O Slavnosti a Hostech
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 19 July 2008
Source Second Run DVD
Of all the major Czech directors of the sixties, Jan Nemec seems to be the one most silenced by the Soviet-led crackdown on the Prague Spring. After two quite remarkable pre-‘67 films (I haven’t seen his third feature film, 1967’s Martyrs of Love, but by all accounts it’s a more conventional, less interesting work), he struggled to continue working under the new, repressive regime. In exile in the West between 1974 and 1989 – which produced little in the way of filmmaking: something for German TV, some documentaries, wedding videos in California – his work in the Czech Republic since his return, the latest of which was premiered on the Internet, has had no international exposure.
So, his reputation rests on those first two feature films, and deservedly so as both, while being very different from one another, are striking and vivid. Nemec talks of his interest in “pure film”, where what is important for him is the way in which a story is expressed cinematically, and his focus is in exploring what is in formal terms unique to cinema as opposed to other narrative arts. In the drive for a purity of expression Bresson is an obvious model, although in essence there’s no real stylistic influence.
Nemec’s first feature Diamonds of the Night was a World War II story of two Jewish boys who have escaped from a train bound for a concentration camp but is light years away from the likes of similarly-themed but more conventional Czech films of the day such as Romeo, Juliet and Darkness. Diamonds plays fast and loose with audience expectations. It’s impressionistic, it’s sometimes confusing with its sudden shift into flashback, it has an evocative visual style with its frequent recourse to hand-held camerawork, and it ends on a deliberately ambiguous note.
The Party and the Guests is a more straightforward work, one that refuses any of Diamonds’ play with narrative time and proceeds very clearly from one set-piece scene to the next. The message of the film, its allegory of the Czechoslovak state’s exercise of repressive power over its citizens, is transparent—although it should be stressed, in the film’s favour, that this is all done with a lot of grace, lightness of touch, and wit. But the film’s eventual banning surely can’t have come as a surprise to the filmmakers, even if no explicit correlation is made between the characters of the film and political figures of the day and you can apply its allegory to other situations (a large corporation, for example). In any case, Czechoslovak President Novotny apparently took The Party and the Guests as a deliberate denunciation of the banning of Evald Schorm’s Everyday Courage (in The Party Schorm plays the one guest who maintains resistance to the Leader); and the authorities saw a resemblance between the Leader and Lenin, decidedly the reaction of a paranoid security state.
The film opens in a pastoral setting. A stream flows in the foreground; in the distance, a group of picnickers recline, immersed in nature. These are our heroes, four men and three women, middle-class and middle-aged, comfortable without being wealthy. The conversation meanders, details of who they are, their background and experiences, come in obscure snatches, but above all they luxuriate in the pleasures of an afternoon picnic—there’s a sensuousness to the way they set to devouring the cake provided by the plump blonde who appears to be their self-appointed leader.
The lyricism of this opening scene continues as the sexes separate to change for the forthcoming party. Nemec emphasises the dappled effect of light through the trees falling on the women’s bodies, water shimmering on skin, the contrast between the women’s semi-naked forms and the flowing stream they’re standing by and in, the women’s hands stroking their own bodies as they prepare themselves for the party.
Then, the mood of the scene and the tone of the film dramatically change. Our heroes make their way to the party along a forest path – the women rather gingerly in their inappropriate footwear – when one of the men is suddenly waylaid by a strange young man in knickerbockers. Initially, this appearance is simply odd and disconcerting, but it becomes much more threatening as more men, ones who look far more thuggish, come down from among the trees. A table is set up on the gravel, immediately resonant of a security police interrogation, and the partygoers are separated by sex as imaginary cell walls and doors are drawn on the ground—doors that initially everyone meekly accepts.
Drawing parallels with Kafka here is not overdone. For one, Nemec himself has accepted the influence, in a general sense, of the influence of Kafka on his work. As he has said, “Kafka was closest to me, due to his poetic character. But I think that whoever lives in Prague and walks through the old narrow cobblestone streets has to feel Kafka’s influence. So the influence is not directly from the literary work, but from the spiritual feeling.” In addition, the absurdity of the partygoers’ situation, where they are detained, interrogated, and symbolically imprisoned for some unknown offence, is reminiscent of Joseph K. in The Trial. (As an aside: in his years of exile Nemec made an adaptation for German TV of Metamorphosis in a slapstick style that was not appreciated by German critics.)
The interrogator takes a sadistic pleasure in toying with the partygoers, literally so when at one point he leads one of them out of his “cell” and walks him round the others. The partygoers themselves react to this climate of fear and abuse of authority by being cravenly meek and conciliatory, even turning on the one member who shows signs of resistance. He’s addressed as Karel, and he was the one who was first accosted by the young man, who himself is later identified as Rudolf, recently adopted son of the Leader. (As I’ve mentioned, most of the guests are never individually named, at least in the subtitles on the Second Run disc, although Michael Brooke’s accompanying essay does assign names to five of the seven.)
Karel now simply rebels, refuses to acknowledge the rules of this “game” by walking through the invisible wall and stalking off, and this rebellion strips bare the pettiness of Rudolf’s assertion of power. Knocked to the ground by Karel, Rudolf orders his thugs to overpower Karel while he himself throws a temper tantrum and like the overgrown schoolboy that he is (which those knickerbockers truly emphasise) proceeds to cut off the tassels of Karel’s bag with his pocket knife.
Now comes the third movement of the film with the arrival of the party’s host, the symbolic Leader (of whatever group seems appropriate to your own interpretation) who, as the consummate politician, smoothes things over, refuses any responsibility for the abuses committed under his authority, and muddies the waters sufficiently to cast doubt on what actually happened. Here, in what happens to our seven partygoers, we are witness to the absolute randomness of political abuse and persecution, the way arrest and interrogation can just as suddenly be followed by an inexplicable release into freedom. And we see, too, the way victims are made to feel guilt for their own situation; as the host ends up more or less reprimanding them: “So will someone tell me what happened or not? A brother shouldn’t turn against his brother. And a guest shouldn’t turn against a guest.”
So this urbane host takes control of the situation, the victimised guests (with one important exception, significant for the development of the story) blithely accept – and forget – their travails and ingratiate themselves with the host, and the procession of even more partygoers continues, ending up in the bizarre setting of the banquet itself, laid out in the open air on huge tables between the forest and a lake. The surrealist effect is intensified by the sight of servants carrying lighted candelabra through the trees.
But the equilibrium of the host is a fine one. We soon discover he’s quickly unbalanced by the slightest threats to the sense of order he has imposed (and remember that it’s a system of order contingent on people submitting to him). He becomes annoyed and petulant by little disruptions—Rudolf’s toast and invitation for him to make a speech, or the plump woman’s discovery that she’s sitting in the wrong seat which sets off a mini-comedy of seat-swapping to the host’s increasing exasperation.
But the greatest challenge to the host’s authority comes from the character played by Evald Schorm. Right from the start he’s differentiated from his fellow picnickers. Tall, thin, and gaunt, mostly taciturn, there’s a sense of withdrawal from the rest as he sits sipping tea – rather than the beer another picnicker retrieves from a cooling stream – and holding a dainty cup and saucer. This withdrawal goes one step further at the party when he quite literally disappears, as the ultimate act of protest against the structures of power that surround him.
Nemec may be alluding here to “inner/internal immigration” (innere Emigration), the idea advanced by certain German artists and writers living under the Nazis that, when no other option is available, a withdrawal into a private space is in itself an act of resistance. The Schorm character, husband to the plump woman, never joins in with his fellow-picnickers’ willing subservience to the host, their happy acceptance of his glossing-over of the violence and threats of violence that Rudolf subjected them to. Instead, he turns a disapproving eye on the hypocrisy of the whole proceedings, the smiles of picnickers, their fellow guests, and host alike, the eagerness even of one of his companions to play court intellectual to the host.
The husband’s silent resistance even puts him in conflict with his wife who complains that he’s spoiling his chances of getting on. This of course is what underlies all the behaviour here. Self-interest and hopes for material and professional advancement are the grubby reasons for the surrender to the blandishments of power. And because this surrender is so universal the husband’s resistance through simply disappearing from the party and the story appears as such an affront to political power.
Moves are immediately made to bring him back, all covered over by Rudolf’s bland expression of humanitarian commonality – “One for all and all for one!” – but the true issue at stake is revealed in his next action, standing with arm raised in a military (Nazi?) salute and the declaration that they’re doing this “so at last order can be reinstated.” The husband’s fellow picnickers inevitably fall in line, the entire dinner party sets off through the woods again at a strangely slow and funereal pace, and then, more threateningly, the pursuit is joined by Rudolf’s thugs with a hunting dog at hand—a dog praised by the boss for its obedience over humans.
The original picnickers from the beginning are once again alone together at the end of the film, with conversation that again circles around and never settles on the true issue at stake. You could argue that The Party and the Guests’ parable form is both its strength and its limitation – the film is never about anything else – but it’s done with brevity (under 70 minutes), ever-shifting wit, and grace, and its final image – snuffed-out candles as the sound of the barking dog rises unrealistically on the soundtrack – is nicely open-ended and appropriately disturbing. No one is safe. We are all under threat. But how will you offer your resistance?