The Partisan

Czech director Vojtech Jasný's acts of resistance
by Nick Pinkerton  posted September 18, 2008
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Vojtech Jasný, Anthology Film Archives, September 19-25, 2008

It is likely no coincidence that Anthology Film Archives' Vojtech Jasný retrospective will screen as the 40th anniversary of "Prague Spring" passes. A lesser-known player among prominent Czech artist-dissidents (Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Miloš Forman, the Plastic People of the Universe), Jasný will forever be knotted up with the postwar history of his native land.

The director, born in 1925, knew well the human toll of history, the tectonic shifts of WWII having shaped his early life. His father died in Auschwitz, and Jasný became a young partisan, working for the British Intelligence through the Nazi occupation.

Vocational training came at the FAMU film school in Prague, where Jasný collaborated with future luminary Karel Kachyna on a graduation film (The Clouds Will Roll Away, 1950). The team was soon dispatched to shoot documentary propaganda in China and Russia—Jasný has said that what he witnessed on these trips sowed his disillusionment with Soviet Communism.

The earliest film I've seen of Jasný's is his 1963 The Cassandra Cat (aka When the Cat Comes), an insurrectionist fable set around a small-town school. Instructor Robert (Vlastimil Brodský) attempts to balance his classroom of preadolescents between the forces of repressive authority (Jirí Sovák's bullying headmaster) and ebullient imagination (Jan Werich's castellan, who spins yarns for the kids). The equilibrium tilts toward anarchy with the arrival of a traveling circus, the premier attraction of which is a tabby wearing a bitty pair of sunglasses. The fairytale conceit is that as soon as kitty's specs come off, anyone within eyesight has their "true nature" revealed through dye process color-coding, turning head-to-toe red (lovers), purple (liars), yellow (the unfaithful), and so on.

Some townsfolk, humiliated by their unmasking, set their mind on killing the feline messenger. The children resist, painting protest placards and graffiti before turning to outright civil disobedience, disappearing from the town. The parable is obvious: the truth-teller is violently stifled by a confederacy of authorities who have much to hide. The headmaster and his cronies, gathered in a dark storage room to determine the captive cat's fate, look very much like Soviet gangsters deciding how best to disappear some dissenter.

The veil of allegory that overlays and softens the edges of Cat's social critique would be whipped back for Jasný's most famous film, All My Good Countrymen. The script had been blocked from production, but events of early 1968 allowed filming to begin. It was a pure product of Prague Spring, the six-month aperture of liberalization begun when reform candidate Alexander Dubcek took office as first secretary. (In a 2007 interview, Jasný recalled an exchange with the politician some years earlier: "You can make any films after the Cat, you'll get money, everything, but if you go against the party we'll kill you. And I smiled at him and said, ‘Do you think I might?'") This was the only time a film so overtly, damningly critical of Soviet policy could've been made between the immediate postwar period and 1989.

Countrymen begins in May 1945, in a village in rural Moravia—Jasný's home region—just after the Red Army has flushed out the Germans. The church organist leads his choir practice in a hymn to savior Stalin. Unsupervised children rummage up rifles abandoned to the fields. Farmers' ploughs turn up landmines. In the receding shadow of war, the rhythms of "earthy" provincial life return, "brimming with rude, vital energy," with introductions and explanations by a suitably bawdy narrator ("A true country wench. Hardly anyone can keep up with her—not only on the dancefloor").

The film's real protagonist, present in nearly every scene, is Soviet ideology—the eventual tragedy is of that ideology corrupting and betraying itself over the course of the 15 years (1945-1960) covered. The Oxford History of World Cinema informs me this is an example of "the Czech model for analyzing a selected segment of society as a sample of the system at large." Seen here, the implementation of agrarian collectivization and enforced classlessness ultimately punishes everyone by attenuating exceptionality (the village eccentric, the wealthy landowner, the hardworking independent farmer are all censured), rewarding petty jealousies by turning the village gossip into the village informer, and escalating petty crimes—once peaceably handled by the consensus of the community microcosm—into treasonable offenses against the state.

Both Cassandra Cat and Countrymen are films of resistance from the foundations up—they not only carry an anti-authoritarian message, but every narrative decision and the very blueprints of these films are determined by considerations of dissidence (note the tone of public address implicit in Countrymen's title). So when Countrymen lugs along for 40 barren minutes after the town has been depopulated and any sense of pleasure in the storytelling process has disappeared, following the travails of stoic farmer František, unwilling to capitulate to collectivism, it's because this is what Jasný feels is necessary to drive home his thesis, and we linger and suffer as the village has suffered.

Conceived as acts of resistance, these films have inevitably lost something since that which they were resisting has given way (or perhaps I should say, with Russia newly belligerent, has receded and changed forms). And though I am moved reflecting on the spirit in which Countrymen was made, I am not really involved in the fates of Jasný's collection of village "types" or rattled by the strained effects that accompany their deaths. To these eyes, Cassandra Cat is a careworn kiddie film that overestimates the charm of its strobing, tinted imagery. Context aside, it's simply no 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. But then, to the Czech in 1963 hearing the postscript following the film's uprising—"Maybe it didn't happen, but it should have"—it may have been something else entirely, a heartening voice of hope and commiseration.

Neither film can be dismissed as a utilitarian propaganda piece, disposable once it's served its cause. It's worth remembering that, like a great many other artists working under censorious government oversight (the world has never lacked for them), Jasný could've just as well devoted himself to formalized works on such neutral subjects as "landscape" or "anguished introspection," collecting government funds and stacking up laurels from international film festivals. He's clearly receptive to music, using Svatopluk Havelka's scores to sumptuous effect. Countrymen shows a talent for lyric images in its seasonal chapter openings and in one charming vignette where a flock of villagers reel home from the barroom (a dog barking in the distance), flop down under a sheltering tree, then wake the next day to sunlight streaming through bare branches—and one really feels the dewy morning cool.

Rather than hedging his bets creatively, Jasný recognized the historic moment at hand, made his statement, and, at moments, performed well beyond his talents. How should one quantify Countrymen's accomplishment? A million Czechs saw it in theaters. A 1985 New York Times article, addressing the film's stateside debut, reported that Jasný's film, officially banned, still circulated in Czechoslovakia on contraband videotapes. Though nothing I've seen confirms him as an artist of the first rate, Jasný deserves his due as a conscientious partisan.

The film is not a standalone, a Czech Uncle Tom's Cabin—it was one big slab in a bigger avalanche of historical reflection and political criticism that followed the loosening of censorship policy. None of this sat well with Leonid Brezhnev. So in August of that same year, troops from Russia and the Warsaw Pact nations began "Operation Danube," occupying Czechoslovak territory and government offices to stopper the liberalization that had made Countrymen possible. Dubcek summed up the Czech-Slovak's comedown succinctly: "I thought that we were freer than we were." In Soviet-speak lingo, the invasion was to encourage normalizatsiia—"normalization." And things stayed normal for the next 21 years.

Transformed from a mere film to a symbol of quashed hope, Countrymen won its director an award at the 1969 Cannes festival. After August 1968, Jasný might've worked on without fear at home—the powers surely would have been loath to let go of such a cultural credit-to-his-nation. He later described the "opportunities" he saw awaiting him in Czechoslovakia: "You will make films written by others, you will take a secret police colonel and make him a hero, you will make these films....For me that would be moral death." So, then in his mid forties, he ditched his career. Part of the hemorrhage of filmmaking talent from Czechoslovakia that included Jan Nemec, Jirí Weiss, Ivan Passer, Ján Kadár, and Miloš Forman, Jasný left Prague after completing a farewell film on the sly, the 1969 short Czech Rhapsody, concerning the anticommunist protest-suicide by self-immolation of student Jan Palach.

He spent over a decade afterwards doing piecemeal work where he found it, in West Germany for television, in Austria, and in Yugoslavia—where he apparently enjoyed the favor of maverick dictator Josip Tito. He survived not only homesick alcoholic depression but, he claims, a slapstick-incompetent attempted KGB hit in Baden-Baden. This unmoored drifting only came to an end in the early '80s, when he was invited to teach film at Columbia University by department chair Forman, once a student of Jasný's in Prague, then on sabbatical to shoot Amadeus.

Jasný has remained happily American since, though 1991's Why Havel? found him dutifully returned to his appointment as chronicler of Czech history. The subject is playwright-cum-political prisoner-cum-Czech Republic president Václav Havel, described at one point by Arthur Miller as "the world's first avant-garde president" (debatable—look up Paul Deschanel). It's as much a homecoming victory lap—for onetime dissidents Havel, Jasný, and tour guide/narrator Forman—as a biographical portrait. The loose grab bag of footage is laden with ceremonial filler, as when a bemusedly smiling Havel is feted by heads of state and cultural icons. Things liven up when the film goes in the field with Havel, seen speaking to separatist Slovaks (to no avail), or visiting collectivism-hobbled farmers who might've been leftovers from Countrymen. Forman, an avuncular emcee, explains the significance of Wenceslas Square, where Palach burned; the fascination with grand ineptitude that marked Forman's Czech films returns in his visit to an exhibition of historical photos: "We see now the favorite pastime of the former rulers: giving each other medals....In the '70s [Czech President Gustáv] Husák gave Brezhnev three orders of Klement Gottwald, three Golden Stars, and one order of the White Lion!" Having been inundated with such absurdities, one can almost forgive Forman for taking Larry Flynt seriously as a freedom fighter.

The most recent work screening is Gladys, Jasný's 1999 home video portrait of a century-old NYC neighbor, seen absently tracing out beyond-the-grave messages from two deceased husbands with her knotty hand ("this almost hundred-year-old very psychic lady..."). The affectionate intent is obvious, but the repetitive parlor-bound interview scenes don't communicate why Jasný's so fascinated with his subject. Gladys has the air of a class project, with the director inviting fellow Columbia faculty and his School of Visual Arts students up to Gladys's place, with (rarely fulfilled) intentions of striking some interesting frictions. Jasný's behind-the-camera manner inspires affection, though, as when he's expostulating on the importance of immigration to America ("Their children become educated and they become great like Kirk Douglas!"). Once again, I prefer the sentiment to the movie. 


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Courtesy National Film Archives
Frantisek Peterka and Paul Berndt in Vojtech Jasny's I Surbibed Certain Death
Photo Gallery: The Partisan


September 19-25, 2008 Vojtech Jasny


Nick Pinkerton has written about films in The Village Voice, Reverse Shot, and Stop Smiling magazine. He is a product of Cincinnati, Ohio, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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