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.
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