Czechoslovak New Wave; Southern Comfort

25 November 2012

On Monday 26 November, Second Run releases a specially-priced, limited edition 3-disc DVD set that includes ‘Diamonds of the Night’, ‘Intimate Lighting’ and ‘The Cremator’, while Second Sight releases ‘Southern Comfort’ on Blu-ray and DVD.

Second Run’s latest box set reissues three films from the Czechoslovak New Wave: Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964), Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení, 1965) and Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1969). As each of these titles has previously been released on an individual basis, this set is a slim but suitably varied showcase of both the Czechoslovak New Wave and Second Run’s roster of films belonging to it, which also includes Miloš Forman’s Audition (1963) and Loves of a Blonde (1965), Karel Kachyna’s The Ear (1970), František Vláčil’s Markéta Lazarová (1967), The Valley of the Bees (1967) and Adelheid (1969), Němec’s The Party and the Guests (1966), Jiří Weiss’s Romeo, Juliet and Darkness (1960), Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Herz’s Morgiana (1971) and Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String (1969).

Though it emerged around the same time, the retroactively-termed Czechoslovak New Wave hasn’t enjoyed the same popularity as its French equivalent, due no doubt to the specific political conditions under and in response to which it emerged. This modest but remarkably varied bunch of works drew upon a range of artistic traditions: radically reworking literary texts and channelling Surrealism and Expressionism, they gave voice to serious concerns with wit and often humour, which has allowed the films to retain an originality and verve that compares favourably to the rather jejune charms of the nouvelle vague. Though its practitioners briefly enjoyed relative artistic freedom and state funding during the process of de-Stalinisation, their clear displeasure with life under Stalinism and the political regimes that succeeded it marked their work for censorship and, when Soviet countries invaded the country in 1968 and ended its reformist Prague Spring, many of them - Němec and Passer included – fled the country.

Diamonds of the Night was director Jan Němec’s first feature. An adaptation of Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novella Darkness Casts No Shadow, it pares its source down to a fierce essentialism, one which foregrounds the physical phenomena of two fugitives’ everyday survival in order to embody their psychology. As such, in place of expository incident or exploratory dialogue, we have only the suggestions of inner torment, conveyed through a gritty texture that on the one hand is marked by an observational minimalism and on the other is marked by striking and distancing aesthetic techniques such as flashbacks, fantasies and a double-ending.

The immediacy of the moment is paramount here. Denying convention, the film resists the emotional arc of bourgeois classicism and embodies a radically haphazard form, as the film repeats shots and motifs to cumulative disorienting effect. Though Lustig’s novella told of his time as an escaped Jewish prisoner on the run from the Nazis, here our two nameless protagonists (Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera) are dramatic ciphers, their plight and spirit evoked only through Kuleshov-effect cutaways, abstract close-ups and, in the film’s opening shot, a wondrous long take that crabs alongside them as they scarper desperately into a forest, the camera urging them on by racing backwards ahead of them.

An apparent influence on Essential Killing (2010), Němec’s film also quotes Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1928), when it shows close-ups of ants crawling across the boys’ hands. Conscious of its own Surrealist aspirations, then, Diamonds of the Night is well aware that under oppressive social conditions such as those of post-war Eastern Europe, conscious thought is defined to some extent by compromise: social and political forces of the material world, that is, frustrate and deny ordinary human desires and needs. Consequently, any artistic expression of these desires and needs must draw extensively upon the imagination, which is itself determined by the external world, and to this end, Diamonds is an intelligent and imaginative adaptation that respects its source’s brutality and humanity while reconceptualising it in a wholly new and challenging way.

Intimate Lighting (1965) is an altogether different film. Tonally upbeat, it explores the process of artistic expression, and the profitable tension between harmony and discord, between reflection and spontaneity, upon which it rests. Though its title evokes the visual, the particular artistic form with which this gentle comedy is concerned is music: concert soloist Petr (Zdeněk Bezušek) arrives from Prague with his girlfriend Stepa (Věra Křesadlová), at the country home of his old friend Bambas (Karel Blažek); Petr is here to perform with Bambas’ orchestra, and the pair enjoy catching up over family dinners, informal rehearsals and slivovice-fuelled reminiscences.

Though it never labours its point, Intimate Lighting respectfully observes the unspoken friction between rural and city life, and the apparent universality of the low-key domestic frissons that permeate both. Housing three generations, Bambas’ family home is at once hectic and contented, inward on the one hand but welcoming on the other. As urban girl Stepa wanders to the periphery of its grounds, for instance, she reaches a meshed fence, one that is more symbolic of cautious insulation rather than a Xanadu-style showcase of wealth. There is a refreshing understanding and warmth present here, and the intimacy to which the title refers seems to be the connective force of music, be that in the musicality of everyday phenomena such as a car horn’s echo of a declaration of love, or the unpredictable cacophony of a routine dinner, in which a family squabble gives way to a laughing fit.

Like the finest comedies, Passer’s film allows for sincerely melancholic asides. Petr’s short stay seems to ignite a dormant sense of loss in Bambas, for whom a musical career in Prague never came to fruition. Bambas’ petty references to opportunities missed go unacknowledged by his friend, and there is a legitimate and lingering comfort felt when they form one half of a string quartet’s afternoon practice in Bambas’ dining room. Art is a deeply human product. As Passer himself notes in the 19-minute 2005 interview included on the DVD, he opted to cast non-actors who were musicians, which allowed him and cinematographers Miroslav Ondříček and Josef Střecha to shoot unedited takes – in the dining-room quartet scene in particular the chemistry and energy are palpable and natural.

Passer’s film was the only feature he directed in his home country. As he says in the DVD’s extra, the film’s production benefited from a lack of pressure with regard to its commercial profit – indeed, it is difficult to imagine such an ostensibly sparse film being successfully pitched for funding today. This said, however, Intimate Lighting was subsequently banned for 20 years because of its subtle hints toward the political and economic situation in Czechoslovakia, such as the difficulty of buying one’s own house, or references to religious music. Upon seeing a preview, one studio head apparently mused that the film might be the most boring ever made. On the contrary, it’s a small masterpiece that has the nerve to show something resembling real life.

As if aware of approaching oppression, The Cremator looks to the recent past so as to warn against historical repetition, namely the unfathomably casual drift into a banal evil – or, more specifically, reconciliation with or adoption of fascist tendencies. (Indeed, its own production was interrupted in 1968 by the Russian occupation of, and subsequent Stalinist imposition upon, Czechoslovakia.) Directed by Slovak filmmaker Juraj Herz and adapted by him and Ladislav Fuks from the latter’s novel, The Cremator follows Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), a cremator with a penchant for Mahler and Saint-Saens.

A petty bourgeois family man, Kopfrkingl takes a charming but naïve pride in his profession, viewing it as a “noble” and “responsible” one, and pays lip service to Buddhism. Fatally suggestible, he is eventually swept along by the occupying political regime and its promise of higher morals: “They are a nation of great laws,” he tells his wife, “such as the one on cremation.” Soon after, he agrees with his friend Walter Reinke (Iljar Prachar), an Austrian fascist, to discourage his own son from a friendship with Jewish boys; Reinke also elicits information from Kopfrkingl about the extent of his employees’ and colleagues’ Jewishness. Roused by fascism’s duplicitous aims, which seem to chime with his own wish to end all suffering, Kopfrkingl eventually adopts murderous strategies, justifying them with a speechifying rhetoric that is both disturbingly resolute and absurdly casual; though the words “Final Solution” are never said, Kopfrkingl remarks toward the end of the film that he “shall save them all – the whole world”.

Herz and Fuks’ film might be described as a kind of satirical horror, a darker-than-black comedy in which the strangely likeable protagonist is at once ordinary and grotesque. His capacity for destruction is offset by a love for animals and for art; indeed, neither is so much an anomaly as a symptom of overall tolerance – one to which we’re apparently meant to relate. Our cremator’s defining and asphyxiating naivety is apparent from the opening, in which he fondly recalls meeting his wife by the leopard cage at a zoo; his reminiscing is verbose enough to suggest an obsession with recording and accounting, as if it helps to remind oneself of one’s daily and otherwise humble existence. Kopfrkingl’s voice-over, addressing less an audience than fellow characters within the film, is stifling in its unchallenged, pedagogical tone: asides on reincarnation are repeated as if to suggest he’s barely convinced himself by the spiritualism to which he subscribes (“As they say in Tibet…”).

Presenting an unwitting complicity with Nazism as one insidious offshoot of social tolerance and middle-class self-preservationism, The Cremator ranks among one of the finest allegorical horrors of its kind. Though its central tragedy is apparent, more straightforward eeriness stems from the combination of fish-eye lenses and Zdenek Liska’s sustained and stifling musical discords.

As already noted, Herz’s Morgiana is also available from Second Run, but this latest reissue supplies ample taste of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Each film is accompanied by an illustrated booklet with essays from Michael Brooke, Philip Bergson and Daniel Bird, and the on-disc features are short but complementary.

Though Bullet to the Head, Walter Hill’s first feature film in ten years, has had its theatrical release pushed back to February next year, it premiered earlier this month at the Rome Film Festival, where its director also received a lifetime achievement award. Hill’s fans might admit he’s fallen by the wayside in recent years – the pilot episode of TV’s Deadwood and two-part mini-series Broken Trail are happy anomalies – and even if his latest work stars action veteran Sylvester Stallone, it’ll have to be a marvel of contemporary genre cinema to come close to matching the heights of his early directorial work (as a producer and/or writer, he also boasts credits on the Alien franchise). (EDIT 09/02/13: fears confirmed.)

One such work is Southern Comfort (1981), Hill’s fifth feature, which he wrote with David Giler and Michael Kane, and which reunited him with Keith Carradine, who had starred alongside brothers David and Robert in his previous film The Long Riders (1980). Though he gets top billing, Carradine is only one element of an ensemble piece that also features Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Franklyn Seales, T. K. Carter, Lewis Smith, Les Lannom, Peter Coyote and Alan Autry (then known as Carlos Brown). Together, this band of character actors form a plausible National Guard unit whose routine 36-hour training excursion into a Louisiana bayou turns disastrous when they incur the legitimate hostility of several local Cajuns. A pre-opening credits scene paints the tribe as an oddly likeable bunch of makeshift military-men (as Coyote’s Sgt. Poole warns them, “For once in your life try to look like soldiers!”), before we accompany them into the woods, to the sounds of Ry Cooder’s pleasant rolling guitar.

Dissolves and serenity abound during the credits sequence proper, but it isn’t long before the film hauls its hapless lot into a brutal fight for survival, when they happen upon a river and decide – despite dissenting voices – to “borrow” the pirogues left there in order to sail down it. When one of the men unthinkingly fires a string of blanks at the Cajuns whose canoes they have taken, the consequences are soon realised when a lone bullet takes the group’s ranking officer out. In a panic, the men flip their vessels and swim ashore. Dazed by the sudden turn of events, they rally together with misfiring vengeance on their mind, struggling as much with their own internal conflicts and crises in leadership as with the perceived/actual threats that await them in the swamps ahead…

The unit is slowly drawn into the mechanics of a military operation. Assuming charge of the group, one character begins to use in-the-field jargon: “That’s just what the enemy wants! Fighting among ourselves!” Bemused by events, one character says it “just don’t seem right”. The absurdity of hierarchy is fully revealed, meanwhile, in one exchange: “Why the hell we following him?” one character asks regarding the group’s self-elected leader; “’Cause he’s got stripes,” answers another.

As a film in which a group of men volunteer upon a task that takes them into a hostile terrain that’s well beyond their resources, Southern Comfort invites allegorical interpretations regarding US involvement in the Vietnam War. Narratively, though, it might best be understood as a horror film, one whose ostensibly realist aesthetic allows for some plausibility with regard to the events therein. Indeed, the one-by-one slasher element here is made all the more tense because would-be sexed-up teens are replaced by brooding types such as Powers Boothe and Fred Ward; as Hill himself states in a 45-minute interview included on this Blu-ray/DVD release from Second Sight, he subscribes to Howard Hawks’ claim that there is drama in the basic question of “will he live or will he die” (the quotation gives said feature its name). Depicting a collective’s fight for survival, Southern Comfort also resembles Hill’s own 1979 masterpiece, The Warriors, though it replaces that film’s stylised fantastical fight sequences with well-tuned moments of suspense, which find their culmination in the final scene, a suggestive and dizzying display of associative montage cut to the weird otherness of Dewey Balfa’s ‘Parlez vous à boire’.

Depictions of weird otherness, of course, have their controversies, and some might feel Southern Comfort paints its local indigenous population in a bad light. Crucially, though, for a large part of the film we assume the vantage point of the soldiers – we’re with them when they misguide joke-bullets at the natives, for instance – and are invited to empathise with the Cajun trapper (Brion James) when they blow his supply hut up and make him a hostage in his own territory. Hill’s reputation as a genre filmmaker might limit his appeal as a serious artist, but Southern Comfort boasts far more nuance than Deliverance, made nine years before it. Likewise, as the director admits in the accompanying feature on this Blu-ray/DVD, we might not typically associate him with actors in the same way we do other directors; in this assumption too we’d be wrong, which might go some way to suggest that Hill’s film is a masterpiece with deceptive and rewarding subtleties.

[Southern Comfort review originally posted on 14 November at Front Row Reviews.]