Dušan Hanák: Paper Heads (Papierové hlavy) 1995

reviewed by Kevin Brochet © 2005

Paper Heads represents an attempt to examine freely Communism after its demise. Made almost concurrently with the Oscar-awarded Czech film Kolya (Kolja, 1996, directed by Jan Svěrák from a screenplay by his father Zdeněk Svěrák). While Svěrák opted to mythologize and beautify the experience under Communism, Paper Heads attempts to speak about Communism over the course of Czechoslovak film’s evolution in a straightforward way. More separates the two films than their end results. Kolya is a narrative fiction film produced in Prague. Even though the Czech Republic and Slovakia were relatively equal in their Westernization around 1995, Kolya was made for commercial distribution. By contrast, Paper Heads is a Slovak film, pieced together away from Prague and financed by Slovakia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Council of Europe—in other words, it is a film without commercial expectations or aspirations.

Insofar as Dušan Hanák was accountable to anyone for the views he presented, it was to those people who wanted a negative representation of Communism. Because of financing and other factors, Paper Heads was intended to be something of a one-of-a-kind work. Although Hanák graduates from Prague’s Film Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), his concerns were different from Prague’s residents—like the Svěrák family—and he had a different cinematic attitude than the Czechs, as he had already demonstrated, for example, in Rosy Dreams (Ružové sny, 1976), the first Central European portrayal of the relationship between the majority population and the Romani-Gypsy minority. Just as Rosy Dreams showed evidence of his time in Prague, so does Paper Heads, a quasi-documentary, resemble the most radical of the Czech New Wave films from the 1960s.

Paper Heads marks an endpoint of the line traced by the early hallmarks of Central European filmmaking under Communism—films like The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze; dir. Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, Slovakia, 1965), Lovefilm (Szeremlesfilm; dir István Jancsó, Hungary 1970), and Camouflage (Barwy ochronne; dir. Krzysztof Zanussi, Poland, 1977). Hanák began to work on the film almost as soon as such a project became possible. Even though it was finished five years later, it still lacks a certain sense of objectivity that might have come with time. But, given that so much could not be said before 1989, Hanák cannot be blamed for rushing to speak.

As a documentary, Paper Heads may be flawed, even overly polemical, but since Hanák’s stated intent was to create a collage about people in totalitarian society, the film should be judged as a documentary work of art, rather than a straight-on documentary. Just as Hanák’s Rosy Dreams showed signs of the Czech New Wave even as it broke away from it, Paper Heads shares its structure and aesthetic style with another iconoclastic film Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966), directed by his classmate Věra Chytilová. Both directors bookend their films with images of destruction—Chytilová employs machinery and missiles while Hanák uses flames. Hanák further bookends his film by playing the same music at the beginning and end. By the time the film reaches its end, the lyrics serve as closing remarks that are as bitter and ironic as those printed onscreen during the closing montage of Daisies.

Hanák uses tinted monochromatic film stock in Paper Heads. Admittedly, this is a standard technique to make archival footage seem dated. But in this case, Hanák does not settle on a consistent color scheme, and the shifts between blue- and sepia-toned film appear to be dictated by mood or aesthetics. Once again, Daisies had established a precedent for this impressionistic color cycling.

In addition to breaking with documentary conventions in the use of archival footage, Hanák also built his soundtrack in an unconventional manner. Archival footage of beatings is “enhanced” by the addition of sound effects, which were limited to marching footsteps and blows struck at demonstrators and deportees. The sounds were clearly not part of the original footage. At other points, non-diegetic sounds intrude on the soundtrack—for example, there is a whipping sound effect as an interviewed woman recalls a beating; the sound of a cuckoo clock comments on a speech by Czechoslovakia’s Communist president Antonín Novotný. Such additions violate rules of distance and objective reporting in documentaries, but they are consistent with the style Chytilová established in Daisies, which is rife with non-diegetic or doctored sound effects.

The collage method, about which that Hanák speaks in an interview (“I looked for a specific human dimension in people’s testimonies, as well as for a universal one—so that they would work together to create a collage about people in totalitarian society”), extends to more than simply his method of juxtaposing archival and interview footage, like cutting from a propaganda film about labor to footage of prisons and forced-labor camps. He also collages images that do not directly relate to the overlapping sound or picture. Some of these instances are close to the documentary convention, like shots of baby and stork figurines during the narration about ineffective birth control, but others, like the footage of grazing cattle and particularly the montage sequence of caterpillars, act as blatant comments about the concurrent narration. At times they seem set off as separate cinematic moments. The choice of caterpillars rather than some kind of worm or insect almost seems like a nod to the collages of butterflies in Daisies. At other times, the collaged footage is manipulated, as it is when footage of traffic is used to illustrate a man’s narration about being shunned by friends while walking down the street; the footage is run backwards in the two or three shots that make up this sequence.

If these similarities are seen as being more than merely coincidental, then the influence of the Czech New Wave was broader and further reaching than would be indicated by a study of merely “Czech films.” Hanák took the influences of 1960s Prague to Slovakia where they were transmogrified in the national film culture, leading to films like Rosy Dreams, or even Štefan Uher’s She Grazed Horses on Concrete (Pásla kone na betóne, 1982), which also is and is not a descendant of the New Wave. From this point of view, Chytilová’s Daisies appears less of an isolated occurrence.

The quasi-documentary artistic style Hanák employs in Paper Heads strikes an important balance between revelation and creation. When the Georgian film Repentance (Monanieba) was briefly released in 1987, critics attacked its director and screenwriter Tengiz Abuladze harshly for fictionalizing the Stalinist period and presenting it in a highly surrealistic manner, insisting that it was not yet time to make art about the suffering of the period. While surrealism was probably one of the only representational strategies available at the time, nonetheless the comments speak to the difficulty of making art about history, especially repressed history. By employing a documentary style, Hanák succeeds in delivering a list of Communist abuses, a document containing first-hand testimony from voices formerly silenced. At the same time, Hanák breaks with documentary conventions. His is at times a surreal film about Communism, at others a film about the surreality of Communism. After years of struggling to represent the past and present accurately in his films, Hanák strikes an acceptable balance. His film was only possible after the ultimate relaxation of Communism.

Kevin Brochet (University of Pittsburgh)

Paper Heads (Papierové hlavy)
Slovakia, 1995
Black-and-white and color, 96 minutes
Director: Dušan Hanák
Screenwriter: Dušan Hanák
Cinematography: Alojz Hanúsek
Music: Pavel Fajt, with music from archival soundtracks, and by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gioacchino Rossini, Petr Il'ich Chaikovskii
Editing: Patrik Pašš, Alena Pätoprstá
Production: Alef štúdio (Slovakia); ES Films (Lausanne, Switzerland); Les Films de L’observatoire (France); Krátký film a.s. (Czech Republic); Slovenská televízia (Slovakia); ZDF—ARTE (Germany)

Dušan Hanák: Paper Heads (Papierové hlavy) 1995

reviewed by Kevin Brochet © 2005

Updated: 21 Dec 05