Vratné lahve and Štěstí
An "old" and a "young" view of the contemporary Czech Republic
24. 3. 2009 / David McCallum
While portraying modern life in the Czech Republic, Jan Svĕrák's Vratné lahve of 2007 and Bohdan Sláma's Štěstí of 2002 are very different films, as one is essentially a comedy, while the other a bleak portrayal of modern life. As they both explore ordinary existence in a post-communist society, both films will be looked at as an analysis to that society, and as a response to it. In this essay the films' interpretations of modern post-communist existence will be analysed in terms of thematic and cinematic content.
The author is a student at the University of Glasgow
Vratné lahve takes the reality of post-communist society as a challenge to be met, a problem to be fixed. It follows the struggles of its central character, 65 year-old Josef Tkaloun, as he reassesses his life in the modern day Czech Republic. The narrative begins with his leaving his career as a school teacher of Czech literature , following an outburst towards a cheeky pupil. He is at a loss in the new society, as he has apparently failed to keep up with its development in recent years. He sees modern life coming to an emotional standstill, symbolised by the behaviour of his pupils' irreverent attitude towards literature, the closure of a public library replaced by a teeth whitening clinic, and the general impersonality of society. For Tkaloun, modern life is close to being emotionally devoid, threatening to make human existence both dull and lonely.
The jobs he takes after quitting his post as a teacher are, to him, a chance at restoring humanity to this stagnating society. He calls the job of cycle courier a `human connection'. There is another element to this role: rejuvenation. He is horrified by the prospect of the group of elderly people who invite him to walk with them, and is satisfied by his transformation the next time he sees them. His next job, working at the bottle-return counter at the local supermarket appears to provide the sort of link to human society which he wants. This is where he begins to build connections between other people. Throughout the course of the film, Tkaloun brings about a number of romantic relationships. In the end, his window into 'real life' is destroyed when his job is replaced by a machine, but this otherwise sinister development is diminished by the fact that it has already served its purpose in bringing various couples together.
Štěstí presents post-communist reality as a far more destructive force on the lives of its characters. Monika and Toník are childhood friends, who are drawn close again by their responsibilities to one another, and those around them. There is a stark contrast between the desires of its main characters and the world which surrounds them. From the beginning, Monika is torn between the reality of her surroundings and the dream of a 'better life', as her boyfriend leaves for America in pursuit of a career, and the prospect of leaving to join him presents itself to her throughout. She repeatedly chooses to remain at home however, out of responsibility and compassion for her friend Dáša -- a single mother who struggles with depression and exhaustion -- seeing this as the only right thing to do in the circumstances.
Elsewhere, Toník struggles to maintain an existence outside of the accepted norm, in a town where the only employment is to be found at the local factory and supermarket. He constantly repairs 'the house' -- a dilapidated commune where he lives in poverty with a few older women. This is a mode of existence which looks back to another era, as the group farm goats and are shown playing Moravian folk songs. It suggests a distant past, rejecting all aspects of modern life.
Monika, eventually finding no support amongst her family, moves into 'the house' with Dáša's children. This is a brief moment of optimism in an otherwise bleak sequence of events, as it appears to suggest a viable alternative to the chaos of modern society, and the fragility of human relationships. When Dáša takes back her children and Monika finally goes to America, Toník sells the house to the neighbouring factory, to be knocked down, disappearing from the film in the last few scenes.
Of course, these films present entirely different versions of post-communist reality, and this is partly down to the emotional involvement of the narrative in each case. Vratné lahve depicts a society which lacks basic 'human connections' and interaction, but which can be fixed by a well meaning individual. However, these problems are presented superficially, without any attempt to explore them emotionally. As a result they are idealised and simplified, and their solution becomes a matter of course. Through the interventions of Tkaloun, these connections are restored to society, within his small sphere of influence at least. His employment in the bottle return kiosk at the supermarket is a perfect symbol of Vratné lahve's response to modern society. In his outward gestures of interest in and compassion for humanity he successfully makes the world better for those he encounters.
Whereas the lack of humanity in modern society tends to be expressed by simple problems, solved by matchmaking in Vratné lahve, Štěstí expresses this by its effects on its victims. Human suffering is dealt with in much greater depth in Štěstí -- particularly the scenes where Dáša cruelly lashes out in response to Monika's attempts to help. Unlike Tkaloun's good deeds, the compassion and selflessness of Monika's kindness toward Dáša are not immediatedly rewarded with gratitude and success, because they are shown in their full complexity. The problems facing the characters of Štěstí are not presented in an idealised, soluble way, but as a constant threat to their happiness. The dilapidated building which they both live in for a time provides a fragile hope of stability and continuity amidst the chaos of modern life, through a complete rejection of modernity.
In keeping with its idealised relationships and comically (rather than critically) distanced assessment of the world, Vratné lahve is shot entirely in warm tones, which acts as a filter on every scene, allowing it to be explored sentimentally rather than emotionally. Similarly, the camera work is steady and considered throughout, creating an overall harmony between events. There is a recurring use of picturesque shots of a train which passes by the Tkalouns' house , overlaid with a gentle instrumental soundtrack. The message here is one of continuity and harmony, regardless of what takes place in the narrative. Here we find the same lack of emotional engagement in favour of continuity and sentiment found thematically in Vratné lahve.
The far off cityscapes in the opening scene and countryside shots in the climactic balloon ride epitomise this mode of narration. By zooming out to a general view or landscape, there is an ideological implication, a sort of relativistic consolation regarding anything which might be problematic in the lives of the characters. It locates the action in a wider space, thus diminishing its significance. The main character and his wife do exactly the same themselves at the end, in the balloon, reflecting on their lives from a comfortingly unnatural perspective -- a fiction. This is what it permits the audience to do themselves.
Compare this with the mode of narration in Štěstí. It is provides a far less passive viewing experience, as there is no room for the same distance in the presentation of characters' experiences. Faces are focused on in close detail, and lingered upon meditatively, forcing the viewer to enter into the lives portrayed on a more emotional level. Shots themselves are more fluid or organic, moving position and refusing to settle throughout the film, and the colour is drained from the world presented, making the communist-era tower block where much of the action takes place oppressively bleak. Throughout the film the only musical accompaniment is provided by variations on the Moravian folk-songs which crop up at times -- simple minor key fragments which add to the melancholy of the film.
The only notable exceptions from Štěstí's cinematic bleakness are the shots which depict the brief period of stability at 'the house' before, Toník alone with the goats, having decided, we learn, to have the house bulldozed.
There is a sort of moral imperative at work in the narration of Štěstí. The viewer is forced into emotional involvement in the unfolding story, compelled to empathise. This reflects the experience of Monika and Toník in their various attempts to selflessly do good in the confusion of post-communist society. This is in complete contrast with the idealised visual and moral reality presented to the viewer in Vratné lahve.
It is this very difference in agenda which has become most important in the comparison of these two works. Basically, the reason that Vratné lahve is a comedy is that it portrays the anxieties of a generation who grew up under communism, in a mode fitting to that subject -- the narrative mode is equivalent to Tkaloun's own way of seeing the world. Similarly, the reason that Štěstí is a bleak emotional drama is that it portrays the younger generation of Czechs in such a way that they might see it themselves.
In Štěstí, the definition between age groups is a vital aspect of the film's message. There is a sense that there is a significant divide between the characters of the parents' generation and those of Monika and Toník. Štěstí shows the young and old interpret the world in entirely different ways, in an irreconcilable disagreement about what is important in post-communist reality.
In Štěstí, Monika's father Olda is sentimental and nostalgic for the humanity of his youth. He is disillusioned with the present day, as he sees his daughter in love with the career minded Boyfriend, rather than Toník. These parallel Tkaloun's preoccupations. This disagreement between generations is also present in Vratné lahve. Tkaloun's daughter, in her struggle with depression and single motherhood, echoes the bleak youthful meditation of Štěstí. Tkaloun's response to his daughter's sadness is characteristic of Olda's tender nonchalance towards Monika.
Interestingly, these are points where one film's perspective finds expression in a secondary character of the other, and vice versa. The dynamic of Tkaloun and his daughter, and Monika and her father, illustrate the opposing narrative perspectives in both films. The fact that these characters remain secondary emphasises the opposition of the two films. In each case, this dissenting view is silenced by the conclusions of the films own narrative -- Moni's father is ultimately powerless, while Tkaloun's daughter is defenceless against the happiness which Tkaloun leads everyone towards.
There is vast difference between the experience of post-communist life for those who grew up under communism, and those who come of age in the new environment. I would argue that this generational difference, is defined in both films in terms of emotional involvement in the surrounding environment. The younger generation experience economic, social, and personal instability, in a way in which their parents may have not. The core of the post-communist experience is emotional or existential in relation to the older generation, expressed by nostalgia, whereas it is a more real, real physical and mental trauma to those who grow up in the current climate.
The treatment of these complementary perspectives, as they appear in each film, demonstrates the prevailing narrative ideology in each. If the perspective of a film can be reduced to those of its characters, then Vratné lahve endorses Tkaloun's `old' view of post-communist reality, while Štěstí shows the `young' interpretation as experienced by its two leading characters. These stand for nostalgia, participation in the new, gentle comic distance on one hand, and alienation, rejection of the new and emotional engagement on the other. The reason that each film is so unambiguous in its outcome is that the main characters serve to service the view of the world put forward formally and thematically in the films.
In filmmaking, post-communist reality is variable, as it depends on the maker. It would be more correct to call them post-communist realities, in this case. Štěstí and Vratné lahve present two starkly different images of post-communist reality. However, considered together, they do not necessarily present a contradictory view of it. Instead they provide an illuminating image of this reality as a heterogeneous whole, as demonstrated in both cases by the generation gap in the modern Czech Republic.
Vratné lahve, Dir. Jan Svěrák (Prague: MagicBox, 2007)
Štěstí, Dir. Bohdan Slama (Prague: Bonton Film, 2006)
Jan Čulík, supplementary notes to Vratné lahve HERE
Jan Čulík, supplementary notes to Štěstí HEREVytisknout
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