KinoKultura: Issue 62 (2018)

Witnessing History: Karlovy Vary 2018

By Peter Hames

The 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival began this year with a tribute to Czechoslovakia’s most successful international filmmaker, Miloš Forman, who died in April. He was director of such Czech classics as Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965), The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967) and the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1971)and Amadeus (1984), a fact celebrated on the opening night with a concert of music from his films played by the Czech Philharmonic. As usual, the festival bridged the worlds of the “West” and the “East” with special tributes to the Austin Film Society, Texas on the one hand and a tribute to Baltic poetic documentary on the other. However, despite its global reach, it remains the best festival for catching up on films produced east of Berlin.

I do not care if...The main award, the Crystal Globe, went I think justifiably to Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (“Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari”). The film is about the preparation and performance of a historical reconstruction in the main square of Bucharest. However, its female producer decides to take on an unusual subject—the Romanian occupation of Odessa during the Second World War (in association with the Nazis) and the consequent mass murders of the Jewish population. She has extensive debates with her sponsor on the validity and permissibility of her work. This often takes a rather Godardian form with plenty of literary and film references from Hannah Arendt to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tarkovsky to Spielberg—but the result is a compelling debate on nationalism and history (the title is, of course, taken from foreign minister Mihai Antonescu’s infamous comment).

The Best Director award went to the Czech-based Slovenian director Olmo Omerzu for his third feature Winter Flies (Všechno bude), about two teenagers who steal a car and undertake a quixotic winter journey across the Czech Republic. A road movie with a difference, it boasts a clever and perceptive script in which their encounters are both believable and unexpected, light hearted and satirical. Its two 12 and 14-year-old protagonists are non-actors who were taken out of school for rehearsals and contribute an authenticity of behavior (both rebellious and vulnerable). Omerzu commented that he hoped that the viewer would be both enchanted and fascinated by the authenticity that they bring to their encounters with the adult world.

winter fliesTwo other films from the main competition worth comment are Ivan Tverdovskii’s Jumpman (Podbrosy) and Sonja Prosenc’s History of Love (Zgodovina ljubezni), both of which received a Special Jury mention. Tverdovskii’s film is about a man who suffers from congenital analgesia (an inability to feel pain). He becomes involved in a series of staged accidents, as a result of which car drivers are blackmailed and taken to court. What seems a fantastic story is based on his ongoing documentary research and an attempt to capture the morality of a new generation “distanced from social and political life.” Tverdovskii describes the film as being situated in a mythical space. “Our Jumpman is located in the same space where Batman, Superman and Spiderman live.” The exposure of a corrupt legal and criminal justice system is effective, although I found this less involving than Tverdovskii’s previous work, mainly because of the plurality of incident and lack of identification. Made with wit and style, it lacked the universality of Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, 2013)and Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016). History of Love from Slovenia, a dreamlike evocation of a 17-year-old girl’s process of coming to terms with the death of her mother, is an uncompromising auteur film. It’s essentially a psychological journey and an ambitious attempt to convey a non linear reality of “events, memories, and thoughts.” Lusciously photographed and with creative sound design, Prosenc creates a strange and dreamlike world, with narrative resolution almost appearing an unnecessary intrusion.

putin's witnessesThe Best Documentary award went, predictably, to Vitalii Manskii’s Putin’s Witnesses (Svideteli Putina). This was constructed from material he shot during the election campaign of 1999, when Vladimir Putin was relatively unknown. Manskii was head of documentary for state television at the time and combines material he then shot for documentaries on Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. Manskii’s film follows the reactions of Yeltsin and others, recounting the subsequent careers and fates of those who assisted in the campaign. As in his previous films (notably his North Korean documentary Under the Sun, 2015), Manskii is scrupulously objective, allowing images to convey their own reality in what he describes as the diagnosis of an illness. In some remarkable scenes shot with a small camera, Manskii has some direct discussions with his subject together with many behind the scenes episodes. Manskii also presented Oleg Sentsov’s award winning Gamer (2011)as part of a collective protest against his imprisonment. Czech documentary directors, together with Karlovy Vary and the Association of Czech Producers,,joined the international (and Russian) demand for his release alongside all Ukrainian prisoners of conscience. At the time of writing, Sentsov’s hunger strike has placed him in a critical condition.[1]

suleiman goraThe East of the West competition, devoted to first and second features, was this year expanded geographically to include films from Iran and Cyprus in an attempt to widen its post-Soviet emphasis, with seven of the twelve films by women directors. The competition seemed to be particularly strong, with the main prize going to Elizaveta Stishova’s Suleiman Mountain (Suleiman gora), which had already won the FIPRESCI award at the Eurasia Film Festival in Astana in the same week. Written by Alisa Khmelnitskaia and set against the background of the sacred Suleiman Mountain, it was an impressive combination of road movie and family drama mixed with elements of Kyrgyz culture. Zhipara, who practices as a shaman, discovers her long-lost son and brings him to live with her irresponsible husband and his second wife. Its ambiguous characterization gives it an unusual depth and subtlety. The jury prize went to Laszlo Csuja’s Blossom Valley (Virágvölgy, Hungary), about a young girl who kidnaps a small baby and goes on the road along with the educationally subnormal Laci in a flight from the authorities. It was a confident and visually impressive debut, although the extreme youth of the baby sometimes stretched the imagination.

crystal swanAlso of interest was Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan (Khrustal), the first film from Belarus to open the competition. The story of Evelina’s dream of travelling to the USA to become a professional DJ in Chicago was certainly original with its Karlovy Vary premiere billed as “the coming of age of an independent film industry.” The main part was taken by Russian actress Alina Nasibullina and the film emerged with an unusual combination of co-production partners: Belarus, Germany, USA and Russia. Darya Zhuk herself studied in the USA at Columbia and commutes between Brooklyn and Minsk. Observing that she admires both Russian and American film makers (among them Larisa Shepit’ko, Kira Muratova, and Jim Jarmusch), the film seeks to combine both realities. She noted in an interview that “as a filmmaker you always look at international cinema” and that by making a film in Eastern Europe, where nobody knew about the stars or the casting, she attained full creative freedom.

deep riversRoman Bondarchuk’s Volcano (Vulkan, Ukraine) focuses on the events that follow when a young man accredited as interpreter to an OSCE mission goes missing in the Kherson area of southern Ukraine. Using many local actors, mostly unprofessional, it makes dramatic use of landscape in a Kafkaesque tale with many comic resonances in which its external observer becomes witness to an unexpected cultural reality. Another impressive debut came from Sokurov’s protégée Vladimir Bitokov with his Deep Rivers (Glubokie reki). Set in Kabardino-Balkaria, where he was born, its original portrait of family and community conflicts in a small and isolated community of lumberjacks reflects cultural conflict and was directed with rare precision while not really heralding new directions. The Czech Bear with Us (Chata na prodej)was in many ways a “typically Czech” film. Directed by Tomáš Pavlíček, who had already established a reputation with his Totally Talking (Parádně pokecal,2014), it describes a family gathering for a nostalgic final weekend at the country cottage which they have decided to sell. Full of the subtle and comic resonances typical of the genre, its screenplay was based on family memories and interactions.

interpreterIn addition to the competition films, Karlovy Vary provides an opportunity to catch up on those previously premiered at Berlin, Cannes, and Rotterdam. One I felt to have been previously overlooked was Martin Šulík’s The Interpreter (Tlumočník, Slovakia-Austria-Czech Republic). Czech director (and actor) Jiří Menzel (Closely Observed Trains/Ostře sledované vlaky) plays a Slovak Jewish man who identifies the Gestapo officer who killed his family during the war and goes to Vienna in search of revenge. There he meets the officer’s son (Peter Simonischek) and the two old men (one aged 80, the other 70) embark on an unconventional road trip into Slovakia’s past. Martin Štrba’s lyrical imagery of the Slovak countryside contrasts markedly with the realities of Nazi and Slovak nationalist history.

donbassFilms adapting a more radical approach included Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, Aleksei German Jr’s Dovlatov and Jan Švankmajer’s Insect (Hmyz). I imagine that KinoKultura will be reviewing both Donbass and Dovlatov in more detail. Loznitsa’s disturbing take on the Ukrainian conflict is something of a grotesque “tour de force” referencing both internet videos and fake news broadcasts, while German’s reconstruction of the Brezhnev era of the early 1970s replicates the “style-centered” approach of Under Electric Clouds (Pod elektricheskimi oblakami, 2015) and again features impressive art direction from Elena Okoponaia. Jan Švankmajer’s Insect, screening in the retrospective of Czech films from 2017-18, is even more of a slap in the face of public taste. Reputedly his final feature, it is based on a screenplay focusing on the rehearsals of a group of amateur actors about to perform in a version of the Čapek Brothers’ play From the Life of the Insects (Ze životu hmyzu). Apart from specifically Czech attacks on the Čapeks, his script was, he alleges, written without any rational or moral control. His enthusiastic actors are, he alleges, used as puppets, “as if they had strings attached.” It is best approached in the spirit of “permanent subversion” and mischief.

Finally, one should mention the festival’s section of films Out of the Past (no doubt a nod in the direction of Jacques Tourneur). Alongside Stanley Kubrick (2001–A Space Odyssey) and Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train), there were restored versions of Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964)and Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957). While these are established classics, it was also good to see a digitally restored version of the Slovak Signum Laudis (1980). Martin Hollý’s compelling account of the First World War should be much better known. Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), it’s one of the key portraits of an insane conflict. Corporal Hoferik’s pursuit of the ideals of “fatherland and country” and the Austro-Hungarian Empire leads to the award of Signum Laudis (an award normally restricted to officers) until he eventually becomes a liability to his superiors. Hollý’s film provides a compelling portrait of the corruption of power alongside the filth and horror of war.

While most of the films discussed were culturally specific (e.g. Romanian, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish), very few are now produced without co-production finance. Radu Jude’s award winning film had no less than five co-production partners, and Winter Flies, Jumpman and Crystal Swan had four. The support for auteur cinema has clearly become an international project—a necessity perhaps, if personal cinema is to survive. In the meantime, Karlovy Vary’s extensive and multi-faceted approach to the many international faces of cinema is to be commended.

Peter Hames
Staffordshire University


1] The international campaign to free Sentsov has been supported by many members of the international film community, among them Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Agnieszka Holland, Béla Tarr, and leading Russian directors, and including the jury of the Kinotavr festival. On 14 June, 485 deputies of the European Parliament petitioned for his release. Sentsov went on hunger strike on 14 May and was taken into intensive care on 15 June. See Lucy Popescu, Literary Review (September 2018), 62.

Peter Hames © 2018

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Updated: 2018