Elo Havetta: The Gala in the Botanical Garden (Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade), 1968

reviewed by Jana Dudková © 2005

Slovak director Elo Havetta shot The Gala in the Botanical Garden, his first feature-length film, in the summer of 1968, the same summer when the Soviet Union and its Central European communist neighbors invaded his country in order to stop and reverse its growing liberalization. Alternative visions and artistic freedom had reached their peak in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, but the invasion soon brought an end to the relative freedom of artistic expression, too.

Havetta was only 30 years old and, perhaps as a consequence, his film was still playful and disjointed, one of the most disjointed films in the history of Slovak cinema. But it was also a complex construction in which all the elements came together and worked as a whole. Rather than follow a narrative line, he emphasized visual imagination and worked with associative sequencing of scenes, which became a way of expressing joy and freedom. This is made explicit in the film by a timid girl’s quotation of the Biblical passage according to which the son of man would “perform his first miracle to bring joy” at the age of 30. This citation serves as a kind of motto for the film. In Gala, Havetta compares his own film and cinema in general, to a miracle. The role of the director is likened to that of Christ, who came “to serve joy,” but was faced with incomprehension. Yet Havetta is more optimistic than his fellow student from the Prague Film Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), director Juraj Jakubisko. He, too, made his first film when he was around 30 and called it Crucial Years (also known as Christ’s Years—that is the period of a man’s life at and shortly after 30; Kristove roky, 1967), an idiomatic phrase with explicit Biblical connotations in Slovak. The main character in Jakubisko’s film is a 30-year old, single artist obviously at the crossroads of his life without work and commitment, a character with Jakubisko’s clear autobiographical features. However, while Jakubisko portrays a dark, disturbing character, Gala is filled with similarly unanchored but joyous male characters who find euphoria in their unbridled lives.

Havetta’s “generation” is known for its frequently ironic overuse of innovations, which emphasize the self-reflection of films and filmmakers. [1] Some innovations build on the experiments of Jean-Luc Godard and other French directors. In Gala, for example, intertitles often play with increasing or decreasing the separation between the signified (the image) and the signifier (the intertitles themselves). The filmmakers use a wealth of self-reflective techniques that allow the viewer to feel the freedom of that period. They also pick up on concepts that are often associated not just with this “generation” of Slovak filmmakers, but also with people in the theater, artists, writers, and even graphic designers (Havetta not only had connections in all of these fields, but had tried them all before choosing directing as a career).

The concepts essential to understanding Gala are playfulness, mockery, and grotesque realism, a concept that is well known in connection with the legendary theater Divadlo na korze today. This theater has nurtured a style significantly different from Havetta’s. Perhaps paradoxically, it took grotesque realism much more seriously and used it, to the extent that it was feasible under communism, as a means of indirect criticism of the political situation and its social consequences. Such commitment was tangible in everything—from the careful selection of often Russian plays in order to provide a degree of cover since everything Soviet could, on the surface, be touted as “positive” through their nuanced production and direction, which, unlike Havetta’s direct transference of a script to the screen, often diverged from a straightforward reading of the original play. It so it is interesting to note in this context that Marta Rašlová, one of the most memorable female characters in Gala, appeared in the film and at the Divadlo na korze at almost the same time. In both instances, she made use of her physical appearance and a rather convulsive, half-crazed type of (non-)acting. [2]

Havetta’s grotesque realism depends directly on his use of carnival (the carnival atmosphere has had an especially strong influence on him). However, along with the techniques indicative of carnivals—such as mixing elements of various cultures or ridiculing something serious—Gala acknowledges another type of festivity as well: an almost impressionistic visuality, the laziness of a summer idyll. In statements about the history of Slovak film, we are almost over-warned today not just about the carnival-like atmosphere of Gala, but also about Havetta’s style in general (see, for example, the view expressed not that long ago by art critic Jozef Macko). [3]

What remains almost unnoticed is Havetta’s lyricism. The film is much more complex than appears at first glance. Its carnival atmosphere is punctuated with lyrical and even melancholy and moralizing scenes. Havetta show that the pursuit of one’s freedom can bring about harm to others. That takes him away from the purely medieval concept of carnival as characterized by Mikhail Bakhtin. Havetta also strongly suppresses the carnality of medieval carnivals. While carnival clearly dominates Gala, its traditional image is reconstructed and reconditioned. The optimism and expansive joie de vivre, which sometimes differentiates Havetta from Dušan Hanák or Jakubisko, are based on reflections on the transience and repetitiveness of life. These reflections have a much more melancholy flavor in his films than in the films of the other two directors.

From a narrative point of view, The Gala in the Botanical Garden is one of the most disjointed, episodic, and seemingly incoherent Slovak films ever made. It contains a relatively limited number of motifs (for example, flying or the staging of miracles), which are recast and modified in various situation. But, at the same time, the film never steers far from a focus on several basic binary oppositions: male versus female, a desire to live with a steady partner versus a desire for uninhibited freedom—“to fly away.” These oppositions, however, are highly relative and are subjected to irony. For this reason, it is no surprise that, in addition to the bipolarity of men’s and women’s perceptions (of fate, of a way of life, etc.) and carnival-like situations, the film includes situations that are mostly peaceful, like a romantic village idyll. Not only does the film show the calm of a Sunday afternoon in a village, but it also tries to make it livelier. This effort to enliven village life parallels the attempt to avoid it, or literally to escape from home in an effort to settle down, start a family, and establish a stable home (Havetta frequently emphasizes that this film is very autobiographical—he even shot it in his native village, casting a number of the villagers in major and minor roles). [4]

Again, the film is not about the head-on confrontation of two completely different ways of life and perception. The villagers allow themselves to become enthusiastic about the arrival of an elephant, the performances of tightrope walkers, and other attractions. These are only transitory moments connected with the arrival of the fair and the occurrence of the wine harvest. References to images of popular culture from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries are present from the opening scene of the film, which shows the arrival of a train at the village of Babindol (a made-up name alluding to “Valley of the Women”), the location of the story. The shots of the train mimic Auguste Lumière’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat from 1895. But the references to films as such and to filmmaking in Gala fall into two categories. On the one hand, film is depicted as mass entertainment on the same level as village fair attractions like puppet shows, ropewalkers, and the final “Big Production” for the wine harvest festival at Babindol. On the other hand, film is invoked as a miracle of artistic creation. Havetta’s most common references to film is the imitation of editing, transparent tricks, stock characters, masks, etc. from the early days of filmmaking. Toward the end of Gala, scenes begin to include Havetta himself, along with the camera, in the role of the director of the film we are watching. His instructions to the actors are heard in voice-over during the closing shots.

Throughout the film, the image of a film director as a person with the power to enliven, in this instance the villagers of Babindol, is represented by the characters of the botanist Gašpar(Jiří Sýkora), who, in addition to taking care of his large greenhouse with its exotic plants, also worries about running the marionette theater, and the Frenchman, Pierre (Slavoj Urban), who wants to stage a spectacle during the wine harvest. Pierre is actually Gašpar’s rival. Their very names come from two folk theater traditions: Pierre stems from Pierrot, from pantomime and commedia dell'arte, while Gašpar is the Slovak name of the Jester in old puppet shows. Although they do not come into direct conflict, their fates are similar. At the end of the film, Gašpar goes off into the world, as the older Pierre once did, and leaves behind Katarína (Nina Divišková), his beloved.

Havetta highlights the conflict between the desire for freedom (that is, flight) and the desire for a stable, orderly life. He emphasizes ambivalence and the inability to decide whether freedom is really a kind of cage: sometimes love allows us to fly (Havetta often uses well-known theatrical tricks—his male characters begin to fly suspended on ropes at the mere sight of a beautiful woman), and sometimes, it is the opposite—a man attains freedom only by running away from his beloved. The importance of the flight motif is related to the motif of film as a miracle. Gala is an allusion to the limited time the filmmaker has to finish his work and to the utopian understanding between the film crew and the idiosyncratic rural folk of southwestern Slovakia.

Havetta partly shot his film on location at (Tesárske) Mlyňany with with many extras from his birthplace, Veľké Vozokany, which is only four miles away. His film is a metaphor of his relationship with those people, full of nostalgia, but also mutual misunderstanding. Havetta sees the wine harvest festival and the making of the film in the same light—as an arcadian period of communion and togetherness after which life returns to its regular tracks.

By using illusion-destroying techniques from the theater and film, Gala mixes real life and film roles: writer Vincent Šikula has a cameo appearance as the musician Vinco; set designer Jozef Ciller as a driver (who is supposed to deliver palms to decorate the French embassy); comedian Július Satinský as a character like his real self; and there are many other, lesser-known actors and non-actors in the film. [5] What makes Gala a great aesthetic experience, as well as a very entertaining event, is its exceptional artistry, capacity to work with “attractions” adopted from village fairs, folk theater, and early film. Havetta includes them with humor and nostalgia. In a less direct sense, “attractions” are also the bizarre masks and acting of some of the characters and the Baroque cornucopia of visual compositions. Aspects of historical popular entertainment are also represented through the variety of the musical score: seemingly simple music, alternating between organ-grinder melodies, the music of military orchestras, and music broadcast over village loudspeakers.

The Gala in the Botanical Garden is one of only two films that Elo Havetta filmed at Koliba. With the onset of “Normalization” (the political and cultural repression after the Soviet invasion of 1968), it became harder and harder for him to produce his scripts even though he had several ready. By 1972 he had filmed only The Lilies of the Field (Ľálie poľné), which received international recognition but was banned shortly after it was released. After that, Havetta was able to make films only for television. Although he was never explicitly banned from directing films, his uncertain position, sense of frustration, and several failed attempts to make another film led people to believe that his early death in 1975, at the age of only 36, was the result of mental anguish. His was not just the typical tragic fate suffered by the most talented Slovak filmmakers after 1968—it was the only one that retained the aura of a mythic genius.

Jana Dudková, Cabinet of Theater and Film, Slovak Academy of Sciences; University of Performing Arts (VŠMU), Bratislava
Translated by Helen Fedor, Library of Congress and Martin Votruba, University of Pittsburgh


1] This is a relatively arbitrary term that made life easier for some historians of Slovak film, but one that is relatively well-founded for Havetta, Dušan Hanák, and Juraj Jakubisko. They were all born in the same year, and Jakubisko and Havetta even graduated from the same school (the Academy of Applied Arts in Bratislava) before studying at the Film Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). In addition, all three FAMU graduates created a demand for education in filmmaking within Slovak cinematography, to which they also brought their own style. A majority of historians distinguishes their style from that of the preceding “generation” (Peter Solan, Stanislav Barabáš, Martin Hollý, Eduard Grečner, Štefan Uher) by its playfulness; its perception of film, filming, and the entire process of preparing and producing films as play; and its use of a new type of metaphor (see Václav Macek, “Metafora v slovenskom hranom filme” in Václav Macek, ed. Slovenský hraný film 1946-1969. Bratislava: Slovenský filmový ústav – Národné kinematografické centrum, 1992. 67-81). In short, Havetta’s generation of filmmakers is often seen as directly and joyfully liberating film from the seriousness of so-called truthful storytelling, which could still be found in the films of Uher, Solan, Hollý, and Barabáš. At the same time, their style has an existential feel to it; it more or less explicitly presents values, ethics, and various affective and stylized representations of pessimism, skepticism, and irony as being relative.

2] Earlier, she had a small role in Barabáš’s satire Tango for a Bear (Tango pre medveďa, 1966). The scene in which she appeared represents (in its overall look, theme, acting style, and type of characters) a kind of discontinuity in the otherwise traditional storytelling style of this film. It is also interesting that a platoon of singing soldiers shows up in this scene, and it is significant that they are depicted with a lack of seriousness. This is another stylistic element that Havetta would make popular later.

3] Jozef Macko, “Karnevalizácia v diele Ela Havettu. Úvod do analýzy a výkladu filmov Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade a Ľalie poľné” in Václav Macek, ed. Elo Havetta (1938-1975). Bratislava : Slovenský filmový ústav, 1990. 61-88.

4] In addition to these elements, the film uses a plethora of other non-actors with significant and autobiographical connections: the children of well-known artists (for example, of the theatrical designer Alta Vaľová).

5] For example, Havetta (together with Kornel Földvári and actors Milan Lasica, Július Satinský, and Marián Labuda from the Divadlo na korze) was one of 26 editors-in-chief of Infarkt, the supplement to the legendary magazine Mladá tvorba.

The Gala in the Botanical Garden (Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade), 1969
Slovakia (Czechoslovakia)
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Elo Havetta
Screenwriters: Lubor Dohnal, Elo Havetta
Cinematography: Jozef Šimončič
Music: Zdeněk Liška
Production designer: Juraj Červík
Editing: Alfréd Benčič
Cast: Slavoj Urban, Jiří Sýkora, Nina Divišková, Dušan Blaškovič, Hana Slivková
Production: Koliba (Bratislava)

Elo Havetta: The Gala in the Botanical Garden (Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade), 1968

reviewed by Jana Dudková © 2005

Updated: 21 Dec 05