Juraj Jakubisko: A Thousand-Year Old Bee (Tisícročná včela) 1983

reviewed by Alex Golden © 2005

Nationalism in A Thousand Year-Old Bee

It is somewhat surprising that a career such as Juraj Jakubisko’s could generate a film as immensely popular as A Thousand-Year Old Bee. Until this film, Jakubisko’s canon was comprised primarily of films that were either banned or only made available for limited release because of the controversial material they took up. A Thousand-Year Old Bee, however, became the highest grossing film in the history of Slovak cinema. For this to occur, not only was it necessary for the film to have a particular resonance with its audience, but also, given Jakubisko’s history, it had to pass muster with a censorship apparatus that was particularly attentive to any potentially ideologically incorrect and subversive messages and themes contained in the film. Furthermore, the types of themes that engage popular imagination often do not map favorably with a governmental imperative to support films that serve the aim of socialist realism: to lift up mass consciousness as society advances through the stages of socialism towards a true communism. Apparently, A Thousand Year-Old Bee was successful on both of these counts.

As difficult as it is to keep track of all of the characters and all of the ways in which they relate to one another, it is also important to be able to distinguish them according to their ethnicities. In this sense, perhaps the film’s popularity can be seen as indicative of strong nationalistic stirrings within Slovakia, which at the time was still a part of Czechoslovakia. The film chronicles the lives of three generations of Slovak families from 1887 to 1917, a period that marks the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this time, what now comprises Slovakia was under the domain of the largely autonomous Kingdom of Hungary. Slovaks accounted for a majority of the population in the regions that they had settled, but like all of the other ethnic groups in the kingdom, they, like the ruling Hungarians, were a minority. The families are shown as they develop in this context, with particular emphasis placed upon the development of romantic relationships, many of which result in marriages. As the children produced by these marriages become adults, they also become the narrative focus of the film. In their adult lives they are subject to several forces of social organization, including religion, nationalism, capitalism, and the promise of communism.

While Jakubisko’s film could have been a veritable hornet’s nest for the state censors, it managed to position itself on the “correct” side of these issues. This is especially tricky, since nationalism can often be at odds with communism, especially in a state such as Czechoslovakia, which was populated primarily by the two ethnicities of Slovaks and Czechs. Jakubisko gives just enough nods to communism as a force of liberation that helped to free Slovaks from an oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire, which according to communist propaganda, afforded them few economic opportunities, forcing some to migrate from job to job.

In general, the film lends a certain tacit approval to communism by taking jabs at forces that opposed it such as religion and capitalism. The most actively religious figures are represented as largely blind to present circumstances, clinging to something that has no hope of delivering people from an increasingly perilous environment. Martin Pichanda’s wife, Ružena (Jana Janovská), for instance, has little concern for anything other than an unreflective embrace of religion as she constantly scorns her husband (Jozef Kroner) for his mildly sinful conduct, while he is represented as the symbolic father of the Slovak nation, as the progenitor of generations yet to come. Capitalism is repeatedly attacked in the figure of his son, Valent (Michal Dočolomanský), who forces family members to rent property from him upon Martin’s death and eventually makes his fortune from wartime leather production, essentially feeding off of the deaths of his Slovak countrymen. At the same time, however, the film is quite spare in its direct praise of communism, raising the question of whether those who have embraced communism are as blind as those who have embraced religion. Apparently, the film had enough derogatory references to anti-communistic forces to satisfy the censors concerning its “ideological correctness.”

Instead of exalting communism as the cure-all for the oppressive conditions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the film spends more time celebrating nationalism. The very title of the film is a metaphor for Slovakia’s nearly one thousand year history of subjugation to Hungarian hegemony. Slovakia is the bee, whose stinger is the Slovak drive to remain unified as a single people. The stinger, of course, also stands in for the phallus, the procreative instrument of the continuance of the Slovaks as a people. The film privileges nationalism over socialism as a sustaining force, especially in the character of Samo (Štefan Kvietik), Martin’s son and narrative center of the film after Martin’s death. Samo, while taking on the patriarchal role of his father, is not particularly interested in communism, as he indicates at the gathering when he is encouraged to embrace it. Instead, Samo’s loyalty remains with his family. Even at the end of the film, after all of his children have been killed in the war, Samo endeavors to block the rail tunnel in order to protect his family, which has been expanded to include all of Slovakia after a visit by his father from beyond the grave, reasserting the allegory of the bee and the hive. Samo’s death by the hand of an Austro-Hungarian soldier in the film’s closing scene indicates that the work of nationalism is not yet complete.

A Thousand-Year Old Bee further embellishes its nationalist leanings by engaging stylistic devices and references that clearly mark it as a Slovak film: the frequent use of colored filters and different film stocks recalls Slovak New Wave films; the allusions to construction work; and the use of Jozef Kroner in a protagonist’s role link it to The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze; dir. Jan Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965), perhaps Slovakia’s most acclaimed film. Jakubisko’s film, however, takes a decidedly less ambiguous position on the possibility of a positive function for masculinity than earlier films, such as The Shop on Main Street or The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti, dir. Štefan Uher, 1963). Masculinity here serves to build and protect a nation comprised of families of Slovak origin against the exploitative forces of capital and imperialism. While A Thousand-Year Old Bee, like the other two films mentioned, ends on a somber note, the hope for redemption is more explicitly embedded than in the other two. This redemption seems to point towards an independent Slovakia, finally justifying the deaths of all those killed in World War I. While in some respects this type of redemption is similar to that found in Soviet films of the historical revolutionary genre, which posit at the end a future purpose for the deaths of those killed in socialist revolutions (namely, internationalistic communism), A Thousand-Year Old Bee places ultimate value upon the realization of Slovakia as an independent nation. It is the inevitable and desirable consequence of the resilience of the bee and its hive.

Alex Golden (University of Pittsburgh)

A Thousand-Year Old Bee (Tisícročná včela)
Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) 1983, 162 minutes, color
Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Screenwriters: Peter Jaroš (also story), Juraj Jakubisko, Jozef Pašteka
Cinematography: Stanislav Doršič
Music: Petr Hapka
Production designer: Miloš Kalina
Editing: Patrik Pašš, Judita Fatulová
Cast: Jozef Kroner, Michal Dočolomanský, Barbora Štepánková, Štefan Kvietik, Eva Jakoubková, Ivan Drozdy, Samuel Adamčík
Production: Koliba (Bratislava)

Juraj Jakubisko: A Thousand-Year Old Bee (Tisícročná včela) 1983

reviewed by Alex Golden © 2005

Updated: 21 Dec 05