Petr Zelenka: Buttoners (Knoflíkáři, 1997)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2006

The Art of Fragments

The New Czech Cinema was born quietly, almost unnoticeably, without manifestos or artistic gurus, and even without the declared common enemies that have traditionally helped historical new waves to emerge. The 1990s started off sluggishly, like everywhere in post-communist Europe, where national cinemas were reeling after the collapse of the state-sponsored film industries following the fall of communism in 1989. When the 1997 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film went to Kolya (Kolja, 1996), however, made by the young but well-established director Jan Svěrák, it indicated that something was definitely brewing in the Czech cinema. And then the New Czech Cinema burst into being at the turn of the millennium with a number of works by talented filmmakers, born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and barely out of film school. Their films, made on shoestring budgets, continue to enjoy international recognition at prestigious film forums worldwide and unprecedented commercial success at home. They take a close look at the swiftly changing post-communist, post-modern world of the New Rich and the New Poor from an unexpected perspective, cutting through the surreal collages of comic, banal, and dramatic events that lay bare the moral confusion and existential loneliness of the Velvet Generation.[1] Young Czech directors make films about what they know best—overcrowded apartments, (usually broken) families, selfish friends, low-paid jobs, messy love affairs and frustrated dreams. And, like the films of the previous New Wave from the 1960s, their realistic stories, told with visual elegance and tongue-in-cheek humor, coalesce into philosophical metaphors. While young filmmakers from other post-communist countries like Bulgaria and Romania seek somewhat masochistic solace in fetishising the scant remains of traditional communal values, their Czech peers find inspiration in bringing to light the absurdities of these values. The Czechs and the Moravians, favoring modern reason and technological advancement long before many other (South) Eastern European countries, have long abandoned the pre-modern cocoon of tradition, replacing it with their own version of modern gothic horror, comfortably domesticated in the family home or the local pub. This unperturbed juxtaposition of what Freud calls the Unheimliche with the Heimliche[2] or of the strangely creepy (known also in psychoanalytical literature as the uncanny) with its direct opposite, the homely, is in itself incongruous and begging for a surrealist interpretation. To quote Švankmajer: “Surrealism is not an artistic style, but a means of investigating and exploring reality.”[3]

Compared to his Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated august colleagues like Jan Svěrák and Jan Hřebejk, Petr Zelenka seems to be perfectly happy with his place as the enfant terrible of his generation, which he generously shares with his friend and collaborator, David Ondříček. Their films are insolently conscious of their “political incorrectness,” especially as far as the parvenu world of the Czech nouveau riches is concerned, and are always ready to sympathize with their anti-heroes—a bunch of social misfits and drifters.[4] Readily comparable to Švankmajer’s and Buñuel’s surrealist satires, the mischievous designs of Zelenka’s and Ondříček’s films bear an uncanny resemblance to Jiří Menzel’s (director) and Josef Škvorecký’s (scriptwriter) mock-thrillers from the 1960s, Crime at the Girls School (Zločin v dívčí škole, 1965) and Crime in the Nightclub (Zločin v šantánu, 1968). With Hřebejk and Bohdan Sláma [5] —another rising star of the new Czech cinema—Zelenka shares a passion for closely examining the idiosyncrasies of family relations. Although from time to time a young Czech director finds solace from current post-modern pressures in the confines of his or her dysfunctional family—Alice Nellis’s Eeny Meeny (Ene bene, 1999) and Some Secrets (Výlet, 2002) are superb examples—others scoff at it. What is more, Zelenka’s, Ondříček’s, and Hřebejk’s favorite mosaic narratives, engaging at least half a dozen characters each, evolve like a family mystery, revealing at the end that everyone has actually taken an active part in plotting the murder.

Zelenka’s Buttoners marked the initiation into the mosaic mode in 1997 by concocting an amusing potion of black-and-white docu-dramatic (or rather mocku-dramatic) images of the last minutes before the first atomic bomb was dropped over Japan in August 1945, intertwined with fictional episodes in color from present day Prague. The film begins with cross-cuttings of shots from the pilots’ cabin with shots on the ground, introducing a party of Japanese who, annoyed by the seemingly perennial rain, are being taught to swear in English since rude words are in short supply in Japanese. Swearing seems to bring much relief to the Americans, one well-informed character (Motohiro Hosoya) confidently states. Once, he says, when in California, he heard a bar patron cursing for half an hour without ever repeating himself, after which he looked incredibly relieved… A hilarious collective chanting of “fucking weather” closes the introductory episode as the film’s viewers are informed that because of bad weather the bomber was redirected towards Hiroshima and that ever since the Japanese use the expression “Kokura lucky.”

An excellent example of the unpredictable outcome of desires ranging from the disastrous to the self-destructive to the simply frustrating, the Kokura episode can be read as a quirky instance of mise en abîme, mirroring the meaning and style of Buttoners as well as of Zelenka’s subsequent films made in a similar mode—Year of the Devil (Rok ďábla, 2002) and Wrong Side Up (Příběhy obyčejného šílenství, 2005). Granting Kokura’s citizens their passionate desire for cloudless skies would have meant their immediate annihilation, while conversely, the US pilots’ fulfilled desire for successful completion of their mission brought them eternal disgrace and secured their place in the hall of infamy amongst the biggest mass-murderers in human history.

Throughout the film, Zelenka engages the characters of the intertwined stories with dramatic, comedic, or tragic turns of fate predicated on desires granted or denied. Their pursuit of happiness, or rather immediate gratification, is tragicomically oblivious to any and all dire consequences. While these characters passionately, blindly, and most often foolishly desire―chance, coincidences, and even miracles are at work, shaping their lives irrevocably. Zelenka is fascinated by this phenomenon, also known as the human condition, and sets out to prove on another, associative narrative level that nothing is what it seems and that, in the grand scheme of things, the unpredictable chain of events ultimately sets ethical and existential scores straight.

While Quentin Tarantino’s post-modern circular narratives—Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)—and Zelenka’s well advertised affection for American indies point to the mosaic mode’s international pedigree, the circular structure and fatalistic mood of Immortality (1990), one of the latest works by Milan Kundera, written in French, represents a lesser-known, indigenous inspiration. Although it is unclear whether Kundera has influenced Zelenka directly, Buttoners bears unmistakable resemblance to the intense mixture of the sacred and the profane that Immortality presents. The urban contemporary episodes represent short-lived chases after an ever-elusive pleasure, illuminated on various planes of meaning simultaneously as comedic sketches, as moralistic fables, and as philosophical musings. A night ride through Prague in a taxi driven by a cabbie on tranquillizers (František Černý) reveals a sex-crazed world mired in a comical succession of coincidences. During his shift, he chauffeurs a married woman (Michaela Pavlátová) with her young lover (Jan Čechtický), who can only “make out” in taxis. Later on, he picks up her jealous husband (Pavel Lagner) in hot pursuit. Another late-night fare is a middle-aged couple of intellectuals, who graciously offer extra pay for the buttons the husband (Bořivoj Navrátil) has pulled off the backseat upholstery with his behind. The cabbie’s moral aloofness seems rather hasty as we have already seen his wife (Zuzana Bydžovská) in bed with another man and the cabbie is luckily spared the bitter revelation by the nick of chance.

A glimpse into the moral idiosyncrasies of post-communist life reveals fear of responsibility as the fundamental form of post-modern angst: a psychiatrist with an acute übermensch complex (Vladimír Dlouhý) refuses to recognize his involvement in a car crash that kills a young couple. The couple’s parents, by comparison, happen to sport the weirdest perversions, including the above-mentioned uncontrollable obsession with upholstery buttons, and the tragic end of their children comes through as moral retribution for their lack of genuine parental concern. Zelenka rarely feels for his characters—more often than not he sees them as accomplices in their own destruction.

In another, seemingly unrelated episode, a sexually frustrated, recently laid off railroad switch operator, Vrána (Rudolf Hrušínský Jr), finds relief from his wife’s (Eva Holubová) constant nagging by developing another weird compensatory passion: lying between the tracks in front of an upcoming locomotive and trying to spit exactly at the number eight that is engraved on its front as it roars above him. Vrána’s rather unusual way of proving himself comes in the film as the culmination of a long, absurdly hilarious argument with his wife about his being a jobless loser, living off her, drinking her beer, and watching her TV. In this episode Zelenka again engages in the mundane absurdities of life with what could be called an autobiographical twist. Asked about the inspiration for this particular episode, he pointed without hesitation to his own parents’ (both well-known media personalities!) fights![6] Indeed, Vrána refers to the unusual intelligence of their son Petr, a scriptwriter for TV (sic!) as undeniable proof of his own, while the wife rolls up her eyes.

The juiciest part of the episode comes when Vrána makes a naïve attempt to steer the conversation towards the more neutral terrain of an American TV show about shooting sperm into space. It is worth noting that Zelenka never misses a beat in offering his acerbic commentary on Americans and their way of life. Whether it is the extravagance of the shouting match between the two pilots at the beginning of the film, featuring excessively the “f” word as a substitute for any and all coherent argument about the goal and dire consequences of their mission, or the masterful interweaving of a typical family fight with an idiotic TV show about collecting sperm randomly from one in every thousand men and shooting it into space in order to preserve humankind, Zelenka remains a true representative of his generation.

The TV show is actually a mockumentary, shot in the style of Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), and designed by the director. Contemporary cinema has hardly seen a more biting satire of the pseudo-scientific superficiality and sensationalism of American mainstream shows, where guests usually discuss trivia with brazen aplomb. Unlike the generation of their parents, Zelenka and his peers do not idealize America as a beacon of freedom, but view Western values suspiciously and as an object of irony. It suffices to recall Ondříček’s Loners, which foregrounds a hilariously surreal (and virulently politically incorrect) juxtaposition of local losers and drifters vis-à-vis westernized, status-driven ways like careers, healthy life styles, feminism, “far Eastern” cuisine, and psychoanalysis. Along with the initiation of Jiří Macháček as a fetish impersonator of the perennially stoned archetypal loser, Ondříček’s most precious contributions to his own decadent version of the mosaic mode include the ubiquitous Japanese tourists who return the director’s disrespectful look as the Exotic and Sinister Other and flaunt an unabashed ethological curiosity about “typically” Czech ways of life.

But let us return to Buttoners. Unable to convince his wife that his sperm is every bit as worthy of being sent to fertilize outer space as that of the notoriously virile Franta (who comes through in their escalating exchange as more than a simple acquaintance of his wife), Vrána exits the domestic battlefield and heads off towards the tracks with unwavering dignity―at least he never misses the number eight! Deeply immersed in his tour de force performance, Vrána remains oblivious of the effect his compulsive histrionics will have on the young couple accidentally present at this scene and whose death in a car crash we have already witnessed. Now it seems that not only the psychiatrist, but Vrána, too, is inadvertently responsible for their tragic end. Presuming Vrána to be dead, the distraught boy (David W. Černý), blinded by the psychiatrist’s car lights, loses control and crashes the car, killing his girlfriend (Olga Dabrowská) and himself, thus bringing the narrative all the way back to the previous episode and creating a mosaic in time, whose meaning is disclosed cumulatively.

In the meantime, the daughter of a radio talk-show host (Pavel Zajíček), in spite of the late hour, is involved in a spiritual séance―that is, conjuring spirits in the company of her teenage friends. By a strange twist of fate, the girls succeed in summoning the ghost of one of the American bomber pilots (David Charap), and take him to the radio-station, where her father compels the ghost to apologize for dropping the A-bomb, “even if the victims were only Japs,” as the American sums up. The talk-show host announces that the apology will be accepted if someone, anyone makes a phone call to the studio. The psychiatrist, who also happens to be listening, calls from a gas station and grants the symbolic forgiveness.

The ending of the film reveals that all the characters are closely interconnected not only ostensibly, on the level of plot and action as in Tarantino’s films, but on an ethical and existential level, bound by mutual responsibility, strongly recalling the so-called “Butterfly effect,” where a simple “flip of a butterfly wing in Brazil set[s] off a tornado in Texas.”[7] The intervening musings of the radio talk-show host serve as a kind of string for most of the episodes, whose characters are tuned in to his FM station. The talk-show also provides the historical-philosophical framework for the search for effortless gratification that evolves on screen. Unfortunately, the talk-show’s sombre diatribes weaken the film in their didactic attempt to concretize―and, thus, unwittingly impoverish―its message. Therefore, the final episode remains somewhat lame in comparison to the otherwise highly entertaining mixture of the eternal and the mundane, universal and local, tragic and comic in human existence that the film offers.

Zelenka carefully avoids the temptation to preach in his two subsequent films, Year of the Devil and Wrong Side Up, and remains loyal to the mosaic style he initiated. At the same time, he immerses his otherwise local stories in layers of globally consequential political and cultural references, creating a delightful palimpsest of meanings. In Year of the Devil, he once again mixes hard-nosed critical realist observations with metaphysical romanticism, endeavoring to make his “trademark Czech” (or, shall we say, “Eastern European”) humor more accessible to outsiders through the style of a surreal “mockudrama,” a master of which he proved to be in Buttoners. This time around he introduces the Dutch documentary filmmaker Jan Holman as himself, in the role of a Virgil-like character, guiding viewers through the bizarre revelations of a recovering alcoholic, played by Jaromír Nohavica, who is touring with the extremely popular Czech ethno-rock group Čechomor. While the success of this artistic strategy remains questionable globally, especially as far as Western viewers are concerned, it became a hit locally, making Year of the Devil one of the most watched Czech films ("Fragmented Discourses," 221).

Wrong Side Up (or Tales of Common Insanity), based on Zelenka’s immensely popular 2001 stage play of the same name, proved to be yet another domestic success and an internationally recognized film, nominated for the grand prix, the Golden St. George at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2005. Zelenka picks up once again on leitmotifs from his debut film in the mosaic mode, bringing forth his own obsession with the hilariously surreal juxtaposition of the local versus the global. This time, however, the multitude of characters is subordinated to one anti-hero, Petr Hanek (Ivan Trojan), a grim freight worker at Prague’s international airport, who is much more tame and mundane than the flamboyantly eccentric Nohavica and his side-kicks. With the main character sharing the director’s first name (again), unflattering semi-autobiographical references resurface: “Sometimes I think strange things happen around me,” says the protagonist, who believes himself to be a “freak magnet.” Petr zombies around day in and day out, half-heartedly attempting to reunite with his former girl-friend Jana (Zuzana Šulajová), while getting more entangled in the messy relationship with her. He is also caught up with his boss (Karel Heřmánek), who keeps track of the objects his wife has thrown at him while falling in love with a department store mannequin. Petr’s relations with his parents are especially intricate vis-à-vis their idiosyncrasies—his mercurial mother (Nina Divíšková) reckons everyone around her to be crazy and his former communist father (Miroslav Krobot) dreams of making a parachute jump one day. In the interim, Petr takes up a part-time job as a voyeur for his new neighbors, Alice (Zuzana Bydžovská) and Jiří (Jiří Bartoška), who can only do it if someone is watching. The dead-pan humor of these faintly tragic situations, inconsequentially defined in the titles as “a film by Petr Zelenka and his friends,” match with the poster of Buster Keaton, hanging in Petr’s room. Small wonder that outside of his native Czech lands, Zelenka’s acute sense of the tragi-comic appeals so much to Russians,[8] accustomed to the centuries-long absurdities of Russo-Soviet life and raised on Anton Chekhov’s tragi-comedies and the Soviet poetic cinema of the 1970s, which featured the so-called chudaki,[9] misfits and drifters.

It is hopefully clear by now why the mosaic mode is so popular with young Czech filmmakers and, more specifically, with Zelenka. It is enough to recall Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), and, most recently, Paul Higgis’s Oscar-awarded Crash (2005) to understand the international appeal of the mode, which seems most appropriate for grasping the ever-shifting moral and existential realities of post-modern existence. All films made in this mode invariably point to the universal, almost physical law of retribution (summarized colloquially as “what goes around, comes around”). That is, they point to the inevitable punishment for indulgences and greed, but also to a counterbalancing forgiveness. It is most likely these films will remain confined to the specific cultural and ethical realities of their time, for it is difficult to imagine how they could offer any comprehensible information, let alone evoke emotional empathy in viewers who do not belong to the here and now. Like fragments of a broken mirror, however, if gently put together, they reflect our deep frustrations and vulnerabilities, caused by insatiable desires, as well as our deep need to love and be loved. The “references to the consequentiality of chances, miracles, and coincidences” that permeate these fragments “seem more than relevant” to the intricacies of post-communist life, to the post-modern human comedy in general and “last, but not least to the fact that,” in the large scheme of things, “we could all consider ourselves ‘Kokura lucky’.” ("Fragmented Discourses," 220)

Christina Stojanova, University of Regina


This review is inspired by my chapter “Fragmented Discourses: Young Cinema from Central and Eastern Europe.” In East European Cinemas. Ed. Aniko Imre. London: Routledge, 2005. 296-316

1] Used as the title of a Retrospective of Czech Cinema at Riverside Studios, London, October 2000.

2] “For this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” Sigmund Freud, from “The ‘Uncanny’” [Das Unheimliche] (1919). In Standard Edition, vol. XVII. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. 242.

3] From an interview with Peter Hames, Sight & Sound, October, 2001.

4] Zelenka scripted Ondříček‘s breakthrough film, Loners (Samotáři, 2000).

5] Wild Bees (Divoké včely, 2001), Something Like Happiness (Štěstí, 2005).

6] This information comes from a conversation about the film with my friend, the Czech documentary filmmaker Helena Třeštíková, who referred to a popular TV show, where Zelenka made this comment.

7] Considered the most famous example of deterministic chaos and named after the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s groundbreaking paper―“Predictability: does the flip of a butterfly wing in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”―presented in 1972, the “butterfly effect” has become a tool widely used in studies of the moral, cultural, and economic effects of globalization.

8] At the first Khanti-Mansiisk International Debut Film Festival in Russia in 2003, Year of the Devil was unanimously awarded the main prize, $ 150,000 USD. When informed in writing about the prize, Zelenka (who did not attend the festival) failed to respond as he thought such generosity could only be a bad joke. Later, when he got the money for his next project, he apologized profusely to the festival organizers.

10] Chudak in Russian means “a strange fellow” and derives from the word chudo or “miracle.” In a colloquial sense however, chudak means a dreamer, a misfit, someone who sticks out and is generally confined to the margins of life.

Buttoners, Czech Republic, 1997
Color. 102 minutes.
Screenplay and Direction: Petr Zelenka
Cinematography: Miro Gábor
Music: Aleš Březina
Art Direction: David Černý
Editor: David Charap
Cast: František Černý, Michaela Pavlátová, Jan Čechtický, Zuzana Bydžovská, Vladimír Dlouhý, Marek Najbrt, David Černý, Olga Dabrowská, Jiří Kodet, Inka Brendlová, Bořivoj Navrátil, Alena Procházková, Rudolf Hrušínský Jr., Eva Holubová
Producer: Čestmír Kopecký
Production Company: Česká televize

Petr Zelenka: Buttoners (Knoflíkáři, 1997)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2006