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

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

brat1

ArtForum’s Slovak Movie Selection

Bratislava street by night

Bratislava street by night

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 literature, music and 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.