Věra Chytilová: Searching for Ester (Pátrání po Ester), 2005

reviewed by Stanislava Přádná © 2006

The Quest for Ester

It is a unique event in any cinema whenever two brilliant female artists work together. When somebody asked film director Věra Chytilová (b. 1929) and designer-screenwriter Ester Krumbachová (1923-1996) about the nature and course of their cooperation, they always answered that it had been perfect. But it is evident in Searching for Ester that their overall harmony contained both controversial and fruitful conflicts.

The two appear to have found their match in each other despite the differences in their personalities. Although their opinions sometimes clashed, they were subsumed through mutual inspiration and complementarity: Chytilová, an impulsive, quick-tempered, and provocative filmmaker, stubbornly penetrates to the essence of things, whereas Krumbachová was an enchantress whose combination of fantasy, emotion, and outstanding intellect combined to produce sparkling excitement. While Chytilová approaches creation fiercely, and always maintains a sharp and critical attitude toward important problems, Krumbachová was a sophisticated, intellectual creator immersed in a kind of esoteric mystique. She was rather like a priestess performing a ritual ceremony. Charged with creative energy, their feminine inspiration did not declare an open commitment to feminism. But they asserted themselves in a self-confident and audacious manner, especially when confronted with the masculine world.

Chytilová’s documentary has the character of an uncertain and exploratory quest. No certainties are discovered that are capable of establishing any fixed or permanent understanding of her friend. In the very first shot (with her back facing the camera), Chytilová announces in a questioning and unsure voice, as if to herself: “I thought I knew her.” And then, uninhibited, in a Chytilová-esque manner, she begins a probing investigation. She urgently, even unscrupulously, interviews a whole range of Ester’s acquaintances, ranging from close friends to celebrities to anonymous barflies in the fabled pub At the Green Fox (U zelené lišky). She embarks on a fierce exploration of Krumbachova’s personality.

Quite aware of her lack of reverence and the tactlessness in her approach, Chytilová censors neither questions nor answers. She has no intention of building a pious monument in her friend´s honor, nor is she concerned about producing an in-depth portrait. She wants Ester’s personality to come alive in all its complexity andwith all of its facets. She wants to peer into this exceptional woman as if she were a flashing gem, with each bezel reflecting differently when seen from differing angles. Her expressive, almost eccentric public personality is contrasted with her modest, non-egoistic soul.

With characteristic passion, Chytilová interrogates many miscellaneous witnesses, often random and bizarre acquaintances of Krumbachová. All this gives birth to a striking biographical essay built up largely from authentic personal memories and statements. In exploring Krumbachová’s life, the director is more interested in her darker side than in the many admiring comments on Ester’s attraction, charm, and intelligence (“absolutely unconventional,” “exceptionally intelligent, ” “very open,” “an advocate of female qualities,” etc.).
Although Ester’s life was anything but merciful, she never exaggerated her misery or wallowed in self-pity. She resisted her fate not by fighting against it, but by wisely accepting and absorbing its deep blows and disappointments. At the zenith of her fame during the golden age of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, in addition to her key collaborations with Věra Chytilová and Jan Němec, Krumbachová was a major inspiration to many filmmakers. Shortly afterwards, during the so-called Normalization period, she was banned from undertaking any official artistic work. Dependent on those rare projects that she completed using pseudonyms, she lived—not only politically—as a persona non grata. Having been expelled to an enforced solitude on the periphery of the artistic world, she paid a high price for her former privileges, leading her to seek escape in alcohol.

Few of those interviewed wonder about her miserable fate. Only Ivan Vyskočil [1] approaches this topic in a more profound manner, speaking about the paradox of her specific sense of humour (“a ludicrous irony of life”), full of deep melancholy. One of her friends recalls Ester describing herself as pushing tirelessly against internal boulders, evidence of her difficulties in moving forward.

Given the circumstances, it is remarkable that this woman has left predominantly bright and positive traces in the hearts of others. That is the most impressive message of Chytilová’s film: Krumbachová freely and spontaneously offering the best and most valuable qualities and talents with which she was blessed. She was right to pronounce her genuine philosophical reflections with confidence because they had an actual background in her very own life experience. Theater director Ladislav Smoček [2] has observed: “Her perception of reality was authentic, based just on herself.”

How does Chytilová express herself as the director of this film? She engages in a subconscious confrontation with Ester and confesses that Ester’s bohemian lifestyle was something that she found strange. She is astonished by the passionate love affairs in which she engaged in her later life and admits to not experiencing such delights in her own life. Just as Chytilová asks what Krumbachová was really like, should we not examine the attitude adopted by the director herself? Does the film throw any light on this? There is no doubt that she expresses an unequivocal loyalty to and a high regard for Krumbachová’s invention and personal originality.

In the course of some invective exchanges, Chytilová accuses director Jan Němec, co-author of the script of Krumbachová’s film The Murder of Engineer Devil / The Murder of Ing. Čerta (Vražda ing. Čerta, 1970), of neither helping nor discouraging Ester from shooting it. Yet, they come to an agreement that the film was incredibly bad and it would have been better if it had not been made; “I know nothing more silly than this film,” Němec adds. The Murder of Engineer Devil, in which cunning female submission clashes with man’s primitive dominance (justly punished and overthrown), is full of lively dialogue and serves as a light-hearted and amusing contribution to the discourse on women´s emancipation. Given this, and from a present-day perspective, it surely deserves to be viewed with greater favor. Ironically, it was in this underestimated film that Krumbachová inserted her essential, quite personal confession on the ever insoluble dissension between men and women. She did not judge or take sides; instead, she took pleasure from their quarrels.

She pronounced her “credo” in Jan Němec’s mini-portrait of her for the TV series GEN, Ester Krumbachová Through the Eyes of Jan Němec (Ester Krumbachová pohledem Jana Němce, 1993).[3] Half smiling, half sad, and with a mocking yet poetic undertone, she described life as a mere “joke” and simultaneously as a “beautifully scented trap,” one in which we are all condemned to fall, suffer, and rejoice.

Ester’s moments in front of the camera are a unique, private lesson for her friends, as she sings and speaks without inhibition. With an independent-minded charisma, she addresses the observing filmmakers—without even perceiving the camera. There are two areas where Krumbachová’s special sensitivities manifest themselves most profoundly: while singing and while interacting with her cats. When someone sings with such enthusiasm and from personal necessity, they release strong energies, exposing their vulnerability and inner soul to the outside world. Her profound link to her cats makes it seem as if her essence was almost housed within them. Allowing them to be her sole eye-witnesses and granting them the protection of her intimacy, their mentality became indispensible to her emotional and intellectual satisfaction.

At the same time, we can detect a certain distance in Chytilova’s attitude, not only because of her impartial and documentary-style objectivity. I imagine that both women found this emotional distance in their friendship to be beneficial. This may be precisely what marks the sensitive core of their creative consensus and interaction. Just as Ester communicated with ravens as mediators of transcendency, Věra now sends this nostalgic message to her dead friend in an impressive visual metaphor. The film ends with a final shot of flying birds, a spiritual symbol serving as a breathtaking tribute to their interplay.

Translated by Hana Nováková

Stanislava Přádná, Charles University, Prague


1] Ivan Vyskočil, psychologist, writer, and actor in non-traditional theater based on the so-called “text-appeals,” was one of the most important artistic personalities in Czech theater and cinema in the 1960s. As an actor, he played, among others roles, the main part of the Host in Jan Němec’s chef d’oeuvre The Party and the Guests / About the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966), which was co-scripted by Ester Krumbachová. He is now professor in the acting department in DAMU and in the conservatory.

2] Ladislav Smoček was one of the founding members of the well-known Prague “theater of small forms,” the Činoherní klub (Drama Club), in the beginning of the 1960s. He still works there as chief director.

3] GEN is an abbreviation of Gallery of the Elite of the Nation, a continuing project that was begun by Fero Fenič’s Studio FEBIO in the 1990s. It involves short, 15 minute hommages to representative and important people in Czech society, science, and culture. These portraits were directed by many directors of all generations.

Searching for Ester, Czech Republic, 2005
Documentary, Color, Dvcam/DVD, 119 minutes
Direction: Věra Chytilová
Screenplay: Věra Chytilová
Director of Photography: David Čálek
Music: Antonio Vivaldi, Sergei Rachmaninov, Ludwig van Beethoven
Editor: Jakub Hejna
Sound: Petr Provaznik, Michal Gábor
With: Jan Němec, Ivan Vyskočil, Květa Fialová, Jiří Krejčík, Otakar Vávra, Vojtěch Jasný, Radoslav Brzobohatý, Marta Kubíšová, Jiřina Bohdalová, Jiří Svoboda, Michal Bregant, Petr Václav, and others.
Producer: Vratislav Šlajer (Bionaut Films)
Production: Bionaut Films – Česká televize

Věra Chytilová: Searching for Ester (Pátrání po Ester), 2005

reviewed by Stanislava Přádná © 2006

Updated: 01 Nov 06