A Renowned Czech Director Jan Hřebejk in San Diego! Most of his Films Explore how Fear Unlocks Bravery in some but Cowardliness in others
May 30, 2019
Czech history allows plenty of material that will probe your character: March 15, 1939 Hitler erased Czechoslovakia from the map and added it to his Reich; it was up to every Czech's conscientiousness how to behave, as the Nazi made sure that collaboration will be rewarded plentifully. The war went on for six long years, six years of suffering, six years of opportunities for bravery, solidarity and humanity, but also six years of parading the opposite: cowardliness, ill will, inhumanity. On May 27, 1942, Czechoslovakia did the unimaginable: assassinated the highest rank official Reinhard Heydrich, one of the cruelest of Nazi officers, presently overseeing Czechoslovakia. Heydrich died and the terror followed: Two Czech villages were burned down to the last sight of it. Lidice and Ležáky. All of the men in Lidice, 172 of them, were rounded in a barn and then in groups of 10 shot. All of them. The women were sent to the concentration camps, the children had similar fate. Thousands of Czechs died in the assassination aftermath. Some survived by turning others in, but majority was exercising enormous bravery and solidarity.
Then came another milestone: cleaning up the Sudetenland where the three million German minority has been making
their home within Czechoslovakia since its independence in 1918. Many were sympathizers with the Reich, but some were not. After the war they were all indiscriminately expelled from their homes, allowing to take only 50lb of their possession…. and again, the Czech character was teased how to deal with it, how to analyze it, how to embrace such a situation and unhappy chapter from our history.
With the war over, the happiness was unmatched, but not for long as another tragedy loomed in the air: Commies started preparing their number and with their victory in 1948 elections one bad news was coming in after the other: the nationalization of all businesses, factories, and agricultural land; the discrimination of all who built their wealth and who became the enemy of workers-lead new state; the infamous Fifties brought in Stalin’s fanatism, the persecution of Jews, the currency devaluation “so we can finally all be collectively poor” as one of the characters in Hrebejk films mentions. The Fifties are followed by the Sixties that offered a great hope of change toyed also by some members of our government, but that hope was crushed on August 21, 1968 when the Russian tanks rolled in Czechoslovakia making sure the Czechs know who is the ultimate ruler. To prove the point, the Russians stayed in Czechoslovakia stationed till 1990… And so, the Czech and Slovak nations bowed their heads and quietly strode in their misery of oppression till the glorious 1989 that finally and let us hope permanently removed the Commies perpetrators who deceived freedom and democracy and decency.
All of the milestones from our history were exams of every Czech’s character. A probe of honesty. A measurement of ethics and weighting of decency. Every day during Nazi occupation and every day during the 40 year of Communist era each Czech stood a test of facing the reality with dignity or exchanging dignity for a comfortable life that was devout of strength of character.
This long and mostly unhappy Czech history became a focus of most Jan Hřebejk’s (*1967) 20 films, all standing for a beautiful journal of the tried Czech soul. His poetic inclination enhances his narration by exploring within the story beautiful colors and nature, shapes, welcoming open spaces, his is the ability to set tangible enticing ambiance, the music (one of his major focuses) is aptly chosen, lifting the story above the narration into poetry even amidst the tragedies, his directing is focused and deliberate, his actors are truly “his” as he rehires most of them for many of his films and they are superb, his films are full of humor as not even tragedies eclipse humor. His lucky collaborator of fifteen films and a close friend, Petr Jarchovsky, is an excellent scriptwriter, developing and molding skillfully the tangible characters, and poignant stories.
And so, Jan Hřebejk is striding comfortably along his two Czech inspirations: Miloš Forman (Hair, Amadeus, One Flew over the Cooco’s Nest, Man on the Moon, Love of Blondes) and Jiiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, Larks on a String, Cutting it Short) . Theirs is an unparalleled skill to capture precisely the Czech character, humor, and Czech complicated psyche.
Hřebejk is no less able. His films are wondrous touching adventures that immortalize Czech complicated yet capricious soul, but mostly parades beautiful humanity.
It was a memorable Saturday in the San Diego Museum of Photographic Art in the company of three Hrebejk’s films, and his own presence. I have always admired him since his very first film about 30 years ago. I am so happy I could meet him, listen to him, and shake his hand!! I am also happy my children could meet him as, even though born in America, they have equal passion for his films as we do.
And my love for the films of tandem Hrebejk/Jarchovsky will not make me omit one semester to show to my American students their masterpiece for which they were nominated for an Acadamy Award — a film Divided we Fall. If you did not see it, take this as my kind recommendation. I promise, you will not regret. Czech that film!