Peter Solan:The Case of Barnabáš Kos (Prípad Barnabáš Kos), 1964
reviewed by Martin Kaňuch © 2005
In 1953, the year of the death of Stalin and of Czechoslovakia’s first Communist dictator Klement Gottwald, director Peter Solan graduated from the Prague Film Academy of Performing Arts and returned to Bratislava. He could have chosen a smooth entry into the film industry, which was owned by the government like all businesses and would have required subservience to the Communist regime. However, to paraphrase the title of Dominik Tatarka’s novel The Demon of Consent, he was not seduced by the slippery slope of consent. After his initial “obligatory posturing” in the Short Film Studio, Solan began to complicate his filmmaking career. His first feature film, The Devil Does Not Sleep (Čert nespí, 1956), did not confirm him as a “consenting” artist. On the contrary, it suggested that in the future he might attempt to circumvent the imperative that all films ratify Communism in one voice. Solan got just one more chance in the 1950s: he shot the first Slovak detective story The Man Who Did Not Return (Muž, ktorý sa nevrátil, 1959).
He was not marginalized outright in the film industry, but neither did he receive recognition. More than anything else, he became a “case.” His best known, so to say belated films—The Boxer and Death (Boxer a smrť, 1962), The Case of Barnabáš Kos (Prípad Barnabáš Kos, 1964), and Before This Night Is Over (Kým sa skončí táto noc, 1965)—provide telling testimony to his equivocal position. In the absence of Communism, all of them would have probably been made by 1960, but since they posed a risk to the regime, which stipulated a uniform take on society, the films were delayed. For example, production of The Case of Barnabáš Kos was drawn out for seven years, until a more relaxed period of Communist rule arrived. The delayed production of these films blunted the topicality of their stories, weakened their social commitment.
Solan’s filmmaking gradually developed into an idiosyncratic reading of his and everyone’s life of outward consent—taken for granted by the authorities—and of the grotesque consequences of closed minds.  While pigeonholed as a “case” by those around him, he worked on his own line of filmic expression, what could be called the micro-genre of “film as a case.” However, his filmic reconstruction and investigation of social cases, often with references to court trials, did not press charges or pass judgment. In Solan’s view, the primary mission of a film is to bear testimony: “I want to be neither prosecutor, nor judge. All I wish to be is an honest and moral witness who wants to say what he knows about the case.”  To testify through film means to show things as complex and problematic, not as a unidirectional or ready-made take on reality, to draw attention to life’s limited options and forgotten consequences because a desire to bear witness means to accept responsibility, to endorse the director’s representation of reality in film.
Satire, which Solan already employed in his first film, proved to be a universal instrument that resisted lies, even those that were ingrained deeply in high places under Communism. Its application in The Case of Barnabáš Kos illustrates the tragicomic consequences of the rise and fall of a conscientious musician, who plays the triangle in an orchestra and who “consents,” and then gradually succumbs to a feeling of his own importance and geniality. But the film contains more than that, more than just a portrayal of a nobody promoted by the regime to a prominent office, and who then becomes capable of anything. Solan wanted to testify about the conceited and unshakeable position of those who were in charge under Communism, who hired and fired in order to secure their own positions, and about the structures of power that retained them. Solan’s satire rested on the principle of portraying the absurd that pretended to be the natural state of affairs. Layer after layer, his satire unveiled the unanimous, never-to-be-doubted, paranoid machinery. The character Barnabáš Kos is simply pars pro toto, merely one of the numerous absurd outputs of that machinery.
The sets by designer Ivan Vaníček underscore and poignantly illustrate the apparent naturalness of the state of affairs, from the orchestra’s practice chamber, the offices, and the omnipresent triangular decorations, to the bizarre unfinished structure that screenwriter Albert Marenčin—in his inimitable style—has one of the characters refer to as “gozo-bozo, that is to say, a cathedral.” The structure is an original key to the interpretation of the film. An inscrutable remnant of the early period of feverish Communist “construction,” the structure stands outside the orchestra’s practice chambers as glaring testimony, both to the everyday experience of absurdity and to its resigned acceptance. The gozo-bozo continually reminds the viewer of its own presence: it is in the way, hinders passers-by who continually bang their heads against its protruding parts. Yet they accept it patiently for any change is impossible. It cannot simply be removed after all these years, they assume, for “how would we justify it to the authorities?”
Solan’s case study of the absurd but invincible state of affairs is remarkable because it stems from his own analogous creative strife with it. This was one reason that its screenwriters Peter Karvaš and Albert Marenčin—at least in their manuscript—wrote the following line into the final credits: “This film about Barnabáš Kos was to have been made in 1958, but Barnabáš Kos banned it.”
Martin Kaňuch (Slovak Film Institute)
Translated by Martin Votruba, University of Pittsburgh
The Case of Barnabáš Kos (Prípad Barnabáš Kos)
Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) 1964, 88 minutes
Director: Peter Solan
Screenwriters: Peter Karvaš (also story), Albert Marenčín
Cinematography: Tibor Biath
Music: Pavol Šimai
Production designer: Ivan Vaníček
Editing: Maximilián Remeň
Cast: Josef Kemr, Jarmila Košťová, Milivoj Uzelac, Viliam Polónyi
Production: Koliba (Bratislava)
Peter Solan: The Case of Barnabáš Kos (Prípad Barnabáš Kos), 1964
reviewed by Martin Kaňuch © 2005