Jindřich Polák:Riders in the Sky (Nebeští jezdci, 1968) and Jan Svěrák: Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět, 2001)
reviewed by David Sorfa © 2006
HOMOLKOVÁ: I always say a family is the cornerstone of the whole state.
HOMOLKA: What do you mean “always”? I’ve never heard you say that in my
life. You probably read that somewhere…
HOMOLKOVÁ: Excuse me! When have you ever seen me read anything?
HEDUŠ: Mom’s right. The family is the foundation of the state.
HOMOLKA: I know, I know. But what’s the state… we are the state, aren’t we?
Jaroslav Papoušek, Ecce Homo Homolka (1969)
In many ways the history of the current Czech Republic clearly reflects the difficulties of grouping people together under the dictates of geographical boundaries, political affiliations, language commonalities, or political and ideological beliefs. There are multiple ways of defining identity, and these operate simultaneously and with varying levels of importance in any given context (whether it be crossing a border, buying property, agreeing to sexual contact, or choosing a film to watch). Czech film often takes as its theme the problem of what it might mean to be Czech and in this article I wish to explore the ways in which two films, Jindřich Polák’s Riders in the Sky and Jan Svěrák’s Dark Blue World, take the example of Czechs fighting in the RAF during the Second World War as a way of reflecting on current definitions of, and problems with, identity. I also wish to discuss how the films address the trauma of invasion and passive—or perhaps even active—capitulation to an invading power (the Nazis in 1938, the Soviet alliance in 1968, and free-market capitalism in 1990).
The Munich Agreement of 1938 handed over the Northern territories of Czechoslovakia to Hitler (notoriously without the Czech government itself being present—a government of a country that had only itself been established as such in 1918), and in March 1939 the Nazis occupied the rest of the country with no resistance. Czechoslovakia had a developed army and air force at this time, and a number of soldiers made their way out of the country and later joined the allies. In particular, the group of Czech pilots who joined the RAF has become an emblem of Czech fortitude and love for freedom in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Perhaps the most poignant representation of the importance of the RAF pilots to the Czech imagination (and let us, at least temporarily and for the purposes of sentimentality, assume that such a thing actually exists) occurs in Jan Hřebejk’s Cosy Dens (Pelíšky, 1998). Set in the winter and spring just before the August 1968 invasion of the country by the Soviet Army and a small number of other Eastern bloc countries under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact, the film follows the lives of two neighboring families whose respective patriarchs either bitterly denounce the communists or support the idea of “socialism with a human face.” On Christmas Eve, Jindřich Kraus (played by the late Jiří Kodet) pours molten lead into a bowlful of water—while wearing pitch-black protective glasses—in order to foretell the coming year’s fortune. “What do you see there?” his wife asks as Kraus peers at a vaguely Czechoslovakia-shaped blob of solidified lead. “I give the Bolsheviks a year… two, at most” (“Dávám bolševikovi rok, maximálně dva”), he intones. The black humor of this proclamation (repeated at various times throughout Cosy Dens) depends on the audience’s certain knowledge that the exact opposite of his wishful prognostication is about to occur.
This sets up the scene in which Kraus reveals to his family and neighbors his proposal for a memorial to replace Stalin’s recently destroyed monument on Prague’s Letná Hill. The gathering is for Kraus’ wedding to his neighbor’s sister after the death of his first wife and so is already rather overburdened with pathos. Kraus’ brother, now living in London, had been an RAF pilot and Kraus has spent the last year building a model of a cenotaph to the pilots who had not only been unacknowledged by the communist regime, but even proscribed and imprisoned on their return from the UK for undue contact with a Western government (Reifová 17). Kraus’ model is out-of-scale and naively constructed, but it is this very naïve optimism that the film uses to underscore the enormity of the invasion that happens that very night. As the now united families sleep off their celebration the sound of airplanes flying overhead is juxtaposed with a slow zoom-in onto the now darkened model monument. The sound of engines turns into the noise of tank treads, which shake the house until the model airplane topples off its pride of place at the summit of the memorial. Thus, the continued degradation of the RAF pilots is explicitly (even melodramatically) linked to yet another invasion of Czechoslovakia.
While Cosy Dens reconstructs the 1960s from the vantage point of the 1990s, both Jindřich Polák’s Riders in the Sky (made in 1967-1968) and Jan Svěrák’s Dark BlueWorld recreate the 1940s experience of the Czech RAF pilots in as much historical detail as possible. Riders in the Sky is based in Filip Jánský’s 1964 debut novel of the same name, which presents a fictionalised account of his own experiences in the UK. The novel, translated rather poorly into English in 1969 as Riders in the Sky, tells the story of “Handsome” and his fellow Czech crew of a Vickers Wellington bomber. The novel consists of unconnected episodes in their lives as they pass the time between raids into Europe by poaching and drinking. The main crisis of the narrative involves a near fatal crash in which Handsome is severely burned and is forced into a long convalescence due to the severity of his injuries:
When the cottonwool approaches my eye, the left one, I try to close the burnt lid. I haven’t got any lid over my right eye, but it doesn’t matter anyway. The right hollow’s empty. I haven’t got a nose either, just a kind of bump, nor lips. My whole face right down to my chin, everything that wasn’t covered by my helmet, is a flat scorched mass, nothing else. (128-129)
Before the accident Handsome was going out with Patricia, a Wren, but it appears that because of the severity of his injuries and his continued confinement she started a relationship with one his crewmates. Handsome remembers bitterly:
I lost, I lost. She left me. I must be grateful for even that short period. She gave me all she could. She can’t help not being able to remain faithful. She was terribly influenced by her surroundings and my appearance. But she should’ve left me herself. He shouldn’t have taken her from me. I’ll never forget what he did. (176)
Whatever the truth of the matter (Jánský is less than clear in his presentation of the break-up), at least Handsome’s injuries are sufficiently serious to at least allow the reader to believe that a girlfriend—Pat is hardly more than a caricature in the book—might decide it to be best to leave. The film, however, is less successful (relatively) in this regard since Handsome (called Študent in the film and played by Jiří Bednář) does not appear to have been injured all that badly and, thus, it is difficult to understand why Pat (Jana Nováková) is not allowed to see him after the accident and why he refuses to permit her to visit him once he has begun to recover.
The terrible injuries suffered by Handsome in Riders in the Sky appear to have been shifted to another character in the film: a Czech pilot (Karel Hála) from Prague in the room next door to Študent. The staff has forbidden him access to mirrors so that he cannot see the extent of his injuries, but he manages to sneak a look in a small mirror while visiting Študent and his lipless face resembles far more closely the description of Handsome in the novel.
Soon after this the pilot hangs himself in his room. The novel presents the difficulty of adjusting to life with such facial injuries more dramatically when Handsome and another badly wounded pilot, Louis, set off to London with one of the nurses and her brother, where they go and have dinner in a private room at The Old Turtle. After a few bottles of wine they decide to move to the public dance-floor where Nurse Henderson dances with Handsome until he decides to remove his veil and pandemonium breaks out. The group eventually has to be ferried back to the hospital in an RAF ambulance. Jánský describes the subsequent events in his usual bland, telegraphic style and characteristically refuses to speculate on any psychological motivation:
Louis hung himself that evening and the following day they found Nurse Henderson in the kitchen in the attic… I was going out for a walk when they carried her out. She was pink, but that’s apparently nothing unusual after gas poisoning. One hand was trailing on the ground, the one she’d caressed me with… They took Louis and her away under one cover. (164-165)
It seems that while Handsome is himself unaffected by the incident and therefore survives to continue the story, the suicides of two peripheral characters are used to point to the difficulty of readjusting to civilian life after massive trauma. In this respect, both novel and film suffer from a certain lack of affect and it is difficult to imagine the characters as real people reacting to actual situations. Perhaps, however, this internal blankness in both texts works to convey a sense of shock in the face of events and forces that cannot be adequately comprehended, merely described.
Regardless of problems with narrative coherence, it is perhaps more important to focus on the political import of the film version of Riders in the Sky at the time of its making. As I have mentioned above, Czech RAF pilots became personae non gratae after the assumption of power by the Communist Party in 1948 and it was only in the political thaw leading up to the spring of 1968 that a film could directly address this injustice. The film begins with a shot of the Czech national flag, which pans down to the monument at Brookwood Cemetery in the UK that is dedicated to the fighters who died during the war. The camera then shows the inscription on the back in both Czech and English: “In memory of the soldiers of the Czechoslovak Armed Forces killed in the Second World War and buried in the cemeteries of the United Kingdom.”
This is followed by a fairly long montage sequence of the cemetery—perhaps rather overemphasising the number of Czechs involved by including shots of other nationalities’ headstones although this could be read as a general comment on foreign fighters in the RAF (forty-eight Czechs are buried here)—and a soundtrack of air-fighters in battle gradually fades in until the film cuts back to the action of the war itself. The film is therefore explicitly set up as a memorial to these pilots, especially since no equivalent military remembrance existed in Czechoslovakia at the time.
The novel makes hardly any mention of why the Czechs are in Britain and not fighting in their own country. The only time this is brought up is towards the end when Handsome rejoins the bomber squadron and an English officer says (in a particularly poor translation): “Believe me, we shan’t forget about you, neither us here, nor our people. After all, you’re fighting for us.” Handsome answers: “Thanks for all your kindness, sir. You’ve really done a lot for me and the others, too. As far as the other thing’s concerned, I was fighting for my own people” (172).
Other than this and some nostalgic chat about the Czech countryside, the novel hardly ever addresses the fact that these are foreign pilots fighting in the name of another country (although the pilots insist on wearing Czech identification insignia even though this would mean that they would not be treated as prisoners of war but as traitors if ever captured by the Nazis; see 95). Apart from the beginning section of the film, the politics of the fighters’ status is only discussed by Študent and Prcek (Jiří Hrzán) once he has regained his health and they are taking a walk through the fields as they used to before the accident. Študent asks whether Pat is seeing someone else and whether it is someone he knows. Prcek confirms both suspicions but goes on to say that she is now going to marry an Englishman (this characterisation of Pat as fickle seems a rather unnecessarily bitter move by the scriptwriters). The conversation continues:
ŠTUDENT: What a fool. Why didn’t I stay at home?
PRCEK: Don’t talk rubbish! The president himself will welcome us… there’ll be
loads of girls and flowers, tulips…
ŠTUDENT: You’re the tulip. You’ll get a tin medal and a corner shop. At best.
PRCEK: But they can’t forget this…?
ŠTUDENT: Well, we’ll see.
Of course, from the vantage point of 1968 it was clear that even a medal would be out of the question on their return. At a further remove, the film itself is marked by a similar betrayal of faith. A journalist for the weekly Czech magazine Reflex writes of the exhibition dedicated to the film in 2004:
The faces of the actors caught in the photographs remind us that a tragic shadow was soon cast over the finished film. Not only was it unable to premiere on the 28th of October as it was supposed to, because “friendly” armies entered the country in the tracks of the October tanks; but also because the actress who played Pat, Jana Nováková, died soon after at the hands of her jealous husband. Jiří Hrzán, whose role as Prcek (Shorty) the gunner was one of his best, died tragically in 1980 [Reportedly falling off a wall during a drunken seduction attempt]. (Tikovský 96)
The political takeover of 1968 ensured that the film, while not banned, was rarely seen and it is only with its recent DVD release that the film is once again in general circulation. What is important about the film’s status as a memorial is that it foreshadows its own restriction and a repetition of the event of forgetting it depicts in a manner that can only be understood retrospectively.
The years of “normalization” from 1968 until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 can be seen as an example of Freudian melancholia, defined as:
a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of
the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. (Freud quoted in Thurschwell, 90)
This seems an almost uncannily apt summary of Czech attitudes during these twenty years, except that expectations of punishment were hardly delusional. The goal, of course, is to move beyond melancholia and into mourning which is, again in Freud’s words: “the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on” (quoted in Thurschwell, 89-90). This reaction, however, allows the mourner to accept the traumatic incident and to move beyond it through a repetition that Thurschwell characterises as a “repetition with a difference: the ability to analyse and see the source of the difficulty” (87).
While it may be problematic to map psychological explanations onto political events—the repressions of the 1970s and 1980s were hardly “in the mind”—the idea that filmic retelling might be a way for a community to relive and, therefore, move beyond political trauma does not seem entirely far-fetched. Rushton explains it thus:
the narratives of these films  are to a large degree propelled by the need to remember and re-live an originary traumatic event in such a way that this traumatic event returns to the traumatic subject as “fully known,” that is, as fully pictured and represented. The traumatic event is fully known to the subject by way of its clear and distinct representation. Film, from this perspective, may be seen as an extremely good medium for the portrayal of traumatic memories. (371)
Whatever the status of films in a clinical context, it is clear that Riders in the Sky is now a memorial to two political traumas rather than its intended one. If a film is always marked by the history of its own time, then Dark Blue World provides a rather less clear commentary on its contemporary history.
The father and son, writer and director team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák has produced some of the most endearing and popular films of post-1990 Czech cinema, characterised by strong scripting and high production values. The films also tend to mix popular genres with political overtones. For instance, their most well known film, Kolya (Kolja, 1996), overlays the standard grouchy-old-person-learns-to-live-and-love-through-a-child formula with a strong political sensibility by setting the film just before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, while the wonderful Accumulator 1 (Akumulátor 1, 1993) is a powerful satire of consumer media culture in the new Czechoslovakia. After initial local excitement at the prospect of a high budget war film that might put the Czech Republic in line again for Oscar success, Dark Blue World received a very mixed reception outside its home country and was often seen as trying to do too much at once.
The film has three main storylines. The first is the familiar escape of Czech soldiers to fight in Britain (here they are glamorous Spitfire pilots). The second involves a love-triangle between two of the Czech pilots and a British woman whose husband has seemingly been lost at sea. The triangle would appear to be a direct link to Riders in the Sky although the Svěráks themselves have not, to my knowledge, made this link. The third strand makes explicit what Riders in the Sky hints at: the film is framed by vignettes of the main protagonist, František Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý), imprisoned in the Mírov labor camp in 1950 alongside a Nazi doctor (perhaps the film is sometimes rather heavy-handed in stressing obvious absurdities). A pithy list of the film’s possible faults is detailed in Mark Preskett’s review, which concludes rather harshly that the film “certainly has the right ingredients for the Oscar recipe, but the end result tastes dreadful” (Kinoeye).
The film’s ending sums up the sentimental melodrama, which overburdens the narrative. Sláma returns home to his Czech village only to find that his fiancée has now married the previously ridiculed stationmaster and they are treating his child—just conceived when he left in 1939—as their own. His magnanimous acceptance of this situation cuts to 1950 as the prison guard falls asleep allowing the prisoners a brief respite from their work. Sláma stretches in the sunlight pouring through a stained-glass window in the chapel that is now used as a workhouse (the Svěráks’ quite saccharine religious sensibility could be the topic for another article). The scene cuts to two spitfires flying above the clouds and the credits roll. The message that the honest spirit of the fighters lives on is literalised in this final image and its rather embarrassing voiceover conversation between Sláma and his now dead flying companion. It is, however, a sentimental image and one that refuses the possibility of a connection with issues of contemporary capitalism in the Czech Republic (it is perhaps no wonder that the film was praised, if that is the right word, for being the most expensive ever made in the Republic).
In contrast to this ending, Riders in the Sky refuses even the comparatively upbeat ending of the novel. Both film and novel end with the bombing of a German submarine, which culminates in the destruction of both submarine and bomber. Prcek, Študent/Handsome, and a German sailor wind up floating in the same dinghy, but whereas the final paragraph of the novel ends with a quick summing up of their rescue and with Handsome staring out to sea thinking, “I’d like to go home” (192), the film’s final shot is a long zoom-out of the dinghy floating into the sunset (visually reminiscent of the ending of Dark Blue World).
However, while Dark Blue World attempts completely to tie up all its loose ends and to deliver complete closure for the audience—as if all trauma has now been worked through and recuperated—Riders in the Sky leaves the final working through to be done by the audience. There is no easy, pre-packaged reconciliation or explanation. History continues once the film ends.
David Sorfa, Liverpool John Moores University
Riders in the Sky, Czechoslovakia 1968
Black-and-white, 91 minutes
Director: Jindřich Polák
Screenplay: Filip Jánský, Zdeněk Mahler, and Jindřich Polák
From the novel by Filip Jánský
Cinematography: Jan Němeček
Music: Evžen Illin
Art Director: Karel Černý
Costume Design: Jan Kropáček
Editor: Josef Dobřichovský
Cast: Jiří Bednar, Jiří Hrzan, Svatopluk Matyáš, Elsie Randolph, Jana Nováková, Joan Seton.
Production Supervisors: Rudolf Hájek, Petr Čápek
Production: Filmové studio Barrandov, Prague (Šebor-Bor Production Group).
Dark Blue World, Czech Republic, 2001
Color, 115 minutes
Director: Jan Svěrák
Screenplay: Zdeněk Svěrák
Cinematography: Vladimír Smutný
Music: Ondřej Soukup
Production Design: Jan Vlasák
Editor: Alois Fišárek
Cast: Ondřej Vetchý, Kryštof Hadek, Tara Fitzgerald, Charles Dance, Oldřich Kaiser.
Producers: Eric Abraham and Jan Svěrák
Production: BIOGRAF JAN SVĚRÁK (Czech Republic), Portobello Pictures (United Kingdom), Helikon Media (Germany), Phoenix Film Investments (Denmark), Česká televize (Czech Republic), Fandango (Italy).
2] A recent victim of right-wing laissez-faire capitalism has been the Czech film industry itself when a seemingly unproblematic tax on film-viewing to promote local filmmaking was vetoed by president Václav Klaus (a decision subsequently ratified by parliament) on the grounds that “film is a business like any other and doesn’t deserve special state support” (Macnab).
3] The military exploits of these pilots have been most exhaustively documented by Jiří Rajlich in his seven volume In the Skies of Brave Albion (Na nebi hrdého Albionu, 1999-2004). Ladislav Kudrna’s When they Weren’t Flying (Když nelétali, 2003) uses the diaries of a single pilot to explore the day-to-day lives of these airmen.
4] Jánský’s later novels also evidently return to this period of his life and the final book published posthumously under his name was the autobiographical Memories of a Sky Rider (Vzpomínky nebeského jezdce) by MAC in 1999, edited by Jindřich Drebota.
5] We could also refer to Freud’s formulation of the fetish, which refers directly to the structure of the memorial: “the horror of castration has set up a memorial to itself in creation of this substitute. […] It remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it” (353).
6] Rushton discusses Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945) and Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003), which themselves figure traumatic remembering. However, I would argue that the films I discuss here are themselves the real sites of such remembrance rather than mere representations of this process.
Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism” (1927). On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
and Other Works. Ed. Angela Richards. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991. 345-357.
Hames, Peter. The Czechoslovak New Wave. London: Wallflower Press, 2005.
Jansky, Filip. Riders in the Sky. London: Hodder Paperbacks, 1969.
Krejči, Oskar. Geopolitics of the Central European Region: The View from Prague and Bratislava. Bratislava: Veda, 2005.
Kudrna, Ladislav. Když nelétali [When they Weren’t Flying]. Prague: Libri, 2003.
Macnab, Geoffrey. “Prague Freeze.” Sight and Sound 16.8 (2006): 8.
Preskett, Mark. “A Little Too Desperate for an Oscar?” Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film 1.5 (2001)
Projections of Psychic Reality: A Centennial of Film and Psychoanalysis. Special issue of Psychoanalytic Inquiry 18.2 (1998).
Rajlich, Jiří. Na nebi hrdého Albionu [In the Skies of Brave Albion]. Vols. 1-7. Ares (vol. 1) & Svět křídel, 1999-2004.
Reifová, Irena. “Air Wars and Earthly Reconciliation: Interview with Jiří Ralich.” The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs 4.4 (2002): 16-18.
Rushton, Richard. “The Psychoanalytic Structure of Trauma: Spellbound.” Journal for Cultural Research 8.3 (2004): 371-384.
Thurschwell, Pamela. Sigmund Freud: Routledge Critical Thinkers. London: Routledge, 2000.
Tikovský, Václav. “Setkání s Nebeským jezdci” [An Encounter with the Sky Riders]. Reflex 41 (2004): 96.
Jindřich Polák: Riders in the Sky (Nebeští jezdci, 1968) and Jan Svěrák: Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět, 2001)
reviewed by David Sorfa © 2006