Communism is a dominant theme at the compelling and wide-ranging Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Collective works - Karlovy Vary Film Festival
In the mountain spa that used to be called Carlsbad, the event overshadowing star photo-ops and film premieres at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in East Central Europe. This charming Bohemia town, at its core a wedding cake of 19th-century decorative architecture, can't escape its Soviet-era past. The festival headquarters is the Hotel Thermal, a grey 1960 concrete hulk of a conference centre that rises like a huge guard tower, a scar over the old city, complete with elevators that barely work.
Life under and after communism is a dominant theme in Karlovy Vary, whose programme is better than average this summer, in the festival's 44th year. And who better to address that theme than Milos Forman, an outcast during the 1960s who became a Hollywood hero with Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. The world premiere of Forman's new film, A Walk Worthwhile, also took the audience back to the 1960s, when cinephiles were marvelling at the Czech new wave.
A Walk Worthwhile films the recent stage production of a 1965 jazz opera that Forman, now 77, documented for television back then in its initial run. The libretto is a wry fable about money, written by Jiri Suchy, who is also in Forman's cast. It is a simple story. A couple, Uli and Vanilka, in their tiny Prague apartment, finally decide to divorce. Then a postman arrives with news that Vanilka's aunt, who had emigrated to Liverpool, has willed £1 million to their child, except they don't have a child. Now what?
If there was any dust on A Walk Worthwhile, it isn't there now. Forman's cast (assembled with the help of his son and co-director Petr) romps through this comedy. After all, money and the acquiring of it are more relevant to the Czech public today than to Czechs of 1965, for whom the prospect of getting rich was so remote that the opera must have seemed like a fairy tale. Heading the cast are two young singers whom this production has rightfully brought out of relative obscurity - Dasa Zazvurkova, whose character's life transforms overnight with the smell of a windfall, and Tereza Halova, playing the émigré aunt who returns in furs. Jiri Suchy delivers his opera's message as the postman who brings the curse of good news to the couple. Lest anyone in the audience get too nostalgic about a warm-hearted look back at life in 1965, the set designer Matej Forman (Milos's other son) limits the props in the typical cramped apartment to a sofa, bathtub and toilet.
In returning to film a story rooted in his homeland, an even smaller country than it was before the end of communism, Forman sets a valuable example for filmmakers who have made their fortunes in bigger places. The other surprise of KVIFF 2009 was a rock opera from a source that might be thought unwelcome, Russia. (There is also a Polish comedy here, Operation Danube, about the Soviet-supported Polish invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.)
Outrageous, ironic, virtuosic and charmingly naive, Valery Todorovsky's Hipsters, set in the 1950s, is no traditional Russian film. Russian youth in the wake of Stalin's death rebel against the Soviet Union's strictures and monochrome dullness by adopting what authorities view to be the deeply counterrevolutionary ideology of rock 'n' roll, which offered everything from dancing to slick clothes and wavy hair. To enjoy this pageant, you needn't accept the implausible suggestion that these fictional renegades were the precursors of perestroika, decades ahead of their time. The kaleidoscopic production design and dance numbers are as stunning as they are unexpected. Lavishly produced for only $15 million (Dh55m), Hipsters draws on influences from Hairspray by the American satirist John Waters to the dystopian movies of Terry Gilliam. Todorovsky's movie is evidence that Russian film has turned a corner, bringing wit to foreign musical theatre styles that were barely seen in Russian cinema before. Hipsters echoes another American export, the low-budget teen rebellion movies of the early 1960s, marketing the then-new teen culture to itself. Indeed, the Kruschev era has never looked so good, although the Czech audience, which witnessed the persecution of musical groups under communism, might seem wary of this pop critique of Stalinism from such a safe historical distance.
Musicals were indeed something of a trend at Karlovy Vary. The documentary Muezzin by Austria's Sebastian Brameshuber scrutinises the annual competition among singers of the call to prayer in Turkey. Made in Hungaria by Gergely Fonyo also seized on the theme of teen rebellion through pop music in the Warsaw Pact countries, with Americanised youth scaring the authorities in impromptu concerts. A young Czech audience new to Hungarian films roared with laughter when members of a rock band in the film tell credulous communist officials that their American-sounding music is actually Cuban, and that the lyrics of a typical rock 'n' roll song came from a workers' council meeting at a factory.
From Italy comes another musical, this one of an Easter pageant staged in a prison, with inmates in the cast. Freedom by Davide Ferrario is not a documentary, but real prisoners play most of its roles. Meanwhile, Alexey German Jr's meditative Paper Soldier looks back numbly, not longingly, at a moment in 1961 when the official news portrayed Soviet scientific progress outracing that of America. The setting is Kazakhstan in spring 1961, a grey expanse of puddles and ramshackle construction that, officially, will be a city designed to last 1000 years once it is finished, if that ever happens. It is also the site of a huge former prison camp where inmates who have served their Stalin-era sentences fight expulsion from their "home" by Soviet troops who roam the grounds, shooting the herds of guard dogs who no longer have any use. Surreal is an understatement.
The cosmonauts, a new elite, are training for space travel. Sputnik, the satellite that convinced the United States to stop underestimating the Soviets, has loaned its name to a new range of consumer products. As the new spacemen are tested and monitored, the support staff of physicians and technicians uprooted from Moscow spend their idle time talking, as events over which they have no control advance in the background. Young men in the prime of life die, sacrificed in "scientific" experiments intended to ready them for orbit. The vastness of the flat landscape suggests Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot - austere and indifferent to dreams. German, like Todorovsky, is the son of a prominent film director. In different ways, each contributes to the vitality of a great cinematic tradition.
Iran is represented by Twenty, Abdolreza Kahani's ensemble drama. The title comes from 20 days that employees of a banquet hall have before the owner shuts down and sells it to a developer for demolition. Most of the employees in this realistic story live in the basement. The role of a young widow with a child facing homelessness is played by the Iranian superstar Mahtab Karamati (almost disguised in heavy make-up), which may explain why the grim film was a hit in Tehran this year. Kahani, the director, noted that his two previous features had been banned in Iran, but limited his political comments to the hope that he might reach his audience one day without any government interference.
Like Twenty, Piggies by Poland's Robert Glinski is set in the present, this time on the Polish-German border. Sixty years ago, Germany began the Second World War there and tried to erase Poland from the map. In Glinski's film, Poland is now the source of cheap labour for anything that Germans need. Glinski's previous film that premiered at Karlovy Vary, Hi Tereska, told the story of a young girl from a housing estate who falls in with the wrong crowd and loses her future. In Piggies, eager Poles bring their hopes and ambitions to the border, and criminals who exploit them thrive. Human traffic of all kinds is a common theme in European films today. Piggies will remind you that the continent is a work in progress.
Making political statements about East Central Europe on the screen is what anniversaries are for. Yet the hegemony of American cinema remains as clear in this part of the continent as the Soviet sphere of control was more than two decades ago. It is still near-impossible to see a Hungarian film in Poland, or a German film in Romania. That situation makes gatherings like Karlovy Vary valuable, but it also suggests that regional cultural integration is far overdue.