Starting in the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union entered into a period of cultural thaw, easing up on censorship and other repressive practices. Many of the Eastern Bloc nations followed suit, resulting in a flourishing of arts movements. One of the most internationally renowned was the cinematic new wave of Czechoslovakia, which produced works of social satire that would have been impossible during the Stalin era (such as Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball and Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting) and more fantastical works that incorporated elements of literary and visual surrealism (like Vera Chytilova’s Fruit of Paradise and Jaromil Jires’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders). Starting Friday, Facets Multimedia will host a touring retrospective of Jan Nemec, a key figure in this movement and one whose films get revived here less often that those by Forman and Chytilova.
Nemec came to prominence with his 1964 debut feature Diamonds of the Night (screening Friday and Saturday at 7 PM from a new 35-millimeter print), announcing a bold, dreamlike style with a largely wordless tale of two boys who escape from a concentration camp. Nemec would build on the film’s surrealist elements in his subsequent two features, the Kafkaesque satire A Report on the Party and the Guests (Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 PM) and the comic triptych Martyrs of Love (Saturday at 3 PM and Sunday at 7 PM). Report may be Nemec’s most written-about film, in part because it got him into so much trouble. The movie depicts a group of bourgeois types (many of them played by noted artists and intellectuals) who attend a lavish outdoor banquet, only to realize that they are not the guests, but rather the prisoners of their wealthy host.
Czech authorities would bar Nemec from filmmaking as a result of Report‘s critique of authoritarian rule, but not before he finished Martyrs. Reportedly less political than Report, the film nonetheless “cemented Nemec’s reputation as the kind of unrestrained noncomformist the Communist establishment considered most dangerous to their ideology,” per the Facets program notes. Of the film itself, the program states, “Mounting a defense of timid, inhibited, clumsy, and unsuccessful individuals, the three protagonists are the complete antithesis to the industrious heroes of socialist-realist aesthetics.”
Before the end of the 60s, Nemec managed to complete some short films clandestinely, including the documentary Oratorio for Prague (screening with Martyrs on Sunday and with the 2001 essay film Late Night Talks With Mother on Thursday 3/20 at 7 PM), which recounts the 1968 Soviet invasion of the city. In a turn of events reminiscent of Report, the project began when “Nemec was in Prague filming a documentary about the liberalization of Czechoslovakia . . . [but] the Russian tanks rolled in and this event became the subject of his film.” The invasion marked the beginning of the end of Czechoslovakia’s cultural thaw. Nemec was unable to work in filmmaking at all until the mid-70s, when he received an offer to work in German TV. Nemec explained the events surrounding his departure in a 2001 interview (a must-read for those planning to attend the Facets series):
In 1974, they wanted to put me in prison, but they gave me a choice, as with [Czech novelist] Milan Kundera. We were told that the criminal prosecution [for subversion] would be cancelled if we applied for a legal departure motivated not by political protest but by a working contract . . . I had a Czech passport for another two years. But it was not like traveling. I couldn’t come back. If I had, they would have seized my passport and begin the criminal prosecution all over again. After two years they stripped me of my citizenship.
Nemec would live in numerous countries over the next 15 years, including the United States. He would work in public television and, in one of his least likely commissions, record the wedding ceremony of the Swedish king in 1976. He resumed his filmmaking career on his own terms after returning to Czechoslovakia in 1989. The series includes three works from this post-Communist period: Late Night Talks With Mother; Toyen (2004), an experimental documentary about the eponymous Czech painter (screening Saturday at 5 PM and Tuesday 3/18 at 9 PM); and The Ferrari Dino Girl (2009), in which Nemec revisits the fallout surrounding Oratorio for Prague (screening Monday 3/17 and Wednesday 3/19 at 9 PM).