The Northwest Film Forum is currently running a retrospective of Czech director Miloś Forman’s early films. There is not a single dud in the lot. Except for Taking Off (1971), his first American film (which I have not yet seen and hence will remain silent on) I can say that they are all excellent films – funny, insightful, well-crafted and still as fresh as the day the footage came back from the lab.
Forman’s directorial debut, Audition (1963), is the weakest film of them all, though. It’s a combination of two documentaries about musicians. The first, If There Was No Music, shows two brass bands rehearsing for a competition. In the second, Audition, a bunch of young singers go on a round of auditions in hip Czechoslovakia; think of it as Czech Idol, circa 1963 – lots of cute girls with beehive hairdos and guys in dark coats looking moody in a Jean-Paul Belmondo way. This is one of those films that looks better - and cooler - in black and white than it ever would in color. Still, watching an hour’s worth of footage crammed with people belting out 45 year-old Czeck pop tunes gets dull after a while.
However, Black Peter (1963), Forman’s first fictional film, is not dull at all. It has no real plot. We see the young and churlish Peter start his new job - spying on customers at the local supermarket to catch shoplifters. We see him berated at home by his father. We watch him go out a few times with his girlfriend. He attends a dance and meets some friends there. One of them gets drunk. All very mundane, and yet compelling. In fact, with its handheld camerawork and grainy look, this films feels more like a documentary than a fictional film. And that’s intentional. At the time, Czech films were made under the rubric of “socialist realism” which basically meant upbeat Communist propaganda. To grab a camera and film your friends and family members (Forman was notorious for using mostly non-professional actors) was not just an artistic choice but a political one, too. The actors in Black Peter are all very good. Ladislav Jakim (above), who plays Peter, is perfect in the role. His casual adolescent truculence is charming if you’re under forty, infuriating if you’re over. Jan Vostrčil is excellent as Peter’s father, pacing back and forth in their tiny apartment, his thumbs looped in his suspenders, endlessly hectoring his son to grow up or warning him to beware of the wiles of women. Vostrčil is a pleasure to watch and it’s no surprise that Forman put him in all his Czech movies.
Loves of a Blonde (1965) tells the story of a young girl in a small town who falls in love with a musician performing in a band at the local dancehall one weekend. After their 2-day fling he returns to Prague and she goes back to working her dreary job at the shoe factory. She misses him and soon shows up on the doorsteps of his parent’s home in Prague. They don’t like her at all. When the son shows up the next morning it become obvious that he doesn’t really like her much either. She returns home and to her life in the factory. It sounds more grim than it is. The film has a light touch and a sense of humor which keep it from becoming a downer. And Hana Brejchová is very good in the lead. She conveys a strength and vulnerability that keep her sympathetic but never pitiful. In the clip below we watch her as she tries on her sleeping lover’s overcoat. This film was a big international hit, both commercially and critically, and it’s easy to see why. It is quite funny. The dance hall scenes are especially good as middle-aged soldiers try to score with the young and uninterested factory girls in town. One trio of soldiers is particularly pathetic. One of them takes off his wedding ring and puts it in his pocket. It promptly falls out of the leg of his pants and rolls across the dance floor, right under the table of the women he’s flirting with.
In The Fireman’s Ball (1967) a group of firemen in a small Czeck town hold a big dance (how Forman loves a dance) in which, not surprisingly, everything goes wrong. The raffle gifts keep getting stolen by the guests. The firemen decide to hold an impromptu beauty contest but can’t find enough attractive women in the hall despite making one contestant strip down to her bathing suit in the back room while they breathlessly oogle (below). When a house catches fire they’re unable to put it out so instead they set up the bar and simply watch the place burn down. They even, at one point, almost set their own hall on fire. They are, in short, that old standby of Eastern European and Russia literature, the ridiculous bureaucrat. Dostoyevsky and Gogol mined the same territory. And Forman’s fellow Czecks Jaroslav Haśek (in The Good Soldier Švejk) and Franz Kafka (in…well, everything) show the various responses of people trapped in the bureaucratic machine. We English-speakers brag about Dickens’ Office of Circumlocution Office and Melville’s Bartleby but to really appreciate the nightmare of officialdom you must go to writers east of the Elbe.
But Fireman’s Ball is more than that. It is also a very funny satire about communism. It’s soon apparent that this gaggle of middle-aged, paunchy, bungling firefighters is supposed to represent the leadership of the Communist Party, either Czech or Russian. As I sat watching Fireman’s Ball I couldn’t help but remember the attempted coup against Soviet leader and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. The “hard-line Communist coup”, as the US press immediately called it (was there ever a “soft-line” Communist coup?), soon fell apart and the plotters began hurrying to get out of the country. I’ll never forget the TV footage of them scrambling to board a plane leaving Moscow. It was hilarious - a handful of fat, middle-aged men (very much like our Czech firemen) pushing, pulling, shoving and slapping each other out of the way to enter the airplane door. They looked ridiculous, like The Three Stooges or the Keystone Cops. “What’s next?” I thought “‛Hard-Line Communist Coup Meets The Mummy’?” The judgment of history could scarcely be more devastating or cruel than that footage. The project of Soviet Marxism had been reduced to comedy - a crude, slapstick routine performed on an airport tarmac by doomed clowns. Honestly, shooting the plotters would have endowed them with more dignity.
Like most American filmgoers I tend to think of Forman’s movies (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Ragtime) as being bleak and depressing so it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that his earlier work was humorous, intimate, and, at times, even light-hearted.