This year London’s Czech Film Festival, ‘Made in Prague’ celebrated its 15th edition (10-27 November). The theme for 2011 was ‘Film and Literature’, and included hard-to-find retro delights such as the 1959 adaptation of Jaroslav Hašek’s comic novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, and Czech New Wave classics like Jiří Menzel’s Capricious Summer (1967), adapted from a novel by Vladislav Vančura. More recent productions included A Walk Worthwhile (2009), directed by Miloš Forman and his son Petr Forman, based on a jazz opera by Suchý and Šlitr, and Of Parents and Children (2008), an adaptation of a novel by prize-winning contemporary writer Emil Hakl.
Czech New Wave director Juraj Herz attended the festival to present his famously dark The Cremator (1968), as well as his most recent film, Habermann (2010). Based on a story by Josef Urban, it joins an increasingly long list of films examining the mass deportation of Germans from Czechoslovakia following World War II.
Clearly, the Czech Republic has a strong literary history, from Kafka, Čapek, Nezval and Hrabal to Milan Kundera. Václav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s last president following the fall of Communism, and first president of the Czech Republic, was an established playwright before he even entered politics. This year’s ‘Made in Prague’ festival showcased Havel’s directorial debut, Leaving (2011), based on one of his most recent plays. The film reflects his experience as a politician, his background in theatre and, unfortunately, his inexperience with cinema. Many plays have been made into excellent films, but this only works when the director has a good sense of cinema’s specificity: not just the special expressive capacities that cinema offers, but what it takes to make a good film. A play, recorded on camera, is not a film.
Leaving concerns Vilém Rieger, a politician who is about to leave office. It is clear that he is not quite ready to let go of power, and equally unwilling to relinquish of his ministerial mansion in the countryside. There, he is surrounded by his family: mother, glamorous but jealous trophy wife Irena, teenage daughter cocooned with her laptop and mobile phone, and grown-up daughter constantly pushing legal documents at him to secure her inheritance. While the staff divide themselves between catering to the family’s needs and preparing for the move, the great man receives three very different types of visitor: a cynical tabloid journalist; a reverential sex kitten of a graduate student; and the incumbent chancellor, whose bright, loudly patterned clothing reflects his vulgar character.
In its favour, Leaving boasts a number of well-known actors, including veteran Josef Abraham (I Served the King of England , Dita Saxová , Courage for Every Day ) as ex-chancellor Vilém, and Havel’s own spouse, Dagmar Havlovà, in the role of trophy wife Irena. The film also seems to feature a characteristically Czech sense of the absurd: the set includes two ridiculous obstacles that the characters continually have to negotiate (a badly-placed rock and a large puddle), and the family itself is marked by a baroque, outdated air of aristocracy, which they are determined to maintain even in the face of a stark change in fortunes.
There are two principal problems with the film, though: first, none of the primary characters are sympathetic, making it hard for the audience to care about what happens to any of them. Vilém may be seen as a distorted reflection of Havel himself, a man who understands the challenges of life in office: so many good intentions, so little possibility of realising them fully. In spite of the grace with which Josef Abraham plays this character, Viém is at base a vain womaniser and reactionary, and therefore difficult to truly like.
The film’s female characters, meanwhile, fall correspond to one of two extremes: sex objects (his wife and the graduate student) or cold, rather austere women (his mother and daughters). All, however, are materialistic and calculating: while this could be said to show their shrewdness, at base it reflects the fact that these women depend on men for their material wellbeing. The figure of the absurdly sexualised graduate student is most objectionable: even when a woman devotes her life to the intellect, Leaving insists on her physical attributes above all. The film even parodies academic interests, as the student instantly switches her studious adoration to the new chancellor, making her yet another stereotyped female opportunist.
Ultimately this film parodies every character, though it is a bit softer on the Vilém’s teenage daughter: the only constructively resourceful character in the film, it is she who ultimately saves the family through a cross-cultural relationship (notably conducted in English, over her mobile phone and the internet). Perhaps Havel intended to present the European Union as the best means of escape from an insular confrontation between the outdated elite and a new generation of uncultured, corrupt parvenus.
The other problem with the film is that Havel seems hardly to have grasped cinema’s language. There are attempts to make the film cinematic: the use of slow motion, baroque angles and, most disconcertingly, racking focus over a short depth of field, which gives a bilious fisheye effect. The entire film takes place in the garden of the ex-chancellor’s ministerial mansion, with the mansion itself as a backdrop and a pond in the foreground. There are precious few departures from this boring setting: a handful of shots show another part of the garden, or the field or road just outside the estate. Essentially, the film differs very little from a stage play with a single set. Even the initially amusing physical obstacles mentioned earlier feel like stage props, with one anchored at the centre and the other at the side of the set. The script itself, with its insistent themes, stilted lines, and formal entrances and exits, feels as though it has barely been altered at all from its original form. It creates the claustrophobic impression characteristic of a film that has been badly adapted from a play. We are shut in a small space with a bunch of unsympathetic characters: I can think of few greater cinematic tortures.