Vel'ky Rozsutec seen from the top of Chleb - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Capturing Malá Fatra: How A Photographer Transformed the Perception of a Slovak National Park

Sometimes, on rare, rare occasions, you come across someone in the annals of history who utterly transformed the place in which they lived. In the Malá Fatra National Park in Northern Slovakia, that person was Milan Šaradin. The rediscovery of thousands of Šaradin’s photographs by his granddaughter Maria Clapham and her husband, Mike, prompted them to shine the spotlight on this influential individual once more. Over the last few years the couple have been creating a fabulous online resource on Šaradin and his images, which stunningly document life and traditions in rural Slovakia over a seminal period in the country’s development between the 1940s and 1980s. Here, Mike Clapham tells the fascinating story…

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Words by Mike Clapham

It is best if I begin by telling you a bit about myself, and my wife, and how the discovery of thousands of the famous Slovak photographer Milan Šaradin’s long-lost images, many in reels of film stashed away in storage chests, took place…

Roots

I was born in Sussex in the UK, in a small village called Framfield and never left that area, apart from occasional trips for work. But I have always had a very keen interest in photography, with a particular leaning towards blank-and-white images, and spent much of my early life in a darkroom. This fascination has remained with me to this day, along with the transition into digital photography and all that it entails. My other great interest has been computing, and I have been building my own systems for the last two decades. Both passions would prove very useful when it came to what my wife and I would unearth years later in a small town in the heart of one of Slovakia’s most beautiful national parks.

My wife Maria is Slovak, born in the mountain-rimmed Vrátna valley in Malá Fatra national park. Her childhood, as one might expect in such a stunning part of the world, was, she assures me, idyllic. She lived in a chalet next to the Chleb chairlift, learning to ski from a very early age and passing a great deal of time in the surrounding mountains cultivating a knowledge of the area that would likewise prove to huge value to the discovery.

In 1998 she left Slovakia for England to work, and this was how we met. Whilst we remained living in the UK, we regularly returned to Slovakia to see her family and it was during one of these visits that I began to learn about her family and in particular her grandfather Milan Šaradin (See Milan Šaradin: Life at a Glance, below).

Everything about the man was interesting but the thing that caught my imagination most of all was that he had been a famous and prolific photographer in Slovakia, with an emphasis on this area from the mid 1930s till he died in 1984.

The discovery that I made was that literally hundreds of his photographs were still around with, most importantly of all, boxes of negatives which had never been seen by anyone – not even by Šaradin himself – because they were still in rolls in the cans, developed but not printed. For a lot of people, this would have been an astounding find, but for a photographer like myself, nothing short of amazing.

Now we fast-forward to 2007, when Maria and I began to build a chalet to live here in Terchová (see Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps, below) and a couple of years later we left England and moved here permanently to discover all about this incredible country and its people.

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Taking on the Past

By 2012, we had our life over here sorted out. And then came a different sort of sort-out: we approached Maria’s grandmother to ask if we could take all the negatives and photos that belonged to her husband so that I could scan them in to my computer with a view to making a website, putting them there for everyone to see. This she was happy for us to do, so we gathered up all the boxes and took them to our chalet to begin the work…… oh, if only we had known what we were taking on!

Just imagine how it was for me to open the boxes and find inside hundreds of envelopes and reels of film. This amounted to thousand upon thousand of negatives, in singles and strips, with barely any explanatory information. You have to realise that these negatives had been sitting in a cellar since 1984: people had been allowed to come and look for the odd picture once in a while, so they had basically been disrupted from any order that might have existed. Because of their many years in the cellar many were damaged by damp, which rendered them unusable.

So I decided to just start salvaging what I could, first scanning them and opting to sort them out by adding information as to the locations and people in the pictures afterwards. It soon became apparent that there were many more than I first thought. We have never counted them but by a rough estimate we think there are approximately 8000.

For those who are interested in the technical side of the scanning I will list the equipment and software used at the end of the article. (see Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Images Were Preserved, below).

End in Site: Towards Making the Preserved Images A Reality

So I embarked on what turned out to be a long, long job: nearly four years to be exact! Nevertheless it was a magical time. Every time I put new negatives in the scanner I would find something that was too good to keep to myself and would call Maria to have a look. I think when I reached 2000 images I decided to start sorting through them more intensely and publish them on a website – at first it was my own site, and then I purchased the existing site in Milans name. And this, at long last, is the result: www.milansaradin.com.

Anyone who has ever done anything like this will know how many tasks are involved. First we had to identify each image, who or what it was and when it was taken. Very few of the images came with any accompanying detail: no locations, no names and worst of all no dates of when they were taken.

I believe this part of the process took the longest to do. It was necessary to ask family, friends and indeed anyone who could give us any information. For me this was a great learning curve. I learnt the names of mountains, valleys, villages, towns, people and events that I would never have known had it not been for this discovery. Some people even hinted that I probably knew more about the area than those who lived here. I don’t know about that but I gained a lot of knowledge about this place I live in thanks to Milan.

Eventually, anyway, we gained a database of pictures. We put most of them online and continued to scan the rest. To date I have around 4500 black and white plus 500 colour images on my computer and I estimate this to be roughly 60% of the total number of negatives – the best quality ones to be precise. On the website at the moment I have nearly 3500 pictures but I am in the process of redesigning – with the end intention of having 5000 there for all to see.

Šaradin’s Significance Today

Our thinking has always been that these photographs are of such historical value to the area that they need to be seen by everyone from the people who lived during the period the images cover down to the younger generation who never saw what it was like then. But the body of work as a whole is of immense value to a wider demographic. It spans a huge chunk of Slovakia’s recent past from the 1940s through to the 1980s, and shows unusual glimpses into how people lived, worked and played: an important insight not only into the times but also, in a country as seldom documented or championed as Slovakia is, an insight into the foundations of Slovak culture during almost the entirety of its time under Communism. All this feels, in short, like a glimpse into something which would otherwise forever have remained hidden.

Construction of the Cable Car- image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

The end of the ski season at Chleb – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Milan Šaradin (1910-1984): Life at a Glance

During his life Šaradin was a keen photographer, but also a campaigner for the conservation of the environment, civic developer, sports personality and publicist.

1930 – 1937 He worked as a Typographer in Zilina for a print company called Krano.

1939 – 1944 He was manager of a Malá Fatra mountain hotel in Štefanová, during which time the hotel was burned down, amongst many others in the area, by the Germans.

1944-1947 After the war he organised the rebuilding of Malá Fatra’s most popular mountain house, Chata pod Chlebom (Chalet under Chleb).

1947-1962 From 1947 he organised the building of the main chair lift in Vrátna and also played a role in the construction of other lifts in the Vrátna area. Then for a time he was the man in charge of the area’s chairlifts. He co-founded the Mountain Rescue Service in Vrátna, which became the Malá Fatra region’s key Mountain Rescue base. Mainly due to his dedication and love of the local area, he founded the first tourism centre for Terchová and its surroundings.

1962-1967 He was so successful in promoting the area that Vrátna was added, in 1962, to the international category for tourism and five years later (1967) he helped Vrátna to become an Area of Outstanding National Beauty and ultimately the National Park (národný park) of Malá Fatra that exists today.

Besides his many publications, in 1996 during Janošíkové dni (an annual festival in honour of the region’s fabled outlaw, Juraj Jánošík), Šaradin’s work was included as part of the Vrátna – Malá Fatra exhibition. A book was also produced, “Veď je tá Terchová” which contains many of Milan’s photographs. He was also an active member of a climbing club, IAMES, and he received many awards for his work with the mountain rescue service, tourism, skiing and climbing.

The majority of his work was dedicated to this beautiful area that he loved.
 “Janošik’s country fulfilled me and gave me the best days of my life” he is quoted as saying. “It gave me something to admire every day.”

Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps

If people are interested they can see photos of the construction of our chalet on my website. We also detail a lot of what we do over here in Malá Fatra on our blogs, Mikez Blog covering general information and Marias Blog on which she talks about beekeeping and crocheting in Slovakia.

The Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Old Films Were Preserved

People always seem to ask how things are done so this is the techy side of the discovery.

I scanned the negatives using an Epson Perfection V700: this is a flatbed scanner with film holders and produces very good results. The scanning software is Lasersoft Silverfast Studio Ai Version 8.5.

The negatives get scanned into my Homebuilt PC. The software I use to process and archive the images was originally Adobe Lightroom but now I use Capture One Pro.

I have not retouched the images in any great amount, because they varied in condition and colour. One thing I did to them all was de-saturate the colour: thus leaving them in pure black and white and crop if needed. However I have kept the original scans before any adjustment was made (much like keeping the negatives or RAW images of today).

I am in the process of rebuilding the website with the intention of putting all or most of the images online using the Genesis framework which should allow faster access.

Pink dreams?

Pink Dreams: Fairytale Ending?

There’s a moment at the end of one of my favourite Slovak movies, Pink Dreams (or Ruzové Sny) which I really hope is prophetic. At the very least, it has not lost any of its relevance nigh-on 40 years on and – like the film as a whole, really – is a brave, brave vision for Slovak cinema.

I do not like to reveal endings to films but in this case, I don’t think talking about this scene spoils anything.

Dusan Hanák’s Pink Dreams is about young love, somewhere in the Eastern Slovak countryside. Young love, no less, between a white postman (name of Jakub) and a pretty gypsy (Jolanka).

And at the very end of the film, the dream sequences which have been growing in frequency throughout (confusing the viewer whether they are in fact watching what happens or what the vivid imaginations of the main characters would like to happen) suddenly take over. And everyone in the film is dancing together. All the white characters of the film as well as the gypsies. It really seems – for one beautifully put-together scene – like the problems which have plagued the main characters throughout are at last over, and that all are united.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that was the reality in Slovakia today, too? White Slovaks and Roma Slovaks dancing together…

Well. It was a cracking good movie anyway.

BUY THE MOVIE: At Artforum or the other top Slovak movie outlet, Gorilla

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Move On...

The One About the Suspicious Border Guard, the Pretty Girls and the Deer

I always love scouting out depictions of Slovakia on TV and Film – mostly Slovak or Czech ones, admittedly, but the occasional Western European one too.

So it was only a matter of time before I discovered Move On, a gritty European road movie which was released in 2012 in eight staggered short episodes online. A whole section (episode 3) of Move On, about an international man of mystery, played by Mads Mikkelsen, and his attempts to deliver a yet-more mysterious silver suitcase across Europe, is entirely dedicated to Slovakia. In fact, let’s give Slovakia a little more kudos: the eight different episodes respectively featured eight different European countries, and Slovakia was one of those coveted eight. Well, let’s face it. After less fortunate representations in the Hostel series of gory horror films and 2004’s highly forgettable Eurotrip it was about time Slovakia received a slightly more realistic movie portrayal.

Move On is actually a pretty compelling thriller – although it’s presumably set before Slovakia became part of Schengen in 2007, as the first scene entails a rather tense border interrogation for our protagonist (yes, it’s true that once we British depart the European Union such interrogations could again become commonplace but as for now, the scene really evokes images of Slovakia’s erstwhile stint as part of the Communist Bloc: flashlights scanning our hero’s car, a surly armed guard growling “what is your business in Slovakia?” and salivating Alsatians champing at the bit to get their teeth into unwelcome newcomers should those grim-faced border officials so command).

Mikkelsen (aka Nicholas) is tired in this episode (it’s a long drive from the Netherlands, from where he set out in episode one), so it’s a relief when he gets passed the guards and on into Bratislava. Here he checks in to a smart-looking hotel (the Austria Trend Hotel perhaps– Nicholas is an intense character who looks like he needs to be in the thick of the action). Then, instantly, a couple of paces passed reception, Nicholas bumps into a hot chick who is clearly smitten with him after a mere glance whilst waiting for the lift. Nicholas is too fatigued for a one night stand, however (it’s also true that when strange hot chicks start making suggestive remarks to you in lifts even the most desirous and desirable of us men have to treat the move with caution, and at least entertain the thought that they might be spies sent to assassinate us). In any case, our protagonist has to prepare for what will prove to be a demanding driving stunt next day.

The stunt involves losing the car tailing him by a canny manoeuvre between two approaching trams, and then high-speed reversing into an underground parking lot (to be fair in Bratislava he’d have had several options in that regard). It’s a neat move, but Slovak drivers do attempt similar things on the highways every day – and they don’t even charge you one Euro cent to watch.

A few more fraught moments and he’s on back the road – to Serbia this time. But the best-laid plans seldom play out as anticipated and, driving fast (he’s a good driver, he probably couldn’t resist) along a country lane he accidentally writes off his car after a collision with a deer. The accident was 100% the deer’s fault.

Crashed car = big problem. Nicholas has a long distance yet to drive.

But help is at hand, in the form of the second – and still hotter – chick of the episode, pulling up in a battered old truck she’s been hitching a lift in. I very much doubt such a beautiful hitch-hiker has ever alighted from such a battered old truck but our protagonist (currently sitting disconsolately in a closed, middle-of-nowhere garage) is hardly in a position to mull over the anomaly for too long. The girl and the amenable old driver are going “where the winds blow” which isn’t amazingly helpful, actually, for Nicholas, who needs to get down to Southern Europe, pronto. But love interest number 2 is pretty, and he’s got no better offers, so what the Hell. At least it’s wheels, right?

Methinks, however, that this love interest (Slovak actress Gabriela Marcinkova, who hails from the good city of Prešov) is here to stay a while…

Episode 4 sheds a little more light on that. Just a little. Because the grand finale has to take place in that fabled frontier between west and east… that hotbed of espionage… that’s right. Berlin. And Nicholas is still very far from Berlin…

Záhrada

Záhrada (1995), like Martin  Šulík’s previous film, Všetko čo mam rád, is perhaps best watched on one of those seemingly never-ending sultry evenings in the height of a hot summer. Then you’ll be poised to recall most poignantly what it was like to be in the depths of a long school holiday from your early childhood: unlimited time; not a great deal to do; a corresponding fascination with the beauty of the small things (the heavy scent of pollen, building a treehouse, fishing for tadpoles in the local stream).

In such a state of mind, Záhrada makes most sense. Its main character, Jakub, is not dissimilar to protagonist Tomás in Všetko čo mam rád: a thirty-something for whom life seems directionless, living with his father in their cramped flat, having an affair with a married woman, in a job he cares little for, whiling away days without formulating any specific plans.

The film opens with a woman calling at his father’s flat to have a shirt repaired (his father is a tailor). Whilst his father mends it, the woman (who transpires to be Tereza, the one Jakub is sleeping with) begins to ravish Jakub there and then in the next room, but his father walks in in the middle of the foreplay, understandably incensed, and tells Jakub (we sense this is the last straw in a series of straws) to leave and get his own place. Or more specifically, he tells him to sell the old garden that Jakub’s grandfather used to have and buy a flat with the proceeds.

Garden, it should be clarified, is záhrada in Slovak. And unsurprisingly, given it is the title of the movie, Jakub, upon journeying out to the garden to check it out, soon decides it is not something he wishes to sell.

The garden in question is a rather overgrown, rambling plot of land far out in the middle of the countryside, with a small cottage on the premises where Jakub’s grandfather previously lived. Our protagonist soon falls in love with the place and its decrepit charms, and with the lazy rural life that goes with it. He is accustomed to being a city dweller, however, and experiences his fair share of problems with consequences of country life he was utterly unprepared for.

For starters, the garden and cottage are in a poor state of repair, and Jakub is none too good with repairs. Then there are the bizarre characters that live nearby: not least the beautiful but slightly crazy Helena with whom Jakub (pretty rapidly) develops a crush on. Perhaps most interestingly, there is the gradual trade-off he makes, sacrificing city life for a rustic one. Like many things in Jakub’s life, this process happens to him rather than because of any conscious decision he makes. A family that need to get to a wedding take his car; the school he teaches at informs him they no longer need his services after his protracted stay in the záhrada continues into term time. Some aspects of city life remain more difficult to shake off: namely Tereza whose presence increasingly annoys Jakub.

There is no place for the trappings of the city in the garden, because the garden is a bastion of the beautiful and inexplicable, where it is the minute and the fragile, the understated and the curious, which become the biggest surprises. Helena becomes Jakub’s initiator into this world (showing him how to deal with stray dogs, how to get cured by ants) – a world in which Jakub ends up losing material possessions but gaining inner happiness (a healthy relationship, a better relationship with his father, a purpose).

Many Slovak films have as a hallmark a reality that traps the viewer by its intensity. The buzzing of bees, a device often employed, and the chirrup of grasshoppers veritably brings the simple laziness of a summer’s day in the country through the screen in Záhrada. And Jakub, on many levels, is an intensely real character. He falls into muddy holes, he bumbles, he makes mistakes, he is clumsy. On one level, though, he is extraordinary: in his ability to let things take their course with almost no protest whatsoever (just with the odd glance of bewildered wonderment). A strange intruder appears in his garden with a flock of sheep and Jakub is unfazed (he even washes the man’s feet and listens to his somewhat crazed life story). He goes to sleep by a campfire and wakes up with a strange man embracing him and he is equally unfazed. This trait of Jakub’s is what allows the magic into Záhrada. It is allowed to seep into the film in an earthed way, but nevertheless it does seep, and in turn this is what makes it such touching and unique piece of cinema. (The subtle mannerisms of Jakub and Helena, the quirky cameos of the family en route to the wedding or of the whimsical real estate agent looking to purchase the land, and of course, the magic of the garden itself, where mirror writing is the language that unlocks secrets that have been buried there for many years).

This magic does not affect the fluidity of the film (in some Slovak movies the common magic or fairytale element disrupts the continuity) and indeed, at the very end (where the scene depicted above happens) cements its place amidst Jakub’s garden, when Helena levitates and Jakub’s father exclaims: “now everything is as it should be”.

Záhrada is such a roller coaster of the small and serendipitous that even outlining the plot in no way spoils the film. The surprises of this garden cannot all be put into words. You’ll have to watch it to see why this is one of the very best post-1989 Slovak movies – and, along with Báthory (2008), the most famous.

NB: Záhrada didn’t get Oscar-nominated like Všetko čo mam rád but its success was recognised when it won the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

BUY THE MOVIE: At Artforum or the other top Slovak movie outlet, Gorilla

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Slovensko 2:0: Slovakia Through the Eyes of its Film Directors

To celebrate 20 years of their nation’s independent existence in 2013, ten Slovak film makers were asked to explore this question: “How to explain the notion of Slovakia to visitors from another planet?” And Slovensko 2:0 is the result: ten short films capturing the essence of Slovakia today.

These shorts make for often tragicomic or even bleak viewing at times as the frustration of ten directors who are impatient with how slowly Slovakia is adapting to being a country people can have faith in soon comes through.

They are accompanied by a booklet of ten interviews with the directors themselves, where the negative outlook on Slovakia’s post-Communist transformation is emphasised. But within that negativity, the films themselves are profound. Gone are the happy trappings of Slovakia’s mountains, medieval villages and forests as the foreign visitor normally beholds the country. Instead, these films are a harrowing look into political corruption, the attitudes and mentalities of Slovaks in different walks of life – from an aspiring club owner to a just-made redundant factory worker – and (the overall message, perhaps) some of the things Slovakia could in fact do to help change itself for the better. But they sure as Hell dispense with the cliches and get straight to the nitty-gritty.

The picture above is from my favourite of the ten – an animated account of Slovakia’s history, through Communism, the Velvet Revolution and the transition to democracy. Rules of the Game, the film’s title, is one worker’s view of the political bandwagon (which stays the same throughout, only with changing faces in the upper echelons) moving through the pivotal years of 1989 to 1993 and beyond into a democratic republic still riddled with corruption. There are hilarious moments when you see the sycophantic robotniky (workers) and later when you see the figures at the top of the machine wearing gorilla masks (a reference to the scandal that rocked Slovak politics during the 2000s when Slovak politicians, multinational representatives and representatives of Penta group allegedly met in a house on Vazovova Street in Bratislava to discuss financial incentives in return for land procurement, see the Economist’s report on the Gorilla Scandal for more).

But despite being one of the subtler films in this collection it urges most effectively the debate on what needs to alter at the top levels of Slovak politics for the bandwagon to change its current course.

For anyone who wants a fresh, healthy look at Slovakia stripped of its official state outlook, this series of films is essential viewing. “The genetic makeup of Slovakia”, as the blurb on the back of the DVD says.

BUY IT: At Art Forum in Bratislava.

The Art Film Festival in its old home in Trencianske Teplice

Košice: Slovakia’s Famed Film Festival Flying In Its Second Year in Town

Košice’s intimidatingly impressive arts scene just keeps growing (it’s already so big that we have quietly admitted to ourselves here at Englishmaninslovakia that one article would no longer do it justice). The arrival in June 2016, of one of Eastern Europe’s most important film festivals, Art Film Fest, might have been huge news, but it’s equally big news that it’s going from strength to strength in the city too, with 2017’s edition of the festival highlighting it really is a permanent (and well-received) fixture in the city events calendar now.

Of course, this news is all the more significant because the festival was already significant. It’s a festival as old as Slovakia, in fact – founded in 1993 as a showcase of contemporary film to promote awareness of groundbreaking cinema in this part of the continent. The festival rapidly soared up to become, behind Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, the second-most important film festival in the entirety of Eastern Europe. It’s necessary to remember the precedent when this fact is mentioned. What had come before 1993 was fifty years of a stifling repression in the arts scene hereabouts (no need to utter the “C” word): Art Film Fest really was one of the primary mediums through which the world finally got to see what Slovak film could do and through which Slovaks got to see what world film could do.

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest - photo by Radovan Stoklasa

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest – photo by Radovan Stoklasa

The festival’s much-loved home became Trenčiankse Teplice, the delightful little spa town outside Trenčin in Western Slovakia. But despite garnering plenty of international clout (celebrated Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko and Roman Polanski among those who attended), limited capacity was the main issue at the venue – hence why Košice stepped in from 2016 to become the festival’s new base.

So there we have it. The 25th annual Art Film Fest kicked off (as all subsequent Art Film Fests are planned to) in Košice, a natural location given the city’s renaissance as an arts Mecca. 2017 festival dates were June 16th to June 24th – 2018 dates have yet to be announced.

Kosice by night

Kosice by night

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

Places to Stay: The city’s first ‘eco-hotel’

Places to Eat & Drink: Košice’s most imaginative breakfast stop

Places to Eat & Drink: THE bistro to be seen at in Košice

Getting Around: Košice’s flight connections

Getting Around: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

Slnko v svieti (The Sun in a Net)

“Sometimes you have to take a dark path” muses the main character in The Sun In A Net at one of the film’s most profoundly prophetic moments when he and two colleagues are seen silhouetted against a forest in the setting sun, stealing wood to fix broken farm machinery. And indeed, this movie takes you to some dark moments in Slovak history.

Czechoslovakia in the 1960s a few years before the Prague Spring: angry youth, resigned and embittered old-timers, love and its anything-but-smooth path, and a mysterious fisherman on a decrepit boat on the Danube.

Change is in the air, but in The Sun In A Net, that change never really comes.

The movie is thus a melancholic one – and with its out-of-the-blue scene changes and almost eerie background sound repetitions of the clank of trams or the experimental tinkering on a flute by someone with little talent for the instrument, a consciously disjointed one. But its cast of characters are so poetical, so philosophical, so whimsical that one cannot help falling in love with it. In these two respects – the occasionally unnerving disjointedness and the lovable protagonists which have to ‘make do’ with operating in such a world – The Sun In A Net combines two hallmarks of Slovak film-making. Yet in the revolutionary way it goes about this, the movie is in a class of its own.

At the beginning the rebellious undertones of the film are sown when we see Fayolo, the teenage main character, standing alone on a Bratislava housing estate rooftop cluttered with aerials, scoffing at the propaganda issuing from the radio. Fayolo is a typically ‘angry young man’, a talented photographer with a passion for unusual shots, an individual in an era when individuality was not highly prized. Bela, his love interest, enters next, enthusiastically talking about the impending eclipse, but Fayolo is wary of the good things in life, Bela included. The film develops a device for dealing with his most contemplative moments (and there are plenty) by freezing the subject of his thoughts whilst his own internal voice continues on, invariably negatively.

The eclipse viewing is an anti-climax. It’s cloudy. On the rooftop, Fayolo and Bela argue (Fayolo’s moroseness is the cause). In Bela’s family’s apartment, her blind mother asks Bela’s younger brother to describe to her the colours in the sky.

The sadness is so profound (Bela’s mother’s suffering, Bela’s brother’s frustration at feeling neglected by the almost-always absent father, the fact that even by the standards of black-and-white movies this one is shot in a particularly murky manner and colour of any description seems very far away at this point). In fact, things are awful. “It’s so awful that things are like this” Bela’s father proclaims grimly in one of his few appearances. “This is awful” Bela complains to Fayolo as they eclipse-watch. Fayolo mocks the crowds gathered on the streets below to see the spectacle of the ‘black sun show’: “wait another twenty years: it might not be so cloudy then.”

Soon after Fayolo and Bela fall out despite their clear admiration of the other, Fayolo’s father, a ‘party’ man tells Fayolo he needs to go away to work for the summer, a decision Fayolo feels has been made so that his father looks good (and if there is one thing Fayolo loathes it is keeping up appearances). But go away Fayolo does – to help with the harvest in rural Melanany (a fictitious place). And in their frustration at not being able to communicate with each other, not even when they are together and certainly not now they are being forced apart, Fayolo (with buxom harvest worker Jana) and Bela (with shallow philanderer Peto) are tempted in different directions. Fayolo nevertheless writes Bela a love letter during his month on the harvesting ‘holiday’ which Bela mockingly reads to Peto. Fayolo, for his part, starts thinking about Jana a fair bit more and Bela a fair bit less. The question is whether either Fayolo or Bela will realise they have made a mistake in time…

But besides Bratislava, portrayed as a cityscape of darkness and confusion, and the light, sunny, simplistic setting of Melanany, The Sun In A Net focuses on a third world – one that initially seems so removed from the other two it is almost as if its scenes have been spliced on from another film entirely. What soon becomes apparent, however, is that this world is a touchstone for the main characters that none appreciate until it is too late.

And that world is the Danube – or more specifically, a ragtag old boat and the fisherman and his wife that live aboard. The boat and its elderly owners soon assume the role of moral barometer in the movie – the set of constants anchored amidst the uncertainty. Here are highlighted goodness (Fayolo befriends the couple and they allow him to take their photos, which he then brings for them to decorate the vessel with), badness (as later when Peto brings Bela there and the couple are far less welcoming, for Peto has disrespected the boat by playing music loudly and trying to seduce Bela upon it) and loss (as when Bela’s mother stands beside the boat once it is beached and forgotten and recollects that for her too, many things are finished for good).

Indeed, in the very last scene, as in the very first (when we briefly see birds’ eggs lying in the shallows, and think, at the time, that this is artistic, but otherwise unconnected to anything else), it is the timeless world of the river that comes to the fore. For Bela and her family, it represents a chance to seize upon the positives, perhaps, when they glimpse the sun framed in a moment of beauty between the now-abandoned nets of the old fisherman. Fayolo, brooding once again amidst the rooftop aerials, realises from afar that the river is the place he should be.

How did Fayolo’s month away change him? How did Bela change in his absence? Do all the answers lie in the river? Does any of it actually really matter? As the old fisherman at one point wisely observes, regardless “the Danube will flow on.”

As for The Sun In A Net, perhaps its main character, proclaimed “a jerk” or “a poet” by others, does ensure the film sparkles with a certain moody poetry. It captures the age of the ‘drustvo’ or Communist farm collective, especially, in seminal style. But the first-time viewer will be surprised most of all by how old this movie is. Štefan Uher made this in 1962. But the film feels much more modern, particularly when you consider the censorship of Czechoslovakia at the time. It is bravely controversial, simmering with sex, pioneering in its techniques. And it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand Slovak cinema. Because it is one of the country’s most ground-breaking films ever.

Sitting on a Branch I am Fine

In a desperately poor, shabby and disorganised post-World War Two Czechoslovakia, two soldiers returning home to the country – one Czech (Pepe), one Slovak (Prengel) – meet on the road and decide to travel back together. Hard times call for hard measures, and Pepe, the unscrupulous rogue of the pair, steals a bicycle for the journey which transpires to be stuffed with Jewish gold. Prengel, throughout the movie Pepe’s reluctant accomplice,  has his doubts about whether it is right (morally) to take the treasure but Pepe – a persuasive fellow – convinces him. After a few capers they wind up back in Prengel’s home town, living in the abandoned house of a Jewish baker. Not long after their arrival, the alleged daughter of the baker, Esther, appears, and the three end up cohabiting.

For a while, things are indeed “fine”. The three form an unorthodox “family” and live on the very edge of the tolerance levels of the authorities in the new political climate (the transition from war to Communism, our heroes soon discover, rapidly becomes the epitome of the old adage “out of the frying pan, into the fire”). But Prengel and Pepe are soon madly in love (or perhaps, in “lust”) with beautiful, buxom but very simple Esther who is mentally scarred from her stint in near slavery in a Nazi brothel, but now, with our two affable protagonists, has the chance to recuperate. The two men even deliver Esther’s baby, reignite the bakery business, and fantasise over Esther.

But the treasure, like so much treasure in storybooks, is cursed. On impulse during a night of revelry Prengel and Pepe decide to give their gold to Esther. And her fate is sealed. She is murdered by a band of German rebels still at large. Our two heroes bring up Esther’s baby daughter who one day, years later, finds the treasure and is allowed by her two surrogate fathers, to dress herself up in the jewels. In the process the three are spied by the postman who informs on them. And this, to men who have already offended the values of the new regime, means time in a correctional facility with their daughter ousted from them (the gold-hungry postman, it should be noted, does not escape the power of the curse and gets blown up by a leftover land-mine later on.)

All is not lost though. Prengel and Pepe are released from prison and reunited with their/Esther’s daughter. And in the final scene the three climb a tree, just as they used to do in the good old days. As they do, they age. By the time the three are sitting in one of the upper branches, Prengel and Pepe are old men whilst their daughter is more or less the spitting image of the Esther they once knew.

You’ve got to hand it to Juraj Jakubisko, the director of Sedim na konari a je mi dobre (Sitting on a Branch I am Fine). Whilst most of the rest of the film-makers in Eastern Europe in 1989 were busy producing movies that encapsulated what it was to be free of a Communist regime, he was finishing one that encapsulated what it was to find yourself in the middle of it when it first began.

What is a branch, in this context?

It is certainly a place to escape to, to avoid bad things (or bad regimes). Right at the beginning of the film, a hungry Pepe driven to stealing food is pursued by incensed townspeople and evades them by climbing a tree.

But a branch is also an off-shoot, or deviation from, the main tree. The odd family of Pepe, Prengel, Esther and her baby are a clear deviation from the expected family values in this new Communist world of fresh-faced ideals. Even when they enthusiastically embrace Stalinism by baking a gingerbread likeness of the leader, it is something of an embarrassment for the authorities. Pepe seduces an aspiring Communist official who willingly succumbs but is simultaneously murmuring “I will make a new man of you, a better man!” As charming as Pepe and Prengel are, and as charmed by them (in spite of themselves) as the town authorities are, the official line is soon clear: there is no place in the regime for deviants like them. They do not embrace the new work ethic, they live in self-imposed isolation as far away from the goings on of the town as they can and – the clinch – they hoard gold, a definite no-no. Actually, and unofficially, the decisive factor in their arrest and imprisonment is not over an ideal, but because of the afore-mentioned Communist official who has her advances rejected by Pepe and so wants to exact her revenge.

Like quite a few Jakubisko flicks I have seen, there is something unnerving, jangling, disconcerting about Sedim na konari a je mi dobre.

Perhaps it is because Pepe and Prengel never escape their outcast status, not only with the authorities in the film, but also with us viewers. Their dialogue is discordant – too concerned with making jokes, even at the serious moments. We never feel their grief because even at the shocking scenes of the film, such as Prengel returning to discover all his family have been killed, or Esther’s subsequent murder, they do not really grieve. We are dismayed when they are imprisoned over such a triviality but not too upset. Perhaps it is because of the early continuity errors: Pepe overnight suddenly sprouting a thick moustache, Prengel listening to a walkman (in the late 1940s?). We are uncertain whether these elements are deliberate or not, but they do distance us slightly from the characters.

But perhaps it is actually because post-WW2 Czechoslovakia was an unnerving and disconcerting place. And it is a place which is brought to life for us in a way few other movies before or since can claim, via a mixture of hilarious and highly original moments: a moustachioed man being mistaken for Hitler, the town festival in celebration of Stalin. And the motif throughout of the easy-going characters, borne along on the tide of a regime they want to fit into but cannot, on a human level, possibly adapt to.

The good old days. They were so short-lived.

RELATED POST: Všetko čo mam rad: A Picture of post-Communist Slovakia?

BUY THE MOVIE: At Artforum or the other top Slovak movie outlet, Gorilla

Všetko co mam rád (Everything that I Love)

I sat watching this in a friend’s flat on dusty Moskovská, in one of those big, old, grey-brown apartment buildings the other side of the Medicka Záhrada, on a late lazy summer evening, and felt, perhaps more than with any other  Slovak film I’ve yet seen, that I could, in fact, have been seeing a scene unfolding outside on the street rather than on a TV screen.

Všetko čo mam rád takes place in the early 1990s (it was made in 1992), in that uncertain period after the fall of Communism but before Slovakia had yet become a nation. It follows the story of an out-of-work divorcee and the important relationships of his life – with his pretty, flamboyant love interest, an English teacher, with his son and with his father (and, even though perhaps he doesn’t want it, the continued relationship with his ex-wife).

It is hard not to see the connection between the main character, Tomas, and Slovakia the country (an out-of-work divorcee, remember) pulled unwillingly back to the life he had with his ex yet compelled forward, initially with lust and happiness, but later with uncertainty, toward his spirited foreign girlfriend. Then there is the pull in the other direction: family. His father is disapproving of him having left his wife, whilst Tomas’ son is just plain embarrassed of him. Then there is the very first scene, where Tomas, during a passionate exchange with his girlfriend, shouts “I am Slovak” in English before adding, in Slovak, “unfortunately”.

Tomas is an amiable, likeable but somewhat directionless protagonist. He means well, is not confrontational, and there seems to be few reasons for him to object to his girlfriend’s request for him to come back to England with her. There seems to be little tying him to Slovakia, in other words (his ex-wife empties his house of possessions in a fit of rage, he and his father are hardly close, he has no work). Yet as the film progresses, against all likelihood he seems to be swaying more towards staying. Something in his identity is irrevocably tied to Slovakia, a tie which becomes evident during some fascinating, if melancholy, shots of Slovak landscape, culminating in the moodily-filmed final scene where he drives to a lake (Zlaté Piesky?) with his son.

The director, Martin Šulík, was the light that emerged in the lean period of post-communist Slovak film-making. He went on to make the more famous Záhrada, and kept developing what became his hallmark elements of strained relationships and original, tongue-in-cheek, gently comic dialogue in that movie. And perhaps Všetko čo mam rád does often get overlooked as a result. But this film is a little-known gem. Its slow pace works because the characters are built up into people that do seem realistic – people you might meet on the streets (and in this regard a movie Hollywood could learn a great deal from). It does far more than sketch the difficult transition from Communism in Slovakia. It taps into “Slovakness” (not just Slovakness in the 1990s, of course, but Slovakness generally) and therefore permeates the boundaries of the challenging, scantly-funded era in which it was made. And – touchingly, unpretentiously, albeit with a slight sepia tint – stands the test of time.

BUY THE MOVIE: At Artforum or the other top Slovak movie outlet, Gorilla

ArtForum’s Slovak Movies (Film)

Just a shout-out, really, this post: Bratislava is full of these labyrinthine old streets that, in and around the Old Town and Castle area, secrete serendipitous bars, cafes, galleries and shops.

On a cool, crisp night last night we were wandering in the streets just below the castle and chanced upon a place we’d seen before but not ever entered: the ArtForum, a bookshop-cum-cafe which is actually represented in a few of the larger towns across Slovakia.

The main point of the ArtForum is in its great collection of proudly avant-garde Czech and Slovak writing, Slovak music and Slovak film.

Here you’ll find editions of Samo Chalupka poetry or Milan Kundera novels that you just won’t find elsewhere. It also has, of course, a great selection of international authors represented. It’s also one of the few places in Bratislava that sells records (the city is just waking up to the fact that they’re popular again). Plus there’s a little cafe at one end selling good jams and wine as well as coffee and cake.

But it’s the film selection that was actually most interesting for me. Here is perhaps the best array of Slovak and old Czechoslovak movies anywhere in the city centre, for actually purchasing at least. There are all the classics by Slovakia’s most renowned director, Jakubisko, like The Millennium Bee, Báthory and Perinbaba (which although well known in Slovakia are, for most outsiders, an eyeopening introductions to the wonders of Slovak cinema). Then there was one of my personal favourite Slovak movies, Ruzove Sný (Pink Dreams) which is a groundbreaking portrayal of how the Roma are viewed in Slovakia. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. My girlfriend got very excited about Panna Zázračica (which we bought; it’s an adaptation of a book by Dominic Tatarka who is one of Slovakia’s most important 20th century writers). Oh, and they have copies of The Wolf Mountains, the Slovak wildlife documentary I’ve been raving about recently, as well.

But for anyone trying to understand a little bit more about Slovak cinema, this is the place to begin trying.

MAP

Plus check out ArtForum’s other locations in Žilina and Košice