Czech Dream: Capitalism with a Human Face?

By Christina Stojanova (University of Regina)

© Christina Stojanova, 2006

Could there be “capitalism with a human face”? This is the question that Vit Klusák (b. 1980) and Filip Remunda (b. 1973), two young filmmakers from the famous Prague Film School (FAMU) seek to answer in their highly controversial “reality show,” called Czech Dream (Česky sen, 2004). The inspirational mantra from the early 1990s across the newly liberated post-Communist world was the cherished “return to Europe.” Now many of the newly EU ascendant states are worried that Europe is returning to them with a vengeance and, along with the unwarranted joys of consumerism, is bringing back repressed memories of economic and cultural suppression. Evidence? One-hundred-and-twenty-five hypermarkets have been built in the Czech Republic in the past five years. It took 20 years to build the same number in the Netherlands. And Czech Dream or Český sen—the 126th supermarket in the Czech Republic—was designed by the directors as a response to the brave new world they are living in. Czech Dream, a film about a hypermarket that does not actually exist, is an ingenious way of transcending the simple critique of compulsive consumerism for the sake of uncompromisingly exposing the mechanism of commercial and political advertising.

The press-kit describes Czech Dream as a “satirical documentary” and a “bastard child of Michael Moore’s ‘provocumentary’ or ‘mockumentary’ style, and hoax shows like Candid Camera.” What started off as a low-budget film school project soon escalated into a national hoax, seducing thousands of people via the persuasive means of slick advertising.

For two weeks in the spring of 2003, the streets of Prague were saturated with advertising for a fake hypermarket, called Czech Dream. Strangely enough, however, the ads said: “DON’T GO, DON’T RUSH, DON’T BUY, DON’T SPEND,” and still around 5,000 people turned up with camping chairs at 6 in the morning on the “opening’ day”—31 May 2003—in the sunlit fields of Letnany, a Prague suburb. But instead of a hypermarket with fairytale prices offering a TV set for 500 Czech crowns (or $25 CAD), they found only the dream hypermarket’s façade (10 meters high and 100 meters wide).

Naturally, the project occasioned a sensation, and generated an unprecedented uproar and controversy, reflected in the 195 articles published over the four-month period after the widely publicized fiasco of this “hypermarket for a better life,” and the event even became a talking point in the Czech Parliament. Czech Dream has also raised a number of interesting political, ethical, and formal issues that this essay will attempt to tackle briefly.

In 1995 the first western-style hypermarket opened in Prague. Consumer development continued at an accelerated rate and, in the five-year period from 1999 to 2004, some 125 hypermarkets opened across the tiny Czech Republic of about 10 million inhabitants. These developments, stimulating rampant consumerism, complacency, and neglect of the civic and spiritual values that helped the Czechs confront Austro-Hungarian, German, and Soviet domination, have been met with a healthy dose of scepticism and opposition by the Czech intelligentsia, and especially by university students, who belong to the traditionally defiant and dissenting social stratum. It is enough to recall the Prague Spring of 1968 and the self-sacrificial response of young people like Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in protest when it was violently suppressed. Warsaw Pact tanks crushed that country’s attempts to introduce Socialism with a Human Face as an alternative to the fossilized Kremlin-backed system. Some twenty years later, in November 1989, demonstrations against the totalitarian regime—arguably one of the harshest in the region—were again organized and led by young people. Their protests brought about the so-called Velvet Revolution, thereby reaffirming the contention that the Czech Republic is fertile ground for engendering a resistance—intellectual and artistic—against any and all attempts to contain the free human spirit, including, one would like to believe, the sweet slavery of consumption and greed.

The times, however, have changed radically and the line separating Good from Evil, Right from Wrong, the Spiritual from the Material is not so well and unquestionably drawn anymore. What is more, in the name of a passionately cherished affluence, people seem to be ready to sacrifice, forget, and forgive much more than one would think. As the communist past gradually sinks into oblivion along with concepts like repression and manipulation, freedom and compliance, the newcomers to the EU (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) are hurriedly mending their ways in an earnest attempt to catch up with Western values, which sadly turn out to be little more than just another ideological system, promoting rampant consumerism as a dubious compensation for Western colonial and environmental guilt. The ultimate irony (or tragedy) of this truly post-modern moment—where everything goes, nothing matters, and conformism runs supreme—was foreseen in Vaclav Havel’s celebrated essay “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978 and first published in English in 1985.

Havel believes that conformism is an existentially universal phenomenon, transcending the historical and geographical boundaries of communist Eastern Europe. He argues that there is obviously something in human beings that “paralyses every effort of people’s better selves to revolt.” And whether human beings are “compelled to live within lies” in the confines of a totalitarian state or choose out of their own will to live within the comfortable bubble of consumerism, they “can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living this way.” Therefore, not only do modern economic and political systems alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports these systems as its own involuntary master plan, as a “degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people’s own failure as individuals” (38).

In other words, modern individuals seem to be only too ready, for the sake of their material certainties, to sacrifice their spiritual and moral integrity, to deceive themselves for the sake of their own comfort, and either succumb to “life in lies,” forced by the murderous oppression of a totalitarian system, or embrace out of their own free will the fake opulence of neo-liberalism. It is, therefore, vital that people should be reminded as often as possible of the existence of the “hidden sphere” of spiritual values and of the possibility of “life in truth.”

These concerns also permeate the works of the Polish-born and raised social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most versatile theorists of post-modern society. “The difference … between the modern and the post-modern stage of our contemporary society,” he says, is “one of emphasis and priorities” as far as consumption is concerned, affecting “virtually every aspect of society, culture and individual life,” so much so that it allows us to characterize “our society… as a society of a separate and distinct kind—a consumer society… The consumer of the consumer society is a sharply different creature from consumers in any other society thus far… If … our ancestors pondered the question whether one works in order to live or lives in order to work, the dilemma one hears mulled over most often today is whether one consumes in order to live or whether one lives so that one can consume…” (Globalization 80).

In light of Bauman’s musings, this article argues that while Klusák and Remunda set out to examine critically a truly post-modern phenomenon, they do it by utilizing formal and epistemological tools that allow them to take the aloof position of enlightened commentators—outside and above the phenomenon under scrutiny—a position that is typical of the intellectual and moral gurus of Central/ Eastern European modernity. Their attempts to use the powerful advertising machine to their own ends backfire to a certain extent as the deliberately pursued entertainment (and commercial) value of their own film puts them in a position not much different from that of any profit and sensation oriented “reality TV” show.

To begin with, Czech Dream flaunts the features of what Bill Nichols calls the expository mode of reality representation, where “images serve as illustrations or counterpoints of verbal argument,” even if the latter is ironic and satirical. Czech Dream displays the “epistemological certitude that specific knowledge about the world is somehow accessible to the filmmakers,” a feature that is typical of this mode (34-7). Unfortunately, in our post-modern times, crucially lacking in the ethical consensus that could make such specific knowledge a shared reference frame as to what is good and what is bad, there is a very real danger that even the best of intentions can be subverted to serve the cause one is fighting against. To quote Bauman again, “in post-modern times, with the religious and state ethical monopoly in abeyance... the supply of ethical rules is abandoned to the care of the marketplace” (Life 4).

However, believing themselves armed with such an epistemological certitude against the tricks of advertising and consumerism, Klusák and Remunda set out to reveal the two sides of the consumerist craze: the mechanism of advertising as the ultimate device for enticing people and people’s own compliance with the voluntary bondage of consuming and spending. In doing so, they emphasise their own role as omnipotent creators of the experiment with the fake hypermarket, which could again be read either as a brave determination to face “the sea of troubles” that the imminent public scandal would bring down upon them or (which is more likely) be interpreted as egotistic self-promotion. Especially telling is the episode where Klusák and Remunda transform before our very eyes from rag-tag bohemian filmmakers into Hugo Boss-clad executives of the non-existent hypermarket Czech Dream. Would anyone be convinced that displaying Hugo Boss’ logo in a documentary designed as an acerbic critique of consumerism, would hurt the company? I have my doubts… As Naomi Klein says in her powerful book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, advertising companies have become extremely aggressive in appropriating their adversaries’ tactics for self-promotion. “The modern-day ad world’s most extreme attempts to co-opt anti-corporate rage,” she writes, “have fed directly off images … displaying anger and desperation” (307).

The real contribution that Czech Dream makes as a documentary is the step-by-step examination of the advertising process. Luckily, the filmmakers have found upstart marketing agents of their own age who seize upon the opportunity to show off and, as one of the advertising gurus in the film says, “there is no good and bad publicity: there is publicity. Period!” Their arrogant self-confidence culminates in the episode where a young marketing executive boasts with a führer-style demeanor that if he can manipulate thousands of people into following his designs, fake or not; he can do anything! Indeed, even the so-called negative ad campaign he designs—“DON’T GO, DON’T BUY, DON’T SPEND”—works because people believe, to quote Goethe’s Mephistopheles, that when there are words, there is meaning. In other words, when there is advertising, there is always a bargain…

Along with the expository mode, the auteurs Klusák and Remunda apply Nichols’ third, or interactive mode, which “highlights the processes of social exchange and representation” (56), and which represents a return to the direct address of expository filmmaking via the interview. Given the loud confidence of the expository mode, ethical considerations become negligible and the subjects interviewed “give their testimony within a frame they cannot control and may not even understand” (37).

There are two clusters of interviews in the film: those that are part of the advertising research (studying the shopping habits of Czechs in relation to hypermarkets) and those that are related to the unravelling of the hoax. Certainly the most interesting are the ones revealing the effects of marketing on public space, cultural freedom, democracy, and even on people’s sanity. Most interviewees are self-critical, warm, and responsive people who recognize their problem of compulsive shopping and are somewhat defensive for not reading more books or spending more quality time with friends and family instead of in supermarkets. But they are also not really alarmed by the phenomenon and discuss it in a matter-of-fact way. One of the interviewees says: “I do not recall what we used to do on week-ends before the hypermarket era… I guess we went for long walks, or to see friends… Now the week-ends are reserved for shopping: we plan in advance, we create shopping lists, discuss them, argue…” Another interviewee’s daughter insists that she feels sick outdoors and only shopping makes her feel really good! Yet another one recalls the time when they used to drink tap water, not buy it as they do now—“We buy it because it is there, I guess…,” she admits.

Some of the subjects, however, “give their testimony within a frame they obviously do not understand,” like the mother who innocently admits that her real hobby is singing, not shopping. But along with her two young kids she can only shyly hum a popular Hollywood film song for the camera. The directors seize upon her naïveté and create a quick metaphor of Hollywood’s dangerous ubiquity, which, one has to admit, looks paradoxically appropriate against the background of such an icon of global cultural standardization as the Tesco hypermarket.

The filmmakers’ “epistemological certitude,” however, turns into a somewhat arrogant condescension, expressed in a pop-song called “HYPER-ANTHEM,” composed specially for the film with bitingly sarcastic lyrics. [see below] It contains a clue about the nature of the Czech Dream hoax and is sung by a choir of 50 children. Unfortunately or fortunately, neither the children nor their ambitious conductor seem to have gotten the joke and rise to the occasion of performing for the camera with all the earnestness and solemnity required by the task.

Another highly entertaining element of the film is the insight into the creation of a television advertisement that features a young macho worker who, just fresh from the shower, brags in front of his colleagues (and the camera) about the virtues of the new supermarket and, more specifically, about those of its salesgirls. Here the film leaves the domain of strictly documentary work and appropriates the tools of a mockumentary, all for the sake of creating a spectacle, meant to make people’s shopping obsessions less disturbing and even attractive via the “naturalizing effect” of the fiction film narrative. This inherent controversy is strongly reminiscent of the use of candid camera shows by early 1950s American TV, which made Cold War surveillance entertaining and ideologically acceptable by normalizing it (Clissold 35). The climate of Cold War politics and culture arguably made audiences “receptive to reality-based hidden-camera gags” (Clissold 36). In this case, a “cultural product functioned as an ideological safety valve to relieve growing tensions over increasing government surveillance of the general public.” This example also revealed “the extent to which those who were surveilled were simultaneously subjected to surveillance in a surveillance society” (Clissold 37).

But are people really to be blamed for their shopping obsessions? To quote Klein again, woe to such “media critics, who focus on adverts’ persuasive power over seemingly clueless people” (303). She sees little potential for redemption in most media criticism, whose stance is directed against the “sorry populace who will never be in possession of the critical tools it needs to formulate a political response to marketing mania and media synergy”—criticism, that is, that reeks of contempt for the people who “want—ugh!—things!” (304). Indeed, most of the people who show up for the film’s grand finale, the so-called opening of the Czech Dream hypermarket, are not greedy yuppies and idle middle-class housewives, but people who look like they belong to the lower social strata of society. And no matter how hard the members of the eleven TV crews try, they can catch few on camera whose greed and ignorance could justify the enterprise. As Klein has it, “a belief system that regards the public as a bunch of ad-fed cattle, held captive under commercial culture’s hypnotic spell cannot be reconciled with genuine political empowerment” (304). Actually, it is these same people, tricked into believing in the reality of Czech Dream that finally save the day, providing the filmmakers with a much needed larger and sustaining metaphorical framework by comparing their naïve belief in the fake hypermarket to the hopes nurtured by European Union membership. This might well turn into yet another hoax, barely covered by a colorful façade. Listening to and watching these people who, turn their justified anger with this strange experience into a lesson from which to learn, makes one cautiously believe that Klusák and Remunda’s controversial Czech Dream of Capitalism with a Human Face, where shopping obsession can be nicely counterbalanced by human values and concerns, may one day become a reality…

HYPER-ANTHEM: Czech Dream Anthem
What is happiness like?
What makes a dream full?
How can anything be bright
When the day is so dull?
You see what you want
No need to idealize.
Life lasts but a second
So want truth, not lies.

Chorus: Try to see as a child
Many things will seem wild.
The world's yours so take it.
All you need is to want it.
It will be a nice big bash.
And if you got no cash
Get a loan and scream.
I want to fulfill my dream.

We’re just a tiny land,
We’re just a little place,
But we can take nothing and
Build castles up into space,
Good people live here,
Beautiful children, too.
So kill the envious viper
And let your dream come true.
How can you let love in?
What does a happy dream say?
When they cut the red ribbon
On that nice dreamy day
The earth becomes Shangri-la.
It’s sunny and they all play.
Add it to your agenda
The thirty first of May.
Chorus: I want to see like a child
Many things will seem wild
The world’s yours so take it
All you need is to want it
Don’t be a sloth
Come grab a cart
Don’t blow it off
Let the Czech dream start.

Translated by Hana Janovská, Linquafilm

Czech Dream: Hypermarket for a Better Life, Czech Republic, 2004
Color, 87 minutes
Directors: Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda
Screenplay: Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda
Editing: Zdeněk Marek
Cinematography: Vít Klusák
Art Director: Štěpán Malovec
Music: Hynek Schneider

Czech Dream anthem lyrics: Tomáš Hanák
Performed: Linda Finková and the Sedmihlásek Children’s Choir
Sound: David Hysek
Starring: residents of the Czech Republic
Producer: Filip Čermák
Production: Hypermarket Film Ltd., Czech Television, Mirage, FAMU

Czech Dream websites: film website; hypermarket website

Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequences. NY: Columbia UP, 1998.
—. Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.
Clissold, Bradley D. “Candid Camera and the Origins of Reality TV: Contextualizing a Historical Precedent.” In Understanding Reality Television. Ed. Su Holmes and
Deborah Jermyn. London: Routledge, 2004.
Havel, Vaclav, et al. “The Power of the Powerless.” In The Power of the Powerless. Ed. John Keane. London: Hutchinson, 1978.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Vintage Canada, 2000.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

© Christina Stojanova, 2006