzel (Evald Schorm) is wary and watchful, his wife Eva (Zdena Škvorecká) coöperates out of fear, and Josef (Jiří Němec) coöperates out of a desire to avoid conflict.

Rudolf (Jan Klusák) explains it all to Josef (Jiří Němec)

Soon dissension arises among the friends—they distance themselves from Karel, who seems to be deliberately courting trouble. When Karel tries to leave, and is set upon by their captors, no one makes a move to help him.

The melée is broken up by the arrival of a man (Ivan Vyskočil) who seems to be Rudolf's superior. He is solicitous and deeply apologetic. There's been a misunderstanding: Rudolf and his men were sent to bring the friends to his birthday party. It was all a joke—they are his guests.

Soon they are joined by more friends from the city and by a wedding party from a nearby village. Everyone is to partake of a huge al fresco banquet by the shore of a lake.

But a small flaw mars the placid surface of the celebration: it's discovered that Manzel has left. His wife explains, "He didn't want to be here." The host grows visibly unhappy at the absence of his guest, and the sense of unease soon becomes oppressive. Rudolf has an idea: "Let's all go and bring him back!" Soon a gun is brandished, a snarling tracking dog is brought in, and the searchers head off through the woods. . .

A Report on the Party and Guests is sharply observed; we detect the subtly shifting dynamics among the friends as they are faced with Rudolf's "joke" and then the host's more affable but no less inescapable authority. And a party that everyone is forced to attend is a brilliant analogy for political life under the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. To emphasize the connection some pointed questions are asked:

Eva (Zdena Škvorecká) questioning their host: "What about human rights?"

The cast of A Report is a mid-1960s snapshot of the Czechoslovakian film and intellectual worlds. Among the cast (I'm sure I'm missing many others):
  • Ivan Vyskočil (the host), a stage director who co-founded the Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na zábradlí), where future Czech president Václav Havel's plays were first produced.
  • Jan Klusák (his smirking assistant and adoptive son Rudolf), who later appeared in and composed music for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
  • Jiří Němec (the collaborating intellectual Josef), a psychologist and philosopher (and cousin of director Jan Němec). Together with his wife Dana Němcová (who also appears in the film as the bride, Olinka) he was an originator of the Charter 77 human rights manifesto.
  • Karel Mareš (the defiant Karel) who composed the soundtrack music for A Report and for Miloš Forman's The Firemen's Ball (1967), among other films.
  • Evald Schorm (the wary Manzel), a film and theatre director and screenwriter.
  • Zdena Škvorecká, a singer and writer. After the Soviet invasion she fled Czechoslovakia with her husband, the writer Josef Škvorecký (who also appears in the film as one of the additional guests); together they founded Toronto's 68 Publishers, which championed dissident literature. 

Zdena Škvorecká and Josef Škvorecký in A Report on the Party and Guests.
A Report was banned by the Czechoslovakian government in 1967; it was allowed to be screened briefly during the Prague Spring of 1968, but after the Soviet invasion it was forbidden a second time. However, a print was shown at the 6th New York Film Festival in September 1968, just weeks after the invasion. It was reviewed by Renata Adler in the New York Times and was shown internationally to wide acclaim. Director Jan Němec left Czechoslovakia in 1968; he returned the next year, but left permanently in 1974. He and Ester Krumbachová divorced in 1968.

Krumbachová remained in Czechoslovakia, unable to work in film again until the 1980s. She died in 1996, but not before witnessing the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Soviet-supported government, and the 1990 election of Havel to the presidency. In 2005 her colleague Věra Chytilová directed a documentary, Searching for Ester (Pátrání po Ester), about Krumbachová's contributions to the Czech New Wave and their own synergies and differences.

Daisies and A Report on the Party and Guests have been issued together on a DVD in the Criterion Collection Eclipse Series 32, "Pearls of the Czech New Wave." As I hope I've suggested, both films are essential viewing.

Update 22 December 2018: Daisies and A Report on the Party and Guests were selected for my Favorites of 2018: Movies and television.

No comments :

Post a Comment