Martin Hollý: Fever (Horúčka), 1975
reviewed by Jana Dudková © 2005
Although the general view is that the so-called period of Normalization (the decade after the Soviet invasion of 1968 whose goal was to restore repressive communism) brought the Dark Ages into Slovak filmmaking, as well as into social and political culture in general, there is an unexpected and even a fascinating variety in the forms employed by “Normalized” art. Martin Hollý’s Fever provides one such example. Today the film is usually seen as an emblematic testimony to the cynicism inherent to the period. Often overlooked are the depth, range, and nuances of the film’s own cynicism.
Fever is one of the most multi-discursive Slovak films ever made. Its intertwining threads of references to a variety of political discourses and myths make aspects of its political stance rather difficult to read. Fever was intended to be the first film that would not merely meet the ideological requirements re-routed after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia onto the “correct” Communist track; its goal was to address directly the greatest trauma of Czechoslovakia’s Communist ideologues: the significance of the period of rapid relaxation of Communist control and of the popular vision of freedom that dominated social discourse before the invasion of 1968. Although erased from public discourse and life by Normalization, this period was still impossible to forget in 1975.
Fever was based on a novella of the same title published in 1973 by Communist apparatchik Jozef Kot, Director of the Office of Art at the Ministry of Culture, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Rather ironically, the Communist officials in the studios who planned this “Normalized” film did not want it to be directed by any of the run-of-the-mill filmmakers (Jozef Režucha, Martin Ťapák, Andrej Lettrich, Ján Lacko, Jozef Zachar) they themselves had hired during Normalization to replace those filmmakers they had demoted or banned because of their prior involvement in the relaxation of 1968 and the years before. The cynicism and goals of the officials led them to consider Štefan Uher, a director who had actually made his reputation during the 1960s and was considered by some to be the father of the nonconformist Czechoslovak New Wave, or Prague New Wave in film.
This circumstance usefully illustrates the limited freedom allowed by the powers of Normalization to certain “chosen” artists, while their former peers were demoted outright in the studios, saw their projects rejected, or were prevented from making films altogether. Uher and Hollý were among the directors not affected by such repercussions. But, while Uher seemed to be grappling for his place as a filmmaker during those years, the themes that interested Hollý, and even his filmic style, appear to have been little affected by Normalization. After his “mountain” films—Copper Turret (Medená veža, 1970) and Eagle’s Feather (Orlie pierko, 1971) shot in the High Tatras shortly after the invasion—he was able to make ethically and socially committed films that were in part inspired by Hollywood’s “classical” period. The choice of director for Fever eventually shifted to Hollý, which he later often explained with a metaphorical anecdote. According to Hollý, he visited Uher, who was recovering in a psychiatric ward, and promised him that he would direct the film in his stead. In Hollý’s story then, the title of the film, Fever, becomes symbolic in a different sense—as the cause of Uher’s hospitalization—and the production of Fever becomes Hollý’s sacrifice.
Hollý’s story and the fact that he made Fever paint him as an apologist and conformist in the eyes of a large segment of those concerned with Slovak film today. If we put aside the film’s storyline, aimed at discrediting the relaxation of Communist controls in 1968, Hollý’s ambiguous political stance, as well as his failed attempt to obfuscate the film’s “Normalizing” scheme and to make it interesting, mark the most serious defects of Fever. While creating the impression that is was struggling with the ordained rhetoric of Normalization, most of Fever’s formal elements were not really employed as defiant reminders of the filmic style of the more liberal 1960s. Like the storyline of Fever, their mission was to discredit the ideas those films expressed.
On the one hand, the film’s biased storyline relies on the effective projection of an individual’s paranoid concerns onto the whole of society. It is a straightforward condemnation of “socialism (that is, Communism) with a human face,” the slogan and goal of the liberalization of 1968, which the film depicts as a period of anarchy, as a time of chaos dangerously open to the capitalist (that is, “crypto-Fascist” in Normalizing ideology) West. During the more liberal period, the leading character Pavol Sámel, played by Michal Dočolomanský, is assigned the job of deputy director of a small printing house owned, like all the businesses under Communism, by the authorities. But he soon finds out that he is a mere puppet in the company and that behind his back two other deputy directors have negotiated profitable contracts with a West German publisher, for whom they print Nazi comic books. Sámel, then, tormented by moral doubts, develops a fever, but eventually helps the workers to stand up to the management and returns the printing house to the “ideologically correct,” albeit barely profitable, track.
On the other hand, the story is delivered without a traditional linear narrative. Most of the nonlinear digressions provide a subjective coloration. Any superficial impressions that are formed on the basis of cheap references to the styles of major works of world cinema fade as soon as it becomes obvious that most of these scenes simply copy references employed by Czechoslovak filmmakers in the 1960s in order to shift from “movement-images” to “time-images,” as they have been discussed in the writings of Gilles Deleuze ; that is, a transition from a sequencing of images based on sensomotoric links, on the progression from action to reaction and from stimulus to response, to a sequencing where causal relations cease to apply and what takes over is a reflection of inactivity, wasteful activity, vagrancy, boredom, madness, or dream. Fever contains a reference to Federico Fellini’s filmmaking (in the dream scene with a dance on a half-empty patio at a spa in a setting reminiscent of shots from 8½ ), and also numerous subjective images that foreground the morally tempted Sámel’s feverish state of mind, images that shift from his actual perceptions to their panoptic interpretations. Despite the similarities of such images, Fever distances itself from the explorative meaning they carried in the 1960s. Its values are different. It reaches farther back, to the period before relaxation of totalitarian rule, to the model of defending the incontestable separation of the “good” from the “bad” as prescribed by the authorities and their communist ideologues.
Fever permits no autonomy of interpretation. Within its storyline, the scenes at the spa can be understood only as remnants of the “hollow fantasies” that true communists were not supposed to harbor, fantasies that the main character must shed in his “fever” in order to cleanse himself, and to be able to impose and defend the “true Communist” norm. The film interlaces Sámel’s thoughts (especially in the form of disturbing images of almost grotesque characters whose social roles in the period of liberalization are thus made to look absurd) and memories (especially of his father’s participation in the uprising during World War II, which was later falsely touted by the Communists as theirs). But this is no mere contrasting of the real and the imagined. These sequences legitimize what would have been considered disturbed states of mind during the period of liberalization by affirming them as “normal” states of mind of that period from the perspective of the future reality imposed by Normalization. They also draw attention to the astonishing similarities between father and son, both of whose lives embrace the contrast between “them” (democrats) and “us” (Communists).
The obvious gradations of characters’ morality along gender lines is all too familiar. In this sense, the typology of characters is not anchored just in the dogmatic films of the 1950s. It was also present in the films of the 1960s and is never questioned in the films directed by Hollý and others from his generation. Things public are reserved for men (exceptional men), while women’s attitudes illustrate a gap that apparently exists between moral ideals needed by society and an individual’s mundane need of closeness with another human being.
By comparison with the films from the 1960s, Fever employs a different ethical point of view, one that is revealed through the progression of the story and the sequencing of the scenes, but it also directly undermines the ethical messages of those earlier films. “Fever” in the sense of disillusionment was not permitted under orthodox Communism and, therefore, the film offers its exalted imperative to take action as a clear alternative to one of the most common attitudes—namely, “it doesn’t matter” or “I don’t care”—lines that were actually uttered by characters in the films from the 1960s. Such rather fashionable postures were usually attributed to the young characters in the films, and stood in striking and defiant contrast to the official calls for commitment to Communism. By contrast, in one scene in Fever, Sámel gives a resolute answer: “it does matter!” Fever shows that any existential qualms must be supplanted with pro-Communist action, even if it means that one’s private life is sacrificed for things public (as soon as Sámel begins to resist his colleagues, his lover leaves him).
This kind of narration, employing the “crisis of the movement-image” and actually drawing close to “time-image,” is disturbing because while it is a representation, it involves memory—both filmic intertextual memory and the short-term memory of perception. Although Fever imitated the techniques that flooded Slovak filmmaking with “time-images” in the 1960s, its own imagery is that of “movement-images.” Like its storyline, it aligned its imagery with the earlier era. However, Fever never completely loses its ambivalence, which increases the uncertainty about its meaning. It is based on a relatively fixed narrative concept, which repeatedly deposits grains of doubt in the viewer’s mind despite its methodical implementation of the ideological dictums of the period of Normalization.
Jana Dudková, Cabinet of Theater and Film, Slovak Academy of Sciences, University of Performing Arts (VŠMU), Bratislava
Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) 1975, 87 minutes, B/W
Director: Martin Hollý
Screenwriters: Jozef Kot (also story), Štefan Uher
Cinematography: Stanislav Szomolányi
Music: Zdeněk Liška
Production designer: Anton Krajčovič
Editing: Maximilián Remeň
Cast: Michal Dočolomanský, Gustáv Valach, Luděk Kopřiva, Mikuláš Huba, Regina Rázlová, Oľga Šalagová
Production: Koliba (Bratislava)
Martin Hollý: Fever (Horúčka), 1975
reviewed by Jana Dudková © 2005